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Yale football is experiencing a defensive renaissance this season. The Eli secondary, led by the experience of defensive back Malcolm Dixon ’20 and emerging stars from the class of 2022, has become a force to be reckoned with in the Ivy League.

The dominance of Yale’s secondary was on full display last Saturday. It was just over a year ago when Princeton came to the Yale Bowl and put up 59 points against the Bulldogs, but this time was much different. Kevin Davidson, the Tigers’ quarterback, was seeing ghosts the entire afternoon. Defensive back Kyle Ellis ’22 completely fooled the shot caller as he tried to go deep, undercutting the pass for his third interception of the season. Princeton’s offense, which averages 272 passing yards per game, was relegated to a meager 164 yards through the air. However, this excellence has been an entire season in the making.

“This year, we are doing a great job playing for each other,” Ellis said. “Every day, before and after practice, we break it down on family, emulating the love we have for one another. This allows us to play with everything we got knowing that our brothers beside us are doing the same. On top of this, Coach Araujo has done a great job since he got here in March, pushing us to be the best versions of ourselves, never allowing us to become complacent. When we hone in on our technique and play with everything we got — well, the results speak for themselves.”

While the unit has been skilled in picking off opposing quarterbacks, its tackling has been an additional asset. With the number of one-on-one tackling situations that these players have experienced, the consistency of the defensive backs has been incredible. Ellis leads the Yale squad in solo tackles with an impressive 28. He is joined at the top of the tackling leaderboard by fellow defensive backs Brandon Benn ’23 and Rodney Thomas II ’21, who have amassed 25 and 23 solo tackles respectively.

“We are a true brotherhood and play for each other, and when you play beside people you love there’s nothing that will stop you from doing everything you can to dominate,” defensive back Dathan Hickey ’22 said. “We are very intentional with our preparation — whether it’s watching film on our opponent or making sure our technique is on point, we are locked in. We pride ourselves on playing fast and not worrying about anybody but ourselves, and it’s shown on the field.”

There are also a handful of underappreciated members of the Yale secondary, whose consistent play has been instrumental in the function of the unit. Defensive back Deonte Henson ’21 has been a stalwart at corner for Yale since his first year and has posted some big numbers this season. The Penn game was where the Texas native really shone. He registered six total tackles as well as a tackle for loss. Benn has shown no first-year nerves stepping into this elite group of players, making significant contributions. He has featured in all nine games for Yale, making 35 total tackles and breaking up three passes.

Interceptions have been where the Bulldog secondary has seen impressive success. This superiority begins with Hickey. While only a sophomore, he has demonstrated the ability to read quarterbacks that one would hope for from a veteran player. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the contest against Cornell. Hickey was inside of Big Red quarterback Richie Kenney’s head, picking the shot-caller off twice. Ellis and Thomas have also returned interceptions for touchdowns — electric moments that got the crowd at the Yale Bowl on its feet.

One-on-one coverage, which has plagued the Eli defense in the past, has been a strength for Yale this season. Defensive back Melvin Rouse II ’21, who has experience on the other side of the coverage as a receiver, is a leader in pass defense for the Bulldogs. The North Carolina native has broken up a team-high five passes this year, with an average of .67 disruptions per game. Dixon has found success in the corner role in his final season, halting three receptions and flying into 22 total tackles.

“I think our strength is our ability to never get too high or low in games, not only as a secondary but also as a defensive unit,” Rouse said. “Every play is a battle in itself, and when you play with a front seven that attacks the QB every play like ours does, it makes it a lot easier to do our jobs in the back end.”

This smothering secondary will lead the line when Harvard comes to Yale Bowl this Saturday.

Eamonn Smith | eamonn.smith@yale.edu