Saturday, August 23, 2008

And The Answer Is... Joe Biden?

Like you, I waited and waited for an answer to the question "Who will be Lehigh's starting quarterback?" And much like the frustrated press rabble on Friday night... tonight I'm left with no answer, according to word from the Easton Express-Times:

"No, not yet. We'll sit down and watch the tape (today) and early next week, I'll let the kids know," Coen said. "I can put you guys on my text message list like Sen. (Barack) Obama."

The third-year Lehigh head coach did say the two frontrunners for the position are junior Chris Bokosky and sophomore J.B. Clark.

Isn't that like saying the frontrunners for the vice-presidential pick were Joe Biden, Evan Bayh and Hillary Clinton?

Junior QB Chris Bokosky chimed in too:

Bokosky, who threw for 469 yards and two touchdowns last season, said the competition is fun and friendly among the four quarterbacks.

"We're a close group. We're competitors," he said. "It really brought out the best in us. We push each other to get better day in and day out."

Whomever wins the QB derby, that is pretty good to hear.

Can't forget to add the report on Lehighsports of the final practice before the season starts:

Coen then commented on Saturday’s scrimmage. “I thought the offense ran the ball much better than our last scrimmage, but I was disappointed in our short yardage and goal line situations from the offensive side of things. The defense won the red zone battles, and the offense converted on a few third downs to sustain drives, so overall there was good give-and-take and a lot of positive things happened out here.”

One of the highlights of the day came from sophomore DB Jarard Cribbs on a punt return which he took in for a touchdown. Cribbs fielded the ball in the middle of the field, juked his way around several defenders to the outside and sprinted up the left sideline to pay dirt. Senior WR Jason Figura had a solid showing with two touchdown catches, including one that came on a long pass from junior QB Chris Bokosky. Bokosky also threw a touchdown pass to junior WR Brien Ruyak up the left sideline.

Sophomore QB J.B. Clark looked strong under center, throwing a long pass to junior WR Jimmy Potocnie down the middle of the field, which set up a Clark to Figura touchdown a few plays later. “Both quarterbacks did good things today,” Coen said. “Our young receivers really stepped up and made plays and I was pleased with our return units. Freshman WR De’Vaughn Gordon had a nice kick-off return and Cribbs made a great play on his return.”

Oi! What's my two-deep going to look like now?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Mountain Hawks Earn Pre-Season Accolades: Q-Day Is Tomorrow

Two Lehigh defensemen earned preseason accolades from the Sports Network yesterday. Senior DL Brian Jackson made second-team all-American honors, while senior LB Tim Diamond made third-team all-American as mentioned in the official Lehigh press release. Jackson's inclusion comes as no surprise, as he's been recognized all through the offseason as being one of the best "D" linemen in Football Championship Subdivision, but Diamond's inclusion comes as a small surprise since (historically speaking) linebacker is a very deep position in the FCS ranks.

One thing's for sure: the expectation level of this defense just went up another notch as no other Patriot League team had more than one member on the all-America team. "That school in Easton" boasted senior LB Andy Romans on the team, Holy Cross had senior QB Dominic Randolph on the team, and Colgate senior OL Nick Hennessey also got a nod. All the other Patriot League nominees made the second-team all-America lists.

Q-Day is today. I *think* I'm going to be up at practice tomorrow, but I'm not sure. Like Obama, I'll probably keep people guessing until the last minute whether I'm going up or not.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Coen Goes Country?

No word from Lehigh camp if coach Coen has Trisha Yearwood in his iPod, but he was recently seen sporting a cowboy hat in LehighSports.com's report on preseason practice.

More important than his choice of headwear, however, was the content of the release and who he singled out for praise.

One player he singled out has been an LFN fave for some time: junior DT B.J. Benning. “He’s big, he’s physical, and he keeps improving every day we’re out here,” Coen said. “BJ put on some extra weight and muscle in the off-season, but he’s every bit athletic as he was last season.”

The other big news? How about the emergence of a couple of underclassman challenging at wideout and tight end?

