In Cornell’s last full season of football, the Red finished in a tie for fourth in the Ivy League despite the team entering the final stretch of the season with a 2-6 record.
Much of the Red’s success in 2019 can be attributed to the defense’s strong performance. Cornell possessed the third-best scoring defense, conceding 20.7 points per game. Meanwhile, the Red allowed just 335.6 yards per game, the second-best mark in the Ivy League and only 14.7 yards behind the leader, Dartmouth.
After a lost 2020 season, the Red is now gearing up for a return to Schoellkopf Field. Head coach David Archer ’05 provided an overview of the players powering this year’s defense and special teams, which hope to achieve similar success this coming season.
Leading the linebacking corps will be fifth-year Lance Blass and junior Jake Stebbins. Blass was a core defensive figure for the Red from 2018 to 2019, racking up 82 total tackles across 19 games. With Mo Bradford ’20, Malik Leary ’20 and Justin Bedard ’20 having graduated, Blass will step up as the most senior leader of the unit.
Stebbins was one of the most impressive freshmen on the team in his debut season for the Red, piling up 58 total tackles, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles to earn second team All-Ivy honors. If he makes a leap this year, he could easily establish himself as one of the best linebackers in the Ivy League.
Archer described the unit as a “really exciting, solid group.” Behind Stebbins and Blass, senior Christoph Sontich will likely see significant time at the position. Additionally, several younger players are likely to rack up time in the rotation, including sophomores Noah Labbé, Noah Taylor and Nic Paschall.
An area of concern could be the defensive line, which is working through several injuries. Chief among them are fifth-year defensive tackles Maxton Edgerly and Nick Haydu. Edgerly has been a core piece on the defensive line, having racked up 26 tackles over the course of the 2019 season, while Haydu figured to see significant time on the line this year.
“Maxton Edgerly got hurt last spring, and he’s a tremendous leader,” Archer said. “Nick Haydu got hurt in camp. Those two guys have played a lot of d-tackle for us. We’re hoping they can come back midseason.”
To fill the void in the middle of the defensive line, Archer will rely on players such as junior Onome Kessington and sophomore Connor Morgan. Meanwhile, on the edge, senior Jack Muench, fifth-year Jordan Patrick and senior Max Lundeen will look to improve upon Cornell’s sack total of 22 from 2019, which was tied for fifth in the conference.
The secondary, which stood out as one of Cornell’s top units in 2019, will reload this year with plenty of talent. For one, Kenan Clarke returns as a fifth-year cornerback. Clarke, who was drafted by the Edmonton Eskimos with the 50th overall pick in this year’s CFL draft, has decided to return to the Red in the hopes of delivering an Ivy League title to East Hill.
Archer also had high praise for senior cornerback Michael Irons. As a sophomore, Irons started nine games at corner, solidifying a pass defense that held opponents to 213.7 yards per game. Archer said he believes Irons has a chance to step up even further this season.
“I think Mike Irons is an outstanding corner,” Archer said. “I think he has a chance to be one of the better — if not the best — kind of player at corner.”
Cornell is particularly loaded at safety, with experienced players such as fifth-year Logan Thut, junior Jalyx Hunt and seniors Eric Diggs and Isaiah Hogan all expected to make important contributions on the back end. Beyond Irons, the versatile senior Demetrius Harris will see time at corner, along with senior Kolby McGowan and junior Paul Lewis III.
Special teams will be missing one of its core players from the past few seasons — kicker and punter Nickolas Null ’20.
“On special teams, you got to have great specialists,” Archer said. “We had one, and Nick Null was a really, really good one. He won a lot of games for us and was a two-time All-Ivy League at two different positions.”
When healthy, Null was responsible for both punting and kicking duties. In his absence, senior Koby Kiefer will slide in as the starting punter while fifth-year Garrett Patla and senior Scott Lees “have separated themselves from the pack” for kickoffs and field goals.
Lees and Patla will have big shoes to fill in Null’s absence. While Lees has only seen varsity action in one contest so far, Patla has plenty of experience. He started four games in 2019 and ultimately played in nine, converting 6-of-7 point after touchdowns while converting 50 percent of his six field goal attempts.
As a freshman, Kiefer averaged 34.9 yards per punt. On 33 punts, only two punts were downed inside the 20. But in his lone start during his sophomore year against Marist, Kiefer punted six times, two of which were downed inside the one-yard line while his long for day went for 55 yards.
Archer, who was very pleased with the performance of the defense and special teams in 2019, will aim to channel a similar level of success in this year’s units.