Each year, the Elis’ football captain chooses a slogan for the team’s workout T-shirts. Defensive end and 2010 captain Tom McCarthy’s ’11 pick for this season is simple: “Win.”
Nine months since the Bulldogs’ tough 14–10 loss to Harvard at The Game, which featured Yale’s now infamous fourth-and-22 fake punt, the team thinks a more experienced coaching staff and roster — 26 current players started at some point last year — put them in a better position for this season.
“The biggest difference this year is experience and a familiarity with the mentality I instilled last year,” said head coach Tom Williams, who returns for his second season this fall. “We don’t have to coach the little things as much and instead get a chance to concentrate on technique more. [McCarthy’s ‘win’ slogan] shows that he feels like we’ve got enough returning players that not a whole lot else needs to be said.”
After the Elis finished last year tied for sixth place in the Ivy League standings, a media poll released Aug. 10 predicted that Yale will finish in fourth place. But the Bulldogs have their eyes on the top, and with a year under his belt, Williams said he is better prepared for the challenges that await.
“We are light years ahead of where we were last year,” he said. “We have a better understanding of what guys can do, and we have been able to tweak our approach so we can tailor to their abilities.”
Williams has already taken steps to avoid last season’s uncertainty at the quarterback position, where Partick Witt ’12 and Brook Hart ’11 started six and four games, respectively. (Witt is a staff writer for the News.) Williams said Witt will be the first-string quarterback — a decision the coach made after Hart opted to walk onto the baseball team and miss spring football workouts earlier in the year. Hart is still on the team but will start the season on the bench.
Last year Witt showcased his playmaking potential, notably in a 20-point fourth quarter at Columbia that saw Witt go 11 for 16 with two touchdowns to secure the comeback win. But he struggled all year with interceptions —11 in eight games — including one that foiled a last-minute comeback attempt against Harvard.
Witt said in an interview that during the offseason he worked closely with the coaching staff to better familiarize himself with the playbook so that the team’s offense can be more dangerous this year.
“Last year there was a lot of uncertainty,” said Witt, who is entering his second year at Yale after transferring from Nebraska last fall. “There were a bunch of things that I was learning on the fly. This offseason, I got to see why the coaches were calling each play so that I was on the same page with them.”
He added that with the increased familiarity he has with his coaches and teammates, the Bulldogs have developed a more complex playbook.
Meanwhile, the Elis are hoping to take advantage of the return of wide receivers Gio Christodoulou ’11 and Chris Smith ’13, who last season missed eight and four games, respectively, due to injuries. Christodoulou had a number of explosive punt returns in 2008 but missed almost the entire 2009 season after suffering a foot injury in the second game. Smith emerged midway through last season before suffering a rib injury after a tackle at Penn in October. Despite missing almost half the season, Smith had the longest touchdown of the season with a 73-yard reception.
With both receivers now healthy, Witt said he is excited about his options this year.
“Gio is a big home-run hitter, and Chris came out of nowhere last year,” Witt said. “Having these guys back is crucial. They look like twins out there, they’re such threats.”
Smith also emphasized the importance of Christodoulou.
“Having Gio and [wide receiver] Jordan Forney ’11 and me will help us to stretch the field a lot more,” Smith said. “It makes it a lot harder for defenses and a lot easier on Jordan and me because they can’t double-team either of us now that we’ve got Gio out there.”
On the ground, Yale will be counting on the one-two punch of running backs Mordecai Cargill ’13 and Adam Thomas ’12. As a freshman, Cargill played in all 10 games last season, while Thomas had a breakout game against Harvard, amassing 124 yards against the Crimson.
“I would say that the first guy out there will be Alex because he has earned that opportunity, but if there were 40 snaps being taken, I would say that ideally Alex and Mordecai would each be getting 20 of those,” Williams said.
The Bulldogs held opponents to an average of 16.6 points per game last year but will have to cope with the loss of their core of linebackers Paul Rice ’10, Tim Handlon ’10 and Travis Henry ’10.
Acknowledging the gaps that must be filled, McCarthy also pointed out that three of the four defensive linemen and all four members of the secondary will be returning.
“Every year leaders graduate, and people step up and take their place,” McCarthy said. “Up front and in the secondary we’re actually very experienced.”
Although Williams said he cannot forecast which freshmen will find significant playing opportunities, he expressed confidence in the 28-player rookie class’ ability to contribute this season.
“It’s still too early to tell who will be getting a lot of playing time this year, but what I’m excited about is that every freshman has been showing exactly what we expected from what we saw on film,” Williams said. “Whether it’s this season or in a few years from now, we know we’re going to be getting significant contributions from this year’s class.”
After a disappointing finish last year, Smith said the team is ready to win its first Ivy League Championship since 2006.
“Win — that’s basically all we need to do,” Smith said. “This year we’re a lot more comfortable. We’ve made the Ivy League Championship our goal, and we’re going to do whatever we can to achieve it.”
The Bulldogs start the 2010 season at home against Georgetown on Sept. 18.