"The greatest compliment you can give a freshman is that he never played like a freshman," said football Defensive Coordinator Michael Kelleher.
If one thing is certain, it is that last season — with a total of 57 tackles, several game-changing interceptions and an appointment to the All-Ivy Second Team — cornerback A.J. Cruz '13 never played like a rookie. "I don't think there is anything he could do on the field that would surprise me," Kelleher said.
Cruz earned Ivy Weekly Honors in six of 10 games, was named Ivy League Rookie of the Week after an impressive performance against Cornell and was honored as the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Week after a game-saving interception against Yale. Tri-captain linebacker Andrew Serrano '11 described Cruz as "a super-athletic guy" who is "definitely going to have a huge impact on the team this year."
Though the team will return some starters, like Cruz and Serrano, it will have to look further to fill the holes left by the class of 2010, both on offense and defense. According to Cruz, coaches have been emphasizing the transition to a team without "Buddys and Bobbys," referring to former wide receivers Buddy Farnham '10 and Bobby Sewall '10. And the defense lost five players from the class of 2010, which means new faces in key roles.
Because of this, the returning players' focus is "to come together as a team, to have each others' backs," Cruz said.
Kelleher describes the team's philosophy as each man having his "job" to do on the field.
"Defensively, if we have 11 players doing their job, we'll be a lot stronger," Kelleher said. "This season, our motto is ‘We are a team.' "
The defensive line is physically smaller than it has been in the past, but what the group lacks in size, it makes up for in speed and agility.
"We're going to play a lot faster, play more disciplined and play as a team more than we did last year," Serrano said.
Cruz described a pre-practice ritual that encourages leadership from the entire team.
"Whether it be a junior, senior, sophomore, from players who maybe don't play that much to the starters and captains, we always have someone go up and kind of get us going before practice," Cruz said. He describes the leadership in these pep talks as less individual and more team-based.
In preseason, the defense has been practicing mostly against the Brown starting offense, but as the season approaches, its focus has shifted toward preparing for opponents.
Serrano stressed the importance of having the scout team help the defense prepare for different offensive strategies.
"We can't always play our (starting) offense in practice, so having our scouts play well helps us prepare to take on other teams," Serrano said.
The Bears' first game is a rematch of last year's season opener, when they suffered a devastating 21-20 loss to Stony Brook. The defense is looking to come out with a better result this Saturday.
"They are a well-coached team and will be a good match for us physically," Kelleher said. "Our foundation has always been defensively to stop the run first, and this will be a good gauge to let us know where we are."
Stony Brook's offensive line averages close to 300 pounds across the board, which will present a challenge to the Bears' defensive linemen.
"They're bigger than we are, but we're faster," Serrano said.
Though the team is trying to focus all of its energy on preparing for Stony Brook, it is difficult not to look ahead to the team's second home game.
"I'd be lying if I said we can go a day without someone talking about the Harvard game," Kelleher said.
The team is also looking ahead to a rematch of last year's defensive battle against Penn, Cruz said.
Penn led the Ivy League in points last season , but the Bears were able to hold strong, only allowing one touchdown in regulation, but losing 14-7 in overtime.
Other defensive players to look out for this season include Chimso Okoji '11 and Phil Roffi '11, experienced players who will take over starting linebacker roles this season.