On Sunday night, the football team congregated at Schoellkopf Field for its first spring practice. Even though the squad was only wearing shoulder pads, helmets, and shorts, there was a certain intensity and concentration that is analogous to game days in the fall. After a 4-3 Ivy season — the biggest turnaround in league history — and a third place finish in the standings, the Red is very eager to top its 2004 performance.
As practice began at a little after 8:30 p.m., head coach Jim Knowles ’87 addressed the team for the first time — delivering an extremely brief speech that had the team fired up and ready to embark on its spring practice schedule. Knowles compared his football team, in his second year at the helm, to the renovations being made to Schoellkopf Field — the foundation is there, but there is still plenty of work to be done.
“You already know you’re winners,” Knowles said. “Now it’s just about putting on the finishing touches.”
Last year, Cornell defeated rivals Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Columbia, while nearly upsetting league-leaders Harvard and Penn. However, many times in collegiate athletics, it is difficult for a second-year coach to keep his team competing at a high level of intensity — one of the challenges that will face Knowles this season. While the football program made great strides in his first year, it must continue to make progress in order to prove its 2004 success was more than just a fluke.
“We put a lot of focus on defense last year,” Knowles said. “Taking over a team that hadn’t won, I felt that improving our defense was the quickest chance to stay in the ball game. So now, this offseason, we really need to get our offense up to speed because our offense kind of lagged behind last year and now it time for those guys to approach the same level that the defense played at last year.”
Under Knowles’ command, Cornell’s defensive unit ranked as one of the stingiest in the country a season ago, as its rush defense allowed just over 100 yards per game — the lowest average in the Ivy League and seventh nationally. In the Red’s 10 games, no running back reached the 100-yard plateau.
However, the personnel on this year’s Cornell squad will be vastly different from the 2004 version. The Red was anchored by a very strong senior class, which included 10 starters. Different players will be heavily relied upon both on and off the field.
“You make sure that [the younger players from last year’s squad] understand that now it’s their team and they have to step up,” Knowles said. “You kind of hammer that home to the juniors who are going to be seniors . . . that whatever this team is going to be is going to be based off of how they handle things and you just kind of transfer the leadership to them. We have a much smaller senior class, so we are going to be counting on some of the younger guys too.”
In addition to the returning members from last year’s team, the Red will welcome a large freshman class to the 2005 squad. Cornell enjoyed a very successful recruiting period and hopes that many of the new players will contribute immediately.
“We are going to have like 40 guys,” Knowles said. “And that’s more than they have had around here in a long time … You start to look and you try to identify some of those kids in the class that you think are going to come in and play earlier and you start to send them learning materials in the mail … You hope those guys will help you but you really can’t count on them until they get here and show you what they can do.”
As for Sunday night’s practice, the team had very few health concerns, as only junior tailback Josh Johnston was sidelined — resting a knee injury he suffered during the season. Also, senior Kevin Boothe will not be participating in spring practices, as he attempts to gain a fifth year of NCAA eligibility.
Archived article by Bryan Pepper
Sun Assistant Sports Editor