September 15, 2011

For Austin’s Defensive Line, the Turning Point is Now

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When Kent Austin was introduced as the head football coach on Jan. 27, 2010, expectations were high for his young squad. The results, however, were less than spectacular as the Red finished the season with a 2-8 record, identical to the mark posted under Jim Knowles ’87 the year prior.

Despite finishing the year in the cellar of the Ivy League, several players made lasting impacts on the coaching staff heading into the offseason — giving Austin reason to think that things would be different this time around. Perhaps nobody on the 2011 squad is a better example of that than senior defensive end Zack Imhoff, who moves over from linebacker after leading the Red in tackles last season.

“[Imhoff] wants to have an impact,” Austin said. “He’s one of those guys that desires to be a great player … have an impact in the game and to make big plays. He’s got big play capability.”

Imhoff leads a defensive line that features seven players rotating in and out of four spots — a feature typical for most college football programs; however, the unit Austin will send onto the field every Saturday will be anything but typical. Joining Imhoff on the line are three freshmen defensive tackles — Shane McManamon, Junior Togiaso and Cadell Williams. While the trio recognizes the need to learn from the team’s struggles of a season ago, the emphasis remains on becoming the class synonymous with the future of Cornell football.

“It’s good to have this fresh mindset because we don’t want to lose,” Williams said of his class. “[Austin] always says that this is our team and we’re bringing our swag, and our flavor to the team. We’re bringing it back, and we’re going to be that team that … wins the Ivy championship. We’re the turning point.”

“It’s definitely good to not be a part of [the losing seasons], but to know about it so we can come in and right the ship and get us back on track towards the Ivy League championship,” McManamon added.

While many have focused on the size of the three freshmen — a combined weight of 823 pounds — it is the intellect of these young defensive tackles that has Austin most impressed and offensive lines most in fear.

“They all have football intelligence — they’re all pretty bright guys and they’ve worked hard physically to be able to compete,” Austin said of his first true recruit class. “They’re certainly not there yet, and we’ll have a lot of growth over their time here, but physically the good news is that those guys were at a point physically coming out of high school where they can at least come in and compete at a certain level and maybe give us some quality reps.”

Throughout training camp and preseason practice, few on the Cornell roster garnered more attention than Togiaso, a 6-1, 288-pound electrical engineer, who turned down scholarships to play at elite FBS schools including Utah. The Encinitas, Calif. native recognized the chance to obtain an Ivy League degree, and has not looked back.

“I know that the chances of going to [the NFL] for many people are very slim,” Togiaso said regarding his decision to forgo those other opportunities. “I wanted to go to a place where I can do both academics and football at the same time, and that it wouldn’t consume me so much on either aspect. It’s still a really heavy load, but I’m just going to have to grind through it and get it done.”

Praise for Togiaso and his impressive level of maturity did not go unnoticed by Austin, who considers the tackle a cornerstone for the future of Cornell football.

“[Togiaso] is as fine a young man as I have encountered coming out of high school,” Austin said. “He has his head completely on his shoulders … he’s highly focused, he’s highly motivated, he knows what he wants, he knows where he’s going … and he’s also one of those individuals that you better be careful telling him he can’t do something. He has a strong desire to excel in everything that he does, and he won’t quit very easily.”

Not to be lost in the shuffle are three veterans, who provide this youthful defensive line with the experience necessary to go out and compete at a high level every Saturday. Senior tackle Emile Chang, junior tackle Hugh Stewart and sophomore end Tre’ Minor hold a combined 21 starts with the Red over the past three seasons. While victories have been hard to come by over that period, the trio is more confident than ever that the injection of youth into the line will yield improved results.

“I’m very impressed with the freshman class,” Chang said. “[The defensive line] is like the heartbeat [of the team]. If the other team can’t get past the d-line, then nobody else has to worry about them. We’re the ones that make sure we stop the passing game, stop the running game, so if we do all that they can’t make moves.”

For Imhoff, being a leader for the younger members of the line has been a priority since the start of training camp.

“This is probably the most athletic d-line we’ve had in years … They’re very fast, very quick and they’re big, so it’s the best of both worlds,” he said of the freshman trio. “You just try to help them out whenever you can — show them the ropes, make sure they’re doing the right thing all the time.”

The seven members of the defensive line represent four recruiting classes with a combined eight years of experience; however, it is the words of Togiaso, who plays in his first collegiate game on Saturday, that best sum up the unit and its newly found “swag.”

“The who,” Togiaso said when asked about stopping the Bucknell offense. “What about them? We do work. They’re nobody special. We’ve just got to play our game … It is going to be great — not would be great — it is going to be great when we win.”

Original Author: Evan Rich