With less than three weeks until his team’s homecoming matchup against Bucknell, second-year head coach Kent Austin sat down with Sun Sports Editor Evan Rich to offer some insight on the upcoming season. In the first of a two-part interview, Austin discusses the challenges facing the 2011 squad and the keys to building a winning culture that will sustain Cornell’s football program for years to come.
The Sun: What have been the greatest strengths of this team through the first few weeks of practice and training camp?
Kent Austin: [Sophomore Jeff Mathews] is doing an outstanding job at quarterback, and he has just grown so much from last year through his second spring and going into fall camp. But we have some other players that are playing well. [Sophomore running back Grant Gellatly], fully healthy, has really played well so far this camp. Another strength is [senior cornerback Rashad Campbell] on defense — he’s really having an outstanding camp. We know he’s a good player, and we’re counting on him to be kind of a leader back there in the secondary. And another highlight [of training camp] would probably be [senior Zack Imhoff], moving him to defensive end in the spring — he’s playing really, really well for us right now. We’ve improved really in every area. Our young players that we threw into the fire last year are a year older now, they’re experienced and they’ve really grown. They’ve grown physically and they’ve also grown mentally and emotionally as well.
Sun: Do you see any members of the most recent recruiting class making a big impact this season?
K.A.: Yeah, we will. We’ll have some [freshmen] that will play this year — no question. We’re going to be young again this year, but we won’t be as young as we were last year. We have a handful of guys that I think are performing well enough, and performing at a level that we thought they would, to at least give us quality reps during the regular season.
Sun: Is there anyone from that new class that really sticks out to you as being an impact player?
K.A.: Well there are several. I want to be careful not to forget somebody because we’re only eight practices in, so a lot can change between now and the first game. But initially I think you see that Cadell Williams and Junior Togiaso up front on the defensive line have done well. Lucas Shapiro — a receiver that we brought in from California — has performed very, very well … Rush Miller, Andrew Nelson and Josh Barut — the UCLA transfer — have all performed well in the secondary. I think Mike Turner and Aaron Hancock were what we thought they were at corner, when we recruited them. All of those guys at some point may contribute — some maybe more than others.
Sun: Do you see this team as stronger on one side of the ball than the other?
K.A.: Hard to say right now. Typically early in camp your defense is a little bit ahead of your offense – that’s usually typical for most teams. I think right now we’re a little more ahead offensively than on the defensive side of the ball. I think we’re going to be a much better football team, if that’s the question. We were really, really young last year and the guys that we played are just better now. They’re growing up, they’re more physical — like I said they’re more mature physically, they’re more mature mentally. They know the system, they know terminology and they’re not thinking as much. Everything was new to them last year … Learning a brand new defense, offensive schematics and terminology and asking them to play right out of high school, you grow up pretty quick in that environment. I think that we’re going to be a much more competitive football team. I think we’re going to be really good on special teams this year and I think on both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively, we’re going to be a lot better.
Sun: There are usually certain challenges that come into play during anyones first year as a head coach. What are the issues facing this team in year two under Kent Austin?
K.A.: There are always issues. I don’t think I’m any different than anybody else that is coaching football at any university. You have some issues that are outside and some issues that are internal, but that’s the nature of the business that we’re in. The good news here is that I have a tremendous amount of support from the leadership of this school, from President Skorton to [Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy ’73] to [Athletics Director Andy Noel] all the way through the ranks of individuals that are philosophically walking in step with me and how I want to build this program … Without that support and without philosophically being in alignment with those key positions it won’t work, and I knew that before I took the job, and that has played true since I have been here. I think that more than anything gives us the chance to build this the right way, and to really build sustainability for the excellence of this program.
Sun: There have been a number of improvements made surrounding this football program — most notably a new scoreboard and a website created specifically for this team. Do you think that support can translate to on field success?
K.A.: Culture trumps scheme any day of the week. You have to change the culture, and you have to build a culture that you believe in … Once you build a proper culture the expectations are engrained within that culture, so anybody that comes in … has to live up to the set of standards and achieve a certain level of excellence to maintain that culture. That’s what I believe in. And so how do you do that? Well, you do it in a lot of areas. It’s not just facilities improvements, the new high definition video board and the website. We also built a dedicated online recruiting and evaluation application in the off-season to make our job … managing our evaluations from a recruiting standpoint a lot more efficient. We also designed and built a brand new academic support program for the athletes that more fully integrates the resources here on campus in a more intelligent way, so we can be proactive with their progress instead of always being in a reactionary environment. So there were a lot of areas that we addressed — some seen, some unseen — that we believe will raise the water level and the quality of what we’re doing to an excellent standard.