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In Preseason, Lehigh In Unfamiliar Territory, Especially on Defense

Once upon a time, Lehigh's football team was many preseason pundits' consensus No. 1 in the Patriot League.  It wasn't even a question.

Sure, some of that was due to the fact that Fordham, now for the first time in years an full, card-carrying member of the Patriot League, was ineligible.

But in 2010 and 2011, Lehigh was the undisputed king, with wins over their Rivals, undisputed Patriot League championships, and even playoff victories against Northern Iowa and Towson.

This season, it's a new team with a dynamic offense and a team loaded with talent that is the undisputed champion going into the 2014 season.  With one of the best FCS quaterbacks in the nation, QB Michael Nebrich, and a talented defense backing them up, the Rams now have the targets on their backs.

And if Lehigh hopes to stand a chance to challenge the new kings of the hill, they will have to improve immensely on the defensive side of the ball.

The number that is the focus on Lehigh's defense this offseason is the number 93.

That's where the Brown and White finished in overall team defense in 2013, 93rd in the country out of 122 eligible teams.

The good news is that it was a young crew, for the most part, that took their lumps, and eight players that started last year in the 149th meeting between Lehigh and Lafayette will be back.

Head coach Andy Coen thinks that 2014 will definitely be different.

"I do believe we will be much improved on defense this fall," he told me.  "The defensive front is solid and has some depth unlike last year."

Part of that depth comes from the shift of junior DE Matthew Laub, who spent time mostly as a linebacker in the 2013 season, to the defensive line, where he'll likely join senior NG Arturo Gyles and senior DT Tim Newton on the starting scorecard in the front.

"Camp is a time when your chemistry really grows," Tim said, "because you spend so much time with each other, whether the defensive line or the defense overall, it seems like we play better."

That gives Lehigh a solid front three and allows a quick linebacking corps to possibly wreak havoc on opposing offenses.

They'll need to become havoc to improve on last year's ho-hum performance.

"There were games last year where we just didn't show up defensively," Coen told Keith Groller of The Morning Call. "We gave up 48 or more points three times. I think we have enough personnel to be much better. Our linebackers are going to be really good and our defensive line is going to be much stronger than it was and the secondary will be much better as well."

The linebacking unit is a mix of both youth and returning experience.

Sophomore LB Colton Caslow, the speedy inside linebacker from Lake Brantley, Florida, returns after a stellar freshman season where he racked up 64 tackles and 3 sacks, playing both inside and outside linebacker at different times during the season.

He'll hope to improve on his freshman campaign as he was one of the few Mountain Hawk defenders that were getting tackles in the backfield successfully.  Lehigh ranked 120th out of 122 teams in terms of tackles for loss, only averaging 3.8 per game.

Another speedy linebacker is one of the captains of the defense, senior LB Isaiah Campbell, (46 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks, 1 interception) who actually started out as a defensive back and running back in high school.

"At Lehigh I wasn't sure whether I would play offense or defense," he told me, "and at Lehigh they put me at safety, which a little bit of a shocker to me since I had never played the position before.  But that helped me learn the outside linebacker position a lot.  The transition was easy since as a safety I had to know the position of everyone on the field."

Campbell, who had a knack for the big play in 2013, will be counted upon to deliver more of them to deliver wins in 2014.  His late-game heroics against Central Connecticut State and Princeton last season helped seal two amazing comebacks.

"As a defensive chemistry, we always fly around the ball," Campbell said at Patriot League Media Day.  "I have no doubt that the new coaches [new defensive coordinator Joe Bottiglieri] will put us in the right positions."

"Coach Bott" is also going to be adding his own signatures to Lehigh's 3-4 defense.

"I think we're going to be simplifying some things," Andy said, "and we're going to allow the kids to play a little faster.  The new coaches are going to bring a lot of energy to our defense."

In the secondary, Lehigh also has some significant experience returning, including another freshman.

Sophomore CB Brandon Leaks, who led Lehigh in kickoff returns last season, seems set to step into the secondary, while senior S Jamil Robinson, who stepped in during key situations last season, also will play a part.

Overall, though, it seems like the secondary is still in a big battle for starting spots, with senior S Stephen Wilmington, junior S Laquan Lambert, junior CB Olivier Rigaud, senior DB Jason Suggs, and maybe even a freshman or two finding their way on the two-deep.

That's going to be important because only two players with an interception - Campbell and junior LB Noah Robb - returns from the 2013 defense.

"Schematically, what we really need to see is a defense that's going to create some turnovers," Coen told "We handled the ball okay offensively but we created very few turnovers and that put us in some bad spots. We've talked about a disciplined, determined, dominant defense and that's what we're trying to create on that side of the ball."

Last season, the Mountain Hawks only got seven takeaways trough the air all season, though through camp, according to Greg Joyce of the Express-Times, the defense has been ahead.

"We came out of the gates pretty strong and scored that touchdown on the first drive, which was real big for us," Shafnisky told him "The defense has been beating us, but we're starting to step up. Our offense was a big improvement today."

That's got to be encouraging for coach Coen - and Lehigh fans.

"I really like the effort, like the physicality," Coen said. "Guys are getting after it. Some guys stepped up and made some plays, so it was good to see."


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