Gili Lipman discusses defensive strategy with Captain Donnie Cimino for Saturday's season-opener at Middlebury.

Head Football Coach Mike Whalen has a lot to be optimistic about for the 2014 season. His defense, which led the conference in yards allowed per game a year ago, only lost one starter from last fall. The core returns to the field with enhanced chemistry and three first-team all-NESCAC players: defensive backs and captains Jake Bussani G’14 and Donnie Cimino ’15, as well as lineman Nik Powers ’15. Letter winners Vincent Davis ’15 and Justin Sanchez ’17 will augment the experience in the secondary.

Cimino merits a lot of the praise for a unit that allowed fewer than two touchdowns per contest last season. He led the Cardinals’ last line of defense with 35 total tackles, one forced fumble, and four batted passes. The captain sat down with The Argus to talk about improving an already staunch defense and eating a specific meal the night before a game.

The Argus: The season begins this Saturday, Sept. 20 at Middlebury. How are you feeling about the defensive game plan, and do you already know beforehand the bulk of the formations that you will be running against the Panthers?

Donnie Cimino: I feel confident in what we’re doing. I think [Defensive Coordinator Dan] DiCenzo does a good job preparing us in the preseason for everyone that we’re going to face, and really in these past few weeks for Middlebury. We’re watching film and seeing what they did last year. They will have a new quarterback after they lost a three-year starter. They’ll definitely come out with some things that they weren’t showing in the past few years, but we have a general idea of what they’ll be doing. As the game goes on, our senior leadership can help to make adjustments. A good thing about our defense is that we’re flexible, which will make it easier than in the past.

A: You’ll be facing an inexperienced quarterback. I would be licking my chops if I were in the defensive huddle. What’s the key to disrupting the Middlebury offensive attack?

DC: It all starts up front and doing a good job early in downs, so that we can put them in situations where they have to make a play, whether it’s second in long or third in long. We want to run our defense as opposed to them running their offense. I think that if we stay physical with them and prevent them from going early, it could be good things for the rest of the game.

A: Has being a captain on the team the past two years changed your awareness of how you practice and plan for games?

DC: I think that being a captain, you have to set the example because guys are going to follow what you do. You can’t expect to lead others when you aren’t doing what you’re preaching. I definitely try and take the attitude where I’m going to practice hard every single day and I’m going to leave the field like no one else outworked me every day.

A: Communication is the key to success, especially for defensive backs running all over the field. Do you have any team bonding activities exclusive to the secondary?

DC: When we have our team dinners the night before and we have breakfasts before the game, we have our little defensive back table.  Other positions don’t always do that. We’ll have nights during the year where we all go out together. We’re a close group. We watch film together, lift together, and practice together every day. It’s funny seeing it as a senior now, because I can remember my first year, and how the seniors took me in, so I have to return the favor this season.

A: Middlebury turned the ball over only eight times all of last season. How do you force turnovers and change the field position in Wesleyan’s favor?

DC: I think it’s about everyone doing their job. One guy isn’t going to make an interception by himself; it’s going to have to be a combined group effort. If you do your job, stick to what we’re doing, and [don’t go] out of position trying to make a play when you should be doing something else, that’s how you get the interceptions. They’ll throw it to you; you just have to be there.

A: In addition to your contribution on defense, you also help out the special teams unit by returning punts. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when watching the ball fly toward you on a return?

DC: I try to focus on the ball. I just want to catch it, because catching it’s everything. Once you catch it, the return part is easy. Catching the punt is nerve-wracking, especially [when you’re] looking down and you want to see where everyone’s at and if you’re going to fair catch it or not. I’m thinking house in the back of my mind after I catch it.

A: Eating a good meal the night before or on the morning of [the] game is crucial. Is there any food in particular that you like to eat prior to a game?

DC: I always like to eat pasta the night before. I’ve always done that since I’ve been in fifth grade. I also drink coconut water the night before every game.

A: Last year, the team had a great season that led to many honors for several players, but that being said, there was that one blemish on the record. Before the ball is kicked off on Saturday, are there any goals that the team or Whalen has set for this year?

DC: Our goal is just to take things day by day and look at everything with a one-step-at-a-time approach. I think the reason that last year against Trinity happened was because we got ahead of ourselves, and we lost sight of what got us to that point. We have a lot of returners and hopefully we can learn from that. The only thing on our mind right now is Middlebury.

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