Sophomore WR Craig Zurn has really come on strong during camp,” Coen said. “He had a strong spring and he’s been able to carry that through. He was definitely in the mix at the start of camp, but he’s worked his way up the lineup even more.” Coen added, “He’s tough, he’s gritty, he’s a hard-nosed football player.” He continued, “Freshman TE Mark Wickware has done some nice things and freshman WR De’Vaughn Gordon will be in the mix at wide receiver.”

Battles at WR and TE that promise to go down to the end of preseason camp? I sure like the sound of that!

Add to the mix New Jersey freshman LB Bryce Arruda, who according to coach Coen had a great camp and will have a chance to make his mark on special teams, and you have one crazy Lehigh fan who cannot wait for September 6th. I'm already filling out my two deep as we speak.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Patriot League Offseason 2008: Colgate

Today I'm profiling Colgate in my "Patriot League Offseason" series. Ladies and gentlemen: *your* Colgate Raiders.

COLGATE
Coaching Changes: This offseason, Colgate lost a huge part of their dominating defenses over the past decade: defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham, who was grabbed by Greg Schiano of Rutgers to fill out his staff vacancies. (Schiano, himself a Bucknell grad, obviously is no dummy.) Filling his big shoes as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach is another huge name: Steve Szabo, a Navy alum who played football alongside the great Roger Staubach. More recently, he comes after coaching linebackers at Michigan after a long, illustrious coaching career which included stops on defensive coaching staffs in the NFL. Also hired were two coaches from the ranks of Division III: a new defensive assistant (Dave Uimonen, Springfield College) and running backs coach (Kade Rannings, St. Joseph's, IN)

The Hardest Guy To Replace: This one isn't hard at all: LB Mike Gallihugh simply was one of those special players on the Raiders that Colgate will most likely need 2 or 3 players to replace. One of the strongest players on the team physically, he was recognized as one of the best linebackers in FCS as a Buck Buchanan Award finalist and a second-team Sports Network All-American. All that and he amassed 123 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, and 10 tackles for loss, too.

Big Name in the Incoming Class: If you ask anyone in the Lehigh Valley, the big name is definitely RB/LB Nate Eachus, one of those special high school athletes that you just know folks are going to be talking about a long, long time from his Hazelton area exploits on the wrestling mat and in the Pennsylvania state football playoffs. A two-way player in high school with 2,169 yards and 28 TDs rushing his senior year, , he could very well be the heir apparent at RB the second senior RB Jordan Scott graduates. With his incredible record and durability at the high school level, it's no wonder Colgate fans are already excited (and Lehigh and Lafayette fans are just a little bit nervous).

Incoming Class Grade: B+. With an incoming class of 32 players, there's pretty good odds that they are going to get a bunch of needs filled, and with 7 'D' linemen on the list they filled their most glaring need in their list: defensive end. A local legend at tailback, more LBs, big 'O' linemen... the only thing keeping this class from being an 'A' is that Colgate only got three DBs where they seem to need more. Still, this seems like yet another quality recruiting class.

Spring Game: By historic standards, the Raiders' official release on spring practice was like jumping from Dr. Seuss to Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing: you're happy that the number of words have gone up, but you're still left wanting more. Still no scoring; still no indicator as to what coach Biddle did on the day; but two individuals were singled out in junior LB Greg Hadley and junior WR Pat Simonds as having had an outstanding spring. (Of course, I had them penciled in as starters already; not exactly earth-shattering news.) That's about it, although intriguingly coach Biddle also said that "the back-up QB position is still up for grabs as are some of the linebacker positions," and didn't rule out freshmen battling for starting spots.

Preseason So Far: It's been a tumultuous offseason for Colgate with a lot of attention for the wrong reasons: the leading rusher in FCS last year, senior RB Jordan Scott (along with senior DB David Morgan) getting charged for burglary, pleading guilty, and later spending 21 days in jail. Now with the unfortunate incident behind them (and Scott's and Morgan's one-game suspension looming for the Stony Brook game), you got the undercurrent that the Raiders couldn't wait to put on the pads and hit something - anything. Piecing together the preseason from loyal Colgate fans (officially, there's only an unhelpful two sentence announcement that practice had begun) leads to a picture of an interesting, aggressive defense... and an offense that will offer few surprises. Interestingly, senior QB Alex Relph's arm strength and accuracy was questioned in one post --and, according to the poster, there were not many downfield passes by any QB on the roster, either.

