April 25, 2009
NEW HAVEN, Conn. - The excitement around the 2009 Yale football season has been building ever since January, when Tom Williams was introduced as the Joel E. Smilow '54 Head Coach of Football. Saturday was the first chance for the general public to get a real sense for what the new Bulldogs are about, as the team held its annual Blue-White Scrimmage at the Yale Bowl, Class of 1954 Field. It was also a chance for Williams to evaluate his team under game conditions, and he liked what he saw.
"I thought the guys came out and competed very hard," Williams said. "I was excited to watch them. I think we've got a great young nucleus of football players to complement the returners from last year. If they continue to develop as they have this spring, we'll have as much depth as I think Yale has had in a long time."
Williams came to Yale after two seasons as an assistant with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars. A Stanford graduate, he has made collegiate coaching stops at his alma mater along with Hawaii, San Jose State and Washington. The former linebacker also brought in seven new assistant coaches when he came to Yale.
There has also been plenty of change on the field for the Bulldogs. The defense has seen much turnover in personnel, but the Elis are ready to embrace the challenge of continuing to lead the nation in scoring defense. They allowed three touchdown drives on Saturday, but two of those came during the "goal-line" segment of the scrimmage, with the offense starting from first-and-goal at the five-yard line.
"We still have the same goals -- be No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense, and all that stuff statistically," said senior captain Paul Rice, who moves from cornerback to linebacker this year. "But it's going to be a different kind of style. A little more aggressive."
That aggression starts up front, where the lone returning starting lineman -- junior Tom McCarthy -- feels that players such as sophomores Pat Moran and Joe Young are ready to step up. The whistle blew as soon as a defensive player got near a quarterback in Saturday's scrimmage, so that was the closest anyone could get to a "sack", but the defensive line still had four of those.
"Pat's a big, strong kid," McCarthy said. "He's going to draw a lot of double-teams this year. Not only is that going to help out me, but it's going to free up the linebackers behind us. Joe and Pat are some big bruisers up front."
And Williams, with his NFL background, sees the potential for freshman defensive lineman Jake Stoller to make it to that level some day.
"Jake has the opportunity to be an NFL prospect," Williams said. "He's got a big upside."
The addition of Rice shores up a linebacking corps that loses a pair of starters. Junior Tim Handlon, a two-year letterwinner who saw time in all 10 games as a linebacker last year, gives Yale another player with experience ready to step in. And freshman Nick Schneider brought Saturday's scrimmage to a dramatic conclusion by generating the only turnover, an interception.
Junior Justin Oplinger returns after starting all 10 games at defensive end, and fellow junior defensive end Travis Henry continues to let his hits do the talking as he states his case for playing time. By far the loudest cheers on Saturday came when Henry leveled the ball carrier on a punt return, underscoring his ability to swing the momentum of a game with just one play.
The lone returning starter in the defensive secondary is strong safety Larry Abare, who is back for the 2009 season after receiving a medical hardship waiver (he missed the majority of 2007 with an injury). Sophomore Adam Money emerged as a starter at cornerback in the second-to-last game of 2008, and freshman Drew Baldwin saw action in all 10 games playing primarily on special teams. Sophomore safety John Pagliaro and freshman defensive back Geoff Dunham, who each played in all 10 games, add to the impressive list of younger players who could make impacts in the secondary next season.
"It's exciting to see what we're going to be able to do Saturdays in the fall," said McCarthy. "We've got a lot of playmakers. We lost a lot of guys in the secondary, but that doesn't mean the guys we have aren't good players in their own right. They were buried behind some other great players."
There's also a new leader for the Yale defense, as Williams brought in Ikaika Malloe from Hawaii as defensive coordinator. The energetic Malloe has made an instant impression.
"I love him," Henry said. "He definitely has a different approach to the game. He's fired up, he's running around, jumping around, head-butting people. It feels like there's a player on the sideline -- he's got a lot of life."
Henry also noted that having a new coaching staff has helped the Bulldogs bring along some of their younger players.
"We're doing a good job bringing our new guys in and letting them feel confident," Henry said. "The coaches are doing a good job. We talked as a senior class before spring ball started. We made sure one of the first things we told the younger guys was that they are just as important to the team as everyone else. Everyone's confident in what they can do. Having a new staff, a lot of guys feel like they have an opportunity to play -- everyone's on a level playing field."
