September 23, 2010

In the Kent Austin Era, Defensive Backs Will Be Second to None

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Jan. 27, 2010 was pegged as the dawn of a new era in Cornell football by the athletics department and members of the media. When head coach Kent Austin signed on over the winter, it seemed as though the headaches of a 2-8 season — which ended in an eight-game slide after two early wins —would be erased by the arrival of the new regime. Despite a season-opening 41-7 loss at Wagner, the players and coaching staff remain confident that they are headed in the right direction under the guidance of their new leader.

“It’s a great opportunity to build a program here with … the culture of what we’re trying to establish, to the expectations, to the quality of football, to the quality of recruiting,” Austin said. “To try to bring a real program to this university that has sustainability … that’s a process, but that’s also exciting because it’s a huge challenge. It was the challenge that attracted me here.”

In his first year on East Hill Austin will rely heavily on the experience and ability of the four men patrolling the defensive secondary. Senior Emani Fenton and junior Rashad Campbell will be back starting at cornerback this season as they did under former head coach Jim Knowles ’87, while senior far safety Ben Heller will suit up opposite freshman strong safety Brian Gee in the defensive backfield. Heller who will see his first game action of the season tomorrow, has recognized a tremendous difference in the new coaching staff and acknowledged that the attitude around camp is drastically different this year.

“[Coach Austin’s] charisma, his passion for the game … I’ve never been around anything like that,” Heller said. “He makes you want to do well for him and get his approval … and he’s the type of coach that’s going to expect the best out of you and you’re going to expect the best out of him. … He’s going to do a lot of great things for this program.”

The coach’s impact on Gee, the 6-0 Atlanta, Ga. native, has been very evident, as the freshman has found his way into the starting lineup with many upperclassmen having to find their way to the bench. In his first collegiate experience Gee managed 12 tackles despite showing signs of inexperience.

“He’s very physical. When he grows and gets a little bit bigger, stronger and faster, he’s going to be an outstanding player,” Austin said. “[Start­ing as a freshman] speaks to his understanding of the game, his understanding of what we’re asking him to do in that position defensively. He’s very intuitive … he’s got real football intelligence on the field.”

Despite the intensity of the coaching staff — something new defensive coordinator Ron McCrone has been frequently noted to possess ­­by his players — there is certainly a comedic element to the Red, which originates from the two roommates who spend  Saturdays opposite one another at cornerback. Fenton and Campbell have left their teammates and the Twitter world abuzz over their practical jokes and easy-going attitude.

“We joke and say we probably spent more time with each other in the last two years than we have with our families … so Rashad is like my brother and we are like family. Since we’re playing on opposite islands … if he needs something on the field he might signal to me and I know exactly what he’s trying to tell me. We share and collaborate a lot on the field,” Fenton said.

“We have a certain trust about each other through our natural chemistry that … I know when we’re in man [cov­erage] Emani’s going to be there to break up the play, and that just lets me play more confidently,” Campbell added.

However, a good prank has never gotten in the way of the ultimate goal: playing winning football. While Fen­ton and Campbell are notorious for their playful attitudes, Austin noted that both players have overcome many obstacles and put in the work necessary to earn the starting job. The coach had high praise for Campbell, who he labeled a coach’s dream. While Campbell was flattered by his coach’s words, he admitted that the experience he’s gained under Austin’s tutelage has been even more valuable.

“He’s very approachable. I love his attitude. I think he’s a very confident man, and he’s a great leader for us. I look up to him and I think he’s going to bring all of us a long way, not just as football players, but as men,” he said.

For Heller, Fenton and Campbell this season has provided an opportunity for them to impart all of the wisdom they’ve accumulated in their combined eight years of experience playing for the Red on the youngest members of the 2010 squad.

“I try to make sure the [younger players] know that if they have any questions … don’t be afraid to ask me anything, and I’m always just looking out for them to make sure they … know what they’re doing,” Heller said.

On the other end of the equation, Gee admits that the advice he’s received from his teammates in the secondary has been invaluable in vaulting him to the top of the depth chart.

“Their leadership is unreal … they know the game very well. Ben’s been a great person to watch and learn from, and talk through things. He helps me from a mental aspect, but then I can come to him and ask for tips on technique … so it helps me a lot to be able to see and hear from him,” Gee said.

When asked to quantify the team, Heller argued that the most noticeable difference existed in the passion it has exhibited on and off the field.

“We’re just having a lot more fun playing the game of football … as opposed to last year,” Heller said. In addition to their fearless head coach, the most obvious difference-maker on the field has been the four men composing the team’s secondary. Clearly, they are second to none.

Original Author: Evan Rich