Saturday, August 29, 2009

Patriot League Offseason 2009: Holy Cross

The season starts a week from today, and the first patriot League football game pits Georgetown against the next team I'm profiling: the preseason pick to win it all. I bring you the continuation of my "Patriot League Offseason" series: next up: *your* Holy Cross Crusaders.

Coaching Changes: While the core of head coach Tom Gilmore's staff remains intact - offensive coordinator Mike Pedone and defensive coordinator Richard Rodgers return - you could simply call much of the Crusaders' new assistant coaching staff "Lehigh North". New names include former Lehigh CB Neal Boozer (Dutch Fork HS (GA), Secondary) and former Lehigh LB Matt Mohler (The Citadel, Outside Linebackers). Rounding out the (non-Lehigh) staff is Bill McCarthy (Springfield College; Running Backs) and Walt Houseman (Chicago Rush, AFL; Defensive Line).

The Hardest Guy To Replace: Randolph's two top targets from last year, WR Jon Brock and WR Brett McDermott, have both graduated and won't be easy to replace. Though it seems lately like Holy Cross seems to have no shortage of wideouts waiting in the wings when a couple are lost to graduation, Gilmore will still have to replace 1,418 receiving yards and 18 receiving TDs. One of the big questions about this team will be how junior WR Freddie Santana and junior WR Rob Koster fill their shoes.

Big Name in the Incoming Class: Coach Gilmore bagged a star recruit from somewhere a bit unexpected: the Great White North. Freshman RB Eddie Houghton (St. Michael's HS, Toronto, Canada) ripped up Canadian high schools two years ago to the tune of 11 yards per carry. After a year in prep school, Holy Cross reportedly won out over Vanderbilt, Northwestern... and Cornell, who reportedly told Houghton he was their "number one back". If it's true that Houghton was pried away from an Ivy League school who was pitching that hard, that's a major feather in Gilmore's cap.

Incoming Class Grade: B. I don't have a big problem with this year's recruiting class, which is deep (28 players), wide (Freshman OL Billy Lang lists at 6'6, 295 lbs) hard-hitting (6'2 235 lb freshman LB David Herman) and far-reaching (Freshman RB Anthony Blake, Jr. hails from Portland, OR, while freshman LB Donald Harvey hails from Texas). But the focus on linebackers, trench players and running backs does make one pause: Once senior QB Dominic Randolph graduates, will the pass-happy offense set up around him go with him?

Preseason So Far: Despite finishing a heartbreaking second place the last three years, the Crusaders are wearing the bullseye on their backs with pride. Holy Cross was picked at Patriot League media day atop the Patriot League - and they seem determined to buck the trend which has proved that the preseason #1 pick, over the past seven years, has not won the Patriot League title. The Crusaders, indeed, are walking and talking as if teams need to knock them off the championship perch already.

One member of the Crusaders - team captain, NFL prospect and heart and soul of the offense senior QB Dominic Randolph, is chiseled in as the starter. But questions remain. Can sophomore RB Matt Bellomo or sophomore RB Francis Camara emerge as a powerful 1-2 punch out of the backfield? Can the defense, led by senior LB Marcus Rodriguez, improve on their dead-last conference ratings in sacks (.82 per game) and pass defense (allowing 251.9 yards per game)? And will Holy Cross finally win one of those late-season everything-on-the-line games that determine the Patriot League champion?

This Holy Cross team seems focused this offseason. They are ready to get that title that they have come so close to getting these past three years - perhaps because the season-ending 28-27 loss to Colgate last year was one of those fall-from-ahead losses that no college football player can ever forget. They think they know what needs to be done this year to get over the hump - and they have an idea of what's at stake.

Fan Base: Last year, I posed the question: "[W]hat will happen if once again these poor Holy Cross fans are denied... with another loss to... those (somewhat, anyway) close by Raiders of Colgate (with whom the Crusaders also have a sort-of rivalry)?" One offseason later, the answer clearly is that the stakes will continue to rise. This year, it sometimes feels like the future of the program is in the balance.

While it has to be utter torture for any group of fans to come so close for three years straight just to get skunked, in order to understand these feelings from the Crusader faithful you have to look at the pre-Gilmore era of Holy Cross football. From 1992 to 2003, Holy Cross only enjoyed two winning seasons. Seven times they failed to achieve four wins. From those heady late 1980s days Gordie Lockbaum days, when Holy Cross had a semi-local rivalry with Boston College, in the 1990s there was a thought that Holy Cross might disband football entirely. As famous ESPN columnist (and Holy Cross) alumnus Bill Simmons once wrote, Holy Cross' attitude was "We try to win, but not really."

