Thursday, April 05, 2012

Spring Football: The Defense

Last week, I took a look at Lehigh's spring offense - and the huge challenge of fielding a spring offense with only three of the faces that suited up last fall for the White team.

This week, I take a peek at the spring defense, and unlike the offense, the Brown team will see a lot more continuity this spring.

With a now-veteran defensive backfield, led by senior CB Gabe Johnson, senior SS Billy O'Brien and LFN fave senior CB Bryan Andrews, the onus will be to develop the replacement for the graduating all-American LB Mike Groome - a player whose epic goal-line stands and never-stopping motor is difficult to envision replacing completely.


On offense, there are a pair of all-Americans to replace: QB Chris Lum and OL Troy McKenna, who both are looking to be in NFL training camps later this summer.  By definition, both will be hard to replace.

But neither seemed to form the emotional core of their unit like Groome.

Make no mistake, Lehigh graduates six of the eight linebacker slots on the team that suited up against North Dakota State, and replacing all of them won't be easy.  But it's Groome's replacement which has the biggest job, it seems.

Almost more than his 117 tackles and 4 INTs, it was his attititude on the field - swarming to the football, seemingly on every play, finding the short pass and either knocking it down or coming down with it.  His goal-line stands, especially against Lafayette, were legendary - the one I'll remember most was the one he delivered against North Dakota State, down 17-0, single-handedly stuffing RB D.J. McNorton at the goal line on second and goal, going down fighting until the very last second..

With Groome and a presumed starter next year, senior LB Billy Boyko, sitting out the spring with an injury, it gives a golden opportunity for senior LB Jerard Gordon and senior LB Sam Loughery to provide one of the most interesting battles of the spring, as they both compete for a starting position.

Coach Coen told me that both are "stepping up inside", meaning that this battle will continue to be one to watch all spring long.

The Mountain Hawks are also looking long at outside linebacker as well, but fortunately for Lehigh, a rare transfer has an opportunity to really make an impact.

Junior LB John Mahoney, who transferred from Bryant University in 2010, has caught coach Coen's eye in the early going at the "will" linebacker spot.  Mahoney didn't see any varsity action in 2010 as a Bulldog. and has two years of eligibility remaining.

At the "Sam" outside linebacker position, junior LB Nigel Muhammad seems to have an early lead at that position, but spots still seem up for grabs on the two deep there.  Senior LB Adam Francis, junior LB Cody Raup, sophomore LB Ryan Wills, and even a walk-on, sophomore LB Michael Emery locally out of Central Bucks West in Doylestown, are all in the conversation.

On the front seven there's one position that seems to be a 6'2, 290 lb lock.

Poised to have a real breakout year, senior NG Sajjad Chagani, (30 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries) seems like he could go the majority of the defensive snaps.  Another player that seems like he will be a big part of the Mountain Hawk defense is the hero of last year's playoff game, senior DE Tom Bianchi.

The interesting question is: who will replace DE Ben Flizack on the other side of Bianchi?

Junior DE Anthony Verdarame, junior DE Ricky Layton, and maybe even sophomore DE Tim Newton - brother of recently graduated LB Colin Newton - might be in the mix there.

The strength of the defense this spring - and, probably, at the start of the regular season - will be the experienced secondary, led by senior CB Bryan Andrews, senior CB Gabe Johnson, and senior SS Billy O'Brien - who had even picks between them last year.

The final interesting position battle is at free safety.

Junior DB Rickie Hill will be competing for the starting position there - along with sophomore DB Jamil Robinson, who returns to the team after sitting out most of 2011 with injury.  Both players have impressed coach Coen thus far.

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