With the 2017 Cornell football season just days away, The Sun’s football beat writers — Zachary Silver, Adam Bronfin, Charles Cotton and Jamil Rahman — sat down and predicted what might be expected for the team coming off last year’s 4-6 season.
Let’s run through the schedule. Delaware? Opening against the Blue Hens, who play in a powerful conference, already in their third game of the season is probably a no. Yale? Might be tough on the road, but Yale is starting a brand new quarterback and recently lost starting running back Alan Lamar for the season, so that’s a win for me. Colgate and Harvard will be the toughest consecutive games of the season, but they’re at home, and we saw what happened at Colgate last year. I give the Raiders and Crimson the edge, but wouldn’t be surprised if one game went the other way. Bucknell and Brown are two of my safer wins, both being at home and with the season in full-swing. Princeton will be on the road in the evening on national television. Assuming John Lovett is back, it’s Tigers all night. Dartmouth and Columbia give Cornell its best chance for success toward the end of the year. I would not be surprised to see both end in Cornell’s favor. Penn is an interesting case. Losing Alek Torgersen is huge, but Justin Watson can catch a fly with chopsticks. Reigning-champs have the edge. Barring injuries, Cornell enters the season with a very good chance at winning five times. There are four games in which I see little possibility of victory. One, Colgate, is my toss-up, but even others could tip on a given day.
Seven of Cornell’s game’s last season were one-possession games when the final buzzer sounded. The Red won four of those games. WIth Sacred Heart swapped out for a much better Delaware squad, it’s hard to see Cornell being competitive in seven games this season. That being said, this team is older than last year and now has that late-game experience so necessary to any successful program. It’s really a junior- and senior-led program for the first time in head coach David Archer’s ’05 tenure and that will likely mean fewer fourth quarter collapses, like against Dartmouth last year, and more thrilling comebacks, like against Colgate. The team will pick up wins against Brown and Columbia and either Dartmouth or Bucknell. Mark the squad down for a 3-7 season.
With so much turnover in the league year after year, predicting a team’s record is tough. That being said, I see the Red at 4-6 — exactly where it finished last season. Cornell came out of the gate like gangbusters in 2016; wins over Colgate and Yale turned heads around the league and gave fans a reason to believe after two consecutive one-win seasons. But the Red’s ensuing five-game losing streak sucked the life right of the resurgent fan base. Still, with a solid roster, Cornell is actually in a decent position to take the next step forward this year. Dalton Banks should be more consistent, and I expect the run defense to figure some things out. The problem arises when you look at the team’s schedule. With matchups against Delaware, Harvard, Penn and Princeton (and road games at Yale and Dartmouth who are both likely to have improved over the offseason), finding more than four wins for this Cornell team may leave you searching for quite a while. They proved us wrong last year … let’s see them do it again.
Usually, it’s pretty difficult to be optimistic about Cornell football — especially after last season. But I really feel like this is the year that Archer begins to make some noise in the League — entering his fifth season as the HC of the program, Archer finally has a team comprised completely of his own recruiting classes. Archer’s been with these players since their senior year of high school during the recruiting process and has been there every step of the way as they’ve matured, and the bond between the coach and his players can’t be overstated. At the same time, the team is bringing back a lot of experience — unanimous first-team All-Ivy, senior safety Nick Gesualdi on defense, and first-team All-Ivy, junior running Chris Walker and junior quarterback Dalton Banks on offense. I see losses coming against Delaware, Harvard, Princeton and Penn, and then a loss against either Yale or Colgate.
Zach: Chris Walker
On paper, Walker might not have had the 2016 that warrants the hype around him for 2017. Much of that boils down to usage — Cornell attempted the fewest amount of runs with the last place running offense in 2016. Walker ended up with fewer rushing attempts than Columbia quarterback Anders Hill and less rushing touchdowns than his own quarterback, but not to any fault of his own. When he did get the ball, Walker was instrumental and the best playmaker on the team, most notably in the 42-40 win over Columbia last year. In that game, the then-sophomore blazed for 181 yards and all three of his 2016 touchdowns. Archer has made clear his admiration for Walker, and with him not having to learn a new receiving corps like his quarterback, it’s hard to imagine anything but another first-team All-Ivy year from Walker at the least. The only question? How many holes the offensive line makes for him (see below).
