With three running backs ready to go at all times, the challenge for the Ithaca College football team becomes not when to use them, but how.
Juniors Isaiah D’Haiti, Kendall Anderson and Nick Cervone have been sharing the rushing duties this year. Although D’Haiti is the starter, all three have seen significant playing time.
Typically a team will rely on one strong starter and substitute in a backup when the starter needs rest. But for the Bombers, head coach Dan Swanstrom said, it is a constant carousel, and he rotates the players depending on the opponents’ defense and which back is having the best game that day.
“The thing that I’ve liked the past two weeks is that I think they have challenged each other,” Swanstrom said. “I’m hoping that they are working to a different level of expectations and focus because at the end of the day, they are good team players, and they like each other, but there’s an ego and a personal side of things. They want to be the one that has that great game. I’m hoping that they keep pushing each other and we get great work from all of them.”
D’Haiti is typically known as a red zone back, the one the team wants to rely on to punch the ball into the end zone. His specialty is attributed to his strength and power — he has the ability to find holes in opponents’ defense and run directly through the center.
Anderson is seen as the speed back, the guy who can outrun opponents and get the ball down the field. He will typically line up in the shotgun formation next to the quarterback and run a play to the outside once he gets the ball.
Cervone, meanwhile, is a combination of the two, and he has been used in different situations this season, including as an extra receiver. He is also the guy the coaching staff tends to lean on when the game is on the line and the Bombers have to get down the field quickly, as was evident at the end of the team’s game Oct. 6 against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute when the Bombers were down seven and had to get down the field in less than three minutes.
D’Haiti and Anderson have been playing together since their freshman year and have worked with Cervone — who transferred to the college for his sophomore year — for the past two seasons. However, until this season, they were sharing backup duties behind Tristan Brown ’18, who had more than 2,500 rushing yards in his career.
This year was their chance to step up, and they have been working hard to get better every day, Anderson said.
“It’s us three as a trio — we are a stable,” Anderson said. “One horse gets tired, another one goes in. We just want to be able to run all the way down the field.”
D’Haiti leads the way so far this season with 154 rushing yards and five touchdowns, while Cervone and Anderson have 87 and 86 yards respectively. The team has been averaging 20 fewer rushing yards a game than it did last season, and the overall production of the offense has also been down. Last year, the Bombers averaged 372.8 yards per game on offense compared to 305 so far this season.
Every player has had highs and lows throughout the season. In the first game against Saint Vincent College, Cervone was able to break through and lead the team with 46 rushing yards. The next week against The College at Brockport — the No. 5 team in the nation in Division III that has one of the toughest rush defenses — the backs, as a whole, put up a fight. Their 24 combined rushing yards was nothing to write home about, but it is still the second highest number of yards any team has been able to muster against Brockport so far this season.
Week three had D’Haiti’s best game when he had a season-high 86 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Then it was Anderson’s turn in week four — he led the team with 37 rushing yards and one touchdown. Anderson had a strong game again in week five, leading the team with 58 rushing yards.
“We want to be a competitive program, and they understand that when someone is doing well, we are going to give them more opportunities,” Swanstrom said. “Hopefully they just realize the situation and just really compete.”
The touchdown in week four was the first of his career for Anderson, who, prior to this season, had only appeared in six games.
“That was a spectacular feeling,” Anderson said. “Anytime you get out on the field and score and do what we are supposed to do and everything just clicks — that’s an amazing feeling. I just wanted to celebrate with everybody.”
Because the backs are switching off constantly, it is important for all of them to stay ready when on the sidelines. D’Haiti said he will try to do a couple of squats or something similar to make sure he is always ready when the team needs him to be, while the others will jog in place or do a few jumping jacks to get ready to be in the game at any time.
“I try to stay mentally in the game because, when I’m out, things tend to go sideways on the sidelines,” D’Haiti said. “Being mentally in the game and pretty much warming up to go back in because I need to stay focused.”
Anderson is the smallest at 5 feet, 9 inches tall, 170 pounds — D’Haiti is 5 feet, 9 inches tall, 215 pounds. And Cervone is 6 feet tall, 210 pounds., while the average running back in Division III is 5 feet, 9 inches tall, 190 pounds. Anderson’s small size and lean figure contribute to his speed, and D’Haiti’s stature can help him plow through opponents’ defenses. Cervone’s height comes in handy when he is used as a receiver.
Despite their different qualities, Swanstrom said he does not alter his play–calling depending on who is on the field. They have had to make adjustments sometimes, but the goal is to make them all ready for any situation.
“We would like to be as universal as possible and run our full system on offense,” he said. “I think they are all capable of doing that. Certainly, each one has unique strengths and abilities, and we’ve kind of gotten a better beat on that the last four weeks with our game reps. I think we’ll be able to put them in better situations for the rest of the season.”
Swanstrom said it’s a friendly competition that has been driving the three backs and that consistency will be key as they move through the rest of the season.
“They are good players,” he said. “Opportunities are going to come. I have no idea where we’re going or how it’s going to work, but I just need them to come out here and work as hard as they can and see where that can take them.”