With the 2018 Cornell football season just days away, The Sun’s football beat writers — Zachary Silver, Raphy Gendler, Charles Cotton and Jack Kantor — predicted what might be expected for the team coming off last year’s 3-7 season.
No, the winning season drought will not end in 2018, as much as it might pain East Hill to hear that. Cornell will be tested early and often, and my confidence in my prediction resides in the belief that they can eek out one, perhaps two games against Delaware, Yale, Sacred Heard and Harvard. Playing to Cornell’s favor is that fact that all of those games except Delaware will be played within the friendly confines of Schoellkopf Field. But as the Ivy League continues to add high-quality talent to its rosters, Cornell’s task only gets harder. Yes, the Red believes it is deeper this year than it has ever been under head coach David Archer ’05, but several question marks remain which can make or break the season. Multi-quarterback play? Health of senior running back Chris Walker and sophomore wide receiver Eric Gallman? Secondary recovering from the loss of Nick Gesualdi ’18? It will be a telling season for the program which returns many starters, but many are entering their last year of college football
Archer seems confident his team is much improved from last year’s 3-7 squad, and with Chris Walker and Eric Gallman back from injury on offense and another year of experience for key players on defense, there’s reason to believe him. The Red’s brutal early-season schedule — Delaware, Yale, Sacred Heart, Harvard — makes me think Cornell could be much improved and still take an 0-4 mark into mid-October. Cornell’s big wins against Harvard and Princeton last year will be hard to replicate. But the offense should be better, allowing the squad to avoid disappointing losses to Dartmouth and Columbia. I have the Red with wins over the Green and Lions, plus lowly Brown and either Penn or Colgate. Another disappointing finish for Cornell is more a testament to the strength of its Ivy foes than its past losing ways.
Before breaking down the schedule, I was confident that this year’s team would improve significantly upon last season’s 3-7 record. But after taking a closer look at the team and the schedule, I’m not so sure. Archer and the senior leadership are confident in their depth and experience — particularly at the line of scrimmage — and believe the Red can play with anyone this year. But there are plenty of question marks that could rear their ugly heads as the season unfolds. Not least of those is the quarterback position, with two-year starter and senior Dalton Banks having to participate in a five-way position battle in training camp to hold onto his job. Will Chris Walker be back to his old self, and can the rest of the running backs stay healthy? How about replacing Nick Gesualdi in the secondary? And what if place kicker, kickoff specialist and punter Nick Null gets injured? All three of the Red’s non-conference matchups are challenging, and I have a hard time seeing them repeating their victories over Harvard and Princeton. The Ivy League keeps getting better, but can Cornell keep up?
I can’t say with much certainty whether or not this team has the ability to up its win total from last year. But I am confident that this team will not regress from its 3-7 record in 2017. With experience stacked on both the offensive and defensive lines, Cornell is likely to trend upwards when it comes to winning battles in the trenches. Furthermore, the Red sports depth in the secondary, which was the best in the Ivy League last season. But now they are without Nick Gesualdi who was a rock for that Cornell defense, which poses a big “if” on the defensive side of the ball. Another question mark is the quarterback-by-committee. It will be interesting to see if senior Dalton Banks can succeed despite having to share time with other throwers. But questions marks aside, Cornell will likely struggle against top teams like Delaware, Yale, Princeton and Harvard. I see the Red taking down the lower-tier Ivy teams in Columbia and Dartmouth, as well as topping Colgate on the road just as it did two years ago.
Zach: Dalton Banks
It remains to be seen if Dalton Banks even get the majority of snaps in the 2018 season, but should he return to what he was in 2016 — a gunslinger bursting with confidence and swagger embodied in a last-minute drive to shock Colgate — then look out for Banks’ name amongst the offensive MVP voting. In that 2016 season, Banks had far more weapons in the air — Ben Rogers ’17, Matt Sullivan ’17, Marshall Deutz ’17 — than he was privy to last season. But Eric Gallman will return, and Archer is confident in the emergence of some of his various other wideouts. And behind a more experienced offensive line that returns all starters, Banks could see a revival of his all-Ivy honorable mention season in 2016.
