Holding the Line

Emily C. Wong

With the graduation of 2011 Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Josue Ortiz ’11, senior defensive tackle Nnamdi Obukwelu will anchor the Crimson’s defensive line.

The four-cone drill was a staple of senior Nnamdi Obukwelu’s offseason workout regimen. Standing in the middle of four equidistant cones, Obukwelu would dash to each at the command of his coach. A test of agility, the drill required Obukwelu to accelerate, stop on a dime, change direction to come back to the center, and then do it all again.

In the heat of Harvard Stadium, the drill could be tough, but Obukwelu and his fellow defensive linemen are well-versed at changing course after facing challenges for much of their Harvard careers.

During Obukwelu’s freshman year, the D-line finished second in the Ivy League in sacks, led by Josue Ortiz ’11. But the team lost 17-7 to Penn and finished second in the Ancient Eight. In 2010, Ortiz was even better, leading the league in tackles for a loss, but that still wasn’t enough to bring down the Quakers, who claimed a second straight Ivy crown.

With the unit growing stronger as Ortiz entered his final year, Carlton Hall, the assistant coach charged with preparing the defensive line, left Cambridge for another job, and Dwayne Wilmot came from Maine to fill the gap. The linemen pivoted and accelerated faster than ever, emerging as a dominant force in 2011.

The squad held opponents to an average of 90 yards on the ground and brought down opposing quarterbacks a league-high 28 times. Paired with a dominant offense, the Crimson went undefeated in league play to claim its first crown in three years.

Now, Obukwelu and company have to adjust again after losing two leaders. The first loss was the expected graduation of Ortiz, the leader of the line and the 2011 Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year.

“He came up huge every game,” Obukwelu says. “He was the anchor for the D-line.”

More than his play on the field, Ortiz’s drive in the offseason will be missed.

“Replacing a guy like Josue is definitely tough,” fifth-year senior John Lyon says. “One of the bigger things that you pick up from a guy like that is the type of attitude he had. Working out with him, doing extra lifts, he definitely pushed me, and I’m sure he pushed a lot of guys on the defensive line to work harder.”

While no one is expected to produce as Ortiz did during his Crimson career, Harvard coach Tim Murphy thinks that Obukwelu has the ability to take over as the centerpiece of a deep defensive line.

“I think it’s [going to be] a big year for Nnamdi Obukwelu,” Murphy says. “I think talent-wise, Nnamdi is the most talented defensive lineman we’ve recruited since we’ve been here. If he can take the next step, I think he could be a dominating player along the Josue Ortiz lines.”

While the squad was preparing to move on without Ortiz, the defensive line’s second loss came as a surprise. After a successful year at the helm, Wilmot, with three other former Harvard coaches, left in January to coach at Yale.

“I’m not trying to replace them, no different than Nnamdi is trying to place Josue,” says new defensive line coach Michael Horan, the Crimson’s third coach in three years. “I’m just trying to find my own style.”

Instead of bringing someone in from another school to fill the role again, Murphy chose to promote Horan, who has been on the Harvard staff for three years, in the hope of keeping the defensive line at the same level of play as a season ago.

“I feel as though the players didn’t want another new face,” Horan says. “For Coach Murphy to give me this amazing opportunity, I was very grateful, but the consensus along the D-line was that the players were glad Coach Murphy made the decision he made.”