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Your 2012 Mountain Hawks: The Defense

During Lehigh's media day, the starting defensive line was eager to show off their offseason weight work - to show how different they were, even from last year.

That is a goal that senior NG Sajjad Chagani, told me at Patriot League media day this year.

"My goal this year is to be different," he said.  "When you're on the field, you want to be different than everybody else.  I can't really explain it."

I quickly told him that he perhaps shouldn't want to be too different - after all, the Mountain Hawks were ranked 19th in total defense in 2011, and sitting just behind Bucknell in total defense in the Patriot League.

In 2012, the Mountain Hawks will be reliant on their defense to keep the center together while senior QB Michael Colvin gets his sea legs as Lehigh's opening-day starter.

Keeping that defense together starts with the "different" guys up front.

Chagani, a 6'2, 290 lb defensive tackle that makes you wonder where the NFL scouts are hiding, doesn't really focus on last year's accomplishments at all, or the rings from previous campaigns.





But there are a lot of kids on this defense that will have some pretty big shoes to fill: those of DE Ben Flizack, whose 7 sacks led the Mountain Hawks last year, LB Colin Newton, who notched 5 sacks, and LB Mike Groome, whose 117 tackles don't do justice to what he meant to this defense in terms of emotion and leadership.


Chagani, who had 30 tackles and 2 sacks while battling through some injuries last season, may not have gaudy stats, though few nose guards do.

But the vocal team leader has earned plenty respect with his team and around the Patriot League, where the Elmont, New York native was a logical choice for the preseason all-Patriot team.

"People are expecting a lot out of us, but nobody expects more out of us than ourselves," he told Mike LoRe of the Express-Times. "Pressure comes from our teammates more than anyone else. Even though it would possibly be our third ring, it's our first ring as a senior class."

A big question for Lehigh fans is: who's going to take over putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks?

In Lehigh's multiple 3-4 defense, the defensive linemen get rotated a lot, but Chagani, senior DE Tom Bianchi and senior DE Anthony Verdarame figure to get majority share of the time in the trench.

Bianchi had 3 sacks last year, but no sack was bigger than the one of Towson QB Grant Enders in the Tiger end zone, which was the difference in Lehigh's 40-38 FCS playoff win, while Verdarame, who has battled injuries through a lot of his career, emerges on the right side.

Figure to also see a lot of junior NG Rickey Layton, sophomore DE Reed Remington, and the younger brother of recently graduated LB Colin Newton, sophomore DE Tim Newton, in the trench as well.

At linebacker, the Mountain Hawks see senior LB Billy Boyko is the top returning tackler with 44 stops, with another senior with plenty of game experience, senior LB Sam Loughery (39 tackles) joining him inside.  Backing them up are sophomore LB Jared Heschke, who didn't see game action last year but played very well in the Spring season, and senior LB Jerard Gordon (30 tackles), who did see significant action.

Rounding out the unit will be plenty of new faces - including one key transfer.

Junior LB John Mahoney, 6'2, and 215 lbs, comes to Lehigh from Plantation, Florida, via Bryant University of the NEC.  He and speedy sophomore LB Isaiah Campbell, who didn't see any game action last year, figure to be seeing plenty of time in the "Will" linebacker position.

At the "Sam" linebacker position features junior LB Nigel Muhammad, who only saw action in special teams last year, while local product freshman LB Matthew Laub, in a bit of a surprise, finds himself on the two-deep as well.

"It's a lot faster here, but I'm getting used to it," Laub said. "It can be overwhelming how complicated it is and how much stuff they throw at you. But these are good coaches who know what they are doing and the seniors and other experienced guys have helped out so much. They just want to get everybody on the same page."

 The front seven features an intriguing mix of senior veterans and young talent - and some big shoes to fill.

*****

Compared to the front seven, the secondary brings back boatloads of game experience, including one of the best corners in the Patriot League.

Senior CB Bryan Andrews (36 tackles, 9 pass break-ups, 4 INTs, 1 TD) had a breakout junior season, including a 2 interception game that helped clinch the Patriot League title against Georgetown. He joins fellow senior FS Billy O'Brien (54 tackles, 1 INT) on the preseason all-Patriot League team, which promises to be a very solid unit.

They are joined by senior CB Gabe Johnson (42 tackles, 2 INTs), junior CB Courtney Jarvis (13 tackles, 1 INT) and junior SS Rickie Hill, who goes from special teams to the starting lineup.  Sophomore CB Jason Suggs, who moved from the return units to the defensive backfield this offseason, backs up at corner, as does junior SS Jamil Robinson and junior FS Tyler Ward.

It's a secondary that will be a real position of strength for the Mountain Hawks going into the fall.

Suggs will continue on the return units, where he stood out as a freshman to the tune of 601 kickoff return yards. This time, though, he'll move to punt returns, while junior RB Keith Sherman, and - in another surprise, freshman WR Derek Knott will be alongside the veteran running back returning kicks.

On the depth chart, senior PK Jake Peery tops the depth chart, while junior P Tim Divers tops the punting depth chart, with the other serving as backups to the other.  Both kicking (47/53 XPs, 11/17 FGs) and punting (36.7 average) were areas that could use improvement last year.

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