Friday, March 21, 2008

Spring Football Is Here

The Lehigh wrestlers fought bravely at nationals - but the final three Mountain Hawk wrestlers fell in St. Louis today. American fought bravely - tying the mighty Volunteers at 40 with 10 minutes to play - before ultimately falling 72-57. And my NCAA bracket is busted open after my final four pick in Drake fell in overtime 101-99 to Western Kentucky.

So now, more than ever, it's football season.

It officially starts today at 4:15, and there was even an article in the Easton Express-Times about it, too. It's probably one of the most wide-open spring football seasons I can ever remember for Lehigh after a disappointing 5-6 campaign that gave everyone associated with Lehigh a bad taste in their mouths.

Here's the 2008 Spring Practice schedule:
Friday, March 21 - 4:15PM
Saturday, March 22 – TBA
Monday, March 24 – 4:30 PM
Friday, March 28 – 4:30 PM
Saturday, March 29 – TBA
Monday, March 31 – 4:30 PM
Friday, April 4 – 4:30 PM
Saturday, April 5 – TBA
Tuesday, April 8 – 4:30 PM
Thursday, April 10 – 4:30 PM
Saturday, April 12 – TBA
Monday, April 14 – 4:30
Wednesday, April 16 – 4:30 PM
Thursday, April 17 – 4:30 PM
Saturday, April 19 – Brown and White Spring Game, TBA (Murray Goodman Stadium)

The past two years I've posted my spring preview as "losses, locks, and battles" - who is lost to graduation, who's a lock for a starting spot, and what the big battles are going to be. Sounds like a good way to enter the spring session this year, too.

Losses
Start at QB, where senior QB Sedale Threatt ended his injury-ridden senior season on a disappointing note. Also not opting to return for his final year of eligibility is junior RB Josh Pastore who has decided to hang up his cleats, who when healthy would definitely be in the running for the starting RB position.

All our receiving corps from last year return except for senior WR Pete Donchez, and on the "O" Line we see senior C John Reese and senior OT Jimmy Kehs graduating.

On offense, there are also key reserves to replace in senior TE Joe Sutherland, senior FB John Piascik and senior OL Brendan Caffery, who also graduated.

Defense features the graduation of the entire starting two-deep at cornerback last year: senior DB Brannan Thomas, senior DB Aaron Gilliard, senior DB Julian Ahye and senior DB Laquan Gasaway. Add to that starting senior FS Ernest Moore and key nickel senior DB Daynin Blake, and you find three starters and three key reserves to fill this year in the secondary alone.

Rounding out the graduates in the defense are senior DT Kyle Adams, senior LB Rusty Campion and senior LB Rashaun Gasaway, making the total number of graduating starters on defense at six. Key reserves in senior LB Justin Weaver and senior LB Travis Stinson also graduate this year.

Totals: 10 starters (4 on offense, 6 on defense), 20 members of the two-deep (out of 44)

Locks
Considering Lehigh's strength on defense last year, the locks on the team going into the spring are senior LB Tim Diamond (107 tackles, 7 1/2 tackles for loss), junior LB Matt Cohen (55 tackles, 13 tacckles for loss, 3 sacks), and senior DL Brian Jackson (63 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 5 1/2 sacks). They were the stars on last year's defense that kept the Brown & White in games last year. I would also add senior DL Paul Bode to this list, too (29 tackles, 4 1/2 tackles for loss) even though he didn't start any games but played well on the defensive line. Overall, this experienced foursome comprised more than 30% of the tackles on the team last year.

On the offense, which struggled in 2007, you'd be tempted to say there are no locks. There are four players, however, that are as close to locks as you can get. When healthy, senior RB Matt McGowan looks to be Lehigh's most productive runner (even though he had only 198 yards and 3 TDs last year) with sophomore RB Kwesi Kankam (269 yards, 3 TDs) and sophomore RB Jaren Walker (378 yards, 1 TD) ready to step in immediately when necessary. All will certainly get lots of time in the spring and all will get carries in the fall (if healthy, of course).

The other locks are on the "O" line. Senior OL Kevin Bayani and senior OL Chris Tiefenthal started all of last year and look to repeat in 2008.

Battles
1. Quarterback.
The biggest battle, without question, is at QB. Junior QB Chris Bokosky filled in for Threatt when he was hurt last year, but coach Coen has said that all the QBs will be getting equal reps:
“We’re going to give each one equal reps in spring practice,” said coach Andy Coen, who’s 11-11 in two seasons. “I really think the competition will go into fall camp, unless someone really doesn’t perform. But we’re not going to rush it.”
This points to a free-for-all in the spring which will mean all Bird watchers going to the Brown vs. White Spring game will be looking very vary closely at the three potential signal callers of Bokosky, sophomore QB Trace Cisneros, and sophomore QB J.B. Clark. (And in August, the possibility exists that freshman QB Chris Lum will join the fray.)

