The night before the football season opener at Georgetown in September, each freshman on the travel team received a phone call in his hotel room.
For wide receiver Chris Smith ’13, a New Haven Register reporter was supposedly on the line. For tailback Mordecai Cargill ’13, it was a Cleveland Sun writer.
Or so they were both led to believe.
“They were asking me the most ridiculous questions and trying to make me say dumb stuff,” Smith said. “They were asking me if I think that I’m better than [fellow receiver and kick/punt returner Gio Christodoulou ’11].”
But Cargill’s roommate that night had warned him about the call.
“I just gave them the most crazy answers,” he said. “I said that I wasn’t a running back anymore and that I was now the backup kicker.”
In recent years, it has become a tradition that upperclassmen prank call freshmen who have made the travel team, and that was exactly what happened to Cargill and Smith.
While this tradition for freshmen has stayed strong, on the field one convention was broken on the football team this year.
For years, under former head coach Jack Siedlecki, the football team’s freshmen — with the exceptions of star tailback Mike McLeod ’09 and linebacker Bobby Abare ’09 — had to wait at least a year before they could see significant playing time at the varsity level.
But this changed once head coach Tom Williams took the reins this season.
“I’m not sure what the norm was,” Williams said. “I just knew that we were going to play our best football players, and I told that to the team last year before the freshmen even came in.”
During preseason camp, Williams held true to his word, adding multiple freshmen — including Cargill, Smith, fullback Jordan Capellino ’13, tight end Jordan Jefferson ’13, offensive lineman Jeff Marrs ’13, linebacker Allen Davis ’13 and defensive back Russell Perkins ’13 — to the travel squad for the season opener at Georgetown.
Cargill and Smith each received playing time during Yale’s 31–10 win. Cargill had 11 carries for 36 yards, and Smith caught two passes for 29 yards.
“Our special teams coach put me as the backup punt returner to [Christodoulou],” Smith said. “He went down [during] the game, and I knew they were going to put me in for him as returner. But I didn’t know that I was also his backup as wideout.”
Cargill has played in all nine games this season, leading the team with 236 rushing yards. Smith injured his hip against Penn on Oct. 24, but he caught 18 passes for 233 yards in six games.
The two have each scored one touchdown — Yale’s two longest offensive touchdowns of the season.
Against Dartmouth, Smith caught a short pass over the middle from quarterback Brook Hart ’11. Smith found open ground and ran untouched for the 73-yard touchdown.
Cargill’s score came in a similar fashion. Two weeks ago against Brown, he caught a screen pass across the middle from quarterback Patrick Witt ’12 and ran the rest of the way for the 41-yard score.
Although Cargill and Smith have found similar success on the field, their individual journeys to becoming Bulldogs were very different.
When Williams took the coaching job last January, the previous administration had already made a list of target recruits. Smith was near the top of that list, and what Williams saw of him on film confirmed what others had said about the wideout from Midlothian, Va.
“I thought he was like a smaller version of [New England Patriots wide receiver] Wes Welker when I watched him on tape,” Williams said. “The way his high school used him as a receiver in the slot, he was able to work against linebackers, get himself open, and he had enough quickness and maneuverability to take it to the house.”
After speaking with Smith and his mother, Williams was impressed and extended an offer, which Smith accepted.
But unlike Smith, Cargill was nowhere to be found on the recruiting list that greeted Williams last winter. Instead, Williams found Cargill on his own, making the tailback from Cleveland one of his first true recruits.
“Mordecai was recommended to me by a friend of mine in the coaching profession — Ted Ginn Sr., who is Ted Ginn Jr.’s father and the head football coach at [Cargill’s high school],” Williams said. “He called me and said that he had a guy who he thought had fallen through the cracks. I had just gotten the job, so I told him that I thought we could maybe work something out.”
Williams was impressed with what he saw on film and with Cargill’s academic transcript, and went on to offer Cargill one of the final places on the team.
“He’s got a knack for the game, especially a knack for being a runner,” tailback Rodney Reynolds ’10 said of Cargill. “He’s one of those guys that’s going to be real good.”
Although both freshmen found it difficult at first to adjust to the complexities of the college game, they said support from their upperclassmen teammates was important in learning the playbook and schemes. Smith said backup quarterback Rich Scudellari ’10 and wide receiver Reid Lathan ’10 were especially helpful with helping him learn the playbook.
Although it is still relatively rare for freshmen to get playing time, Williams said some freshmen arrive ready because of the preparation they have had in high school.
“I think nowadays training for football is a year-round proposition in high school, but it didn’t used to be that way,” Williams said. “A guy is more physically and mentally prepared to play in college than he used to be 10 or 15 years ago.”
In all, about a dozen freshmen have been on the travel roster at some point during the season.
Cargill, for one, added that he did not expect to get as much playing time as he has, but he does agree that it was his preparation over the summer and during his time at Glenville High School — an Ohio football powerhouse — that helped him to earn his spot on the roster.
“Getting this much playing time was a pleasant surprise, but at the same time I’d been preparing for a while,” Cargill said.
With the performances they have already had this season, it seems the days of prank phone calls are long gone for these two.
For more Harvard-Yale coverage, visit yaledailynews.com/thegame.