Skip to main content

Lehigh Season Preview, Part Two: The Defense

Lehigh's defense last year was one of the best Mountain Hawk fans have seen in an awfully long time.

In 2009, a vast, talented secondary featuring CB Jarard "Main Man" Cribbs" and CB John "Prez" Kennedy, and a linebacking unit that headlined a two-time Lehigh/Lafayette MVP in Al Pierce were not the only reasons why Lehigh had the top scoring defense in the Patriot League last year.

Head coach Andy Coen brings back a budding defensive superstar and a host of very, very good defensive players.  But the optimism should not diminish the challenge ahead: that defensive coordinator Dave Kotulski has in front of him: to replace three all-Patriot League players, including the entire starting secondary.

Will this unit achieve the high bar set by the 2010 squad?  (more)

In Kotulski's multiple 3-4 defense, there's a lot of rotation of defensive bodies and a whole lot of different looks.  Depth in the front seven is a must, and fortunately, Lehigh has just that.

Senior DT Andrew Knapp (36 tackles, 1 forced fumble), senior DT Ben Flizack (36 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks), and senior NG Billy Dokuslis (16 tackles) will be big contibutors up front, with mammoth 296 lb junior NG Sajjad Chagani and junior DE Tom Bianchi (32 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks) getting plenty of time as well in the mix of defensive linemen.

The 6'7" Flizack, a local product out of Jim Thorpe, PA, sat down with Keith Groller and talked about the defense:

"We're basically all returning starters in that front seven and feel we have the makings of a very good defense," said Flizack, an all-league selection last year. "We can help out the secondary by pressuring the quarterback. They have been coming along and any help we can give them is a plus." As preseason camp was winding down and preparations were turning toward Saturday's season opener at Monmouth, Flizack said he was hoping that the defense could "ratchet it up a notch or two."
"We know what's going on; we know what to do," Flizack said. "We just need to worry more about the little things, but I see a defense with good camaraderie and lots of leaders. We have captains, but we also have captains among the captains. Leadership won't be a problem.
Flizack, like everybody else who played a major role in last year's championship team, has vowed not to allow all of the preseason buzz distract from this team's mission. "You can't ignore everything coming our way and what people are saying, but at the same time you have to stay focused on what you're doing," Flizack said. "We know we have a target on our back, but it makes it that much harder. Right now, we can't wait to get to Monmouth."
At linebacker, three of four starters return - including a preseason all-American and a young man who went from second-string linebacker last year to team captain of a team defending their Patriot League championship.

Senior LB Mike Groome, (131 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, 1 INT) is, without question, a guy who loves the game of football.  The 6'3, 245 lb young man from Byram, NJ is a guy who always seems to be around the football at all times - and, more often than not, gets the tackle as well.  His motor never shuts off on the football field - and he's made his name on making goalline stands, including two that contributed to wins versus "that school in Easton."

Some kids might let the preseason accolades get to their head - but not Mike, as evidenced by his words with Groller and Michael LoRe of the Express-Times:

"It's a real different feeling, a different experience this year. It's very weird to come off a 10-3 season after struggling the previous years," Groome said, referring to the 5-6, 5-6 and 4-7 records over the previous three seasons before last year's breakthrough.
"It's nice. But it's a different emotion and I don't know how to describe it other than it's weird."  
“We’re not going to sneak up on anyone again,” he said. “I feel like teams will have more motivation to come out at us. Every team you lose to the previous year, you have a little spot on the shelf to say ‘I’m coming for you.’ With us not losing (5-0 in league), I think everyone is going to be doing that.” 
Groome promised, however, that there will be nothing strange about the team's determined, focused effort. 
"We're confident," he said. "We have a lot of experience. We know a lot about each other and we know how each other plays. We feed off each other."

It's worth noting that Groome, who seemed to feed off of LB Al Pierce perfectly last year, might have some adjustment when senior LB Devin Greene (25 tackles) is lining up next to him at inside linebacker for the majority of plays.  But the 6'0,. 220 lb senior from Pittsburgh has a lot of experience in Kotulski's defense, with so many players switching in and out, and Greene's patience has finally paid off with the starting nod.

On the outside, there's no question that senior LB Tanner Rivas (72 tackles, 10 1/2 tacklesfor loss) and senior LB Colin Newton (82 tackles, 2 forced fumbles) will continue to be the disruptive forces they were last year.  Backing them up is senior LB Shane Ryan, too, who will get his share of touches as well - and maybe even freshman DE Tim Newton the brother of Colin, as well.

