Cris Zillo

With the Yale football team poised to return to the top of the Ivy League, the program’s star quarterback, who suffered a serious leg injury last season, is poised to make a comeback of his own.

The Elis’ 2018 title-defense campaign began with a bit of turbulence, as the Bulldogs — who ultimately finished the season in a three-way tie for fourth place — dropped two of their first four games to Holy Cross and foe Dartmouth. But, just when Team 146 seemed to be hitting its stride, disaster struck. Star quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 scrambled to the right side of the field against Penn in efforts to pick up a first down, but as he hustled to the sideline, he was tackled hard and suffered a season-ending leg injury. With Rawlings unable to play, Yale — and the rest of the conference — stood no chance of downing Princeton, who capped off a championship season with an undefeated record. Now after a successful rehab, Rawlings is ready to retake the field.

“[Rawlings] was very intentional in listening to medical advice,” head coach Tony Reno said. “He worked his way back into our spring practice and had a great summer … you wouldn’t know [he’d been injured], he’s now bigger, faster and stronger than he was before the injury last season. With Kurt, the biggest thing you get is his ability to take things one play at a time.”

In his 2016 rookie season, Rawlings patiently waited for time on the field. With a poor season start for Yale — winning just one of its first six games — Reno finally called Rawlings’ number at the start of the second half of the contest against Columbia in Week Seven.

In that eventful 30 minutes of play, Rawlings delivered a three-touchdown performance to carry the Bulldogs to victory — making him the first Yale rookie to throw a touchdown pass since 2012. Since then, the program has not looked back, and Rawlings had started all 19 games before injuring his leg.

Optimism remained even after the injury. After experimenting with both Jimmy Check ’21 and Patrick Conte ’21 under center, head coach Tony Reno settled on then-rookie signal-caller Griffin O’Connor ’22 to run the offense.

Starting just three games for the Elis, O’Connor won Ivy Rookie of the Year after totalling 1,229 yards and eight touchdowns while also breaking Yale’s school passing record with 465 passing yards in the matchup against the Ivy Champion and undefeated Tigers.

“Being sidelined obviously is tough since I am a competitor that loves the game, but watching Griff tear it up was awesome,” Rawlings said. “He has a phenomenal talent but is an even better person. Even though he is younger than I am, I look up to how impactful his positivity is at all times. Watching him torch defenses is just an added benefit of being friends with Griff.”

Despite O’Connor’s unprecedented success, Yale’s inexperienced and worn-down defense was unable to keep up with the rest of the Ancient Eight’s scoring prowess, leading to a less-than-satisfactory 3–4 Ivy record.

Rawlings rejoins a high-powered offense which boasts receiving tandem Reed Klubnik ’20 and captain JP Shohfi ’20 as well as ball carriers Alan Lamar ’20 and Zane Dudek ’21. Coupled with a defense that returns nearly all of its starters, the Elis have a chance to reclaim the Ivy crown after being picked first in the preseason poll.

“Always great to have Kurt out on the field, with the ability he has and also experience and leadership he brings to the team,” Shohfi said. “He is a huge part of our identity… I think a big goal for us as a unit is consistency. We have the ability to make big plays and keep the ball moving really effectively, so we want to emphasize and focus on giving our best effort and dominating every play, every rep we have.”

Rawlings and the Bulldogs will kick off the season against Holy Cross on Sept. 21.

Cristofer Zillo | cris.zillo@yale.edu .