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April 7th, And Lehigh Spring Football Is In Full Swing

(Photo Credit: Matt Smith/The Express-Times)

These days, some form of sports entertainment is always going on. The Super Bowl.  The men's and women's NCAA tournaments in basketball.  Baseball's opening day.  Even arena ball's season has kicked off with the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks.

It doesn't excuse my missing the start of spring practice for Lehigh football - you know, what this blog is supposedly about - but it is, in large part, one of the big reasons.

Now deep into six practices, Lehigh's spring is well under way towards creating the team which Mountain Hawk fans will be cheering for in the fall.  It's about shaking off the rust from the offseason so far, developing the gameplans, starting lineups, and teamwork necessary for an eleven game season (and, hopefully, beyond).

Based on the huge (and somewhat unexpected) success of last year, you might think that, at some level, the players might come into spring practice with a bit of the edge off, maybe a little bit loose.  Based on all reports - including my communication with head coach Andy Coen - that appears to be anything but the case. (more)

By many measures, this offseason is one of the most non-dramatic of recent years.  Last year, the big news was that offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini was returning to breathe life into an ineffective offense - and that Coen needed to have a successful year, or else find himself looking for a job in December.

Now, after the most successful season since the 2001 season under head coach Pete Lembo, the offseason has been notable for its continuity.  No drama of coaching changes or swirling job speculation: just a wonder about who will be stepping in for the graduating seniors.

Of the continuity of the coaching staff, "It's always great to keep coaches from my perspective, but more importantly for our players the message stays the same and our players know what the expectations are," coach Coen told me.

Those expectations, undoubtedly, are higher than those of last year.

If anyone had said last year that Lehigh was expected to beat Villanova, New Hampshire and make the FCS quarterfinals by beating a team they haven't beaten since 2000, they'd probably have been laughed out of the building.

This year? They're expected to do a much, much better job against that caliber of team.

"I didn't want the guys coming back to think, 'Oh, we've arrived and we don't have to work as hard,' but what I've found is that complacency is not a concern," Coen told Keith Groller of the Morning Call. "It's the opposite. They're not happy about 10 wins and the league championship and beating Northern Iowa. They're still ticked off that they lost to Delaware."

"We won ten games last fall, but we aren't happy losing to Villanova, New Hampshire, and Delaware the way we did," Coen told me. "I want and expect us to get better, and the spring is where this starts."

While you hope this Lehigh team is not overlooking a trip to Snooki's Jersey Shore in their season-opener at Monmouth, you get the impression that this team has already circled September 10th on the calendar - when the Brown & White line up against New Hampshire at Murray Goodman stadium.

"We got beat pretty bad in three games, really embarrassed and that doesn't sit well with me or these guys," Coen told Michael LoRe of the Express-Times. "We want to try to keep getting better. We're playing them, so we want to beat them."

"They know the honeymoon is over," Coen told Groller. "They know now they're going to have work even harder than they did last year and they're prepared to do that. From what I saw in the offseason, there was no letup at all. They're not going to settle for what we did last year.

"We were embarrassed by those three teams we lost to, and we're playing one of them again this year when New Hampshire comes here. We've got to be a better football team."

Part of coach Coen's method of improving this team is to do something he's done every year as Mountain Hawk head coach: making every position an open competition for playing time.

"I will always foster an environment of competition," Coen told me. "It's what our guys expect and its what makes us better all across the board."

The "environment of competition" seems to have spilled over to the offense and defense as well. There seems to be some genuine feistiness between the offense and defense, to see which team - the White (offense) or Brown (defense) - reigns supreme.

"Competition is always high between our offense and defense," senior OL Troy McKenna told me. "It is an essential part of football that helps us become better players both mentally and physically. Were best friends off the field but once we strap on our pads its a different world.

"Success can be measured on a team level during the spring game, but for me the amount of progress that I have made as an individual with my technique and skills can be huge. Its a point of emphasis to get better at the fundamentals that make you a better player."

One of the big holes that Lehigh needs to plug is on the offensive line. Many people know that the Mountain Hawks will need to replace a player that's very likely to go in one of the first four rounds of the NFL Draft - four-year starter OL Will Rackley - but fewer realize that the loss to graduation of another all-league lineman, OL Ricky Clerge, is also going to be a challenge.

“On the offensive side we graduate two outstanding offensive linemen, one who was an All-League player and one who is going to be an NFL draft pick,” Coen said in the official release from Lehighsports.com. “You can’t replace that. “What we have to continue to do is develop the guys who are in our program. There will be a lot of competition on the offensive line and guys will need to step up. We do bring back a lot of experience at the skill positions, which should help us.”

"It will be a big difference not having Will on our team," Coen told me. "He was a dominant player in our league, and you can't replace guys like him, plain and simple. I do expect us to have a very solid group by the time we line up against Monmouth, but we have work to do."

"In my opinion Will is the best offensive lineman in my 18 seasons of coaching in the Ivy or Patriot League," head coach Andy Coen told LoRe. "Maybe (Ravens center) Matt Birk, who played for Harvard and is still an All-Pro caliber guy in the NFL, would be the guy you can compare him to in those two leagues. He’s just a super player. You won’t get a guy like him this year."

"Will is obviously a big talent who is leaving," senior QB Chris Lum said. "I think we have some young guys who will fill the spots. It's going to be an area of focus."

Tomorrow: A peek at the Lehigh offense this Spring

Comments

ngineer said…
Offensive Line is the most critical place for us as we prepare for the Fall. We have a bunch of excellent skill people in the backfield and receiving corps, but the OL is what will allow them to shine.
rich said…
True enuf ngineer, updated roster up now. OL kids be working out. Watch for Vinnie to move up at OG, lost 25 lbs and he is a bull. No way we can replace Rack but Schauder very good

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