Coaching Changes: With the departure of offensive coordinator Mike Faragalli to take those same duties at Richmond of the CAA, the Leopard coaching staff was shuffled a little bit this offseason. Unfortunately for Lehigh fans, assistant coach Bob Heffner simply slides into the role of offensive coordinator where he will start his eighth consecutive year on Lafayette's coaching staff. The Leopards did hire a new quarterbacks coach (Mickey Fein, out of Murray State of the OVC) and switched the responsibilities of Phil Hallahan (now runningback coach) and Joe Dougherty (wide receivers).
The Hardest Guy To Replace: It’s definitely the guy with the mohawk. As a Lehigh fan, the Leopard I'm the happiest to no longer see suited up is DT Kyle Sprenkle, a lineman who simply was a terror to contain, especially in the big games: (read: in "The Rivalry"). Last year, the big mobile "D" lineman amassed 59 tackles, 6 1/2 tackles for loss, and 5 QB hurries.
Big Name in the Incoming Class: Tavani himself appeared to have a favorite that he was talking about right after signing day: 5'11, 200 lb LB Corey Watts. “The Watts kid is just an unbelievable player; it’s great for us to have a Big 33 selection,” Tavani told the Express-Times. “I think the linebacker group is a real impressive group, maybe the most impressive as a group in a while.” As for Watts, major colleges appear to sniffing around this North Allegenhy star (Pitt, West Virginia, Penn State) and was a first-team defensive selection in the "Northern Five" All-Conference team last year.
Incoming Class Grade: B. In the Patriot League and the FCS in general, part of the idea is to get great incoming talent that perhaps might be Penn State or West Virginia players if they had just one or two more inches of height. But ten of twenty-eight recruits clocking in under 6 feet tall? Isn't that, well, a bit much? Importantly, though, the Leopards got what they needed on their "O" linemen (4) and "D" linemen (6) in spades in terms of size. On defense, it looks like Lafayette will always get what they need. But did they get the parts of the offense they need as well?
Spring Game: The spring scrimmage wasn't really notable for its 28-22 score so much as who was actually playing in the game. Junior RB Maurice White (who technically is a senior, but is planning to apply for a 5th year of eligibility) didn't play, nor did senior LB Andy Romans and a host of other starters. Potential starters that did play, however, were senior CB Marvin Clecidor who had a good day on defense, and sophomore WR Nathan Padia, the receiver from Kansas who looks like he's really rising through the ranks.
Preseason So Far: Some very interesting tidbits have been trickling out of preseason camp this year - most notably the introduction of the 40-second play clock and its potential effect on the Leopards grind-it-out, ball control offense. At Lafayette Media Day there was talk of "streamlining the playbook" - a curious statement keeping in mind the presence of Heffner as the new offensive coordinator (is he "cleaning out" the plays of the former coordinator?) and/or the supposed lock that junior QB Rob Curley has on the starting job - if he's executing it so well, why "streamline"? Add to this intrigue an injury to junior RB Matt Ferber that might keep him out for the Marist game and beyond, and you have a very intriguing offseason - to a Lehigh fan, that is.
Finally, coach Frank Tavani always seems to have something up his sleeve to keep his Leopards focused on the prize. This year, it's countdown clocks that point the hours/days/minutes/seconds to their next opponent... and to "The Rivalry" with Lehigh.
Fan Base: The Leopard base is happy. Sure, they still couldn't beat Ivy League teams on a regular basis if their lives depended on it. Sure, they've reverted to not being able to beat Colgate (and now Fordham) in big spots. But coach Tavani, the Leopards and their fans know what's really important: beating Lehigh in "The Rivalry", and with four straight wins, they are fat cats, and they know it.
Lafayette fans and Lehigh fans are similar, to be sure, yet fans of the Evil Ones differ from the side that Roots For All That Is Good And Pure in two key respects: One, the Evil Ones root for, well, the Leopards. Two, "The Rivalry" defines Lafayette fans much more than it does Lehigh fans.
When Lehigh was pounding the living tar out of Lafayette on a regular basis in the late 1990s, it was coupled with interesting runs in the FCS playoffs. Lehigh fans loved beating Lafayette, of course, but they also had an eye on the World too: beating a Delaware, say, or a Western Illinois or a Hofstra - maybe even making it all the way to Chattanooga. Many of those years, Lehigh fans saw Lafayette as an annoying stepping stone to the real games: the playoffs.
This stretch defined - ironically - Lafayette fans. Seeing Lehigh fans sample from the Bacchinalian buffet of FCS football made Leopard fans seethe with rage, and when Lafayette finally reversed a series of seven straight losses to Lehigh in 2002 it didn't matter that the Leopards didn't get to the playoffs: they simply wanted to deny Lehigh a taste of victory in everything else they had done: a Patriot League title and a potential spot in the playoffs that year. Pandemomium ensued. The spell had been broken.
Now the tables have turned. Lafayette fans have throttled Lehigh in four straight contests, but the Leopards didn't have the same success in the playoffs that Lehigh did. Sure, they played a bunch of close games against the best the CAA had to offer. But it wasn't the same. Lafayette never really had those expectations of FCS titles, and strangely, they still don't seem to be there.
Lafayette fans still seem to be defined by one game in November. Not games versus the Ivy League, not important league games versus Fordham and Colgate. And that appears to be completely OK with them.
I probably would be too if Lehigh had won four straight.
Overall Offseason: The team appears to be a hard-working bunch that is extremely focused on the season ahead. On defense, the Leopards seem completely ready and as ferocious as ever. It's on offense that there appears to still be some major questions - and the questions, it appears, will be continuing up until Marist and beyond. Will the 40 second clock disrupt the flow of the Leopard defense? Will the RBs stay healthy this season? What will the effect of Faragalli's departure have on the offense? Either way, expect Leopard fans to be OK - as long as they beat Lehigh in November.