Fan Base: Generally speaking, Colgate fans are some of the nicest fans you'll ever meet. If your team weren't playing against them, generally they're exactly the type of fans you want to see happy with national championships and league titles - even if most of the talk seems to center around ECAC Hockey rather than men's basketball or football. As Patriot League rivals, this character trait makes their fans so difficult to deal with. Who can hate a team whose team is so... nice? They almost beg to be taunted, to be dragged kicking and screaming into the world of the emotional rollercoaster in which most regular sports fans live.

That's what has made the Jordan Scott situation so interesting, with fans obsessing over the tone of Scott in media interviews, asking is-he-or-isn't-he in spring practice, or pouring over the terse reports about the Raiders' progress in the offseason. Colgate fan goes against Colgate fan debating things like: are athletes getting preferential treatment? Is Scott getting treated too harshly?

In other words: Colgate fans seem to be changing in a subtle way. Football fever has thawed the tundra in Hamilton. They're starting to resemble the crazy football fan bases in the rest of America. If they win the Patriot League title this year, perhaps we can expect the same annoying hubris that (say) Lehigh fans exhibited in the late 1990s. Conversely: can running coach Biddle out of town after back-to-back 7-4 records be far behind?

Overall Offseason: In a world of Appalachian State and spread offenses, the Colgate smashmouth offense is refreshingly retro, and with the Scott drama behind them, Raider fans are heaving a sigh of relief. With the studs that coach Biddle seems to get every year in recruiting - along with a defense that seems like it's ahead of schedule at this point in the offseason, despite the presence of a new defensive coordinator - Colgate fans have every reason for some hubris. They may worry about Relph's arm, but going into the season they look to be a daunting opponent for everyone in 2008.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Patriot League Offseason 2008: Bucknell

Every year, I usher in the new Patriot League football season with a capsule on the goings-on in the offseason for every team in the Patriot League. In years past I have combined everyone's offseason in one huge post, but I thought it better to concentrate on each team one post at a time. In addition to allowing me to keep my sanity, it allows me to highlight each team individually.

Without any further ado, here's the first team I'm profiling (in alphabetic order): *your* Bucknell Bison.

BUCKNELL
Coaching Changes: Last year, the Bison welcomed a new defensive coordinator. This year, head coach Tim Landis will be welcoming a new offensive coordinator in Harold Nicholls. He comes from Rhode Island (where triple-option head coach Tim Stowers was run out of town) and lands at one of the few places in FCS where the triple-option is still in fashion. He replaces Ashley Ingram (who left to coach offensive linemen at Navy) and is the Bison's third offensive coordinator in the last four years (Tim Camp came before him, who is now head coach at Division II Eastern Oregon). Also hired were cornerbacks coach Bill McCord and outside linebackers coach Aaron Lewis.

The Hardest Guy To Replace: He'll be back after his two year Mormon mission, but losing sophomore DE Josh Eden after his first team all-Patriot League performance last year has got to hurt. Eden had 11 tackles for loss and 4 sacks in 2007 - which led the Bison.

Big Name in the Incoming Class: Listed as a DB, Frank DeNick excelled at Immaculata High school in New Jersey... as a quarterback. Leading the NJ state champions, he also recently played in the New Jersey North-South all-star game. Even though he's a DB now, might we see him running Bucknell's triple-option offense down the road?

Incoming Class Grade: B. Coach Landis finally got some big boys on his "O" and "D" lines -- something I've been harping about for several years. Not as many as I would have liked to have seen, but still a marked improvement. Strange that Landis only is carrying only 1 tight end on the roster and he didn't have a single one in the incoming class (does he have a plan to switch to the run and shoot that I don't know about?). Admittedly, it's hard to judge Bucknell's need areas since there are so many underclassmen on their roster. Still, this seems like a good overall class: some good names that could get playing time even in their freshman year.

Spring Game: Coach Landis didn't score this year's spring scrimmage, but the theme of the game would probably be big plays, with a 100 yard interception return from sophomore DB Jamal Briggs and a nice 25 yard run by senior RB A.J. Kizekai. Only junior QB Marcelo Trigg played in the spring game, meaning that senior QB Andrew Lair (who was studying abroad during the spring) would have to wait for preseason practice to answer the question: who will be the starting QB?

