Harvard football is at a crossroad.
In 1997 its offense will usher out the Eion Hu '97 era, riding instead the young arm of sophomore quarterback Rich Linden, the young legs of second-year running back Chris Menick and the surgically repaired right knee of senior wideout Colby Skelton.
Harvard's defense will be faced with the formidable task of topping its eye-opening performance of last season by doing just as good a job against the run while adjusting to opposing passing attacks.
And Tim Murphy, the Crimson's fourth-year coach, will be saddled with the pressure of finally guiding a team that he himself built.
Harvard is a team of question marks, but that's why it plays the games.
The Offense: The Next Eion?
The one certainty for Harvard's offense is that nothing is certain.
No longer can Murphy hand the ball to Hu 20 times a game and pray for the best.
At 3,073 yards over a three-year career, Hu is Harvard's all-time leading rusher. He carried the ball more than 200 times every year of his career, including a school-record 250 times last season.
Perhaps more importantly, Hu always seemed to save his best efforts for the biggest games, rushing for 497 yards in his three Harvard-Yale matchups. In short, he is the greatest running back in Harvard history.
"Having to replace Eion Hu is going to be a challenge," Murphy said. "We think we can replace him by committee. With [Menick, Junior Troy Jones, sophomore Damon Jones and freshman Chuck Nwokocha], we're going to have a good running back crew; we just need to see who's going to be the go-to guy."
Murphy can only hope Menick's performance during the team's spring trip to Japan presages things to come. The sophomore tailback, who was second on the team with 326 rushing yards in 1996, ran for 265 yards and scored five touchdowns in a 42-35 comeback win over Kyoto University.
Troy Jones is a speedy back who has yet to play as well as advertised, and Damon Jones should start at fullback.
The success of the running game will no doubt depend largely on the offensive line, which took a big blow with the loss of former captain Sean Riley '97, Harvard's sole First Team All-Ivy selection from last season. Senior Dave Elliott will move from the guard position to replace Riley at right offensive tackle.
Joininh Elliott on the line will be senior tackle Matt Birk, a two-year starter who has impressed in preseason, juniors Mike Shreve and Alex Garcia at the guard spots and junior Will Ratcliffe at center.
Regardless of who, if anyone, steps up to replace Hu, Murphy's team will be forced to open up its offense and put some pressure on Linden and the receivers.
When Skelton was carried off the field after chugging down the field on a key 45-yard reverse in last season's finale against Yale with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, that pressure became markedly heavier. No more can Skelton run an out pattern with the cavalier attitude of a college player who has never had major knee surgery.
"Colby Skelton may not be 100 percent, but I think for anybody who's ever experienced that kind of catastrophic knee injury and reconstruction, I don't know if you ever are truly 100 percent," Murphy said. "But he's done as much as any kid can do to get back to the point where he's ready to play."
Even with Skelton's injury, this year's corps of receivers is one of the deepest and most talented of Murphy's tenure. Quarterback-turned flanker Jared Chupaila has blossomed into a vital compo- nent of the Harvard offense, and with a greater emphasis on the air attack this season, his role should expand even further.
Sophomore wideout Terence Patterson, who finished last season second on the team in yards-per-catch, is a quick receiver who should provide an additional deep threat for the Crimson.
"I think we kind of went on Eion's shoulders for a couple of years, and rightfully so," Skelton said. "But I think we have a great corps of receivers, and older guys too, so we're ready to open it up."
Of course the burden of getting the ball to the receivers will rest squarely on Linden's shoulders. Linden, the first freshman starting quarterback in team history, impressed coaches and teammates with his poise and decision-making ability last season when he started the final six games of the season.
But now such traits will be taken as a given rather than a bonus. The biggest hurdle for the young man taking the snaps for the Crimson may be living up to the expectations that will come unfailingly a year after being labelled a freshman phenom.
"There's definitely a little more pressure on me this year, but it's an 11-man game still, and I'm going to just try to take it one game at a time," Linden said. "We have a veteran group of receivers back, I've made a lot of progress this spring with reads and with decisions and I really understand our offense a lot better than I did in the fall."
If Linden does not continue to blossom into one of the better arms the Ancient Eight has to offer, his season-and no doubt his team's season-will be a disappointment.
The Defense: Defending the Pass
On the defensive side of the ball, Harvard's 1996 season was a tale of two teams. The Crimson was almost impenetrable on the ground, ranking third in the nation in run defense. But since Harvard was so adept at stopping the running game, the team was susceptible to the pass, and several teams were able to exploit that weakness.
This season the challenge for Murphy and his defensive coaching staff will be to make the Crimson a feared total defensive team.
"If we can take that next step as a team that defends the pass as well as the run, and develop a little bit of a killer instinct, then that's the first step in trying to make that transition to a very, very good football team," Murphy said.
Harvard's defense will center around its outstanding senior-laden defensive line. The five-headed monster of captain Brendan Bibro, Jason Hughes and Chris Schaefer at tackle and Second Team All-Ivy selections Tim Fleiszer and Chris Smith at defensive end has been terrorizing opposing runners and quarterbacks for most of Murphy's tenure at the helm.
The defensive line is the cornerstone of Murphy's first recruiting class, which includes 17 current seniors in total.
"Because we were Coach Murphy's first class, it was just a special group," Bibro said. "We came together really well, and the team is really a lot tighter than it has been since I've been here."
Harvard's defensive line is not its only strong suit on the defensive side of the football. The Crimson returns a young, but effective linebacking corps that opened a lot of eyes last season. Inside linebackers Scott Larkee, a junior, and Isaiah Kacyvenski, last season's Ivy Rookie of the Year, finished one-two on the team in tackles.
For the fourth consecutive season, free safety Jeff Compas will headline the Crimson's defensive backfield. He will be joined in the secondary by sophomore Aaron Natale, who racked up 70 tackles out of the strong safety position, and juniors Derek Yankoff and Glenn Jackson should start at the two corners.
Special Teams: Room for Improvement
Harvard's kicking game was perhaps its most obvious weakness a season ago. The Crimson lost several close games last year that could have swung the other way had the team been able to make its field goals and push opponents back with deeper kicks.
"When we really need a field goal, we really need to be able to knock that thing through," Murphy said. "I feel like our kids definitely have the capability to do that, but ultimately to get over that hump, you have to kick a big one."
Harvard will need more consistency from junior Ryan Korinke, who returns as the team's starting placekicker. Korinke converted on 10 of 18 field goal attempts last season, but one of the three misses came in a 6-3 loss to eventual Ivy-champion Dartmouth, which finished the season undefeated.
Murphy also hopes another year of experience adds some distance to the punts of sophomore Michael Giampaolo, who averaged 34.6 yards per kick last season.
The 1997 season is a pivotal one for Murphy as well. Known for his excellent recruiting, Murphy is finally in a position where the seniors are truly his seniors. Nothing short of an Ivy title contender will shield him from the criticism of fans who have grown wary of seeing mediocrity take the field every Saturday.
"When [this year's senior class] first came, there were a lot of players from this area on the team, but Coach Murphy did a great job at nationwide recruiting," Skelton said. "He recruits kids who are like him: disciplined and tough. They want to play football and are ready to win."
The football media has recognized that this is a team replete with senior leadership at several key positions, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, rewarding Harvard with a number two ranking in the annual preseason media poll (Penn was ranked first). All that remains for the Crimson is to live up to its considerable billing.
"You can throw all that media stuff in the garbage," Compas said. "I don't think Columbia's going to be like, 'Oh, they're ranked number two, we can't beat them.' We've just got to go out there and play ball.