Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Lehigh Season Preview, Part Two: The Defense

Lehigh's defense last year was one of the best Mountain Hawk fans have seen in an awfully long time.

In 2009, a vast, talented secondary featuring CB Jarard "Main Man" Cribbs" and CB John "Prez" Kennedy, and a linebacking unit that headlined a two-time Lehigh/Lafayette MVP in Al Pierce were not the only reasons why Lehigh had the top scoring defense in the Patriot League last year.

Head coach Andy Coen brings back a budding defensive superstar and a host of very, very good defensive players.  But the optimism should not diminish the challenge ahead: that defensive coordinator Dave Kotulski has in front of him: to replace three all-Patriot League players, including the entire starting secondary.

Will this unit achieve the high bar set by the 2010 squad?  (more)

In Kotulski's multiple 3-4 defense, there's a lot of rotation of defensive bodies and a whole lot of different looks.  Depth in the front seven is a must, and fortunately, Lehigh has just that.

Senior DT Andrew Knapp (36 tackles, 1 forced fumble), senior DT Ben Flizack (36 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks), and senior NG Billy Dokuslis (16 tackles) will be big contibutors up front, with mammoth 296 lb junior NG Sajjad Chagani and junior DE Tom Bianchi (32 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks) getting plenty of time as well in the mix of defensive linemen.

The 6'7" Flizack, a local product out of Jim Thorpe, PA, sat down with Keith Groller and talked about the defense:

"We're basically all returning starters in that front seven and feel we have the makings of a very good defense," said Flizack, an all-league selection last year. "We can help out the secondary by pressuring the quarterback. They have been coming along and any help we can give them is a plus." As preseason camp was winding down and preparations were turning toward Saturday's season opener at Monmouth, Flizack said he was hoping that the defense could "ratchet it up a notch or two."
"We know what's going on; we know what to do," Flizack said. "We just need to worry more about the little things, but I see a defense with good camaraderie and lots of leaders. We have captains, but we also have captains among the captains. Leadership won't be a problem.
Flizack, like everybody else who played a major role in last year's championship team, has vowed not to allow all of the preseason buzz distract from this team's mission. "You can't ignore everything coming our way and what people are saying, but at the same time you have to stay focused on what you're doing," Flizack said. "We know we have a target on our back, but it makes it that much harder. Right now, we can't wait to get to Monmouth."
At linebacker, three of four starters return - including a preseason all-American and a young man who went from second-string linebacker last year to team captain of a team defending their Patriot League championship.

Senior LB Mike Groome, (131 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, 1 INT) is, without question, a guy who loves the game of football.  The 6'3, 245 lb young man from Byram, NJ is a guy who always seems to be around the football at all times - and, more often than not, gets the tackle as well.  His motor never shuts off on the football field - and he's made his name on making goalline stands, including two that contributed to wins versus "that school in Easton."

Some kids might let the preseason accolades get to their head - but not Mike, as evidenced by his words with Groller and Michael LoRe of the Express-Times:

"It's a real different feeling, a different experience this year. It's very weird to come off a 10-3 season after struggling the previous years," Groome said, referring to the 5-6, 5-6 and 4-7 records over the previous three seasons before last year's breakthrough.
"It's nice. But it's a different emotion and I don't know how to describe it other than it's weird."  
“We’re not going to sneak up on anyone again,” he said. “I feel like teams will have more motivation to come out at us. Every team you lose to the previous year, you have a little spot on the shelf to say ‘I’m coming for you.’ With us not losing (5-0 in league), I think everyone is going to be doing that.” 
Groome promised, however, that there will be nothing strange about the team's determined, focused effort. 
"We're confident," he said. "We have a lot of experience. We know a lot about each other and we know how each other plays. We feed off each other."

It's worth noting that Groome, who seemed to feed off of LB Al Pierce perfectly last year, might have some adjustment when senior LB Devin Greene (25 tackles) is lining up next to him at inside linebacker for the majority of plays.  But the 6'0,. 220 lb senior from Pittsburgh has a lot of experience in Kotulski's defense, with so many players switching in and out, and Greene's patience has finally paid off with the starting nod.

On the outside, there's no question that senior LB Tanner Rivas (72 tackles, 10 1/2 tacklesfor loss) and senior LB Colin Newton (82 tackles, 2 forced fumbles) will continue to be the disruptive forces they were last year.  Backing them up is senior LB Shane Ryan, too, who will get his share of touches as well - and maybe even freshman DE Tim Newton the brother of Colin, as well.

If Greene can step in and fill Pierce's shoes - and there's every indication that he can - there's reason to believe that Lehigh's front seven will continue to be a dominating force in the Patriot League in 2011.

There's also room for optimism in the secondary, despite the fact that all four starters were lost to graduation.

Junior CB Bryan Andrews (21 tackles, 1 INT, 2 fumble recoveries) could not have been more ready to step into the starting secondary.  After playing nickel back the last two years, the 6'0 defensive back from Evans, Georgia will prove to unsuspecting teams that he's a shutdown corner.

Junior CB Gabe Johnson (13 tackles) and senior FS John Littlejohn (14 tackles) have also had plenty of experience rotating into the defensive backfield last year.  Still, it's an open question if this trio, plus first-time starter junior FS Billy O'Brien, will live up to the starting unit last year which had 14 interceptions amongst themselves.

*****

On special teams, it looks like first-time starter sophomore P Tim Divers will be the starting punter, with on kickoffs and scoring kicks replacing the dependable PK Tom Randazza.

Add to that senior WR Jake Drwal returning punts, and sophomore DB Courtrney Jarvis and junior RB Marcus Dormevil returning kicks, and it appears that Lehigh's special teams units are going to be breaking in a lot of units all at once - one of the more underrated challenges for the Mountain Hawks going into 2011.

But the most important question, as ever, is: will this unit have what it takes to beat Monmouth in Week One?

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