September 23, 2004

Dominating Defense Anchored by 'Gang of Five'

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Nov. 12, 1986 edition of The Sun.

HELP WANTED: Must be willing to endure constant pushing, hitting and sometimes even being knocked down. Long hours, self-sacrifice required. Credit often taken by others. Competition fierce, risk of bodily harm. Responses directed to Glenn, P.O. Box 23.

A newspaper classified ad like one the above could probably run for years without eliciting much response from the general public.

Yet to some people, such an offer might seem old hat. In fact, a few might even pull out the scissors to do some clipping — people like Cornell defensive linemen Tom McHale, Jim Knowles, Gary Rinkus, Chris Tull and Rick Calhoun.

These five have anchored this season’s dominant Big Red defensive unit, with McHale and Knowles lined up on the ends and Rinkus, Tull and Calhoun at tackle.

In compiling a 7-1 record, Cornell has relied on its stingy defense which has held opponents to an average of just 9.0 points per game, second only to Oklahoma’s 6.2 point mark among all Division I teams.

A large part of this success can be traced directly to the play of the line. The gang of five has combined for 132 tackles, 90 assists, 30 sacks, three fumble recoveries and two safeties.

Such impressive numbers and the type of play which generated them prompted Bucknell head coach George Landis to praise the line after his squad suffered through 6 sacks in a 16-3 loss.

“Pressure is the worst thing a quarterback can get, and McHale and company are the best front four we’ve seen,” he said.

Still, defensive line is not a role which often attracts the spotlight. It’s difficult to be recognized as a superstar when your best efforts often get hidden by a pile of 250-pound bodies. Even William “Refrigerator” Perry built his reputation more on his offensive performance and his bulk than on his play as a lineman.

Beyond just the lack of recognition, though, there is also the physical toll involved. It has to be draining to bang bodies all day with other large, strong linemen.

Despite such inconveniences, the players all agree that the job is worthwhile, for a variety of reasons.

“It’s fun, especially when you beat somebody on a pass rush or stand an offensive lineman up and make the tackle,” Calhoun said.

Calhoun, for one, has had so much fun as a lineman that he has no desire to switch back to linebacker, his original position at Cornell. “To tell you the truth, I don’t think I would want to be a linebacker anymore,” he said.

The competitive nature of the position is what interests Rinkus, a lineman since his high school days.

“It’s like a street fight, and you get the feeling that whoever won the game won the fight,” the left tackle said.

This season the Red has won most of its street fights, and the spoils of victory have helped to sweeten the linemen’s role. “As long as we are winning, it all seems worth it,” Knowles said.

Personal Satisfaction

Defensive line coach Glenn Deadmond speaks from experience when he says that while linemen may not receive the same attention as linebackers and secondary players, there is personal satisfaction in the vital role they play.

“Whoever dominates the football game is decided by what happens up front,” Deadmond said. “If you are dominating the game with your defensive line, everything else falls into place. It means the other team can’t run the ball and that you are getting enough pressure on the quarterback so that they can’t throw effectively.”

Deadmond played the line at Kent State, and after graduation had tryouts with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Hamilton Tiger Cats before moving into coaching.

As with any other position, there is competition among linemen, but more than any other defensive unit, the linemen rely on one another.

“Any time someone gets a sack all four guys are involved because they have to take the correct lanes and occupy the blockers so that the one guy can come free,” Knowles said.

In the past few weeks McHale has been particularly dominant, and has accumulated seven sacks in the last three games alone.

McHale a Leader

A legitimate pro prospect, McHale is recognized as a leader among the linemen. At 6-4, 260 pounds he has the physical ability to dominate opponents, but is also very knowledgeable about his position.

“Tom McHale is just a student of the game. He reacts and changes to fit so many situations. It’s a confidence booster just to go out on the field with Tom,” Calhoun said. “It’s funny to watch him in films because Tom just takes people and turns them around. He makes moves and runs games and the offensive linemen are boggled by it all.”

McHale’s attitude toward the game is a reflection of his playing style.

“The best feeling out there is killing the quarterback — on a sack, not literally,” McHale said.

This aspect of attitude and thinking is one facet of the defensive line position which Knowles feels is taken too much for granted.

“A lot of people might not think that defensive line is a thinking position, but it is. You are always trying to figure out your opponent’s weaknesses and pick on them,” Knowles said.

In Cornell’s defensive scheme, the responsibility for calling special pass rush schemes, or “games,” belongs to the right tackle.

Tull is the starting right tackle, but shares a unique relationship with fifth-man Calhoun. The two generally play on alternate series and each is responsible for the called-line patterns.

“A lot depends on whether the offense plays a sprint out or drop-back style,” Tull said. “On a drop-back pass the ends try to keep the quarterback in the pocket and if we provide the pressure up the middle, he’s a sitting duck. But one doesn’t work well without the other.”

Generally when the offense is in an obvious passing situation, Tull or Calhoun will call for a certain game which they have reviewed in practice. But the tackle must be aware of offensive changes at the line of scrimmage.

“A lot of times the offense will shift into a pass formation once we are already lined up, and I will call for a particular game right there,” Tull said.

This flexibility and thinking is a large part of the position, but as McHale explains, attitude and instinct often take over.

“I haven’t played a full season since 1983, and at first you have to think a lot about each play. But the more you practice and play the better you get. The position just becomes second nature,” he explained.

Maybe the one factor which has lifted this unit the most is its combined experience. All four starters saw a good deal of playing time last season, and Calhoun has been a regular this year.

“I think we just got tired of being pushed around,” Knowles said. “I don’t think there is any special ingredient that has made us as good as we are today. I think it
s just hard work, desire and experience.”

Archived article by Jeff Lampe ’89
Sun Staff Writer