As they march into the biggest weekend of their season, the Elis have more than just their eight wins, five-game winning streak and undefeated record on the road to give them momentum. They also have their two veteran tight ends back.
Overcoming injuries that lasted more than half the season, tight ends Stephen Buric ’16 and Sebastian Little ’16 returned to the Yale Bowl to face Princeton last Saturday. The two are the oldest tight ends on the team, as they are the only two junior tight ends on a Bulldog squad that has no seniors in the position.
Little had been sidelined since the Bulldogs’ third game, while Buric — who scored the only tight end touchdown of the season against Lehigh — had been out since Dartmouth, Yale’s fourth game and only loss.
“I think they all bring something different whether it’s physically, catching the ball or running good routes,” captain Deon Randall ’15 said of the two tight ends and their replacement, Leo Haenni ’17. “It’s nice having them all back because they can rotate in and stay fresh. They obviously have value to our offense, and we’re just happy to have them back this week.”
Haenni began the season as the third-string tight end, but after not playing in Yale’s first two games and playing sparingly in the team’s third contest, he suddenly found himself alone in a starting position for the next six games.
Fellow tight end Peter Gerson ’17 attested to Haenni’s persistence and ability to rise to the challenge after suddenly finding himself in a starting position.
“[Haenni] absolutely outperformed anything that was asked of him, which is constant for him,” Gerson said. “He works hard in everything he does and is able to balance his responsibilities with football and school better than anyone I know.”
In seven games alone, Haenni has earned more yards than Little did in 2013, when he earned 252 after starting in each of the Elis’ 10 games.
This is largely attributable to this year’s offense being much more prolific than the 2013 edition. The Bulldogs have thrown for 2,931 yards in just seven games, compared to the 2,108 figure from a year ago.
Little, meanwhile, spent much of the spring transitioning from wide receiver to tight end. Gerson said that Little excelled in learning the new position.
“His athletic ability makes him a strong threat in the pass game at all times that other teams need to be prepared for,” Gerson said. “[Additionally, he is] a good run blocker.”
For the third straight season, Buric suffered an injury that caused him to miss several games — but despite his medical woes, Buric led all tight ends in receptions during his freshman campaign. He also has averaged an impressive 19.5 yards per catch this season, the best figure on the team.
Gerson spoke to Buric and Little’s determination and resilience. He especially noted that when Buric returned to the field, he was still in pain, choosing to get back to work as soon as he could. He described Buric as a fantastic teammate and a great player.
“[Buric] always manages to find a way to get his job done,” Gerson said. “Having him out there gives the team a sense of calmness and strength.”
With the help of Haenni, Buric, Little and fellow tight end Jackson Stallings ’17, the Yale running game has soared to new heights. Running back Tyler Varga ’15 has averaged 144 yards per game this season, best in the Ivy League, and the Bulldogs rank seventh in the Football Championship Subdivision in rushing yards per game.
But Gerson added that tight end is a unique position. Not only does it require the strength and stoutness to block on the line of scrimmage, it also demands athleticism to be a factor in the passing game.
With all tight ends healthy and ready to go against Harvard, Ross Drwal ’18 hopes that the Yale offense will be even better.
“Usually maybe two tight ends play but having three that can make a big impact is big for our team,” Drwal said. “We have had a great offensive practice this week and I am excited to see what we can accomplish.”
The Game kicks off from Harvard Stadium at 12:30 p.m. ESPN’s College GameDay starts airing at 9:00 a.m.