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Spring Season: Defensive Line and Linebackers

With the secondary out of the way, it's time to focus on Lehigh's spring roster battles as they relate to the rest of the defense, the linebacking unit and starting defensive line.

On the coaching front, rabid Lehigh football fans will recognize the two position coaches at both linebackers and defensive line.

Both coached alongside of current head coach Andy Coen during two of the Brown and White's best-ever defensive seasons in 1998 and 1999.

Joe Bottiglieri was the defensive coordinator for the legendary 1998 team, which went 11-0 in regular season play and shocked the world by knocking of Atlantic 10 champions Richmond in the first-ever playoff victory for the Mountain Hawks since Lehigh joined the Patriot League.  Along with current defensive line coach Donnie Roberts, Lehigh's defense held the eventual I-AA champions, UMass, to 26 points and putting Lehigh in a position to win with a minute left in the quarterfinals.

This season, Coach Bott and Coach Roberts will try to recreate that same magic with this year's team.

"While the schemes will remain the same, change has come to the defensive side of the ball as well as the Mountain Hawks will look to improve upon a defense that gave up more than 31 points and 437 yards per game," Lehigh's newly-released spring prospectus states grimly.

That means Lehigh fans can expect the same type of multiple, 3-4 sets that have become a trademark of Lehigh's offense.

"We are continuing to use a multiple 3-4 scheme with a few new concepts," coach Bottiglieri told me.  "Our defensive staff in trying to put our players in situations to allow them be successful. It's a work in progress."

Last season saw two-time All-Patriot League LB Nigel Muhammad moved around a lot from the linebacking unit to the defensive line thanks to injuries in the front seven.  NG Rickey Layton struggled with injury most of the season as well.

But the two seniors are the only players on the defense that won't be returning, which should allow Coach Bott, who coached guys like former Patriot League Defensive player of the year LB Ian Eason, to work with a lot of returning players.

Part of the reason for Lehigh's struggles last season in the front seven last year are also the reason for optimism in 2014 along the defensive front.

Two freshmen last season, rising sophomore LB Colton Caslow and sophomore LB Pierce Ripanti, saw significant time in a front seven that took their time to come togethe.

Caslow really came on strong in the second half of the season to become a force in the linebacking unit, and just barely missed all-Patriot-League honors as a freshman despite ending second on the team in tackles (64, in six starts) and tying for second in sacks (3).

Add in five other rising juniors that spent significant time last season learning on the job, and it's easy to see that last year's inexperience can be seen as a strength going into the spring.

"I like our effort so far this Spring," coach Bott told me.  "The players worked hard on the weights in the winter months and are bigger and stronger."

Rising junior LB Noah Robb (55 tackles, 3 sacks) was one of those sophomores that emerged in the linebacking unit, who, along with Caslow, switched from outside to inside where he started to see good results.

The front seven boasts only three seniors returning as starters, senior LB Isaiah Campbell (46 tackles, 1 INT, 1 fumble recovery),  senior NG Arturo Gyles (17 tackles, 1 sack) and senior DE Tim Newton (58 tackles, 8 1/2 tackles for loss including 5 1/2 sacks).  Newton, the brother of former Lehigh LB Colin Newton, is the only all-Patriot League defensive player who will be returning.

Head coach Andy Coen told me that developing depth in the front seven will be a big focus through the remainder of the spring season.

"I do believe that collectively the group has improved," Coen said.  "Junior LB Mat Verdon has performed well with Laub rehabbing, and and I have also been impressed with sophomore LB Pierce Ripanti.  On the defensive line, DE Tim Newton is playing very well, and NG Arturo Gyles has stepped up his game."

Depth, and perhaps the identity of the top two players in the defensive tackle rotation, could be the biggest focus.

LFN's Take on the Spring Two Deep
1st (DL): DE Tim Newton, NG Arturo Gyles, DT Greg Palma
2nd (DL): DE Scott Grossnickle, NG Reed Remington, DT Josh Chiasson

1st (LB): LB Isaiah Campbell, LB Noah Robb, LB Colton Caslow, LB Mat Verdon
2nd (LB): LB Pierce Ripanti, LB Cody Kondas, LB John Gonos, LB Tashaun Mitchell

(Note: Junior LB Matt Laub is held out this spring recovering from injury)

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