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Harvard football closes spring drills Saturday

Harvard football coach Tim Murphy underwent emergency triple coronary bypass surgery in February.
Harvard football coach Tim Murphy underwent emergency triple coronary bypass surgery in February.(JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)

Every offseason presents a new set of challenges.

The starting point? Taking note of the number of seniors that have suited up for the final time.

That collection of leadership, experience, and talent for the Harvard football team numbers 36, a sizable void for a program coming off a stellar 9-1 mark and its second Ivy League crown in three seasons, earning a share much to the disdain of Princeton.

This offseason, from Feb. 10 forward, however, has been unlike any previous one for Tim Murphy.

In 27 seasons as a head coach, the past 20 at Harvard, he had been the picture of health on the sideline in his familiar attire of tan khakis, black top, and ball cap.

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Not one sick day since the Silver Lake Regional grad made his coaching debut, at age 30, at the University of Maine, in 1987. No personal workouts missed in the last three years.

Until Feb. 10, when the 57-year-old Murphy underwent emergency triple coronary bypass surgery.

The entire process, including the recovery, was humbling.

In his absence, coordinators Joel Lamb (offense) and Scott Larkee (defense) directed the Crimson through their daily routine.

But after two months on the IR, which he termed “challenging and frustrating,” Murphy has been back on schedule the past few weeks — coinciding with the start of spring ball.

Captain-elect Norman Hayes, while crediting players and staff for being on the same page in Murphy’s absence, said “I love having Coach here, he definitely makes his presence known.”

Murphy, also back on track with his personal fitness, six days per week under the direction of his cardiologist, said it has been “great to be back to work. I feel good. Going full bore.

“[But] quite honestly, with your family, you realize that you will not be doing this forever. The priorities are family, friends, and then football.”

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But the game will be back in focus Saturday night at 7, with the annual Crimson-White scrimmage under the lights at the Stadium, capping what has been 12 very productive spring practice sessions.

Murphy, though, will be in an unfamiliar setting, seated up in the pressbox above the field, while Lamb and Larkee direct the squads.

“I have not been with players every single day, they have,” Murphy said.

Murphy will watch an experienced offensive unit that is, according to rising senior quarterback Conner Hempel, “playing with an edge, and a lot of confidence.”

Sure-handed tight ends Cam Brate and Tyler Ott, along with rugged lineman Austin Scheufele, are key departures from an attack that averaged 37 points per game last fall.

But the elusive Hempel (15 TDs passing, five rushing) was terrific in his first season as a starter, sophomore back Paul Stanton (93.6 yards per game rushing, 15 TDs) was stellar, and clutch wideout Ricky Zorn (50 catches) is back for another run.

Up front, with 6-foot-3-inch, 300-pound senior Nick Easton at the pivot, who Murphy believes will be the best NFL prospect in the Ivy, the offensive line, potentially, “is as good as we’ve ever had,” said the coach.

“We are carrying a lot of momentum from last year,” said Hempel. The focus, he added, “has been reacting to what certain defenses are showing us,” and becoming more knowledgeable.

The Harvard defense is another story.

There are playmakers, namely Zach Hodges, a terror off the edge, along with rising junior linebacker Eric Medes, the team’s leading tackler last fall, and the 5-11, 195-pound Hayes, a formidable run stopper and ballhawk from strong safety.

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But the Crimson are pretty thin on D, particularly in the middle, with the loss of sturdy tackles Nnamdi Obukwelu and Jack Dittmer, along with linebacker Josh Boyd, a tremendous team captain, and in the backfield, where Hayes is helping to break in a new cast without the savvy Brian Owusu-D.J. Monroe-Chris Splinter-Reynaldo Kirton-Jaron Wilson contingent.
“We lost some really dynamic players,” said Murphy.

But redshirt sophomore Sean Ahern, whose father played at Brown when Murphy got his first coaching gig there as a part-time assistant in 1979, has really opened eyes this spring at corner. Asante Gibson and Jordan Becerra have showed promise too, along with Obum Obukwelu, Doug Webb, and Ryan Delisle up front.

“Defensively, we fly around, with tremendous effort,” said Hayes. “Communication is the most important part. We have been harping through the winter workouts and spring ball [to the younger players], do not waste any opportunity.

“We’re looking forward to getting better. The younger guys are stepping up.”

Murphy has one objective Saturday.

“I’d like to see a quick and healthy game,” he said. “I told [Lamb and Larkee] to keep it short and sweet.

“And I think that we are going to win this game no matter what.”


Craig Larson can be reached at clarson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeLars.

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Correction: Because of a reporting error, Sean Ahern’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.