Football hopes to keep strong defense alive with new lineup

Moving the ball against the football team’s defense has been difficult for opponents in recent years, but this season’s unit will need to replace some key cogs on the line and in the backfield in order to keep the stout tradition alive.

Bruno’s defense held offenses to the fewest yards per game of any team in the Ivy League last season, thanks in large part to the man captaining the squad in 2014, Dan Giovacchini ’15. The All-Ivy inside linebacker contributed all over the field last year, racking up a team-high 66 tackles, two interceptions, a fumble recovery and a sack. His track record is impressive, but this season brings new challenges, Giovacchini said.

“Last year I was more focused on my individual production. This year I have to be more focused on the team and defense as a whole,” he said. “That’s going to involve communicating more.”

Alongside Giovacchini at inside linebacker will be another stalwart of the defense, returning starter Xavier Russo ’15. His 6-foot-5, 255-pound frame makes Russo a threatening presence for opposing ball-carriers, and he backed up his menacing stature with 46 tackles and three sacks in 2013.

The Giovacchini/Russo combination brings a lot more to the defense than just tackles, said Head Coach Phil Estes.

“Any time you have two guys that got a lot of snaps last year, it’s going to make a difference in their confidence individually, but more so the team,” he said. “With the other guys being so young around them, they look to them to be the mainstay of the defense.”

Two new faces flank the leading duo at the outside linebacker positions. Ryan MacDonald ’16 and Michael Walsh ’16 combined for only seven tackles in limited action last season, but Walsh endeared himself to the Bruno faithful in the contest against Princeton when he returned a block punt 18 yards for a touchdown.

After starting at safety and contributing the fourth-most tackles to last year’s team, Eric Armagost ’15 will transition to outside linebacker for his senior campaign. Armagost is likely to make a big impact with his nose for the ball and hard-hitting style, but he has battled back injuries through preseason, putting his status for the season opener in question.

After touting the best secondary in the Ancient Eight a year ago, the Bears will have their work cut out for them filling the holes left by the graduation of All-Ivy cornerback Emory Polley ’14 and the transition of Armagost. Despite the absences, the defensive backfield was the strongest aspect of the defense in its scrimmage against Yale last week, Estes said.

Starting cornerbacks Patrick O’Neill ’15 and Jacob Supron ’15 are not new to varsity action and made valuable contributions last season, including over 50 tackles and five pass breakups combined. Will Quigley ’16 saw time in all 10 games last year and looks to fill Armagost’s vacancy at safety.

“It’s interesting because we lost an All-American starter in Emory Polley and I’m the only returning starter, but I feel more comfortable with the guys I’m with this year,” O’Neill said. “We have a good, cohesive unit.”

The secondary will also get a boost from such prolific run-stoppers at the linebacker position, O’Neill said. “I’m not worried about the run at all. I can focus on my job outside.”

O’Neill added that he expects to play the same scheme as his All-Ivy predecessors Polley and A.J. Cruz ’13 — lockdown man-to-man. “Let them blitz and we’ll do our thing outside.”

The biggest question marks of the 2014 defense exist in Bruno’s front four. Last year’s All-Ivy defensive end and captain Michael Yules ’14 leaves some big shoes to fill, and the Bears will likely take the field with four new starters in the trenches.

Chad Berry ’16 used the summer to transition from linebacker to defensive end, and he may offer a replacement for some of Yules’ production. In a breakout sophomore season, Berry accumulated 3.4 tackles per game and stood out against Dartmouth late in the year with six tackles and a sack.

“Berry makes a big difference for us. He’s just a physical presence,” Estes said.

“For lack of a better word, he’s a freak,” Giovacchini said. “He looks like Clay Matthews and he practically plays like him too. He’s going to be really fun to watch.”

Jacob Walther ’16 will get the start on the defensive interior after standing out as much as anyone on the front line in preseason, Estes said. Zach Sparber ’15 will line up next to Walther to plug the middle. With the graduation of defensive end John Bumpus ’14, Estes did not have to look far for his replacement, settling on his younger brother Henry Bumpus ’16.

The loss of seniors on the line is mitigated by Bruno’s heavy-rotating style, which allows young players to see frequent reps at the varsity level. Six linemen return with at least seven tackles, and fans can expect to see a lot of new bodies again this year.

The second line will consist of D-tackles Ludovic Richardson ’16, Thomas Kutschke ’17 and John Simpson ’17 and ends Charles Barry ’16 and Robert Hughes ’17.

“Really where it starts is the interior D-linemen,” Giovacchini said, adding that Walther, Sparber and Richardson have put on 15 to 20 pounds each, have lifted more and look “really good” in preseason.

While the starting lineup is coming into place, a lot is yet to be determined about this year’s defense. Some schemes and gameplans won’t be sorted out until the Bears have seen the veterans and new contributors play together in real action, Estes said.

“They still have to play as a team and get used to each other,” the coach said. “What kind of pass rush will we put on? Do we have to be more of a blitz team, or can we sit back in a zone? Those are the things we’re going to find out.”

Giovacchini said he thought the Bears had more defensive packages than any team on the schedule, making the defense more versatile but presenting a challenge for new starters.

The flood of young players and inexperience may come with growing pains, but O’Neill and Giovacchini are optimistic this year’s unit will imitate the success of Brown’s stingiest defenses.

“The championship team in 2005 … had a really young defense,” O’Neill said. “So we have taken on that mantra, saying it doesn’t have to be a certain way in order to win.”

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