It’s hard picking up the pieces.

A year ago, the sky was the limit for the Bulldogs, the Ivy League’s best team according to six of the 14 Ancient Eight writers polled during the preseason. It was Penn, Harvard, and Yale, and then everybody else. But by the end of November, the team with the golden boy quarterback, all-world lineman and record-setting tailback was far worse than the sum of its parts, and 2004 had become a mediocre season punctuated by an embarrassing rainy day in Cambridge.

Still, the ’05 Elis, sans star power, have a lot to be excited about.

The golden boy’s replacement is hardly an Ivy neophyte. Jeff Mroz ’06 quarterbacked Yale for the majority of the 2002 season, and did so well that he was voted team captain despite not playing much since.

“Jeff is the classic drop-back guy,” Yale coach Jack Siedlecki said. “We will have no designed run for Jeff like we did for Alvin [Cowan ’05]. He is an excellent play-action guy and has gotten a great feel for the screen game through the spring and preseason.”

Describing his style of play, the six-foot-five Mroz parried the pervading perception of him as a Dan Marino clone.

“I’m a drop-back passer, but I still can make plays with my feet,” he said. “It’s not like teams can just tee off and blitz. I can make plays.”

Mroz may have to make some plays of his own because Yale’s two leading receivers from last year are gone. Ralph Plumb ’05 and his school-record 195 receptions left with graduation, and Chandler Henley ’06, who hauled in 49 balls for a team-high six touchdowns last year, is likely lost for the season following a broken collarbone sustained in training camp.

To the delight of Mroz and the Yale coaching staff, the replacements have shown flashes of brilliance in preseason and in the team’s scrimmage win over Princeton. Still, none has extensive starting experience. The rangy Ashley Wright ’07 will team with the nifty Todd Feiereisen ’06, a converted quarterback, to form what may be the Ivy League’s most unproven receiver tandem. Chris Denny-Brown ’07, who made his mark last year on kick returns, will provide depth, and Alex Faherty ’06, in his third season as a starter, is a dependable safety valve for the captain.

The competition for the starting job at tailback is similarly muddled, though the emergence of newcomer Mike McLeod ’09 has engendered optimism among the Yale faithful. A speedster with surprising strength, McLeod scored 39 touchdowns last season at New Britain High School. He will share the ball with Jordan Spence ’07, an exceptional pass receiver, as the backs attempt to mitigate the loss of Rob Carr ’05, who gained 1,185 a year ago.

Whoever the back, he is sure to have an able lead blocker. Two-hundred fifty-pound Taylor Craig ’07 excelled at fullback last season – his first as a starter – and may well be the class of the Ivy League at fullback.

“What he does doesn’t show up on the stat sheet,” Mroz said. “When you pick up the paper the next morning you’re never going to see Taylor’s name, but he’s just as valuable as any of the other guys.”

The Paul Bunyan-like Craig won’t do all the blocking himself. Tackle Ed McCarthy ’07 leads a promising, if young, offensive line as it tries to replace last year’s captain and former All-American Rory Hennessey.

“[Against Princeton] we ran the ball well and protected the QB well, so [the offensive line] got off to a good start,” Siedlecki said. “We had no turnovers the whole day. We are relatively inexperienced and adjustments to different defenses and in-game adjustments to changes in alignments will be the challenges ahead of us.”

Surprisingly, the defense, which graduated its top four tacklers from 2004, could be a strength for the Elis.

“Defensively, I think we’re the most athletic I’ve seen here,” defensive end Brandon Etheridge ’07 said. “We’re a young defense with depth. The greatest thing is we can rotate guys in with no drop-off in energy.”

Explosive hitter Matt Handlon ’06 and first-year starter Nick Solokian ’07, the defensive star against Princeton, could be the league’s most formidable safety duo, and cornerback Andrew Butler ’06 is emerging as a lockdown cover man.

The linebacking corps is completely revamped, but a defensive line full of playmakers should ease the transition. End Brandon Dyches ’06 is a sack waiting to happen (he had 6.5 of them in 2004), and tackle Brandt Hollander ’08, a starter last year as a freshman, has star potential.

On special teams, Alan Kimball ’08 will step in as the starting kicker and Wright will serve double duty as punter. Denny-Brown and McLeod will share the return load.

Despite underachievement last year, a wicked cycle of graduation and wound-salt injuries during the preseason, the wellspring of talent in New Haven is far from tapped. The problem just might be the competition.

Still the class of the league, Harvard and Penn — owners of the last five Ivy titles — return many of the Ancient Eight’s finest players. Quakers quarterback Pat McDermott is a dual threat who amassed over 2,000 total yards last season, and Crimson tailback Clifton Dawson, all-Ivy in his first two seasons, may well finish his career as the best runner in league history.

The Bulldogs still have a long way to go to unseat the two giants, but their early-season schedule is rather light, with three non-conference matchups and Ivy games at home against Cornell and Dartmouth. For the Elis, a fast start could make for a meaningful trip to Pennsylvania Oct. 22, with another chance to reclaim preseason ’04 status and again set themselves apart from “everybody else.”

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