Try to tell a team that had four of its ten games decided by less than a touchdown last year that special teams aren’t important and you can expect a response. A definitive one.
“In the three games we lost a year ago, special teams had a definite impact in all three of them,” head coach Pete Mangurian said.
With the graduation of the team’s punter and place kicker, special teams could be problematic for the Red. Mangurian hopes the replacements he’s found will pick up where their predecessors left off.
“If there’s an area we can make the biggest jump in, it’s special teams. It’s an area that has to be productive for us, and we’ve spent a lot of time on it,” Mangurian said. “Our players know that’s a place where we can improve and that it can mean a difference between winning and losing.”
Cornell players won Ivy League special teams player of the week five times last year. Twice that award went to place kicker John McCombs ’00, and once it went to punter Mike Muccio ’00. The other two awards were garnered for Cornellians by members of this year’s team, which bodes well for the group.
The place kicking duties this year will fall upon junior Peter Iverson. In case you’ve forgotten, Iverson was responsible for kicking a 39-yard field goal with 39 seconds left on the clock to lift Cornell to a 31-29 victory over Columbia at Schoellkopf last year. That performance in the clutch earned him the Ivy special teams player of the week award.
The junior has been an important member of the team since his freshman year, when his kickoff duties won him the award for the freshman who contributed the most to the varsity team. Iverson continued booting kickoffs last year, but was called upon three times to kick field goals for the Red. He filled in for McCombs when the starter had to miss the Columbia and Penn games at the end of the year due to family issues. Iverson made all three field goals he attempted in those two games; kicks of 39, 25 and 28 yards.
“[Iverson] did a good job when had to do the kicking in the last two or three games last year,” Mangurian said.
The junior also completed all seven extra-points he attempted last year.
Punting duties for the year have for now fallen with rookie Joe Hull. Hull has spent the spring battling for the position with junior Justin Ganderson. The decision about who was to start was made only in the last week.
“[Having to pick a punter is] a good problem to have and a bad problem to have. You like to have someone jump up and take the job over and never have to think about it but it’s been difficult to make some of those decisions, not because of what people haven’t done, but because people have done things well,” Mangurian said.
Hull arrives in Ithaca from the plains of Tulsa, Okla., where he was named All-Oklahoma honorable mention as a senior.
Ganderson was Muccio’s backup last year, and did make one 30-yard punt for the varsity. The Norfolk, Va, native was his team’s MVP his senior year in high school.
Sophomore Vincent Bates will once again return kickoff and punts for the Big Red, but the graduation of Justin Bush ’00 will force him into the role of primary returner. He electrified the home crowd last year when he returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown in Cornell’s 24-23 victory against Harvard. The return was the fifth longest in Cornell history and put the Red up 10-3 early in the game.
For the year, Bates returned nine punts for an average of 11.0 yards per return, all while making nine tackles on defense and forcing one fumble last year. Bates also returned three kickoffs for a total of 13 yards.
Joining Bates deep on kickoffs and backing him up on punt returns will be the speedy Kevin Farese. The senior wide receiver has never returned a kickoff or punt in a college game, but has both excellent hands and speed and should be a good complement to Bates when back for kicks.
All in all, the relatively inexperienced group has come a long way since spring training.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” said a wary Mangurian.
This young group will certainly have to turn progress into performance if Cornell wants to avoid the same fate that befell a special teams group that allowed 19.3 yards per kickoff return and two punt returns for touchdowns last year. Consistent performance from the special teams will mean the game can be won on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, the way the Red would prefer to win games.
Archived article by Charles Persons