Enter Tom Gilmore, who took a program who had nowhere to go but up and brought them to the brink of Patriot League titles. He's seen as a miracle worker, with three winning 7-4 records and near-titles. No Crusader fan wants to go back to the dark days of the 1990s. Gilmore's their guy, Randolph's returning to play in his final year of eligibility, and they're the preseason favorites. Gilmore can do no wrong in Worcester.

Yet Sader Nation looks at the roster loaded with seniors, and they're worried. The last time they had a great athlete suiting up at Fitton Field - the legendary Gordie Lockbaum - when he left, in their eyes, the titles and success went right along with it (despite the Patriot League championships that followed his graduation). When Dominic Randolph hangs up his cleats, will it be the site of a mid-1990's-esque collapse of the football program? Every Holy Cross looks at this current team, and worries that it could be the last, best chance before the Crusaders return to football slumber. It's important to realize how the legend of Lockbaum feeds this fear.

The posting of bikeman on the Holy Cross Sports Board says it better than I ever could. "In my opinion, this is the most important season in modern Crusader history. The future of our football program may depend on it."

Overall Offseason: There's confidence that shows through on this team when you see Gilmore and Randolph in person. Quarterback is the single most important position on a football team, and Holy Cross has the best one in the Patriot League in senior QB Dominic Randolph. There's every reason to believe that he and his offense will be the top offense in the league this year once again, even if it has to be done with new targets at wideout and running back. They're the favorites - for the first time in ages - and they seem to be entering the season with a lot of confidence that they can get over the hump.

But it's striking how much Holy Cross and the NFL's Buffalo Bills of the 1990s have in common: a successful past shrouded in some mystery; a dark period of terrible teams; and teams led by a record-breaking pass-happy quarterback that have come agonizingly close to championships, but fallen just short. And it is this season where Holy Cross fans discover if Randolph will be the Crusaders' John Elway, or if he's merely their Jim Kelly.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Patriot League Offseason 2009: Georgetown

We continue our tour around the Patriot League, this time stopping in the District for my offseason blog series. After taking in the Washington Monument, and waving hello to President Obama, I introduce to you: *your* Georgetown Hoyas.

Coaching Changes: It's Year Four of the Hoya rebuilding project for head coach Kevin Kelly, and despite a 5-27 record during his first three years (and only one Patriot League victory) the core of his coaching staff remains largely intact. Gone is linebacker coahc Sudeep Garg (apparently to the private sector) while Kelly welcomes in former club football offensive coordinator Chris Brown (George Mason; Defensive Backs) and former marine Matt Webb (Louisville; Special Teams).

The Hardest Guy To Replace: An easy call: it's the defensive lineman with the hard-to-pronounce name. DE Ataefiok Etukeren's 61 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks made him by far the most dominant defensive player on the Hoyas last season, and was the Georgetown player I feared the most last year. Apparently there was something to that, too: the NFL's Buffalo Bills signed him to a free-agent contract, and he seems like a good chance to make the team (or at least make the practice squad).

Big Name in the Incoming Class: With Georgetown's offense having so many problems the last three years, getting big freshman OL Kevin Sullivan (Bergen Catholic HS, NJ) was a coup for the Hoya recruiting staff. The 6'4, 270 lb offensive and defensive lineman on the perennial New Jersey powerhouse gives the Hoyas some size and talent where they desperately need it. It's not a stretch to think he might get playing time right away.

Incoming Class Grade: C-. While the Hoyas did get some good size and some good players in this class, it's unbelievable that coach Kelly did not get a single pure running back in this class, especially with senior RB Charlie Houghton in his final year. True, one of the slot backs might eventually fill that role (freshman SB Max Waizenegger, freshman SB Jonathan Miller) or even one of the defensive backs (freshman DB Jeffrey Gazaway). But as it stands now the Hoyas didn't seem to fill one of their biggest needs - not good.