Handicapping this QB battle is no easy task. My early prognosis? I have a feeling that Bokosky is going to prevail. Call me crazy, but his toughness I think will ultimately win over the coaching staff. It will be interesting to see what happens.

2. Three "O" Line spots. The line looks to have an excellent chance of having at least one sophomore starter. Sophomore OL Ricky Clerge and sophomore OL William Rackley both saw time on the line last year and one or both seem like they could be starting in September. But who are those fourth and fifth linemen going to be? Junior OL Frank Giacalone? Junior OL Ben Harden? Senior OL Alex Kuziel? Or perhaps a third sophomore in sophomore OL Keith Schauder or sophomore OL Alex Rowe?

The potential is there for a young nucleus in this "O" line to carry us through the next three years. That looms well for Lehigh in the long run whomever wins the battles of the spring.

3. Wideout. It seems strange calling this a battleground with senior WR Sekou Yansane (513 yards, 2 TDs) and senior WR Mike Fitzgerald (448 yards, 3 TDs) returning. But with the inconsistency at receiver last year, it feels like there is a definite chance for someone to become a go-to receiver - something Fitzgerald and Yansane did not become last year. Who might that be? Senior WR Nick Johnson? Senior WR Ben Ivester? Junior WR Franklin Johnson? Sophomore WR Travis Artim? Sophomore WR Craig Zurn? Junior WR Brian Ruyak?

I've got to believe that if one of these seven wideouts - or others - bust out in the spring, they could very well surprise and be that starting #1 receiver.

4. Cornerbacks. At safety, there seems like some players that you can pencil into the starting lineup, like senior SS Brendan VanAckeren and senior FS Quadir Carter. After that, though, the starters at CB and the all-important places on the two-deep look up for grabs. Impressive junior DB Jesse Sanchez seems to have the inside track for one of those jobs, but who of the others look like they'll be there as well? Senior DB Jarvis Lewis? Sophomore DB Casey Eldemire? Senior DB Steve Santora? Sophomore DB John Kennedy? Sophomore DB R.J. Overton? Sophomore DB Jarard Cribbs?

5. Mr. Brallier. Last summer, the buzz was about sophomore NT Charles Brallier, a 330 lb monster who seemed poised to plug the middle of the 3-4 defense perfectly. Could be be a key part of the puzzle this year in the front seven? Imagine Johnson, Brallier and junior DT B. J. Benning in the 3 of the 3-4 against a predominantly running team like Yale. (Add sophomore DT Phil Winett to the mix and you have a pretty solid and deep "D" line.)

But might Mr. Brallier be able to work as an offensive guard? At 330 lbs, it's also tempting to put him on the opposite site of Tiefenthal to grind out rushing yards. Might he be switched?

6. PR/KR/??? John Kennedy. Sophomore KR John Kennedy was a real find returning kicks last year. The question for him is the same as Mr. Brallier - offense (WR) or defense (DB)? Right now he looks best as a DB, but might he switch the a WR when all is said and done?

7. Those two LB slots. Who gets them? There simply seems to be so many possibilities to start next to Mr. Cohen and Mr. Diamond. Junior LB Al Pierce? Junior LB Heath Brickner? Junior LB Tobi Showunmi? Senior LB Bradley Thomas? Senior LB Ben Pravata? And another intriguing player in junior LB Troy Taylor by way of University of San Diego?

It will be a very, very interesting spring, with more key spots open than I ever remember.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

March Madness, Indeed, Has Set In

March Madness is here, and my pool still is alive. I'm grateful.

In the Morning Call today Andre Williams caught up with Mike Polaha to talk about the twentieth anniversary of our #16 seeded Lehigh team from 1987 who almost - came so close - to knocking off #1 seeded Temple. That team (IMO clearly the best to ever don the brown and White) featured two Lehigh hall-of-famers in Darren Queenan and Polaha. Of course, as soon as I got to Lehigh as an undergrad we didn't return to the dance until 2004. (The "LFN Curse"?)

Spring practice has started today, weather permitting, at 4:15. But I will give it its proper treatment tomorrow.

Don't forget American is playing Tennessee at 12:30AM tomorrow on CBS locally (and if you, like me, signed up for March Madness On Demand, you can see the game in its entirety). I don't think American can pull off the upset, but it seems like Volunteer fans are having the pants scared off of them perhaps since the last time they were the #2 seed they were a shot away from losing to #15 Davidson. Just in case you needed to get more pumped up about the Eagles' chances, check out this piece in the Washington Post.

Plan your Friday "lunch break" accordingly.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Lehigh Formally Announces 2008 Schedule

It wasn't exactly a secret, but Lehigh did formally announce their 2008 schedule today on Lehighsports.com.

Aside from being able to take "tentative" off my version of the schedule, there are a variety of commentary on the new schedule from both the official release and from Keith Groller over at the Morning Call.

The biggest news was the addition of Drake of the Pioneer Football League to the schedule. Think just because they are non-scholarship it's going to be a walkover? Coach Coen says think again.

