September 19, 2008

Red Offense Has Veteran Group of Wide Receivers

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In “the league where they play for pay,” wide receivers such as Terrell Owens, Randy Moss and Chad Johnson (Ocho Cinco) are often regarded as less than team players. Don’t throw them the ball and these prima donnas turn into spoiled brats. In contrast, Cornell’s senior signal caller, Nathan Ford, is blessed with a bevy of downfield targets who understand a team-first ap­proach is necessary to keep the chains moving toward victory.
In 2007, nine different players caught at least 10 passes for the Red and all nine targets are returning this season. Head coach Jim Knowles ’87 placed added emphasis on recruiting higher caliber players at the skill positions when he took over in 2004.
“We have a great crew of receivers,” Knowles said. “Our receivers are the most talented and deep position on our team.”
This is an assertion that many within the receiving corps have embraced with pride and work hard to maintain.
“We definitely pride ourselves on being one of the most talented, hardworking units on the team,” said senior Zac Canty. “A lot of the weight is on our shoulders, and we like that. Our [versatility] is really key in this offense because we run a lot and we block a lot. To keep fresh, you’ve got to be able to rotate people in and out.”
Highly touted for his route-running abilities, Canty paced the Red with 49 receptions last season. The 5-8 flanker also ranked second on the team with 447 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Canty enters the 2008 campaign a mere 54 yards shy of 1,000.
“[Ford] and I have been playing together ever since sophomore year,” Canty said. “That’s really helped throughout practice and games. When he sees something and I see something at the same time, we’re both on the same page. That’s really important in this offense, especially because it’s all predicated on timing and routes.”
Joining Canty as Ford’s primary options in the passing game will be junior Bryan Walters and seniors Horatio Blackman and Jesse Baker. Last season, Baker snared 42 receptions for 420 yards while utilizing his impressive 6-1 frame to provide key downfield blocks. Walters enjoyed a breakout season in 2007, leading the team with 592 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
“Walters is a big play guy,” Knowles said. “He’s a good [kick] returner and he’s caught some good deep passes, too. I think that will be his specialty. He can run by you.”
After sustaining several injuries in 2006, 2007 was also a big year for Blackman. The Albany, N.Y., import averaged 9.2 yards per catch in 10 games, eight as a starter, and will join Canty and Baker in the 2008 starting lineup.
As a former quarterback turned wide receiver, junior Stephen Liuzza adds valuable versatility to the Red offense. Although Knowles expects to use Liuzza more from the slot, Liuzza also lined up in the backfield for the Red last season, accumulating 347 yards and five touchdowns.
Liuzza’s role should be better defined this season entering the second year of Cornell’s new spread offensive system, in which the Red uses three, four and even five wide out sets.
“It takes about two or three years to adjust to a new system,” Liuzza said. “We’re all pretty comfortable. There’s no thinking involved. We can just go out there and play because it’s all been memorized.”
“Year 2 of the offense is really when you start getting more familiar with it,” Canty acknowledged. “It’s just second nature to us now. Last year, there were some growing pains with the offense. We had a lot of turnovers, but we’re going to eliminate a lot of those turnovers, which should help us win some more ballgames.”