The Defensive Minute Men
2009 was not as injury-riddled as the nightmare injury-marred season of 2007 for Columbia.
But it was still rough as the Lions lost All-Ivy players like Owen Fraser and Alex Gross for most of the season. Then they lost starting both starting corners, Calvin Otis and Kalasi Huggins.
You might remember that the injuries in 2007 led to a 1-9, (0-7 Ivy) record.
But 2009 turned out a lot better despite losing so many defensive stars, thanks to some stellar play by a group of young backups who were instantly ready to fill in.
The first key player to go down was Fraser early in the season opener at Fordham. Most of his loss was shouldered by then-juniors Bruce Fleming and Josh Smith and then-sophomore Chris Groth. Fleming finished the year with 39 tackles and a sack, Smith had 22 tackles and 3.5 sacks, while Groth had 19 tackles and a sack.
The Columbia coaches use a lot of substitutions on that defensive line, and all three of those players would have seen good playing time even if Fraser had stayed healthy, but I thought each of them got a better chance to emerge as the season went on. For me, Fleming's 8-tackle game at Cornell was a key part of that victory.
Smith's two sacks against Yale helped keep the Lions ahead for most of the game in the heartbreaking loss to the Elis.
Groth did not necessarily stand out in any one game, but his absence due to illness in the Dartmouth game proved just how badly Columbia needed him as the Lions really struggled against the run all day.
Players like Shea Selsor, Seyi Adebayo and Will Patterson also got more playing time because of the injuries to others on the defensive line and they showed some flashes of brilliance.
Much of the burden of the injuries to Otis and Huggins fell on then-sophomore Ross Morand. It was a trial by fire that began in the gut-wrenching loss at Lafayette. In emergency service, Morand did a great job as he was picked on mercilessly by the Leopard offense. He was flagged a few times for pass interference, (at least one of those penalties was really bogus), but he also had a big interception and a nice 22-yard return.
Morand, another product of that great Saint Xavier High School football program in Cincinnati, finished the season with four interceptions, 31 tackles and two fumble recoveries. It was a spectacular sophomore campaign, especially for someone pressed into emergency service. Ross looked sharp in the spring game last week as well.
But if I had to choose the one Lion in 2009 who had the biggest shoes to fill and did the best job at it, it would be then-sophomore Evan Miller who replaced All-Everything linebacker Alex Gross right at the start of the same Lafayette game in week four.
Evan jumped onto the field that night and recorded 12 tackles, 1.5 for a loss, and a pass break up. He followed that up with 10 tackles a week later against Penn.
None of the remainder of the season's games was quite as spectacular for Miller, but he played his position well enough to keep the outside running lanes contained for opposing offenses most of the rest of the year. He finished with 38 tackles, two for a loss.
Evan went a long way in 2009 to proving he shouldn't just be thought of as "Lou Miller's kid brother." Depending on how well Gross recovers this offseason, he may need to do it again throughout 2010.