Fan Base: Bucknellians, even more so that other fans around the Patriot League, are notorious for their front-running. When things are going well, you'll see T-shirts about (say) the Bison women's lacrosse teams or "Sojka Psycho" shirts; when, like last year, you see the Bison inauspiciously ousted in the second round of the Patriot League's men basketball tournament, you see many of said fans with brand-new Phillies hats saying, "I was always a baseball fan anyway". With the subpar performance of Bucknell football over the years, for the most part Bison football nuts have been hard to find: which makes the presence of more than three fans on Any Given Saturday... and (gasp) a posting on Bucknell's board talking about (of all things) preseason football practice something truly alarming. Pre-emptive front-running - or is Verizon Fios simply reaching the cow pastures of Lewisburg? Only in mid-October will we know for sure.

Preseason So Far: An interesting posting on Bucknell's web site details a full-squad scrimmage which coach Landis felt was necessary to determine where his extremely young team was exactly. Calling the practice "sloppy" with lots of penalties, seven QBs got snaps during the practice, although it still looks like Lair and Trigg are still vying for the #1 spot. Worthy of note is that junior LB Sam Nana-Sinkam appears to be back an healthy - his loss in last year's preseason was a huge reason why Bucknell struggled last year in my opinion.

2008 Expectations: This team - with surprisingly few seniors - looks like they will be feeling their way in their first few games of the year, especially offensively. Could these young Bison calves get things together and contend for the Patriot League title behind a strong Bucknell defense? Don't count out the supernatural ability of Bison fans to smell a winner early.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Coach Coen Makes Things (More) Crystal-Clear

This weekend saw a lot of interesting updates on how preseason practice is going for the Mountain Hawks. A tantalizing picture of the 2008 Lehigh football team is now taking shape.

The Morning Call's Keith Groller started things off on Sunday with an extensive official report on progress at practice and tons of juicy tidbits as well in his blog entry. As if that weren't enough, the official Lehigh site also filed an update after Sunday's practice as well. From this buffet of different information, only tasty speculation can ensue.

Let's get right to the good stuff, and what it seems to be what's on every Lehigh fan's mind: the QB situation. Who's ahead in the race? Is a decision being made?

With Threatt gone, Coen has a chance to start over, and build an offense around a quarterback he can mold.

The competition for Threatt's old job is the most intriguing aspect of Lehigh's preseason camp. Junior Chris Bokosky, who played when Threatt went to the sidelines, is competing with sophomores J.B. Clark and Trace Cisneros.

The quarterback competition is close, but Coen is adamant about picking one guy -- it will be made after Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage -- and sticking with him. There will be no shuttling in and out of QBs.

Junior Chris Bokosky and sophomore J.B. Clark each had their moments under center on Sunday, as the pair of quarterbacks worked versus the Lehigh defense. Bokosky led the Mountain Hawk “O” on a long drive that resulted in a touchdown, while Clark showed off his arm with several impressive throws that moved the chains. “They’re both progressing,” Coen explained. “Chris had his moments out here today and so did J.B.”

Highly touted freshman Chris Lum, a Michigan product, has looked good, but is not ready for a starting spot just yet.

Coen knows that whoever starts Sept. 6 against Drake at Goodman Stadium must have job security.

"I will definitely not have a short leash with this guy," Coen said. "I will not name him the starting quarterback and then pull him if he throws two interceptions. The guy will have my support and the support of the coaching staff and the rest of the team."

LFN's take: Although it's being billed as a wide-open battle at QB, it was very interesting that junior QB Chris Bokosky and sophomore QB J.B. Clark were singled out for praise after Sunday's practice. I'm speculating that the starting nod will go to either Clark or Bokosky (sorry, fans of sophomore QB Trace Cisneros). And dare I bring up a possibility (that I happen to really dislike) of having a two-headed QB - Bokosky and Clark - coming in the game in different situations?

As for who will win the QB race, I'm not only putting up a brand-new poll to feed the speculation: the decision will come to a head on Saturday. That day won't just be about Lehigh breaking camp, it just became an event: after the scrimmage, coach Coen will announce the starting QB for Drake.

