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Know Your 2011 Opponents: Monmouth

When most people think of West Long Branch, New Jersey, you don't necessarily think of Monmouth University.

You're more likely to think of reality shows.

You might think about the Jersey Shore - and, if not Snooki, perhaps Monmouth alum Anthony Beltempo, the creator of the mega-hit TV series on MTV.

You might even think of fellow Monmouth alums Stephenie LaGrossa or Katie Gallagher, who were runners-up on Survivor: Palau among other Survivor shows - and further cementing Monmouth University with the unenviable title of Reality Show U.

There's another legacy in West Long Branch, however, that's of much more concern to Lehigh football fans.

That legacy is Monmouth's growing football program - that lately has been producing a lot more than reality-show entertainment. Their reality show is played on Sundays, and it gets a heck of a lot more viewers than any show on MTV.(more)

The Monmouth Hawks' football program is probably best known for the NFL star that came from their ranks, Dallas Cowboy WR Miles Austin, who has made two consecutive Pro Bowls after signing as an undrafted free agent in 2006.

(In his college career, he actually traveled to Murray Goodman in the only other meeting between Lehigh and Monmouth. He caught 7 passes for 126 yards and a 66 yard touchdown strike in a 54-26 Mountain Hawk victory.)

His explosion into the NFL has put the Hawk program on the map, along with the addition of limited scholarships and an autobid to the FCS playoffs for the Northeast Conference, where the Hawks compete.

The Hawks have only known one football coach - Kevin Callahan, who has been the head kahuna since the programs' inception in 1993. He's led Monmouth to five NEC titles in the last seventeen years - but hasn't captured an NEC title since 2004 - and actually served under the tutelage of two other legendary coaches in the NEC: Albany's Bob Ford and Wagner's Walt Hameline.

One thing is for sure about NEC coaches - you won't be able to throw much at them that they haven't seen before, and coach Callahan is no exception. Furthermore, looking at their recent record against the Patriot League gives plenty of reason for caution going into the season opener.

The Hawks are 2-2 against the Patriot League since that game in 2005. The Hawks upended both Fordham (23-9) and Colgate (17-12) in 2006, led by the grinding running of RB David Sinisi. And in 2009 (23-35) and 2010 (29-30), Sinsi, RB Bobby Giles and the Hawks gave the Raiders all they could handle as well.

However, as was mentioned in the New Jersey News Room before Monmouth's spring practice this year, one-point losses like the one to Colgate didn't sit well with coach Callahan:

Part of the reason for Monmouth University football’s 3-8 record last year can be attributed to lack of fundamentals at key times in close games. They lost four one-point games in 2010, and for coach Kevin Callahan’s team, the focus of spring practice has been on getting stronger and getting back to the basics.

“The biggest thing about spring practice is fundamentals. We’re doing a lot of installation and a lot of teaching right now. We’re trying to some new things on both sides of the ball and trying to install those schemes and work on them. I’ve seen that our guys are hungry are happy and are happy to get back onto the field.”

While the "addition of new things" might be something that gets Lehigh fans licking their chops, the Hawks will be returning their top passer from last year with plenty of experience.

Junior QB Kyle Frazier (2,072 yards passing, 9 TDs, 332 yards rushing) is the leading candidate to lead the offense on opening day, and is the sort of mobile, accurate passer that gives many a defensive coordinator problems, similar to Colgate QB Greg Sullivan.  In the spring report, Callahan also said that last year they were going to explore Frazier snapping the ball more from center, after being "strictly in the gun" in 2010.

Monmouth's "O" line graduates three redshirt seniors, but the two bookend tackles should be available on opening day in senior OL Dino Molina and senior OL Mike Murphy.

Last year, Monmouth spread the wealth when it came to receiving yardage, with speedy 5'9 sophomore WR Mitch Pollard (364 yards, 1 TD) and senior TE Tyler George (366 yards, 2 TDs) Frazier's top returning targets.

In the backfield, oft-injured 5'9 senior RB Bilial Sloan El (231 all-purpose yards, 2 TDs) is the squad's top returning rusher, which would seem to point to a team that tries to kill you with speed rather than power.  Backing him up could be the running back that got most of the action in the spring, 5'9 sophomore RB Kwabena Asante.  Still, the backfield will be inexperienced.

While it seems like a young team with a new offensive playbook might be an advantage for Lehigh, it could be a bigger disadvantage than you might think.  Would it be shocking to see Asante or Sloan El and Frazier in a Wildcat-style formation?  No, it wouldn't.

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The Monmouth defense, which features a base 4-3, also boasts a possible pro prospect in its defensive backfield.

Speedy 5'10 senior FS Jose Gumbs (76 tackles, 1 INT, 8 passes defensed) is a hard-hitting safety in the secondary and will be a certain preseason first team all-NEC pick.  He's a game-changer, and it will be up to offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini to make sure he doesn't change the game.

On the defensive line, an experienced, deep group features sophomore DT Jimmy Lawson (21 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks) and senior DE Chris Luma (24 tackles, 1 sack).  Aside from Gumbs, this "D" line is the strength of their defense - and it won't be easy running against the 280 lb Lawson in the middle.

Senior LB Chris Mastrangelo (66 tackles) is the returning linebacker with the most experience, so despite the Hawks' youth there are key players returning everywhere on the Hawk defense, and their front seven (eight if you count Mr. Gumbs) will be a formidable unit to face.

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The Monmouth game should be a fun opener for Lehigh football fans who make the trip to Snooki-land, with a 1PM start.  In addition to the game being on Labor Day weekend, I'm actually very much looking forward to going to the game in the morning and afternoon - and heading to the Shore with my family after the game, including some fine seafood and a walk along the boardwalk.

Football at 1 and the beach at 5 - that's a compelling day, no matter how you look at it.  (As long as it's a Lehigh win, of course.)

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