It’s been a winding road for Alex Breaux since he got to Harvard.
After a postgraduate year at Exeter, the 6’3, 190-pound receiver turned down multiple offers to play football at Division I-A schools in order to join the Crimson. Used to being the featured pass-catcher, one can imagine the junior’s surprise when he entered his first collegiate training camp as the last wideout on the depth chart.
But Breaux persevered, and due to injuries to both the No. 1 and No. 2 guys and a bit of good luck, he ended his freshman campaign second on the team in receiving yards and touchdown catches. In fact, Breaux’s 22-yard touchdown grab tied the ’05 Harvard-Yale game late in the fourth quarter and set the stage for the unforgettable three overtimes that would follow.
Two years later, Breaux finds himself in a similar position. He’s ahead of a lot of promising young receiving talent on the depth chart, having built chemistry with quarterback Liam O’Hagan after a full preseason of workouts. But one thing’s changed since then—today, there are three guys ahead of him.
It speaks to Harvard’s amazing depth at wide receiver. On a fair number of Ivy League squads, Breaux would be at least one of the featured pass-catchers, but with the Crimson, there’s a wide array of talent, spanning a variety of ages, sizes, styles and experience levels—providing for perhaps the deepest arsenal of weapons ever afforded to a Harvard quarterback.
And even though his playing time might have diminished, Breaux says he’s happy to be a part of it all.
“I think we’re the best in terms of returning experience,” he says. “After training with the guys this summer, I feel like we’re so much closer.”
And it’s good timing for the Crimson—O’Hagan looks to have returned to his 2005 form, playing mistake-free football while finding the endzone twice through the air in Harvard’s 31-28 season-opening loss to Holy Cross last Saturday. Not to mention the fact that the Crimson can no longer turn to Clifton Dawson ’07 as a safety valve, as it did the past four years.
No, this year, Harvard can—and will have to—air it out. And for the guys who plan on doing the catching portion of that equation, that’s just fine.
Although he was scheduled to graduate in June, the aforementioned No. 1 guy whose injury paved the way for Breaux’s breakout freshman season is back for another year—because of that very injury. Torn ankle ligaments forced Corey Mazza out after two games in ’05, resulting in the senior wide receiver getting a fifth season of eligibility from the Ivy League this year. Mazza, familiar with the exploits of recent Crimson receiving stars like Carl Morris ’03, Brian Edwards ’05, and Rodney Byrnes ’06, knows a deep unit when he sees one. And he says this one is the best yet.
“This is just about as deep as I’ve seen the receiving corps,” Mazza says. “There are six or seven guys with substantive playing time and substantive contributions.”
None of those guys is more important to Harvard than Mazza, who currently ranks second in both receiving yards and touchdowns in team history. He needs six touchdowns to tie Morris’ all-time mark of 28, but he probably won’t pick up the over 1,300 receiving yards necessary to break Morris’ record in that category.
Part of that has to do with the fact that a lot of passes will be headed for sophomore Matt Luft and senior Matt Lagace, the second and third-ranked receivers for the Crimson last year, respectively. Lagace caught a perfect 35-yard pass in the Holy Cross game last weekend, building off a great offseason that will force Harvard to run more no tight end and single-back sets in order to get Lagace more time on the field.
“We’re glad to have Mazza and Luft and Matt Lagace, who has been, really, probably the most pleasant surprise in preseason, back and healthy and at a high level,” head coach Tim Murphy says.
And though Luft is just a sophomore, it’s the third year in which he and Mazza have played together. The two had an overlapping year in high school in California, but Luft has changed a great deal since his days at Thousand Oaks High.
“He added five or 10 pounds of muscle during the offseason,” Breaux says of Luft. “He’s going to be a mismatch for any corner in the league.”
“He’s 6’5 and 230 pounds, he’s got the possession receiver package, but I think that’s what helps him,” Lagace says. “He’s able to block off other defensive backs, and he makes a big target for Liam.”
