MOUNT VERNON – Cornell's football program has improved its win total in each of Vince Brautigam's four seasons as head coach. The bar was raised to 7-3 last fall, 10 points shy of an undefeated Midwest Conference season.
"Last year was definitely a step in the right direction. That's where we want to be progress-wise," said Brautigam, on steering the Rams to their first winning season since 2001. "Last year's team laid the foundation for an expectation of winning. That is now turned over to the 2014 team."
The 2014 Rams have 15 starters back in preseason camp, including several difference-makers on both sides of the ball. The squad features eight multi-year starters and seven returning all-conference performers.
Seniors Myron Seabrook (DB/RS), Sam Cluck (OL) and junior Ben Knake (WR) earned First Team All-MWC honors a year ago. All three have been cited in preseason All-America publications, in addition to seniors Troy Bedard (OL) and Brit Connor (WR).
Cornell tied for second in last year's MWC standings at 7-2. The Rams look to make another run at a conference title this fall, led by a strong class of 16 seniors.
"This is the first full class that we brought in. A lot of responsibility falls on them this season," Brautigam said. "We lost a couple of close games (20-17 at St. Norbert; 17-10 vs. Lake Forest) last year. We have to learn how to win those games to be a championship team. I hope this team embraces those opportunities."
The Rams are picked to finish fourth in a competitive South Division according to the MWC Preseason Coaches' Poll, albeit just two votes out of second place. Illinois College, which the Rams beat in overtime in last year's home finale, is the favorite to win the South.
The Rams return eight starters from a dynamic offense that amassed 435.7 yards and 33.3 points a game. But essentially for the first time since the 2010 season, offensive coordinator Don Dicus will rely on a new signal-caller under center.
Juan Flores graduated as the most prolific quarterback in school history, totaling over 9,100 yards of total offense and 68 touchdowns in his career. Senior Kyle Stennes, the No. 1 pitcher on Cornell's baseball team, is the frontrunner to win the job. He was 7-of-12 passing for 40 yards in limited action last season.
"No question, offensively is where our strength lies. But at the same time we have an unproven quarterback," Brautigam said. "Kyle is in his fourth year in the program and knows the offense. The nice thing about breaking in a new quarterback is they will be surrounded by experience everywhere else on the field."
Bedard, at center, and Cluck, at left tackle, enter the season with 28 and 27 consecutive starts, respectively, on the offensive line. Junior Tuli Leota has started 18 of 20 career games. Sophomore Conrado Dominguez also gained valuable reps on the line a year ago.
The Rams field a talented and experienced receiving corps, led by Justin Cox, Connor and Knake. Cox (38 rec, 378 yds in 2013) begins his senior season No. 3 on the program's career receptions list with 138, while also posting 1,663 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns. Connor (30 rec, 374 yds) was a second team All-MWC pick in 2013. Knake (54 rec, 656 yds) led the MWC with 6.0 receptions per game. He has impressive career totals of 117 catches and 1,368 yards.
The team returns its top two running backs in junior Ethan Thompson (794 yds, 9 TDs) and senior Preston Ritchie (673 yds, 5 TDs). Ritchie posted a team-high 1,009 all-purpose yards. Both backs averaged well over 5.0 yards per carry.
Defensive coordinator Jay Davis graduated five key starters from a unit that ranked among the national leaders in a handful of categories, including an MWC-low 147.7 passing yards per game.
"Defensively, we were very good across the board last year. We lost some key contributors at pivotal positions (FS, SS, OLB, ILB), guys that started ever since they came to campus," Brautigam said. "A lot of the responsibility will fall on the defensive line and Alex Latow."
Senior tackle TJ Gray (25 tackles, 7.0 TFL) is the mainstay on the defensive line, having started all 30 games of his career. He was honorable mention all-conference in 2013. Junior Mike Faison (31 tackles, 4.0 TFL) and sophomore Andrew Joseph (45 tackles, 10.0 TFL) are also returning starters in the trenches.
"I feel that both (defensive and offensive) lines are as good as anybody we will play," Brautigam said. "These two positions will be great indicators of how much success we will have in 2014."
Latow, a senior linebacker, leads all active Rams with 253 career tackles. He was second on the team last year with 99 total stops and 12.5 tackles for loss.
The Rams feature two of the league's top cornerbacks in Seabrook and junior Kenny Smith. Seabrook has not missed a start since he arrived on campus. He led the team with four interceptions, and has 11 career picks. Smith finished with 35 tackles, seven pass breakups and three interceptions in 2013.
"The return of our two cornerbacks will help us on the outside," Brautigam said. "We will have to find guys to fill the other positions in the secondary."
Kaleb Whiting set a school record for most points scored by a kicker (63) during an impressive freshman campaign, which gained him honorable mention All-MWC accolades. He led MWC kickers in scoring and tied a school mark with eight made field goals. Whiting was 39-of-44 on PATs.
The Rams bring back their primary return specialists in Seabrook (22-for-208 yards on punt returns), Ritchie (12-for-230 yards on kick returns) and Knake (9-for-177 yards on kick returns). Seabrook was named First Team All-MWC as a return specialist last fall.
With the addition of Macalester, the 12-team MWC returns to divisional play for the first time since 1997. Cornell is a member of the South with Grinnell, Monmouth, Illinois College, Knox and Lake Forest. The same-place teams from the South and North Divisions will meet Nov. 15 on MWC Championship Weekend.
"I think (a championship game) is great for the conference," Brautigam said. "It will give us a true automatic qualifier participant for the playoffs."
Cornell will play a nine-game schedule, leading off with an anticipated home opener Sept. 13 against the rival Coe Kohawks. The 7 p.m. kickoff will mark the first-ever football game played under the lights at Ash Park Stadium.
The Rams play five South Division foes, and have cross-over dates with North Division favorite St. Norbert and Ripon (picked second in the North). Cornell's Homecoming is Oct. 18 against Knox.