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LFN Season Preview: Searching For Lehigh Defensive Identity

There is one real adage when it comes to defensive football: if you sit around and wait for something bad to happen, it probably will.

This season, the Lehigh Mountain Hawk defense knows it can't afford to hang back and let bad things happen.

The 2015 Lehigh defense was a unit that saw flashes of strong play - just not enough of them.

And in 2016, this unit knows that the statistics from last year indicate a unit that needs to get better.

Most of all the identity of this defense needs to be formed.

In most places, we know the athletes.  We know they have flashes of great play.  The question that needs to be answered: what will its identity be?


106, 451.3, and 35.3.

Those numbers represent where Lehigh's overall ranking was in FCS in terms of total defense (106th out of 123 teams), the amount of yards they allowed per game (451.3), and points yielded per game (35.3).

You are what the numbers say you are, and it seems like the unit knows that and is eager to change that this coming season.

"I expect our defense to step up and improve quite a bit," head coach Andy Coen said at Patriot League Media Day.

"As a defense, we talk about winning every play," senior ROV Laquan Lambert said at the same event.  "We need to continue to be more relentless to the ball.  We also need to handle the little things.  Details win championships, and that's what we've lacked in the past."

NG Tyler Cavenas (Brown and White Photo)
You could see it in the running drills after the Brown and White game, too, even though the defense clearly won the game that day, on the scoreboard and on the stat sheet.

"If we're not running to the ball after every single play, it counts as a lack of effort and we need to run after practice," junior NG Tyler Cavenas shared with the assembled media afterwards.

If there's an overarching theme to this, it's that coach Coen  has been challenging the defense as a unit to come together and to get that identity that will carry them through the season.

It seems like the message has been slowly sinking in  during the spring and in preseason practice.

The 2016 Lehigh Defensive Line
At nose guard, it looks like junior NG Tyler Cavenas and senior NG Jimmy Mitchell will split time as big guys in the middle of the Mountain Hawk 3-3-5 defense.

And on the defensive front, sophomore DE Julian Lynn returns after splitting time in the defensive line rotation last season as a true freshman.  He'll be expected to step up in the area of pass rush while junior DE Harrison Johnson will be on the other side.  Late in the 2015 season, Johnson became the starter and notched 16 tackles, a tackle for loss and also recovered a fumble.  We can also expect sophomore DE Harrison Kauffman to be on the two deep as well.

"Our defensive guys need to work on technique more," defensive line coach Donnie Roberts said back in the spring game.  "They can't just feel like they can overpower them in September.  We knew Lynn could be a player, he just needed to be the player, while Kauffman is just a pleasant surprise.  I love the kid."

The 2016 Lehigh Linebackers
Leading the charge at the linebacker position is senior LB Colton Caslow, who has been described as "the bell cow of the defense" by coach Coen.

LB Colton Caslow (Brown and White Photo)
When healthy, Caslow has been a force.  He's the best tackler on the team (95 tackles, 56 of them solo good enough for 10th in the nation in that category), and on Lehigh's 3-3-5 defense that centerpiece tackler on the linebacking unit is critical.

More than the statistic, though, he's the guy on defense that epitomizes the identity of what the defense would like to become - flying around, always being around the ball.

The big question going into the season is the health of Caslow, who got injured early on in camp and had Coen saying he was hoping to have back in time for the opener.  If he's not, sophomore LB Jake Buskirk (15 tackles), senior LB Even Kauffman, who returns in 2016 after sitting out basically all of last year with various injuries, or senior LB Evan Harvey, who worked his way into the starting lineup last season.

Senior LB Pierce Ripanti, too, is a guy that head coach Andy Coen has said to look out for this season.  "He's a guy that nobody knows about in the league," Andy said at media day.  "He can be as dynamic as any player [in the Patriot League].  He's maturing a lot, and learning how to play the game of football at this level rather than just running around."

At the Rover position, a sort-of hybrid defensive back and linebacker position, senior ROV Laquan Lambert seems to be in line for the starting role.

Lambert, who was injured in the first half of the first game last season, got a medical redshirt in order to compete during his final year of eligibility.  When he got hurt early at New Britain last year, it cut short a highly anticipated senior season and also caused the Lehigh defense to improvise all season at that position.  This year, he hopes to make 2016 everything 2015 was not.

"It's a game we've been playing our whole lives," Laquan told me at media day.  "It's just another game: you prepare as hard as you can, you trust in your coaching staff, you trust in your players.  I'm just going to go out there and play football like I have my entire life."

The 2016 Lehigh Defensive Backfield
Like much of the Lehigh defense, the defensive backs had their share of feast and famine last year, but in 2016 the defensive backs bring back a speedy, talented group that, if they play consistently, can truly be a fearsome unit.

CB Quentin Jones (Gwinnett Daily Post)
Senior CB Brandon Leaks and junior CB Quentin Jones are the starting corners.  Leaks is  a strong open-field tackler and a guy who brings a safety's mentality to the corner position at time, while Jones, who led the team in interceptions last season (3), lock down that position.

Overall as a unit the defensive backs need to improve on the takeaways.  Last season, Lehigh only got five interceptions, a number that surely coach Coen will want to improve.

At safety, sophomore S Sam McCloskey will look to continue building on his solid freshman campaign (36 tackles), as will, most likely, sophomore S Mike Gies.

****

Expectations are high that this defense will improve on 2015 and get better enough to bring the words "Patriot League Champions" back to the Lehigh football program.  The big question is can this talented group come together and forge that 11 man team identiy needed to do so.

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