There's also opportunity on the offensive side of the ball, with Williams bringing in Brian Stark from San Diego State as the new offensive coordinator. With the graduation of all-time leading rusher Mike McLeod '09, the Bulldogs worked five different ball carriers into the scrimmage on Saturday. Junior Rodney Reynolds had the lone rushing touchdown, while freshman Alex Thomas found the end zone by turning a short pass into a 38-yard TD. Junior Jordan Farrell showed he is fully recovered from the injury that cost him the 2008 season, and Ricky Galvez and Brandon Scott also saw time.
The Bulldogs also gave extensive work to each of their three quarterbacks, as the position is shaping up to be heavily competitive. Sophomore Brook Hart started the final five games of 2008, but he is being challenged by both junior Rich Scudellari and freshman Bryan Farris.
"All the guys have done a great job," Williams said. "Brook's had a great spring, Scudellari has done some really nice things. Bryan was probably the unknown coming into spring, and he certainly has raised our eyebrows."
Farris and Hart each had touchdown tosses, Hart's on the 38-yarder to Thomas and Farris' on a nicely thrown fade to junior Reid Lathan from four yards out. Scudellari completed a team-high eight of 13 pass attempts. Farris also had 14 yards rushing.
Lathan is part of a group that gives Yale 121 returning receptions from last year, led by junior H-back John Sheffield (43 for 359 yards) and sophomore receiver Jordan Forney (26 for 374 yards). Sophomore receiver Peter Balsam, a converted quarterback, came on strong at the end of the season and had 12 catches for 299 yards. Junior A.J. Haase led the tight ends in catches with 10, and sophomore Caleb Smith provided one of the highlights on Saturday with a 23-yard catch from Farris. In all, 10 of 16 completions on Saturday went to freshmen or sophomores.
The blocking may very well be up to a younger group, as four of the five offensive linemen who started on Saturday were freshmen or sophomores.
"Those are the guys that have played the best," Williams said. "As I say, we [coaches] don't determine the depth chart -- the players do. That's what they have determined, so that's who we started out with. They know that if that changes, they won't be the first guys out there. The whole idea is to continue to compete. You have to earn your job every day."
Shane Bannon, the lone returning letterwinner at fullback, is a sophomore as well.
Special teams is one area where the Bulldogs have many key returnees. Return man Gio Christodoulou was as elusive as ever on Saturday, breaking off multiple punt returns for long yardage. And the kicking chores next season will once again be handled by junior Tom Mante, another NFL prospect. The second team All-Ivy punter and honorable mention All-Ivy kicker averaged nearly 50 yards per punt on Saturday, and he is one of many who credit the new coaching staff for adding to the team's intensity.
"They brought a definite new swagger to this team on both sides of the ball," Mante said. "And we're not going to want to let the coaches down, because they have set the level high. We have to play to their expectations, and hopefully the swagger will carry over to the fall."
McCarthy has seen an immediate difference in the spring practices, which were condensed into three weeks of four practices each.
"The enthusiasm is definitely noticeable," McCarthy said. "Everybody's running around in practice. It's up-tempo, and everybody's flying around the whole time."
That was part of Williams' plan, and Saturday was one of the first public signs of it. It was also the end of a busy week that saw the Yale football team contributing to the community as well, leading a record-breaking marrow donor testing drive Thursday that attracted more than 700 participants. The weekend's festivities started with a meet-and-greet for alums and parents with the coaches on Friday night and continued with a pre-scrimmage and post-scrimmage tailgate on Saturday. The beautiful spring weather helped generate a large turnout at the Yale Bowl, Class of 1954 Field.
"Just being a part of Yale tradition -- having so many people come out from the community, along with the parents and former players, to witness this new era -- for me personally, it was a sight to behold," Williams said. "The energy and aura was palpable. I felt like the enthusiasm was at a peak. It humbles me as the head coach here to be a part of that."
And while it was important for Williams to continue to connect with Yale's storied past, the weekend was also about building for the future. Along those lines, there were a couple dozen recruits at the scrimmage as potential members of the Yale Football Class of 2014. Their day started with a tour of the campus and ended at the Yale Bowl, where there are also plenty of signs of progress off the field. The Kenney Family Field Center is rising gradually in the area behind the press box and will soon be home to a new team room and an area for alumni functions. The Jensen Family Plaza will be built in the area right in front and will serve as a grand entrance to the Bowl.
Even with those facilities still in progress, the recruits saw enough on Saturday to make a lasting impression.
"They were blown away by the campus, the weight room, Payne Whitney Gym and all of those other things," Williams said. "They were ecstatic. They saw enough to make them feel good about Yale as where they'd like to attend."
Yale opens the 2009 season at Georgetown on Sept. 19.
Video Netcast Interview with Bobby Abare '09:
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