"He's a scholarship player, he's a scholarship player, and he's a scholarship player," Masella told Craig Haley of the Sports Network in regards to everyone's favorite off-season Patriot League topic. Scholarships were still on everyone's mind, though - after all, despite Fordham's presence at Patriot League media day, scholarships were the reason that they were competing as an Independent in 2010 instead of competing for the Patriot League title.
The fact that Lehigh will be playing Fordham as a non-conference opponent for the first time since 1989, however, doesn't mean any less to the Rams than before. They know full well that what they're playing for - a chance at the FCS playoffs - will require no large slip-ups in their regular season schedule. A 9-2 record, complete with a sweep of their former Patriot League leaguemates, would help immensely. (more)
It's hard to say that scholarships will have no part of the discussion of Fordham football in 2010, since there are hints of it everywhere. Sure, there is talk about their new locker room - a badly-needed upgrade for the Rams, to bring their digs into the 21st century. There's also talk about this Fordham team being bigger and stronger - which is true, thanks to a bunch of strength & conditioning records getting set this offseason.
There's also that little issus of that NFL player. Last year, Fordham boasted an NFL-caliber quarterback in QB John Skelton. Despite Fordham's "lack of scholarships" and 5-6 record, Skelton was drafted in the fifth round by the Arizona Cardinals and has impressed in his first preseason game, rallying the Cards to a 19-16 win.
Replacing Skelton is the top priority of Masella's staff - which, unsurprisingly, has even more new names on it.
It seems like every offseason Masella gets a slew of new coaches, and this year was no exception. With the return of Matt Dawson from New Hampshire to become defensive coordinator (moving assistant head coach Patrick Moore from defensive coordinator to offensive line), this marks the third defensive coordinator for the Rams in the last three years. Along with a bunch of different assistant coaches, like Tim Cary (Defensive backs, UConn), Greg Crum (Defensive Line, WPI) and Nate Slusky (Linebackers, Rutgers) - Fordham defense could very well be, once again, "starting over".
They'll have some good building blocks to work around, however. Start with senior LB Nick Mageria (75 tackles, 1 forced fumble), senior DB Isa Abdul Al-Quddus (57 tackles, 3 interceptions, 5 passes defended) and senior DE Jordan Bledsoe (39 tackles including 8 1/2 for loss) - all three of whom will be key ingredients to a better defense. If Dawson brings with him the New Hampshire defense, it's likely the Rams will be adding a "Rover" safety and playing a 3-5-3 or 3-3-5 stack defense - but time will tell.
The offense, however, has offensive coordinator Bryan Volk still there to evaluate who will take over the passing game. Sophomore QB Blake Wayne, a transfer from Diablo Valley Community College in California, would seem to be the front-runner for the job - and would be a resounding endorsement of football scholarships at Rose Hill, since he transferred to Fordham in that scholarship class. Still, though, Fordham's site says that it's still a "wide-open" battle for the starting nod, including Skelton's back-up from last year, junior QB Doug Papy, and sophomore QB Ryan Higgins.
The one certainty is that whomever the QB shall be, he will have senior TE Stephen Skelton to throw to, a near-unanimous FCS first team preseason-All-American (with 63 catches, 634 yards, and 6 TDs). In Volk's spread offense, Skelton is important in multiple ways: both as a blocker and a key pass-catching threat, and Skelton poses all sorts of issues for opposing defensive coordinators.
Another tempting target for the new quarterback will be burner senior WR Jason Caldwell (79 catches, 1,252 yards, 9 TDs), who also found himself on the Sports Network first team preseason all-America team as well. According to this practice report, however, he's nursing a shoulder injury and as of last week was not cleared for contact. If he's missing, or hurt, it might be a huge blow to the Ram offense.
The running game, too, might be a big beneficiary from scholarships. Sophomore RB Carlton Koonce, who transferred to Fordham once Hofstra disbanded their football program, joins senior RB Xavier Martin and junior RB Darryl Whiting in what has been a rotating backfield.
It seems destined that this Fordham recruiting class will be the litmus test as to whether the Patriot League should have scholarships, or no. If Wayne and Koonce get significant time, and scholarship freshmen like 270 lb freshman OT Kai Brusch (who came from Germany via Salisbury Prep in Connecticut) make an immediate impact, it will certainly make an impression on the Patriot League presidents, for good or ill.
Masella, though, wants to do something else: not have his team "shoot itself in the foot", which he felt Fordham did to itself too often last year. Turnovers have been a point of emphasis - as has penalties. Masella brought in officials to his practices - an unusual step - to try to get his team to focus better on not making preventable mistakes.
Will it be enough to make an at-large playoff berth for the Rams? Fordham has a lot of existing talent to work with, and theoretically has a lot of strong talent in camp right now, thanks to football scholarships. But how will the Rams do at quarterback? And how will the third defensive coordinator in three years work out for Fordham?
If Fordham finds the answers to these questions by the time they play Lehigh, they will be an awfully tough team to beat.