Preseason So Far: While expectations from fans may be muted after years of sub-par records, you'd be hard-pressed to see anything but upbeat feelings from the Hoya players themselves. Senior TE Henry Bowe talks about potentially pulling off the upset of the year on opening weekend: "I know I speak for the entire team when I say that there would be no better way to finish our first week of classes than to leave Fitton Field in Worcester, Massachusetts singing the fight song and celebrating the beginning of a great season!" Meanwhile, head coach Kevin Kelly still hasn't revealed who the opening day QB will be - which presumably will be between last year's starter, sophomore QB James Brady, and upstart sophomore QB Tucker Stafford.

One of the highlights of the Georgetown offseason is the unveiling of who wears the coveted #35 jersey. Former Hoya player Joe Eacobacci, who perished in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade center, wore #35 as a player and evey year since the attacks the Hoyas have bequeathed the number to the current Hoya player who "best embodies his spirit". This year, the recipient was a complete surprise: senior SB Robert Lane, who broke his jaw in Week 2 last year and sat out the entire year.

Fan Base: Last year, I wrote: "To be a Georgetown fan is to experience pain. More accurately, Lucy-pulling-the-football-away-from-Charlie-Brown type of pain." A year later, the words ring as true now as it did a year ago - but this year, the legendary patience of Hoya fans is finally starting to wear thin.

The Hoyas may have the best college football fans in the entire nation. It's one thing to root for a team that routinely wins conference championships, bowl games or FCS playoff games. It's quite another to root for a team that hasn't done better than 5-6 as a member of the Patriot League and not even coming close to a Patriot League championship. Add to this the fact that the DC media largely doesn't even know they exist, and they've been playing in a half-finished stadium for the last three years - the fact that the small, but strong, Hoya faithful have stayed loyal to their team all these years says volumes about their fans.

But there's real evidence that Hoya fans have ceased to be patient with coach Kelly. It's his fourth year as head coach. This group is, in every way, his team. The staff has largely been intact from last year's last-place 2-8 finish. And the talk of teams like Fordham changing the Patriot League financial aid landscape is forcing Hoya fans to ask some uncomfortable questions. "If we're this bad now... what about when Fordham (and, presumably, Colgate, Lehigh and Lafayette) start offering football scholarships?" "Are we better off going to the Pioneer Football League?" "Whatever the financial aid landscape, is coach Kelly the guy to get us there?"

For years, Hoya fans (and others, too) have bee frustrated for they see in Georgetown a school that could very well - if they want to - be a Patriot League powerhouse in football. Georgetown offers the best education in the Patriot League - and their internships, frequently with congressmen, Interpol or all sorts of powerful DC positions, can't be beat anywhere. With a financial commitment to scholarship football - and an invite to the FCS playoffs - they could be an elite destination for high-academic football players.

Overall Offseason: Frustrating in the best of times, this Hoya offseason has been made even more maddening by the whole debate on football scholarships taking place with the rest of the Patriot League. It certainly hasn't dampened the enthusiasm with the football players the Hilltop for the upcoming season - but it hasn't exactly set the DC media, or their fans, on fire about the upcoming season. Instead, it's put fans at an uncomfortable crossroads: with coach Kelly, with scholarships - and even what sort of football program Georgetown should aspire having.

Yet somehow, you can see Hoya fans with that gleam in their eyes sometimes - that this year, the Hoyas can go up to Fitton Field and turn the FCS world upside down. Like Charlie Brown and Lucy holding that football, they believe that it could happen. That they've been waiting so long for it to happen, it may as well be this year that it does.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Patriot League Offseason 2009: Fordham

As if Fordham needed a little more press going into the regular season in football - did you hear, Fordham will be offering merit-based aid in football starting this fall? - I'll oblige the Fordham athletic department further and offer my own take on the Rams' offseason an prospects for the 2009 season. Ladies and Gentelmen: *your* Fordham Rams.

Coaching Changes: Talk about switching to the dark side. Head coach Tom Masella might be calling former offensive coordinator Ed Argast "Anakin" under his breath as he left Fordham this offseason to become offensive line coach under the Rams' crosstown rival, Columbia. (Though I don't think Hayden Christensen ever wore powder blue in those movies.) Furthermore, former defensive coordinator Frank Forcucci also left the Bronx to take the same position at Northeastern, leaving Masella to promote from within to full both the offensive (Bryan Volk) and defensive (Patrick Moore) coordinator positions. At assistant coach, too, Masella has basically performed a housecleaning after their disappointing sixth-place finish last year: he's brought in former Ram Malik Hall (Hofstra; Defensive line/Special Teams), Eddy Morrissey (Oregon; Offensive Line), and John Wholley (UConn; Running Backs). The great majority of the staff has been there two years or less.

The Hardest Guy to Replace: Fordham has most of its core returning for their senior year in 2009, but FS Matt Loucks will probably be missed the most. He's one of those guys where his statistics (56 tackles; 5 passes defended) don't reflect his true worth to the team - this bulldog was a nasty, hard-hitter, and despite missing a few games due to injury he managed two games with season highs in tackles (26 vs. Albany in 2007, 19 vs. Colgate in 2008). He's a tough player that I hated seeing play against Lehigh - that should say everything.

Big Name in the Incoming Class: A kicker, Chuck? Really? Yes, really. Freshman P/K Kevin Heinowitz (Indian Hills HS, NJ), a former soccer goalie and former member of the prestigious US Soccer Academy, promises to have a leg for kickoffs and punts that some Patriot League schools can only dream about. On his signing day he mentioned casually that he's hit 60 yard field goals in practice - that's the type of guy that might step in right away to kick kickoffs, with a shot a even more success during his college career.

Incoming Class Grade: B with an asterisk. While the class is a little bit small, there are enough gems in here - Heinowitz, Red Bank HS freshman LB Anthony Lubischer, 300 lb freshman OL Robert Bubacki - to give coach Masella high props, despite the lack of DBs in this year's group. But there's an asterisk here: it is contingent on a former Delaware transfer, sophomore QB Lou Ritaccio, making it to Rose Hill next year (he needs to sit out a year, coming from the Blue Hens) to solidify the QB position next year once senior QB John Skelton graduates.

Preseason so far: Aside from the coaching turnover, there was something else about Fordham's offseason I wanted to talk about... what was that again? Oh yeah, something about football scholarships, merit aid and the potential that Fordham could be leaving the Patriot League. You know, your typical offseason stuff.

Seriously, Fordham's announcement that going forward they would no longer needs-test their athletic aid went like a tidal wave through the Patriot League, making the Rams discussion point number one everywhere in the offseason this year. It's dwarfed the typical quiet that has surrounded Fordham's football program offseasons in the past: perhaps, too, it's kept people distracted from the fact that the Rams quietly have the great majority of their football team still in place from their magical 2007 title run, like senior LB James Crockett, junior LB Nicholas Magiera, junior RB Xavier Martin and senior WR Asa Lucas.

Another key player, of course is the tall Texan: senior QB John Skelton, who recently has gotten serious buzz as a NFL prospect from the Daily News. Fordham's offseason coverage used to be insignificant; this year, they're showing signs of hype that haven't been seen on Rose Hill since the 1930s. (Okay, maybe not since QB Kevin Eakin graduated.)

Fan Base: Things are very, very different with the Fordham fan base this year - it's been an offseason of extremes of emotion after a frustrating regression on the field in 2008.

It can't have been easy for Ram fans to go from a 2007 Patriot League title and playoff bid to a preseason pick to win the League in 2008 - only to struggle to a 5-6 record and out of the championship conversation by October. In a sports environment where the Yankees are expected to make the World Series every year, this couldn't have been good.

And when early reports of a small incoming class came in - and unconfirmed reports that the Patriot League's Academic Index, the mechanism which ensures that football players are representative of the rest of the incoming class, caused their class to come in below athletic expectations - Fordham fans were beginning to wonder if the Patriot League had it in for them.

But things change fast in New York. In a "New York Minute", coach Masella let leak that Fordham would start scheduling FBS money games in two years and they would start offering scholarships without a needs test. The news put new wind in the sails of Fordham fans - and gave them a familiar New York swagger. The fact that senior QB John Skelton is on the boards of NFL teams further buoyed Fordham fans - they feel they're on the brink of something huge.

You also can't ignore the backdrop: right now, the New York area has been wowed by a new Yankee Stadium. Back in the 1930s, Fordham and NYU played famous football games in the old Yankee Stadium, and there's definitely something in the air around Fordham once again. Fordham fans are on the brink of the big-time - the FCS big-time, that is - and Fordham fans probably haven't ever been this excited in the modern era.

