Friday, August 08, 2008

Preseason Camp Has Started

Although technically it started yesterday with the freshmen reporting, today is the official kickoff of Lehigh's preseason camp. It really does feel like football season now, with under 30 days until the opener against Drake. (The milder weather sure helps, too.)

Tomorrow, Lehigh will start with split squad practices for the first few days, followed by the first "two-a-days" in full pads starting next week up through August 24th (one day before classes begin). This year, they will have a tiny bit of overlap with Eagles camp - the Big Birds break camp on August 12th, while full two-a-days start a couple of days later for the 'Hawks.

Last year, optimism abounded with coach Coen and the Lehigh troops when camp started. There were some things to work on - notably, "O" and "D"-line depth - but Lehigh had an exciting incoming class, a preseason Player of the Year on offense returning (QB Sedale Threatt), and it looked like there were going to be some real dividends with the new emphasis on being more physical.

A frustrating injury-plagued year later, the mood entering this camp is markedly different. Priorities #1, #2 and #3 appear to be: injury prevention.

“We spent a lot of time with our strength and conditioning staff and our medical staff throughout the off season and looked at ways to not only prevent injury, but also to speed up recovery time.” He continued, “We’re going to do a few things different this year as compared to last with hopes of keeping everyone on the field. The big thing is the injury prevention. Last year I thought the kids gave great effort, but it was tough some days with the injuries we had. The way our camp schedule lays out, it will allow for us to take some time off and let the kids recover.”

Without making excuses, coach Coen is wisely taking steps to help prevent injuries this year that were devastating last year. For example, senior RB Matt McGowan's injury last year in the third day of camp last year was a real blow to this team, as were lingering injuries to the defensive backs and wide receiving crew, including senior WR Sekou Yansane who didn't seem 100% all year.

That's to go with the offseason strength and conditioning program, where there were "40-45 kids working out the other day," coach Coen told me during Media Day. That's a very good number considering that many of the kids playing football need to get summer jobs to be able to make ends meet during the year. "We have a challenge every year with the kids coming here," he said. "They need the summer to work. Some of them get jobs here, but some get great jobs at home. It's a lot easier to get a summer internship in a big city than it is in Bethlehem."

Despite the frustration of 2007, there were some marked areas of improvement last year with coach Coen. Notably, going into the 2007 season two of the big goals were developing depth in the defensive line and depth in the secondary, and coach Coen has been pleased with the results:

A major question mark throughout spring practice was how Lehigh would replace its entire crop of corner backs from 2007. But Coen said he’s pleased with the progress shown by that group. “I’m comfortable with where we’re at right now with them. Throughout the spring, John Kennedy, Jarard Cribbs, Casey Eldemire and Femi Ajewole worked extremely hard to improve themselves and they showed a lot of growth.” He added, “I’m very comfortable with our safeties, Brendan Van Ackeren and Quadir Carter, and know they’ll do a great job mentoring those younger guys.

“I feel very good about our starting defensive line and the depth that we’ve developed there. Every one of those guys who is back saw plenty of time last season.”

There are still big question marks on this team, which has been picked fifth in the preseason pretty much everywhere. But it's worth mentioning and noting that two big holes in this team were filled extremely well - and the coaching staff deserves a boatload of credit for that.

And I happen to believe that the filling of those holes will pay big dividends for us this year - as long as that injury bug stays away. Since it was such a big problem with last year's camp, it's something, I think, that Lehigh fans will have their eyes on over the next couple of weeks.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Media and the Patriot League

I've been blogging about Lehigh since the 2003 football season, meaning that I'm entering my sixth straight year talking about Lehigh, "The Rivalry", and the Patriot League. It started with a computer, this upstart company called "Blogger" and a dream about a site devoted to Lehigh football coverage: the first "Football Nation", if you will, modeled after my beloved Red Sox Nation which had "officially" come into being only a year or two before my foray into... er... nationhood.

Blogging has had it moments like this picture to my left, where I've simply been overwhelmed by the amount of backlog of writing articles that I've had. Holding a day job, while still writing articles for the College Sporting News and archiving articles about the FCS, it's a tough (self-imposed, admittedly) assignment. (And, yes, I probably looked a lot like that yesterday.)

Each year I've done this I've looked around and seen many folks in the local papers covering Lehigh and Lafayette in an extremely thorough way. I've thoroughly enjoyed reading the oeuvre of Keith Groller, Corky Blake, Jennifer Toland, and too many local reporters to mention in regards to Patriot League football. Without their work, I don't have a blog.

This year, however, is very different.

