Monday, August 31, 2009

Fall Preview, in more ways than One!

This evening in New York City it will actually be cold. I don't mean that as a joke or a metaphor... I mean it's going to be kinda chilly, with temps getting into the 50's! Right now at midday it's only 66 degrees.

That's good news for practice conditions. I always get nervous when I remember those terrible heat stroke-caused football training camp deaths at Northwestern and Minnesota Vikings camp a few years back. Also, this is a fall sport and more fall-like conditions in practice should help.


Incoming, non-football, students have started moving in on campus this week... so stay tuned for an updated, 2009 version of my annual intro to Columbia football for new students.

Fordham Getting Props

The answer to the annual question of whether Columbia will have to face the "good" Fordham or the "bad" Fordham in the season opener seems to be leaning towards the "good" Fordham these days.

Based on all the hype about the team from the pollsters and the super attention starting senior QB John Skelton is getting, this could be a great challenge for the Lions on September 19th.

Fordham gets its season underway this Saturday at Rhode Island at 1pm. If you want to do some "scouting" of your own, you can tune in to the game online at WFUV.

Week two opponent Central Connecticut State heads to Lehigh for a 12:30 game in Bethlehem while week four foe Lafayette doesn't get started until Sept. 12th at Georgetown.

Day 19: Ralph DeBernardo '09

Ralph DeBernardo was this blog's first interview with an active player, and he didn't disappoint. He was one of the biggest reasons why the Lions running game took such a giant leap forward last year, even though he battled some tough injuries all year.

Below is a reprint of that 2007 interview with Ralph. Things did not turn out as well as he hoped for that season, but his enthusiasm and leadership were not disappointing to anyone associated with the program.

Ralph, (#73), Protects Craig Hormann Against Fordham (CREDIT: DeBernardo Family)

Playing on the offensive line at Columbia the last two seasons has been a little like being on riot control duty... with no gear or reinforcements. The Lions began the 2005 season with just one player who had any game experience on the line, forcing Columbia to start sophomores and even some freshmen at almost every front line position.

The results were predictable. Columbia gained less than 50 yards on the ground per game, and gave up 33 sacks in the 10-game season. The problems on the offensive line were the key factors in a 2-8, (0-7 Ivy), season.

But one of those freshmen who got some starts was Ralph DeBernardo. And as a sophomore in 2006, he emerged as a rising star on a line that showed marked improvement. Columbia gained about 68 yards a game on the ground last season, and only allowed 16 sacks, (and if you subtract the five sacks allowed in the Harvard game, the o-line allowed barely more than one sack per game).

But none of the Lions is satisfied with those numbers, least of all DeBernardo. And since I still think the continuing improvement of the offensive line is the biggest key to success in 2007, I wanted to talk to him about his thoughts.

Ralph was gracious enough to agree and thus become the first current player on the Lion roster to be interviewed on Roar Lions Roar!

Jake: Let's find out a little about your background first. My New
Jersey geography is bad. Where the heck is Washington Township?

Ralph DeBernardo: Washington Township is in Bergen County, about 15 miles west of Manhattan, I attended Westwood Regional High School.

J: What was your high school experience like, both in an out of
the classroom?

RD: I would have to say that high school was a great experience for
me. Westwood is a small public high school, and I did very well there. I graduated with a 3.8 GPA. As for football, it was also an awesome experience, one that I wouldn’t trade for anything else. Westwood is a perennial playoff team, and we were state champs my senior year. So losing isn’t exactly something I’m accustomed to.

J: Walk us through the highlights of your college recruiting process. What other schools came after you, and why did you choose Columbia?

RD: The recruiting process started for me my junior year, however I
wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, or really what all my options were. My high school coach, Joe Gambardella, did a great job keeping my recruiting in check.

Columbia started lightly recruiting me my junior year, however I was not that big for a linemen at the time, (around 240 pounds), and needed to have a good senior year. With a lot of hard work, I managed to have a great senior year, playing center and defensive end, earning all-state honors as a center. I was recruited by a handful of Ivy and Patriot League schools as well as New Hampshire, Duke, Villanova, and Vanderbilt. My final three choices came down to Vanderbilt, Columbia, and UPenn. I was recruited by former o-line coach/offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky. Although my decision came down to the wire, I was 100% certain I wanted to play for the Lions.

It was a hard decision at first to pass up the opportunity to play in the SEC, but I really loved CU. In the end, my decision came down to the people here at Columbia. By "people," I mean the whole team which I met on my recruiting trip as well as other guys that were committing to CU the same year as I was. You really can’t go wrong with the education anywhere in the Ivy League, however I felt CU was the best fit for me because I really was convinced that I was going to be part of something special in turning the program around, a goal that is well on track as you know. So for any current recruits, I would say that if you are choosing between two schools of the same caliber, you really need to imagine yourself with the people who you are going to be around for 90% of your college career; your fellow players and coaches.

J: How surprised were you to see yourself starting a few games as a freshman in 2005?

RD: I wouldn’t say that I was surprised, but I was fortunate enough that the coaching staff back then saw I was working hard in practice and had earned the starting role. Looking back now, I realize I definitely wasn’t physically ready to be a starter, especially on the o-line. But going against guys who were in the league 3, 4, some even 5 years gave me an invaluable experience for my future playing career. I was made aware rather quickly of the speed and strength of the game in the Ivy League, something that helped me a lot this year as a sophomore on the o-line.

J: What are some of the biggest differences you've noticed between Bob Shoop's coaching staff and style and that of Norries Wilson?

