Running back Alex Thomas ’12 came to preseason with a new biceps tattoo: his nickname, Train.
Tattoos are not new for the Eli star, who had his initials inked on his arms a few years ago. But Thomas’ new tattoo is not his most original, wide receiver Gio Christodoulou ’12 joked after practice on Aug. 21. Christodoulou had his senior society tattooed on his biceps last year, and laughed that Thomas was merely copying his inspired idea.
Whatever the true motivation of Thomas’ body art, the joking argument underscores the chemistry and experience that this year’s football team hopes will help lead it to an Ivy League title. The Elis will be charged with beating Harvard for the first time since 2006 and building on last season’s second-place Ivy League finish. The team returns with most of its starters and, after two full seasons under head coach Tom Williams, players say they are fully versed in his systems and style.
“Guys are used to Coach’s systems now, and it shows,” captain and linebacker Jordan Haynes ’12 said. “We’re light years ahead of where we were at this time last year.”
Williams also emphasizes the team’s steady, year-by-year progression since his debut season in 2009. That team, led by a tandem of inexperienced quarterbacks including then-sophomore Patrick Witt ’12, stumbled to a 2–5 Ivy League record. Last year’s Elis turned that record around, and finished 5–2 in the Ancient Eight.
This season, the team has ordered T-shirts with the words “Armed and Dangerous” printed across the back. Williams said that, in the past, he has told his players that opposing teams should have to arm themselves against Yale football. Now, however, he believes that it is the Bulldogs who are armed, dangerous and ready to pursue an Ivy League championship.
The Yale attack, which returns its top two rushers, top two receivers and starting quarterback, will certainly be dangerous. But so will many other Ivy League offenses. Penn, Harvard and Brown — which joined Yale in the top half of the league standings last season — also return their starting quarterback. Still, Williams is betting on Witt.
“We’ve given Witt the keys to the car,” Williams said. “His first year, he was learning the system. His second year, we gave him more responsibility. And this third year, we’re throwing him into full control.”
Witt, who threw for 2216 yards, 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in nine games last season, will receive plenty of help running the NFL-style passing game that Williams has installed. The veteran quarterback will be able to look on every play for Christodoulou and Chris Smith ’13, who combined for 84 catches and 1015 yards last season.
Neither seems to have slowed down since then. Christodoulou, who is taking advantage of a medical redshirt in order to return for a fifth season, spent the summer in New Haven training with a group of other Elis. Smith was all over the field in the team’s first full-contact practices, even diving backward on one of the last plays of Sunday’s session to catch a pass that had been tipped well off-course by a linebacker.
Christodoulou said that his years of starting alongside Witt have created impressive chemistry.
“This is the third year we’ve played together, and it shows,” he said. “You come out of the break, and as soon as you’ve turned for the ball it’s in your arms.”
Some of Witt’s passes will also go to Deon Randall ’14, who was a sensation as a rookie. The versatile speedster can line up as a receiver or a back or even behind center in wildcat formations, and was productive in each role last fall.
Though Randall touched the ball more and more each game in 2010, Williams said that the coaching staff decided after reviewing game tapes this summer that they had not given him the ball enough. This year, Randall could average as many as 25 touches a game.
“He’s a weapon we have on the field,” Williams said. “We have to try to get him the ball as often as we can, wherever we can.”
When Randall is not lining up in the backfield, running backs Thomas and Mordecai Cargill ’13 will look to pound the ball up the middle. Thomas, who rushed 163 times for 710 yards in 2010, said he has gained weight and speed since last November. Cargill, who carried 59 times for 290 yards, was slowed by a knee injury last season but has showed no lingering effects in preseason except braces on both knees.
The Eli offense should be dangerous this season because of all its returning skill players, said cornerback Geoff Dunham ’12, who has to defend against Witt’s passes in practice, on Aug. 19. But a big question mark remains at center, where the graduation of Jake Koury ’11 has left a glaring hole.
Although Jeff Fell ’12 started some games at center last season, he has quit the team, leaving the Elis without a single snap of game experience at the vital position. Yale will likely count on John Oppenheimer ’14, who began playing center during spring practice fewer than four months ago, to organize the offensive line.
The linemen on either side of Oppenheimer all return from last year, and so Williams said he is confident that Witt will receive more protection than last year, and thus make fewer mistakes.
Witt’s teammates expressed confidence that their quarterback would flourish this season.
“Everyone is looking to him to take charge,” Thomas said. “He expects success on every play, and you need to have that someone to demand success and results.”
Yale will benefit from veteran leadership on the other side of the ball as well. Six of the team’s starting front seven are returning — the notable exception being former captain and lineman Tom McCarthy ’11. And although the team suffered losses in the secondary, Dunham said he thinks the team has four cornerbacks who are good enough to start.
“This has the chance to be an elite defense,” Williams said. “We’ll be disappointed if we don’t finish in the top two in [defense].”
Haynes, a linebacker and the team’s leading tackler last season, will lead a defensive eleven that was known for big plays last season. It took both a interception and a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter to give Yale a last-second victory over Dartmouth in October, while a Dunham fumble recovery for a touchdown led Yale to a one-point win over Princeton in November.
But Williams expects consistency when he speaks of a top-two defense, and that consistency should come from experience. Defensive coordinator Ikaika Malloe rotated his linemen often last year, and so the team should have enough experienced underclassmen to fill the hole left by McCarthy.
Among those linemen who Williams said are likely to begin to see regular playing time are Reed Spiller ’12 and Pat Moran ’12.
After almost every game last season, Williams — a former special teams coach — tried to explain his special teams’ struggles. In the Elis’ season-opener against Georgetown, they had two field goal attempts blocked and gave up a kickoff return touchdown.
In The Game, Harvard began the second half with a kickoff return touchdown and added another soon after blocking a punt deep in Eli territory.
“In my mind, as a special teams coach, those are the reasons we lost,” Williams said in reference to special teams mistakes in each of his team’s three losses last year. “And that’s not even to mention the field goal opportunities we missed.”
Last year’s kicker, punter and long snapper return, and their experience might mean fewer mistakes. So might the presence at preseason camp of two newly-recruited kickers, who will be ready to take over from a struggling teammate at a moment’s notice — just as kicker Phillippe Panico ’13 and punter Greg Carlsen ’14 did last year.
Though special teams execution remains one of the biggest question marks facing the team, Yale can count on a stable of dynamic kick returners of its own. Smith — who returned two consecutive kickoffs for touchdowns at Brown last season — Christodoulou and Randall all threaten to make opponents’ special teams units look like Yale’s did last year.
Yale will host Dean College in a scrimmage on Sept. 10 before kicking off its season against Georgetown on Sept. 17.