Robbie Short

This story is part of the Yale football 2017 season preview issue. For a feature on Yale’s defense, 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

In 2014 and 2012, it was a heartbreaker. In 2015 and 2013, it was a blowout. And in 2016, it was a shocker.

A Yale football season is, for better or for worse, defined by the scoreline of its final game. Win or lose in weeks one through nine, the only result that anyone other than the most serious fans will remember is that of The Game.

In his first four attempts to topple the rival Crimson, Yale football head coach Tony Reno was unable to muster a victory, suffering a mix of close losses and blowouts, much to the chagrin of Eli supporters. Last season, things seemed to be headed the same way as a 2–7 Bulldog squad rolled into Cambridge.

But to nearly everyone’s surprise, an inexperienced but resilient team stunned Harvard behind trick plays and stellar play from first-year stars, closing a disappointing season on a high note.

Now at the start of the following season, few people remember the dismal start to Yale’s 2016 season while many are quick to mention the Bulldogs’ triumph. Over the next 10 weeks, the Bulldogs will look to show that their win was not a fluke. Team 145 boasts a deep reservoir of talented players but will have to address the losses of several graduated or injured standouts. Loaded with veterans at many positions, the team is exceedingly young at others.

Ultimately, Yale enters the season with not only momentum from last year’s victory in The Game, but also room for improvement after a disappointing 2016 record.

“Wins help build, losses help reflect,” head coach Tony Reno said. “Guys were able to build on the fact that they had success in the last game, and that carried us in the offseason. What it did for Team 145 is it made them hungry.”

First years carried the Bulldogs in the last game against Harvard; Yale’s quarterback, running back and leading receiver in The Game were all rookies. Each demonstrated his skill down the stretch last season, with quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 throwing an almost flawless game against the Crimson and running back Alan Lamar ’20 earning Second-Team All-Ivy honors despite playing sparingly in Yale’s first three games.

Injuries propelled many of those rookies prematurely into the starting lineup. Rawlings may not have taken a snap if Rafe Chapple ’18 had not torn his rotator cuff; Lamar would not have lined up behind his fellow rookie had an injury-plagued defense not forced two-way player Dale Harris ’17 to migrate back from the offense to the secondary. Receivers Reed Klubnik ’20 and JP Shohfi ’20 would have been just names on the Yale depth chart had the top three receivers in front of them not gone down.

Nevertheless, these injuries gave numerous rookies an opportunity to showcase their talent. Rawlings threw for three touchdowns in his first true game against Columbia while Lamar racked up 180 yards in his backfield debut against Dartmouth. By season’s end, rookies were leading the Yale attack from nearly all points: offensive line, backfield, receiving corps and even quarterback.

“From an offensive standpoint, I think we’re pretty young but have a lot of talent,” captain and cornerback Spencer Rymiszewski ’18 said.

While the injury bug provided opportunities for the now-sophomores to gain experience, it has now turned on them. Lamar’s season-ending ACL injury only adds more questions to the unproven team, as does Bo Hines ’18, likely to have been Rawlings’ most reliable target, retiring from football for medical reasons.

According to Reno, Team 145 is the most experienced team he has coached at Yale, despite the large role that sophomores play on the depth chart. And although the team may not be composed of veterans, Reno described his newest squad as cohesive.

“You know, I tell these guys I’ve had a lot of fun coaching at Yale, but so far I’ve never had this much fun in the preseason,” Reno said.

Still, all of this optimism will be for naught if it does not translate to results on the gridiron. Yale returns proven players all over the field that must return to top form if the Elis hope to make noise in the Ivy League. From Rymiszewski and former first-team All-Ivy defensive lineman Copache Tyler ’18 on the defense to right tackle Jon Bezney ’18 and a trio of senior wideouts on the offense, there are plenty of Bulldogs itching to get back into action after injuries last season.

At the end of the day, the 2017 season will hinge on how well these returning contributors will be able to mesh with the young upstarts that have produced in their absence. Both youth and rust will surely play a part in the early season; however, the Elis’ ability to adapt to these challenges will be of utmost importance come season’s start.

Saturday will mark the beginning of Reno’s sixth season at the helm of Yale football.

Sebastian Kupchaunis contributed reporting.

Won Jungwon.jung@yale.edu | @won_jung_ 

Matthew Mistermatthew.mister@yale.edu | @matthewmister19