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Lehigh Season Preview, Part One: The Offense

Preseason camp didn't end this year with the fanfare of past campaigns.  Hurricane Irene made sure of that.

But offensively, preseason camp ends with tremendous promise, thanks to the giant strides made by the 2010 edition of the Lehigh Mountain Hawks.

Thanks to head coach Andy Coen, offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini and a slew of returning starters, the challenge for this 2011 offensive unit is to build on the foundation they established - and build it into something even better. (more)

You'd never know it from last year's won/loss record, but the Mountain Hawk offense ranked 64th nationally in total offense - basically, a middle-of-the-pack finish. In the Patriot League, too, Lehigh's offense was 4th as well.

Graded on a curve, that's a C average - and will need to improve if Lehigh hopes to repeat as Patriot League champions.

Fortunately for Lehigh, though, the offense returns seven starters - and, most importantly, finds itself without a quarterback controversy for the first time in four years.

Senior QB Chris Lum, the 6'2, 205 lb signalcaller out of Lake Orion, Michigan, went into the preseason as the No. 1 quarterback and exits the preseason as the No. 1 quarterback.

The athletic senior started off his junior year raw - with only one TD pass in his first three games - but gradually improved as the season went along, passing for at least two touchdowns in eight of his last nine games.

Lum knows that he'll need to continuously improve if the Mountain Hawks are to repeat.

"I am a lot more confident this year, knowing the offense," he told Keith Groller of the Morning Call at Patriot League Media Day. "I know I need to be a leader for this team and someone my teammates can turn to when we're down 10 points in the fourth quarter and they're wondering 'Can we win this game or not?' I need to be that guy."

And Chris is also keenly aware of what he needs to work on - quickness, footwork, of course, but most importantly, accuracy.

"Number one is accuracy," he said. "I had too many interceptions last year. Another thing is I want to work on my deep pass. Other than that, I'm focusing on doing the same stuff I've always done my whole life - practice drills, getting in shape, lifting."

As the coaching staff knows what Lum can do, much of his camp was spent shaking off the rust - and tutoring the underclassmen QBs, sophomore QB Brandon Bialkowski, freshman QB Matt McHale, and freshman QB Gerald Poutier, to give them a taste of what to expect.

Junior QB Michael Colvin, the "Wildcat" QB that lines up for the Mountain Hawks in certain situations, was injured most of camp, meaning that there were plenty of opportunities for the underclassmen to shine.

From this observer, if Lum got hurt in practice this week, it would be Colvin as the opening-day starter, followed by Bialkowski.

*****

Running back is one area where Lehigh needs to replace last year. RB Jay Campbell, last year's leading rusher, leaves 625 rushing yards and 7 TDs - including one of the "halfback toss and pass" variety - to replace this year.

Fortunately for the Mountain Hawks, there are three solid candidates available to get those touches. One is the local hero; another is the talented underclassman; and the final guy is a great underdog story. Each brings something different to the table.

Junior RB Zach Barket is the local hero, the Schuykill Haven product that broke every Anthracite League and state rushing totals in his time in high school:

While winning All-State and All-Anthracite honors as a senior, he rushed for 4,195 yards and scored 66 touchdowns, both state records.

"In high school, blocking was during my play off, but I was carrying 40 times a game," Barket said. "I would break eight tackles and do what I had to do to get to the backfield; nobody gets the ball that much in college.

"I paid attention to what the coaches said, learned techniques and grew into it. I take pride in my blocking and how far I've come."

While 4,000 yards won't be happening, the hard-working Barket has been doing a good job expanding his game in his years as an underclassman, working on his pass-receiving and blocking skills to make him a better all-around back.

The durable 5'10, 205 lb junior seems like a perfect workhorse back, if that's in Cecchini's plans.

Signals are, that could be the plan for the 2011 season. "It's here now," Barket said of his opportunity to Keith Groller of the Morning Call.

"I feel like it's my time to step up and contribute. I learned a lot from Jay Campbell the last two years, but I've worked hard on getting better and I feel good about this season."

"No one is going to get 30 or 40 carries and that's fine with me," Barket said. "I just want to be ready to do my job on every play. That's what separates you from the competition and gets you out on the field. Even when you don't have the ball in your hands, it's important to be able to make a block that will allow the quarterback a little extra time to throw a 40-yard pass."

If Cecchini's plan is to show a host of different looks at running back instead, one guy who might be tough to bring down is the talented underclassman, sophomore RB Keith Sherman.

