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He is their fearless leader. Linebackers coach Jim Butler calls him “one of the best linebackers in the history of the Ivy League.” Opposing offensive coordinators go through hell trying to avoid him. Some may think of Dante’s Inferno. But this Dante’s heard that one already.
“I’ve been hearing the Dante’s Inferno joke since my freshman year of high school,” senior linebacker Dante Balestracci said. “I think it’s pretty funny, though.”
If Balestracci continues to perform as he has in his first three seasons, he’ll probably keep on hearing it—in the National Football League. In fact, Balestracci could be drafted earlier any Harvard player in history. Currently, Isaiah Kacyvenski ’00 holds that honor with his fourth-round selection (119th overall) by the Seattle Seahawks in April 2000.
Kacyvenski played middle linebacker for the Crimson. Balestracci plays middle linebacker for the Crimson. The comparisons are inevitable. So how do they stack up?
“Dante compares very favorably with Isaiah at this stage of the game,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “But his status as a professional prospect will depend on his level of play as a senior.”
Kacyvenski is 6’1”, 250 pounds; Balestracci is 6’2”, 240 pounds. Kacyvenski was the Ivy League Rookie of the Year; Balestracci was the Ivy League Rookie of the Year. Kacyvenski was voted First Team All-Ivy three years in a row; Balestracci has been voted FirstTeam All-Ivy three years in a row. Balestracci is on pace to record the second most tackles in Harvard history—second only to Kaz.
But Kacyvenski was not Harvard’s captain. Balestracci is.
“Dante is an example on and off the field as to how a college football player should conduct himself,” Butler said. “He is a franchise guy and program maker.”
Balestracci’s statistics are impressive. He recorded 94 tackles his freshman year, 58 his sophomore year in only eight games and 95 last season. He had nine or more tackles in all but one game (five at Dartmouth) last year.
But the numbers don’t show his commanding presence. Tailbacks avoid running up the middle if he’s camped out in the box. On passing downs, he blitzes effectively and can drop back into coverage and intercept a pass—he has six picks in his career.
He often appears to be bigger than he really is due to his field coverage. How many middle linebackers can say they were twice voted USA Today Honorable Mention All-America in high school...in basketball?
“I just play [basketball] for fun now, and not too close to the beginning of the season,” Balestracci said.
He runs the show on defense, directing teammates and moving all over the field. He single-handedly turns Harvard’s defense into one of the Ivy League’s best.
“Dante has great physical tools, but more importantly, he possesses uncanny instincts to diagnose a play before it happens and find the football,” Butler said.
But Balestracci is not Harvard’s only linebacker. He will likely be joined in the starting line-up this season by junior Bobby Everett and senior Juano Queen, who moves to linebacker from strong safety.
Everett replaces John Perry ’03 at the strong-side position and has worked hard in the off-season to be a major presence on the defense this year.
“Bobby Everett is incredibly fast and dedicated in the weight room. I’d say he’s the best athlete on the team,” senior guard Joe Traverso said. “He’s playing a position where he’d typically be undersized, but he’s made himself into one of the best linebackers in this league.”
Balestracci is similarly impressed with his teammate.
“Bobby is exactly what we need in that position,” Balestracci said. “He’s super athletic, can cover receivers, and he’s had a great preseason.”
Queen is a punishing hitter who racked up 28 tackles last season. He moves to linebacker while junior Brian Niemczak, who played linebacker last season, takes Queen’s old position in the defensive backfield.
Queen is blessed with natural athletic ability, possessing the squad’s highest vertical leap (36.5”). He showed his ability at Princeton last year, coming up with 11 tackles and his first career interception in Harvard’s 24-17 victory.
“This year’s unit has great athleticism and speed,” Butler said. “With game experience, and under the leadership of Dante, our younger LBs should gain confidence and contribute to the success of our defense and the team as a whole.”
The younger linebackers consist of juniors Ray Hill and Sean Tracy and sophomore Gary Garcia, who all should see playing time this season. Though Murphy admits that depth may be a problem if the injury bug hits, the back-ups hope to provide a spark if called upon.
“As a defense, we want to be known as one of the best defenses in Division I-AA,” Garcia says. “We want to be dominating. We want our defense to win games for us.”
But everything revolves around Balestracci, who leads both on and off the field.
“Dante continually gives helpful advice and encourages enthusiasm,” Garcia says. “On the field, his play speaks for itself. No one in this league is as good as he is. He studies the opponents’ offense harder than anyone else and knows the play before it happens. He is a great captain and a great leader.”
If Balestracci can stay healthy throughout the year, Harvard may have enough to earn its second Ivy League Championship in three seasons.
“We’ve got the talent and the scheme,” Balestracci says. “Now we just have to go out and do it.”
—Staff writer Alex M. Sherman can be reached at email@example.com.
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