Football head coach Jim Knowles ’87 was beginning to sound like a broken record.
“They’re fast,” he said, referring to his starting defensive ends Dario Arrezo and Luke McCarthy, both juniors.
A few minutes later, “It’s going to be all about speed.”
Then again, before the interview was finished, “We’re really focused on speed.”
Knowles has designed a new defensive scheme to accommodate his speedy defensive line, which, as he likes to say, is quite fast. The Red has recently run a nickel 4-2-5 package. With a defensive line that lacks some size this year (junior noseguard Frank Kunis is 5-11), Knowles has committed to running more of a 3-3-5 nickel defense.
“But we’re going to take [junior linebackers] Graham Rhine and Brian Ostrowsky and create this hybrid position where it’s part d-lineman, part linebacker,” Knowles said.
For all the differences, the biggest one might be a change back. After leading the Ivy League in rushing defense for two straight years, the Red fell off a bit last year, dropping to fifth. Although Cornell was stung by several key injuries, there was a change in mentality.
“We tried to get out of our personality last year and we have to get back to loading up the box and stopping the run,” Knowles said.
“We just mentally broke down,” Kunis said. “We broke it down as a team — it was a certain amount of tackles that we missed, and how many yards they went for after those missed tackles. It was just a ridiculous amount.”
Kunis will be key in this effort to get back to the basics.
“It just seemed like we had a lot of young guys playing last year,” he said. “We needed to mature a lot more. … We just had mental mistakes that cost us. This year our defenders are just a lot more mature. People are flying to the ball, hustling. This is one of the fastest, most physical defenses I’ve ever been a part of.”
The other aim of the defensive line is to get more pressure on the opposing quarterback. Although last year’s squad finished with 20 sacks, good for third in the conference, Knowles says he has blitzed more than ever in training camp this year. Arrezo points out that that the coaches have allowed them to act a bit more free form on the pass rush.
“We’ve been a little more freelance on the moves,” he said. “… We practice them on the bags and work with the O-line. We’re always working on moves in practice when the offense is [practicing]. … There’s on where we set up a few standing up dummies — four or five — and just practice pass rush moves. Just keep working on swims and rips.”