The Yale football team often refrains from projecting results before they happen, a product of head coach Tony Reno’s mantra of focusing on the process, and not the outcome, during the season. This year, players might refuse prognostication for a different reason: So much remains unknown about the 2015 Bulldogs’ standing in the league, and it is nearly impossible to make a prediction with confidence.
Ranked third in the Ivy League media preseason poll after an 8–2 mark in 2014, Yale may return as a dominant offensive force in the league, powered by quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16, a stellar offensive line, and new transfer wide receiver Bo Hines ’18. The Bulldogs could prove to be a much more balanced team, with an experienced defense finally coming into its own and stopping the big plays that contributed to two losses last season. But after the graduation of the top running back and top two wide receivers in the conference, another possibility still is a decreased offensive performance, a stagnant defense and a slip back to the middle of the Ivy League.
Just about anything seems possible for this year’s Yale team, with many potential weapons on either side of the ball but no definite sense of their ability to gel on the field. According to Reno, no one will know anything for sure until the regular season begins at Colgate this Saturday.
“We have a lot of guys who really haven’t been on the field [in a regular season game] yet,” Reno said. “I feel that they can [succeed], and that we have exceptional players in this league, but we have to go out and prove it.”
The losses of running back Tyler Varga ’15 and wide receivers Deon Randall ’15 and Grant Wallace ’15, all of whom earned first team All-Ivy honors in 2014, are perhaps the greatest source of uncertainty for Yale. The three combined for over 63 percent of Yale’s offensive yards last season and leave major holes in an offense that led the conference in just about every statistic.
The absence of Varga, who played well enough at Yale to sign with the Indianapolis Colts and join the 53-man roster for this year’s NFL season, puts pressure on running back Candler Rich ’17, who will enter as the clear starter in the backfield, according to Reno.
“Candler is a guy who really can get into that fifth gear,” Reno said. “For him to become a complete back, he’s got to show the ability to finish blocks and finish runs. When you see those things on a consistent basis, he can move himself into the upper echelon of the league and the Football Championship Subdivision.”
Backing up Varga in all 10 games last season, Rich certainly proved a strong option, with 7.5 yards per carry on 67 attempts. In order for the offense to remain near the top of the Ivy League, Rich will likely need to maintain strong numbers with more consistent repetitions this season. Running back Deshawn Salter ’18, who saw time only at the end of lopsided victories in 2014, will be Rich’s backup option.
Yale’s running and passing threats complemented each other last year, constantly keeping defenses guessing and opening up holes throughout the season. Rich’s performance may thus depend on the success of quarterback Roberts, who enters the season with an entirely new set of options at wide receiver.
Hines, who led North Carolina State in receptions as a freshman last year, announced his transfer to Yale last winter and may be the key, along with wide receiver Robert Clemons ’17, to replacing Randall and Wallace. Hines has been practicing as a slot receiver, Randall’s former position, while Clemons, who started as the third receiver last season, will likely serve as one of the wideouts in Yale’s spread offense.
While Hines and Clemons have the most Division-I in-game experience, Reno noted that he has been impressed with many of the receivers, and that the frontrunners for playing time are still not certain. Both Reno and Clemons highlighted wide receiver Michael Siragusa ’18 as looking improved in the offseason.
“I really think we’re the most talented receiving corps that we’ve seen in a long time,” Clemons said. “We’re young, but we’re a great group, and we work hard. If we keep working hard the way we have been, I think big things will happen for us.”
At the helm of the offensive operation will be Roberts, who began last season just having earned the starting quarterback role and finished the year at the top of the conference leaderboards in passing yards, touchdowns and completion percentage.
Entering his third season at Yale after transferring from Clemson, Roberts has shown considerable improvement in his career as an Eli. Often having trouble staying in the pocket during his sophomore season, Roberts completed just 37 of 71 passes while throwing four interceptions in 2013 before returning last year to break numerous Yale records as a junior.
“He’s a great leader,” Clemons said. “You should expect big things from Morgan. He’s worked hard all preseason. Coach always preaches to stick to the process, and that’s what he does. I’m really excited for him this season.”
Safety and captain Cole Champion ’16 added that Roberts and his offense have provided a good challenge to the defense in practice.
That defense, led by Champion, is another unknown for the Bulldogs, but in different fashion. The offensive concern is that Yale’s 143rd team may not be able to maintain the superlative production of its predecessor, but defensively, the question is whether or not Yale, having returned nearly all members of its 2014 units, can improve from a relatively weak performance last year and avoid giving up big plays.
Key to that effort will be the introduction of two new co-defensive coordinators, Steven Vashel and Sean McGowan. Vashel, who was the defensive backs coach last year, will remain in that role while taking over for Rick Flanders, who stepped down as defensive coordinator following last season. McGowan is new to the team and will serve in Flanders’ former role as linebacker coach as well as co-defensive coordinator.
Champion will lead the defense alongside an experienced secondary, with safties Champion and Foye Oluokun ’17 and cornerbacks Dale Harris ’17 and Spencer Rymiszewski ’17 all having begun last season as starters. Rymiszewski will play in his first regular season game since being sidelined with a spinal cord concussion in Week 6 last year.
“We’ve been able to bring a sense of veteran-ship to the secondary, and help the younger guys compete,” Champion said. “We make sure they know the level of energy and intensity we bring to practice.”
Reno added that he has been impressed with Rymiszewski’s physicality and route-matching abilities, particularly in the blue-white scrimmage that the Bulldogs held last Friday.
Though the Elis will play just four home games this year after hosting six last season, many matchups, particularly late in the season, have the potential to be exciting and meaningful to the Bulldogs in their quest for an Ivy League title.
After playing Colgate, Cornell and Lehigh in the early weeks of the season, Yale will look to avenge its 2014 loss to Dartmouth in Week 4. The Big Green, ranked second in the Ivy League media preseason poll, has spoiled two consecutive 3–0 starts to the past two Eli seasons and will be looking to do the same this year, if Yale begins this season well.
The Bulldogs’ final three contests — against Brown, Princeton and Harvard — will likely be among the most competitive. Harvard, which Yale will face at home on Nov. 21, has suffered a few major losses due to graduation, including linebacker Zack Hodges, quarterback Conner Hempel and defensive back Norman Hayes, but still was selected as the Ivy League favorite in the media preseason poll.
Before thinking about Ivy League opponents, however, Yale must first face Colgate. The Elis’ matchup against the Raiders will kick off Saturday at 1 p.m.