Though anchored by one of the best Cornell fullbacks in recent memory, the Red backfield is characterized more by questions than answers. With a lack of game experience behind senior captain Nate Archer and a tailback position beset by controversy, Cornell’s running back positions are ones of uncertainty.
Archer is the only definite in this year’s rotation and will provide a somewhat enigmatic offense with much needed consistency on each snap. Archer will be looked upon for both individual prominence and team guidance this year. Archer’s most important role is that of a blocker, fitting the mold of a Mike Alstott-type player who craves the big hit more than the big run.
“Everyone enjoys touching the ball, but the real honor is in getting the big block, just flat out pancaking someone,” said Archer.
That is not to say that he lacks the ability to be productive out of the backfield. Archer has 36 receptions over the last two seasons, averaging 7.4 yards
per catch. He has also run the ball proficiently enough to earn a near 4-yard average per carry. With the departure of star halfback Evan Simmons ’02 to graduation, Archer will be expected to increase his offensive production over past seasons in 2002.
“Nate is a relentless runner and has good hands. He will be the heart and soul of this offense; we’ll expect a lot from him,” said running backs coach Scott Walker.
Behind Archer are sophomore Luke Hanset and junior Todd Newell. Newell is the larger, and more experienced of the two back-ups and will be Archer’s primary replacement.
While Newell claims the advantage in size, Hanset provides more speed at the position and may be called upon in third- down situations out of the backfield. Hanset will likely see a large portion of his playing time come on special teams.
“Luke is a more than capable fullback, and Todd’s work ethic has really allowed him to improve dramatically at a tough position. They can both step in and do the job,” said Walker of the duo.
The halfback position is currently still playing out on the practice field and will seemingly be a game-by-game decision for the coaching staff.
Sophomore Marcus Blanks will claim the starting spot for tomorrow’s game at Bucknell. He is not a power runner at 5-9, 181 pounds, but boasts a quick first step and a smooth style when he hits a hole. He can call on a burst of speed once he breaks free and can be counted upon to make the occasional big play.
But by upping his work ethic, becoming a more involved student of the game, and learning how to block from the very best — teammate Nate Archer — Blanks has gone from an afterthought at his position to the main event.
“Nate really encouraged [the tailbacks] to work hard in the off season since this year’s offense tends to feature the tailback a little more as the featured back,” said Blanks of his captain.
The man providing most of the pressure on Blanks is senior Brian Ulbricht. Weighing 210 pounds and standing over six feet, the fourth-year player is a more physical runner than the shifty Blanks. Thus, Ulbricht will be an important possession player, called upon to convert in the all-important third-and-inches situation. Ulbricht is a more consistent receiver than his sophomore counterpart — having caught eight passes last season for 56 yards.
Blanks’ lack of touches last season and Ulbricht’s transition back to a former position will be obstacles each player will have to overcome to claim the tailback role on any given Saturday.
That’s not to say the halfback controversy consists of only two sides. Also attempting to rise on the depth chart are freshmen Andre Hardaway and Joshua Johnston and sophomore Clayton Fitzsimmons. Hardaway is the early favorite to provide the most pressure on the two more experienced backs, but Johnston and Fitzsimmons have shown signs of progress throughout the preseason, as well.
“We lost some experience [with the departures of Simmons and Justin Dunleavy ’02] in the backfield, and time will tell if we really have as much talent as we think we do,” said head coach Tim Pendergast.
Walker echoed the head coach’s excitement to see how things will pan out behind the quarterback.
“It’s been an interesting off season watching these guys go at it and watching how much they all want this, we hope it will continue all year,” he added.
Such competition can only be an advantage for a position that is seeking to recover from a big wound left by graduation. In the end, it is a pesky question mark that can only be solved one way: on the field, between the sidelines.
Archived article by Scott Jones