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Closing The Book On Lehigh Spring Ball

(Photo Credit: Gaby Morera/B&W Staff Photographer)
Before we close the book on spring ball, I wanted to pass on my thoughts and observations about the spring session and the prospects for the 2016 season.

But before I do, I also need to share one of the great traditions of the Lehigh spring game - the announcement of the recipient of the Jim Gum scholarship.

Presented by the non-profit Jim Gum Foiundation, the scholarship award is presented in the name of Jim Gum, a three-year starter for Lehigh in the 1980s and Penn Argyl standout.  He died due to complications from ALS in 2006.

Senior RB Kenny Crawford was the recipient of this year's award in what is always a heartwarming yet humbling ceremony on the field.


Without further ado, here's my four thoughts after the spring season.

1.  #Rivalry150 feels like it happened a generation ago.  After watching the spring game on a crisp, beautiful Saturday, it was hard to believe that just a year ago, Lehigh was reeling from one of their worst seasons in memory.  With all the buildup of that 150th game, falling the way they did in the place they did, it was a tough place.

Even at the beginning of last season, the emphasis was on purging the cloud of the 2014 season.  The big question going into the season last year was "Have you forgotten 2014 yet?" - or some variation on that question, many times coming from me because I hadn't totally gotten over it myself.

But there seems to be a crispness and energy to the couple of spring practices I attended this time around that wasn't there last year.  Why is that, exactly?

It could be that some tension was now gone.  A possible reason could be that the final "non-conventional-scholarship" class graduates this year.  Everyone in camp had the opportunity at the same type of scholarship aid now, either as a recruited athlete or a walk-on.  It could be that the playing field is now level.

But it seemed more than just that.

DB Matt Butler with pressure on QB Matt Timochenko
(Chris Shipley/Morning Call)
2.  Flying Around Didn't Seem Like Just A Saying.  Sometimes, athletes tend to give you the phrases you want to hear - cliches like "giving it 110%, taking it one game at a time", and stuff like that.  On defense, one I've heard a lot over the years is "we want to fly around the ball."  Sure, everyone wants to do that.

But the defense's energy as they came out on Saturday was unmistakable.

You can say that it was a no-tackling practice, and it made it easier to get "sacks" and "tackles" when it's essentially a two-hand touch practice.  But talking to junior DE Tyler Cavenas, it seemed like the real thing.  He even refused to say that the defense had a great day - which they did - instead focusing on the "lulls" and the times when they let the White offense gain yardage.

Just because there wasn't live tackling didn't mean there wasn't flying around.  After one play, senior CB Brandon Leaks tried to make a play on the ball and nearly took out one of the cameramen on the sidelines.

How the Lehigh defense holds up over the course of the season seems to be the consensus view on how far the Mountain Hawks can fly in 2016.  The defense appears to be eager to demonstrate that they can, and will, be a strong unit in the Patriot League next season.

3.  The Stable Of Wide Receivers.  It's not clear whether he'll be wearing his third different number in three years, but perhaps lost in the shuffle of the defense was a workmanlike performance by  now-#7,  junior WR Troy Pelletier, in the short passing game.

Working behind a depleted offensive line and facing a rabid Brown defense, all four QBs needed to find quick, outlet passes to gain any yardage.  A bunch of times, they found the guy I like to call "The Doctor", the large target who surgically takes apart defenses.  With 5 catches and 74 yards, he led the receiving group in the session.

Junior WR Sasha Kelsey (Musa Jamshed/B&W Staff)
On Saturday, though, the depth and quality of the receiving corps was on full display.  With a few guys out to injury, junior WR Sasha Kelsey and sophomore WR Connor Bianchini also hauled in passes on the afternoon.  Sophomore RB Nick Thevaganayam, too, making the most of the injury to two other starting running backs, also looked like a very strong receiver out of the backfield in his own right.

What's fairly amazing about this receiving corps is how good they looked even though they were missing guys like junior WR Gatlin Casey, who was a major contributor last season, and some other guys.

When you read about Lehigh, you hear a lot about how good the receiving corps is year to year.  But looking at this group on Saturday, it was on display for everyone to see.  It is a position group with an awful lot of depth and contributors.

Junior DB Marc Raye-Redmond (LehighSports.Com)
4.  Secondary Standouts.  Officially, it's a competition for spots in the defensive backfield.  Much graduates.  Unofficially, senior CB Brandon Leaks, sophomore S Sam McCloskey and junior CB Quentin Jones showed some glimpses of a potentially devastating secondary.

Much credit, of course, can be laid at the feet of the defensive front, who did put an enormous amount of pressure on the Lehigh QBs.  But when the ball was aired out, the secondary really did a great job shutting down the defense, including preventing several goal-line situations from becoming touchdowns.

Possibly the best play on defense came from junior DB Marc Raye-Redmond, where a near-certain reception to Pelletier was broken up on a great instinct play where "R.R." got his hand in the perfect spot and knocked the ball out perfectly.  He did it more than once as well.

Nothing is set until August, but personally, I'm excited to see what this group can do together in September.

5.  Super Sophomores.  Possibly the biggest takeaway from any spring game more than any individual play is to see the jump in production from freshmen to sophomores.  True freshmen sometimes get thrown into the fire out of necessity, but good freshmen can become Division I players after a successful spring season.

Lehigh was in the interesting spot of having some really big freshman contributors last year, possibly none bigger than sophomore RB Dominick Bragalone, who didn't compete on Saturday as he nursed some injuries.

But it is pretty stunning when you think of how many members of this sophomore class not only are competing for spots, but also are showing that the class of 2019 could be one of the best ever at Lehigh.

The presence of Bragalone, a 1,000 yard rusher last year, alone makes this class a very solid class.  But I keep hearing the names of a lot more sophomores that the coaches are excited about, too, like sophomore DL Julian Lynn, sophomore DL Harrison Kauffman, sophomore LB Jake Buskirk, sophomore QB Brad Mayes, and many, many others, not counting the ones that couldn't show their all on Saturday due to injury.

As of now, the class of 2019 is still mostly one of potential.  But there's an awful lot of excitement here to see exactly how far these super sophomores will be able to take the Mountain Hawks in the years to come.

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