Rightfully, much of the focus of Lehigh's football coverage this offseason has been on the offense. That makes sense; after all, Lehigh ranked near the top of every receiving and rushing category in 2016.
Yet most of that coverage has been on guys that have been on preseason FCS all-American teams (senior WR Troy Pelletier, junior RB Dominick Bragalone) or probably should have been on more of them (senior WR Gatlin Casey).
Oddly, the focus on those all-League caliber players have shifted the focus from what could be the most important transition from the 2016 offense to the 2017 offense - the transition to a new starting quarterback.
Certainly, junior QB Brad Mayes was no ordinary understudy for the Lehigh Mountain Hawks last season.
Though technically he did back up QB Nick Shafnisky, he showcased his obvious talent multiple times last year, most notably breaking a Yale Bowl record with 524 passing yards and scoring 6 passing touchdowns in a 63-35 win over Yale.
Much press has rightfully gone to the receivers and running backs, but the direction of the 2017 football season might come down to the play of the quarterback whose number switched from No. 14 to No. 4 this season.
"I think Troy and Dom are outstanding players and they deserve all the recognition they've been getting," Brad told me. "And I'm excited to play alongside those guys, because that makes my job that much easier."
While Nick Shafnisky started many games for Lehigh over his career, his physical style of play would occasionally cause him to miss games due to injury, which gave Mayes lots of gametime opportunity to run the offense.
His first time under center came in the Bronx versus Fordham in 2015, when Shafnisky was injured by a Fordham defender early in the second half and was knocked out of the game.
As a true freshman, he started out with some jitters, but eventually rallied the Mountain Hawk offense to three touchdowns, including two touchdown strikes to senior WR Sasha Kelsey.
|QB Brad Mayes|
For the past two seasons, Mayes has provided an extremely steady hand at quarterback whenever his name has been called.
Last season, he got into seven games overall and passed for 1,386 yards, with 13 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions, so it won't be an issue of familiarity with Gatlin, Dom, Troy, the offensive line, or anyone else.
Against Georgetown, Mayes stepped right in and threw a perfect pass to Troy Pelletier to give Lehigh a 14-3 lead against the Hoyas, and the Mountain Hawks never looked back from there, coasting to a 35-3 victory in DC. He'd also find Gatlin Casey for a long touchdown strike as well.
In a critical game versus Holy Cross, Brad went 20 for 30 for 287 yards and 3 touchdowns in a dominating 49-14 win over the Crusaders. Two of those touchdowns went to Pelletier, and the third went to Casey.
|WR Troy Pelletier (The Brown and White)|
During the summer, the Tampa, Florida native stayed in Bethlehem over the summer, working out with the team.
"I've really been trying to focus on just working out this summer and dropping some more weight and becoming more mobile so I'm able to do some more things," he told me. "The biggest area of my game I've been working on would be trying to be more than just a pocket passer. I've been working on speed, loosening up my hips to become more agile, and just becoming a real student of the game and knowing the ins and outs of our offense.
For Brad, this offseason wasn't just about developing his game, either - it was also about developing into becoming a leader on the offense as well.
"I believe leadership qualities are something you are born with," he told me. "Do some people need more help with that? Absolutely, but I think you either have it or you don't.
"I've always viewed myself as having leadership qualities. It kind of just comes with the position. No team is successful without a quarterback who is a leader in some way. That doesn't need to be always vocal either. But I try and find a nice balance of being a vocal leader as well as leading by example."
Now that camp is over, it's all about Villanova for Mayes.
"We had a really good camp," he told me. "Our offense is hitting on all cylinders as we roll into game week. We're excited to play a talented Nova team and get to show exactly where we are as a team. We're tired of going against each other in practice and we just want to play another team at this point."
"We're excited to play on Saturday but we're taking everything one day at a time," he continued. "Next meeting, next lift, next practice. And if we handle everything we can control we will be ready for this Saturday."
|WR Gatlin Casey|
Making matters even easier in terms of a "transition" of sorts at quarterback is the return of two of the best receivers in all of the FCS.
