SAN DIEGO — Yale arrived in California Thursday with new starters at several key offensive positions readying for a first season opener, a first start, and, in one case, a first collegiate game.
Captain Jeff Mroz ’06 steps in for heralded hurler Alvin Cowan ’05; Jordan Spence ’07 and Mike McLeod ’09 hope to collaborate to equal the output of Yale all-time rushing leader Rob Carr ’05; and Todd Feiereisen ’06 and Ashley Wright ’06 move into the starting receiver positions vacated by Ralph Plumb ’05 and the injured Chandler Henley ’06.
Yale’s opponent, the University of San Diego (2-0), knew before the season started that it would be replacing its star quarterback, too. What the Toreros never saw coming was a freak injury to senior tailback Evan Harney, a I-AA All-American, 2004 Mid-Major Offensive Back of the Year, the school leader in career yards and touchdowns, and, for all intents and purposes, Rob Carr West.
Harney said the accident occurred July 30 near his Linda Vista, Calif., apartment. Helping friends out of his car in the dark, the running back lost his footing and tumbled 30 feet down a hill after a nylon fence gave way.
“They stabilized me and took me to the hospital instead of waiting for an ambulance,” Harney said at a San Diego Hall of Champions luncheon in August. “At the hospital, the doctors said because I got there so quickly they were able to control the swelling. Otherwise they would have had to perform brain surgery.”
“Blessed to be alive and not paralyzed,” Harney will miss the season and petition the NCAA for a medical redshirt, which would make him eligible for the 2006 campaign.
“We’ll still have a great season if I’m not here,” he said at the luncheon. “We’ve got an incredible coach and incredible program with good people behind it.”
Incredible coach, indeed. At the helm of the Toreros, now in his second season, is former NFL all-pro quarterback Jim Harbaugh. The one-time Chicago Bear has attempted to lend some national credibility to a team that plays some games each season against Division III and NAIA teams. After a slow start a year ago, in which the Toreros began the season 2-4 in mostly out-of-conference games (including losses to Penn and Princeton), Harney, standout quarterback Todd Mortensen, and the rest of the offense finally got the hang of Harbaugh’s complex West-Coast scheme.
The results have been dazzling. USD won five straight games to close the season and this year — sans Harney, sans Mortensen (who spent preseason with the Detroit Lions) — has not missed a beat, outscoring Azusa Pacific and Southern Oregon by a combined score of 81-6.
Leading the charge has been Joshua Johnson, a dual-threat sophomore who has completed 70 percent of his passes for five touchdowns. Five-foot-10-inch, 180-pound J.T. Rogan, a redshirt freshman, is Harney’s replacement at running back, and has proved more than able, with 205 yards in his first two collegiate games.
The receiving corps is much less revamped. Although nine different Toreros caught passes in the team’s first two games, Adam Hannula and Nick Garton, both seniors, are the men the Yale secondary must keep under wraps. The versatile Garton, who also plays defensive back and is USD’s primary return man, is a smart and slippery player who has the ability to go all the way anytime he has the ball. Hannula, a fifth-year senior who was originally recruited as a quarterback, eschewed the gloves but took to every other aspect of being a wide receiver when he made the switch in spring 2002. A first-team I-AA All-American as a sophomore in 2003 when he amassed school records in catches (72), receiving yards (1,161) and touchdowns (13), Hannula could be the best wideout Yale faces before Corey Mazza and the Crimson visit in November.
In addition to talent, Yale coach Jack Siedlecki cautioned that the unknown would be a factor.
“They have a couple players on each side of the ball that they feel are feature players ,” he said, mentioning Johnson, Hannula and Garton by name. “You want to go into the game comfortable and prepared, but you have to be ready for something you haven’t seen [on film].”
Yale’s defense should be ready. The unit stymied Princeton in a Sept. 3 scrimmage win, getting tremendous penetration into the backfield from a defensive line playing without returning starters Brandon Dyches ’06 and Brandt Hollander ’08.
Safety Matt Handlon ’06, who may well emerge as the leader of the defense with the departure of linebacker Ben Breunig ’05, was licking his chops at the opportunity to make a statement outside the northeastern Ivy world.
“We’re itching to get out there,” he said. “We’re revved up and ready to go.”