April 13, 2007

Football Looks for Young Leaders as Practice Starts

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As two weeks of spring practice begin for the football team today, the Red will have a chance to work out in the sunlight, if the Ithaca weather cooperates. With an off-season regimen that regularly featured workouts inside Bartels Hall beginning at 6 a.m., sunshine has been a rarity at the football team’s strength and conditioning sessions this semester. In fact, the only light to be found was in the shade of the maillot jaune.
The phrase is French for “yellow jersey,” traditionally worn by the leader of the Tour de France. But for the Red, yellow t-shirts with the word “leader” printed on them were worn by two players at each position who displayed an edge in terms of work ethic and enthusiasm. The adaptation of a cycling tradition was just one of many changes made by the coaching staff to spur the development of a team dominated by underclassmen.[img_assist|nid=22870|title=Double duty|desc=Sophomore quarterback Nathan Ford (17) will split time between the football team and the baseball squad, for which he plays third base.|link=node|align=right|width=76|height=100]
“We tried to put that mantle, that jersey, on different guys because you have to create leaders from the underclassmen because you just don’t have enough seniors,” said head coach Jim Knowles ’87.
Knowles characterized the pre-dawn workouts as another tactic to spur the team’s growth process.
“We did it two years in a row [but stopped last year]. It’s an attitude of just being willing to do something like that for your program,” Knowles said. “I just thought we needed it. Sometimes you can misjudge the maturity of your program. … I just felt like the overall maturity and chemistry could really benefit from this.”
With the winter weather crowding teams inside Bartels, the early-morning approach also allowed strength and conditioning coach Tom Howley to get the team together at a time when it will have access to all the training facilities. Howley fully expects to see the Red’s hard work pay off as the team begins its two-week, 12-session slate of practices today, which will lead up to the April 28 Spring Game.
“Without a doubt, this team has improved,” Howley said. “On their tangible characteristics like speed and strength and on the intangibles.”
Knowles expects to see this improvement on the field as his players get their first taste of competitive play in six months and start working with the three new assistant coaches that joined the staff in the offseason. Bruce Barnum will take over as offensive coordinator, as associate head coach Clayton Carlin returns to the defensive coordinator role. Quarterbacks coach Joe Borich and running backs coach Travis Burkett have also been hired, and will work with Barnum to implement an offense with more emphasis on the passing game.
A deep corps of wide receivers will be one of the key elements to this new offense. Sophomores Zac Canty and Jesse Baker saw the majority of playing time at this position in 2006, while freshman Bryan Walters starred as the Red’s primary returner and will also compete for a wide receiver spot. Sophomores Nick Zerrante, Mark Longo and Horatio Blackman, all of whom were dealing with injuries during the 2006 season, will also be in the mix, as will freshman Matt Kenney.
“I think we’ve done a nice job of stocking that skill position, so I hope to see some great competition at wide receiver,” Knowles said. “I want to see … how much has our speed and our agility and our ability to make moves in the open field and ability to run precise routes [improved].”
Sophomore Nathan Ford, the starting quarterback last season, will split him time between spring practice and his duties as the starting third baseman for the baseball team. Freshman Stephen Liuzza will also challenge for time under center.
“Knowing Nate, he’ll play a baseball game during the day and come to football practice at night. He’s just like that,” Knowles said. “[And if Liuzza is] not at QB, we need to find other ways to get his hands on the ball. But he’ll compete. As for the one who’s going to play the most, it’s going to be some great competition.”
While the offense looks to build upon its traditionally strong running game, Knowles said that the defense will be getting back to basics.
“I want to see a lot of great defense and tackling,” he said. “I think our tackling when we looked at [film] in the offseason was subpar to the standards that we set around here in the first two years.”
The spring season will culminate with the annual Spring Game at Schoellkopf Field on April 28. In the small window of opportunity to lay the foundation for the 2007 campaign, Knowles hopes to bring out the best in his players.
“There will be a lot of competition. A lot of offense versus defense, at full go a lot because you only have 12 practices,” he said.