While the football team heads into the weekend hoping to earn a .500 record for the first time this season, it does have two wins over ranked opponents in its win column. And with junior Colin Nash and senior Matt Grant making game-changing interceptions in both of those games, head coach Jim Knowles ’87 recognizes that his cornerbacks have improved by leaps and bounds this season.
“I think our cornerback play has improved tremendously from our first two seasons and I think they have a real understanding of the defense,” he said. “I think that I underestimated them somewhat at the beginning of the season. … You saw last game when we just came after the quarterback a lot and let those guys play and they showed what they can do.”
Thus far in the season, Nash leads the Red (3-4, 1-3 Ivy) with three interceptions, returning one for 24 yards. Grant is right on his heels with two takeaways and one return for 30 yards. However, these numbers are a change from the past — and represent the results of months of hard work.
“You can have a game where you may play 45 or 50 plays and you have that one play where you get beat and that can be the game,” said Roderick Plummer, the specials teams/defensive backs coach. “That was always put on the forefront of how the corners have played the last few years, and so we always kind of felt like we were they guys that really received some of the negative attention.”
But for this trio, when they’re offered criticism, all they hear is a challenge.
“I know our cornerbacks last year were highy criticized, for whatever reason, sometimes fairly, sometimes not,” Nash said. “This year coach Plummer came back real hard with a lot of pride, saying this isn’t happening anymore.”
Plummer passed that attitude to his players, as both Nash and Grant were in Ithaca for most of the summer, refining technique and honing their skills well before camp started. And even months later, their work ethic hasn’t faded.
“They’re both intense,” Plummer said. “Matt’s more of a quiet fire inside kind of guy, but they’re both very intense guys. And some of it has to do with the fact that I’m an intense coach.”
There’s nothing subdued about Plummer’s intensity — while most coaches and players walk their way from the locker rooms in Schoellkopf House to the practice fields, Plummer is the one hustling, calling out to his special teams players to follow him as he runs onto the field. In his fervor, he is constantly demanding that Grant and Nash take their play to another level.
“Corners out of every position are treated the hardest, practiced the most harshly. We don’t get any slack out there,” Nash said. “So when we go out on the field we play exactly as we practice. It’s really coach Plummer’s coaching techniques that make us sound in everything we do.”
From the simple things, like actually catching the ball — Plummer and Nash agree the reason the corners didn’t have as many interceptions last year was simply dropped catches — to watching hours of tape, the corners and their coach have put in the time and effort necessary to gain an edge.
“Just getting older, watching film, understanding the game more — it slows down a lot more the more you understand it,” Grant said. “It makes it a little easier to take a risk here and there and a lot of times it’s paid off for us.”
The corners have been cashing in when it counts most this season, as Nash had an interception and a 24-yard return in the Red’s 23-21 victory over then-No. 23 Albany on Sept. 30. Nash’s grab set up a field goal by junior Peter Zell that proved to be enough to give Cornell the win. Grant had a similarly game-clinching play this past weekend against then-No. 15 Princeton, picking off Tigers quarterback Jeff Terrell at the Cornell 8-yard line to seal the 14-7 win with 22 seconds left on the clock. Along with the quick hands of sophomore safety Tim Bax — who has two interceptions for a combined 51 yards this season — Nash and Grant have created a terror in the backfield for the Red.
“Our defense has always been strong … [but] we always felt like we weren’t there yet, and I think we worked harder knowing that and really have been able to get that done this year,” Plummer said.