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Patriot League Offseason 2009: Lafayette

We're in the home stretch now in my "Patriot League offseason" series: a mere six days before the start of the football season. Last year's edition held a dubious honor: it caused a lot of grief with the Evil Empire. So much so, in fact, that the post was used in the game notes for "The Rivalry" at the end of the year as a method of firing up the troops. I'd be lying if I said I was unconcerned that my words would cause a Lafayette win at the end of the year; happily for the Team That Represents Everything that is Good, that wasn't the case.

In any event, here's my profile of the team Lehigh fans love to hate.

LAFAYETTE
Coaching Changes: Bob Heffner, the giant presence in the Leopards locker room as offensive coordinator, finally took his dream job at Northwestern this offseason, leaving behind his eight year tenure at Lafayette (making most Lehigh fans rejoice). His departure, however, probably won't affect the staff much: the Leopards' second year quarterbacks coach (Mickey Fein, out of Murray State of the OVC) slides right into the offensive coordinator duties - which seemed like it might have been the plan all along. Meanwhile, one of the top defenses in the nation still has defensive coordinator John Loose leading their unit. After that, however, there are many new assistants on the staff: Stan Clayton (Toledo; Offensive Line), Doug McFadden (Fort Hays State; Defensive Backs), and a pair of former Lafayette players we had hoped to see the last of: Marcel Quarterman (wide receivers) and Chad Walker (Carlstad Crusaders (Sweden), Tight Ends).

The Hardest Guys To Replace: Too easy. Let's make it two: WR Shaun Adair won't be easy to replace since his ability to stretch the field was crucial in the two of the last three "Rivalry" games where the Leopards prevailed - as a Lehigh fan, I'm happy to see the last of him. And you can't forget LB Andy Romans, who was the tough, hard-nosed sort of player (96 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 1 blocked kick returned for touchdown) that I'm extremely happy to see away from Fisher Field. (The late hit against junior QB J.B. Clark to end last year's game, though, may be the gift that keeps on giving.)

Big Name in the Incoming Class: Eagles fans will know this name: the son of the former Philadelphia Eagle, freshman RB Vaughn Hebron, is a Lafayette Leopard. The father was a prototypical speed back/kick returner (and helped the Broncos win the Super Bowl), and the son promises to also bring the same sort of speed he brought to Dover HS as a junior (before he moved to Georgia his senior year). When he left PA the first time, Vaughn left as the all-time leading rusher and point scorer at Dover - exactly what I don't like to hear as a Lehigh fan.

Incoming Class Grade: B. It's clear what coach Tavani valued in this class: trench warfare. Almost half the incoming class were either "O" or "D" linemen - and he got some great ones, like freshman DL Jason Marshalek, freshman DL Tahir Basil, and freshman OL Tyler Swoyer (who blocked for Lehigh's incoming freshman RB Zach Barket at Schuykill Haven HS). Yet there were holes that didn't seem to get filled. With four graduating linebackers this year (including the preseason Patriot League defensive player of the year, senior LB Mark Leggerio), will the fact that Tavani didn't get a single linebacker come back to hurt him? Might another quarterback have been a good idea - with only four on the roster this year, and senior QB Marc Quilling ready to graduate? Still, don't underestimate those trenches - Lafayette got some great ones in there.

Preseason So Far: As a Lehigh fan, when you see the words "Leopards" and "alarm" in the same article - as it was in a recent preseason update in the Easton Express-Times - let's face it, you pay attention. A fair amount of starters apparently were held out of the final preseason scrimmage with nicks and such - but after learning the complete story of senior RB Maurice White (who was out in mid-October last year with a very bad "turf toe" injury) and senior QB Rob Curley (who suffered a concussion in the Colgate game), it's easy to see why perhaps coach Tavani is taking it a bit easy on his team. Especially since the bye week comes in Week 1 for the Leopards - giving them eleven straight games.

All the running backs - who at one time or another had injuries befall them all the past couple of years - have been packing on the weight, too, according to Paul Reinhard of the Morning Call, in order to prepare for a long, physical season. They even have some snappy nicknames, too: "Boom" (senior RB Maurice White), "Zoom" (senior RB DeAndre Morrow) and "Coon" (senior RB Tyrell Coon). One of the big questions for the Leopards this offseason is how durable this senior trio will be.

Fan Base: I'll start this out by saying I was wrong. Last year, I said that Lafayette fans were much more defined by "The Rivalry" than Lehigh fans. That's not true: "The Rivalry" is as much a part of Lehigh as it is part of Lafayette. Last year's 31-15 win by Lehigh - finally! - over the Leopards probably was as sweet a win I've experienced as a Mountain Hawk fan - only because it stopped an excruciating four-game losing streak to Lafayette. It took that win to make me remember that a championship win, playoffs and the like without a win over "that school in Easton" is pretty hollow. (Maybe Lehigh fans really are arrogant, huh?)

By most measures, Lafayette had a great season last year. They finished 7-4. Came within a whisker of beating Holy Cross, which would have put them in line for a Patriot League championship chance. They had the Patriot League's best out-of-conference win, a 35-21 touching of the nationally-ranked Liberty Flames - on the road in Lynchburg, VA, no less. They spent time in the Sports Network Top 25. But Leopard fans would have traded it all in a second for a win over Lehigh in "The Rivalry".

There are other reasons lately why there is less joy in Leopardville, too, which have nothing to do with "The Rivalry". Over at the Lafayette board, the legendary carney2 notices that 25% of the sophomore class is gone - including LB Corey Watts, who I (and coach Tavani) tagged for big things last year. The scholarship issue is also causing consternation among the Leopard faithful - there are doubts as to Lafayette's ability to eventually offer football scholarships and still stay in compliance with Title IX. (My take is Lafayette will do what it takes to get compliant - they will have no choice. Falling behind to Lehigh is not an option.)

It's tempting to put too much stock into this. In the end, Leopard fans still are willing to give coach Tavani the benefit of the doubt - they have to. There's those Patriot League titles, those wins over Lehigh, those appearances in the FCS playoffs - they're still too recent, too glorious, to want to turf Tavani out of town after two losses last November. But there are signs that the Tavani show is starting to get a little old on Leopardville. They'll put up with it as long as the wins keep coming. But another loss to Lehigh next year, and all bets are off.

Overall Offseason: Eight games into the 2008 season, Lafayette looked like the frontrunner for the Patriot League title. They had drilled a Top 25 team and had just pounded last year's Patriot League Champions 48-13. Then senior QB Rob Curley got his concussion against Colgate, and it was the one injury that broke the Leopards' back. They had enough to beat Bucknell - and almost had enough to beat Holy Cross - but once they lost to the Crusaders, it felt like the season came apart in the fourth quarter in the loss to Lehigh. Despite the fact that the Lafayette defense was one of the best in the country at the end of the 2008 season, it must not have felt like much to crow about.

Coach Tavani seems to have attributed at least part of the late-season swoon to injury. He and the players are focused on health this year - to get through the season to be healthy for the final game. They'll survive the loss of Bob Heffner from their coaching staff, but a lot of that swagger is gone - and it could very well be exactly where coach Tavani wants his team to be, with a gigantic chip on their shoulder ("we were picked to finish fifth! Fifth!!!!!!") and seemingly "disrespected" by the rest of the League. If there's one thing I've learned about coach Tavani, it's that he makes "disrespect" into wins. He could very well make an already-dangerous Lafayette team even more dangerous.

It would not be at all surprising to see Lafayette to be playing for a Patriot League championship in late November - Tavani has done it before.

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