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Spring Season: Wideouts and Running Backs

It's hard being an offensive player at Lehigh, thanks to the shoes you have to fill.

This season, though, at wideout and running back, it's even more difficult than usual.

At running back, all the incoming backs need to be able to do is outdo the accomplishments of RB Keith Sherman - who only was Lehigh's first 1,000 yard rusher in the last eleven years, and also nearly carried last year's team on his back to a Patriot League championship.

And then there's wide receiver, where the highest profile offensive players in the last two years, WR Ryan Spadola and WR Lee Kurfis, were back-to-back FCS All-Americans and broke a good portion of Lehigh's receiving records.  Kurfis, too, nearly carried Lehigh on his back to the playoffs last season.  And Ryan is plyin his trade in the NFL, eager to break through onto the Dolphins' roster once again.

All the new group from this spring needs to do is to equal their level of excellence.  Simple, right?


Lehigh's offense is not supposed to be much different from last season, even though new offensive coordinator Drew Folmar replaces Dave Cecchini, who took over the head coaching position at Valparaiso over the offseason.

Similarly, senior WR Josh Parris takes over the mantle of go-to receiver.

Taking over for Kurfis, Josh is the most experienced returning receiver returning with 41 catches and 443 yards receiving last season.  A flash of his capabilities came against Central Connecticut last season, in the first series of the second half where he hauled in a 57 yard touchdown pass from QB Brandon Bialkowski to keep Lehigh in that game, which they would eventually win.

Josh took time off from his busy academic and football schedule to let me know how the spring was going for him.

"Personally, I have been working on every aspect of my game," he told me.  "Route running, blocking, catching...all the things that a wide receiver must constantly work on in order to be great."

Like the rest of the receiving corps, Josh has been working hard this spring to step up his game, but it's clear that he's his own worst critic.

"I had too many drops last year and missed or wasn't physical enough on blocks," he said.  "I ran too many routes standing straight up, which slowed me down in and out of cuts and prevented me at times from separating from defenders. Staying low, being physical and focusing on the ball all the way from the catch to the "tuck" are really what I have been focusing on."

Along with Josh, senior WR Derek Gaul (9 passes, 96 yards) returns to compete in a wide-open open field in regards to the rest of the unit.  Speedy junior WR Derek Knott returns after spending much of 2011 injured, and junior WR Stefan Sansone, senior WR Alex Buford, sophomore WR Trevor Soccaras, sophomore WR Jarrod Howard and sophomore WR Michael Anderson have all been competing for time with the 1s to see how they fit on Coach Folmar's take on Lehigh's offense.

"It has been great working with Coach Folmar," Josh said.  "He is a really intense individual, but you wouldn't believe it unless you were with him on the field. He pushes you to be the best, much like Coach Cecchini did, but obviously their coaching styles are different. Coach has been great in teaching me technique, so I am excited about the progress I am making."

For Josh, spring is all about getting his technique better.

"Practices are still intense, but the coaches spend a lot of time critiquing aspects of our game that they could not address during the season because we were game planning," he said.  "Since we do not have to game plan, we are able to focus on the little things that improve us as players. Spring practices are especially important for the younger guys in terms of getting a thorough knowledge of the playbook since many of them were on scout team during the season."

With the graduation of Sherman and critical players like FB Sean Farrell and FB Zach Hayden, getting a thorough knowledge of the gameplan is also critical at running back and fullback.

Senior RB Rich Sodeke (23 carries, 67 yards), who came in to spell Sherman is situations last season, returns to try to have a similar breakout season as Keith, with a trio of exciting backs, junior RB D.J. Kee, junior RB Dan Brown, and University of Miami (FL) transfer sophomore RB Brandon Yosha looking to be the No. 1 running option as well.

Sophomore FB Mackenzie Crawford is the lone returning player at fullback, which makes one of the interesting questions for the spring as to how coach Folmar will utilize his different weapons in the backfield.

"We've spent more time running the football and we've definitely gotten better there," Coen said in this week's spring preview from Lehighsports.com.  "We're going to have a nice situation at tailback."

At receiver, Parris said that the experience throughout the unit is a real benefit for the whole group.

"It helps in a couple of ways," he said.  "The first would be that we are competing against each other. Without competition you only breed mediocrity, and each time we go out to the field, it's our mentality to outwork each other, so the constant pushing of each other has definitely caused our work ethic to increase. Another way it helps is by being an example to the younger receivers. As seniors we have a lot of experience, and knowledge about the little intricacies that make our position different from any other on the field. It's nice to have Derek and Alex because we can be "player coaches" to the younger guys."

Josh knows that the words of the seniors carry weight.

"Sometimes correction from players speaks more than when a coach tries to correct you because you have closer bond and connection with your teammates," he said.  "They know that we, like our coaches, have high expectations, and getting criticism from someone you see working hard everyday makes it easier to accept. With that said, we also hold each other accountable (Derek, Alex and myself) so that we continue to improve as well."

It's also allowed Josh to really appreciate his time in a Lehigh uniform, too.

"These few years have been great and I have really grown a love for the game that I don't think I had as a freshman," he said.  "I love being at practices and love being with my teammates. It's nice to know that for a few hours I don't have to focus on anything but football. It has been such a blessing to play college football, and I thank God for the opportunities he has given me."

LFN's Take on the Spring Two Deep:

1st (WR): WR Josh Parris, WR Derek Gaul, WR Stephen Sansone
2nd (WR): WR Derek Knott, WR Michael Anderson, WR Alex Buford

1st (RB): RB Brandon Yosha, RB Rich Sodeke, RB Dan Brown, RB D.J. Kee (too close to call)

1st (FB): FB Mackenzie Crawford

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