Murphy Must Overcome Hurdles

“Killer instinct.” More than “Carl Morris,” “Neil Rose” or “Dante Balestracci,” these two words were on everyone’s lips during last week’s preseason media day—hardly surprising for a Harvard football team that threw away two fourth-quarter leads down the stretch last year. Despite the records set by the Crimson offense, its combined 12 turnovers against Penn and Yale defined the season of a talented but inexperienced team.

However, Harvard Coach Tim Murphy knows that putting teams away requires more than just hanging on to the ball.

“Looking back, the things that could have helped us last year were being more secure with the ball, making that clutch field goal at the end and a defense that could finish people off,” Murphy said last week.

As optimistic as Murphy is about remedying the first concern, he feels just as good about the latter two.

Safety In Numbers

The Crimson defense loses only two of last year’s regulars, strong safety Mike Brooks ’01 and defensive tackle R.D. Kern ’01. While they will be missed, Murphy is thrilled at the prospect of a defensive unit that returns nine starters—many of them seniors.

“We’ve got some men in the trenches,” Murphy said. “We’ve got kids who have played. In our league, where you don’t have fifth-year players, playing juniors is a lot different than playing seniors. Having so many seniors will, I’m sure, have an impact.”

Captain Ryan FitzGerald, who will again anchor the defense at left tackle, believes that the large number of seniors will make his leadership role much easier.

“They’re all great leaders, and they’re all very motivated and excited about the season, ready to work hard and motivate everyone else,” FitzGerald said. “I’m very lucky from that standpoint.”

Perhaps just as important as the experience of the defensive players is the number worthy of heavy minutes, particularly on the defensive line. Last year, the Crimson heavily favored its starters—Kern, FitzGerald, and then-junior defensive ends Marc Laborsky and Phil Scherrer deep into games. A week into training camp this year, Murphy feels he goes two deep across the line. In addition to senior Kyle Sims, the new starter at right tackle, expect to see juniors Michael Armstrong, Jesse Brush and Greg Parker among a group of freely rotated defensive linemen.

“We can play eight guys on the defensive line this year,” Murphy said. “We didn’t come close to having that kind of depth last year. So with eight fresh veteran players on the defensive line, just by virtue of that we’re going to be in better shape in the fourth quarter.”

Murphy believes that the Ivy League’s transformation into a passing-oriented conference makes the presence of depth on the defensive line more important. With more capable bodies to throw at increasingly lively offensive schemes, late-game fatigue becomes less of an issue.

“These days in our league, if you’ve got only four defensive linemen, they’re running up and down chasing the quarterback for four quarters,” Murphy said. “It’s a little different than if a team lines up in the ‘I’ formation and just tries to pound the ball away at you. If you’ve got quality depth—especially in the defensive line—then I think your conditioning in the fourth quarter is there.”

Special Again?

One thing that wasn’t there in the fourth quarter last year was the clutch field goal. In fact, the first through third quarters weren’t much better.

In ten games last year, Harvard kickers were 4-for-14 on field goals. The primary placekicker, Robbie Wright, endured a difficult freshman campaign. Although he hit all 34 of his point-after attempts, he missed over half of his tries from further out, including game-winners against Cornell and Pennsylvania.

But despite last year’s failures, Wright will still be called upon in the same situations.

“Those guys have a tough job,” Murphy said. “It was especially tough because we had a freshman doing it, and he was clearly the best guy. I think with just being a sophomore and having been through that situation, it will be a little easier to handle. It’s like anything else—I can’t tell you that when we get in that situation I’ll bet my mortgage on [making the kick], but I believe we’ll do it.”

Wright has apparently come into camp in superb condition. Although how much of a practical difference that will make in the team’s success rate has yet to be seen, it has been enough to impress Murphy.

“Robbie and [junior backup placekicker] Anders Blewett clearly put a lot of time and effort into their summers,” Murphy said. “They came back in great shape, worked extremely hard, and they’re just confident kids.”

Of course, the Crimson hopes that the team’s experience and depth on both lines will prevent last-second field goals from becoming an issue. The rest of the team wants to make sure that if Wright is called upon in seniors will, I’m sure, have an impact.”

Captain Ryan FitzGerald, who will again anchor the defense at left tackle, believes that the large number of seniors will make his leadership role much easier.

“They’re all great leaders, and they’re all very motivated and excited about the season, ready to work hard and motivate everyone else,” FitzGerald said. “I’m very lucky from that standpoint.”

Perhaps just as important as the experience of the defensive players is the number worthy of heavy minutes, particularly on the defensive line. Last year, the Crimson heavily favored its starters—Kern, FitzGerald, and then-junior defensive ends Marc Laborsky and Phil Scherrer deep into games.

A week into training camp this year, Murphy feels he goes two deep across the line. In addition to senior Kyle Sims, the new starter at right tackle, expect to see juniors Michael Armstrong, Jesse Brush and Greg Parker among a group of freely rotated defensive linemen.

“We can play eight guys on the defensive line this year,” Murphy said. “We didn’t come close to having that kind of depth last year. So with eight fresh veteran players on the defensive line, just by virtue of that we’re going to be in better shape in the fourth quarter.”

Murphy believes that the Ivy League’s transformation into a passing-oriented conference makes the presence of depth on the defensive line more important. With more capable bodies to throw at increasingly lively offensive schemes, late-game fatigue becomes less of an issue.

“These days in our league, if you’ve got only four defensive linemen, they’re running up and down chasing the quarterback for four quarters,” Murphy said. “It’s a little different than if a team lines up in the ‘I’ formation and just tries to pound the ball away at you. If you’ve got quality depth—especially in the defensive line—then I think your conditioning in the fourth quarter is there.”

Special Again?

One thing that wasn’t there in the fourth quarter last year was the clutch field goal. In fact, the first through third quarters weren’t much better.

In ten games last year, Harvard kickers were 4-for-14 on field goals. The primary placekicker, Robbie Wright, endured a difficult freshman campaign.

Although he hit all 34 of his point-after attempts, he missed over half of his tries from further out, including game-winners against Cornell and Pennsylvania.

But despite last year’s failures, Wright will still be called upon in the same situations.

“Those guys have a tough job,” Murphy said. “It was especially tough because we had a freshman doing it, and he was clearly the best guy. I think with just being a sophomore and having been through that situation, it will be a little easier to handle.

“It’s like anything else—I can’t tell you that when we get in that situation I’ll bet my mortgage on [making the kick], but I believe we’ll do it,” Murphy added.

Wright has apparently come into camp in superb condition. Although how much of a practical difference that will make in the team’s success rate has yet to be seen, it has been enough to impress Murphy.

“Robbie and [junior backup placekicker] Anders Blewett clearly put a lot of time and effort into their summers,” Murphy said. “They came back in great shape, worked extremely hard, and they’re just confident kids.”

Of course, the Crimson hopes that the team’s experience and depth on both lines will prevent last-second field goals from becoming an issue.

The rest of the team wants to make sure that if Wright is called upon in crunch time, it won’t be to salvage a squandered lead.

“I really believe that when we get in that situation, we will succeed,” Murphy said. “But my goal is to try like hell not to let it come down to that.”