Lagace, who started just three games as a junior in part due to injury and missed two full contests the year before, is poised to stay healthy for his first full season in 2007. But if he or any one of the wideouts were to go down, there’d be other—many other—options.
“We’re so deep that even if we have a few injuries, we’re going to be okay,” Mazza says. “That’s nice to know.”
THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS
Especially since some of those injury worries have already been realized. Noticeably missing from the slew of playmaking Harvard wideouts this year is junior Chris Sanders, who came into his own last year as a special-situation wideout, taking reverses, throwing passes and using his speed to make tacklers miss in open space.
Sanders had microfracture surgery last February—the same surgery that will sideline the first pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, Greg Oden—in order to repair damaged cartilage in his knee, a procedure that can require more than a year of recovery.
“Obviously, I’m trying to play, I want to play, but there’ve been some complications,” Sanders says.
Another young—and injured—wideout who has shown promise is freshman Marco Iannuzzi. A shoulder injury before the season began prevented him from legitimately challenging for playing time, but the future is bright.
“Marco Iannuzzi did some good things in preseason…He may be able to help us at some point this year,” Murphy says.
“He’s going to be that Ryan Tyler type, an open field runner who will probably break a few long plays before the year is over,” Mazza says.
The injuries mean that when the Crimson lines up five wide, there’s going to be an unheralded name in the crowd.
“Michael Cook is a guy not a lot of people know about,” Breaux says. “He’s a converted quarterback, and he’s going to be a new face to step out this year. He’ll definitely be in the mix at receiver.”
Cook rose as high as No. 2 on the quarterback depth chart last year, for the Brown contest, when both O’Hagan and senior quarterback Chris Pizzotti were unavailable, but never saw the field behind center. That allowed Murphy to test him out at defensive back in practice, before it became clear that his ability at receiver was too much to ignore.
“He’s really made the transitions receiver seamlessly, so he’s been a very pleasant surprise,” Murphy says.
“You’ll probably see a lot of Mike Cook this year,” Lagace says. “He’s a little bit quicker, he runs a lot of his routes across the middle, and I think he’s going to be a big addition this year.”
Cook, however, is by no means the most important quarterback to the success of Harvard’s receivers. That designation, not surprisingly, belongs to O’Hagan, who developed a solid relationship with Breaux during his last full season in 2005 and has risen through the ranks with Mazza and Lagace.
“I think having all the reps in spring and preseason under his belt will help him immensely,” Mazza says. “I think he’s got his confidence and his swagger back, which is so important in this game.”
Most of the receivers agree there’s been no great advance in O’Hagan’s physical capabilities since last year. Rather, it’s the poise that he developed during his layoff that could result in this being the senior quarterback’s best season yet. Even better than two years ago, when he notched the second-most total yards by a quarterback in team history.
“The maturation process is huge,” Breaux says. “After a great sophomore year, last year was a learning experience. But after training with him all summer, he’s really evolved into one of the biggest leaders on our team.”
The relationship between the receivers is especially important considering the youth in the running game. Three sophomores start on the Crimson’s offensive line, blocking for sophomore tailback Cheng Ho, who has exactly one career start to his credit.
But the offense won’t be substantially different without Dawson, the receivers say.
“One thing we are trying to do is incorporate more passing on first and second down than in years past,” Lagace says.
“I feel like everyone’s going to get their touches,” Mazza says. “We’ll be a bit more balanced, dangerous offense, because teams aren’t sure what we’re going to do.”
No one’s sure what they can do, in fact, but the ability is surely there in a receiving corps as deep as the Ivy League has seen in years. If the talent on paper can translate to on-field success, then it won’t matter who’s No. 1, who’s No. 4, and who’s in between on the depth chart.
The objective for each receiver is simple. There’s only one grab, one catch that truly matters.
“I want to play well for the other guys,” Breaux says. “Ultimately, my goal is to win a championship, and also to really bring the fun back into playing.”
—Staff writer Malcom A. Glenn can be reached at email@example.com.