Adam: Chris Walker
Walker is one of the best rushers in the league — perhaps topped only by Penn’s Tre Solomon. He’s blindingly fast and easily dances away from would-be tacklers. Walker ended last season with 655 yards on the ground in his first year as a starter. While he did struggle against some of the better rush defending teams — the junior totaled just 78 yards against Harvard and Dartmouth — another year of maturation will likely mean more games like his 178-yard career day against Columbia, the most yards for a Cornell running back in 20 years. In that game, a 42-40 triumph over the Lions, he had three 20-plus yard touchdowns, including one 71-yard score. One thing that could hamper Walker’s success is an inexperienced offensive line. If they’re not able to set Walker up, his production could fall off from last season. Another thing to watch this year: Walker caught 19 balls all season, 10 of those came in the final three games of the season.
Charles: Dalton Banks
Last season, Banks displayed flashes of greatness. At times, the now-junior quarterback looked like the most talented QB in the Ivy League as he placed the ball on the numbers 25+ yards downfield. But myriad bad decisions haunted him as the season progressed. Banks’ numbers were impressive last year: first in passing TDs and second in passing yards to go along with five scores on the ground. Yet Banks’ 14 picks were too many for the leader of Cornell’s offensive unit which struggled to protect the ball when it needed to most. I’ll chalk most of those up to rookie mistakes, though. With another year under his belt, Banks should really come into his own this season, both on and off the field. Look for number 7 to put up similar offensive numbers in 2017 — minus the interceptions.
Jamil: Dalton Banks
Banks is coming fresh off an All-Ivy honorable mention season, where he finished top of the league in passing touchdowns, second in passing yards and total offense, and third in points responsible for. Banks also showed he can use his legs when needed, as he ran for five rushing touchdowns last season, including a career-high 87 yard rushing day against Sacred Heart. With an inexperienced offensive-line that’s returning only one starter, it could be difficult to get the running game going this year. Archer has spoken highly of Banks’ development during the preseason, so I’ll take his word on it and am expecting that Banks will lower the interceptions while keeping his production levels up.
Zach: Nick Gesualdi
Archer said that the Cornell secondary all “starts with Gesualdi.” He’s right. The Maryland native was a bright spot in an otherwise tough year for the defensive backs, wrangling up six touchdowns for a tie at the top of the league and third nationally. Cornell’s pass defense finished second to last in 2016, but Gesualdi will lead a returning corps in players like Justin Solomon, DJ Woullard and Jelani King. If Sean Scullen can come back healthy, a rise in the pass defense rankings seems inevitable for the Red, but it all will start with the bearded, tattooed Gesualdi.
Adam: Nick Gesualdi
After a dominant 2016 season in which he ranked third in the nation with six interceptions, Gesualdi may see his production decline in 2017. Despite that, he may be more impactful on the field than ever. After three years of his ballhawking in the secondary, opposing quarterbacks have learned to fear him and will likely just avoiding throwing in his direction when he’s on the field. Getting him near the opposite team’s best wide out could effectively neutralize that threat. Gesualdi does have the tendency to go for the big play — leaping for interceptions, tackling opponent’s lower bodies — and that could backfire this season.
Charles: Kurt Frimel
Named as one of four Cornell captains, linebacker Kurt Frimel seems primed for another dominant season. The senior essentially came out of nowhere in 2016 and helped the linebacking core deal with Miles Norris’ season-ending injury. Well, now he gets another chance to do just that after Norris went down again in preseason. Frimel compiled 59 tackles (six for a loss), three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries a season ago and was a vocal presence on the Cornell defense. I expect nothing less from him this year. The team will be counting on him not only in stopping the run but also in pressuring the opposing quarterback.
Jamil: Nick Gesualdi
Gesualdi has been an integral part of the Red defense for the past three years, playing in every game in his Cornell career. In his career, Gesualdi has accounted for 190 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and 11 interceptions, just to name a few statistics. Gesualdi will look to build on a unanimous first-team All-Ivy and third-team AP FCS All-American selections last season, and with 30 games under his belt, Gesualdi knows what it takes to be successful in this league, and will finish his Red career strong.
Zach: Sean Scullen
There’s a chance this pick doesn’t even see the field in 2017, but if he does, remember the name. Sean Scullen was forced to sit out all of last season after he suffered a gruesome leg injury on the opening kickoff at Bucknell. 2016 was poised to be a big year for Scullen, who was making the switch from linebacker to safety in a secondary that suffered without him. Archer has said Scullen is still battling back from that injury nearly a year ago, and “hope[s] at some point he could get back.” So should anyone who wants this program to find success.
