Defensive coordinator Rick Flanders has a tall task this season as he attempts to break in a new pair of linebackers. A defensive line brimming with talent should ease the transition.
Although the Bulldogs lost linebackers Ben Breunig ’05 and Cole Harris ’05 — to be replaced by the unproven Mike McGinity ’07 and Lee Driftmeier ’07 — they return a core of defensive linemen with plenty of starting experience.
Returning starters Brandon Dyches ’06, Andrew Ralph ’06 and Brandt Hollander ’08 and able newcomers Jared Hamilton ’08 and Brendan Sponheimer ’07 are penciled in as starters in Yale’s five-man front, with Kirk Porter ’08, Brandon Etheridge ’07, and a host of others expected in the rotation.
In Yale’s “50” defense, the defensive line positions are highly specialized. Hollander will man the nose-guard position, lining up over the center like he did a year ago. Though Hollander’s supposed job is to shade the center to the strong side of the offensive formation, defensive line coach Duane Brooks has been known to say that “the nose is never wrong” as long as he attacks the center and blows the play up from the inside.
Hollander will be flanked by three-year starters Ralph and Hamilton, playing the three and five techniques, respectively. The three technique, Ralph’s post, means that Ralph lines up to the outside shade of the weak-side guard. The position can be a very particular one — many football writers attributed Oakland Raiders defensive tackle Warren Sapp’s struggles last year to his move from the three technique in Tampa Bay’s 4-3 defense to end in Oakland’s 3-4, which features only a nose tackle and a pair of plus-sized ends. The five technique plays the outside shade of the strong tackle, keeping sure not to get reach-blocked on sweeps to his side.
Outside of Ralph and Hamilton will be Dyches and Sponheimer. The defensive ends in Yale’s scheme are not unlike the outside linebackers of a 3-4 design. End-backer hybrids, they begin most plays from a two-point stance and are charged both with covering receivers and blitzing the quarterback.
Dyches proved himself to be quite adept at the latter in 2004, totaling team highs in sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (14.5). At a chiseled 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Dyches’ playing career might not have to end with the Harvard game. Sponheimer edged Etheridge, a skilled pass-rusher, in a heated preseason battle for the end spot vacated by Don Smith ’05.
“Defensively, I think we’re the most athletic I’ve seen here,” Etheridge said after the team’s Sept. 3 scrimmage win over Princeton. “We’re a young defense with depth. The greatest thing is we can rotate guys in with no drop-off in energy.”
Among the reserves in the rotation are three more youngsters: Joe Hathaway ’09, Kyle Hawari ’09 and Steve “Spawn” Morse ’08, a converted offensive linemen.
“I think the d-line’s going to be tremendous,” Hollander said. “Our pass rush should be significantly improved from last year. [For run defense], hopefully we’ll be able to keep blockers off the linebackers, ease the transition. Our whole class is really solid, plus the freshmen. We could be good for a long time, especially since we’re getting the opportunity to play early.”