Yale Athletics

The Yale football team earned its first outright Ivy League Championship in 37 years last November at the 134th edition of The Game. But in preseason this year, the Bulldogs did not rest on their laurels. On the contrary, Team 146 is looking to build day by day in the lead-up to its first game.

Following a historic run in 2017, the Elis experienced significant turnover, both in its playing and coaching ranks, over the summer. Yale lost a host of experienced All-Ivy talents on both sides of the ball to graduation and must regroup under the guidance of several new assistant coaches. Still, the Bulldogs will be led by head coach Tony Reno, who seems to have been largely unaffected by the championship hype surrounding his team.

“I think in terms of big picture … we just always want to improve,” Reno said ahead of his seventh season at the helm in New Haven. “We want to be better today than we were yesterday, and that’s really our sole goal every day: to walk off the field, walk out of our meetings saying we’re a better version of Team 146 than we were yesterday.”

Reno’s formula for success sounds simple enough, but if he is able to recapture last season’s triumphs in 2018, he will have to do so with a very different cast of players.

On the defensive side of the ball, Yale graduated key players at all three levels from its league-leading unit from a season ago. The contributions of Earl Chism ’18, John Herubin ’18 and Copache Tyler ’18 will be missed on the defensive front, while the graduation of All-Ivy linebackers Foye Oluokun ’18 — now a player for the Atlanta Falcons — and Matt Oplinger ’18 leaves a hole in the middle of the field. But Team 145’s depth a season ago will serve as an advantage for Team 146.

Yale returns a cohort of experienced defensive linemen, headlined by Charles Callender ’20 and J. Hunter Roman ’19, and linebacker Micah Awodiran ’21 will likely man the middle of the defense after a strong finish to his first season. Moreover, a platoon of pass rushers lies in wait to try to repeat Yale’s dominance at the line of scrimmage from a season ago.

On the back end, the lone returner from last season’s pass defense is defensive back and All-Ivy honorable mention Malcolm Dixon ’20, who will have to lead a unit that loses the talented trio of Jason Alessi ’18, Hayden Carlson ’18 and captain Spencer Rymiszewski ’18. According to Reno, Dixon may move over to the safety position alongside Rodney Thomas ’21 while Jaelin Alburg ’19, Deonte Henson ’21 and Marquise Peggs ’19 man the cornerback slots.

“Certainly, we’ve graduated some very, very good players,” wide receiver JP Shohfi ’20 said. “Those guys are always difficult to replace. But the best thing with our team is even when we lose players and have to replace people on the field, our standards don’t change.”

On the other side of the line of scrimmage, Reno loses three starting offensive linemen in Jon Bezney ’18, Karl Marback ’18 and Anders Huizenga ’18. But Yale will benefit from the game experience of a pair of juniors — center Sterling Strother ’20 and left guard Dieter Eiselen ’20, who earned second-team and honorable mention All-Ivy nods, respectively.

The two were iron men for the Bulldogs last season, with Eiselen missing just one game due to injury. Strother, who played tackle his rookie season, switched to center in preseason last year and has remained there ever since. Eiselen remained at left guard last season after starting five games there during his rookie year. Despite the loss of last year’s starters in the trenches, Reno highlighted strong line play on both ends of the field during the preseason.

“We are trying to build on the foundation that was laid for this position group,” Eiselen said. “Every year we are trying to be the best offensive line in the Ivy League and this year is no different. The guys who are stepping up in the place of the graduating seniors are veterans in the programs.”

The Bulldogs have seen the fewest roster changes at their skills positions, including at quarterback. Kurt Rawlings ’20 made a splash his rookie season by leading Team 144 to a victory in The Game and only improved in 2017 en route to a 9–1 title season.

Yae will also enjoy continuity in the backfield, as running back and rookie standout Zane Dudek ’21 returns for his sophomore campaign. Dudek had a historic season in 2017 with 7.1 yards per carry, earning a slew of awards including Football Championship Subdivision offensive freshman of the year and Ivy League rookie of the year.

Though Yale running back Deshawn Salter ’18 — who was a force in the backfield despite injury troubles throughout his career — graduated, the team will enjoy an embarrassment of riches in a position that has seen injury problems in the past. Dudek is in the company of a healthy Alan Lamar ’20, who sat last season out due to injury, among others. In his rookie season, Lamar was the team’s first-year MVP and a second-team All Ivy selection. Joining the established duo this fall is Trenton Charles ’22, whose high school career saw him become a two-time All-State pick in Louisiana.

“We’ve always rotated backs,” Reno said. “We’ve got a good group of guys, but if history tells us anything, we’ll need a lot of them so having that the depth there is really important.”

Even with all of the changes to its roster, Yale was picked to finish first in the conference in the annual Ivy League Preseason Media Poll.

Won Jung | won.jung@yale.edu

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu