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Lehigh Spring Football - The Defense and Special Teams

Last season, there was little drama on the defensive side of the ball going into the spring season.

With all-Patriot League names like DT Sajjad Chagani, DE Tom Bianchi, LB Billy Boyko and CB Bryan Andrews on the roster, you knew that the squad was more in a mode to "tweak" rather than to "retool".

This season sees not only these three position leaders graduate, but plenty more, making the defense much less experiences, and a much larger area of competition, than last season.

“The defense needs to get better,” head coach Andy Coen said in this week's release. “They didn’t perform very well in our last scrimmage and our coaches have challenged them. We haven’t had a lot of live tackling because we’re in a tailback situation. Last week we got more into it, we scrimmaged, and we didn’t tackle very well. We have to improve upon that."


Part of the spring season, of course, is the challenge of competition for spots and between offense and defense, and to lay the foundation for a successful season.  Heading out to practice today, that's what I saw in what could be the most important, and enigmatic, unit on the field for the Brown and White.

A pair of seniors, senior DE Ryan Kuntz and senior NG Rickey Layton, are in the mix for time on the rotation at defensive front, as well as a potential star in junior DE Tim Newton, brother of former Lehigh LB Colin Newton.

But there's a lot of underclassmen there, too, that will be relied upon for key contributions in this area - and it doesn't look like Coen, or defensive coordinators Donnie Roberts and Gerard Wilcher, knows yet who those guys are going to be.

Junior DE Reed Remington and junior DE Arturo Guyles have some experience from last year, but junior DE Scott Grossnickle, sophomore DE Josh Chiasson, sophomore DT Rene Molinari, sophomore DE Greg Palma, and sophomore DT Grant Jamgochican are all vying for those several precious spots, with no real front-runner.

At least at linebacker there's a lot of experience coming back.

Senior LB Nigel Muhammad (76 tackles, 10 1/2 tackles for loss) has gotten good praise all around for his play last year and also his performance this spring.  He has the potential for the type of season that LB Matt Cohen had in 2009 when he led the Mountain Hawks in sacks and tackles for loss.

On the other side is likely to see an effective platoon of senior LB John Mahoney and junior LB Isaiah Campbell, who combined for 46 tackles, 2 sacks, and 2 interceptions.  Sophomore LB Matt Laub, a freshman who appeared in all fifteen games and also performed emergency long-snapping duties, also backs up Muhammad and promises to be in the rotation for playing time.

Inside, six players are vying for the two precious inside linebacker starting spots in one of the best battles of the spring.  The tall task of replacing LB Sam Loughery and LB Billy Boyko would be a tall order for anyone - and it's one spot where I'll be looking closely on Saturday.

Sophomore LB Noah Robb seems to have the inside track for one of those positions going into the fall, after playing some time on the travel team last season and has played well thus far into the spring, according to coach Coen.  Junior LB Tashan Mitchell and junior LB Jared Heschke also are in the mix for a spot as well, along with senior LB Cody Raup. Sophomore LB D.J. Bourgeois and sophomore LB Cody Kondas could also easily find their way into the mix.

Then there's the secondary, where three all-league performers in CB Gabe Johnson, CB Bryan Andrews and FS Billy O'Brien all depart in May for graduation.

Senior SS Rickie Hill (52 tackles, 2 INTs) returns after grabbing the starting spot last season, but senior CB Courtney Jarvis (20 tackles, 1 pass defensed) actually has the most experience on the entire secondary after playing parts of the last three years as the primary nickel back.  Both will be expected to solidify a talented, but raw, group.

The battle for the remaining spots promises to rage through the fall.

Sophomore FS Laquan Lambert, who got special teams player of the week with two blocks against Bucknell, is certainly in the mix and has had a strong spring thus far.  But senior FS Tyler Ward (43 tackles, 2 passes defensed) will also be in strong position after a good junior season.  Junior S Stephen Wilmington and senior FS Jamil Robinson also will be looking to be working into the mix.

Opposite of Jarvis will be - who?

Junior CB Jason Suggs, who returned kicks for a time last season and played some time at nickel back and dime back, will have a chance to win the job but it will have to wait for the fall season, as he's being held out of the spring due to injury.

That gives an enormous opportunity to sophomore CB Russhon Phillips, sophomore CB Olivier Rigaud, and sophomore CB Randall Lawson to get into the conversation.

*****

Rounding out the spring game is the kicking, and return game.

Senior P Tim Divers (38.8 average, 13 inside 20 yards line) will certainly be the starting punter, but in the spring it looks like junior PK Nick Marcello might be the kicker that will be kicking on Saturday.

There's also the question of the return game - will sophomore WR Derek Knott be the man to return kickoffs and punts?  Will it be junior RB Rich Sodeke?  Will it be someone else?

Plenty of questions that need answering on both the defense and special teams - which will make for an interesting Saturday morning at 10:00AM at Lehigh.


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