FOOTBALL '09: New Front-Line Faces Hit Ground Running

Do work—that’s the motto the Harvard defense is living by this season.

And while the phrase may be derived from MTV’s “Rob and Big,” it certainly seems to fit the Crimson’s situation. At first look, Harvard has a lot of work to do.

Five of last year’s starting tackles, ends, and linebackers have graduated, leaving the Crimson with a new look up front.

Granted, Class of 2009 graduates Peter Ajayi, Desmond Bryant, Matt Curtis, Glenn Dorris, and Eric Schultz weren’t exactly your run-of-the-mill defense—all five received All-Ivy recognition in their senior season, propelling Harvard to a second-straight Ancient Eight title.

But anchored by captain Carl Ehrlich and senior Conor Murphy—both holdovers from last year’s starting lineup—the Crimson’s goal is not to miss a beat.

“You have a lot of guys who maybe didn’t start a lot of games last year...but there’s really not as much of a lack of experience as it may appear,” senior Ryan Burkhead says. “There’s a lot of experience there, these guys have been biding their time.”

Burkhead, who will be starting at defensive end, is one of the newer faces on the line. He saw action in nine games last season, making 21 tackles (10 solo) and recording three sacks, but the adjustment to the role of starter will bring new responsibilities.

“There’s much more of a leadership role involved—you have all the younger guys asking you questions,” Burkhead says. “Last year, I felt like I really needed to be on top of everything, so that really hasn’t changed.”

Junior Ben Graeff has earned the other starting end position, and will also see a huge jump in his playing time after recording six tackles a year ago.

“On any other team in the league, [he] would have gotten a lot of playing time last year,” Ehrlich says. “But we were so deep at defensive end.”

The duo will try to replicate the performance of Ajayi and Bryant, who combined for 54 tackles and both made the All-Ivy Second Team.

Ehrlich is a familiar face at tackle, returning to the spot he occupied on last year’s line.

“That’s the cornerstone of our defense, our defense is all about stopping the run,” the captain says. “I plug some gaps, eat double teams in the middle. It’s part of defense, you take a double team and a linebacker comes through and makes a play...it’s kind of a hard-hat, workman-like mentality of stopping the run first, so I’m definitely trying to add to that.”

Junior Chucks Obi will also get the call at tackle. Obi played in all 10 games as a sophomore in 2007, with 25 total tackles and an All-Ivy Honorable Mention nod.

Though the defensive line is set, the situation at linebacker is not as clear-cut.

Murphy will return as a starter, but Harvard has a host of seniors waiting in the wings to rotate through the linebacker slots.

Seniors Nick Hasselberg, JB Monu, and Sean Hayes will all be seeing a marked increase in playing time in their final seasons.

“To put in the time, working out all those times, practicing all those times, and never getting to play...it really bothers people,” Ehrlich says. “So these are all competitors, these are all awesome football players that came up and were a year behind Eric Schultz and Glenn Dorris—great linebackers. It makes you hungry, and maybe it’s cliché, but it makes you hungry. These guys, they’re ready to play, and they’re ready to make the most of their opportunity.”

Schultz and Dorris racked up five All-Ivy honors between them, with Schultz leading the team in both tackles (79) and sacks (4.5) last season.

Now, the door is open for a group of determined seniors to prove its mettle.

“We’ve got four or five seniors at those positions who know our system and are talented football players, and it’s just their turn,” Crimson coach Tim Murphy says.

Hasselberg and Hayes are currently battling for the starting position at weakside linebacker, while sophomore Alex Gedeon has won the job at middle linebacker.

Though Harvard may have graduated a quintet of great defenders, the Crimson is confident that with speed, hunger, and hard work, it can return to form as one of the top defenses in the Ivies.

“We’re not where we need to be, but we have the potential to be an outstanding defensive unit,” Murphy says. “When’s that going to happen? It’s not going to happen in the first quarter against Holy Cross, but we have that potential.”

—Staff writer Kate Leist can be reached at kleist@fas.harvard.edu.

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