Elis rely on sophomore standouts

The Bulldogs are redefining the “sophomore surprise.”

The emergence of John Sheffield ’10 against the Georgetown Hoyas has continued a pattern of Elis contributing significantly as starters after spending their freshman year on the junior varsity team. Like Sheffield, All-Ivy selections Jeff Monaco ’08, Steven Santoro ’09 and Nick Wachtler ’08 all broke out as sophomores.

John Sheffield ’10 may follow in the footsteps of Mike McLeod ’09 (pictured) as a varsity rookie poised to make an enormous contribution in his first season.
Nick Bayless
John Sheffield ’10 may follow in the footsteps of Mike McLeod ’09 (pictured) as a varsity rookie poised to make an enormous contribution in his first season.

Wachtler and Monaco started all 10 games their sophomore year and then both earned All-Ivy distinctions after their impressive performances last season. Santoro had an even more remarkable sophomore season, garnering an honorable mention All-Ivy selection, tying for the team lead in interceptions and leading the Ivies in kick return average with 24.6 yards per return. And with eight catches for 115 yards in Saturday’s season opener, Sheffield looks poised to join the group as the Bulldogs’ most recent sophomore standout.

“We have an unusual offense with the two and three tight ends, and John is a little bit of a tweener,” head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “He’s doing it all. The biggest thing with his position is that he has to learn everything. A little bit of wideout stuff, a little bit of tight end stuff.”

Sheffield was originally listed as the backup fullback on the depth chart, perhaps part of the reason why Georgetown was so unprepared for him. He lined up all over the field — splitting time at wide receiver, tight end and fullback — and thoroughly confused the Hoyas on the Bulldogs’ first two possessions. On the Elis’ first drive, they faced a third and seven on the Georgetown 41-yard line. Sheffield lined up as a wide receiver and quarterback Matt Polhemus ’08 found him running down the sideline for a 20-yard completion. The over-the-shoulder grab in traffic, Sheffield’s first career catch, set a precedent for the rest of the game.

“It was good out there,” Sheffield said. “I was here over the summer and I guess [Polhemus and I] developed a good relationship.”

On the Bulldogs’ next scoring drive, the Elis faced a first and 15 on the Georgetown 27 after a false start penalty on Ty Davis ’09. Polhemus dropped back to throw, but the pass fell incomplete in Sheffield’s direction. On the next play, Polhemus again looked to Sheffield, and this time the versatile H-back came down with a key 26-yard completion at the goal line. By the end of the first half, the first-time starter had accounted for seven of Polhemus’ 10 completions and had already surpassed the 100-yard mark. In comparison, Chandler Henley ’07, Yale’s leading receiver last year, finished with 578 yards over the course of 10 games.

Although Sheffield has shown that he can catch, his role as H-back — a role which has become increasingly popular in the NFL due to players such as Dallas Clark and Chris Cooley — requires him to learn the intricacies of three different positions. Sheffield must learn to run precise routes, chip blitzing linebackers and cornerbacks, and provide the lead block for the running back.

“For me, blocking has been the most difficult,” Sheffield said. “Specifically, interior blocking.”

Sheffield also serves as the quarterback’s first outlet when a play breaks down. On a key play during the first quarter against Georgetown, the Bulldogs faced second down with six yards to go on the Georgetown 30-yard line. Polhemus rolled out of the pocket and Sheffield was open after releasing to the flat. Sheffield’s presence held the cornerback and safety, and Polhemus tucked the ball in and picked up eight yards for the first down. Two plays later, Mike McLeod ’09 punched the ball in from the 1-yard line for a 14-0 lead.

Although everyone else at the game was surprised by the sophomore tight end’s impressive performance, Polhemus predicted big things for Sheffield before the season began.

“I think that John Sheffield will contribute greatly to this team,” Polhemus said the week before the Georgetown game. “He has great hands, runs crisp routes and can make catches in traffic. Expect to be hearing his name a lot.”

Heading into the season, the Bulldogs’ biggest questions were at wide receiver and the offensive line. Based on last Saturday’s game, the Elis appear to have found an answer for at least one of the positions.

The Bulldogs began Ivy League play this Saturday against Cornell at the Yale Bowl.

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