New head coach Joe Susan - a guy that cuts an imposing figure - came to Lewisburg like a Scarlet Knight galloping from Rutgers. With the royal endorsement from famous Bucknell alumnus (and former recruit) Greg Schiano, Susan came to instill something new in a country more accustomed to following basketball schedules than football schedules.
And even though it's early, he is - beyond a shadow of a doubt - succeeding in his quest to change things at Bucknell. It's a new dawn in Lewisburg - and Patriot League coaches had better be paying attention, or they could become victims of a Bison stampede. (more)
“I think having him come in has really changed the culture of the program,” senior WR A.J. Pompilano told the Milton Standard-Journal. “I really think the excitement and attitude of previous teams are back. Coach Susan gave us a choice of either having a country-club like atmosphere or you can go out and smack people in the mouth. Don’t get me wrong, he’ll joke with us and talk to us, but you know when you get on that field it’s time to go to work.”
“I think he (Susan) expects people up here to be working hard, and that’s something that motivated people to be here,” junior DE Josh Eden added. “He’s really raised our vision. We’ve come off some tough seasons before, but him coming in with a clean slate really motivated us to know we can win. Coming up here this summer will hopefully translate into us winning on the field.”
Aside from the new head coach - and a new, reportedly, football-friendly president - the other big news this offseason down Bison Way was an offseason strength & conditioning program that had thirty kids stay on campus over the summer.
"One of our goals is to be the best-conditioned team in the Patriot League," Susan told Bucknell Athletics. "There are always some exceptions, but the overall level is good, about what we expect for this time of year. Having so many players here this summer working out was a huge benefit. The players on the team have a better expectation of want we want from them, from an intensity standpoint and a movement efficiency standpoint. Obviously, we they are a lot better prepared in terms of what we are doing offensively, defensively and on special teams."
A winning attitude is what coach Susan has been working on the most - and it's very clear that his program has wholeheartedly bought in. Still, attitude isn't everything.
Two huge blows for the Bison came when Pompilano, who just returned from serving in Iraq, tore his ACL to make him done for the season, and senior QB C.J. Hopson, who had injury and academic problems, left the team to play at Division II Fairmont State.
That means two players who had expected to be big contributors are no longer playing, which means that junior QB Burke Batten, who had two pass attempts all last year, now becomes the frontrunner for the starting quarterback position. A 6'1, 225 lb native of Georgia, he's a guy who was recruited for triple option football and will not be an easy guy to bring down - and looks to be a powerful runner when he tucks the ball away.
Interestingly, freshman QB Brandon Wesley, a 6'2 rail-thin signalcaller from Texas, was singled out for praise in practice from coach Susan, saying he "played smart". It makes it clear that it's still a battle for the starting position going into their opener versus Duquesne - and that Susan was also unhappy with the number of turnovers in their sessions.
Senior WR Marlon Woods (178 yards, 1 TD), a 5'8 speedster that has spent time as a Bison at both defensive back and wideout - is offensive co-captain, and may very well be the receiver with the most first-team experience which starts for the Bison. Junior WR Gabe Skwara seems to be the prime candidate to replace WR Shaun Pasternak, the 2008 second team all-Patriot League wideout who has a year of eligibility left but is not currently on the Bison roster. Rumor has it he has retired due to injury.
In the backfield, Bucknell boasts senior FB Ryan Smith (287 yards, 4 TDs) and 5'8 sophomore RB Tyler Smith (239 yards, 5 TDs) as their most experienced returning backs. But sophomore RB Jeremiah Young - a Steelton high school sensation before a knee injury sidelined him for all of 2009 - seemed to impress coach Susan in preseason.
While offense seems very much like a work-in-progress, Bucknell's strength - the defensive line - could very well be the toughest front four in the Patriot League this year.
With the return of junior DE Josh Eden from his two year Mormon mission, an impressive "D" line featuring junior DT Robert De La Rosa (43 tackles, 9 1/2 tackles for loss) looks to be the strength of this Bison defense. Defensive co-captain senior LB Travis Nissley (93 tackles) also returns, the center of the front seven, as well as senior CB Akhiel White (60 tackles, 4 interceptions).
It's easy to foresee a few growing pains from the Bison - early on in the year. But never underestimate an attitude change - and an early schedule that features four teams with sub-.500 records last year. You have to believe that at least three wins against Duquesne (3-8 in 2009), Dartmouth (2-8) Cornell (2-8), and Georgetown (0-11) are achievable, and with Marist (7-4) and Ivy League champion Penn (8-2) rounding out their schedule, Lehigh might be facing a dangerous 4-2 or 5-1 team in mid-October.