With preseason camp around the corner, expectations are high as the Yale football team heads into its 145th season. The Elis leapt into the offseason with plenty of momentum after beating Harvard in the 2016 season finale for the first time in 10 years. But four 20-plus point losses in 2016 leave doubts for the year ahead. The Bulldogs must contend with many of the same challenges that perplexed them last season, from injuries to inconsistency at quarterback. Down The Field breaks down the questions that will make or break Team 145:
Will Rawlings build on a strong end to 2016?
After impressing head coach Tony Reno during spring practice, quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 was named the starter heading into the 2017 season. Rawlings emerged down the stretch last season after taking limited snaps in Yale’s first six games. Leading a season-defining victory over Harvard, the then-freshman accounted for 205 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in the 21–14 season-ending win.
However, it remains to be seen whether the second-year signal caller can maintain the level of play that brought the Bulldogs their first win in the Game since 2006 for all 10 games this season. Rawlings threw for five touchdowns and just two interceptions in Yale’s final four games in 2016. Last year’s leading passer the pro-style quarterback, is also a rushing threat capable of improvising when the pocket collapses and moving the chains on designed runs. Still, 2016 was a limited sample size for Rawlings with the quarterback attempting just 140 passes.
If Rawlings struggles, Reno will have a pair of upperclassmen with multiple starts under their belts to come off the bench, though Rafe Chapple ’18 is recovering from an injury to his throwing shoulder and Tre Moore ’19 is 1–4 in games in which he attempted at least 25 passes.
Who will step up at linebacker?
The Eli defense’s biggest hole comes up the middle at linebacker. Yale has big shoes to fill with the graduation of captain Darius Manora ’17 and four-star recruit Victor Egu ’17; the two combined for 307 tackles in their Yale careers and were both consistent starters on the Eli defense. The rugged and gritty Manora did not miss a game in his four-year career.
Head coach Tony Reno and defensive coordinator Sean McGowan will not have much time to find replacements to anchor the center of their defense and set the tone for the season. Linebacker Matt Oplinger ’18, who played in every game last season and is consistently one of the team’s top performers in the weight room, will have to set the tone as the most experienced player at the position.
Yale will turn to its youth to maintain its traditionally strong run defense and get pressure on opposing quarterbacks off the blitz. Linebackers Quintin Herbert ’19 and Ryan Burke ’20 played valuable minutes last season and will have to grow quickly to replace the graduating seniors. Also look for three-star recruit AJ Ryan ’21 to provide the blue-chip juice at outside linebacker after losing Egu.
Will the receivers stay healthy this summer?
In its 2016 campaign, Yale ranked last in the Ivy League in scoring offense, total offense, passing offense and passing efficiency, largely because of injuries at the wide receiver position.
A quartet of wideouts — Bo Hines ’18, Ross Drwal ’18, Michael Siragusa Jr. ’18 and Christopher Williams-Lopez ’18 — suffered season-ending injuries early on that hampered the Bulldog offense as it looked to find its footing under a new quarterback. Players such as Hines, a freshman All-American at North Carolina State, and Williams-Lopez, who led all Bulldogs with 60 receptions for 576 yards in 2015, will give the Elis a senior-laden and experienced receiving corps ripe with emerging talent such as Reed Klubnik ’20 and JP Shohfi ’20, assuming these upperclassmen can stay healthy.
Yale’s dynamic group of receivers has the potential to be the best in the Ancient Eight and could pose nightmares for opposing secondaries if it manages to avoid preseason setbacks.
Will four seniors start in the secondary?
Yale’s most vulnerable unit in 2016 might just be its strongest this season if it also stays healthy. The Bulldogs may field an entirely senior secondary this year, will all four defensive backs playing throughout their tenure in New Haven.
Captain Spencer Rymiszewski ’18 leads the unit after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury. During his junior year, the last time the captain put on shoulder pads, he was named first-team All-Ivy. A lockdown cornerback, Rymiszewski can eliminate the receiver he is covering for a full game or shut down an entire side of the field.
But the other three pieces complementing Rymiszewski in the defensive backfield make the unit a force to be reckoned this year. Jason Alessi ’18 will likely start at cornerback opposite the captain. The Michigan native’s elite speed makes him hard to beat, but if an opposing wideout found his way past Alessi, he would have to contend with Yale’s hard-hitting, veteran safeties. Hayden Carlson ’18 has led the Elis in tackles each of the last two years, ranking first in the Ivy League his sophomore season. At 6-foot-2 and 219 pounds, Foye Oluokun ’18 has dished out plenty of pain in his time at Yale, and will likely round out a secondary that has played a combined 115 games for the Bulldogs.