I'm looking around me for Patriot League football coverage... and finding squat. Granted, it's always been an uphill battle to get media attention in New York City for Fordham (hard to compete with, say Brett Favre getting traded to the Jets) or Washington, DC for Georgetown (granted it's hard to get good attention when you're 1-10 - but anything would be better than breathless reports about U. of Maryland football recruiting in Florida in the Washington Times). Granted, even though the Worcester Telegram & Gazette has good coverage for Holy Cross during the season, they don't usually send anybody to Media Day, which I sort-of understand with gas at $4 a gallon.

But this year is the thinnest I've ever in terms of coverage. Fordham, Georgetown, and Bucknell didn't have any local reporters at Media Day. The Oneida Daily Dispatch (Colgate) filed a staff report with no player interviews, as did the Worcester Telegraph & Gazette (Holy Cross). Lehigh and Lafayette filed exactly two reports: Keith Groller's report for the Morning Call and one article in the Easton Express-Times about the preseason defensive player of the year.

Some of this was to be expected, with Lafayette and Lehigh picked 4th and 5th respectively, and newspapers everywhere suffering with budget cutbacks and staff cuts. But to cut back this far this quickly? To have so few writeups of media day? To see the Express-Times with a section on Penn State... but not Lafayette?

This puts me, and my Lehigh football Nation blog, as the leader of (independent) Patriot League football coverage, even (dare I say) ahead of the mainstream media. Folks look to me and my blog for news from the League about expansion, for exclusive interviews with coach Coen and Lehigh players at Media Day, for not only news about Lehigh, but Fordham, Colgate, and all the other Patriot League schools, too.

Locally, I can't compete with the papers with boots on the ground following the teams (especially at Lehigh). But at a Patriot League level?

It's a huge challenge - as I'm discovering. I don't bring it up to pat myself on the back, but more to simply bring up the enormity of it all. I think that's what happens when you start something and make it grow - and then find out that it's only you and a few of the writing heavyweights out there. (And this isn't even my day job.)

I'm swamped. I'm sitting on interviews I simply haven't had time to transcribe. I'll get to them this week and next - but first, I need to go around the horn one more time to cover the news around the League that, quite frankly, has been piling up.

Next up, hopefully tomorrow: some more Media Day interviews.

  • First and foremost: the Lehigh Football Alumni alert. TE Adam Bergen ('05) was signed by the Baltimore Ravens and has caught the eyes of camp observers for (surprise) his great hands. Good luck, Adam! Also, LB Jon Guynes ('06) has left as linebackers coach at Iona to coach outside linebackers at a Patriot League School... namely, Holy Cross.
  • Other Patriot League football alumni are thriving, too. Colgate's Ryan Vena ('03) is simply ripping up the Arena League 2 playoffs for Scranton-Wilkes Barre.
  • If there's a Lehigh Football Alumni alert, maybe we should also have an Almost Lehigh Alert, too. OL Chris Aaron was reported as a "transfer" to Vanderbilt (meaning: it looks like he did manage to walk on to the team), while highly-touted recruit Kenny Shaw made a decision to go to U. of Washington on a track scholarship after committing to Lehigh last year... and based on this report, it seems like it was the right move for him.
  • In regards to current Mountain Hawks, sophomore TE Brandon Radke has a nice write-up in the Milton Standard Journal about his return from injury and his hope to crack the starting lineup after a hard-working offseason. Will he give sophomore TE
    Alex Wojdowski and senior TE Troy Healion a run to be the starting TE?
  • In other Lehigh news, senior DB Brendan VanAckeren was named a finalist to the 2008 AFCA Good Works team. This team acknowledges "the extra efforts made by college football players and student support staff off the field."
  • Also senior LB Tim Diamond was written up in the Lehigh Alumni magazine. Quote from the senior co-captain: “We want to restore Lehigh football to what it used to be.”
  • With the possible exception of this brief report about Fordham junior OL Rob Reis shifting from guard to center, there frankly hasn't been much said about the Rams - which scares me. Furthermore, the shift shouldn't mean all that much since Fordham has four returning starters on their "O" line - not to mention junior QB John Skelton.
  • From a short press release (the norm up their in Hamilton), Colgate announced the start of their preseason camp - the first in the PL this season. Everyone has heard about senior RB Jordan Scott's one-game suspension to start the year, but the key to the Raider defense might be another important upperclassman: senior DB Sam Breslin. He details in this report his frustrations about getting shuffled from defense to offense in his career - and reveals some possible plays with the speedster at QB in the "spread-like offense". More importantly, though, he gives a tantalizing peek at the 2008 Colgate Raiders: “We should be a very solid contender. Two of our (offensive) tackles are preseason All-Americans, we have an experienced quarterback and a talented backfield. We should be able to score a lot of points... We throw a lot of three-step (slots). I play the inner slot and we have 10 different three-step calls, as well as all the run audible from the same package."
  • Bucknell was the first team to kick off preseason practice, and coach Tim Landis, well, seems to have a spring in his step he hasn't had for several seasons. “The win over Fordham was a great springboard into the offseason,” he said. “The team’s attitude has just been tremendous. There has been a renewed enthusiasm in the weight room since the end of last year. We are really preaching team chemistry. The way to improve in that area is to spend time together, and that’s what they have been doing this summer. I just think the commitment of this group is going to show. It’s going to make us a better football team.”
  • Georgetown's group has been working hard at strength and conditioning this offseason, according to the Hoya athletic department. Junior DB Dennis Jackson: "Earlier this month, we began our second session of summer workouts, with more guys pouring onto campus and reunited with their teammates. As I walked into the weight room that Monday and saw a majority of our incoming freshmen and teammates from last season, I must admit that I was really excited and couldn't wait to get to work. Now with about 60 or so guys back on campus, you can definitely feel camp fast approaching."
  • The Crusaders are hoping their superstar senior QB Dominc Randolph will have a breakout season that will have NFL scouts making frequent trips to Fitton Field. This interesting profile, however, details the long route it finally took for Randolph to thrive at QB: after being buried behind future Ohio State QB Rob Schoenhoft, Randolph toured the Northeast looking at Harvard as a possible destination and almost came to Holy Cross as an afterthought. Now, at Patriot League Media Day, he was the only QB in the room.
  • "That school in Easton" had, predictably, Curley-to-Roeder as Lafayette's Male Athlete Play of the Year. Did I mention I'm already looking forward to the third weekend in November?

