UPenn football starts next chapter as Ray Priore era (finally) kicks off

Penn Athletics

Forwell over a year Ray Priore has waited for this moment. And now finally,it’s here.

WhenPenn takes the field Saturday in Bethlehem against Lehigh the longest coaching courtshipin memory will finally end.Since departing Al Bagnoli announced in the spring of 2014 he’d be stepping downafter 23 years — anointing right-hand man Priore as his successor—the changingof the guard has been a work in progress.

Followinga disappointing 2-8 season — the worst in Bagnoli’s storied Quaker career—change can’t be viewed as a bad thing.

“It’s alot of fun having Coach Priore,’’ said linebacker Tyler Drake of his formerdefensive coordinator.“He knows what toexpect from all of us on defense.We have a new upbeat staff. Now we need to be physical and play hard.That’s what we’re focusing on.’’

Thenew coach, who’s actually been on campus in various capacities the past 28years, can’t wait, either.While lastyear had to be weird, knowing the job would be his yet still playing thedutiful lieutenant, Priore says he did get some time to acclimate himself forthe transition.

“It was strange because there were a lot of things going on,”said Priore, who goes back to both the EdZubrow and Gary Steele Quaker regimes. “I’m trying to prepare for the 2014season, yet there was recruiting.Fortunately last summer I was I able to do a lot during down time before we got to camp.Now it definitely changes because my role isdifferent.I think the defensive playersknow who I am —high energy, very enthusiastic. Gonna run them from the time wehit the field.Kill ‘em with praise and withtough love at times.”

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The players, indeed seem on board, with Priore insisting Bagnoli’s imminentdeparture really didn’t impact that disastrous 2014 season. More telling was aseries of injuries that had a ripple effect, leading to fourth and fifth stringrunning backs and unproven defensive linemen getting significant work.

“We didn’t have a deep backfield,’’ saidjunior quarterback Alek Torgersen, who threw for 2,689 yards and 14 touchdownslast year.“We kind of had to rely onour receivers to put more pressure on the defense.But teams knew we weregonna pass 75% of the time. This year we have a full amount of running backs.’’

Still, after winningnine outright Ivy League titles, no one expected Bagnoli’s final season to besuch a bust. Maybe that ‘s why he pulled an about face on retirement, decidingto take the job at Columbia, losers of its last 21 games.

It didn’t totally shockPriorenor his players, who say theywere not deceived by their former coach.However they may have been distracted.

“When he left all optionswere on the table,”said Priore, who’ll face his longtime friend October 17 inNew York. “I don’t think Alever said ‘I’m not gonna coach.’He got a chance tostep away and really examine what he wanted.But I think anything can be a distraction. All sorts of things can become causes.I don’t think Al ever asked for it and I don’tthink the players thought about it, but because of the situation it was adistraction.”

Regardless, he’s gone and it’s Priore’s show now.How different it will be not even he can say for sure.But you don’t spend 28 years waiting in thewings without formulating some ideas of your own.

“We’repicked sixth because we were 2-8 last year,” said Prior of the Quakers lowest pre-season Ivy ranking since 1992. “So we haveto prove ourselves on the field.We’ll play some zone and spread it around on offense. Last year the defense was hurtby big plays.And our quarterback didn’t make the right decisions at times.”

Now it’s on him to fix it, beginning tomorrow at Lehigh, as the Ray Priore erafinally gets underway.

Before too long we’ll findout if it was worth the wait.

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