Normally, I like to get this out before Lehigh's end-of-the-year banquet celebrating the football season, but I was unable to do so this year. Fortunately, however, this means I'm able to add something to the presentation of my "awards" - some of the plaques, courtesy of senior CB/PR Jarard "Main Man" Cribbs, used in the banquet this past weekend, to highlight the winners.
It seems like every year I make some exceptions, and this year is no different. Like the Oscars, I hold in my hand an envelope which contains this year's Hawks of the year, but I'm going to add one more special award to the "Hawks of the Year" list this year. If you've followed my blog over the last three months, I don't think you'll have any problem figuring out who that is. (more)
Hawk Lineman of the Year: Senior OL Will "Got Your Back" Rackley
Linemen are always the unsung heroes in football. When they do their job, they don't appear in the box score. They allow the rest of the offense to get their numbers, their first team all-American nods, their points, their wins.
As a result, they don't usually get Players of the Week nominations. Sometimes, after a particularly dominating performance, but not frequently.
Lehigh's offensive line really came together in 2010. So many weeks, you see "0-0" in the box score next to Sacks Allowed. It's not all from one player, of course, but a large part is due to Rackley, an unbelievable talent that was a rare four-year starter on Lehigh's offensive line.
There have been other offensive linemen that tipped the scales at over 300 lbs. There have been other tall, 6'4 hogs that have protected Lehigh QB's blind sides. There have been other offensive linemen that have been good, even great - C John Hill, who had a long NFL career with the New York Giants and New Orleans Saints, was one such player.
But none of them have been the mix of size, speed and agility that Rackley was at Lehigh. It was his strength off the line. It was those Wildcat runs or counter trey runs downfield where Patriot League linebackers would see a 300 lb tackle bearing down on them as quick as a fullback.
It wasn't just designed plays, either. After a fumble in the Holy Cross game near their goal line, LB Alex Johnson scooped up the ball and seemed to have real estate in front of him to grab the momentum of the game. Who made the touchdown-saving tackle at the Holy Cross 28 yard line? Try a 300 lb left tackle from the state of Georgia.
Aside from his talent, though, it was his leadership that caused a team that had (frankly) struggled on offense his first three years that helped propel Lehigh from sub-.500 team to Patriot League champions.
Like most linemen, he wasn't a monster on the stat sheet. But his presence on this team - his hard work, his leadership - paved the way, literally and figuratively, for Lehigh's breakout year in 2010.
If that's not worthy of a "Hawk of the Year" award, I don't know what is.
Underclassman Hawk of the Year: Sophomore WR Ryan Spadola
this spring and summer, you probably heard good words about a certain rising sophomore wide receiver from Howell, New Jersey.
I heard them, too - and yet, I couldn't have predicted his incredible success in 2010 that was one of the key ingredients to Lehigh's success.
Hands up who thought Spadola would be Lehigh's first 1,000 yard receiver since WR Josh Snyder. Anyone? (Snyder had 1,280 yards receiving in 2001; Spadola had 1,130 in 2010.)
Hands up who thought the Freehold Township product would be the spark that would spur Lehigh back from a three-score deficit at halftime at Harvard and help guide the Mountain Hawks to a thrilling 21-19 victory. (14 receptions, 206 yards receiving, and 2 TDs - including a 51 yard grab with the clock, and wind direction, running out in the third quarter.)
Hands up who thought fingertip grabs, like the one pictured above vs. Bucknell, would become commonplace in the second half of the season. (6 catches, 111 yards, 3 TDs.)
Spadola's rise up the depth chart, from third-down receiver to every-down receiver, meant almost every week he was receiving my new "Underclassman of the Week" award. And his emergence means that he's this year's "Underclassman of the Year" by a landslide - and a player that many, many Lehigh fans will be interested in watching in the next couple of years, to see how high he can fly.
Offensive Hawk of the Year: Junior QB Chris Lum
"He has a wonderful opportunity available to him," I wrote when he, not QB J.B. Clark, was anointed the starter against Drake in September. "A chance to win football games, to play against a playoff team and the defending national champions, to bring a winning record back to the Mountain Hawks, to become a leader on this team. Head coach Andy Coen and the rest of the coaching staff have confidence that he can bring this team a Patriot League championship."
The coaching staff's confidence in the young man from Michigan could not have been better placed.
With his production growing week after week, Lum went from an uncertain junior starter to a multifaceted offensive leader. He'd finish the season with 2,881 yards passing and 19 TDs - but it was the performances in league play that really showed how he had grown as a football player.