Overall Offseason: Last year, Fordham fell hard from the Patriot League penthouse, but they hardly made it to the outhouse this offseason. Coach Masella saw to that: shaking things up again on his coaching staff, announcing FBS games and football scholarships, pushing his star QB as a potential NFL player. Rather than being sixth banana of New York area sports teams, Fordham looks to be a big player in the FCS world, and they have made public relations strides that other big-city schools such as Northeastern, Harvard or UPenn could only dream of making.

A funny thing can happen with happenings like this: while this crop of Ram seniors won't taste the fruits of scholarships or FBS games, the enthusiasm can creep into the team's performance this year, too - quite possibly putting them in line for another Patriot League championship. Will it happen - and if so, what will happen to the fans, with a title and visions of scholarships and playoff possibilities in their heads? It's a good time to be a Fordham fan.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Patriot League Offseason 2009: Colgate

My "Patriot League Offseason" series continues with that pesky team in the Great White North that has a disturbing tendency to win Patriot League championships in football. Ladies and gentlemen: *your* Colgate Raiders.

Coaching Changes: Replacing longtime defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham, who went to Rutgers two years ago, has proved to be a more difficult challenge than many might have thought. Last year's candidate, Steve Szabo, left after only one year to become an assistant coach at Eastern Michigan, leaving head coach Dick Biddle to promote from within to implement co-defensive coordinators: defensive line coach Ryan Knowles and secondary coach Nick Monroe. Aside from that and the addition of Pat Foley (Merchant Marine Academy; Linebackers) and Gabe Harrington (USMA; Strength & Conditioning), coach Biddle's staff - notably on offense - is almost completely intact from last year.

The Hardest Guy To Replace: Even though he was injured a good portion of last year, RB Jordan Scott is still the sort of player that will definitely be missed. The Patriot League record holder for rushing yards (5,621), and rushing touchdowns (59) may have been ably spelled by the local high school legend around these parts, sophomore RB Nate Eachus (932 yards rushing, 10 TDs), you don't simply lose a great player like that and feel no impact. (It also doesn't help that OL Nick Hennessey, and the majority of the "O" line that allowed him to carve out those yards, have also graduated.)

Big Name in the Incoming Class: While coach Biddle commented on the release of the incoming class with his usual "fanfare" ("A number of the incoming players will compete for playing time and will be called upon to play special teams." - please, Coach Biddle, don't hold back!) one kid out of California does stand out: freshman DB Demetri Diamond (Newhall Hart HS, CA). A do-everything player for the Indians, Diamond played running back and linebacker as well as retuning kicks. It's not hard to picture the 6'3, 205 lb incomer as a future free safety for coach Biddle in the future - and he may be returning kicks right away, too.

Incoming Class Grade: A. What's not to like? A nationwide recruiting class, filled with beef on both lines (Freshman OL Brian Crockett, 285 lbs, freshman DL Chris Horner, 260 lbs), several tall receiving candidates to replace potential pro prospect senior WR Pat Simonds (including 6'3 freshman WR Jonathan Mputu), and for good measure some linebackers (including freshman LB Pat Friel) that could make some noise in the Patriot League sooner rather than later. As a Lehigh fan, this group frightens me.

Preseason So Far: Last year's offseason was uncharacteristically eventful for the boys in Hamilton, NY, with RB Jordan Scott's unfortunate involvement in an on-campus burglary causing folks to wonder if he would be booted from the team. While clearly coach Biddle prefers quiet offseasons, the bombshell that all-Patriot League senior CB Wayne Moten won't be suiting up this year (word from the Utica Observer-Dispatch is that he "chose not to play this year") must have hit the Raiders like a ton of lead. While senior LB Greg Hadley will certainly provide the leadership on defense for the Raiders, this is still very bad news.

There's also the admission from coach Biddle that
the offensive line situation is “not settled. Five freshmen probably will be in the two deep. It’s a work in progress.” Uneventful? Hardly - and certainly not for junior QB Greg Sullivan, either, who (along with sophomore RB Nate Eachus) are relying on that line to make the offense work.

Fan Base: Last year, I said that Colgate fans are starting to resemble the crazy football fan bases in the rest of America. Part of that has to be a result of success - after all, coach Biddle and the Raiders have been a dominant force at the top of the Patriot League, winning four of the last seven Patriot League titles. Yet hubris must not like the cold weather - despite the incredible run of league dominance, Colgate fans still seem overwhelmingly humble and, well, downright nice.

But there are signs that the World Wide Interwebs are starting to affect the Buddhist-like calm up in Hamilton. (Maybe Fios finally made it up there?) When the Scott affair broke two years ago, Colgate found themselves in the headlines and Colgate's bulletin board lit up with "insider" information. Not coincidentally, the Utica Observer-Dispatch also revamped their website and opened up their Colgate coverage to the rest of America. Almost overnight, Colgate went from being the sleepy football secret in upstate New York to one that recruits nationally - with fans in places like Florida and California. (No, seriously, Biddle must be a great salesman if he convinces kids from California and Florida to waltz with the cows in the snow in November.)

The fans are continuing to become a bit more national; a bit more rabid; a bit more crazy. The rivalries with Lafayette, Lehigh and (now) Holy Cross are becoming more intense - and add to that the yearly white-out against Cornell as well. More games are finding themselves on local - and national - TV. They'll eventually get there: soon, Colgate fans will be hated by the rest of the league in the way, say, Delaware's fans are loathed. The snowball, if you will, is rolling downhill.

Overall Offseason: It's hard to put into words what the loss of Moten means to this team on the field - their best defensive player, a lockdown corner in a league where lockdown corners are few and far between. Once again, a sleepy Hamilton summer is upended by the announcement from one of the stars of the team - but the fans can respond with their characteristic calm that somehow, some way, coach Biddle will manage to put all the pieces together for yet another Patriot League championship. If they do, they'll have a nation of Colgate fans - from California to Florida to Canada - following them.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Patriot League Offseason 2009: Bucknell

It's that time of year again: where I attempt to bring in the 2009 Patriot League season with a small recap of the goings-on of Lehigh's league-mates since we last left them in November 2008.

I make my picks in alphabetical order, so the first team I profile is *your* Bucknell Bison.

Coaching Changes: Another year, another offensive coordinator. After the former Rhode Island OC Harold Nicholls left to become head coach at Presbyterian, head coach Tim Landis promoted from within as Brent Thompson goes from offensive line coach to running the offensive show. He gives the Bison desperately needed consistency on coaching offense: he will be their fourth offensive coordinator in the last five years. Other new faces in Lewisburg include Fordham grad Ed Lynett (Safeties, former defensive coordinator at Iona), Lafayette grad Mike O'Connor (Defensive Line, Rutgers assistant) and - here's a name Lehigh folks will recognize - former all-League CB Sam Perryman (Running Backs, Penn State assistant).

The Hardest Guy To Replace: With a very young team last year, most of the "hard to replace" guys, well, don't need replacing. But one guy is LB Todd Manjuck who had 67 tackles and led the Bison's defense as captain.

The Key to the Season: Senior LB Sam Nana-Sinkam has been a great talent on defense - when he's healthy. Senior QB Marcelo Trigg has been a force on offense - when he's healthy. Junior WR Shaun Pasternak is good enough to be all-Patriot League - if he's healthy. If Bucknell is going to make a run at the title, they'll need to keep injuries to a minimum, especially when league play rolls around - and the oft-injured Trigg and Sinkam will need to be a part of that. If they're 100% all year, watch out.

Big Name in the Incoming Class: If there's a guy that could step in right away and contribute, it's freshman RB Jeremiah Young (Steelton-Highspire HS, PA). Called the coup of the recuiting season by the Sunbury Daily Item, Young ended his high school career as the all-time PA leader in rushing yards (9,027) and 9th all-time. this 5-10, 200 lb running back could end up being the marquee back that Bucknell has been searching for. It probably won't be this year, though: after hurting his knee on the East-West All-Star game this summer, he's injured too, and likely to be out an extended period of time.

Incoming Class Grade: B. Coach Landis did get more beef in the "O" and "D" lines - he nabbed a true defensive tackle in DT Devin Gordon-Hamm - and he got some awesome talent at RB. It's at the "speed" positions at WR and DB where I have questions - especially only getting 1 WR, leaving only 8 on the entire roster. While would could say that DB is a strength, with junior DB Akhiel White leading that unit - you need depth, and I wonder if he got that.

Fan Base: When most people mention "Bucknell", the first thing that generally leaps to mind is "Kansas" (which is, of course the victim of the Bison's historic win in the NCAA Men's basketball tournament, followed next year by a less-reported first-round win over Arkansas).

Despite the fact that the Bison's men's basketball team hasn't duplicated that success recently, most fans think of Bucknell as some sort of mid-major basketball power instead of the mediocre basketball team they have since reverted to.

