September 21, 2001

The Men in the Middle

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When the football team steps on the field at Yale tomorrow, its opponent will notice one significant change in the linebacking scheme that the Red plans to display. Personnel will always change, and the loss of tackle-master Dan Weyandt ’01 will certainly be an unwelcome but expected loss.

But there is one significant change in the Red’s linebackers that Cornell’s foes were probably not expecting.

The number of them.

For the first time in a while, Cornell will step onto the field with four linebackers.

In the pass-happy Ivy League, the idea of putting out extra linebackers instead of extra corners or safeties may seem suspicious at first, but that all depends on who those linebackers are. Head coach Tim Pendergast is betting that his linebackers will be fast enough to take care of whatever any offense can throw at his defense. This year, speed, not size, must kill.

“We’re trying to build a defense that’s based on speed,” Pendergast said.

The linebacking corps will look vastly different than those of a year ago. Major position changes for several players will mean a faster but smaller group.

At the left outside linebacker position will be senior Cory Ziskind. He’s spent his time at Cornell in different parts of the field, primarily as a special teams guy and defensive back. The senior had 24 tackles last year. He will be backed up by sophomore Pat Dehyle, a quick player who saw limited action last year as a freshman.

At the right outside linebacker position will be fifth-year senior Phil Rigueur, a three-year letter winner and one of the leaders on defense. He suffered an early knee-injury against Ithaca College this fall, but is expected to be back and healthy for Yale. He, like Ziskind, will be making a change, having spent his time last year in the safety position. Last year he recorded 67 tackles, including 43 of the solo variety in nine games. His ability to make the adjustment to linebacker will be key for the Red.

The inside linebackers will be a little more familiar with their positions than Ziskind and Rigueur, but both will have key responsibilities. Juniors Jarad Madea and Nate Spitler will be important on blitzes, stopping the run and preventing short passes. Both will also have to take on leadership roles in the defense this year.

“Potentially, we have the best pair [of inside linebackers] in the Ivy League,” Pendergast said. “If you turn on the computer and punch in the world inside linebacker, I think [Madea and Spitler’s] two pictures would show.”

Madea blends the size and speed that will be looking for every opportunity to get the man with the ball. He is a two-time letter winner and recorded 21 tackles last year.

Spitler is the most experienced of the linebackers and will be the centerpiece of the Cornell defense. He recorded 49 tackles as a sophomore, including 29 solo efforts. He also tallied four sacks, a number he will hope to improve upon this year. He is quick, agile and was responsible for a number of key plays on defense last year, especially when Cornell clung to very small leads.

Cornell’s success will weigh heavily on the abilities of these four men. The linebackers, at the center of it all, truly are the heart of any defense. The heart of the Red just looks to be a little quicker this year. Pendergast is betting that that’s all his team will need.

Archived article by Charles Persons