Their coach may compare them to Bambi, but there’s nothing soft and cuddly about the freshmen and sophomores that make up the majority of the football team’s wide receiving corps.
“Right now, they’re like a young deer getting its legs. They’re kind of spindly and running around,” said head coach Jim Knowles ’87. “But the more and more they mature I think they’ll become a real threat around the league.”
The rookies and second-year players have grown up fast, helping the Red (2-4, 0-3 Ivy) adapt to a more pass-oriented attack in 2006 behind the arm of sophomore quarterback Nathan Ford. So far this season, seven underclassmen have accounted for 820 receiving yards of Cornell’s total of 1,057 yards of passing offense. The secret to their success? Equal parts comraderie and competition.
“We’re all close friends … and we can communicate with each other if we have differences on a route or there’s something to improve,” said sophomore wide receiver Zac Canty. “We feel comfortable going to each other — like me and [classmate] Jesse [Baker] going to Nate and fixing something, changing this, changing that, and it just ultimately helps us in the game when the game situation comes.”
Although Clayton Carlin, the offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach, sees evidence of this friendship every day, he says it doesn’t detract from the players’ desire to compete against each other.
“They’re very competitive. They’re a pleasure to coach,” Carlin said. “They’re getting better every day and they’re producing for the most part, which is what it’s about. They’re a fine group to coach.”
While victories have been harder to come by than usual for the Red this season, the passing offense offers a positive change from the past.
“What we’re doing now [is] throwing it a little bit more, working really hard on our passing efficiency,” Carlin said. “Every year is going to be a different year, every year is going to be a different team.”
Ford has earned a 115.34 passing effiency this year, and is 81-for-151 with six interceptions on the year. It is a change of pace from Ryan Kuhn ’06, who finished the 2005 season with a 104.17 efficiency rating after completing 96-of-179 passes with seven turnovers. However, Ford has already surpassed Kuhn’s season total of 1,008 passing yards with four games remaining on the schedule.
“It’s really exciting,” Canty said. “We’re just fortunate to be involved in the offense this year. … Kuhn was a much bigger guy. He would still throw the ball, but he loved to tuck it and run. It’s good the coaches can see we have different strengths this year and that we can throw the ball.”
Canty and company learned the ropes from Brian Romney ’06 — who earned second team and honorable mention All-Ivy honors with the Red — and current upperclassmen like senior Anthony “T.J.” Jackson.
“Brian Romney taught me a lot last year … how to get off certain coverages. And just working with T.J., he’s a great mentor still today and we just try to get better every day.”
That work ethic has paid off on Saturdays during the 2006 campaign, as Canty leads all receivers with 25 catches for 313 yards this season. Baker is right on his heels with 18 grabs for 293 yards, while sophomores Tom Bleymaier, Brian FitzPatrick, Shane Kilcoyne and Alex Spooner, and freshman Bryan Walters have all contributed to the passing game as well. In a 33-23 loss to Harvard on Oct. 7, Ford threw for a career-high 309 yards — only the 18th game in which a Cornell quarterback has reached the 300-yard plateau — and 19 of his 20 passes that day were to underclassmen receivers.
“We love going out and playing football, we love playing together and we want to play for each other,” Canty said. “It’s our team, so we don’t want to be at the bottom and the laughingstock of the Ivy League. We want to play for each other and just keep going.”
The sophomores have laid a foundation for growth and success at the skill positions for the Red, a trend that looks to continue with the Class of 2010 if Walters’ work so far is any indication of what his classmates might be capable of. The rookie is the team leader in punt and kick returns, carrying 12 punts for a total of 144 yards and 11 kicks for 256 yards in just four games this season, earning Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors after his first career start in the game against Harvard. Carlin says the development of Walters and the other freshmen has been helped by the sophomore class.
“It’s a close group [and] they help each other out a lot,” Carlin said. “It’s good group of guys, so they push each other. And they help each other out — it’s competition day in and day out, which only helps people get better.”
With Cornell still searching for its first Ivy League win and undefeated No. 15 Princeton (6-0, 3-0) coming into town this weekend, the Red’s young wide receivers will need to quickly take another step towards maturity if the home team is to reverse its recent fortunes in the league. Carlin, however, believes his players will deliver this Saturday on Schoellkopf Field.
“I think we look at every game as make-or-break in this league,” he said. “What we’re doing now is we’re trying to do everything we can to produce this week against Princeton. We haven’t really looked past that, but the potential is there for this class … it’s going to depend on how they continue to work.”