Tim Murphy, frankly, didn’t think Jaron Wilson was quite good enough for Harvard. He viewed the corner from Carmichael, Calif., as a “program player,” one with great charisma and an on-campus leader, but not a two-year starter at safety.
And certainly not an impact player, one who would take a pick-six 51 yards with a spectacular, spinning, tackle-busting finish in this year’s home opener against Brown. Or deliver a key fourth-quarter stop last Saturday at the Stadium to help preserve a nail-biting 38-30 victory over Penn.
The Del Campo High senior had to make Murphy a believer.
“I told Coach Murphy that football was my true passion,” recalled Wilson, who had followed in the footsteps of his father, Dwan, a former four-year starting cornerback at the Air Force Academy, and his coach starting at youth level.
“And wherever I went, I was going to put everything into it. Harvard was my No. 1 choice.”
Murphy walked out their meeting thinking, “we have got to have this kid. I made one of those gut decisions [to make an offer].”
Saturday at noon, the 5-foot-10-inch, 190-pound senior makes the final start of his career, in the Yale Bowl, against the rival Bulldogs (5-4, 3-3), as the Crimson (8-1 overall, 5-1 Ivy) shoot for their seventh straight victory in a series that has turned rather one-sided, with 11 wins in the last 12 meetings.
On the back line of defense, Wilson will line up alongside fellow seniors Reynaldo Kirton, D.J. Monroe, Brian Owusu, and Chris Splinter, a close-knit, intense, and highly motivated group that has been the glue for a ferocious defense that has been tested by injury all season.
“They have been incredible, the heart and soul of our football team,” Murphy said of the quintet, along with senior captain and middle linebacker Josh Boyd and run stuffers Nnamdi Obukwelo and Jack Dittner.
Wilson and his teammmates in the secondary seemingly have been together forever.
“We’ve grown to trust each other, we know that the other guy will be where he’s supposed to be,” said Monroe, a 6-foot, 190-pound corner from Columbia, S.C., who like Kirton, is back for a fifth year, the result of both tearing anterior cruciate ligaments as sophomores.
Their position coach, Ryan Crawford, has given the experienced crew the freedom to adjust coverages.
The bottom line, according to Splinter, a 5-10, 185-pound safety out of Masconomet Regional, “is we go out and play with confidence. We play off each other.”
Together, the five have accounted for six of the Crimson’s 13 interceptions with talented junior corner Norman Hayes picking off two more. They are determined to go out with a bang in the 130th edition of The Game; with a little help up north at Dartmouth, Harvard can earn a share of the league title with Princeton.
Murphy has told his players that no Ivy League team has ever won nine games and not won a championship, “so that’s what we’re sticking with.”
Though Yale second-year coach Tony Reno insisted this week that senior QB Henry Furman (a 65.7 percent passer), rugged junior back Tyler Varga (121.4 yards rushing per game in five starts), and senior wideout Chris Smith — all held out last week at Ivy leader Princeton in a 59-23 pounding — would be game-time decisions, Wilson said, “we want Yale at full strength,” a sentiment fully endorsed by his mates.
“We’ve been preparing as if everyone is healthy,” said Kirton, the 6-2, 205-pound safety.
And versatile senior Deon Randall (78 catches, 8 TDs, plus 6.2 yards per carry) is a dynamic weapon, too.
“Randall and Varga are great players,” added Wilson.
The Crimson quintet, though, don’t lack for confidence. Now it’s a matter of execution.
“We pride ourselves on leading this team,” said Owusu, a 5-10 corner out of Oxnard, Calif. “We practice hard, and by the time the game comes, we’re running around, ready to make plays.
“DJ is a physical corner that likes to get up in your face, Jaron is the same way, he likes to hit, and Kirton is a ballhawk. We all love different parts of the game. Put us all together, and we are a good little team.
“Our next game will be our best game, that’s been our motto all season.”
If junior end Zach Hodges (6.5 sacks) turns up the pressure off the edge, with Obekwelu and Co. providing a thrust up the middle, their work for the afternoon will get a little bit easier.
“We know that if the quarterback does not have much time to throw, they’re pressured, they throw a bad ball, and we can be much more aggressive in our techniques,” said Monroe.
There are playmakers on offense too.
Junior QB Conner Hempel (13 TD passes) and sophomore back Paul Stanton (13 TDs, 6.1 yards per carry) have emerged as impact players as first-year starters for an attack averaging 37.4 points per game. Healthy again, senior tight end Cam Brate (22 catches, 5 TDs) is a very tough cover (“He comes back and it changes everything,” said Hempel), and senior Ricky Zorn (44 catches) has been a measure of excellence from start to finish.
“Starting on offense, they have a group of backs and receivers that present a lot of problems,” said Reno, who is suiting up nine freshmen on his two-deep defense.
“Up front, there is a lot of strength, and they move people off the ball.”
In his team’s five wins, the Bulldogs have “controlled the controllables,” added the coach. “In our four losses, the turnover margin has been poor.”
And that is where the Harvard seniors are determined to make a difference.
Kirton, for one, wouldn’t mind a repeat of last year’s finish.
His fourth-quarter pick closed out a 34-24 victory.