A trademark of exceptional programs nationwide is the ability to immediately plug gaps left by the departure of dominant stars. This season, USC needed a new Leinart, Texas replaced Young and The O.C. is introducing a few new faces to offset the loss of the late Marissa Cooper. For the new starting linebackers of the 2006 Cornell football team, this transition should be seamless.
Two juniors — Ryan Blessing and Doug Lempa — will fill the void left by the graduation of All-Ivy linebackers Patrick Potts ’06 and Joel Sussman ’06. The penultimate pair are confident that the “2” in the Red’s 4-2-5 defense will be no less formidable than when Potts and Sussman patrolled the middle of the field.
“This entire off-season, we have been the big question mark,” Blessing said. “But we have worked had to be where we are and we know our responsibilities on the field.”
The new guys have their work cut out for them — Potts and Sussman combined for 57 solo tackles and 5.5 sacks last season to anchor the Ivy League’s top rushing defense. Yet, head coach Jim Knowles ’87 foresees the same kind of smooth adjustment that has become typical of his new positional starters each year.
“We lost two pretty good players in Sussman and Potts,” Knowles said. “Those are some pretty big shoes to fill. Initially, [linebacker] was somewhat of a position of concern, but now we’re going into the season thinking it is a position of strength. [Blessing and Lempa] showed in the preseason that they are ready to step up into a leading role.”
Even as reserves in 2005, both Blessing and Lempa were able to make significant contributions to the success of the defense. Blessing played in all 10 games last season, posting four solo tackles and six total. The Oneida, N.Y,. native also recorded the Red’s first sack of the year in its season-opening victory against Bucknell.
Lempa continued his rise up the depth chart last season, playing in all of Cornell’s fixtures and posting impressive statistics in each of his outings on the field. For the 2005 season, Lempa — the younger brother of former Cornell captain Ryan Lempa — finished with 23 tackles, 1.5 sacks and an interception. In last year’s opener against Bucknell, Lempa blocked a kick — one of only three to be blocked the entire season.
“[Blessing and Lempa] had some of the best fall camps out of anybody,” Knowles said. “Potts and Sussman were more run stoppers and blitzers, but this year we have a couple of different ways to stop the run.”
A number of others could see playing time at linebacker this season, most notably junior Kyle Reidy and sophomore Ryne Posey.
For now, however, the pressure will be on Blessing and Lempa — and they would not have it any other way.