NEW YORK—This is the fifth part of a preseason series previewing each of the 2017 Columbia Football position groups. For our position group preview, we take a look at Columbia’s defensive backs in 2017.
Defensive backs coach Jon Poppe returns a seasoned group that blends talent with experience. The Lions lost two defensive backs in All-Ivy League Second Team pick Brock Kenyon at safety and cornerback Jared Katz.
Columbia returns two senior starters in Second Team All-Ivy League selection Cameron Roane and safety Landon Baty. In 10 starts while playing tight man-to-man coverage, Roane proved to be the Lions’ best cover corner and one of top corners in the Ivy League. He totaled 35 tackles (22 solo) and broke up seven passes, which ranked No. 18 in the Ivy League. Baty ranked fifth on the team with 55 tackles (32 solo), intercepted two passes, defended seven passes, which ranked No. 18 in the Ivy League as a free safety in 2017 and broke up five passes. Baty, who changed his number to No. 6, was also named one of four team captains during spring ball.
Senior Denzel Hill also returns at cornerback after receiving a fifth year of eligibility from the NCAA. Prior to the 2016 season, the athletic Hill moved over to the defensive side of the ball from his previous wide receiver position and proved to be effective, seeing action in all 10 games with one start. He finished the year with seven tackles and a forced fumble.
Others who will factor in at defensive back include sophomore safety Hunter Lunsford, junior safety Ryan Gilbert and senior Dylan Weldon. Lunsford, who recovered a blocked punt and returned it for a touchdown against Harvard, contributed primarily on special teams last year. Gilbert, who played in all 10 games in 2016, made 12 tackles and ranked No. 7 in the Ivy League in forced fumbles (two). Weldon saw action in three games at cornerback last year. Others who will contribute are sophomore Benjamin McKeighan, all-around junior Jacob Young (seven games), who also competes on Columbia’s wrestling team and plays linebacker, sophomore Jonathon Webster (two games) and senior cornerback Tyler Holmes (eight games).
“The effort of the group has been amazing,” Poppe said. “Having two seniors back in Cameron Roane and Landon Baty, we’ve got some great experience there. Having a fifth year senior like Denzel Hill back is huge for our young guys. Just him having experience in college football is big for our group. It’s going to help us win games.”
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the progress that Benjamin McKeighan has made in the spring moving into the fall,” Poppe said. “I’m really excited about his progression through the fall. Justin Hill is another guy, a very young guy who has made some great strides and made a couple of interceptions in team competitive drills, which was great to see. He has great instincts. Hunter Lunsford has had some setbacks, but he did some great things for us on special teams last year. Landon Baty, Ryan Gilbert, Jonathon Webster and Hunter Lunsford will be the safeties and they’ve done a great job of providing us with some stability back there, communication, making sure we’re on the same page. From a quarterbacking, safety-position perspective, I’m really happy from what I’ve seen from them.”
Poppe also welcomes six first-year defensive backs including Blake Wooden, Tyson Hugee, Will Allen, Ben Mathiasmeier, Graham Flinn and Bailey Rotsky. All could challenge for playing time in the coming year.
“They are all really talented,” Poppe said. “Probably why you won’t see many of them is because we’ve got some talented guys ahead of them. Two of the freshmen who stand out are Will Allen and Ben Mathiasmeier, who will have roles on special teams. Those two guys have stood out and shown mentally, emotionally and physically that they’re ready to contribute to the varsity.”