Friday, April 26, 2013

A Most Exciting NFL Draft Weekend for Lehigh Football Fans

There have been many football offseasons when I've covered the possibility of one, or perhaps two, Patriot League players getting signed as free agents playing at the next level.

This offseason, we might see something unprecedented.

Four Lehigh football players - QB Mike Colvin, TE Jamel Haggins, LB Billy Boyko, and, of course, WR Ryan Spadola - all have an excellent chance at finding themselves in NFL training camps in the next couple of months.

One - Spadola - is a strong candidate for being drafted this Saturday.


Anyone who followed the Lehigh football program over the past two years knows plenty about Ryan, and the stellar Mountain Hawk career he's had.

"He did a great job on special teams for us as a freshman," head coach Andy Coen told me.  "Then he became such a weapon that we didn't use him in that role."

The day he became that weapon was at Harvard in 2010, where his heroics helped Lehigh overcome a three-touchdown deficit to upset Harvard 21-19.

It was pretty clear that the Mountain Hawks had a special player on their hands after he tied a school record with 14 receptions in one game.

He would catch two of the three touchdown passes in the fateful third quarter, including "an easy post pattern and just accelerated past the Harvard secondary for the go-ahead touchdown that seemed so improbable after the first half," I said at the time.  "All of a sudden, Lehigh had the lead - and the first time that an Andy Coen-coached team came back after being down three scores."

His 206 yard day and 2 TD performance marked not only Ryan's emergence as a Patriot League superstar, but also started Lehigh's climb back to the Patriot League championships and playoff victories as well.

It's hard to describe the effect Ryan had on the whole offense, except that it seems like he was the type of player that would lift the entire unit on by his mere presence on the field.  From that first game he showed the ability to completely take over, and many times going forward he, along with teammates QB Chris Lum and WR Jake Drwal, would.

"Coach talked to us, put a little steam under us, and we just took advantage of every opportunity," Spadola said after that game. "I knew coming out in the second half I had to work my butt off. I came out there, when my number was called, I just wanted to do everything possible to to get the ball and to make plays."

It was after this game, and the run through 2010 which would include a Patriot League championship and a win over Northern Iowa in the playoffs, where Ryan first thought he might be able to make the NFL.

"After my sophomore season in 2010, [head coach Andy Coen] sat me down to talk about stats and essentially grade my performance," Spadola told the Brown and White"He told me that I was a heck of a ball player with a lot of talent, andhe  told me that if I continued to work at things, I could even consider playing football for a living.  Then I continued to work hard and help the team accumulate wins, and now I'm in this current spot where I have a lot of opportunities."

Spadola certainly worked his butt off over the next three seasons, including a record-breaking junior season with 96 receptions, 1,614 yards receiving, and 11 TDs.  In that season he had two 200 yard receiving games.

It was very clear from his sophomore year that he had a rare combination of speed and hands that would potentially make him a superstar in the Patriot League - not to mention the fact that he was such a fantastic runner of routes. 
The only question was, how would he compare against the best athletes in FCS?

In what might have been his showcase game of the season, he was a huge factor in Lehigh's stunning 40-38 victory over the CAA champions, Towson, in the FCS playoffs, where he caught 13 passes for 152 yards in that epic, emotional battle that involved six ties and seven lead changes.

"We just knew we had to come back and match it all game," he said after the game.  "We knew it was going to be a back-and-forth battle, and Towson would make plays.  It was our part as an offense to put points on the board - we kept scoring to do our part, and eventually the defense would stop their offense.  We really focused on the sidelines, knowing that each drive we had to execute our plays."

Thanks in part to Ryan's epic performance, Lehigh would advance for the second straight year in the FCS playoffs, and haul in a Lambert Cup for being the best FCS team in the East.

His senior year only saw his personal expectations soar even further, even with a brand-new quarterback, QB Mike Colvin, to pass to him, and every defensive coordinator on Lehigh's schedule with one goal in mind: stop Spadola.

