This is part of The Sun’s position-by-position preview of the football team.
While Cornell’s defense ranked seventh in the Ivy League last year — allowing 420 yards of offense per game last season — the Red’s pass defense was not often the source of concern in a 1-9 record. Cornell’s secondary allowed an average of just under 230 yards through the air, good enough for third best in the league.
This season, the team will look to replace a gaping void in the secondary left by former two-year captain Rush Imhotep ’16. Imhotep started all 10 games at safety and finished the season with 37 tackles, to go along with an opening day interception against Bucknell.
Head coach David Archer ’05 said he is counting on juniors Nick Gesualdi and Sean Scullen to step up in his place at safety.
“Everything starts with Gesualdi and Scullen,” Archer said. “[They’re] guys you’ve heard about since they were freshmen. They’re juniors now, and they’re clearly guys who we trust to put in the game.”
Gesualdi was named Ivy League Rookie of the Year in his freshman season and as a sophomore, the Maryland native led the secondary with 51 total tackles and eight passes defended. He also racked up an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Fellow junior Scullen played the final six games at outside linebacker in his breakout season. He compiled 31 tackles and led the team in interceptions and fumble recoveries.
In addition to these two likely starters, Archer will look to introduce Justin Solomon to the mix, returning for his fifth year of eligibility.
Senior Jaivon Gibbs and junior Brock Thomas will also look to contribute at safety throughout the season, according to Archer.
“Jaivon Gibbs is a senior and a kid who has stuck with the program and worked hard,” Archer said. “Hopefully this year he will see some playing time and see the fruits of that labor.”
At cornerback, the Red must also cope with some key losses. Jarrod Watson-Lewis ’16 and Del Barnes ’16 both graduated in the spring after playing corner in the Red’s 10 games last year. Two tough, consistent players, they each had well over 30 tackles, contributing on and off the field.
As of now, there is no definitive replacement to fill these shoes, according to Archer.
“[At cornerback], probably the biggest loss is Watson-Lewis and Barnes who had started and played so many games for us,” he said. “Right now it’s kind of by committee to replace them. We’ve seen a lot of different guys back there making plays, and there’s probably about six guys we trust to play in the game.”
Those six include sophomores Austin Holmes and DJ Woullard, juniors Jelani King, Erik Bloomquist and Trey Duncombe and senior Luis Uceta.
Of the six, Duncombe saw the most time at the position, making an impact with 22 total tackles. Uceta spent most of the season returning punts and kicks for the Red but also saw time in the secondary. The remaining four played special teams or spent time on the scout team in previous years.
There is plenty of uncertainty at corner heading into the season opener on Saturday. Right now, Archer is “still figuring out the exact right combination back there.”
While Cornell’s pass defense held up in most games, replacing some key seniors in the secondary will be crucial to its continued growth in the 2016 campaign.
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