The Harvard football team set a program record last season by graduating 30 seniors, so coach Tim Murphy and his staff face a difficult task of picking up the pieces with a young team.
“Like a lot of teams, we’re a work in progress,” said Murphy. “It’s a tough, resilient group, and I expect that to be the kind of football we play.”
Despite the influx of younger talent, Murphy expects the Crimson to vie for the Ivy League title. That starts on the defensive side of the ball.
The Crimson (6-4 in 2018, 4-3 Ivy) will play to their strength after having the 24th-ranked team defense in FCS last year, allowing 330.8 yards per game. That included an impressive run-stopping ability, as opponents gained just a tick more than 100 yards per game.
Harvard returns its leading tackler, linebacker Jordan Hill, who recorded 70 stops as a sophomore. He’ll have help containing the backfield from junior defensive end Brogan McPartland, who led the team with four sacks as a sophomore.
Freshman defensive end Nate Leskovec has made a strong impression through preseason and will add a competitive dimension to the defense.
“I really like our defensive line personnel,” said Murphy. “We have a lot of outstanding players on the defensive side of the ball.”
One of those standouts is fifth-year senior captain Wes Ogsbury. Last season, Ogsbury tied for third among all FCS players with six interceptions.
“He’s one of the top corners in the Ivy League for a reason,” said Murphy. “Wes is an outstanding competitor and a great leader. He was voted single captain for the season.”
Where Harvard faltered last season was on special teams, primarily punt-return defense. The Crimson ranked 80th in FCS, allowing 222 total punt-return yards and 10.6 yards per return. It haunted them in a loss to Cornell, when the Big Red used a big return to set up the winning score.
“I expect us to be much better on special teams,” said Murphy. “It’s a much-improved group, from the quality and quantity of our linebackers to our big, athletic tight ends. The returning guys will give us a big step up on special teams.”
Tight ends are expected to be a big part of the offense as well. Last year, tight ends accounted for just 13 catches and 135 receiving yards. Ryan Reagan (6 feet 4 inches, 225 pounds), John Stivers (6-3, 235), and Adam West (6-7, 230) headline the group.
At wideout, the Crimson return just one of their top five receivers in senior Jack Cook. His 21 catches for 390 yards and two touchdowns ranked third on the team. Sophomore Kym Wimberly has stepped up early in preseason and is looking to be another potential target.
“We have been developing our depth to make sure we keep our legs fresh,” said Murphy.
Currently, Harvard has a quarterback competition between incumbent (and likely starter) Jake Smith, a junior, and Pat Holly, a sophomore.
While Harvard’s arsenal of receivers continues to develop, the backfield is looking as strong as ever. Junior Devin Darrington projects to be the top back, with sophomore Danny Abraham and freshmen Sone Ntoh and Aidan Borguet also expected to see some carries.
“The three elements of any championship-caliber team are great defense, strong quarterback play, and an established running game,” said Murphy. “Those last two go hand-in-hand; you have to run the ball to set up a passing game and have success passing to set up the run.”
Harvard opens the season Saturday with a trip to face San Diego, their first visit to play the Toreros since 2013 when they won, 42-20. San Diego visited Harvard last season, with the Crimson emerging victorious, 36-14. The Crimson are 3-0 all time against the Toreros.
The other two nonleague contests are against Howard at home Oct. 5 and at Holy Cross Oct. 19. Harvard and Howard will play for the first time. The Bison are led by star quarterback Caylin Newton, brother of Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton, and they put up 470 yards of offense per game last season.
The annual meeting against Yale in The Game will be Nov. 23 in New Haven to finish the season.
“We have a tremendous culture of high-character players,” said Murphy. “We control what our character is, and we expect at least 10-12 freshmen will end up lettering this year.”
Dan Shulman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @DanielRShulman.