Unfortunately, Ryan's hard work appeared this time to work against him.

Amazingly, even though he'd manage an 8 catch, 85 yard performance Fordham in a 34-31 thriller, something wasn't right.  It turned out he was playing through a bout of mononucleosis, something that would sideline him for two weeks in the middle of the year.

After two weeks to recover from an affliction that would sideline most people for several months, Ryan re-emerged against Holy Cross, catching two critical touchdowns, including the game-winner, with 202 yards receiving in a thrilling 36-35 comeback victory.

The funniest part, Lehigh offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini shared with me, was that "he was only supposed to play about 40 snaps per doctor's orders.  He wound up playing almost every snap!"

Even with a great personal game, Ryan wasn't satisfied with his performance.

"I was real frustrated with myself, but I knew our defense was going to step up big," Spadola said after the game.  To come back and win like this, I'm pretty speechless right now.  Words can't describe how glad I am to be back."

You know the rest of the story - the 10-1 season, the 5th straight over Lafayette, and the playoff snub.  Despite missing two games, Ryan would lead the team in receiving with 851 yards, and would add a thereto-forgotten part of his game to end the season - punt and kickoff returns.

After the season, Ryan never stopped working.

First was signing up for professional training before the NFL draft in Florida, with Fit Speed Athletic performance.

"Training in Florida has helped me immensely," he told me.  "I have been learning from two of the NFL greats at the receiver position in Brandon Marshall and Chris Chambers. They have helped provide me tips on how to gain separation and fine tuning routes. Along with their coaching I have been able to get great speed and strength training from talented trainers, specifically Matt Gates of Fit Speed Athletic Performance @FitSpeedAP. From there training I have become more explosive which has helped improve my game."

First was the Texas vs. the Nation All Star Game, where he caught the attention of some NFL scouts.

"The mentality I took going in was a business mindset," he said.  "You're being analyzed not only on the practice field but how you hold/represent yourself off the field. Upon my arrival in Allen early Monday afternoon I was greeted and interviewed by many scouts.  We were told there were 240 there. This went on until the evening hours. Tuesday through Thursday was when evaluating was really done. These days we had very intense practices followed by testing (HRT, Troutwine) and meetings. Friday we had a walk through and the rest of the day off them Saturday was the game. I was extremely fortunate and blessed to be part of this game and experience everything I did."

After that, it was on to the NFL combine, where he would work out again in front of many NFL scouts, and Lehigh's Pro Day, where 15 scouts would come to Bethlehem for a closer look.

Working out alongside draft picks like Denard Robinson and Tavon Austin, Ryan again proved that he's more than capable of being a productive NFL player.

"When I look back on the whole process from my last game until now, I think I answered a lot of questions about whether a small-school receiver could be productive and make plays against I-A level corners," Spadola told Keith Groller of the Morning Call. "I went to that all-star game and ran my routes and caught every ball thrown to me. I think that opened a lot of eyes and then I carried it over at the combine.  And, I've handled every interview in a good manner and gave the teams a good impression of my character off the field."

After the combine, it was on to the next challenge: Lehigh's pro day.

“Now I need to go onto the next step and keep chasing and I’ll look at how I did on video since I DVR’d the coverage, see where maybe I could have shaved off a few seconds here and there," he said in an online combine diary.  "I got a heads up about some of the commentary where they were calling me that beach volleyball player from Howell, New Jersey because of my blonde hair and my tan going on from working out down here in Florida. It’s always interesting to hear what those national guys say about someone like me coming from a small school and hopefully I opened some eyes.”

At his pro day at Lehigh, he, Colvin, Haggins and Boyko were also able to showcase their talents in front of NFL scouts, as well as CB Bryan Andrews and CB Gabe Johnson.

Crucially for Ryan, he shaved some time off of some of his drills, cementing NFL pro scouts' interest in him - and a certain Super Bowl-winning head coach, Ravens head man John Harbaugh, via text.

