After sustaining major injuries in recent years, Team 146 has understood how to create the depth to weather adversity.
The Elis are just two games into a 10-week season but have already been forced to adjust to unexpected absences and injuries. Despite making staying healthy a priority, the team’s unit-based mentality — which focuses on developing depth at every position — firmly accounts for whatever injuries may lie in the future. In order to mitigate the ever-looming threat of losing star players to unexpected circumstances the Bulldogs have focused on early and successful promotion of young players to significant roles.
“I want a lot of guys playing,” head coach Tony Reno said. “The level of involvement is always different based on the availability of some players, but we’ve had a lot of guys play for us. Defensively, that’s kind of who we are. We’ve really gone that way offensively as well when you look at the amount of backs we’re playing, tight ends we’re playing, receivers we’re trying to play in games. We’ve got that ‘next man up’ mentality, so when it’s your turn, we believe in you. It’s your time to go.”
Last season, Team 145 went 9–1 and capped the season off with a 24–3 triumph over Harvard at The Game to grab their first outright Ivy crown since 1980. The Elis boasted a roster chock-full of returning talent led by a particularly strong senior class. Linebacker Foyesade Oluokun ’18 and tight end Jaeden Graham ’18 now play in the NFL for the Atlanta Falcons. Meanwhile, according to Reno, outside linebacker Matthew Oplinger ’18 awaits calls from other NFL teams in the midst of depth chart injuries and player movement.
But veterans alone did not account for Team 145’s talent, as running back Zane Dudek ’21 delivered the best-ever season by a Yale rookie running back. Dudek, the Phil Steele FCS Offensive Freshman of the Year and First Team Freshman All-American, led the Ancient Eight in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns with 1,133 and 15, respectively.
Despite his status as a highly anticipated recruit who broke conference records in his high school career in Pennsylvania, Dudek did not initially start for Yale. The Bulldogs’ depth chart to open the year had him at three, with Deshawn Salter ’18 and Alan Lamar ’20 listed as co-starters for the position. Lamar, entering his sophomore season, worked his way up the chart the year before, when the running back position was initially approached by a group effort but adjusted in response to Lamar’s talent.
In 2016, Lamar’s rookie performance was one of few bright spots in a year in which the Bulldogs went 3–7. Despite just five starts, the Olive Branch, Mississippi, native earned a second-team All-Ivy nod and led the team in both yards and touchdowns. Last fall, however, Lamar succumbed to a season-ending injury before the season had even begun. In a scrimmage against Brown in Team 145’s preseason, he tore his ACL, a critical blow to Yale in a position that lacked both depth and experience.
In Lamar’s absence, Salter and Dudek split the responsibilities for the majority of the season. The duo complemented each other in the backfield until Week Seven, when injury also took Salter out of play for the remainder of the season. Only then did Reno begin to rely heavily on Dudek, who rose to expectations as the season closed out.
The mentality of being ready to step up at a moment’s notice drives the dynamic between players at all positions, with more senior members taking on a mentorship role and preparing their younger counterparts.
“When I came in, there were upperclassmen who really took us young kids under their wing,” wideout JP Shohfi ’20 said. “[In my first year] we experienced some injuries early in the season at receiver, so I got the opportunity to earn some playing time … you never know when your number is going to be called. When I was young those older guys really helped prepare me for when my number was called.”
The cyclical nature of the demands of college football — and Yale’s unhesitating ability to call up its youngest members in response to those demands — have already manifested this season. Dudek, who a year ago played backup to Salter because of Lamar’s injury, was joined in Team 146’s Ivy opener against Cornell by rookie running back Spencer Alston ’22. Alston did not disappoint in his collegiate debut even after being promoted to two just an hour before kickoff. He delivered 120 yards and a game-winning touchdown late in the final frame to be named Ivy League Rookie of the week.
Saturday’s contest — in which the Elis looked to tweak their game after a shocking overtime loss to Holy Cross the weekend before — demonstrated the early and immediate impact of Yale’s rookie class. In addition to Alston, three other first years made significant contributions, as defensive back Dathan Hickey ’22, linebacker Noah Pope ’22 and defensive lineman Reid Nickerson ’22 made a total of six solo tackles combined.
“We’re a very young team, a very young defense,” defensive end J. Hunter Roman ’19 said. “These games have been really great experiences for us as a means of maturing … I have a lot of optimistic feels.”
The Bulldogs will defend the Yale Bowl on Saturday against Maine in this campaign’s first home contest.
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