Cornell football can’t just use one guy to fill in for safety Nick Gesualdi ’18. But a season after his team sported the best pass defense in the Ivy League, head coach David Archer ’05 doesn’t think he’ll need to.
“[Gesualdi] could really, really play,” Archer said of the former captain and two-time first-team All-Ivy selection. “You can’t replace a guy like that, you just have to fit it into a different mold.”
Cornell’s secondary will be tasked with plugging the gaps created by Gesualdi’s graduation, along with Justin Solomon ’18 and Jelani King ’18, but Archer is confident in his crop of defensive backs heading into this season.
After taking a big step developmentally last season, junior cornerback David Jones is set to lead the Red’s secondary. An All-Ivy honorable mention recipient a season ago, Jones had four interceptions last year, three of which came in the season finale at Penn.
“[Jones is] another guy that intrinsically wants to be great,” Archer said. “He can really help us at corner. I think we can play a lot of man coverage with him.”
Joining Jones at the cornerback position will be sophomore Phazione McClurge, while senior D.J. Woullard — an All-Ivy honorable mention at cornerback last season — and junior Jelani Taylor will get the starts at safety.
“You can play zone, you can play man, they are really good at pattern reading, they are really good man coverage kids,” Archer said. “The secondary needs to be a strength, because I think it can be.”
McClurge, a former North Dakota State commit who played in all of the Red’s 10 games last season and started each of the final four games as a freshman, will see his role greatly expanded in the 2018 season — one his head coach believes he is ready for.
“We took him from North Dakota State — big-time recruit,” Archer said of McClurge. “So far, he is playing like it.”
Archer said the Red’s depth at defensive back will serve the team well, allowing Cornell to use different players depending on the situation, package and opponent. Archer said Woullard, McClurge and Jones can play in three-corner sets, and senior safety Jake Watkins and Woullard will rotate in against run-first teams.
The Red will enjoy senior leadership in its defensive backfield, with three senior safeties: Watkins, Woullard and Austin Holmes. The experience of its veterans paired with the unit’s depth makes Archer confident the secondary can be one of the team’s strengths.
Cornell is coming off a 2017 campaign that saw it surrender just 189 yards in the air per game — the best in the Ivy League by 13 yards — compared to 267 passing yards per game in 2016.
The Red has playmakers in the secondary who can make game-altering plays, but Archer said creating turnovers will be a three-down, full-defense effort. Cornell had 10 interceptions last year after posting 15 in 2016.
Instead of focusing on things like strip techniques, the coaching staff set out to “re-engineer” the approach to creating turnovers, focusing on getting the opponent into “a situation where we can beat them” by preventing yards after the catch and shutting down early-down runs.
“We focused a lot on how are we going to get better on first and second down to where we can create third and long and passing opportunities and where those ballhawks can then have an opportunity,” Archer said.