By Bruce Wood
Given that there are only 11 positions on defense, it would be hard for a defense to top what Dartmouth did last year when it had 11 standouts on that side of the ball earn some kind of All-Ivy League recognition.
But it’s a new year and the Big Green has bid farewell to no fewer than 10 very familiar names.
Gone is corner Vernon Harris, the first player in school history to start all 40 games in his career, and a two-time member of the All-Ivy League First Team now under contract with the Kansas City Chiefs. Gone are defensive end Cody Fulleton, defensive tackle A.J. Zuttah and corner Chai Reece, each a three-year starter with all-conference resumés. Linebacker Will McNamara, nickel Frankie Hernandez, linebacker Zach Slafsky and safety Troy Donahue were all two-year starters who have moved on. Add in safety David Caldwell, linebacker Eric Wickham and defensive end Sawyer Whalen and Dartmouth begins this season minus defensive players who accumulated a whopping 244 career starts.
The bottom line? One year after leading the nation with just 10.1 points allowed per game, Dartmouth kicks off the 2016 season against the University of New Hampshire with an Ivy League version of a No-Name Defense. At least to people on the outside.
“Our philosophy is, it’s the next man up, the next defense up,” said veteran coordinator Don Dobes, architect of the suffocating 2015 unit. “There’s a great opportunity now for the young guys that we recruited who have had to wait in the wings learning behind some very good players. They are really excited to finally have their chance to show everybody that there are still some pretty good players on the Dartmouth defense.
“When you have 10 of your guys earn some form of all-conference recognition you would like to think it is one of the great defenses in school history. The guys we have coming in played with them and learned from them. I like the fact that we are underrated and kind of unknown. Being a No-Name Defense is a great way to go into the season. This is their chance to show just how good they are.”
Ironically, the one remaining name familiar to the rest of the Ivy League is one that few can spell or even pronounce.
Preseason All-America linebacker Adefolarin Adebayo Orimolade — Flo to you and me — returns after finishing second in the conference in sacks (eight) and tackles for loss (12) on the way to earning a spot on the All-Ivy League First Team last fall. The quick-footed, 6-foot, 235-pound senior economics major from Burtonsville, Md., is confident that this No-Name Defense will indeed make a name for itself.
“We will be successful because we have multiple All-Ivy potential guys, and even a few All-America caliber players, which many teams do not have,” he offered. “We know that Dartmouth is a dynasty that just reloads now. We have a first-team All-Ivy caliber player at almost every level, but nobody knows except for us yet.”
Head Coach Buddy Teevens believes the same thing and is confident the Ivy League will soon enough discover the cupboard is anything but bare.
“People know about Flo, but there’s a bunch of guys who can play that people haven’t heard of who just keep showing up,” he said during the preseason. “We’ve got guys who can pressure the passer. We’ve got hitters. We’ve got some really aggressive guys.
“It is kind of fun to be the unnoticed. The anonymous. People don’t know a whole lot about them right now (only because) we haven’t started yet.”
“We are not focused on people knowing our names, but are focused on that ring,” said Cooper. “It’s all about everyone coming together and working hard to get a championship. Recognition and the rest will come later.”
Perhaps no area of the defense was harder hit than Cooper’s “D-line,” but Dobes is confident that even the loss of Zuttah and Fulleton — who both got NFL looks — can be overcome.
“We have good depth there even after losing two great ones,” he said. “It helps when you have a Brandon Cooper, and that Jeremiah Douchee is healthy and playing the way you always knew he could. There’s the maturation of the junior class with Nick Tomkins, Brennan Cascarano and Charlie Pontarelli, who we’re starting to see what he’s all about now that he’s healthy.
“And then you add in the young guys like (Davaron) Stockman and Jackson Perry, and when you start looking around you think you’ve got some pretty good talent and depth.”
A wild card, according to Dobes, could be the emergence of Justin Edwards, who came in as a linebacker but is comfortable on the end of the line.
“We have always expected big things from Edwards, so now it’s a chance for him to show that he has some of those pass rush abilities off the edge that we saw from Eric Wickham and those kind of guys,” said Dobes.
The linebacking crew, like the defensive front, has been largely rebuilt, although it has the advantage of welcoming Orimolade back.
“The group is very inexperienced except for The Man,” said Dobes. “Flo would be a special player on anybody’s team. He is definitely in the top-10 linebackers that I have ever coached. I don’t want to give him too much credit yet because he still has a year to go, but we will see where he ends up when all is said and done.
“With the other guys it is a great blend starting with two seniors in Brian Fordon and Alex McCrory, who have been backups. The only reason they haven’t been able to play is because they were behind the cats we had those last few years.
“I really like the young backers. The question would be how quick can they grow up? I think (Eric) Meile will be a very good player for us. And I think that (Jack) Traynor and (Jake) Moen at some point will be very good players for us, and I am hoping (Ian) Hanselman will continue to mature and be someone who can back up Flo.”
“I expect to have the same type of mix there we had last year,” the coach said. “I think any time you can have two good players alternate it really helps you at the end of the first half, and the end of the ballgame when you can have fresh guys in there.”
Replacing Harris on the corner is a daunting challenge, with Reece also leaving a void. The return of Danny McManus – who essentially shared time with Reece – will help, as will the emergence of Jarius Brown.
“We always thought Danny McManus was one of our top three corners and he has played a lot,” said Dobes. “I am very excited about the development of J.B. He is a quick, athletic, competitive guy.”
Dobes is optimistic that a return to health of Darius George would help overcome the loss of Reece, but also likes what he’s seen of a freshman secondary crew that includes Isiah Swann, Micah Croom, Michael Gordon and Tyler Addison.
“That’s an impressive group,” Dobes said of the freshman four. “The one that is probably the furthest ahead is Swann. He is the most smooth and most natural at this point. The others are working hard, and at the end of the day they’re going to be pretty good players. I am excited to see how they grow.”
“Chuck Miller is really, really coming into his own,” said Dobes. “We started seeing that at the end of last year. We thought he played really well against Harvard and the next three games after that. Now he has added 10-to-15 pounds of strength and muscle. Time-wise, we haven’t had anybody except for (Shawn) Abuhoff since I have been here who runs the way that he does.
“At the other safety I am excited about the competition between Bun (Straton) and (Colin) Boit. I think those two make each other better. At the end of the day it is going to give us three really good safeties.”
Beyond getting after the quarterback, the lone returning All-Ivy defender sees his role as making sure all of Dobes’ talented young players believe in themselves.
“My role,” Orimolade explained, “is to be a big communicator to make sure everybody is on the same page and to motivate people that haven’t been in big time football situations (and) let them know that they are ready for these situations.”
Like his fellow captain, Cooper believes they are.
“The guys that left, we really appreciate everything they did,” he said. “They taught us what to do, and how to go about working every single day. We take everything that they taught us, the traditions and the way to do things, and keep on moving forward.
“But we are forming a new identity because we do have new people. We understand that, and play to our strengths. We know it is going to have to be more of a collective effort this go-around. Everyone is working to the best of their ability, improving their skills. We like what we are seeing.”
Even if no one knows their names.