The talented, 6'0, 205-lb running back found his way onto the field as a freshman with 40 rushes for 123 yards. He's a very intriguing combination of size and speed, and showed flashes of it last year.

But he's fought his way through some injuries this preseason, sitting out the second preseason scrimmage with an undisclosed injury.

That has given junior RB Marcus Dormevil, the speedy, 5'8 walk-on from Fairfield (CT) Prep, a chance to show what he can do with the first team, where he represented well, along with sophomore FB Sean Farrell, another potential piece to the rushing puzzle at 6'3 and 240 lbs.

What seems clear with the Lehigh rushing offense this year is that there will be a multitude of looks running the ball, with the possibility of Dormevil or Sherman as a third-down back, Barket or Farrell getting tough yards between the tackles, or any number of different configurations. It's an extremely intriguing bunch, and it will be interesting to see how they work together against Monmouth.

*****

Another position of strength on offense is at wideout, where the breakout season of junior WR Ryan Spadola (1,130 yards, 9 TDs) was a huge reason why the Mountain Hawks went undefeated in Patriot League play.

Arguably, it was his monster game at Harvard (13 receptions, 206 yards, 2 TDs) that kick-started the drive to the Patriot League championship - which was no mean feat in a 30 mph wind at Harvard stadium, and the sure-handed receiver continued to perform at a high level the rest of the season as well.

Lehigh fans are drooling about his potential to put together a complete season in 2011, and while the accolades from Lehigh fans and picks on preseason all-America teams are nice, Spadola told Michael LoRe of the Express-Times that it was "just talk":

“Talk is talk. Coaches tell us that,” Spadola said. “It’s how you perform on the field. You can’t let things get to your head. We want bigger and better things than last year.”

“If we play how we played last year great things will come out of it,” Spadola said. “Although we went undefeated (in league), we made a lot of mistakes and can improve. A lot of people say we have a target on our backs, but we want to hunt teams down.”

Spadola has gotten so much attention that folks sometimes forget that there are some other fantastic receivers this year donning Brown and White too.

6'1 senior WR Jake Drwal (622 yards, 3 TDs) is a strong, possession receiver lining up opposite Spadola, while senior WR De'Vaughn Gordon, when healthy, provides some pure speed to the party as well - in 2009, he broke out for 509 yards and 2 TDs.

Those aren't the only names that could provide receiving yards for Lehigh. Junior TE Mark Wickware, senior WR Matt Fitz, and sophomore WR Sergio Fernandes-Soto are three distinct possibilities for receptions in this deep, talented unit. Just like at running back, this stable of receivers provides a lot of different possibilities.

Another local name that might break into the starting lineup at some point is a guy who played his high school ball about twenty minutes from Murray Goodman stadium, freshman WR Josh Parris. Michael LoRe caught up with him and talked about his camp:

Lehigh coach Andy Coen has been impressed with Parris' knowledge on the field and his understanding of the playbook up to this point. Coen, the 2010 Patriot League Coach of the Year, attributed some of that to Parris playing multiple positions in high school.

"He hasn’t been slowed down by the playbook stuff," Coen said. "Josh has made very few mistakes and is going full speed. I think he can look at it from both sides (quarterback, receiver), which is nice. That can’t do anything but help him. I think he’s well above the curve for a freshman right now."

“I definitely have to reestablish myself because it’s not about high school anymore,” Parris said. “That stuff’s in the past and you move on. Right now it’s just about getting on the field and working hard every day, not taking a rep off. If I make a mistake, I try to learn from it as quick as possible. Start to make plays, people notice playmakers.”

That's got to be music to Lehigh fans' ears - adding even more depth to a position that appears to be deep and talented already.

*****

The offensive line, who lost OL Ricky Clerge to graduation and OL Will Rackley to the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, was always going to need time to pull things together.

But the seniors on the line, senior C Jim Liebler and senior OL Keith Schauder, have by all accounts done a really good job of making the starting unit, which includes junior OL Mike Vuono, sophomore OL Matt Lippincott and sophomore OL Shane Rugg.

“They are such tough minded kids," Coen said of Liebler and Schauder. "They love to play. They’ve done a great job keeping that offensive line going because it has been cut-and-paste for most of camp. I’m hoping by the weekend we’ll be settled in there.”

Part of that "cut-and-paste" came from the news that senior OL Troy McKenna, who was expected to be a starting tackle, had his foot in a boot and is expected to miss a couple of games.

What will Lehigh have on the offensive line when they line up against Monmouth this coming Saturday? It's a question Lehigh fans are dying to have answered once and for all.

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