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Spring Football Preview, Part II: The Defense

With spring football starting in earnest this past weekend, the first look, inevitably, is at the offense.  The defense, like the offense, is loaded with returning lettermen and also filled with a bunch of players that were starters last year.

But when you look closer at what Lehigh needs to replace on defense, it seems like the hole is much greater than just the counting of players on the two-deep that were seniors.

Three of the top five tacklers on the team need to be replaced - who accounted for 24 1/2 tackles for loss in 2009.  One is a potential NFL player, senior LB Matt Cohen, and two more, senior SS Jesse Sanchez and senior DT B.J. Benning, who were the emotional core of last year's stifling defense.  It feels like a lot more than just a lot of bodies to replace. (more)

Certainly the secondary has to be seen as a sign of strength this spring, as Lehigh will boast three proven senior commodities there.  Senior CB Jarard "Fearless" Cribbs, senior CB John "Prez" Kennedy and senior FS John Venerio with his 62 tackles and team-leading 3 interceptions in 2009 (including one against "that school in Easton) will be pencilled in at starter.  The open safety spot and nickel coverage spots might be the subject of some spirited competition, but the frontrunners going into spring ball in the battle for those positions would seem to be senior DB Casey Eldemire, senior DB Shane Ryan or junior DB John Littlejohn.  One thing for sure is that we'll be seeing more of sophomore DB Bryan Andrews, whose performance as a freshman was one of the more underreported successes of last year.

At linebacker, last year's leading tackler, senior LB Troy Taylor, and hero of the 145th, senior LB Al Pierce, would both seem to be penciled in at linebacker (and both could be a contender for defensive captain, too, but they'll have to prove themselves this spring to have a chance at that).  Junior LB Colin Newton, originally a safety, played a lot of outside linebacker last year with the injuries to Pierce and graduating senior LB Heath Brickner, but the temptation must be great to move him back to strong safety and give a chance for some of the strong talent at linebacker such as junior LB Devin Greene (45 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, and a huge stuff on 4th-and-goal last November), junior LB Tanner Rivas (19 tackles) or junior LB Mike Groome (13 tackles, 1 sack).  Sophomore LB Billy Boyko, junior LB Fred Mihal or sophomore LB Bari Nenbee will get a chance to get in there, too - something to watch as spring practice continues.

If he's healthy, Lehigh's defensive line will get a tremendous boost with the return of senior DT Phil Winett.  He's shown real promise along the defensive front when he's been in there, and if he can rotate in to a starting three of senior NG David Brown, junior DE Cody Connare and junior DE Andrew Knapp, lehigh could have a pretty deep and talented defensive line.  The question is if other talented underclassmen can work their way into the rotation, such as sophomore DT Sajjad Chagani, sophomore DL Anthony Verdarame or an experienced upperclassman such as senior DE Ben Flizack.

More, though, than just the talent replacement is what the new emotional core of the team will be.  Who will emerge as a leader on this team?  Will they be emotional, vocal leaders or quiet leaders that will let their hard work do the talking?

On special teams, things look pretty set though it's possible that there could be a surprise.  With one of the leading return games in the nation, the duo of senior CB John "Prez" Kennedy and senior WR Craig "Braveheart" Zurn look like they will be leading the kickoff unit and senior CB Jarard "Fearless" Cribbs will be returning punts.  Will sophomore DB Bryan Andrews, however, work his way onto one of the units?  Zurn and Andrews have made a name playing solidly on special teams, and their presence there will be a definite asset.

The punting game will almost certainly be junior P Alex Smith, who had an up-and-down sophomore season but had 20 punts inside the 20 yard line and a 53 yard punt to his credit in 2009.  He'll be looked at for improvement, while sophomore K/P Jake Peery a possibility to push him as well.  Peery also looks like the incumbent at placekicker - he took over when senior K Tom Randazza, who was a kickoff specialist in 2009, struggled last year.  It's not mentioned in the official release, but it might be worth keeping an eye on the kicking game to see what progress will be made this spring in that department.

Bottom line is that it promises to be an exciting spring season for Lehigh.  You'd think there wouldn't be a lot of questions to answer with so many returning letterwinners, but there's a lot of interesting storylines to look at.  As coach Coen said in the original release:

This spring figures to be just as competitive and intense as any under Coen as he works to mold this group of Mountain Hawks into one that will compete for the league crown come next fall.  “The mindset is no different than in years past,” he explained.  “This group was so young last year that they have not asserted themselves at the level the coaching staff or they want.  We all understand there is much more to accomplish because we have not been as productive as we needed to be.”

He added, “There is a good amount of returning leadership with this group because there are a large number of guys that have played a lot of football for us.  We made strides throughout last season, but now we know we need to work harder than ever to become the team we’re capable of becoming.”


mailman said…
should be an aggresive secondary, and will use alot of formations based upon the last 4 games last season. Any incoming freshman see the field on the "D" this year?
rich said…
Layton and Raup perhaps Kohn on ST. Robinson also. Lots of athletes on D Raup could really see time even tho we are stacked at LB. If Hayden is moved back to D, he will see some ST time certainly
ngineer said…
Having a healthy Winett out there will pay huge dividends. The guy was showing all the signs of being a force as a freshman. Now, after missing two seasons with serious injuries, it is great looking forward to his return as it gives the defensive front many more options/rotations and fresh legs. I have always believed that championships begin with good defense. If we hold the opposition to under 20 points a game, there should be a lot of "W's".

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