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2013 Mountain Hawk Season Preview: The Defense And Special Teams

Last season, Lehigh's defense was expected to help carry an offense a little as a new offense learns the ropes.

This time around, though, it's a completely different situation.

Eight starters depart last year's starting squad, including key members of both the defensive line and defensive backfield rotation.  Oh yeah, and LB Billy Boyko, an undrafted free agent signee by the Raiders in the offseason, graduates as well.

It's not like the cupboard is bare by any means.  But, man, eight starters?

While the expectation is that Lehigh's offense will proceed just fine, the defense just has so many departing seniors that it's worth asking the question: what's the expectation for 2013?


The one player that is the unquestioned leader of this defense is senior LB Nigel Muhammad, the only member of this defense on the preseason all-Patriot League team.

The Ohio native had 76 tackles last season and 10 1/2 tackles for loss last season, and he'll be looking to have an even better season in 2013 from the outside linebacker position.

"Defensively, our goal is simple, to hold them to zero points," he told me at Patriot League Media Day. "If we do that, it doesn't matter really who our starting quarterback is, we feel like we're getting the job done.  At the beginning of the year we might be leaned on more, our expectation is always to shut the other team out.  That's our goal."

Consistently Nigel said how focused he is getting rid of the "bitter taste" of losing the Patriot League title and the chance at the FCS playoffs, both in the spring and once again at Media Day.

With Muhammad and junior LB Isaiah Campbell (36 tackles, 3 tackles for loss) returning at the outside, there was still a big question as to who would be replacing Boyko in the inside.  The winners in camp for the position was one name I expected, sophomore LB Noah Robb, and a name that surprised me, junior LB John Gonos.

Robb had made a name for himself on special teams last season, appearing on the depth chart midway through his freshman season, but Gonos only appeared in one game last season.  It will be exciting to see how they do in their first career starts against a team like Central Connecticut State, a run-often team, and that's one of the keys I'm going to be looking at closely this Saturday.  Also, expect to see junior LB Jared Heschke, sophomore LB Cody Kondas, and sophomore LB Matt Laub in the rotation as well.  Freshman LB Pierce Ripanti is also on the starting two deep.

The "D" line doesn't return a "starter", but does see three players that got a fair amount of playing time last season slide right into the starting positions.  Senior NG Rickey Layton returns healed from an early season leg injury last season, and is poised to have a big year.  Junior DT Arturo Gyles, who replaced Layton when he got injured, also returns, as well as junior DT Tim Newton (26 tackles, 3 sacks).  If healthy, the line returns an intriguing mix of talent.

Expect junior NG Reed Remington, who also worked his way into the rotation at times last season, to get significant time.  Two relative newcomers, junior DT Scott Grossnickle and sophomore DT Greg Palma, also will see time in Lehigh's multiple front seven rotation.

In the defensive backfield, senior FS Rickie Hill is the third returning starter in the secondary, after a strong 2012 where he made 52 tackles, 3 pass break-ups and 2 interceptions.

Senior SS Tyler Ward returns for the Mountain Hawks after playing mostly as a "reserve" but getting significant time in the secondary.

The Virginia native notched 43 tackles as the enforcer of the secondary, acting as strong support for the front seven, and the quiet team captain will be looking to lead a secondary that also has a fair amount of experience, just not starting experience.

Senior CB Courtney Jarvis (20 tackles) slides seamlessly from the nickel back to the starting corner rotation, replacing all-Patriot League CB Bryan Andrews.

And junior CB Damien Brown might be the best story of the secondary, a speedy corner who left the team during freshman year but worked hard to make it all the way back and now is the starting corner on Saturday.  He replaces CB Gabe Johnson - and it will be interesting to see how they measure up to the combo of Andrews and Johnson.

Junior FS Stephen Wilmington and sophomore SS Randall Lawson also find themselves on the two deep, along with junior CB Jason Suggs and sophomore CB Russhon Phillips, who will see time in passing situations.

Lehigh finds themselves entering the 2013 season with a true freshman taking on the kicking duties.

Many eyes will be on freshman PK Ryan Pandy, a highly-touted kicker out of Clearwater, Florida who comes into Mountain Hawk territory with a lot of buzz.

Senior P Tim Divers returns as punter, where he hopes to improve on his 38 yard net punting average last season.

Finally, returning kicks will be senior RB Keith Sherman (kickoffs) and junior WR Josh Parris (punts)- which is interesting, as they're two of the more important offensive players on the team.  Overall it seems like special teams are a special point of emphasis for the 2013 Mountain Hawks.

It's odd to go into the 2013 season with so much "inexperience", but still have confidence that Lehigh will be competing for the Patriot League title.  Yet that's where Lehigh finds itself: lots of players with game experience, just not the label "starter".

It feels like it's going to be another fun ride.

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