September 15, 2011

Healthy Competition Results from Injury

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Whereas last year’s defensive secondary boasted three established veterans and a freshman who earned his way into the starting lineup, the 2011 version is a bit in flux as the Red looks to fill the void left by Emani Fenton ’11 and Ben Heller ’11 at cornerback and safety, respectively. The two graduated seniors combined for 78 tackles and eight interceptions in 2010, with Fenton recording a game-saving pick against Princeton to preserve Cornell’s only conference win of the season. Both players were hallmarks of consistency in their four years on East Hill, with Fenton bringing home second-team All-Ivy accolades and co-MVP honors.

This season returning senior cornerback Rashad Campbell, who head coach Kent Austin described as “our de facto leader in the secondary” and “one of [the] best overall football players on this team,” will be called upon to lead a relatively young and inexperienced unit, some of whom have not started since high school.

While Campbell spoke to the importance of “build[ing] a bond within the secondary,” he also mentioned that as far as leadership is concerned, “I try to just tell everybody that it’s not that hard to lead. It’s just a matter of doing what you say instead of just talking.”

A 2009 All-Ivy honorable mention, Campbell managed to work his way up the depth chart as a freshman, eventually earning the starting nod against Penn in the 2008 season finale. Since then, the 5-8, 182-pound defensive back has proven a thorn in the side of Ivy League receivers, registering 58 tackles, six pass breakups and an interception as a junior.

Coming into this season, Campbell said he “wanted to work on my footwork and covering skills … I wanted to be known as just a great player — not just the person who could cover the run.”

Describing what makes Campbell such a potent defensive threat, junior safety Michael Hernandez pointed to his deep knowledge of the game.

“I feel like he tries to play smarter than everybody else, and he makes the game a lot easier for him, being as smart as he is. He’s also super talented out there and very athletic,” Hernandez said.

Suiting up opposite Campbell in the defensive backfield will be junior DeMarr Moulton, who emerged as the No. 2 corner during preseason workouts. Moulton saw limited playing time in 2010 due to injuries, appearing in just three games.

“We always come into camp with an open mind, not knowing who is going to emerge as the top two corners, and just the fact there was an open slot … that competition really brought out the best in the corners in the preseason,” Campbell said.

The same could easily be said of Cornell’s situation at safety. With sophomore Brian Gee sidelined due to injury and not expected back until around Week 4 against Harvard, both starting jobs are now up for grabs.

According to Austin, there are currently five guys that “at some point this year will be on the football field” — among them Hernandez, junior Andrew Brown, freshman Andrew Nelson, freshman Rush Miller and sophomore Josh Barut, who transferred from UCLA.

Hernandez played in all 10 games last season after redshirting as a freshman, but “Right now [who’s starting Saturday is] all up in the air, and I think it’s a game-time decision.”

Hernandez explained that although practice has been very competitive over the past 3-4 weeks,  “We’re still a very tight unit, and if anything we’re just making each other better.”

Contrary to the secondary, Cornell’s 2011 linebacker corps is highlighted by experienced seniors like Brandon Lainhart and Mike Spooner, with junior Cody Roberts and sophomore Brett Buehler also expected to see time in the rotation.

Lainhart, who ranked second on the team with 75 tackles in 2010, enters his fifth year and considers the fact that he has “a lot more experience than pretty much anybody in the league” his biggest advantage going into this season. After recording 16 tackles and a blocked kick at defensive end last year, Spooner has switched back to his former position.

Original Author: Alex Kuczynski-Brown