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Lehigh's Biggest Spring Goal Might Be To Stay Healthy

Coach Andy Coen at football practice (Morning Call)
Lehigh's spring session has been underway for several weeks now - the period of time where Patriot League championships are won.

It's a spring season where, frankly, there's not that much drama, especially on offense.

There's no drama at quarterback, where senior QB Nick Shafnisky is firmly ensconced as the starter, and proven sophomore QB Brad Mayes right there next to him on the depth chart.

It's very clear that sophomore RB Dominic Bragalone will be a big part of next year's offense, health willing, as well as junior WR Troy Pelletier and a many players from last year's offense that led the Patriot League in total offensive yardage.

So what is the big story halfway through the spring?

Whether there will be enough healthy bodies to have a spring game.

From the very first practice, injuries have been a concern, based on Keith Groller's report in The Morning Call a few weeks ago that it was cut short based on an injury to senior OL Even Sweeney.

"One of the reasons I called if off is that one guy just fell down and rolled into the other guy," Coen said. "That's why I constantly talk with our linemen about staying on their feet and not going on the ground because that's where the injuries occur."

That left Lehigh with only four healthy linemen available for that practice - not enough to run a full set of drills.

What had to be frustrating for the staff was not only the fact that the injury left them so short-handed, but that it happened during a drill without pads.

"Our numbers will be larger than last year, and even last year our numbers thinned out very quickly as we lost a couple guys early in spring practice," Coen said  in an official LehighSports.Com release. "We had some days where we weren't able to do too much. I'm hoping to be a little more aggressive this year with what we can do with the guys. The spring segment is really an opportunity for the guys to get better. It is important for the younger guys who haven't been on the field a whole lot. We'll have some veteran guys who will not be ready to play, but I don't worry so much about those guys because they've gotten a lot of snaps.  This really is an opportunity for young guys. First day of spring football nobody is a freshman anymore so we have to work hard with those guys and show them how this whole process goes."

The other part that was frustrating was that work on the offensive line is so critical during the spring to get new players the reps they need to work their way into the two-deep at that position without penciled-in starters like senior OL Zach Duffy and senior OL Brandon Short.

"A lot of our goals for the spring are related to our values," Coen said of the spring season. "We want to have a team-first mentality. We want to be very competitive and really have guys understand that. We've always talked about our program being a family and we really try and emphasize that with our players and really have them understand what it is to relate with one another, not only as football players, but as people. That's a lot of what we're working on right now."

Coach Coen has consistently created an aura of competition in spring practices, and this season is no exception.  Spring and preseason in August on the practice field have always been the place where players can prove to the staff they belong on the field on fall Saturdays.

One key area of competition to me are on the offensive line where Lehigh waves goodbye to three key cogs in last year's offensive in OL Matt Ford, OL Steven Camasta, and OL Matthew Cohen.

Though offensive line is generally the piece of the offense that takes the longest to gel - and the most understaffed - to me the more work they get in, the better.

On offense two more key areas of competition to watch might be tight end and wide receiver, where competition should be intense, as every year.

At TE, it seems like senior TE Zach Bucklin, junior TE Drew Paulsen and junior TE Mike Baur will be on the depth chart somewhere, though sophomore TE Jimmy Schulz and sophomore TE Dan Scascera offer strong competition.

And at wideout, Pelletier seems destined for a lot of work in the fall, as does senior WR Derek Knott, who appears to be back for a 5th year after losing nearly all of his sophomore season due to injury.  Junior WR Gatlin Casey and senior WR Jarrod Howard are also in the rotation, as is junior WR Sasha Kelsey and senior WR Trevor Soccaras on one of the deepest, talented parts of the offensive roster.

For all these areas, one huge area of emphasis this spring on offense is ball security.  Coen mentioned a -10 turnover ratio last season to Keith Groller, something he wants to improve significantly from last year.

"When we walk away from our 15 practices, I don't want to see a fumble on the ground," Coen said at the beginning of the spring. "Ball security is more fumble-related. Even the best quarterbacks will throw interceptions. What we can control is not putting the ball on the ground. We did that way too many times last year."

That's certainly a message to sophomore RB Dominick Bragalone, junior RB Nana Amankwah-Ayeh, sophomore RB Nick Thevanayagam, and sophomore RB Micco Brisker, all of whom will be auditioning to be the go-to guy when it comes to protecting a lead late in the game.

All of this will be happening with senior QB Nick Shafnisky, who finally is 100% healthy for the first time, oddly enough, during a spring session.

"This is my first spring able to go full go," he told Keith Groller. "I'm excited with where we are, especially with this being my senior year. The quarterbacks? Any of us could play. The running backs? Any of us could play. We have tight ends and receivers who are talented and fighting for jobs."

Shaf set the tone early for the spring work for the team.

"Yes, we did improve," he said.  "Yes, we beat Lafayette. But we were in a lot of games and easily could have been 10-1 or 9-2, and it hurts to think that were just five yards away from a ring at Colgate and we should have beaten Fordham, too. So, those games left a chip on our shoulder. This year, we're not settling for anything less than being undefeated."




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