They may be young, but they can play. The losses of short safety Jeff Hahn ’06, free safety Kevin Rex ’06 and cornerback Jason Cloyd ’06 — the Red’s leader in interceptions (two) and passes defended (seven) last season — to graduation has brought in a new crop of younger players. But there will be familiar faces too. Senior Matt Grant, junior Michael Boyd at whip and sophomore free safety Tim Bax will all start again.
Cornell’s secondary is coming off one of its best seasons in years, having allowed the second-fewest passing yards per game (173.0) in the Ancient Eight. Yet, it also gave up 6.9 yards per play and 16 touchdowns — both second-worst in the league.
Th team will try to improve on these numbers using a mix of man-to-man and zone coverage as well as various blitzes, the Red’s secondary should prove difficult to break down once again. According to head coach Jim Knowles ’87, everyone — even corners — has a blitz called during the game, but they’ll vary how they play and blitz based on personnel and how easily they confuse the opposing offense.
“In our defense, we play a 4-2-5, which means we have five defensive backs,” he said. “We have what we call a two quarterback system. So, two guys that run things back there are Bax … and Mike Boyd. … I think those two guys are going to be the stalwarts.”
Bax earned time last season as a rookie free safety, starting two games and appearing in all 10. The 6-2, 180-pound sophomore was selected the Ivy League Rookie of the Week twice and ranked sixth on the team in tackles with 40, the best total amongst all Ivy rookies. He also finished with 2.5 tackles for a loss, an interception, one forced fumble and two passes defended.
“He’s really one of the best free safties that Cornell has had in a long time,” Knowles said. “He’s only a sophomore. He’s a great player.”
Boyd will reprise his role as the Whip for the second-straight season.
“… [Boyd’s] the second quarterback back there in terms of making calls, and Michael was a starter last year too,” Knowles said. “You know, he was really a little tentative in the beginning of season last year, got better and better as the season went on and had a great spring and has had a great camp.”
At 5-11, 192-pounds, Boyd has the size to stop runners in their tracks and the speed to drop into coverage. He was named to the ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District team in 2005 for a season in which he finished fourth on the Red with 53 tackles, had three tackles for a loss, one sack, one interception and four passes defended.
At strong safety, sophomore Gus Krimm is poised to start for the first time. Classmates Matt Malleo and Anthony Sabo, and junior Chi Chi Madu could also see significant time.
“Strong safety, we’re still kind of searching. There’s a bunch of guys in the mix, really young guys,” Knowles said.
Grant will start at corner for the third consecutive season. Ranked amongst the team leaders in tackles (34), interceptions (two) and passes defended (one), he brings leadership and experience to a young group of players.
“I’m just keeping these guys level-headed and making sure they take things one play at a time, and realize that every now and then, a bad play’s going to happen,” Grant said. “It’s how you react to that bad play, which is really going to define our secondary.”
At the other corner, juniors Colin Nash — who played in every game last season — and Brandon Kerns, who like Nash is a former wide receiver, will each see playing time.
Freshman Frank Morand may also see time at corner.
“He’s the best rookie corner we’ve ever recruited here,” Knowles said. “I mean, he’s 6-2, 185 pounds, and he’s from a great program so he’s … skilled.”