His 17-for-22, 310 yard, 2 TD performance against Colgate, was the best of his career. (Incredibly, he would have three incompletions in the second drive of the game, and then only toss two more the entire game.) "I always felt we were capable of doing what we did today," he said after the game. "We had shown flashes before, but we were inconsistent. Today, we just did it on almost every single drive. It was a lot of fun."
The next week, a 34-17 win at Holy Cross, Lum unleashed something else that had been never seen before: a running game. "In my highlight DVD my senior year in high school, I have one play of me running the ball - and it was a designed pass play," he said after the game. "I don't run the ball that much, but we saw they made some adjustments with Ryan [Spadola], so there was nobody there. It was there today, so I ran the ball for some key first downs. It's about reacting and instincts."
Lum took a position that was a major question mark going into training camp, and made it a positive in the 2010 season. His development was another huge ingredient in Lehigh's success in 2010 - and it will be very interesting to see how he does his senior year as well.
Defensive Hawks of the Year: Senior LB Al Pierce and senior CB/PR Jarard "Main Man" Cribbs
After a game, you could not find two more different types of football players.
Pierce, the fifth year senior out of Hargrave Military Academy, would almost always defer the spotlight to others. Even during his biggest individual honor on the year - being voted the MVP of the Lehigh/Lafayette game - he talked team, not himself.
"It's all about the senior class," Pierce said after his win over Lafayette. "There's 23 seniors, and we do a really good job of getting the entire team. A lot of young guys step up, too. We're playing as a single unit, a solid unit right now."
"Over the last couple weeks we've had some good stops on defense," Pierce continued. "We've been playing really physical and that's something we pride ourselves on defensively."
If they were "good stops", I have a bridge to sell you. Try "great". Giving up only four first downs in the first half of the Patriot League-clinching win against Georgetown. Limiting RB Nate Eachus to 80 yards below his average in the 44-14 win over Colgate.
And while the statement was made a week before Lehigh would stun Northern Iowa 14-7 in the first round of the FCS playoffs, he probably would have called that a "good" game on defense - to people like me, anyway - as well. (His day vs. the Panthers, that perennial FCS playoff team? 11 1/2 tackles, 1 1/2 tackles for loss, to lead the team.)
"You saw a Panther team get more and more scared as Lehigh kept stopping them drive after drive," I said after the historic win, "making huge interceptions in key spots, blocking field goals, seemingly tackling UNI QB Terrell Rennie behind the line of scrimmage every play."
Pierce was a rock, a consistent player for Lehigh in the middle of the defense, with 110 tackles and a team-leading 12 tackles for loss on the year. Best of all, his best games came on the biggest stages - against Lafayette and Northern Iowa.
He might not have told you about it after the game, but his play and his tackles for loss were a major part of Lehigh's Patriot League-championship year.
The guy who listed Maryland, Iowa, and Kansas as his hometown(s) offered a different type of leadership to this Mountain Hawk team. If Pierce was the quiet toughness on the team, Cribbs was all about the swagger.
You knew something was brewing with Jarard when he showed up to interview the team on Media Day, complete with nicknames and calling his head coach - yes - "my Don".
(Think for a second Al would have done that?)
Cribbs, for better or worse, was known for adding a degree of "fun" to Saturdays in the fall. Somewhere, Jarard thought it might be fun to chest-bump coach Coen after a Lehigh victory, and after a 35-22 win against Princeton, he did just that - starting a trend that would continue throughout the season (and a lot of chest bumps for coach Coen).
"The night before coach asked the team who loved the game of football," Cribbs told me. "We realized that not a lot of people get the chance to play football at this level, and we have to take advantage of every opportunity and make the most of every situation and have 'fun' doing it. So coach told the team that tomorrow after we got the win, [we] would be chest bumping all day."
"He actually got up there with me on his vertical," he continued. I think coach has been doing the teams squat workouts secretly."
It would be one thing if Jarard were just a fun guy, and not a leading producer on the football team.
But after the media day interviews allowed me to anoint the nickname "Main Man" on him, he then set out to back up the swagger with production. And, boy, did he ever do so.
His senior year would see him with seven interceptions - including one for a touchdown vs. Colgate - which briefly had him tied for the lead in all of FCS at one point.
But just listing his interceptions wouldn't give justice to his overall play on the year. 59 tackles. 12 passes defensed. 5 pass breakups. A gigantic blocked field goal against Northern Iowa that was crucial to Lehigh's victory. 144 punt return yards.