Raphy: Chris Walker
The senior running back’s health is a bit of question mark entering a 2018 season of which we expected to see him miss the beginning. But 2016, and to a lesser extent the first few games of 2017, prove he’s the most dynamic offensive playmaker on the roster. And in the last few games of 2018, the anemic Cornell offense sans-Walker — in losses to Dartmouth and Columbia in which the team scored a grand total of one (garbage-time) touchdown — proved how desperately the team needs him on the field. Closing in on 1,000 career rushing yards, Walker was a first-team All-Ivy selection in 2016, averaging over 100 all-purpose yards per game. A successful offensive attack is going to have to include a heavy dose of #9, both on the ground and through the air. Archer’s (not totally clear) plan to use Walker’s ability to “do a lot of different things” means the senior could be a tough matchup for opposing defenses.
Charles: Harold Coles
While Chris Walker’s status (and position) remains in question, junior running back Harold Coles is a guy you can definitely count on this season. Coles led the team in rushing in 2017 with 515 yards and averaged over six yards per carry. Head coach David Archer ’05 is confident in his team’s depth at tailback, but realistically, one player will emerge as the go-to guy in key short-yardage situations. That guy will be Harold Coles, and it should be another strong season if the speedster can stay healthy. “He just runs at a different gear than he has in the past, physically and mentally,” said Archer of Coles.
Jack: Eric Gallman
Last year, Eric Gallman looked like an absolute stud out of the gate. The then-freshman had 12 receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown in his first two games before being sidelined for the rest of the 2017 season. Not only did Gallman look good last year in his two games, he looked good against good competition. Gallman faced only Delaware and Yale last year and still managed to make some noise. I am sure if he was given the chance to play a team like Brown last year he would have put up stellar numbers. If he can stay healthy, I expect Gallman to continue where he left off last year, leading the Red receiving corps in this 2018 campaign.
Zach: Jordan Landsman
Jordan Landsman burst onto the scene last year as a sophomore, becoming one of the most lethal threats on the Red’s defensive line. He tallied the second most tackles for loss on the team with 6.5 and finished with four sacks — just half a sack behind now-senior Cyrus Nolan for the team lead. Landsman may not receive as much of the notoriety as Gesualdi did or some of the linebackers, but he’s been described to me as perhaps the most NFL-caliber player on Cornell. That talent began to poke its head out in 2017 and should be elevated to another level in 2018.
Raphy: David Jones
Nick Gesualdi was the easy choice as the defense’s best player a year ago. But the Red’s secondary can still be the defense’s strength, and junior cornerback David Jones has shown flashes of ability to be a shut-down corner and playmaker. Archer seems to trust Jones in one-on-one matchups on the outside with the Ivy League’s top receivers, and if the defensive line can do its job up front, Jones will be well set-up to show us more of what we saw in his three-interception performance in last year’s season finale at Penn.
Charles: Reis Seggebruch
One of just two players named captain at the start of training camp, senior Reis Seggebruch has grown into a leader on and off the field. As a junior, he ranked first on the team with 62 tackles to go along with three sacks and a fumble recovery. Heading into this year, Seggebruch feels he can be even better. “I feel lighter on my feet, I feel faster, I feel fresher and I’m definitely more flexible this season,” he said. “I’m excited to see how it translates.” Based on his past results, there’s no reason to believe it won’t.
Jack: David Jones
Earning an All-Ivy Honorable Mention honor in 2017, junior cornerback David Jones is primed to lead Cornell’s secondary in this upcoming campaign. Jones had an impressive season last year when he tied for most interceptions in the Ivy League with four. And while he didn’t see as much field time as other defenders, he still ranked fourth in the conference in passes defended. He will especially be used in man coverage situations, hoping to shut down opponents’ top receivers. Given a bigger role this season, Jones will rise to the occasion with a solid year of experience under his belt.
Zach: Eric Gallman
Chances are, Eric Gallman would have been a lock for offensive MVP last season, or at the very least breakout player. But a week two injury stymied his bright start to the season and forced the young receiver to watch his offense struggle in the air from the sidelines. Questions remain surrounding Gallman’s health, but should he even near his production from the beginning of last season, Cornell will receive a much-needed weapon in the air.
