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A Peek at Lehigh's Spring Defense (and Special Teams)

Looking at the roster going into the offseason last year, you could be forgiven if you thought that there would be a fair amount of rebuilding to do.

Start with the departure of an all-league secondary - led by bookends CB Jarard Cribbs and CB John "Prez" Kennedy, who doubled as top threats returning kicks as well - and you'd be even more worried.

Add to that the loss of the Lehigh/Lafayette MVP of 2010 (and, arguably, the one of 2009 as well), LB Al Pierce, as well as a host of players on the defensive line that had "Senior" by their names on the roster, and you'd certainly be right to wonder whether Lehigh's defense would be anywhere near as fearsome as the 2010 unit.

But a lot of those guys with "Senior" beside their names on the defensive line decided to return in 2010 for their final year of eligibility, providing a huge boost for this defense - and a comfort level for this spring season. (more)

"I feel as if there is a comfort level in the sense that we are comfortable playing beside each other," senior LB Mike Groome told me. "However, we are always trying to improve and we keep at each other during practice to do just that."

That comfort level is helped immensely with the return of senior DE Ben Flizack, senior DT Phil Winett and senior NG Billy Dokouslis in the rotation in the front of Lehigh's base 3-4 defense. All seniors, they applied for fifth year medical exceptions to continue in graduate school at Lehigh, which were granted.

That takes Lehigh's defensive line from question mark to exclamation point.

While Lehigh will rotate their defensive linemen - a rotation that also includes senior DE Cody Connare and senior DT Andrew Knapp - the rotation at defensive line makes it easier for the front seven defenders to build off their experience together as a unit, while working in plenty of time for younger players like junior NG Sajjad Chagani, junior DT Tom Bianchi, and junior DE Anthony Verderame.

Add to this deep mix a giant run-stuffer like 300 lb sophomore DT Robert Halliman, and it's clear that defensive line has a real chance to be a source of strength of this defensive unit in 2011.

"The front seven has improved its depth," Groome said. "The underclassman have been making big improvements and our [rising] juniors are doing a great job on the field."

"Mike stepped in really well last year replacing LB Troy Taylor and he kept getting better and better throughout the course of the year," head coach Andy Coen told the Express-Times' Michael LoRe earlier in the spring. "The next thing he needs to work on is he's a leader. He'll be more than man enough to step up and do that."

While Pierce (110 tackles, 12 tackles for loss) was a major part of the linebacking unit last year, the return of Groome (130 tackles, 3 forced fumbles), senior LB Tanner Rivas (71 tackles, 9 1/2 tackles for loss) and senior LB Colin Newton (83 tackles, 7 1/2 sacks) mean there is plenty for opposing offenses to worry about in the linebacking unit.

That's not all. Pierce's shoes will be either filled by senior LB Devin Greene (25 tackles) or junior LB Billy Boyko (29 tackles, mostly on special teams), and both are solid linebackers that should step right in.

Former walk on senior LB Shane Ryan (18 tackles, 1 blocked kick) returns to back up, well, any position on defense, it seems, as he's played defensive back, inside, or outside linebacker in his career. And senior LB Fred Mihal and sophomore LB Nigel Muhammed will allow defensive coordinator Dave Kotulski to rotate bodies in and out a lot as well.

When asked about comfort level with this defense, both Groome and Newton were very quick to dismiss the idea that playing loose in the spring with their teammates breeds complacency.

"'Looseness' in a sense of comfortability, trust and having a great time every play, definitely," Newton told me. "'Looseness' in a sense of over confidence or feeling that we don't need to bring it everyday because we have such a solid front, absolutely not. The comfort level that the starting defense has with each other on and off the field is amazing and is what allows us to have such a great time each and every snap."

What are Groome and Newtown working on this spring in particular?

"Personally I have been working on understanding the defense as a whole," Newton said. "Now that I fully understand my position and my responsibilities I need to be able to understand what is going on around me. Knowing things like where my help is, where everyone is fitting so that it will make my fits easier and other things like my leverage; knowing what alignment is best for me in each defense depending on what the ten other guys responsibilities around me are."

"Personally I have been trying to work on my pass coverage," Groome said. "I want to be in better position on passing routes and be able to break on the ball quicker."

Like the rest of the team, Newton and Groome thrive on the competitive atmosphere of the spring.

"[Competitiveness] in the spring game? How about every spring practice," Newtown said. "That's what makes good players great and a Patriot League Championship team into a National Champions team.