Senior WR Troy Pelletier and senior WR Gatlin Casey are two of the top targets in all of FCS, giving the Mountain Hawks two 1,000+ yard receivers returning this season. Pelletier (1,278 yards, 12 TDs) and Casey (1,135 yard, 14 TDs) are the type of guys that make any transition easier.
Even though last season's offensive coordinator Drew Folmar went to Elon, there shouldn't be a massive difference in offensive style with Scott Brisson taking over for Folmar. Brisson, who was wide receiver coach last year, was promoted to Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks coach this season.
“There are a few tweaks here and there, but for the most part it’s the same offense we’ve had in my three years here,” Pelletier told The Morning Call.
“Troy is so aggressive in getting to the football,” Coen told Keith Groller. “You see him in the tough situations, in crowds down at the goal line, and he rips the ball out of people’s hands. He’s a strong guy and a tenacious blocker. You don’t always see that from many wideouts.”
Almost lost in the shuffle is Casey, who's very much a dangerous receiver in his own right and makes defenses pay if they double-team Pelletier. Gatlin, who also hails from Florida, has a nine game consecutive game regular season touchdown streak dating from last season's Penn game.
In the offseason, there was a question of depth at receiver at the slot, where WR Trevor Soccaras and WR Derek Knott both graduated from last season. Senior WR Sasha Kelsey, who seems completely healed from an injury that sidelined him all of last year, seems 100% and ready to step into that role this season as well, with junior WR Luke Cristiano also in line to get snaps as well.
As if these guys weren't enough to worry about, opposing offensive coordinators also have to worry about pass-catching tight ends, where senior TE Drew Paulsen seems to be Mayes' primary target in that area, with the possibility of sophomore TE Stephen Puhl also getting involved in getting catches as well. Junior TE Jimmy Schultz, senior TE Michael Baur and junior TE Jake Buskirk will also be involved, but more in a blocking role.
|RB Dominick Bragalone (Brown and White)|
So you're an opposing defensive coordinator, and you've found a way to stop both Pelletier and Casey with some sort of space-age six-defensive back scheme.
Then you look at Lehigh's two deep, and then you notice the presence of junior RB Dominick Bragalone, a two-time 1,000 yard rusher, on the chart.
Bragalone has already proven to be a tough, physical runner that also has a second gear when he gets into the clear.
His physical nature was on display last season against Villanova, where he scored what might have been his toughest touchdown of the year, a 1 yard plunge ending a 13 play drive where the South Williamsport, PA native shouldered a very heavy physical load in order to set up a score.
And then there were games like Holy Cross, where his 66 yard explosion through a blitz gap showed his second gear so well.
He's a top-line running back that can also punish defenses that over-commit to the pass.
When Dom needs to take a play or two off, junior RB Micco Brisker and senior RB Nana Amankwah-Ayeh have jumped right in and demonstrated their abilities as well, Micco generally in the first half, and Amankwah-Ayeh in the second. Micco has some explosive ability as well which he's demonstrated, and Nana has been a steady hand when Lehigh has needed tough yards and carries to hold on to win close games at the end.
|PK Ed Mish|
If you've followed Lehigh football as long as I have, you know how rare it is that the Mountain Hawks have had such a clutch, dependable kicker as junior PK Ed Mish.
Not everyone realizes that the Old Bridge, NJ native set a school record for extra points last year, with 62 makes out of 62 attempts - an extraordinary thing at the college level, where you can generally count on a missed extra point or two.
He's not on a lot of the nationally recognized kicking watchlists for the simple reason that Lehigh has been scoring touchdowns so prolifically, the Mountain Hawks haven't needed to ask him to convert from a long distance. Last season he was 6 for 10 with a long of 37 yards, but he's capable of much longer.
The word over the spring was that Mish was going to move to placekicking-only duties and sophomore P Austin Henning would move to full-time punting duties, but as of this time it's not clear whether that is still happening. Whatever the case, one backs up the other, so if Henning is the starting punter, Mish would be the backup, or vice versa.
In the return game, as every year, it's not totally clear whether Casey and Pelletier will still return kicks to start the season, or other underclassmen might fill that role. Last season Casey was a particularly dangerous kickoff returner, pulling off a kickoff return for touchdown vs. Colgate that was a game-changer.