September 25, 2008

Sophomore Linebacker Leads Defense in First Game

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Any gym teacher will tell you — a fundamental part of nearly every athletic activity is proper footwork.
No one knows that better than sophomore Clayton Hemminger.
The sprint football linebacker may be a trim 175 pounds (172 on game days), but he has the size and strength of a varsity tailback. That, however, hasn’t prevented him from being light on his feet.
“Last year, I was always on my heels, and I didn’t always know what to do,” Hemminger said. “Now, I stay on my toes the whole game. I stay aggressive the whole game.”
[img_assist|nid=32078|title=In shape|desc=Sophomore Clay Hemminger’s strong start might be due to improved conditioning in 2008.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Aggressive is an understatement.
On Friday, as the squad’s starting strong-side linebacker in a 17-3 Cornell loss to Penn, Hemminger compiled a stat-line that would make any fantasy football aficionado look twice. Against the Quakers, Hemminger notched 13 total tackles (nine solo), three tackles for a loss and an interception — anchoring a defense that limited Penn to 180 yards passing, 75 total yards rushing and a scoreless first half.
Join me, fantasy football fans, in quickly picking up Hemminger from your respective waiver wires before the rest of your league realizes, as Penn’s unsuspecting backs and receivers did on Friday, that this underclassman is a budding sprint star and a force to be reckoned with.
“He just played hard, put his body into every running back coming down the hole,” said senior fullback Frank Lalezarzadeh. “He was relentless. He held the defense together throughout the game.”
“We were blitzing almost every other play, and it seemed like coach put me on the ball every time,” Hemminger said. “We knew a lot of their plays in practice, and I recognized them. I was right in the QB’s [Penn’s Micah D’Angelo’s] shorts all game, and he knew it. I was really feeling it, I was in the game.”
Hemminger, who played two years of varsity football at Midlakes High School in Phelps-Clifton, N.Y., before joining the Red, got an opportunity to start as a freshman due to injuries on the regular staff.
When, in the first game last season, the starting strong safety went down, one of the starting linebackers moved to DB, and Hemminger entered as linebacker — a position he would start at for the remainder of the year.
“There were six linebackers when I came into the season last year, including two returning starters,” Hemminger said. “I started for the rest of the year, but I was a freshman, and I didn’t really have that confidence. I think I played OK last year, but I had a lack of experience. It was a whole new scheme, and different from what I was used to.”
But that all changed this season, as Hemminger returned to Ithaca slimmer, faster and with definite goals in mind. After struggling last year to meet the weight limit set for all sprint football players, the Red’s young defensive stalwart wanted to get up a leg up on the competition.
“I came in this year in much better shape than last year,” he laughingly commented when asked about managing his weight. “I wanted to be a starter, and I wanted to win a championship.”
A shift in mindset, performance and even the needle on the scale may all have started with a tangible change in Hemminger’s role on the field.
“Last year I played mostly weak-side linebacker, but this year I’m playing mostly strong-side,” he said. “I feel more comfortable at strong-side, that’s a position I can really hold on.”
Despite his break-out performance, Hemminger remains focused on the team.
“It’s not about how I play individually,” he said. “I just want our defense as a whole to do well. I think we’re going to be good. I see us as a legitimate contender for the title.”
Regardless of his focus on team success, it is clear that Hemminger’s role has increased drastically since he first arrived at Schoellkopf Field last Aug.
“I feel like I’m starting to play a bigger role,” he said. “I don’t want to say I’m a leader yet because I’m still only a sophomore, but being a linebacker sort of puts you in a position of leadership on the defense.”
Confident, fit and with ears pinned back, Hemminger is forcing opposing offenses to get on their toes as well.