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In Unfamiliar Place, Lehigh Embraces Role As Underdog

It was a very notable fact that there were no long faces at Lehigh's table at Patriot League Media Day.

That's not to say everyone was satisfied.

It is true that the Mountain Hawks were picked to finish fifth in the preseason poll, the lowest they had ever been picked as far as anyone could remember.

It is also true that, when the subject of the defeat at the hands of Lafayette in the 150th meeting of the Rivalry came up, visible discomfort crossed the faces of junior QB Nick Shafnisky, junior LB Colton Caslow, and head football coach Andy Coen, as you would expect.

But the results of the preseason polls and the outcome of the last game of last season could not dampen the enthusiasm emanating from Lehigh's table today.

"Last year, we were picked second, and this year, we're picked fifth," Shafnisky said with his characteristic fast-paced energy.  "and... we'll see how we turn out this year.  I can't wait to see."

"We're going to put our cleats on, and run as hard as we can to go catch them, Coen said in the same video, seemingly ready to lace them up himself and take the field and knock a few heads if necessary.

Though Lehigh Nation certainly would like to erase the tape of last year's season, the players and coaching staff seem to want to eradicate those memories even more.

Picked second in the Patriot League in 2014, the Mountain Hawks instead limped to a 3-8 season, ending on the sourest of notes: a 27-7 loss to Lafayette that was a comprehensive beatdown.

Everyone knew things needed fixing.

"We're definitely using last season as motivation during this offseason to get people up here, to get people up here to work with the team," Caslow said.  "It's definitely a driving factor as to why we had so many people here over the summer."

Shafnisky couldn't even bring himself to look at the tape of last year's game at Yankee Stadium until recently.

"I never want to watch it again," he told Greg Joyce of The Express-Times and Keith Groller of The Morning Call on separate occasions.

"I don't ever even want to go there again," coach Coen said about Yankee Stadium.

Though nobody made any excuses for it, the setback of last year's season certainly seemed to bring a certain type of "optimism" for the upcoming campaign, according to coach Coen.

"I've been excited for a while for this [the opening of the 2015 season]", he said.  "Last season, I wouldn't call them hurdles, but there was a lot of newness for everyone, with a new coaching staff on offense and defense."

Changes were made, starting with offseason conditioning.

More players than usual stayed on campus in June and July to work, not only on conditioning but rapport.

Thirty-five to forty players, including a bunch from Florida and the Carolinas, stayed on over the summer.

"There was one season where it was only fifteen to twenty guys that stayed," Shafnisky said.  "And last season, I wasn't gelling as well with the offensive linemen as I could have.  We just didn't have a tight bond, that trust.  Having forty guys here this summer, including most of the linemen, is a whole different ballgame."

"In years past we've had some great leadership, but people haven't always connected and respected that," Caslow said.  "This year I feel like we have a lot stronger connection, and that has to do with how many guys we had up here in the offseason.  There was better opportunity to build relationships and get to know each other more than just on the field."

That comfort level extended to the coaches, too.

"Coaches and players need to connect to each other," Coen added.  "We've got more cohesion on the staff this year, and we're excited to bring in Ryan Dougherty to work with our kickers and punters."

Shafnisky also mentioned that his offensive coordinator, Drew Folmar, has a new comfort level with the offense that could result in more fireworks in 2015.

"He couldn't do some things he wanted to do last year," Nick said.  "He's told me about some things he wants to put in, and he's excited to see coming everyone back together for the start of training camp.  It's going to be a fun time."

Bigger changes are in store on defense, too.

Improvement was clearly needed on a unit that ranked 113th out of 121 FCS schools in terms of total defense.

"We sat down at the end of last season and decided to make a [defensive] scheme change," Coen said. "I liked how that looked in the spring. The players really took to it. They're very excited about the system they're going into. We recruited guys that can play to this system. We're going to be able to do things better in this system then we did a year ago."

"For me, it opens up more flexibility for me and allows me to be a free-flying linebacker," Caslow said.  "playing over the top of plays, getting me to the ball.  It's really opened the door for me."

 Helping matters on both sides of the ball, hopefully, will be fewer injuries.

Caslow was hurt part of last year with a bulging disc, but that injury is completely healed for a while now, according to him.

And after playing through injury most of the year, Shaf was shut down at the end of last season and wasn't allowed to throw a football all through the spring, a five to six month period.

"One to two hours a day I'm doing things with my trainer to get my arm healthy again," he told me.  "What I'm doing now in regards to what I wasn't doing in the winter is a world's of difference.  This summer I've thrown 100% now, finally feeling great.  I'm finally getting this optimistic feeling again, feeling like, damn, I've had this feeling in my shoulder for so long, but now that's all over with.  Now I can go out and don't have to think about anything, play to my full potential and just have fun doing it all."

Everyone at media day talked about being the underdog going into the season, but Shafnisky seemed to be the guy who really gets fueled by it.

"I love having people either be there for me or count me out," he said.  "Personally, I love it all.  I love haters.  I was just saying to my dad - the more people are talking bad about you, the more people you have to prove wrong.  I love proving people wrong, and making my coaches from high school proud."

The enthusiasm of Shafnisky and Caslow in regards to the prospects of fixing what was broken in 2014 was contagious.

"I just want to be a player that can bring this team together as one functional unit.  I want a breakout year, and I want to lead this team to a Patriot League Championship," Caslow said.

"Everybody's ready to go.  It's been a long offseason, and I'm excited that we have all these young guys," Coen said. "I'm excited that we have 17 great seniors. All these guys are committing to fixing what happened last year."

"We want to show that the 3-8 team you guys saw last year is not what Lehigh's about, and it's not what Lehigh football is about," Shaf said.  "When they announced that we were picked fifth, Colton and I just looked at each other, and said, 'We'll see.'"


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