'Competition breeds champions' and thats what we live by everyday; competing in the weight room and on the field. Personally, I love going at it with the offense with my pads as well as with a little bit of chatter, all in good fun off course. I have a good time when the D makes a big play - and I let them know it."

A somewhat more low-key Groome talked more about who he was looking forward to square off against in the spring game. "I was going to say senior WR Jimmy Jefferson because we tease each other about it, but he recently hurt his knee. So with him out of the picture, I would have to go with sophomore RB Keith Sherman because I love the competition with bigger running backs."

(You certainly could say that. See Lehigh/Lafayette, 2010 edition, below. And, contrary to popular belief, Groome does not practice hurdling offensive linemen in practice, spring or otherwise.)


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With such a strong front seven with lots of bodies and depth, it might be tempting to look at Lehigh's secondary as a (relatively) younger unit that doesn't have the same comfort level as the front seven.

But junior CB Bryan Andrews will have none of that. His expectations for himself - and his secondary - are as high as ever.

"Any single person in the secondary is capable of making great plays at any moment," he told me. "We love this game and the thrill it brings being on an island. We are a very confident unit and have continued to build chemistry as a group this spring.

"I expect nothing less than the whole unit being on the all-conference first-team at least. And that’s the attitude we take into every day with the thought no matter how hard we are working there is someone working just as hard or harder. We are never satisfied."

While not technically starting last year, Andrews (25 tackles, 1 interception, 2 fumble recoveries) played a major part of every single game last year and had the players in front of him not been called Cribbs (7 interceptions) or Kennedy (2 interceptions, 3 passes defensed) he certainly would have been starting. And there's every indication that he can be every bit as dominating at corner as the senior he will be replacing.

And Andrews isn't the only player who got a lot of time in the defensive backfield last year. Junior CB Gabe Johnson (13 tackles, 2 passes defensed) and sophomore CB Courtney Jarvis also saw a lot of time, as has senior SS John Littlejohn (14 tackles, 1 forced fumble) and junior FS Billy O'Brien.

There's also a host of rising sophomores - sophomore SS Jamil Robinson, sophomore CB Winston Williams, and sophomore FS Rickie Hill - that has the coaching staff excited as well and should give added depth to the secondary as well.

"People fail to realize that these are players who have taken snaps in games at their respective position," Andrews said. "They have become their own critic and eager to learn anything that will benefit them. Competitiveness will never be questioned in the secondary and we work every day to have no completions each practice."

No need to question Andrews' competitiveness or intensity in the spring season.

"I have been working and looking to improve this season on the little things technique and all the intangibles," he said. "Every practice I look to build on some aspect of my game whether it is technique, coverage, tackling, or return game.

"The attitude with the secondary as well with the whole team is not to be satisfied with anything. We continue to look for ways to improve because last year’s effort is not going to be good enough this year to repeat and win the Patriot League and go on to compete for the National Championship."

*****

As solid as the defense seems, if you're looking for battles for playing time and starting positions, look no further than special teams.

Sophomore CB Courtney Jarvis would appear to have the inside track at returning kickoffs (199 yards, getting lots of action when teams would kick away from Kennedy), while punt returns are wide-open. Andrews, Sophomore WR Sergio Fernandez-Soto, senior WR De'Vaughn Gordon, sophomore RB Keith Sherman or junior RB Marcus Dormevil would seem to be possibilities to return punts or kicks. It will be interesting to see who gets the most work this Saturday at 10:00AM in the Spring Game at Murray Goodman stadium.

On the punt unit, senior P Alex Smith (38.3 yards per punt) is going to start at punter, while junior K Jake Peery or sophomore K Tim Divers will compete to become the starting kicker on Saturdays after K Tom Randazza's (10/11 FGs, 21/23 XPs) graduation. Randazza's stability kicking the ball wasn't talked about a lot in 2010, but was a big factor in Lehigh's 10-3 record. Hopefully Peery or Divers will be able to deliver the same sort of stability in 2011.

Finally, the graduation of senior FS John Veneiro wasn't only the graduation of an all-Patriot League defensive back: it was also the graduation of the team's dependable long-snapper on punts and kicks. A whole host of Mountain Hawks will be competing for the right to be the long snapper in 2011: junior LS Zach Belair, junior TE Jamel Haggins, and sophomore LS Kyle Lechner.

Fittingly, senior LB Shane Ryan will also be lining up to compete for time as long snapper as well. He seems to epitomize the competition that the spring represents - working hard to play anywhere there needs to be a player.

Comments

Rev said…
front 7 should be excellent,backfield is a toss up between many unproven players.hope spring game will show some promise back there and coaches don't settle on starters until fall.

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