Experience is the name of the game when it comes to the secondary this season. On a young team that has only 15 seniors, the secondary can boast four of those upperclassmen.
Seven returning members of the defensive backfield have already lettered, more than any other group on the team, and the secondary didn’t lose any starters to graduation.
That experience is going to have to translate into success on the football field to elevate the secondary’s status from an offensive coordinator’s afterthought to one of his biggest concerns.
Last season, the defensive backfield gave up 232.6 passing yards per game, which was slightly more than the league average of 230.1. The disturbing part of that number, though, is that teams passed fewer times against the Red than against any other team — meaning that Cornell gave up more yards per pass than any other Ancient Eight school. The Red also allowed 17 touchdowns in the air while intercepting only nine passes.
It’s no secret or surprise that the coaching staff and the players would love to see those numbers reversed.
“As a group, we’re really focused on being the best secondary in the league, being the best defense in the league,” said senior cornerback Jordan Hase. “We need to work more on turnovers this year, getting the ball back, and getting it to our offense instead of making plays and not finishing them.”
The keys to a turnaround begin with the starters. This year, senior free safety Jamie Moriarty will be the centerpiece of the secondary. Last season, Moriarty pulled down four interceptions and ranked second on the team with 64 tackles in his first season as a starting safety. Moriarty was confident that the experience of the defensive backs will pay dividends this season.
“I think having people back there that are experienced in big-time games is going to help us deal with pressure,” he assessed.
On the corners, senior Rosco Newsom and sophomore Kyle Thomas will be the opening day starters. Newsom played in seven games last season, racking up 18 tackles. His biggest season came two years ago, when he made 53 stops and also intercepted three passes.
“Rosco’s showing much greater effort,” remarked head coach Tim Pendergast on Newsom’s progress. “He has All-Ivy potential.”
Thomas, on the other hand, saw limited time last year but made impressive strides in the offseason to beat out some veterans for the other starting spot.
That still leaves five returning lettermen, and the quality of the depth in the secondary will be very important in allowing the defense to use nickel and dime packages this year.
Those lettermen are seniors Hase and Vincent Bates, junior Neil Morrissey, and sophomores David Blanks and Deron Smith.
Bates was a starter last season and finished fifth on the team in tackles with 41. Hase missed over half of last season with an injury but started at corner and made 42 tackles that year as a sophomore.
Blanks, the twin brother of tailback Marcus, lettered last season on special teams and should contribute defensively this season.
Smith, on the other hand, played in all nine games as a freshman last year in the role of a nickel back, ranking sixth on the team with 37 tackles and intercepting a pass.
The cornerback should be an exciting element of the defense this year, as the coaching staff plans to bring the weakside corner on blitzes.
“We love our corner blitz. It’s something that will come on long-yardage plays where it comes off the blind side, so it’s pretty much a free shot on the quarterback. We’re basically looking to blitz a lot to take away a lot of their hot routes,” said Morrissey.
Morrissey will back up Moriarty at the safety position and should receive significant playing time in pass defense formations. He, too, played in all nine games last season and recorded an interception.
The fact that each member of the secondary — starter or reserve — has already seen action in a Cornell jersey before the 2002 season’s first snap should be a good sign for the last line of the Red defense.
“Playing secondary, everything happens so quick for us, so you have to know where the guys behind you are — if you play corner, that your safety will be behind you,” said Bates. “We trust them, there’s a lot of trust that goes on. Having guys that you trust and have played with you for a while helps the whole defense.”
Archived article by Alex Fineman