Monday, August 04, 2008

Q & A with... Lehigh DB Brendan VanAckeren

We start out the blog with my interviews of the Lehigh football players at Media Day this past week. First up: senior DB Brendan VanAckeren, senior leader on the defense - and someone who loves to hit.

LFN: Tell me a little bit about your high school career. You're from this area, right?

BVA: I went to Liberty High School here in Bethlehem, and I've been here all my life. I was always a Lehigh guy growing up - I was always kind of around the program, seeing it in the paper and all that, so it was good how it all turned out. I had some close family friends that played for Lehigh, so they took me to games over there and I had a good idea of what it was about. I had been to the Lehigh/Lafayette game a couple of years before I came here, which was also a big draw.

When I got into my junior and senior year of high school, when I got into the recruiting process, I got over to Lehigh, loved the coaches, loved the players, and the whole academic/athletic [balance]. It was definitely a great fit, I'm very glad I ended up at Lehigh. I've enjoyed my three years here (going onto the fourth), so I'm just trying to make the most of my last year.

It's great having known about Lehigh and then to become a part of it, just to experience everything that the community has. It's been a great ride so far. Lehigh and the rivalry, it doesn't get much better than that.

LFN: Do you think it's different for Lehigh players who haven't spent their whole life in this area knowing about Lehigh?

BVA: They definitely have a different perspective. My freshman roomate was from Austin, Texas, who hadn't heard about Lehigh until they called him the fall of his senior year, a situation where he didn't know about Lehigh until the whole recruiting process. They're coming into a whole new culture. I knew what I was getting into, I knew the whole community around me, and I had friends at school that I grew up with.

You really see the differences freshman year when everyone comes from different backgrounds, but by the time you're a junior or senior you see everyone's become acclimated to it. Everyone's been on campus for years, and everyone feels the same way and has had the same experience.

LFN: Are you excited about the defense this year?

BVA: Yes, very excited. I know were return most of our front seven. We return a couple of new faces in the secondary, but overall I feel we should be very strong. Our linebackers are as good as they get. I feel we can do a lot of great things out on the field to help the team win.

LFN: What's your leadership style?

BVA: I lead more by example, trying to put everyone in positions and making sure everyone's doing their assignment every play. If I'm not the one making the play, helping them so they can. And then, just trying to be around the ball as much as you can. That's where the plays happen, so I can make plays when I have the opportunity.

I'm more of a quiet leader. I get vocal when it's needed, but I definitely lead more by example.

LFN: You have to be itching to beat Lafayette...

BVA: Absolutely. It's been four years in a row now. I know the class last year, it killed them knowing they went their entire career without beating them. We're in a similar situation coming into this year. It's about time we make that happen and we're very excited for that game. It's a great game to play, a lot of fun and a lot at stake. This year, we're hoping to be at the other end of it.
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