"It's harder and harder to find nonleague games when you need them, especially a home game, because everybody has things done years in advance," Lehigh coach Andy Coen said. "This took a long time to complete. We were scrambling and at one point, I was concerned we weren't going to be able to fill it. Initially, we tried to fill it by word-of-mouth and then we checked schedules on the Internet.

"We were looking at a few Division II schools, although I really didn't want to go that route, and at least one other Division I program. Drake sent out a memo and contacted the Patriot League office that they needed a game and I'm happy we were able to work things out. It should be a good game."

The opening in Lehigh's schedule was created when Liberty University pulled out of its scheduled date.

"They were going through a transition down there with a new head coach and athletic director and at one point they had three games scheduled for the same date," Coen said. "So, they contacted us last fall already and said they couldn't play."

"This won't be a cupcake," Coen said. "It's going to be a challenge, since we don't know much about them and even if we get tapes of their games last year, those games were played with a different staff. We'll have to adjust on the fly. We do know they had an impressive victory over a Gateway Conference school (nationally ranked Illinois State) to open up last season, and they have a new head coach (Chris Creighton) who has been very successful wherever he’s been.”

He also talked about the Ivy League schedule, which features the return of Cornell to Goodman, a short trip for the second consecutive year to Princeton, and a long trip to Cambridge to take on Harvard:

“We’re excited to play against this pair of Ivy League schools in back-to-back weeks,” Coen explained. “It will be nice to return to Princeton, which is a great setting for a college football game and was the site of our first victory in 2007.” Coen continued, “Cornell is always a tough, physical football team and we expect nothing less when we meet them this season.”

“Traveling up to Massachusetts to play Harvard, the defending Ivy League Champions, will be tough, no question about it,” said Coen. “We have a large alumni contingent up there though and we’ll be looking forward to giving them a good show.”

Don't forget that this Thursday starts spring practice... so there's more football on the way.

In other news, Lehigh's draws for nationals just were announced on LehighSports.com as well... and talk about five daunting challenges. For those of you that are playing hooky *I mean sick this Thursday, the opening rounds are going to be audio broadcast for free through the Lehighsports.com website. Something to get you pumped up for basketball!

Finally, the Washington Post talks about American's crashing of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in their history, coming so close (once against Lehigh) and the Eagles' long-suffering fans. For those of you who haven't been paying attention, American has been capturing the imagination of a lot of different quarters in the college basketball fan's world... including unlikely places such as former White House Correspondent David Gregory's new show on MSNBC. (Yes, Mr. Gregory is an American alum.)

Too bad they'll get destroyed by Tennessee. I'm not saying that as sour grapes - I always root for the Patriot League tournament winner in the tournament - but Tennessee is a team that could definitely make it to San Antonio. To me, it screams "bad matchup".

Monday, March 17, 2008

Lehigh, And Lafayette, Are Offering More Aid

It may have been that I was too smitten by Lehigh's chances to win the Patriot League tournament. But aside from the news that American was jobbed of a better seed (how could they be a 15 seed, facing off against Tennessee who has a realistic shot to be a Final Four team?) and that Dayton was jobbed, period (exactly how does a team that knocked off Pitt and Louisville get snubbed, while St. Joe's makes it in?), there's some news in the world of the Patriot League as well.

Basically matching what Lehigh had announced some weeks ago, Lafayette in essence declared the same type of academic aid policy today. They allowed all students whose families are making $50,000 a year or less exempt from paying any student loans, and capped the student loan amount for families making $50,000 to $100,000 at $2,500 per student. (Lehigh's cap is $3,000 per student, but they also increased their work-study number which may basically both aid policies are the same.)

This is in response to what the Ivy League has done for their students. Harvard, by declaring that all students from families making under $100,000 will have their educations paid for (and a cap on loans of up to 10% of a family's income up to something like $180,000), has caused a chain reaction through the Ivy League with every school coming up with some form of aid policy for all students.

It's important to keep in mind why the Harvard, Ivy League schools and (now) Patriot League schools would do it. They're doing it to make education more affordable for everyone, not just athletes. The principle is great: making college more affordable for everyone. As a parent of a young child, I am very much in favor of schools trying to tackle this problem.

The tricky part is - however - how to make athletics competitive in this economic reality. Ultimately it's up to the leagues to figure out how to make athletics work in this environment, but Ivy League fans are in a great debate right now over this very subject. Will Harvard's seemingly unlimited resources give them an unfair advantage over everyone else?

For the Patriot League, what's the impact? I haven't talked to anyone about this - yet - but upon first glance it seems like the major impact will be on non-revenue sports. There is no way the athletic department gives full scholarships to (say) our entire men's and women's soccer teams. But now, those same teams will get generous aid that is available to all students. Might it deter someone from out-of-state going to, say, Delaware?

In football, the benefit is less clear. Patriot League football teams already offer grants-in-aid for a significant number of players. It may simply be an accounting issue, instead of the grant money coming from the "athletics" pot it comes from the "larger" pot.

What will happen?
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