As a result, Bucknell's football program sometimes doesn't get the attention it deserves - certainly not on the world-wide-interwebs, where the message boards post with baited breath about the preseason basketball rosters while football's opener is mere weeks away. While you could argue that the Bison haven't won a Patriot League football championship since 1997 (which was, in a cruel twist of fate for Bison fans, the last year before the Patriot League got an automatic invite to the FCS playoffs), I have great faith should the Bison make a run at this thing, you'll see a stadium filled with "die-hard" Bison fans - die-hard since, oh, this October.

Preseason So Far: For fans hoping the Bison would stay injury-free over the summer, think again. Junior WR Shaun Pasternak - by far the Bison's best receiver - had his leg in a cast over preseason practice and won't be ready for the opener, while senior QB Marcelo Trigg still isn't 100% back from last year's leg injury either. No wonder Landis in his last practices didn't have full contact and hitting.

2009 Expectations: Many non-Bucknell folks may already have written off the Bison - pointing at their 5-6 record last year - but Bison fans look at the talent there and say, "why not us"? And it certainly could play out that way - they have the players, if they can keep the injuries away. If they do stay realtively injury-free, and they make a go at the title, expect the "diehard" fans to show up and cheer them on. If not, well, there's always preseason basketball.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sunday's Word: Ouch

Finally feeling better, I was able to take advantage of the (relatively) cooler weather to play a game outdoors with my son: "Ouch." For those of you who don't have a child in soccer, it's a game where your child tries to kick the soccer ball (or football) and hit you, the parent, with it.

"Ouch" is an appropriate "Sunday's Word" today for Lehigh fans as well. It's the end of preseason camp - matter of fact, all the players are showing up for their first day of classes today - and I'm sure everyone who practiced the past two weeks might be forgiven if they thought they were in Bogota rather than Bethlehem: heat index 90+, humidity damn near 100%. The heat, the humidity - and the contact from camp adds up to one thing: "Ouch!"

Preseason camp is always a time of optimism, and for Lehigh this year's offseason has been the most optimistic in some years. While a 5-6 record - loaded with frustrating losses - normally wouldn't be fodder for optimism, the 31-15 drubbing of "that school in Easton" has restored some of Lehigh' mojo for this season. Reading the hints in the official release from the final scrimmage of preseason camp, this team is not coming in too high, but still with loads more confidence than last year: you can tell the offense and defense are pushing each other in spirited competition.

With only two weeks remaining until the opener, senior DT BJ Benning said the Mountain Hawks must focus on the little things moving forward. “I thought I did ok today. The defense was solid; we had a few sloppy things we need to clean up and that’s what we’ll concentrate on from here on out.” He added, “Today is a good day for the freshmen to see where they are at. The upper class guys know what they can do but the freshmen are still learning and looking to earn time.”

Junior QB J.B. Clark added his thoughts. “We just need to clean some stuff up; keep communicating with each other and make sure the little things are taken care of.” He continued, “I thought this camp went better than my previous two. We were much livelier and came out with a purpose each day.”
So far, so great. But camp wasn't as flawless as even the most optimistic Lehigh fans might have hoped.

Coach Coen mentioned that there were a "few more injuries than he might have liked," and it's those injuries that should have Lehigh fans saying "Ouch!". First is the most significant one: the hamstring injury suffered by senior LB Al Pierce that (if early forecasts prove true) may see him out until mid-October at the earliest. Furthermore, two more starting linebackers - senior LB Heath Brickner and senior LB Troy Taylor - sat out the final scrimmage as well, left senior LB Matt Cohen and a host of unproven underclassmen in the front seven on Saturday.
While by all accounts the backups did well - led by sophomore LB Mike Groome - the attrition at linebacker has to be a concern. Will we have our full starting front seven in place before the season opener against Central Connecticut State (on September 5th)?

There's lots to still be optimistic about: at running back we seem to be relatively healthy and deep for the first time in memory (with junior RB Jaren Walker, junior RB Jay Campbell, junior RB Matt Fitz, freshman RB Zach Barket and freshman RB Tony Kablan). The receiving corps appears to have the goods with junior WR Craig Zurn and sophomore WR Jake Drwal (and freshman WR James Flynn, I'm wondering, may get some opportunites).

But I'm hoping these players saying "Ouch" are a lot less that it seems.
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