By Jon Lemons
For the fourth time in the last five years, the Harvard football team elected a linebacker as their lone team captain.
"I think, especially with Harvard, the captain has to be very team oriented," explains this year's captain, senior Matt Koran. "As a linebacker, you sort of fit that mold inherently. It's a leadership position on defense, in that you're constantly calling out changes, plays, coverages on the field. Getting guys where they need to go."
A three-year letterman at a position that regularly produces captains, Koran's path to captaincy may appear more or less pre-ordained, but for this son of the Midwest, Cambridge, Massachusetts almost never appeared on the radar.
A native of Joliett, Illinois, Koran played high school football for Joliet West, which he describes as a "very losing team."
"We won five games in three years," he says.
"Most other guys (at Harvard) come from football powerhouses. We've never sent a player anywhere in the Ivy League."
And if it seems unlikely Harvard would spend much time looking at players from Joliett West, consider how little time those players are likely to spend thinking about playing at Harvard.
"Growing up I was a big-time Notre Dame fan," says Koran. "Second was Northwestern. As I got older, I set my eyes more on (playing football at) the MAC schools. They were the ones who contacted me."
But near the end of his junior year in high school, after Koran took the ACT, Ivy League schools started showing interest. That summer he went to four camps in four days.
"It was a total grind, but definitely worth it," Koran recalls. "Harvard was later in the recruiting process, after most of other Ivy League schools had contacted me. But going into my senior year, I had narrowed it down to Princeton, Harvard and Brown."
Then came his visit. "Cambridge felt the same as my hometown," Koran says. "When I got to Harvard it was just a bunch of guys like me. Down to earth. It felt very comfortable here. Like it was where I belonged."
Still, Koran faced an uphill battle to get on the field. At 5'11", 210 pounds, he is on the small side, if not undersized. But the primary challenge he faced had nothing to do with his physical abilities. First, he had to learn the game.
"In high school we didn't really run a defense," Koran says. "Our defensive coordinator took a position at a college about two weeks before our first game. So we attempted to run the defense he taught us, but it was incredibly difficult for everyone to figure it out without him. We ended up freelancing a lot."
When he arrived in Cambridge for his first training camp, "I had no idea what schemes were. Pretty much everything that I learned my freshman year was brand new," Koran explains.
Exacerbating the issue was the fact that Harvard had a veteran corps of linebackers already in place. Given their experience, the coaches tended to jump past a lot of the basics and moved into more advanced X's and O's. "This left me extremely confused and I had a hard time picking everything up, so freshman year I focused solely on learning the fundamentals," says Koran.
He studied the playbook religiously, even drawing up plays and taping them to his dorm room wall so he'd be forced to think about football while in his room. Koran says by spring term he started to feel like he understood more of the game. It helped that, with the corps of linebackers graduating, linebackers coach Scott Larkee returned to the basics.
"I like to think that I figured out a lot that spring, but I was still an infant compared to where I needed to be," Koran says.
By sophomore year, he was starting to see regular playing time, logging about 10-20 plays a game. He even led the team in tackles twice, at Cornell and Columbia. Still, Koran says, it wasn't until spring that he really had a handle on the defense.
"I got playing time my sophomore year, but the game was still moving really fast and I didn't have the defense totally figured out," Koran says. "My sophomore spring was a breakthrough time for me. After getting much needed game experience, I now understood the speed of the game and could work on fine tuning all my techniques and focus on learning our defense in depth."
As practice opened up that spring, Koran found himself third on the depth chart for two spots at inside linebacker. The two players ahead of him were from his own class so Koran knew he'd be stuck behind them his whole career.
"I called my dad and told him the news and he told me to not accept the outcome and to get motivated by it," Koran says. "I took those words to heart and did everything in my ability to move up on the depth chart." Koran says he watched a lot of film on great linebackers of the past, buried his head in the playbook, and pushed myself in the weight room and on the field harder than ever. He made big strides that spring and at the end of spring ball the coaches told him that in their eyes they had three starters at two positions.
With three starters for two positions, the coaches decided to run a rotation at inside linebacker. "After each game we'd get graded on our performance, and whoever got the worst grade didn't start the next game," Koran explained.
He started eight of 10 games.
Koran finished the season ranked third on the team with 60 tackles and was named Ivy League Defensive Player of the Week for his 10-tackle performance against Holy Cross to open the season. In his first year as a de-facto starter, Koran helped spearhead the top defense in the country as the Crimson went 10-0 to capture their second-straight Ivy League championship.
But the best moment of his career might have come after the season ended.
"Being elected captain," Koran says, "my gosh, it's the most incredible honor I've ever been bestowed, especially by guys as well put together as my teammates. Knowing that they have that much faith and confidence in me is such an incredible feeling. In recent history, the position of captain has been filled with legendary guys, so I have really large shoes to fill."
In an attempt to fill those shoes, Koran says he's spoken with many former captains, including Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Curtis, Alex Gedeon, Bobby Schneider, Josh Boyd and Norman Hayes.
"They've all offered incredible advice," Koran says, "but the most important thing they all told me was that I need to be myself, that I was elected by my teammates for a reason and they don't want me to fake it or be something that I'm not. So I took their advice and focused on being a better, more vocal and intense version of myself."
Asked what his goal for the team this year is, Koran doesn't hesitate.
"Our goal is simple," he says. "We will go 10-0 and be Ivy League champions."
Lofty goals, to be sure. But to head coach Tim Murphy, Koran's proven he's up to the challenge.
"Matt is a great example of recruiting character first as he has transcended our perceived ability of him out of high school and in the process has become a great leader and football player in the process."