Robbie Short

This story is part of the Yale football 2016 season preview issue. For a feature on Yale’s running backs, click here, and to read about the team’s recent changes in the secondary, click here

At this time last year, the Yale football team’s season was days away from spiraling out of control.

Just 20 minutes into their season-opening game against Colgate, the Bulldogs saw starting slot receiver Bo Hines ’18 go down with an injury, one of the first of at least 42 injuries and illnesses that turned a year of high expectations into a 6–4 season filled with disappointment and missed opportunities.

After a full offseason of recovery, training and preparation, Yale’s 144th football team opens one more pursuit of the program’s 15th conference championship this weekend. But before hoisting their first trophy since 2006, the Elis, still dealing with the consequences of those 2015 injuries, have much to prove.

“We’ve got some questions we need to answer,” head coach Tony Reno said. “We had a slew of injuries on the offensive and defensive side last year, so we’ve got a lot of guys returning that didn’t play full seasons last year and missed most of the year. How fast they return to the form they were in before is a major question mark. We’re going to be young in some key areas, and we’ll have to grow up pretty quickly there.”

This year’s Ivy League media preseason poll ranked the Bulldogs just behind the three teams that tied atop the conference last year — Dartmouth, Harvard and Penn — but Yale may possess the pieces necessary to claw its way from mediocrity and into the league’s upper echelons.

Thanks to a formidable trio of running backs, a veteran defense and a deep set of wide receivers, Team 144 has the potential to be a much more balanced team than its recent predecessors.

“This is a year where everything is coming together,” defensive back Hayden Carlson ’18 said. “We’ve got some young guys stepping up. We also have the experience from the classes of 2017, 2018 and even 2016 … I think that’s why it’s shaping up to be a pretty good year.”

Yet with a new quarterback and several missing pieces on defense, plus an across-the-board stronger league, the team must be prepared to address both new and familiar concerns.

Captain and linebacker Darius Manora ’17 will lead a defense that, in recent years, has struggled to be more than simply mediocre. A strong linebacking corps featuring Manora, Matthew Oplinger ’18, Victor Egu ’17 and Foye Oluokon ’17, and an experienced defensive line that includes multiyear starters Nick Crowle ’18 and Marty Moesta ’17 will, Reno hopes, allow the unit to go from “good to great.”

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But the loss of the team’s two First-Team All-Ivy defensive players — cornerback Spencer Rymiszewski ’17 and defensive tackle Copache Tyler ’17, who will be missing the season due to injury and personal reasons, respectively — will put pressure on younger defensive players, particularly in the secondary. Although the safety positions will be filled by three upperclassmen and a freshman, four underclassmen will rotate through the cornerback positions, Reno said.

On the offensive side, the returns of running back Candler Rich ’17, slot receiver Bo Hines ’18 and tight end Sebastian Little ’17, among others, will strengthen an attack that was down to its sixth- and seventh-string players at running back and wide receiver last season. Following a record-setting offensive season in 2014, the team stumbled down the stretch and finished just sixth in the Ivy League with 23.5 points per game.

After finishing seventh in total rushing yards last year due to a catastrophic series of injuries, Yale returns a dangerous trio in the backfield. The evasive Rich, bruising Deshawn Salter ’18 and speedy Dale Harris ’17 have dissimilar approaches but, at least before each of the three got hurt, were equally effective.

One of very few offensive regulars who graduated last year is First-Team All-Ivy center Luke Longinotti ’16. With former defensive lineman Karl Marback ’18 stepping up to play alongside third-year starters Mason Friedline ’17 and Khalid Cannon ’17, the Bulldogs should have plenty of size and experience at the line of scrimmage.

A key piece of the offense, however, is still in flux. The team has yet to name a replacement for graduated quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16, and when asked on Tuesday who will be starting under center in Week 1, Reno demurred.

Rafe Chapple ’18, Tre Moore ’19 and Kurt Rawlings ’20 are still currently competing for the starting nod.

“I think they all are pretty close,” Reno said. “You could see any of the three or all of the three [playing] — any way, shape or form that helps us win games, we’re willing to do. We’ll see what happens this week in practice.”

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Wide receiver Robert Clemons III ’17 said the team would be comfortable with any of the three under center and praised their composure and intelligence. Regardless of the choice that the team ultimately makes at signal caller, Yale remains committed to its up-tempo spread offense, Reno said.

The 2016 Bulldogs open their season at home against No. 23 Colgate, the top-ranked team in the Patriot League, before taking on Cornell and Lehigh. After the game against Lehigh, Yale takes on Dartmouth, the team that has spoiled the Elis’ 3–0 start for the last three consecutive seasons.

Of the three teams picked to finish ahead of Yale, the Big Green is perhaps the most vulnerable. Nineteen of the team’s 22 offensive and defensive starters graduated last year, including three-year starting quarterback and 2014 Ivy Offensive Player of the Year finalist Dalyn Williams, so the two teams’ Oct. 9 matchup in the Bowl can set the tone for the remainder of the season.

Following the Dartmouth game, Yale plays Fordham, its final nonconference opponent, before facing five Ivy League foes back-to-back.

The Bulldogs begin their pursuit of the 2016 title against Colgate at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday in the Yale Bowl.