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Patriot League Offseason, 2007

Patriot League Media day, which I will be attending on Wednesday, is oh-so-close to being here. I think I finally realized this on Friday, when it dawned on me that I hadn't released my annual review of the offseason for all the teams of the Patriot League. (Yes, carney2 on the Any Given Saturday board offered his review about five months before I did, but maybe I'm not as bright as that ol' curmudgeon is.)

I can think of no better way to usher in Media Day - and, by extension, the 2007 season - by posting my offseason review. Basically, it's your guide to what's been happening up to this point in the Patriot League.

Coaching Changes: Defensive coordinator Jared Backus jumped to Temple to become their defensive line coach, while Andrew Cohen returned to the Bison to take over instead (coming from Columbia where he helped propel the Lions’ defense lead the way to a 5-5 mark). Two more assistants also left – WR coach Devin Fitzsimmons (now at Kansas State) and outside LB coach Travis Burkett (now at Cornell).

The Hardest Guy To Replace: What’s a bit scary about this is how hard this was to pick. LB Dorian Petersen was their best defensive player last year with 105 tackles, 5 ½ tackles for loss and 2 forced fumbles, but it’s worth noting that the Bison have another linebacker, sophomore LB Sam Nana-Sinkam – meaning, the Bison already have someone to replace him..

Big Name in the Incoming Class: TE Alex Lair is the brother of QB Andrew Lair as the Lair family hopes this 6’4 225 lb kid will be the latest Lair to make his mark on Bucknell football. Considering his father (and one of his brothers) played at LSU, it looks like he could very well be another winner for the Bison.

Incoming Class Grade: C+/B-. It’s not like the position breakdown is particularly bad – coach Landis did get some need areas (up to 8 DBs and 4 OL), even if you have to question going to camp with 16 (!) LBs in what’s arguably your strongest position. But when you see that none of the incoming linemen are bigger than 265 lbs, that’s not good. You need size and speed to play with the big boys, and I’m not sure Landis got enough of either.

Spring Game: You don’t usually see defensive battles in spring games, but the 7-6 slugfest was just that – with the defense and offense both getting a score apiece. The dominant defense shows that the Bison defense has really taken to coach Cohen’s schemes, and should be the focal point this upcoming season.

Overall Offseason: It’s worth noting that Cohen’s defense could be tough to handle, but it’s still an open question if coach Landis has the players he needs to run this offense successfully in the Patriot League title race.

Coaching Changes: The key players are still there, with some young pups taking over as offensive line coach (Casey Vogt), defensive line coach (Ryan Knowles), and safeties coach (Peter Mayer was promoted from assistant). Interesting that there was such an overhaul of both lines, where Colgate arguably had their worst struggles last year.

The Hardest Guy To Replace: SS Geoff Bean will be missed not only as a safety (59 tackles, 6 pass breakups) and return man (728 return yards) but also as weightlifting maniac (he was a Strength & Conditioning All American).

Big Name in the Incoming Class: Although it’s awful tempting to single out that 300 lb freshman lineman, the video that Colgate provides of QB Charles Babb proves to be even more nerve-wracking for Colgate opponents. With a mind-boggling 73 TDs in high school, this Top 100 recruit out of Ohio looks like he could be the replacement for Chris Brown that Raider fans have been looking for. (For those that don’t remember, he’s was the Raider QB on their 2003 run to the championship.)

Incoming Class Grade: B. Coach Biddle definitely got some real keepers in here, like Babb, five “O” linemen (including the 300 lb kid, OL Andrew Woizeski), five “D” linemen, and some interesting kids across the board. But if I’m a Colgate fan, I’d be wondering if I need more speedsters at DB and especially at WR.

Spring Game: Helpfully, the Colgate website told us that there was a spring game this year. Unhelpfully, they gave no wrapup or indication that they actually even played the game. This is par for the course for Colgate, who seem to be more mysterious than Dick Cheney about their offseason activities. Perhaps next year they can hold their practices in a secure, undisclosed location. (Rim shot: I’ll be here all week.)