Adam: Davy Lizana
Last year, Cornell receivers hauled in 226 passes. 53 percent of those belonged to players no longer with the program, including the top three receivers. With Banks likely to again throw the ball 35-plus times a game, those targets will shift to someone else. My pick is sophomore Davy Lizana. The 6-foot-4 wideout has the size to beat defenders downfield and the hands to corral Banks’ throws. A good comparison for Lizana is Lucas Shapiro ’15. Another lanky receiver, Shapiro totaled 1,130 yards and 10 touchdowns in his three-year career as a starter. Lizana didn’t see any time as a freshman, but with the graduation of several key class of 2017 receivers, he’ll likely get thrown right into the fire. Eric Gallman is another name to watch among the young receiver corps.
Charles: Hayes Nolte
When Matt Sullivan graduated in the spring, it left a gaping void at tight end for the Red. With little depth at the position, Cornell will likely turn to senior Hayes Nolte when the season kicks off. Nolte — who played quarterback in high school — caught nine passes last season with a pair of TDs and showed some serious potential. Dalton Banks often looks for his tight end in big third down/red zone situations, so look for the 6’4” 250-pound Nolte to make a name for himself in 2017.
Jamil: J. Edward Keating
The O-Line doesn’t get enough recognition in football — quarterbacks are the stars of the offense, and running backs and receivers get a lot of love too, but none of the offensive production would be possible without the big boys up front, and the center is the anchor of the line. Keating is entering his junior season without a whole lot of game experience, but did get some time last year against Colgate and Princeton, and even played defense against Columbia and Penn after injuries plagued that side of the ball. The O-Line, which is returning only one starter, is a huge gray area for the team. Keating is projected to be the starter to begin the season, and if he has a big year, that paves the way for Banks and Walker to pick up from where they left off last year.
Zach: Offensive Line
It’s clear that both Dalton Banks and Chris Walker, when playing at their best, have the potential to unload on any defense a team throws their way (see: Colgate 4th quarter). But that success, like the success of any offense, was due to skill and experience on the front lines. Cornell started just one non-senior on its offensive line last year and now faces a position that has been cratered to graduation. Junior Henry Stillwell is the only returning starter, and while Archer likes what he sees from J. Edward Keating and others, the lack of game-experience could prove to be damning. Even if the ceiling is high for Walker, 2016 was not as productive as it could have been had a better line in front of him. And one with less experience — not a single senior is listed on the depth chart — could be the nail in the coffin for what is otherwise a promising season.
Adam: Special Teams
Going out on a bit of a limb with this one. The obvious major loss to special teams is punter Chris Fraser ’17. Now we’ll get to see just impactful his booming kicks actually were. If Nick Null can’t replicate Fraser’s ability to flip field position, Cornell may be in trouble in 2017. Beyond punting, field goals are also critical to the team’s success this year. After a paltry 4-of-11 performance on field goals in 2015 — including several painful misses — the Red righted the ship in 2016, knocking down seven of eight kicks. Continuing that accuracy is crucial for the team this upcoming season. Cornell has also been hurt on kick and punt returns in the past two seasons. An 84-yard kickoff return was the catalyst for Yale’s 19-point comeback in 2015 and Alex Jette’s 79-yard punt return for a touchdown got Brown on the board first in 2016’s double overtime loss. Cracking down on these long returns could spell out success for the Red.
Charles: Run Defense
Let’s be honest. Cornell’s run defense couldn’t stop anything last season. The team gave up nearly 200 yards per game on the ground (last in the league), and the front seven struggled to get the key stops throughout the year. The Red’s defense also gave up more than half of its touchdowns via the rush, again worst in the league. After losing Jackson Weber (and Miles Norris once again), it’s hard to see the defense improving all that much in this area. Assuming defensive coordinator Jared Backus has spent a good part of the offseason working on the run defense, it wouldn’t shock anyone if this unit were to improve as the season unfolds. Regardless, if Cornell cannot stop the run again this year, anything close to a .500-finish is out of the question.
Jamil: Wide Receivers
While the backfield is certainly well established for the Red, the receiving core remains a gray area for the team. The team lost three of its top wide receivers to graduation, meaning that Banks lost his go-to guys and the younger guys will have to step up. Heading into the first week of the season, Archer said that the relationship between Banks and his receivers has gotten better as preseason wore on, but there have still been too many drops, something that the Red can’t afford if it wants to be the offensive power it was last season. Banks has already proved that he can lead an offense, but the guys on the other side of the passes need to haul them in. Let’s see if the young guys can gel with Banks early on.