After giving up 29.7 points per game during the 2018 season, Cornell football is hoping to shore up defensive cracks both on the back end and in the middle of the field.
When examining the Red’s secondary, head coach David Archer ’05 is confident in his unit going into the season.
“I really like the secondary — I think they’re disguising their coverage really well,” Archer said. “The leader of that is Jelani Taylor, without question.”
Taylor, the senior safety who was recently named a captain alongside offensive lineman George Holm III, comes off a breakout junior year in which he led the team with 72 total tackles and nine pass breakups. The season prior, he emerged in the back half of the year, ultimately compiling 32 tackles and seven pass breakups. Should Taylor take another step forward in his final season, the Red’s secondary could once again become a leading unit in the Ivy League.
In 2017, Cornell’s pass defense topped the Ancient Eight. The secondary allowed a league-low 189 passing yards per game. Unfortunately for the Red, it regressed in that regard last season as it dropped to fourth by giving up an average of 202.6 yards per game.
With D.J. Woullard ’19 and Austin Holmes ’19 having departed through graduation, Cornell will have several holes to fill in the defensive backfield. Luckily for the Red, it returns senior David Jones. Last year, Jones did it all for Cornell, as he tabbed 21 tackles, three interceptions, nine pass defends, and a blocked field goal. Not only that, but the Sugar Land, Texas native further displayed his versatility in leading the Ivy League with 498 return yards.
“I think he’s one of the best return men in the Ivy League,” Archer said of Jones. “I think he is one of the best corners in the Ivy League.”
Rounding out the secondary are fifth-year senior Jake Watkins, junior Logan Thut and sophomore Michael Irons. Watkins and Thut will see increased usage as safeties while Irons — coming off limited snaps last season — figures to start at cornerback opposite Jones.
“So, I really like their zone coverage and their man coverage,” Archer said. “The key is, I tell them, ‘They gotta win the Halloween costume contest, man, you have got to have a great disguise. You got to show [the opponent] what it’s not.”
Meanwhile, the linebacker corps will have to regroup following the departure of 2018 captain Reis Seggebruch ’19 and fellow senior Maxwell McCormick ’19. The two combined for 95 tackles over the course of the year.
Though the Red has lost two starters, it still returns a nice batch of veteran talent. Archer cited seniors Mo Bradford, Justin Bedard, Billy Baker and Malik Leary and junior Lance Blass as players that will anchor the heart of the defense. Of that group, Blass and Bradford have seen plenty of time on the field, coming in third and fourth, respectively, in total tackles by the end of last season.
While the starting lineup will be filled out by those upperclassmen, Archer took the time to praise a couple of first-year linebackers who will likely provide valuable depth.
“There are two linebackers that have really impressed,” Archer said. “Jake Stebbins and Hunter Delor have really had a good camp. They feel it, they read the game. They’re wiry kids, but they strike. I think they’re two guys who will probably come on the bus with us to Marist.”
Despite the accomplishments of the aforementioned upperclassmen, the Red struggled to generate pressure on its opponents in 2018. Through the 10-game season, Cornell only generated 16 sacks, the second-worst mark in the Ivy League. Opposing quarterbacks regularly had time to carve up the Red’s defense, which resulted in the team giving up nearly 30 points per game.
To make matters worse, Cornell bled yards on the ground as well. While the Red can boast about its aerial defense, it cannot say the same about its efforts against the run. A year after giving up 166.1 rushing yards per game, Cornell regressed even further, allowing rushers to gain a staggering 192.2 yards per contest.
Cornell’s defensive unit gets a chance to take a necessary step forward as the team visits Marist for its season opener on Sept. 21.