RD: The biggest difference is definitely the attitude and discipline
that all the coaches instill into the players. With Coach Wilson’s staff, expectations are much higher, and losing is no longer an option. We go into every game knowing that we can, and expect to win.

J: You have a new offensive line coach in Cheston Blackshear; has it been hard adjusting to his style?

RD: Not at all, although Coach Sweet was an extremely good coach, (hence his move to the CFL), Coach Blackshear is right up there with him. They collaborated a lot with each other during this past season on o-line techniques, so that has made the transition a very easy one. We use all the same terminology and line calls as we did with Coach Sweet, making little confusion. Coach Blackshear’s playing experience as a starter on the national champion Gator’s team brings a lot to the table because he has first hand knowledge of every single technique that he teaches, and they are all proven and game tested.

J: We heard that Coach Wilson started to focus personally on the offensive line as last season went on. Did this serve as a motivational tool only, or did he bring some new techniques to the table?

RD: Coach Wilson did spend time with us at certain points last year,
but he does the same with all positions. Although he lets his coaches do their jobs, he is a very hands-on coach, and certainly has the knowledge necessary for helping out the o-line. There is so much that goes into coaching the o-line, that sometimes a different perspective can help someone better understand a certain scheme or technique. When Coach Wilson speaks you listen, and it definitely was a motivational tool when he entered into our drills and practices, even if he didn’t say a word.

J: What were your impressions of spring practice, are things coming together?

RD: I thought spring practice went very well, especially since there
were no major injuries. Everyone on the offense has a better understanding of Coach Marino’s system, and look for offensive production to improve greatly this year, with a number of playmakers in the skill positions and a stronger o-line. The spring is a great time for the team to improve, especially for the offense because every time we line up in practice we are going against the best defense in the Ivy League.

J: The offensive line has been to Hell and back since 2005. With more experienced players going into this season, do you expect to see some more improvements, particularly in the run blocking?

RD: Yes, absolutely. While we lost some very good linemen to
graduation, the o-line as a whole will be much stronger this year. We have 3 returning starters, and more than enough talent and size fighting for spots on the line. The running game should be much improved from last year with the o-line working more closely together this year, and also being bigger and stronger from our improved lifting program won’t hurt either.

Protecting the QB's Blind Side vs. Dartmouth (CREDIT: DeBernardo Family)

J: The running yardage per game was up slightly in 2006, but the number of sacks allowed was down noticeably, (16 in '06 from 33 in '05). Was pass blocking more of a priority for you guys last year?

RD: As you know, we were a very pass heavy offense in 2006 (and in
2005 for that matter). Coach Sweet worked with us endlessly, improving not only our pass blocking techniques, but schemes as well, something we are continuing with Coach Blackshear. With us passing so much, it was simply not an option to let up any sacks at all, and we now take it personally to protect our quarterback, whoever is behind center.

DeBernardo, During that Tough Day in Cambridge (CREDIT: DeBernardo Family)

J: What opposing defense gave you the most trouble last year?

RD: The best defense we faced last year was definitely Harvard’s.
Their d-line was outstanding with a lot of strong, fast players. We had a few rough breaks against them, and too many turnovers to win any game, especially against a team with that much talent. But we all know that we can move the ball and score on anyone, so our improved confidence will without a doubt help us this coming season.

J: Is there a leader among the offensive linemen, a unit captain so to speak?

RD: After the winter and spring seasons I would have to say that the
unit looks to me as their leader. However, we have a lot of experience with our upperclassmen, who are also good leaders. Mike Partain will be a 3rd year starter as one of two seniors, and Mike Brune is also coming off a sophomore season in which he started all 10 games at guard. Gene Kaskiw and Nate Walcker are also rising juniors who are looked up to by the younger linemen. The o-line has become a very tight-nit group, something I feel is necessary for any team to be successful. During the off-season the o-line lifts together and gets extra workouts in, doing everything as a unit.

J: Looking back at last season, what were the best and worst moments for you personally?

RD: The best single moment I would have to say was definitely the dramatic win at Brown. It was a huge step for our team, to go into Providence and beat the defending Ivy Champs, sealing our .500 season. Ending the year on a two game winning streak was just what we needed heading into the off-season. The worst would have to be the loss at Penn. The entire team fought to the end in that game, and if a few plays go our way we are in the winner’s circle for that one.

J: What have been your best experiences off the field at Columbia?

RD: My best experiences off the field, I would have to say, are just
being in New York City. It’s an amazing place, and although I grew up so close, I never really ventured into the city much before I came to school here.

Ralph and Mom Pat After the Spring Game (CREDIT: DeBernardo Family)

J: A good number of players, (and their parents), have told me that the fall semester actually produces better academic results for them because the football season forces them to be more disciplined with their time. Is that true for you as well? And what do you think that says about the strict restrictions on spring practice that are there for supposed "academic reasons?"

RD: Well, I would credit the better grades to two main reasons: (1)
The fact that we take fewer classes in the fall, usually 4 compared to 5 in the spring, and (2) yes, the strict in-season schedule forces you to get your work
done, and not procrastinate. During the season I was asleep every night by 11 (relatively early compared to the regular college student), so I had to get all my work done as soon as I got back from dinner. You are also in a different mindset during the season; you are trained everyday to do things right now, on time, so I think that carries over into school work.

J: Do you live in the dorms or in a fraternity?

RD: I live in the East Campus Dorm.

Ralph in his Financial District-Appropriate Attire (CREDIT: Columbia Athletic Dept.)

J: What are your plans post-Columbia?

RD: Once I graduate I am hoping to get into the financial world. I am unsure exactly what form of banking I would like to do, and am currently searching around for the field that interests me most within the financial realm.


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