Matthew Stock

The summer of 2016 found recent high school graduate Kurt Rawlings ’20 in a familiar place: his family gym. Under the guidance of his father Keith, the head football coach at Rawling’s alma mater in Bel Air, Maryland, Rawlings spent hours going through his progressions, practicing throws and preparing for his debut as a collegiate athlete.

For a two-week stint, Rawlings was joined in training by fellow recruit Sterling Strother ’20, and over the course of the offensive lineman’s stay, the two incoming first years bonded over football and their shared future. Unsure about what New Haven held for them but hopeful that football would help them find their footing, the teammates prepared for their rookie season as Strother repeatedly snapped the ball to Rawlings.

Little did they know that just over a year later, they would find themselves back in this familiar place. Come Saturday afternoon, Rawlings will line up behind Strother yet again, waiting for a snap — but instead of the friendly confines of his family gym, the sophomore quarterback will find himself in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, starting under center in Yale’s 2017 season opener against Lehigh.

“[I was] very lucky to be named the starter, but there’s always competition,” Rawlings said. “[I’m] just making sure I’m always at my best in the offseason, just making sure I can prepare myself to come in and do what the coaches expect of me. We like to say we have high expectations for the season, and [if we] just stay focused on what we want to do, I think we can be a really good team this year.”

Rawlings came to campus last season ready to compete for playing time but failed to see meaningful minutes until the seventh game of the season against Columbia. Still, as he sat behind quarterbacks Rafe Chapple ’18 and Tre Moore ’19 watching the Elis sputter to a 1–5 start to the season, Rawlings remained prepared. When his number was finally called, the pro-style quarterback was more than ready for the spotlight.

Head coach Tony Reno brought Rawlings into the game against Columbia at the start of the second quarter and has started him since. The quarterback led the Bulldogs to a 31–23 victory over the Lions with a three-touchdown performance, and although his play in subsequent losses to Brown and Princeton regressed slightly, Rawlings ended the 2016 season on a high note with a victory over Harvard in Cambridge.

Now months removed from his end-of-season heroics, the now-sophomore has proven to be more than a one-hit wonder during spring and preseason ball, according to captain and cornerback Spencer Rymiszewski ’18. Though he is still young and relatively inexperienced, Rawlings is poised to further elevate his game this season both as a player and a leader.

“Kurt really grew up and realized that being the point guard of the offense is so important, [more so than] trying to be the shooting guard at quarterback,” Reno said. “He’s really emerged as a leader on offense [in] the way he handles himself, the way he prepares, the way he practices [and] the way he is with his teammates; he’s a guy that will put himself last every single day that we get out there and put everyone else first.”

In his four games as Yale’s primary passer, during which the team went 2–2, Rawlings completed 51 percent of his pass attempts for an average of 10.4 yards per completion. In addition to compiling 699 yards through the air, the then-rookie showed off his running ability, amassing 120 combined rushing yards in the Bulldogs’ wins over Columbia and the Crimson. The quarterback demonstrated strong decision making in the pocket with five touchdowns to just two interceptions, both of which came in the same game.

This season, Rawlings will look to continue this multi-dimensional attack with a deep receiving core that returns his favorite target from last season in wide receiver Reed Klubnik ’20. The duo connected 22 times over the season-ending four-game stretch, nearly twice as much as Rawlings did with the next closest receiver, JP Shohfi ’20.

Moreover, several veteran receiving options are set to return this season after battling injuries in 2016; according to Reno, wideouts Ross Drwal ’18, Michael Siragusa Jr. ’18, and Christopher Williams-Lopez ’18 will all see time out wide and in the slot after combining for just 28 catches all season last year.

In the backfield, a season-ending injury to second-team All-Ivy running back Alan Lamar ’20 will leave the burden for running back Deshawn Salter ’18 and a pair of first-year contributors in Zane Dudek ’21 and Andrew Grinde ’21. However, Rawlings may also be able to help out in read-option schemes and scramble situations.

In many ways, the stage has been set for Rawlings to take off from where he ended last season. Though only a sophomore, teammates believe that his blend of maturity and skill leaves the Yale offense in trustworthy hands for 2017.

“Kurt carries himself as if he’s a senior,” Rymiszewski said. “He’s going to be the man for the offense; he’s done a great job this offseason, and we’re really excited about him.”

Rawlings currently sits atop the Bulldogs’ depth chart at quarterback. According to Reno, Moore and quarterback Patrick Conte ’21 are still vying for the No. 2 position.

Won Jungwon.jung@yale.edu | @won_jung_