Overall Offseason: Before the 2003 run on the championship, Colgate seemed to make a habit of sneaking up on its opposition. After their disappointing 4-7 campaign last year, coach Biddle has his first opportunity in years to sit quietly in the background, making a pounce at the leaders. True to form, coach Biddle has been quietly stockpiling more talent, lurking in the background, and waiting for another moment to lunge forth, win another title and make another playoff run. The questions will continue up until opening weekend.

Coaching Changes: After a 2-9 season in 2006, head coach Kevin Kelly replaced a decent chunk of the staff, like Kevin Gilbride (the tight ends coach who’s now at Temple), defensive line coach Carlton Hall (Harvard), and defensive ends coach James Vallano. Replacing them as defensive line coach is Frank Colaprete, from a very successful D-III school (Johns Hopkins).

The Hardest Guy To Replace: DE Alex Buzbee (currently in camp with the Washington Redskins) is, by far, the toughest guy to replace. 75 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 5 ½ sacks – it won’t be easy. (How does Georgetown get all these great defensive ends? I’d sure like to know the secret.)

Big Name in the Incoming Class: DB Paul Sant'Ambrogio looks exactly like the type of defensive back that Georgetown desperately needs to get into the Patriot League title discussion. 6'1, 190 lbs, speedy, top 100 player in New Jersey, 66 tackles as a senior. He seems like a good one.

Incoming Class Grade: B. Overall, this class brings a surprising amount of speed to the class, as well as a nice array of defensive players. What’s really keeping me from calling this a slam-dunk class is the lack of some really impressive offensive linemen – crucial for a team that runs the triple option. Still, coach Kelly deserves a load of credit for getting this talent here in his first full year of recruiting.

Spring Game: The surprise of the game was not so much the score (a 10-7 win by the Blue over the Gray), but more by the fact that former defensive back Matt Bassuener started the game at QB and was named offensive captain for 2006. This in effect put away all speculation about the starting QB for coach Kelly’s triple-option offense from the other three candidates.

Overall Offseason: Does it seem like football is finally becoming a part of the Hoya experience? Aside from HoyaSaxa's offseason dialogue on how to increase fan interest, coach Kelly, after finishing year one of his program-building effort, is quietly getting together a nice core of players. To me, coach Kelly is really starting to put some interesting moves in place and has done a pretty good job in building in only one year. I wouldn’t put the Hoyas into the championship just yet, but it should be very interesting to see how these young pups start to come together this year.

Coaching Changes: Say one thing for head coach Tom Masella: he is not pulling any punches. Four young assistant coaches were sacked and a truckload of experience takes their place: a former coach of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and Seattle Seahawks (Mark Michaels, Defensive Line), a coach from Louisiana Tech (Patrick Moore, Linebackers), a former Fordham Prep head coach (Chris Fusaro, Running Backs), and – yes, really – a guy beaming East from Roswell, NM (Will McCain, receivers coach who coached at the New Mexico Military institute).

The Hardest Guy to Replace: Easily the answer to this question for Fordham is LB Marcus Taylor, now in camp with the Minnesota Vikings. That last year’s Patriot League defensive player of the year came from a team with a losing record speaks volumes for his 116 tackles, 4 sacks and 3 interceptions – you had to know where he was on the field at all times.

Big Name in the Incoming Class: One of the fringe benefits about having an NFL legend as a legacy is that sometimes, just sometimes, they can convince their talented kids to continue at their alma maters. QB Sean Mara, grandson of NFL quarterback and NY Giants owner Wellington Mara, will be coming to Fordham in the fall. Think expectations for this kid might be, well, a little high for this kid from Iona Prep?

Incoming Class Grade: B+. A very interesting group. Masella clearly recruited need areas in LB, RB and DB and came up very solidly in all three. A little light for my tastes in OL, DL, and TE, but the thought seems to be some of those LBs might fill one or more of these slots. Overall, color me impressed.

