By Clayton Crooks
A year ago, the combination of quarterback Alvin Cowan ’05, wide receivers Ralph Plumb ’05 and Chandler Henley ’06 accounted for nearly half of the Bulldogs’ offense. Add in the yards on the ground from Robert Carr ’05, and the quartet produced 85 percent of the Eli’s positive yardage. Surely, it was a team of standouts, but Yale’s offensive formula was no secret to anyone.
Critics at the beginning of the season believed the team could not fill such a gaping hole in production, but after a promising 2-2 start, signal-caller Jeff Mroz ’06 has been up for the challenge. After connecting with 11 different receivers with touchdowns to five different receivers, Mroz has shown that he is going to do it with balance, and the departure of Plumb and Henley has only given many talented receivers the chance to step up.
After a breakout performance against Cornell, in which he had seven catches for 198 yards and three touchdowns, Ashley Wright ’07 has shouldered a significant part of the load. While averaging 92 yards per game, he has provided a deep threat. His 70-yard catch at Cornell, the longest of his 24 receptions on the year, helped blow the game open.
Todd Feiereisen ’06 has provided a consistent effort with 16 catches, including three touchdowns, and has averaged 60 yards per game. Chris Denny-Brown ’07 has also emerged as a force behind a seven-reception, 105-yard performance against Holy Cross, including one touchdown. Denny-Brown said he thinks it makes the offense that much more dangerous when any of the three could break out for a big game.
“At times it’s a matter of getting us the ball,” Denny-Brown said. “Sometimes it’s tough, sometimes it’s not in the game plan, sometimes it’s based on their defensive package, but we have definitely proved that we can be explosive in our attack through the air.”
Along with Jordan Spence ’07, Mike McLeod ’09 and Taylor Craig ’07 coming out of the backfield, tight end Alex Flaherty ’06 has provided the shorter options. These three have complemented the front three receivers with 22 catches on the year. Denny-Brown believes that this distribution makes the group harder to handle.
“I think it’s good that we have three, four or five receivers who can be trusted to get the ball and who can play,” Denny-Brown said. “Having Chandler and Ralph was great, but defenses could key on those two guys to try to shut down the aerial attack. With four or five who can carry the load, it makes it a lot more difficult. You’ve definitely got to go with having more guys to get the ball to.”
Denny-Brown has considered what might have been if Henley had not gone down for the year. Even so, Henley has still managed to make a significant contribution from the sideline in coaching the talented, yet relatively inexperienced, receivers.
“[Henley] has definitely stepped up as a secondary coach [for the wide outs],” Denny-Brown said. “Of all the receivers, he has the most knowledge of the position and the tricks of the trade. At practice, or when he is breaking down film, or on the field he is suggesting new drills, he gives tips every time we come out. He is our biggest critic and our best teacher. It’s different hearing it from a peer than from a coach, and it’s great to have his input.”
Although Mroz accredits the corps’s success to summer workouts, throwing sessions and film study, he is quick to compliment his offensive line for giving him enough time to look for his receivers. The line has surrendered only ten sacks on the season.
“The offensive line has played extremely well,” Mroz said. “We’ve played a lot of high-pressure teams and been able to stop them and burn them on the blitz. And it’s nice not to have to pass with a man in your face.”
Success in the air has also helped the ground game. NFL analysts harp on it at every occasion, but balance on offense keeps the defense guessing, and success in one only feeds the other. Wright confirmed this theory.
“We’re definitely going to have to be a big part of this team,” he said. “I think we have a great running back, and I think he’s going to give our receivers a lot of opportunities as defenses try to stop Mike [McLeod] and let us open up our pass game. If we can open up the pass game, we can help Mike as well.”
What analysts also say, however, besides that defenses win championships, is that a team lives and dies with the pass. And with Mroz becoming more and more comfortable with his receivers, the key component is coming into place.