Coming off a season in which the Yale football team led the Football Championship Subdivision in total offense but struggled with a relatively young defense, the Elis are working to create a more balanced identity in 2015. Through two games, however, a third unit of the Yale squad has shown flashes of dominance: the special teams.
Thus far, the Bulldogs (2–0, 1–0 Ivy) lead all of Division I football with four blocked kicks — three field goals and one extra point — and have also gotten key contributions from their kicking and kickoff return units. Two blocked field goals by defensive back Foye Oluokun ’17 eventually decided the Elis’ 29–28 victory at Colgate, while an 84-yard kickoff return by running back Jamal Locke ’18 the following week set up a touchdown that was essential to Yale’s win over Cornell.
“We thought we had a good [special teams] unit last year, and we did some things in the offseason to look at … what schematically you can improve on,” head coach Tony Reno said. “We felt that our personnel could block kicks. The amount of them, at this early juncture, that surprised me a little bit. But this is what we hoped for.”
Reno, who served as Harvard’s special teams coach before coming to Yale, handled the majority of special teams coaching duties last season, according to Locke. This season, however, special teams coach and former Yale captain Paul Rice ’10 has stepped into a formal role. Locke noted that Rice’s work has brought special teams to the forefront of Yale’s game plan.
The third of Yale’s blocked field goals, coming last Saturday against Cornell, was also critical to the game’s ultimate decision. With only 3:27 on the clock following a long drive by the Big Red, the unit blocked a 42-yard field goal attempt from kicker Zach Mays. Had the field goal been good, Cornell would have led by 10 points. Instead, the Elis got the ball back at their own 36-yard line and drove for a quick touchdown to tie the game, scoring the game-winner two minutes later.
J. Hunter Roman ’19, the Bulldog who got his hand — or in this case, his facemask — on the ball, did so in the place of Oluokun, who sat out Saturday’s matchup against Cornell with an injury. Roman said the “next man up” mentality that his coaches instilled in the team allowed him to enter the field and contribute quickly on his first collegiate play.
“Coach Reno always talks about roles within the team, and I was given that field goal block role late this [past week in practice],” Roman said. “I knew I could step in and do it right away.”
Quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 added that blocked field goals are “demoralizing” plays because they can create shifts in momentum.
The Eli kicking game, led entirely by the leg of kicker Bryan Holmes ’17, has also contributed throughout Yale’s 2–0 start. Holmes, who was named Ivy League Special Teams Player of the Week after Saturday’s game, made field goals from 26 and 37 yards out against Cornell and is 6–7 on extra points this season, with the only miss coming on a block by the Big Red.
The junior handled only punting and kickoff duties for Yale prior to this year. However, with the graduation of placekicker Kyle Cazzetta ’15, Holmes stepped in to kick field goals and extra point attempts as well. These two additional responsibilities make Holmes the first Bulldog to wear all three hats — kickoffs, place kicking and punting — since kicker Tom Mante ’10 did so in 2008.
Against Cornell, Holmes also tallied three touchbacks on kickoffs and pinned the Big Red inside its own 20-yard line on a punt as well. With strong punting from Cornell’s backfield in punter Chris Fraser, the field position battle was a significant factor in the contest.
“Sometimes, special teams don’t get the same type of fame or respect that they really deserve,” Roberts said. “There are three teams. If you can’t execute in all three facets of the game, you’re not going to win. That really comes down to coaches and players realizing that special teams is a way to win the game.”
Yale next takes the field on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. against Lehigh.