Yale football head coach Jack Siedlecki and defensive coordinator Rick Flanders will have to rely heavily on several unknowns this season if they hope to see the Bulldog defense repeat as the stingiest in the Ivy League.
Unfortunately for the defensive corps, four starters and eight additional regulars graduated last May, leaving many holes in the defense. The Elis lost three quarters of their starting secondary, which accounted for half of the team’s 20 interceptions last season. Six of Yale’s seven leading tacklers also graduated, further eroding the Bulldogs’ defensive depth.
Still, several veterans return, giving the Elis experienced performers around the defense.
Here is a position by position breakdown of the 2001 Yale defense:
The interior part of the defensive line was hit particularly hard by the graduation of starting tackles Peter Maloney ’01 and Terrance Hobson ’01. Junior Jason Lange ’03 will lead the inexperienced group, having recorded 22 tackles in significant playing time last season. Juniors Andy Kagan ’03 and Luke Mraz ’03 will help solidify the middle part of the line, with help from Justin Siegel ’02 and captain Tim Penna ’02. While acknowledging the group’s relative inexperience, Siedlecki is confident that they can get the job done.
“We run very well up front,” Siedlecki said. “We have a good pass rush and very good team pursuit. The defensive line is a position of least strength at most Ivy League schools, but it’s a position of real strength for us.”
The strength of the Eli line lies at the end position, where both starters return. Stuart Satullo ’03 led the Ivy League with nine sacks last year and fellow junior Mark Patterson ’03 posted 30 tackles. While Satullo and Patterson combine to form one of the league’s most formidable defensive end tandems, a lack of depth is a cause for concern.
The linebacker corps suffered the greatest loss in the off-season. The graduation of starters Peter Mazza ’01 and Chris Eger ’01 — who combined for 179 tackles last season — and the retirement of Bill Thompson ’02 as the result of a neck injury suffered last fall at Dartmouth, means that Siedlecki will need to rely on an inexperienced crew this season.
Jeff White ’02 is the only linebacker with varsity experience, and Kenneth Estrera ’04 will also be thrust into a starting role despite seeing only limited action in four varsity contests during his rookie season.
Fellow sophomore Tate Rich ’04, who turned heads with his aggressive play in the Union scrimmage will also see plenty of action. Siedlecki said that four or five players are competing for the final spot in the linebacker rotation.
The defensive backs are the strength of the Bulldog defense. Despite the loss of safety Than Merrill ’01, the Bulldogs have two big playmakers returning in Ryan LoProto ’02 and Barton Simmons ’04.
“Ryan LoProto and Barton Simmons have the potential to be the two best safeties in the league,” Siedlecki said.
LoProto, a tenacious senior from Marrero, La., is one of the hardest hitting safeties in the league. In both the 1999 and 2000 editions of “The Game”, LoProto killed Harvard’s comeback hopes with key interceptions late in the fourth quarter.
“Ryan LoProto plays football the way it was meant to be played,” backup center Will Conroy ’04 said.
Simmons started two games as a freshman, filling in for an injured Merrill. In his first start against Dartmouth, he made 13 tackles and intercepted a pass.
The cornerback spot was also hit heavily by graduation with the loss of Josh Phillips ’01 and Todd Tomich ’01 — Yale’s all-time interception leader. Ray Littleton ’02 was the understudy last fall, and will take a starting position this season. Among returnees, Littleton is second in both tackles and interceptions. The other cornerback spot will be filled by Steve Ehikian ’04, who added 15 pounds in the off-season.
“Steve [Ehikian] did a solid job for us on special teams last year, and though he’s unproven, we think he can perform well at cornerback,” Siedlecki said. Sophomore Greg Owens has been impressive in practice and could push Ehikian for playing time.