Next up: what about the injury bug that helped decimate Lehigh's chances last year?

Coen said the general health of the team is very good. Through the first nine practices, the team has been been healthier than it was at the same point last year. Senior wide receiver Ben Ivester did break his forearm and will be out six weeks, but the team, as a whole, is in much better shape.

Matt McGowan, one of 2007's most injured guys, is running better than ever and the receivers are doing a better job of catching the ball than they did last year.

LFN's Take: This can be partially attributable to better offseason conditioning, but again (so far, and knocking furiously on wood as I say it) hearing that senior RB Matt McGowan and senior WR Sekou Yansane aren't injured is making me very happy. Having said that, losing senior WR Ben Ivester for 6 weeks with a broken arm means that there is a new spot opening up: that of holder on field goals. (Big deal, I hear you sneer: think again.)

What about the secondary, and special teams? What about a freshman who is making noise early on?

Coen then singled out a pair of Mountain Hawks that caught his eye during the scrimmage. “Freshman WR De’Vaughn Gordon did some good things on our kick-off return unit as we search for a back-up to sophomore DB/KR John Kennedy. Senior P/K Jason Leo punted the ball very well and had nice ‘pop’ on his field goal attempts.” He went onto say, “The defense ran to the ball well, they played very strong against the run; there were a few missed tackles, some things we need to improve, but we’ll keep working.”

The defense, which dominated the spring game, is looking sharp, especially in the secondary.

Kennedy gave his thoughts on how the scrimmage unfolded. "I thought it went pretty good. Both sides of the ball made plays. On defense, I thought we played physical and really ran to the ball." He then commented on how preseason camp has gone up to this point. "It's gone well. Everyday we're getting better, we're building the chemistry of the team, and we're excited about what is still to come."
LFN's Take: If you haven't already, pencil in sophomore DB John Kennedy at cornerback in 2008. Think about this a second: a year ago, we had four seniors in the defensive backfield and a concern about having a defensive backfield in 2008 with little or no experience. Now? The secondary almost doesn't seem like a point of concern even though we have four new starters - and now is getting mentioned as a strength of the team. That's pretty remarkable.

Another point to mention: could something special be brewing on special teams as well? We know John "Fear Itself" Kennedy is a good kick returner: could Gordon make things very tough on opposing kickoff teams as well?

What about team chemistry - something everyone tells me is important to "develop" in the preseason? And what's the work ethic out there?

The coaches really like the attitude of this team and feel the players worked harder in this offseason than they did last year. "The attitude and effort has been great," [offensive coordinator Trey] Brown said. "It started with the winter conditioning and it continued in the spring and moved right through the summer. They realize the sour taste that goes along with 5-6. We haven't questioned the commitment of this football team one time."

The team is bothered by the low expectations others have for them, including the fifth-place preseason ranking in the Patriot League.

This is a team that has quiet confidence and will not be shooting off its mouth. After losing to everybody in the league but Bucknell and Georgetown last year the Mountain Hawks definitely shouldn't have a swagger among them entering this season. They should and will let their actions speak for themselves.

LFN's Take: Although it's nice to hear that a team has "quiet confidence" and are upset that they were picked 5th in the conference, it really doesn't mean much until there are notches in the win column. Having said that, the signs are encouraging that the team appears better conditioned - and, dare I say, humble - than in years past. (Of course, losing to "that school in Easton" four straight years has a way of making a team humble, or so I would hope.)

Finally, though, there's the most important aspect to this preseason:

Coen said he has learned a lot about being a head coach over the past two years and may delegate authority more this year and not get so wrapped up in the offense.

It's this last statement which strikes me the most: not so much about the delegation of authority on offense (which seems like a smart move, by the way) but the fact that he's learned a lot and has been learning from his mistakes from last year. I'll deal with this on my first "Sunday Word" of the year this week in more detail, but it looks like the lessons coach Coen has learned has already had some real, tangible benefits for 2008 and beyond.

Programming Note: Look tomorrow for the start of the ever-popular "Patriot League Offseason 2008" series, where I look closely at every team in the Patriot League this year and break down exactly what is going on with them in the offseason.
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