An injury-marred 2016 season doomed the Yale football team to a disappointing 3–7 record. Coming off a year of recovery, several experienced Bulldogs seemed primed to bolster Team 145’s offensive production in their returns from medical hardships.

Yet in the Bulldogs’ season opener against Lehigh last weekend, it was two rookies who starred for the Bulldogs. Although neither started the game, running back Zane Dudek ’21 and wide receiver Melvin Rouse II ’21 kicked off their careers with a combined 215 yards and four touchdowns. Their contributions alongside the Yale veterans constituted a prolific offensive performance against Lehigh on Saturday and reflected the Elis’ immense depth at offensive skill positions in 2017.

“Last year, we were young at many skills position, and, for the most part, we came into our own on Saturday,” wide receiver Christopher Williams-Lopez ’18 said. “[Rouse] and [Dudek] have been great. We saw it in training camp, and everything worked out for the best for them on Saturday. I’m really excited for how good they can be in the upcoming weeks.”

Last season, injuries to wide receivers Ross Drwal ’18, Michael Siragusa Jr. ’18 and Williams-Lopez as well as to running back Deshawn Salter ’18 forced the Bulldogs to roll out a young offensive unit with several first-year starters. Although the growing pains associated with this inexperience contributed heavily to Yale’s worst season record since 2012, Team 145 is now reaping the benefits from these struggles with a plethora of game-tested players and dynamic rookies.

In Week 1, an explosive Bulldog offense tallied 566 yards from scrimmage, a total that would have exceeded the team’s highest mark last season. Throughout this offensive barrage, six different Yale players found the end zone. Williams-Lopez shone in his return from a high-ankle sprain and sprained MCL, hauling in eight catches for a team-high 87 yards and one score in his first action since Week 4 of 2016. Siragusa tacked on a long reception of 22 yards in his return to action, while Drwal repeatedly drew attention as a downfield blocker and pre-snap, misdirection motion man.

Following in the veterans’ footsteps, wide receiver JP Shohfi ’20 looked like he was in midseason form with three catches 60 yards and a touchdown — the San Marino, California, native’s day would have been even more impressive had it not been for a penalty that called back his would-be second score. Nevertheless, Shohfi’s spot-on timing with quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 was on full display after a 2016 season in which the two connected just 13 times.

“Last spring and this fall, [training] camp allowed me and the other guys to be on the same page a little bit better than we were last year,” said Rawlings, who took home the season’s first Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week award. “We have really talented guys out there, and they make plays. When you roll right, and you know JP is one on one on a guy, you know he’s going to make those types of decisions because he’s a smart, really good player.”

Still, Saturday’s most impressive performances outside the quarterback’s career day came from Yale’s high-powered rookies. Rouse displayed his athleticism when he breezed past Lehigh cornerback Donavon Harris on a simple fade route for a 37-yard touchdown reception to open the game’s scoring, and showcased his speed in the second half when he took a screen pass 31 yards into the end zone for another score. The 5-foot-9 wide receiver also contributed on special teams as one of the Yale’s two kick returners to finish with 124 all-purpose yards on the afternoon.

Fellow wide receiver Darrion Carrington ’21 also saw action versus the Mountain Hawks, catching one reception for 16 yards and recovering Lehigh’s onside kick attempt with less than seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Both Rouse and Carrington will look to make the most of their receiving opportunities at a position which features four seniors and two experienced sophomores topping the depth chart.

“I want to be that spark in the offense whenever I’m needed, whether that’s one week of getting four catches or getting one catch the next week,” Rouse said. “I just want to do what’s best for this offense and whatever I can do to help this team.”

Following the season-ending ACL injury to running back Alan Lamar ’20, Dudek took on an expanded role in Week 1. The Kittanning, Pennsylvania, native torched the Mountain Hawks in his home state, tallying two touchdowns on 14.6 yards per carry as the game’s leading rusher. Not only did Dudek impress with his speed — he took home the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League’s AAA 100-meter dash as a high school runner — but he also displayed impressive patience and cutting ability to dart through small seams for extended yardage.

In the third quarter against Lehigh, Rawlings handed the ball off the Dudek, who promptly made one cut upfield before sprinting 69 yards past Lehigh safety Sam McCloskey and danced, untouched, into the end zone. Later in the fourth quarter, he all but sealed Yale’s victory on a 29-yard score; though he was initially bottled up at the line of scrimmage, Dudek used his patience and lateral quickness to slip through seven Mountain Hawks in the vicinity and find the end zone to give the Bulldogs a three-touchdown advantage with less than nine minutes to play.

Dudek may see even more time in the Bulldogs’ Ivy League opener this weekend against a Cornell team that ranked last in the Ancient Eight in rushing defense last season.

“[The first years] made the most of the opportunities they had,” head coach Tony Reno said. “Zane came in and carried the load well, and Andrew [Grinde ’21] came in in the fourth quarter and did a really nice job behind the offensive line. Melvin made the most of his opportunities on the perimeter as well. Like I said though … one game does not a season make, so we’ll see what they do.”

Yale’s win over Lehigh featured the team’s highest offensive output since the team amassed 568 total yards against Princeton on Nov. 15, 2014.

Won Jung | | @won_jung_ 

Joey Kamm