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Patriot League Offseason 2009: Lehigh

Of all my installments concerning the Patriot League offseason, this one is my favorite (which you probably guessed). Aside from the obvious fact that I'm a crazy Lehigh fan, it also means when I complete this installment it means that college football season is right there - I can taste it. Only four more days until I can go to Goodman stadium and see Lehigh open up a can of whoopass against Central Connecticut State. For me, completing this finalizes the fact: it's football season.

Nation, I bring you *yours* - and mine - the Lehigh Mountain Hawks.

LEHIGH
Coaching Changes: Usually you hear of assistant coaches leaving a program, but rarely do you hear those same guys coming back. But that's what R.J. Ryan did (Franklin & Marshall; Special Teams) after last year's special teams coordinator Adam Scheier left to join former Lehigh coach Dave Clawson over at Bowling Green. Coen is very happy to have Ryan back. Aside from that change, almost his entire original staff remains, including offensive coordinator Trey Brown and defensive coordinator David Kotulski, who return for their fourth consecutive years at those positions. Add to them Sal DeWalt (Moravian; Offensive Line assistant) to round it out, and you have great stability in this year's coaching staff.

The Hardest Guy To Replace: Lehigh lost a lot more than you might think from last year - almost the entire receiving staff, both starting safeties, an all-league defensive lineman. But the player that will be the toughest to replace is clearly RB Matt McGowan, who was a hard-nosed, quick, physical, runner that - at times - could dominate a game. Injuries limited his production his entire time as a Mountain Hawk, but when he was in there he was called the "heart and soul" of the offense - which now needs another.

Big Name in the Incoming Class: It's all about the Bark. Freshman RB Zach Barket (Schuykill Haven HS, PA) comes to South Mountain with the sort of numbers that just pop off the page, including two Pennsylvania High School single-season records: 4,195 yards rushing and 66 TDs. (That's not a typo - they are indeed single-season records.) The 5'9, 200 lb freshman may have been looked over by some other programs because of his size - but it seems like Coen got steel - er, a steal - from the Anthracite.

Incoming Class Grade: B+. Keep in mind that I'm rating this as a Lehigh homer, but once again I'm thrilled at the talent represented in this incoming class. Coen keeps stockpiling huge linemen (300 lb freshman OL Ryan Weitz; 265 lb freshman DL Lex Utt), two running backs with huge upside (Barket and freshman RB Tony Kablan out of Minnesota), a speedster from California (freshman WR James Flynn) - brother, what's not to like? In an ideal world I'd have liked another linebacker or two to replace the five seniors on the roster this year, but once again this group on paper seems like a great one.

Preseason So Far: Overall, Coen seems to have a bit of a spring in his step he hasn't had in previous offseasons. Beating Lafayette, no doubt, has something to do with that, but it's clear from the official reports that he especially likes what he sees for the 2009 Mountain Hawks. Certainly the emergence of a solid "D" line with some depth (senior DT B.J. Benning, junior DT Phil Winett, junior NG David Brown) helps, as is the emergence of junior RB Jay Campbell on first-team duties running the ball.

There is a concern, however, involving injuires. Senior LB Al Pierce's leg injury sounds like the type of hurt that will keep him out for a while - if not the entire season - while the final preseason practice saw many starters sit out with some injuries. How healthy will Lehigh be going into the year?

Fan Base: It's one thing to be talking smack and predicting Patriot League championships when your team has been racking up FCS playoff bids for years. It's quite another to be doing so after finishing a 5-6 season - which is where Lehigh fans appear to be at this point in time. For the first time as far back as I can remember, Lehigh fans are optimists.

Historically, this is a very odd place for Lehigh fans to be - who in the past have seen dark clouds and criticism in seemingly every game, including two-touchdown wins, never mind losses. Optimism? Lehigh fans? Really?

Part of it has to be that Lehigh fans' mood, after suffering though so much to Lafayette in "The Rivalry" before last year's 31-15 victory over the Leopards, have nowhere to go but up. But there's more to it than that. Lehigh fans have to be asking, is there that much farther to go, really, for Lehigh to sit atop the Patriot League once again?

Most Lehigh fans seem to point to the fact that in four of their six losses, they lost in the final two minutes - in two of those games, on the final play. Just fix that - they say - and then we're 9-2 and waiting to see if we're traveling to Appalachian State on Thanksgiving. So little separates the top teams of the Patriot League these days - it feels like one play, one game, can be the difference between a Colgate, Holy Cross, Fordham, Lehigh, or Lafayette championship.

Could it really be that Lehigh is this close to the Patriot League championship once again? One thing's for sure: Lehigh fans really do believe it. Fans the League over better watch out: the arrogant, insufferable Lehigh fan is making a comeback.

Overall Offseason: There's continuity in the coaching staff. There's talent in the trenches. There's young talent. Big talent. Far-away talent. Coach Coen seems as happy as he's ever been as Lehigh's head football coach. And there is genuine optimism on South Mountain for the first time in a while. Beating Lafayette certainly is a huge part of that, but there does seem to be some something more behind it all - injuries be damned.

But is the optimism premature? Was Lehigh really that close to 9-2 last year? Have two straight 5-6 teams addled Lehigh fans' brains so much that they're deluding ourselves in thinking this is the team that will get over the hump? (A fair number of fans around the Patriot League are wondering this very question - bank on it.) Does 5-6 deserve optimism? Can they really beat senior QB Dominic Randolph and Holy Cross if their season depends on it?

One way or another, we're going to start finding out the answers to those questions in four days. And I can't wait.

Comments

Engineer92 said…
Let's go ENGINEERS!

Thanks for the updates Chuck, looks like it will be a great day to start the season!
ngineer said…
Forecast for Saturday: 82 F and Sunny. Salivating already...

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