It’s been an unusually long offseason for the Yale football team.

The bitter taste of a heartbreaking — to put it mildly — triple-overtime loss to Harvard, followed by the defection of quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Joel Lamb to that very same Crimson team, have made even the most optimistic Elis concerned that the balance of football power along the I-95 corridor has shifted to the north.

Making matters worse were season-ending shoulder surgery for playmaking safety Nick Solakian ’07 and the news that Chris Denny-Brown ’07, the Bulldogs’ slot receiver and primary punt returner, would be taking the semester off.

Yet hope springs eternal in New Haven, where the Elis return all five starters on the offensive line, including perhaps Division I-AA’s finest blocker in tackle Ed McCarthy ’07. McCarthy and his gang will be leading the way for last season’s Ivy League Rookie of the Year, precocious tailback Mike McLeod ’09, and the Ancient Eight’s top receiver, Ashley Wright ’07. Wright will team with new captain Chandler Henley ’07, a standout who returns after a collarbone injury wiped out his 2005 campaign, to form the league’s most formidable receiving tandem and to allay fears that the offense will sputter as inexperienced quarterback Matt Polhemus ’08 takes its reins.

Polhemus appears to have emerged from what had been a heated three-way battle in the spring. Josh Rodarmel ’07, a cerebral yet injury-plagued passer who surprised many with his strong showing in April, dropped out of the race due to persistent shoulder problems. On the strength of improved passing and experience in the system, if not on-field experience, the athletic Polhemus seems to have leapfrogged Ryan Fodor ’09, who was neck-and-neck with him during spring practice.

“For [Polhemus], he’s a lot more comfortable now,” Rodarmel said. “He was up here all summer working out with the team doing seven-on-sevens. And he just worked his [butt] off. His release is quicker. He makes decisions faster. It’s like two different people between the spring and now.”

Defensive tackle Kirk Porter ’08, who provided a few bright moments for the Yale defensive line last year — his first as a starter — saw a lot of promise in the team’s scrimmage at Princeton yesterday, particularly on defense, where the team lost six starters.

“Our defense is so fast that we need to work on not overrunning the play,” Porter said. “The only area that’s a little bit shaky is the secondary, but that’s just because they’re young and inexperienced. But they’re all ballers. They’re gonna be good.”

Porter was still giddy over one ferocious hit by safety Matt Coombs ’07.

“I’d be shocked if [the ballcarrier] didn’t have a concussion,” he said.

On the other side of the ball, Porter said he was impressed with two long gains by McLeod, who he thought could be the best back in the league this year.

If McLeod does prove to be the Ivy League’s best runner, it will be partly by default. Nick Hartigan, who gained 1,727 yards in 2005 while carrying Brown to an Ivy League title, is gone to pursue NFL dreams. Harvard’s Clifton Dawson, perhaps the best running back ever to play in the Ancient Eight, returns for his senior season, but his supporting cast took two huge hits in the offseason when starting quarterback Liam O’Hagan and linebacker and captain Matt Thomas were both suspended for the year.

Those developments at the northern end of the interstate do not ensure the Bulldogs their first title in seven years, but they certainly bode well for a team bereft of confidence nine months ago. Reflecting on the Princeton scrimmage, Porter already sounds sure of the 2006 squad.

“We didn’t play that well, but we were obviously the better team,” Porter said. “We’re legitimate contenders this year.”