If Greene can step in and fill Pierce's shoes - and there's every indication that he can - there's reason to believe that Lehigh's front seven will continue to be a dominating force in the Patriot League in 2011.

There's also room for optimism in the secondary, despite the fact that all four starters were lost to graduation.

Junior CB Bryan Andrews (21 tackles, 1 INT, 2 fumble recoveries) could not have been more ready to step into the starting secondary.  After playing nickel back the last two years, the 6'0 defensive back from Evans, Georgia will prove to unsuspecting teams that he's a shutdown corner.

Junior CB Gabe Johnson (13 tackles) and senior FS John Littlejohn (14 tackles) have also had plenty of experience rotating into the defensive backfield last year.  Still, it's an open question if this trio, plus first-time starter junior FS Billy O'Brien, will live up to the starting unit last year which had 14 interceptions amongst themselves.


On special teams, it looks like first-time starter sophomore P Tim Divers will be the starting punter, with on kickoffs and scoring kicks replacing the dependable PK Tom Randazza.

Add to that senior WR Jake Drwal returning punts, and sophomore DB Courtrney Jarvis and junior RB Marcus Dormevil returning kicks, and it appears that Lehigh's special teams units are going to be breaking in a lot of units all at once - one of the more underrated challenges for the Mountain Hawks going into 2011.

But the most important question, as ever, is: will this unit have what it takes to beat Monmouth in Week One?


Popular posts from this blog

Remembering Lehigh's Battles With The Late Tubby Raymond

(Photo Credits: Delaware Online)

When I heard the news Tubby Raymond, legendary Delaware head football coach, died last week at the age of 92, two immediate memories came rushing back to me.

One occurred on October 16th, 1999, when Tubby had made a complaint to the local paper or radio in the run-up to Kevin Higgins' Mountain Hawks beating his Blue Hens on Delaware's homecoming, 42-35.

I have no idea if the quote even actually happened, but my recollection is that Tubby said that Lehigh had "St. Bartholomew's" on their schedule, and hadn't played anybody.  It was a verbal jab that many Delaware fans took with them to the stands to heckle the Mountain Hawk fans that made the short trip to Newark.

Up until that point, I had watched a bunch of Lehigh football games over the years.  I experienced their rise in the 1990s.  I enjoyed wins, and championships, and playoff victories.

But never had I felt a win so viscerally vindicating than the one over Tubby Raymond&…

Lehigh Wrestling Gets Superstar Treatment at PPL Center. Lehigh Football Needs The Same At Murray Goodman.

"We knew it would be nice," Lehigh wrestling head coach Pat Santoro said. "But it was even better than we expected."

Pat was talking about the reception his Lehigh wrestling squad experienced at Allentown's PPL Center this weekend, when a sellout crowd over nearly 10,000 people came to watch No. 1 Penn State grapple with No. 5 Lehigh in a collegiate wrestling event.

It was, by all accounts, something special to behold. 

"I thought it was really cool and an exciting place to wrestle," said Penn State wrestler Nick Nevills. "These fans were really into it, a rowdy bunch. It's a lot more fun as an athlete to wrestle in an environment like this. I'd say it was one of the most exciting times I have had in my career."

The sense of spectacle at the PPL center, though, puts a spotlight on what more can be done at Lehigh itself to make their athletic contests into spectacles.  It requires money to be spent and energy to be expended.  But the…

Troy Pelletier Hasn't Stopped Outworking His Rivals On His Journey To Professional Football

Many Patriot League football fans remember the 153rd meeting between Lehigh and Lafayette, one that ended happily for the Mountain Hawks.

They might remember the MVP performance of QB Brad Mayes, or perhaps the halftime speech by OL Zach Duffy that seemed to spur the Mountain Hawks to victory.

Or perhaps they might remember the spectacular single play of Mayes rolling right and finding WR Gatlin Casey in the end zone to give the Mountain Hawks a lead they didn't relinquish.  It was an incredible play by Mayes, who returns this upcoming year for his senior season, and Casey, who, having exhausted his eligibility at Lehigh, will be playing one more year at Middle Tennessee State.

As great as those individual moments are, though, they are not my biggest takeaway of that game.

Too many Lehigh people forget that Lehigh was down 31-21 at half, and that victory was no sure thing.  And they sometimes forget that so much of that victory came from the grinding of WR Troy Pelletier, deliver…