ITHACA, N.Y. — Jake Stebbins was hoping to get his feet wet this fall for the Cornell University football team.
Instead, he made a big splash as a freshman middle linebacker.
The Seneca Valley graduate finished the season tied for second on the Big Red in tackles (58) and tackles for loss (6½), first in sacks (4½) and tied for the lead in forced fumbles (2).
“Jake's impact on defense has been tremendous,” replied Cornell linebackers coach Guido Falbo in an emailed interview. “One thing you cannot teach is instincts. He has a natural knack for being around the ball.”
Stebbins' effort has not gone unnoticed outside the Ivy League. Earlier this month, it was announced that Stebbins is one of 24 players across the country on the Jerry Rice Award Watch List. The honor goes to the top freshman player in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA). The winner will be announced in the coming weeks.
“I've been blessed with opportunities my whole life,” he said. “This is just another example of that.
“When summer practices started, I was just hoping to play on special teams this year, maybe get on the field a bit at linebacker,” added Stebbins.
But even in the season-opener against Marist, Stebbins got a handful of snaps on defense. He impressed his coaches enough to earn more playing time and was soon getting as many reps as starter Lance Blass.
When Blass tweaked his hamstring against Harvard in mid-October, Stebbins stepped in and started the next two games against Colgate and Brown.
Blass returned to the field, but the Big Red still counted on Stebbins for 40 snaps per game.
“I felt like I was fairly well-prepared for the college game coming in, both physically and mentally,” Stebbins said. “The speed at this level is totally different, but I was able to adapt to it.”
The Big Red show multiple fronts, from a 4-3 to 3-3 to a 3-4. Stebbins found a comfort level no matter the scheme.
“A lot of it comes down to studying film and knowing your opponent,” he said. “By the day of the game, I'm prepared.”
Receiving so much from a first-year player came as a pleasant surprise to the team's coaching staff.
“At the Division I collegiate level, it is uncommon to see a true freshman come into a program at Mike linebacker and excel the way he has,” Falbo replied. “Being able to pick up our defensive scheme while adjusting to thespeed of collegiate football from high school takes a special type of person like Jake.”
Stebbins also starred at linebacker while in high school, piling up 174 tackles in his varsity career. He totaled 93 tackles and five sacks as a senior. That effort helped the Raiders reach the WPIAL championship game.
For the most part, team success eluded Stebbins and his teammates this season. They finished with a 4-6 record, though three of the defeats came by one score, including one-point losses to Colgate and Penn.
“I feel bad for our seniors,” said Stebbins. “We have so much talent on this team, but lost a lot of games because we made one big mistake.
“We really didn't play a full game until beating nationally-ranked Dartmouth (No. 11 on Nov. 16).”
Stebbins has laid a solid foundation for the rest of his collegiate career, one the Big Red are sure to benefit from.
“I love football and I love being out there with my teammates,” he said.