Spring Game: When the big headline out of the spring game is a 77 yard punt by all-league P Benjamin Dato, that’s not a good thing. Charitably, they said that the “defense is further along than the offense” – which means that the offense, which struggled all last year, seems to still be struggling.

Overall Offseason: Coach Masella finally got his dream staff together, but (oddly) kept the architect of an offense that truly struggled all year in 2006. The peeks we get from spring seem to indicate that they still don’t have the offensive answers they’re looking for, even if the defense seems to be just about as fearless as it was last year.

Coaching Changes: For the first time in head coach Tom Gilmore’s tenure, the offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator have stuck around for consecutive years. There are some new faces, though: Cazzie Kosciolek (running backs coach) and Johnny Cox (special teams coach) take over for WR coach Dave Patenaude (now QB coach at Hofstra) and DB assistant coach Ryan Mattison (who returned to his alma mater, Boston College, as recruiting coordinator). Overall, the core of the high-flying staff from 2006 is intact.

The Hardest Guy To Replace: The replacement for the centerpiece of last year’s defense, LB Dan Adams, will not be easy to find. With 109 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 2 sacks last year, replacing his gaping hole is by far the biggest question mark for Holy Cross in 2007. The former defensive captain most recently helped America raise the gold medal in the first ever “World Championship of American Football” in Kawasaki, Japan. (No word if Dan tried to compete on the show “Ninja Warrior” while he was there.)

Big Name in the Incoming Class: It’s not often you see a name from Wisconsin in the recruiting rolls of Patriot League schools, but RB Drew Volkmann looks like a big, speedy physical runner that could be a find for the Crusaders. As a senior at Arrowhead (Pewaukee, WI), he not only got 2,900 yards and 33 rushing TDs, but he also lettered in track, baseball and weightlifting. This 5’11, 200 lb back could be interesting.

Incoming Class Grade: B+. I know Holy Cross promises to be a pass-happy team with QB Dominic Randolph at the helm, but six WR in a twenty-eight-member recruiting class, totaling seventeen receivers on the opening roster? Still, that’s only a minor quibble: coach Gilmore seemed to get some real nice finds across the board at RB, LB, and PK. Although he only got three OL, the three he got seemed to be good ones.

Spring Game: We pretty much know what to expect from the offense: senior WR Ryan Maher, junior QB Dominic Randolph, the running combination of juinior RB’s Terence Gass and Mike Kielt. The real questions that need to be answered are on defense, and although LB Brian Billman seemed to solidify his grip on a starting ILB slot, it’s not clear what other questions were answered. If anything, it shows that a strong secondary – with junior CB Kyle Mushaweh and senior CB Casey Gough – will be the center of this defense, not the front seven.

Overall Offseason: There’s an awful lot of consistency for the first time coming back from the Crusaders, meaning it’s been the most exciting offseason for Holy Cross fans since 1987. That said, there are some big questions that still need answers. Who is going to be the next Dan Adams? Is a Gass/Keilt combination enough in the backfield? Can Randolph and Ryan Maher match last year’s awesome performance? Even with the questions that remain, coach Gilmore has given plenty of reason to strike fear in the hearts of other Patriot League coaches this year.

Coaching Changes: Three championships and three playoff appearances in three years has meant that there hasn’t been much reason to change the coaching staff. Only one new assistant joins the staff – Jonathan Carvin from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. (Unfortunately, offensive line coach Bob Heffner is still there – the guy who has been haunting me since last year’s Lehigh/Lafayette game.)

The Hardest Guy To Replace: It’s not really one, but two: the legendary duo QB Brad Maurer and RB Jonathan Hurt, who have two Lehigh/Lafayette MVP trophies to go with their three championships. Lehigh fans are ecstatic to see the backs of the guys who have broken our hearts during the past three years. I’ll spare you the gory details of their heroics, since I don’t want to lose my lunch or start crying.

