If you watched any Cornell football last year — and you probably didn”t — you may have noticed something conspicuously absent from the Red”s gameplan: run defense.
Young on the defensive side of the ball, the team allowed more rushing yards (2,050) than any other Ivy League team, and the Red”s last line of defense, free safety Neil Morrissey “04, led the squad in tackles, racking up 94. This year, stopping the run is one of head coach Jim Knowles” “87 top priorities, and he has placed a large portion of that responsibility on a strong corps of linebackers determined to stuff the middle and contain the outside rush.
Returning starters, senior Dan Collins and junior Patrick Potts, along with senior Paul Pardi and upstart freshman Danny Rant, will lead the pack.
‘At the beginning of the year, all the position group coaches sat down, and we figured out what we needed to do with our guys to help them out and to help the team out,’ said linebackers coach Mike Roark. ‘Last year, Morrissey made a lot of tackles, which means a lot of runners were slipping through. This year, the linebackers need to really step in and do more. That”s what linebackers are there for.’
To accomplish the goal, the group of backers has worked hard in the offseason to improve its strength and conditioning, and the coaching staff has refined its defensive schemes to help the group play more intelligently.
‘Coach Knowles has been great getting us ready, but during the time last year when we didn”t have a coach for a while, a lot of the burden for us to improve fell on our shoulders, and [strength and conditioning] coach [Tom] Howley helped us a lot, too’ Collins said. ‘Guys would stay after practice to lift. Guys would put in a lot of extra time to work to get better on their own. As a result, I think we really came together a lot more, and we”re ready to take care of business.’
Collins (6-0, 228 pounds) and Potts (6-3, 227 pounds), in particular, made great strides, which should contribute to their improved success on the field. Collins has earned three varsity letters and played in every single game since arriving at Cornell in 2001 — starting every game the past two seasons.
Potts, meanwhile, only earned his starting spot last year, but made an immediate impact. Together, the tag-team accounted for 126 total tackles and finished fourth and third on the team in tackles last year, respectively.
Both Knowles and Roark have even higher expectations for the inside backers entering this fall”s campaign.
‘Collins is a vocal leader and a physical player. He”s a great leader on the field,’ Roark said. ‘Potts leads more by example. He can be vocal, but he just does his job.’
‘Pat Potts is as good as any linebacker in the league. He”s physical, he diagnoses plays well, he”s a good tackler, and he has a good pass rush,’ Knowles said. ‘But they”re both pluggers. What they lack in true speed, they make up for in toughness.’
Pardi will also factor into the mix, as Knowles expects he will split time with Collins to ensure both players remain fresh through the fourth quarter.
And, in Rant, Knowles sees one of the most promising young players on the team and anticipates the freshman will see frequent playing time.
A major reason for the 6-2, 215-pound rookie”s success is his work ethic. Over the summer, Rant attended classes at Cornell and worked out with the team, preparing himself physically and mentally to contribute right off the bat.
In addition to the hard work the linebackers have put in physically, a revised playbook will help them read offenses and mark assignments more easily.
‘We”ve tried to break down their assignments on a case basis. That is, you give them the pieces of the puzzle they need, the techniques they need, as individuals,’ Roark said. ‘It”s unlike last year, when they had to know a bunch of terms and calls they didn”t need from rote memorization.’
With the combination of strong leadership, diligent preparation, and sound coaching, this unit promises to atone for last year”s defensive sieve and help Cornell win ballgames at the line of scrimmage.
The coaching staff has full confidence the group will succeed.
‘Pardi, Potts, Collins, and Rant have a lot of great tools to use. They”ve done a lot of learning, and you can tell that they have a ton of enthusiasm,’ Roark said. ‘Their effort has been great, and I have high expectations of them.’
And, said Knowles, ‘They have a tough job, but they are pretty tough players, and I know they”ll get it done.’
Archived article by Everett Hullverson
Sun Assistant Sports Editor