Head coach Tim Pendergast often said that the football team needs to perform well on all three sides of the ball to be successful. Add to that the fact that Pendergast assumed coaching duties for special teams, and you can get an appreciation for the importance that the most overlooked part of football has on the Cornell team.
Even as Pendergast gives himself a small reprieve, only carrying half of the special teams’ coaching responsibility, this underrated part of the game has been a greater source of success than many other facets of the Cornell game.
Many of 2001’s highlights came on special teams. Then-freshman Mike Baumgartel kicked the longest punt in Ivy League history (81 yards) against Harvard. Junior John Kellner blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown as the Red nearly surprised D I-AA powerhouse Lehigh.
Cornell was in the middle to upper part of the league in most of the statistics concerned with special teams, ranking first in punt returns, fifth in kickoff returns, sixth in punting, and third in kickoff coverage.
Only one of 2001’s specialists is not on the roster, and most of the others are well-proven veterans or gained valuable experience in nine games last year.
Last year, Pete Iverson ’02 took every field goal, point after touchdown and kickoff. He made all 21 extra points, but only converted 4 of 12 field goal attempts. Sophomore Trevor MacMeekin was tapped last year to assume the place kicking position for this year. A freshman who has created a stir on the gridiron is Mark Richardson, who could easily be Cornell’s kickoff guy come Bucknell.
“He kicks the ball consistently five yards into the end zone, which is only 20 yards further than Pete Iverson did last year,” Pendergast said of Richardson.
Baumgartel had to adjust quickly last year, as he was thrown into the punter’s position as a rookie. He developed his consistency as the season progressed, and along the way kicked the longest punt in conference history. He averaged 36.6 yards in 2001, a statistic that he looks to improve this year.
Pendergast mentioned that his hang time has drastically improved over camp, which will minimize the number of returns and the yards per punt return for the opposition.
“The deeper and the higher, the better our punt coverage will be,” he said.
Senior tight end Mike Parris will be the long snapper and junior offensive lineman Dom Garguile is the short snapper. Junior receiver Vic Yanz will be the holder.
After leading Cornell to the top of the Ivy League in yards per punt return, senior Vinny Bates will look to cement his name in the Cornell record books. He has already set the marks for most kickoff returns and return yards.
After running up 814 yards on 40 kickoff returns and notching the third-most all-purpose yards on the Red in 2002, the cornerback will try to get back to his previous form. Bates’s stats in punt and kickoff returns waned last year from 20.4 average yards per kickoff reception and 9.9 per punt reception to 16.8 and 5.9, respectively.
“Vinny is going to be our number one punt returner. That’s going to be a huge spot for us because we’ve got a lot of stuff that we’re working on,” senior free safety Neil Morrissey said. “It’s going to be huge for Vinny because he doesn’t have to learn a new system now. It’s a system that he’s used to now. He’s probably one of the best returners in the league.”
Junior wideout Chad Nice chipped in on special teams last year, returning 17 kickoffs for 28.5 yards per return (sixth in the Ivy League), and will continue to contribute this year. Nice is one of the fastest players on the Red, which will benefit him as he tries to give Cornell good field position.
Senior wideout Keith Ferguson, Kellner, and senior free safety Jamie Moriarty, among others will likely help out on returns also, as Cornell will try to assemble its speediest players.
“We’re trying to get, particularly on the kickoff returns, more speed. You’re going to see defensive backs, wide receivers, linebackers out there,” Pendergast said.
Good special teams will win the battle of field position for the Red; it could also change a game’s momentum, or even result in points. Pendergast will be looking for all three on the third side of the pigskin.
Archived article by Amanda Angel