FOOTBALL | Sophomore Bulldogs boost squad

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Photo by Zoe Gorman.

Against Cornell, in his second game as a starter, Nick Okano ’14 made one of the most spectacular plays the Bulldogs will see this season.

On the fourth play of the opening drive, an unblocked Wes Moyer ’12 charged into the backfield and quickly closed in on quarterback Jeff Mathews. The Big Red’s signal caller forced a throw downfield that traveled well beyond the reach of his receiver.

But as the ball passed by Okano, the sophomore contorted his upper body and grabbed it with his hands behind him. The interception helped to set up the Elis’ first touchdown of the game.

Okano is part of a talented sophomore class that has been integral to the football team’s success — especially on offense — this season. Nine different members of the class of 2014 have started on game day for the Bulldogs, while others have made their way to the top of the depth chart at their respective positions.

“The sophomores are key contributors [to the team] because we have guys who are smart, mature and [who] love playing football,” tailback Deon Randall ’14 said.

Randall, named one of the top freshman players last year, has become a central component of Yale’s explosive offense. The shifty back’s speed and versatility impressed his coaches, who reviewed tapes of his playing during the offseason and decided to give the ball to him more often when calling plays this season.

After three games, Randall is off to a flying start. The speedster leads the team with 14 receptions and is ranked fourth in the Ivy League with an average of 109.7 all-purpose yards per game.

Randall’s athletic ability was put on display when the Bulldogs squared off against Lehigh. With the Bulldogs trailing 10–0 in the second quarter, Randall leaped into the air, fought off two Mountain Hawks defenders, and nabbed a 38-yard pass from quarterback Patrick Witt ’12.

Witt said Randall is an asset to the team because of his versatility on the field.

“Deon is so valuable because we can use him in multiple ways: as a receiver, a running back and even a wildcat quarterback,” Witt said. “[He] forces defense to locate him on every play and reduces the amount of attention paid to our other skill players.”

Randall is not the only sophomore to have moved up on the depth chart this season.

Often lining up alongside Randall, wide receiver Cameron Sandquist ’14 is continuing what he does best — reaching the end zone.

Though the wideout has only six career receptions, he scored touchdowns on three of them. Sandquist’s touchdown reception against Cornell two weeks ago helped to keep the Bulldogs one step ahead of a surging Big Red offense. He attributed much of his scoring success to playing mostly in red zone situations, where he is one of Witt’s top targets.

“My goal coming in as a freshman and again as a sophomore was just to find a niche on the team where I can contribute and get on field,” Sandquist said in an email to the News.

When Chris Smith ’13 was sidelined last game with an injured hamstring, Sandquist started in his place for the first time.

The Blue and White’s young offensive line has held its own against older and more experienced defenders and has proved a vital part of the team.

Center John Oppenheimer ’14 has “played like a veteran” in a position he had not played before, Witt said. Originally recruited as a defensive lineman, Oppenheimer switched to offense after last winter, when head coach Tom Williams asked him to fill in for All-Ivy center Jake Koury ’11.

“I didn’t know that I was going to start until our scrimmage [against] Dean College,” Oppenheimer said in an email. “It felt amazing because I had accomplished what I had been working so hard all year for.”

The six-foot 265-pounder spent much of the offseason watching films of the team’s past games and learning the playbook from offensive line coach Mike Preston and from veteran guards Gabe Fernandez ’12 and Colin Kruger ’12.

Oppenheimer is responsible for calling blocking assignments against every defensive scheme thrown at the team. The offensive line allowed just a single sack against Witt in its first two games. By comparison, the team gave up an average of 1.8 sacks per game last year.

After starting nine games on the offensive line his freshman year, left tackle Wes Gavin ’14, who attended Francis Parker School with Randall, was put in charge of protecting Witt’s blind side.

But Gavin and Oppenheimer have also struggled occasionally. The Bulldogs surrendered four sacks against Lehigh, and a first-quarter penalty against Gavin negated a touchdown run by Alex Thomas ’12 that would have put the Elis ahead. The Mountain Hawks also created turnovers by blitzing through the center of the offensive line.

Fernandez, a third-year starter, said that Gavin and Oppenheimer have stepped up by learning from their mistakes.

“[Gavin] and [Oppenheimer] have put in the time and work to learn the ins and outs of the position,” he said. “Of course, they are not perfect from time to time, however, they take their mistakes and … fix them so they don’t happen again.”

While players such as Randall, Sandquist, Gavin and Oppenheimer may dominate the stat sheets and the highlight reels, other sophomores are filling in critical positions left empty by graduated players.

Taking the place of tight end Chris Blohm ’11, Kyle Wittenauer ’14 has split time on the field with Beau Palin ’14. Unlike Blohm — whose role was primarily as a blocker — Witt said he expects Wittenauer to catch more passes.

“Having bigger guys like [Blohm] in the past years allowed us to pound the ball a little more,” Witt said. “With Kyle, we think we have a legitimate vertical threat that can strech the field.”

Another critical void on the roster was created by the departure of fullback Shane Bannon ’11, who was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the seventh round of this year’s National Football League draft.

But Alex Thomas ’12 said that Elijah Thomas ’14 and Keith Coty ’14 will be able to take on Bannon’s role as a blocker for other players. Elijah Thomas has started all three games this season at fullback, and Coty has already caught four passes.

So far, the performances of these four sophomores have impressed their teammates.

“[Tight end and fullback] are both very difficult positions that are integral elements of our offense,” Alex Thomas said. “I have tremendous respect for each of them as they have helped [to] define the success of our offense with their physical play.”

The Bulldogs will take on Dartmouth this Saturday at the Yale Bowl at noon.

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