On a team full of young returning talent and experienced starters, the defensive line is one position at which there is an exception to the rule. The Red lost three of its four starters up front to graduation and will call upon several untested, yet promising, upperclassmen to fill the void this season.
The line’s strength is at the end positions where a pair of 6-3, 260 pound veterans consisting of defensive senior captain Kevin Rooney and classmate Ryan Lempa will preside. Rooney, often lauded for his work off the field, will look to make a name for himself between the lines in 2003. His team-appointed captain’s role will likely allow him to better achieve that goal as the season progresses.
“Rooney is unassuming, yet he has leader written all over him and I’m sure he’ll do a great job for us in that position,” said head coach Tim Pendergast, continuing, “he’s also tough, physical, runs well, smart, and disruptive, which makes him an All-Ivy caliber player in his own right.”
Rooney played in eight games last season, tallying 18 total tackles for the Red. Six of his takedowns were for a loss, totaling 27 negative yards for opposing offenses.
Opposite Rooney at the other end position will be fellow senior Lempa. Lempa, who injured his foot during the summer of his sophomore year, is essentially playing his junior year in 2003. The third year player saw action in nine games last season, tallying 20 tackles and two sacks in that time. However, Pendergast still feels that Lempa hasn’t even begun to fulfill his potential.
“I can remember when Lempa was a 230-pound guy trying to get big and strong. Now he’s 270, doing wonderful things in the weight room, training his body and just doing the things that are required to become a great football player,” he said. “I admire him.”
Backing up Rooney and Lempa will be a slew of up-and-comers, headlined by one of Cornell’s most promising newcomers in freshman Jonathan Lucas, along with sophomore Earl Richardson. Lucas is a first-team all-state player out of Colorado and has shown shades of excellence throughout the preseason.
“Jon reminds me a lot of Rooney,” said Pendergast, “it’s hard to know he’s out there sometimes, but then all of a sudden, there’s No. 92 and you say, ‘oh yeah, that’s Lucas again.'”
The tackle position presents a particularly big problem for the Red, as two of its most consistent performers from last year, Jesse Rodriguez ’03 and Bill Goodrich ’03, are gone.
Senior Mike Stone — at 6-4, 287 pounds — anchors the inside, and is coming off an injury that could’ve ended his career. During the Colgate game early last year, Stone severely injured his back and was given a very pessimistic prognosis. However, after an offseason of hard work and determination Stone is back, and the Red is counting its blessings.
“I can recall sitting down with Mike when we first got the diagnosis, and his eyes welling with tears because he cared about and enjoyed the game so much,” said Pendergast. “I remember Mike telling me, ‘Coach, they’re not going to take the game away from me. I’m going to do everything I can to play.’ And he has, and we’re awfully happy to have him back.”
At the other tackle position will be junior Mike McGinty. McGinty will be one of the Red’s most inexperienced defensive starters — he only played in five games last year — but has shown fine progress in the preseason.
“I think he still needs to learn the ropes as a player,” said Pendergast. “He needs time, and there’s room for improvement, but he’ll grow with each game and will be a fine player by the year’s end.”
Also vying for a spot at defensive tackle are sophomore Matt Pollack, who is coming off an injury similar to Stone’s, freshman Jaime McManamon, who has displayed an ability to gobble up blockers thanks to his 6-3, 275-pound frame, and sophomore Stephen Makovich.
The defensive line, which was at least partially responsible for giving up a disappointing 174 yards rushing per game and 22 rushing TDs in 2002, knows the importance of its role and looks forward to building on lessons learned from last season.
“It really comes down to us,” said McGinty, “We’ve worked really hard and our whole team is based off whether we get our job done or not. It’s our job to make sure things start out well.”
Pendergast has called upon his men to play a more assignment-intensive scheme this season.
And these guys know what they have to do.
“We’ve got a great system in place and if we execute, things can and will go very well for us,” said Stone.
Archived article by Scott Jones