October 18, 2007

Former Running Backs Find New Positions

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For the past three years, spectators to Cornell football games have seen senior Luke Siwula take the handoff between 20 and 30 times a game. Since the very beginning of his sophomore year, Siwula has been the unquestioned starter, starting every single game until an injury forced him to sit out the past two.
While it is a story in and of itself to have a three-year starter at running back who has moved into third on the all-time rushing list with over 2,000 yards in his career, few see the story of what happens to the other running backs when someone holds down the position for several years. Junior Brian Ostrowsky and sophomore Matt Kenney are just two of several players who came to Cornell after prolific high school careers as running backs. Like a handful of these players on the team, however, both former running backs have ended up making their way onto the field this year by lining up somewhere completely different.
Ostrowsky was his high school’s all-time leading rusher and tackler, earning numerous accolades at both running back and linebacker. After carrying the ball twice his freshman year in two games, the coaches sat down with Ostrowsky.
“They talked to me about what position I wanted to play,” Ostrowsky said.
Ostrowsky, coming out of Bishop Hoban High School in Wyoming, Pa. thought he might be better suited for defense and the coaches agreed.
“Coming from running back was definitely a good fit for me,” he said. “You get to be more aggressive.”
As Ostrowsky started to put on some muscle — he said he came to Cornell about 20 pounds lighter than he is now — he realized that the team’s offensive style might not fit with his running style.
“Because of the type of offense we run, I think I’m a better fit for the defensive side of the ball,” he said.
Ostrowsky saw action in all 10 games his sophomore year, playing linebacker and special teams while making two tackles. Still, Ostrowsky’s attitude and skill set had to completely change.
“Instead of trying to avoid the hit, you’re delivering the hit,” he said. “So it’s more of an attack mentality. … It’s tough coming from one position to another not having tackled someone in two years.”
After two years, though, Ostrowsky said he is much more comfortable at his position, and it shows on the field. Through five games this season, he has racked up 16 tackles, including half a tackle for a loss — the first of his career. Because Colgate trotted out a personnel package with two backs and a tight end to start the game last week (one of the offensive formations Ostrowsky subs in on), Ostrowsky even technically got his first start.
“It’s definitely a fit,” he said. “You get a knack for things — how to handle practice, how to approach things. And then also dealing with Cornell as a student. By your junior year, you’re pretty good at it. You finally understand it.”
Kenney also was an award-laden running back coming out of high school. At State College Area High school in State College, Pa., he was an honorable mention on the All-State team his senior year and was named one of the top-25 Division I-AA running backs by ShowingBlitz.com after his senior year.
“I envisioned myself as a running back,” Kenney said. “But I came in knowing I would do whatever I could to help the team out, to get on the field and do what I can do to help the team win.”
After a freshman season where he played in all 10 games and carried the ball nine times for 36 yards, the coaches decided he might be better positioned helping out a young receiving corps. Kenney was told of the decision as a freshman, giving him the summer to prepare.
“I tried to drop a little muscle and gain a little speed over the summer,” he said. “I’ve been working pretty hard but I still have a long way to go. [Head] coach [Jim Knowles ’87] is working me in there as best he can. Hopefully, I’ll see some more playing time in the future.”
Even though running back and wider receiver are only a few yards apart on the field, Kenney said that the mindsets and skill sets are miles apart.
“Just general basic skills I’m starting to pick up OK,” he said. “But there’s just a different knowledge to the game. There’s a different skill set for receiver.”
And unlike running back, where you might get a chance to redeem yourself one play after getting stuffed behind the line, a receiver only gets the ball so many times.
“You really have to stay positive, stay up no matter what,” Kenney said. “You can’t let a dropped ball get to you. It’s a transition, but I’m making it.”
Kenney credits the coaching staff, particularly receivers coach Guy Holliday with helping him bridge that distance between running back and receiver.
“[The hardest thing about switching has just been] picking up different skills, picking up how to break off of cuts and working on my hands,” he said. “Coach Holliday has done a great job giving me the right training.”
With such a deep receiving unit — 13 players have caught passes so far this year — Kenney has had trouble finding his way onto the field. Still, he has appeared in all five games and caught four passes.
“It was a tough transition at first but I think I’m starting to fit into the position pretty well,” he said.