Last year, when head coach Tim Pendergast spotted the opposition’s quarterback drop back to pass, he felt one thing — fear. This year, however, things are shaping up differently.
“Last year, quite often I’d see a quarterback drop back to throw and I’d kind of hold my breath,” he said. “Now, I don’t do that. I’m breathing. I think we have talent.”
But it’s not just talent, it’s depth. This year, the cornerback and free safety positions are at least three-deep, as a result of summer workout sessions held in Ithaca, as well as time spent in the defensive system.
Starting for Cornell at the cornerback position will be juniors Kyle Thomas and Sean Nassoiy. Last season, Thomas earned 61 combined tackles and 32 solo efforts, while also recording a fumble recovery and an interception. Nassoiy is a converted wide receiver, and while he has yet to log minutes for the defense in game-time situations, he has impressed the coaching staff.
“Nassoiy will come up and lay you down like he weighs 280 pounds,” said Pendergast. “He’s got good cover skills and he’s intelligent.”
Pendergast was also impressed by Nassoiy’s desire to improve.
“Sean had a point to prove going into spring ball,” he said. “His point was that he should be playing, and he came in and said, ‘What do I need to do?'”
According to Pendergast, Nassoiy’s speed and understanding of pass routes are what make him an effective starter.
Once he is healthy, junior David Blanks will look to work his way into the starting rotation. Blanks served as a backup last season, making 22 tackles and a pair of sacks. In his limited time, he also broke up a pass and forced a fumble. As a freshman, he also played on special teams.
“I know David will work his way back up,” said Pendergast. “How high up? The sky’s the limit for David.”
Filling out the defensive back unit is senior free safety Neil Morrissey. Morrissey will replace Jamie Moriarty ’02, as he looks to build on a successful 2002 season. Despite playing with a leg injury, he still managed to record 14 tackles and one interception. The coaching staff is also depending on Morrissey to settle the defensive back unit down when it becomes rattled.
“Neil Morrissey is a much more intelligent player, right now, than we had a year ago,” said Pendergast. “He is the crossing guard out there, the traffic cop. He’s got some youth out there and he needs to help those guys at times.”
Behind Morrissey are sophomore Kevin Rex and junior Nick Tarsi. Both will battle for playing time, both as defensive backs and as members of the special teams unit.
The depth at the cornerback position extends further. Sophomores Jordan Calaguire and Matt Altomare, and freshman Kenny Martin will all look for time at the cornerback position. While all three have been noted to combine cover skills with physical play, it is Martin that stands out.
“[Martin] is the up-and-coming corner, maybe in the league,” said Pendergast. “He’s got what we want. He’s got size, speed, intelligence … he’s just got to put it into play.”
While Pendergast has noted what he expects of his defensive backs, they have also noted what they expect of the season.
“A lot of the guys that are starting now have been starting for at least two, sometimes three years, so a lot of guys have a better understanding of the defense and what’s going on,” said Blanks. “I think we’re going to be a lot better defense this year just because of that. I think that the team this year has shown a lot of improvement from the past two years, and that we can make a legitimate run at the Ivy championship.”
Archived article by Matt Janiga