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Patriot League Media Day: Coen Talks Lehigh Defense

Senior LB Al Pierce has a reputation as being a young man of few words.

After snagging the game-winning interception in the 27-21 win over "that school in Easton" last November, he deflected the glory off himself towards Lehigh defensive coordinator Dick Kotulski - despite multiple efforts by the media (and myself) to have him talk more about the defining moment of the 2009 season.

During Patriot League media day, I interviewed him and senior OL Will Rackley.  After one question which Rackley answered particularly well, I turned to him and asked Pierce about his thoughts.  He said, "He said it all!", not needing to add to an already perfect answer, in his mind.

If there's a theme to this Lehigh defense - of which Pierce is the captain - it seems like it's going to be "speak softly - and work and hit real hard". That's a sentence that seems to describe Pierce perfectly. (more)


Pierce's emphasis in all his interviews, whether to me, to Channel 69 in Allentown or the Lehigh athletic department was about working hard this offseason.  The theme did not vary much from the quote that he gave to Lehighsports.com:  “A lot of guys, a lot of starters stayed around campus this summer. Working out together has helped the bonding of our team and gotten us closer as a team and as unit,” Pierce said.

For the fifth-year senior from Morristown, NJ, it wasn't a difficult decision to some back to play one more year of Division I football.  With some key players leaving to graduation - defensive player of the year LB Matt Cohen, DT B.J. Benning, and S Jesse Sanchez - some kids might have been tempted to graduate and start their lives in the working world.  Not Pierce.  "I love playing football, and I had an extra year for the opportunity to come back and play," he concisely told Matt Markus in his Lehighsports.com account.

You have to wonder, too, if coach Coen was a huge reason why he chose to return.

"His motto was to keep us together," Pierce said in the press conference to end last season. "Everyone was behind Coen's motto and behind one another," making it crystal-clear that the players were foursquare behind Coen at a time when some fans had begun to think that Coen's job may have been on the line after last year's disappointing 4-7 record.

Pierce also told me something that other players in the room during Media Day said about football - how during the season, the academics are actually easier for players sometimes than during the offseason.

"I can't speak for other students, but for me it helps because football is just so structured that when you're not doing football, you have no choice but to do your work and stay on schedule," he told me.  "For me, it's actually better in the season than out of the season because it's so structured."

"Al works really hard," coach Andy Coen said to me.  "He's had to battle back through quite a bit of injury, but he just keeps playing and has shown a flair to make some big plays.  Not only last November, but in the Colgate game, too, when he played both ways [as a fullback as well as a linebacker]."

"He's a lead-by-example guy, but I also think he's the type of guy that will put his arm around a young kid and help him out and certainly interact with all the guys on our team.  I think he's a great choice to lead our team."

While the offense has some uncertainty going into the summer - notably, at the starting quarterback position - the defense, despite the graduation of a "once in a decade" player like Cohen, the outlook for the defense is that they will be the unit Lehigh will be leaning on as the offense gets going.

"I like the fact that there's a bunch of 'em [veteran defenders], Coen said.  "We'll be able to play quite a few guys to keep people fresh.  A positive from last season - though it wasn't at the time - was that we had a lot of kids banged up from injury last year, so we were able to develop some young players in the heat of battle.  I'm looking at players like junior LB Devin Greene and junior LB Mike Groome - after the types of seasons they had, you feel very comfortable putting those guys out there in games.  They've also gotten bigger, stronger, faster.  We're excited about that."

The secondary is loaded with veteran talent - senior CB John "Prez" Kennedy, senior CB Jarard Cribbs, senior FS John Venerio - and depth, with guys like senior S Shane Ryan and senior DB Casey Eldemire.  The linebacking unit, too, is solid with Pierce, Greene, Groome, senior LB Troy Taylor and junior LB Colin Newton.

As for the defensive line, Benning won't be easy to replace, but folks are hoping the return of senior DT Phil Winett - who had flashes of brilliance before losing the majority of the last two seasons to injury - will help immensely.  "He's in great shape now," coach Coen said.  "When he started he was over 300 lbs, now he's 260 and hopefully will be able to turn some heads when he gets back out there."

Winett, senior DT David Brown, junior DE Cody Connare and junior DE Andrew Knapp also offer an intriguing front unit if everyone stays healthy.  And there's some good depth behind them as well.

*****

There's a lot to look forward to with this defense.  If healthy, it has an opportunity to not only be the best defense in the Patriot League, but one of the top units in the nation.  To me, that's the bar that needs to be set.

And it starts by speaking softly, working hard - and hitting harder.

With that in mind, the defense is in good hands with senior LB Al Pierce leading the charge.

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