Dealing with both injuries and positional changes in 2015, the Yale pass defense had one of the worst statistical performances in the Football Championship Subdivision. A year later, a new set of unforeseen obstacles continues to add question marks to the Yale defensive back corps.
All four opening-day starters from last year’s experienced secondary are no longer members of that unit this season, and only one of those losses, former captain and safety Cole Champion ’16, is due to graduation. Foye Oluokun ’17, returning from a season-ending injury, has moved from defensive back to outside linebacker, and former cornerback Dale Harris ’17 will remain at the running back position he took on midway through 2015. Meanwhile, two offseason shoulder surgeries have sidelined defensive back Spencer Rymiszewski ’17 for the year, leaving safeties Hayden Carlson ’18 and Jason Alessi ’18 to lead a group of defensive backs who will head into this season eager to step up.
Despite the change from a year ago, Carlson had no reservations about his squad’s preparedness for the year ahead.
“We have kind of had the excuse the last two years that we’ve been kind of young,” Carlson said. “They had a really good class — the class of 2017 and the 2018 class. We have got some guys that were playing pretty young, and I think we are kind of past that point. We’re all upperclassmen now, and we do not have the excuse where we say that we’re smaller or weaker than other teams because we are not as developed.”
With Oluokun and others out of the secondary, younger players such as cornerbacks Daniel Debner ’19 and Marquise Peggs ’19 will need to fill the void. Peggs played in six games and recorded seven tackles last year, while Debner got into just two games as a running back. Head coach Tony Reno said Jaelin Alburg ’20 and Malcolm Dixon ’20, who are brand new to the roster, will also see time at corner.
Experience and leadership will come at the safety position from Carlson and Alessi, who both started as underclassmen due to injuries over the past two seasons. Carlson led the Elis with 92 tackles in 2015 and also recorded an interception, and Alessi contributed another 39 tackles and a pick last year to go along with two interceptions his freshman season.
“Coming back another year and seeing the same teams again — they’re going to have the same routes,” Oluokun said. “There are not very many routes out there that you have not seen, especially now that you are juniors and seniors. That goes a long way in stopping aerial attacks.”
After sitting out most of 2015 with a torn pectoral muscle, Oluokun will still be a factor in pass defense, though in a different capacity. Oluokun, who led the Bulldogs with 79 tackles and two interceptions in 2014 and is widely regarded as a team leader, will contribute as an outside linebacker following the graduation of linebacker Andrew Larkin ’16. Linebackers Oluokun, captain Darius Manora ’17 , Matt Oplinger ’18 and Victor Egu ’17 will attempt to carry over the run-stuffing ability demonstrated in 2015 while improving pass coverage over the middle.
“We moved [Oluokun] up [to outside linebacker] earlier in the preseason.” Reno said. “You have to look at your defense as a whole and ask, ‘What is your best possible defense?’ So, we decided to move Foye up.”
Meanwhile Rymiszewski, who recorded a team-high four interceptions last year, said that he has taken on the role of “player-coach,” trying to impart his wisdom to the younger players.
In his opinion, despite the youth of his replacements, Yale fans need not worry.
“These [younger] guys are ready for the challenge,” Rymiszewski said. “They’re all very athletic at that position.”