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Experienced defensive line highlights tough football defense

New secondary, linebacker combinations look to impress over course of season

The football team’s defense has developed a reputation for toughness in recent years, and the stats back it up.

The unit allowed the second-fewest yards per game of any Ivy team in 2014 and the fewest in 2013. A core of returning starters has the Bruno defense primed for another year among the league’s best, but they will have to fill some key vacancies.

Defensive tackle Zach Sparber ’15.5 was made defensive captain and will lead a defensive line that is the jewel of the defensive crown. The Bears, who are known for heavy substitution on the defensive line, could not ask for a deeper or more experienced interior. The starting defensive tackles — Sparber and Jake Walther ’16 — will rotate with Ludovic Richardson ’16 and Tom Kutschke ’17 to keep opponents from gaining much ground up the middle. The four seasoned vets combined for 102 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss last season.

“We’re going to play hard ball,” Sparber said. “It’s going to be exciting to see.”

Robert Hughes ’17 will start as a defensive end for the second year in a row, looking to build off a solid sophomore campaign. The only real question mark on the defensive line is starting end Richard Jarvis ’17. Jarvis played sparingly at linebacker over the last two seasons, but he made the transition to defensive end this year and earned a spot. Head Coach Phil Estes P’18 said Jarvis has handled the transition well and could be a breakout contributor this fall.

Behind the front line, the Bears have a huge hole to fill, both literally and metaphorically, with the departure of 6-foot-5, 255-pound linebacker Xavier Russo ’15. Russo’s 80 tackles last season were almost double the next-best total on the team. Besides Russo, fellow linebacker and captain Dan Giovacchini ’15 amassed the third-most tackles. While the graduation of both inside linebackers would seem to leave the Bears’ defense a little soft in the center, Estes said they will fill the hole with a three-man rotation of talented upperclassmen.

Will Twyman ’16, Max Tylki ’17 and Brandon Davenport ’17 each saw action in most of last season’s games and will serve interchangeably at the two inside linebacker positions. Both Estes and Sparber cited the trio’s speed as a key to their ability to replace Russo and Giovacchini.

“It will be interesting to see where their maturity goes,” Estes said. “Athletically, they are as good, but it’s a matter of experience.”

“It’s a three-man rotation that the D-line really trusts behind us,” Sparber said.

Two familiar names will flank the trenches at outside linebacker: Michael Walsh ’16 and Ryan MacDonald ’16. Starting for the first time last year, the linebackers had a huge year that included 92 combined tackles, four tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries and an interception. The veterans could help ease the transition for their less-seasoned interior counterparts.

“They’re physical, and they’ve played a lot of football for us,” Estes said.

The biggest hurdle for the defense coming into this fall was the defensive backfield, Estes said. Key starters Jake Supron ’15 and Patrick O’Neill ’15 graduated, so Bruno will start two new cornerbacks.

Playing in only four games in 2014, Jordan Ferguson ’17 racked up an impressive 16 tackles and will get the nod as a starter at one corner. After a strong start to last season was derailed by injury, Will Quigley ’16 made the transition from safety to cornerback to start this season. Finally, Zach Gillen ’16 will provide some much-needed experience in the secondary. The starting safety had 32 tackles and two pass breakups last fall.

Sparber said he is not worried about inexperience in the secondary, because the unit has spent the preseason lining up against Brown’s wide receivers, which are thought to comprise one of the best receiving corps in the Ivy League.

“Steel sharpens steel,” Sparber said. “If it was a question mark to start the season, it’s a strength now.”

When the Bears’ defense lines up against Bryant at Brown Stadium Saturday, it is hard to say how the new faces in the middle and backfield will adjust. But experience in the trenches and the new contributors have the potential to continue Bruno’s stingy reputation.

“It’s as strong a defense as we’ve had since I’ve been here, and there’s no question we have the talent,” Sparber said. “Now it’s just about trusting and playing together.”


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