Although Cornell football these days is most associated with last year’s Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year, junior quarterback and offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews, the receiver position is arguably the most important one in coordinator Jeff Fela’s spread offense. Luckily for the Red, its roster includes several talented and versatile pass-catchers who make the system work by complementing Mathews’ prowess.
Fifth-year senior Shane Savage, senior Kurt Ondash and senior special teams co-captain Luke Tasker formed an extraordinary trio of wide receivers for the Red in 2011. Each of the three recorded at least 800 receiving yards and four touchdowns, as they ranked first (108.0), second (85.6) and third (82.7), respectively, in the Ivies in receiving yards per game. The fourth Ancient Eight receiver last season, Penn’s Ryan Calvert ’12, ranked 18.6 ypg behind Tasker.
Unfortunately for Cornell opponents, at least one more receiver has hopped aboard. Junior Grant Gellatly, a converted tailback, ranked second on the team in rushing and fourth in receiving last year. He broke out in the 2011 season finale at Penn with eight catches for 106 yards and hasn’t looked back, starting off this year as an official receiver with 10 catches for 181 yards in a loss at Fordham. To Mathews, Gellatly represents the type of playmaker whose efforts contribute to his status as an all-star quarterback.
“We had a couple of plays [against Fordham] where we dumped it out to Grant and he [made] a couple guys miss and [got] 25 yards,” Mathews said. “Those are big plays for us that are relatively not very risky passes ... A lot of it is guys making great plays in space. When receivers are getting open, it’s easy to get balls to them because there’s not a lot of defenders around.”
Even though Mathews scattered an Ivy record of 3,412 yards last season to his dependable targets, several Red receivers — including Savage, Tasker and Gellatly — spent the summer in Ithaca with Mathews working on route running and chemistry. Gellatly believes the side workouts strengthened the connection between the signal caller and receivers that already seemed near flawless.
“I think [getting open] is just the result of a big trust factor in the offseason preparation,” Gellatly said. “There’s a big emphasis as receivers to get up here early to work with the quarterbacks because that’s really the only time outside of spring camp to really work with them. It’s just him having trust in us [and] us having trust in him.”
Mathews echoed Gellatly’s sentiments, saying the exhaustive time spent together assures everyone that Cornell will find a way to come out on top — when running an out route on a critical third-and-6, for instance.
“We have a great receiving corps here and we work with them every day for an extended period of time,” Mathews said. “We worked through this all summer. I have great confidence in those guys. If it’s one on one, I expect our guys to win and so do they more importantly. [It’s] a lot of fun to have the guys that we do.”
While the quartet of leading receivers from 2011 is composed of the crafty and explosive type — none stands above 6-0 and is heavier than 195 pounds — the Red does offer bigger receivers further down the depth chart. Sophomore Lucas Shapiro, 6-5 and 205 lbs., placed sixth on the team with 15 catches last season, while 6-2 junior Jesse Heon snagged the first Red touchdown of 2012, and his career, against the Rams. All five freshmen wide receivers are taller than six feet, but Twan Terrell [Rockmart, Ga.], Doug Vernon [Folsom, Calif.], VJ Fitzpatrick [O’Fallon, Mo.], Chris Lenz [Mechanichsburg, Pa.] and Ben Rogers [Geneva, Ill.] may have trouble breaking through a loaded Red lineup this year.
None of the tight ends on the Cornell roster figures to have a large influence statistically, as they are seldom utilized as pass-catchers in the spread scheme and the Red’s do-it-all tight end and tailback combo player Ryan Houska ’12 graduated. Nonetheless, the tight ends will play significant roles as run blockers, protectors of Mathews and special teams players.
“A lot of our tight ends have moved out to receiver — like [senior] Jake Allyn, who is now a receiver and he’s done a great job,” Gellatly said. “But they’re just as important a part of the offense [for] the running game and blocking. They don’t get maybe as much credit as they deserve, but they are definitely important.”
Junior Ty Bostain is listed as the first-string tight end with freshman Matt Donneth [Fenton, Mich.] behind him. Seniors Michael DiChiara and Beau Sweeney converted from quarterback to tight end, the former during the spring of 2011 and the latter during the 2011 season. Junior Tucker Maggio also became a tight end last spring after eight starts at right tackle. Sweeney is the only one of the five with a reception at Cornell.
Fortunately for the Red, though, the current receivers have combined for 407 career catches. Their ability to get open and accumulate yards after the catch, which helped the Red last year amass almost 100 more passing yards per game than the next highest Ivy team (Harvard), will again determine the team’s offensive success in 2012.