Coming off its first .500 season since 2007, the Cornell football team culminates 11 practices with the annual Spring Game on Saturday at 1 p.m. on Schoellkopf Field. The players will separate into Red and White units for intra-squad competition, a game that is free and open to the public.
After Saturday’s scrimmage, the Red will enter arguably its most anticipated offseason of this century as it returns 17 of 22 starters from 2011, making the team a formidable competitor for the Ivy League crown.
Most of the pieces from the Red’s most prolific offense ever remain intact, including rising junior quarterback Jeff Mathews, the 2011 Bushnell Cup winner as the Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year. A stout trio of wide receivers and an improving offensive line return to surround Mathews, providing the Red with a more experienced attack than in years past.
“We have a veteran team now offensively in most positions,” said head coach Kent Austin, who will enter his third season at Cornell after a three-game rise from 2010. “Terminology is now understood, expectations are understood, [and] assignments are understood … I think our guys have done a great job picking up where we left off at the end of last year.”
The Red scored at least 24 points in eight straight games to end last season — the longest streak of this kind in the program’s 125-year history — but not everything on offense will look the same this fall. Tight end and running back Ryan Houska soon graduates, leaving the Red without its do-it-all player and one of its team leaders, which Austin acknowledged has caused him to already explore different offensive arrangements.
“We’re trying to do a few extra things and put in a few extra looks this spring to see if we can carry it into the fall and see if we can expand our offensive production,” he said.
Defensively, Cornell returns eight starters, but its three losses are all crucial ones. Cornerback Rashad Campbell, linebacker Brandon Lainhart, and defensive end Zack Imhoff were All-Ivy players in 2011. Still, several experienced defensive players will be back, and safeties coach Kim Dameron has implemented a new and more basic system.
“I think the guys have done a great job learning the system — things have been simplified,” Austin said. “I think we’ve done a pretty decent job at moving personnel around, especially defensively, to get better athleticism on the football field and to utilize a couple of our better athletes and impact players in a more productive way.”
One of those acrobatic athletes is defensive back Nick Tandy, who will be a fifth-year senior in 2012 but is sitting out spring play. Tandy recorded 27 tackles and three interceptions last season, earning a second-team Academic All-American award, after transitioning from running back during last spring’s practices.
Shane Savage, the Ancient Eight’s top wide receiver in 2011, will join Tandy in fulfilling his fifth-year eligibility in the fall. He has also missed spring action.
For the players on the field Saturday, though, the game represents a long-awaited opportunity to test out new roles and showcase skills. Cornell began spring practice on April 3 — four and a half months after the Red’s final win of the 2011 season at Penn — and has completed four weeks of team meetings and activities in preparation for the battle on Schoellkopf.
Going forward after the game, Austin recognizes the importance of taking a short break from physical activity, but he warns his players not to take off too much time.
“I think more than anything, they have to stay in great shape [this offseason],” he said. “It’s easy right now once you get out of Spring Ball and you’re done with the school year to take a breather. And you do need some down time — a few days to catch your breath and relax. But you can get out of shape very, very quickly and you can lose strength and size and speed … So we’re trying to guard against that.”