Cribbs gave a real, tangible spark to this 2010 football team, in both production and 'fun'. He added a confidence and swagger that this team desperately needed. Along with Pierce's quiet leadership, Jarard and Al's combined talents were the perfect chemical reaction for this team.
Special Teams Hawk of the Year: Senior CB/KR John 'Prez' Kennedy
Going into this season, he already had a place in Lehigh lore. As a sophomore, his 92 yard interception return for touchdown electrified the Lehigh faithful and broke a frustrating four-game losing streak to Lafayette - winning 31-15. (His return was a YouTube classic.)
Going into the season, it was very clear that he was going to be a force to be reckoned with - he led the Patriot League in kickoff returns, so the only question was - what would he do his senior year?
The answer would be - despite injuries that would hamper his top gear - another incredible season.
Though he wouldn't return a kickoff for a touchdown in 2010 - though he came damned close in New Hampshire - he would amass 547 return yards on the year, good for first in the Patriot League and fifth in all of FCS (with a 28.79 average).
He was such a threat that teams frequently kicked the other direction - or even squibbed it - to make sure he didn't have a chance to kill them on kickoffs. Four games saw him return 0 kicks - including the playoff game at Northern Iowa, where head coach Mark Farley clearly was fearful of the "Prez".
His reputation preceded him, too, on defense, where teams would not test the speedy corner very often at all. He'd end the season with 33 tackles - 24 of them solo - and 2 interceptions. One came against Northern Iowa - a huge part of the defensive effort that limited the Panthers to a mere seven points.
"Prez" was a game-changer - the type of player whose mere presence would cause opponents to do strange things like throw and kick the ball away from him. That speaks volumes about his ability on this team - and why he was a clear choice for Special Teams Hawk of the Year.
LFN's Hawk of the Year: Junior LB Mike Groome
But in truth, his play deserves much more than that.
Going into the season, the Byram, New Jersey native - it's easy to forget - wasn't even the starter alongside LB Al Pierce on the inside. LB Troy Taylor, himself expected for big things in 2010, had that interior spot wrapped up.
Until an injury in the run-up to the season opener against Drake.
It's hard to believe now, but Groome's presence in the middle was seen as a question mark. Would he fill in for Taylor adequately enough?
It took all of one game to realize that the interior linebacker position was going to be in very, very good hands.
He started with a strong seven tackle performance - including five solo tackles - in a 28-14 opening win over Drake. He followed that up with an eight tackle performance vs. the defending national champions, Villanova - one of the few bright spots in that 35-0 home shutout. What would he do for an encore? Why, follow it up with an 11 tackle effort in a 35-22 win over Princeton, of course.
Week after week, he'd just consistently rack up the tackles. When they'd run away from Pierce, they'd find Groome.
"The first game with [LB Troy Taylor] going down and me stepping up, it was a big game for me personally," Groome told Michael Lore of the Express-Times after the Princeton win. "Now it’s on my shoulders because I have to make plays and lead the defense."
Every week he seemed to simply get better and better. Against Fordham, his 11 tackle, 2-sack performance in a 21-17 win was impressive enough to have him be a sort-of subject in my "Sunday Word" - "Terminator".
"We played very well off the offensive momentum," he said after the game. "They did a good job keeping us off the field. And I give a lot of credit to the "D" line, they did a tremendous job in the trench, allowing the linebackers to step up and make some plays when we needed it. We just did our jobs. We knew we had to step up, keep getting them off on third down, and that's what we did for the most part."
His contributions kept getting better and better - in the biggest games of the year.
Against Harvard, Crimson RB Gino Gordon kept running straight at him, trying to wear him down in the fateful third quarter, down by three scores. Three straight runs at Groome. Three straight stops - solo tackles - short of the sticks. While Lum and Spadola scored the touchdowns, Groome and the defense got them there. Oh yeah, he also had 15 tackles and 2 QB hurries.
Colgate? Try 12 tackles and a key pass defensed in that huge victory.
Georgetown, to clinch Lehigh's first outright Patriot League title since 2002? Try 15 tackles.
Lafayette? His leaps over Lafayette defenders to stuff the Leopards at the 2 yard line are the stuff of YouTube. Oh yeah, 16 tackles.
His machine-like production over the course of the 2010 season - not to mention the playoff beard - were why Groome earned the title "LFN's Hawk of the Year". He'd end the season with 131 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, 1 interception, and 4 1/2 sacks.
Congratulations to all the winners!