Raphy: Maxwell McCormick
Senior captain Reis Seggebruch figures to be the most prominent figure among the Red’s linebacking corps, but look for senior Maxwell McCormick to become one of the Red’s most reliable defensive players. He played in eight games last year and all 10 the year before, bringing impressive experience to the defense. McCormick, set to start alongside Seggebruch and sophomore Lance Blass, hasn’t needed to step up as a go-to guy, but this could be the season when he emerges as a strong senior presence in the middle of the defense in both coverage and run prevention.
Charles: Phazione McClurge
Replacing the void left by Nick Gesualdi’s graduation will be no small task for anyone in the Cornell defensive backfield, but look for sophomore Phazione McClurge to shoulder much of that burden as 2018 goes on. The 6-foot-2 cornerback was a highly-touted recruit out of Chicago and went on to play in every game last year during his freshman season, even starting the final four contests. While we have yet to really see the kind of player he is, further responsibility in his sophomore season should give McClurge plenty of opportunities to turn heads. Keep an eye out for No. 1 in the carnelian and white.
Jack: Phazione McClurge
The loss of Nick Gesualdi certainly presents a hole in the Cornell secondary. But the departure of the former captain presents an opportunity for somebody to step up. In comes Phazione McClurge, a towering cornerback who was once a North Dakota commit. McClurge appeared in all 10 games last season and even started the last four. Archer has noted that “so far, he is playing like [a big-time recruit].” Look for McClurge to get an expanded role this season and emerge as a key player in the secondary alongside David Jones.
By week seven last season, when Cornell had just upset Princeton, the Red had moved into first place in the Ivy League with a 3-1 record in league play. But in that win came the torn ACL of Chris Walker, and the offense sputtered to a 0-3 finish and out of contention for the Ivy title. Archer says that injuries like Walker’s — on top of other factors — played into the Red’s eventual downfall. Could Cornell have made a run for the Ivy title with full health last season? Probably not, but Walker certainly could have helped as the offense scored just 30 points in the final three games. Injuries are a byproduct of football, and Cornell claims it’s as deep as it has ever been, but health will be essential for a deep run. It’s something Archer and his staff say they have taken a different approach to this preseason in training camp and practices.
Whether the plan to play multiple quarterbacks succeeds will determine whether the Red’s offense improves from last season. The three-man rotation shows one of two things: either Cornell has three solid QBs who can help the team win, or the team has nobody with the confidence or ability to lead a successful offense. If it’s the former — senior Dalton Banks in 2016 form, sophomore Richard Kenney sporting a strong arm and sophomore Mike Catanese making plays with his legs — Cornell’s offense might be more dangerous than the rest of the Ivy League is expecting. If all three passers have ho-hum seasons or run into turnover issues, it could be a long year for an offense without a No. 1 leader to turn to. The three-QB plan is interesting, and why not try something new if all three can help the team win? But the approach raises questions: is Banks starting QB material? Should we expect to see all three all season, or will a primary QB emerge? If the season doesn’t go according to plan, will we see more Kenney and Catanese as 2019 preparation gets underway? Success at the game’s most important position will determine if the Cornell offense can succeed in 2018.
Charles: Offensive line
With a full year of experience under its belt, the offensive line has reason to be confident. Having spent last year growing together as a unit, the O-line should be one of the Red’s assets throughout the 2018 season — and the team needs it to be. Good teams run the ball effectively and protect their quarterback. But without strong line play, that possibility goes out the window. Although the Red has some talent at quarterback and running back, it doesn’t have a dominant player who can carry this offense on his own. That’s where the line comes in. If these five guys (senior Henry Stillwell, junior John Riffle, senior J. Edward Keating, senior David D’Amelio and senior Mason Manning III) play smart, consistent football, this offense should take a big step forward in 2018.
Jack: Chris Walker
Following Chris Walker’s ACL tear in a win against Princeton, Cornell proceeded to finish the season 0-3, mustering only 30 total points during the stretch. Prior to Walker’s exit from the season, the Red was 3-1 in the Ivy League — legitimate contenders in the Ivy League. But once Walker went down, so did the Red. This team doesn’t live and die by Chris Walker, but it is clear he was a crucial piece to the offense last season. And behind an improved offensive line, Walker has the potential to be even better. But it all depends on his health. Will he be the same player he was last year coming off the injury? Will he ever be able to stay on the field? If the answers to these questions are ‘yes,’ then Cornell will have a key piece in the master plan of the 2018 season.