Compared to the two previous seasons, much more experience and leadership is embedded within the Yale football team’s defense, which features a wealth of returning starters and the loss of only two recent graduates.
The Bulldogs’ defensive unit, consisting mostly of members of the class of 2017, will embody much more experience than that of the two previous seasons. Yale’s defense will be further bolstered by the return of cornerback Spencer Rymiszewski ’17, who started the first six games before a season-ending neck injury last year.
“We are mostly juniors on defense this year, and I definitely think the guys on the field who are in their junior year and older are a lot more experienced,” linebacker Victor Egu ’17 said. “This isn’t our first time doing this anymore.”
Indeed, for the past two seasons, the Bulldogs have boasted a talented but youthful defense. Three of the Elis’ four starting defensive backs — Foye Oluokun ’17, Rymiszewski and Dale Harris ’17 — as well as two of the three linebackers — Darius Manora ’17 and Egu — have been in the starting lineup since they first joined the Bulldogs.
With the graduation of Charles Cook ’15 and Will Vaughan ’15, the team lost key leaders on the field, according to Manora. However, the squad has sought and will continue to find leadership in captain Cole Champion ’16, a four-year starter at defensive back and an Honorable Mention All-Ivy League player last season.
“We had young defense and many ups and downs, but we did a great job this year practicing and coming together as a family,” Manora said. “We have a lot more experience as defense and this is the biggest carry-over for us.”
The Bulldogs’ defensive unit will also benefit tremendously from the comeback of Rymiszewski. Ranked 12th in average tackles per game in the Ivy League prior to his injury, Rymiszewski was a key force in the Elis’ defensive unit.
Since his recovery, he has worked hard to regain not only his physical fitness and strength but also the trust of his teammates and coaches, according to Rymiszewski. In fact, he has returned to the fields even stronger than he was at his peak shape last season.
“My teammates and coaches saw my dedication on the fields,” Rymiszewski said. “I gained 15 pounds during the offseason, and [my new physique] has allowed me to play stronger and faster. My abilities to cover will be much higher than last year.”
Among the underclassmen, linebacker Matthew Oplinger ’18 will also add to the defensive unit, moving to the outside linebacker position to fill in the role of Cook. Recipient of the Charles Loftus Award for most valuable freshman last season, Oplinger recorded an average of 4.8 tackles per game, sixth-most at Yale. Incredibly fast and physical, the 6-foot-3, 229-pound sophomore will be able to fill in the position for Cook very well, according to Rymiszewski.
In addition to experience, many players identified mental execution as a weakness in previous seasons and the single biggest focus for the defensive unit this year.
“It’s a combination of things that contribute to our losses and one cannot pin it down to a single thing,” Oluokun said. “If we could do better, though, we could definitely improve our mental execution.”
Manora and Egu agreed that the defense has worked hard to improve mental execution in order to minimize misruns and miscommunications on the field.
In other words, Yale’s defense will strive for sharp mental execution while still maintaining physical toughness, Oluokun said.
“We have the abilities, but we need to sharpen the tools,” Oluokun said. “It is a mindset — physical and fast.”
Rymiszewski agreed with Oluokun and explained that the mental game is going to be a determining factor in the outcome of their season.
The Bulldogs will play their season opener at Colgate this Saturday, Sept. 19. Kickoff is at 1 p.m.