This story is part of the Yale football 2017 season preview issue. For a preview, click here. To read about quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20, click here, and for a feature on defensive back Hayden Carlson ’18, click here. To read about Yale’s receivers, click here

Gone are the days in which opponents will put up 500-plus yards and drop 50 points on the Yale football team — at least, if you ask the Bulldog secondary.

The Yale football team returns a talented and veteran secondary in 2017, which has the potential to be a positional strength for Team 145 in its pursuit of an Ivy League Championship. Though passing defense was an area of concern for the Elis last season, as they finished at the bottom of the Ancient Eight in terms of yards and touchdowns allowed, the unit improved over the final three games. That, plus the return of All-Ivy cornerback and captain Spencer Rymiszewski ’18, sets up the defensive backfield for a much better season.

“From a defensive standpoint I think we have a ton of leadership across the board, from the defensive front to the secondary,” Rymiszewski said. “We play fast, we play physical and we want to attack people.”

The Yale defense struggled from the outset last season, as it allowed either 300 yards passing or three touchdown passes in each of the first seven games and averaged 326 yards and 3.8 touchdowns allowed per contest. However, those numbers improved dramatically over the last three games of the season, as the Bulldog defense only surrendered 185 yards and 0.6 scores per contest during that stretch — both of which would have been league-bests, if extrapolated across an entire season.

Building on the improvements made at the end of the season will make Yale’s defense much less vulnerable. Keeping games as low scoring affairs may prove vital, since Team 145 will likely not boast the type of high-octane offense, such that of Princeton or Penn, which would keep the team competitive in shootouts.

While the team graduated renaissance man Dale Harris ’17 — who excelled at cornerback, running back and special teams — the return of Rymiszewski from injury will be a huge boost for the unit if he regains his former form. In 2015, the West Chester, Pennsylvania, native shone as one of the best defenders in the league: for his efforts, he earned first-team All-Ivy honors and was named most valuable player of Team 143 by his coaches.

According to Rymiszewski, he believes that the past year may have actually helped his development.

“I used to just watch film,” the captain said. “Now I get to analyze it and get a better understanding of what’s happening from the offensive standpoint. You see things a little bit slower, which allows you to play faster.”

The Bulldogs will also return their two leading tacklers and last year’s starting safeties in Hayden Carlson ’18 and Foye Oluokun ’18. Carlson was one of the top defensive playmakers in the league last season, as he recorded four interceptions along with two fumble recoveries. In a secondary riddled with injuries, the senior was a consistent force: he played in all 10 games, and his 9.5 tackles were atop the team and third in the conference. He led the league in tackles the season prior, as a sophomore.

Oluokun — a second-team All-Ivy player in his first-year — played safety alongside Carlson for much of the 2016 season and finished second on the team in tackles with 8.3 a game. He often played close to the line of scrimmage, and occasionally at linebacker. Oloukun is now listed as a linebacker on the team roster as opposed to a defensive back, which may be a response to the loss of two starting linebackers: former captain Darius Manora ’17 and Victor Egu ’17.

“We’re really a 4–2–5, meaning we have four down linemen, two inside linebackers, and five defensive backs,” head coach Tony Reno said. “In our base defense … Foye, Hayden and Jason Alessi ’18 are all safeties. So all three of them will spend time down at the second level as outside linebackers, and they’ll also spend time at the third level.”

Along with Carlson and Oloukun, Alessi will factor into the secondary at multiple positions. Alessi saw time at cornerback and safety last season, and was named a second-team All-Ivy player for his performance as returner on special teams. Defensively, he finished atop the Ivy League in passes defended in 2016 — Carlson finished third — and was chosen as the team’s most valuable player. A two-sport athlete, Alessi’s athleticism and versatility will be invaluable to the secondary this fall.

There are several other players who will factor into the defensive backfield this season, one of whom is cornerback Marquise Peggs ’19. Listed as a starter last year, Peggs was limited to half the season due to injuries. With Alessi in the role of safety, Peggs is a strong candidate to start opposite Rymiszewski. Additionally, Jaelin Alburg ’20 and Malcolm Dixon ’20 also saw significant playing time at corner last year.

“The growth that Dixon and Alburg really made during the season to perform at a much different level at the end of the season was largely because of [Rymiszewski],” Reno said.

Defending the aerial attack does not come down to just the defensive backs, however, as it is a responsibility which is coordinated amongst all three levels of the defense. Specifically, a strong pass rush — which Yale might just have in 2017 — is often just as beneficial to a pass defense as good coverage in the secondary. Putting pressure on the quarterback and limiting the time he has to find a receiver can mask some coverage deficiencies.

That said, the Bulldogs do not need to finish atop the league in pass defense in order to have a successful season. In fact, the passing game — both offensively and defensively — may pale in comparison to controlling the running game.

The first test for the Bulldog secondary will be one of the toughest: Lehigh threw for 524 yards and six touchdowns last season against the Elis, en route to a 63–35 win.

Sebastian Kupchaunis | sebastian.kupchaunis@yale.edu