Big Name in the Incoming Class: With an interesting class that includes Lafayette’s first-ever player from Kansas, the most interesting name has a last name you might remember: DL Matt Shula, grandson of NFL hall-of-fame coach Don Shula and son of former NFL coach David Shula. A speedy end, he tallied 5 ½ sacks in a season where he was hampered by injury. (Thinking of him sacking Fordham QB Sean Mara four years from now is interesting: two grandsons of NFL hall-of-famers facing off against one another. Which, of course, is kind of like trying to come up with the name of the celebrities you’re going to invite to your wine tasting before a single grapevine is planted.)

Incoming Class Grade: C. This has been the first recruiting class I have seen that hasn’t struck serious fear into my heart as a Lehigh fan. No doubt coach Tavani got some good players and good names. But if I’m a Leopard fan, I have to look at this bunch of QBs and say: “I want one of these guys to be the next Brad Maurer”. Is QB Mark Quilling really that guy? There are other issues, too. Are those five defensive linemen going to be the answer? Although there is some speed at WR and DB, is it enough to allow the Leopards to be a dominating team four years form now?

Spring Game: The 41-18 score in favor of the offense doesn’t really say much (after all, the scoring system favored the offense). In the battle for the starting QB job – between senior QB Mike DiPaola, sophomore QB Robert Curley, and sophomore QB Josh Jones – all had shining moments in a position battle that is sure to rage through preseason camp. Defensively, the emergence of a great LB trio – senior LB Mark Plumby, junior LB Andy Romans, and sophomore LB Mark Leggeiro – has to be of concern for the rest of the league.

Overall Offseason: Something really seems odd over there in Easton. First, was coach Tavani railing out against the Academic Index right after brining in the class of 2011, which seems to confirm that this year’s class was weaker than usual. Second, coach Tavani actually held an open tryout combine to find more players for the spring. With coach Tavani, it’s hard to see if it’s just his master motivational techniques (which he has played to devastating effect in the Lehigh/Lafayette rivalry) or a true concern for his current 2007 squad – either way, something feels amiss.

Coaching Changes: Coach Coen only added two new faces to this year’s staff: running backs coach Mike Kapusta (from Temple) and assistant defensive backs coach Bob Admunson (D-III Rowan). They replace R.J. Ryan (who took the offensive coordinator position at D-III Franklin & Marshall) and Jesse Gambone (who went into private business).

The Hardest Guy To Replace: RB Marques “Double Deuces” Thompson may have had a quiet season by some standards, but replacing his 1100 all-purpose yards and 8 TDs will probably be the central challenge of this offense in 2007.

Big Name in the Incoming Class: The guy that Lehigh fans can’t seem to stop talking about is the 6’3, 330 lb kid out of Elk Grove, CA in NT Charles Brallier. A kid who turned down a scholarship at Hawaii to come here, folks are excited about his potential to be a two-gap presence in Lehigh’s 3-4 defense and a powerful bull rusher.

Incoming Class Grade: A. Admitting readily that I could be looking through some rose-colored glasses here, this is one quite impressive recruiting class. Five OL – a huge need area for Lehigh – with four with real bulk. Three WR, four DBs and one athlete that could play either – with plenty of speed. Three intriguing RBs, including our first-ever recruit from Nevada. I think even an objective look would show this class as impressive – though, of course, time will tell.

Spring Game: On a sunny April day, coach Coen seemed pretty pleased overall with the game which was narrowly won by the offense. Most importantly, the areas where there was the most turnover from 2006 – the offensive and defensive lines – coach Coen was pleased with the progress of the first units. A huge hit by FS Ernie Moore seems to indicate that we could have a defense that will be delivering some pain to opponents.

Overall Offseason: Although most coaches would be happy with a Patriot League co-championship for the second time in three years, it’s not that way in Bethlehem. Looming over the entire offseason is Lehigh’s third loss to Lafayette in the last three years, and no co-championship can take away that sting. But the losses to Lafayette seem to have given Lehigh a little bit of extra hunger to be better – and it shows in recruiting and the effort in the spring. Here’s hoping that coach Coen parlays that into one of those special Lehigh seasons in 2007.


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