Cornell junior quarterback and offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews broke the Ivy League single-season yardage record last year by completing 250 throws for 3,412 yards, but the leader of the conference’s best passing offense has another responsibility as well — making sure his six backups are prepared to play should he be unable to suit up.
The most experienced potential replacement is second-string senior Chris Amrhein, the only Red signal caller who was in Ithaca before third-year head coach Kent Austin took over in 2010.
He attempted four passes as a freshman under former head coach Jim Knowles ’87, missed all of 2010 with a shoulder injury and completed a three-yard pass against Yale last season. More than anything, according to Mathews, Amrhein’s football knowledge is unparalleled.
“Chris understands the offense inside and out,” Mathews said. “We kind of bounce ideas off each other. He’s very capable — if he has to play, we’re going to be in a great situation because he’s very good. He knows the game very well.”
As the two eldest players in the quarterback room, Amrhein and Mathews often field questions from the younger ones and ensure that they are all on the same page.
Two sophomore quarterbacks, Sam Wood and Cole Parker, were sidelined in 2011 because of illness and injury, respectively, but showed improvement over the offseason. Wood also serves as the team’s punter.
“To get a year in spring ball and come out in fall camp [was important for Wood and Parker],” Mathews said. “The more you can get reps, the better you’re going to be, especially at the quarterback position. Those guys have done a great job of growing in the last year.”
Three freshmen round out the Cornell quarterback lineup. Blair Boyce [Villa Park, Calif.] won the National Football Foundation scholar-athlete award as a senior. James Few [Tampa, Fla.] was a second-team all-state selection his last year at Plant High School. Jake Durden [Harrisonburg, Va.] helped lead his team to two district titles and a state runner-up finish. Mathews said that mentoring the three rookies is seamless because of their eagerness to improve.
“We’ve been fortunate — we’ve always got recruits here that want to learn and want to do better,” Mathews said. “[The freshmen] are always asking questions and making sure. I know what I struggled with as a freshman, [so] I just try to help them along and give them some advice and some shortcuts to what we’re doing around here.”
As a captain as well as the starting quarterback, Mathews also has to serve as a leader for the rest of the team, including his young freshmen running backs, who have looked to him for advice about the collegiate rushing game.
Ultimately, though, Mathews believes the credit is due to Austin, a mastermind at getting the most out of his players.
“A lot of it comes from coach Austin,” Mathews said. “He’s done it with me as a young QB and now he’s doing it with [the freshmen] as young QBs. He’s great at helping talent get up to speed in our offense.”
As a result, despite having a sure performer for the starting job, the Red feels comfortable with all of its options.