"Coach Harbaugh texted me and said he's very interested in me, which was very humbling," Spadola told Groller. "Here's a Super Bowl-winning coach saying he's interested in me. That's a cool experience just to get a text from someone like that."

But the other three Mountain Hawks in attendance at the Pro Day also helped themselves as well.

Boyko got noticed by the NFL's Steelers, who were impressed by his workout numbers and athleticism, not to mention his solid production over two years through injuries.

“Billy was the best defensive player in our league,” coach Coen told the Express-Times. “He may not have had as many tackles as some other people, but as physical as he was, as reckless as he was and what he did for our defense … he was MVP of our football team this year because of what he did.

“He’s a guy who kind of flew under the radar through this whole process because of injuries — he was hurt as a junior and early during his senior year, but he’s another guy who has worked and worked to take advantage of today’s opportunities and from what I’m told, he did a super job out here.”

Then there was Haggins, who, like Boyko, battled through a lot of injuries over his last two years but certainly has the sort of attributes that NFL people like in a tight end.

What's more remarkable is that Jamel still managed to get a notice from the scouts despite his injuries, and the fact that he didn't have a personal trainer, like many future NFL athletes do.

I dont have no private trainer or an agent or any fancy stuff like that. Yet," he told me earlier this month.  "My focal point this past off season so far was, for starters, getting healthy again. I had a couple of injuries this past season that were unfortunate. Throughout December i was doing rehab stuff to aid my ankle, left knee, and AC joint. By time I got back to school from break I started working out with the team and doing their off season lifts with them. And running on my own."

Jamel travelled to Alabama for the Pro Grass All-Star game, and turned some heads there, and currently is on a trip to, of all places, China this week to play in a Friendship scout bowl.  By the time he returns the 6'3, 260 lb tight end know if he's been invited to an NFL camp.

"Overall all of this has been a great experience," he said of his offseason.  "From meeting players from other schools as well as coaches with legendary reputations, its all been a great honor for me. This is my chance to show my skills and what I can do on the field that I really couldn't show last season. And to network as much as I can to get my name in important people's heads. I'm pretty fortunate to have these great opportunities set out for me. All I have to do is go out there, take advantage of them, and most importantly have fun."

Then there's Mike Colvin, who went from helping a friend at his pro day to entertaining training camp offers, as per the Express-Times.

“I threw at Pro Day and a bunch of scouts were talking to me afterwards saying I should have participated a little more and they had seen my film and heard about me,” Colvin said. “A Giants scout invited me and Ryan to a workout in early April. A Buccaneers scout asked me if I’d be ready to perform in a mini camp if the opportunity came about.

“It’s real crazy how fast everything came together after throwing for Ryan,” he said. “All of the feedback I keep getting is about my size (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) at my position and my arm strength. It’s really been great. I’m taking it in stride and I’m excited about it, yet still trying to stay level headed.”

While Mike, Jamel, Billy and Ryan try to keep "level headed" about their opportunities to play professionally, Ryan will be in New York this weekend with friends and family, discovering whether or not he will be drafted.

According to folks I've talked to, there's a better than 50% chance Ryan will hear his name called on Saturday in the middle and late rounds of the draft.

And this NFL preseason, we might see a record of former Mountain Hawks in NFL camps.

"In addition to Spadola getting drafted," Groller reported, "Coen expects linebacker Billy Boyko, quarterback Mike Colvin and tight end Jamel Haggins to get free-agent looks from NFL teams. The Steelers are said to be big on Boyko, the Northampton product, while Colvin has impressed the Giants and the Cardinals have inquired about Haggins."

If all four make it, they and starting Jaguars offensive lineman OL Will Rackley could make it up to five Lehigh players vying to play on Sundays.

It would be a great testament to the Lehigh program and coaching staff if it happens - and the first time it's ever happened at Lehigh.

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