Posted: 03/22/2012 | Last updated: March 26, 2012 at 02:16 PM
BETHLEHEM, Pa. – On the heels of one of the finest single seasons in school history, Lehigh returns to the practice field Friday to begin its spring practice segment in preparation for the 2012 season. The Mountain Hawks return to the gridiron seeking a third straight Patriot League title, after a 2011 season that saw Lehigh post an 11-2 record while advancing to the quarterfinals of the NCAA FCS playoffs for the first time since 2001.
The Mountain Hawks posted their fourth straight win over rival Lafayette and defeated CAA Champion Towson in the second round of the playoffs before seeing their ten game winning streak come to an end with a loss to eventual national champion North Dakota State in the quarterfinals. Head coach Andy Coen enters his seventh season with 11 returning starters and seven returning All-Patriot League selections.
“It was a great season last year,” said Coen, who was a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award for the second straight year. “We turned the page after our banquet. Our kids have had a great off-season. A lot of credit goes to our strength coaches Eric (Markovcy) and Ed (Ruisz) for the work they did without players during the offseason.
Coen continued, “The 2012 season kicks off in earnest on Friday. We have a tremendous amount of work to do to be at the level that we are now. We’ve set the bar very high. We set it high in 2011 raised the bar in 2011. It’s always about exceeding what we’ve done. To accomplish that, we’re going to have a lot of guys step up.”
Lehigh will head to the John C. Whitehead practice fields on Friday afternoon for the first of 15 practice sessions, with the second practice taking place Saturday morning. Five starters return on defense including nose guard Sajjad Chagani, linebacker Billy Boyko and defensive backs Bryan Andrews, Gabe Johnson and Billy O’Brien. The departure of six-year defensive coordinator Dave Kotulski means that Donnie Roberts and Gerard Wilcher will move up to share the coordinator responsibilities with re-tooling Lehigh’s front seven being one of the top priorities.
“The bulk of our front seven will graduate,” Coen said. “Last year we talked about our secondary being young and the pressure being on our front seven to do things until those guys stepped up. Now it’s the other way around. We are more veteran in the secondary and we also have some young kids that are going to be able to step up in those roles.”
On the defensive line, Lehigh must replace starters Ben Flizack and Andrew Knapp along with key rotation guys Billy Dokouslis and Cody Connare. Chagani will anchor the line from his nose guard position, while Tom Bianchi, the hero of last year’s playoff win at Towson, will vie to enter the starting lineup. Coen is looking for other players to step up including rising senior Anthony Verderame. The good news is there’s plenty of depth among the rising juniors and sophomores.
At linebacker, Lehigh loses five significant contributors to graduation highlighted by All-American Mike Groome. Rising senior Billy Boyko is the top of the returning players, but will miss spring practice as he recovers from injury. Sam Loughery and Jerard Gordon will be counted upon to step up and solidify the inside linebacker spots. On the outside, rising junior Nigel Muhammad will likely take the spot vacated by Fred Mihal and Tanner Rivas, while Bryant transfer John Mahoney may get the first opportunity at the weak side linebacker.
The secondary returns starting cornerbacks Bryan Andrews and Gabe Johnson, with Courtney Jarvis, Jason Suggs and Stephen Wilmington providing depth. Billy O’Brien returns at strong safety. Tyler Ward saw significant playing time as a sophomore and should team with O’Brien and Rickie Hill to give Lehigh a trio of very capable safeties.
“I love our corners,” Coen said about his two rising senior starters at corner. “They had some injuries, but if they can stay healthy they may be the best two that we’ve had. They’re aggressive and play the ball well. We also have three solid safeties that I’m really excited about.”
The Lehigh offense returns six starters, but there are still several key spots to fill. Chris Lum put together one of the finest single seasons in school history at quarterback, but will graduate in May. The Mountain Hawks owned one of the top offenses in the FCS last year but must replace their quarterback, one of his top receivers and three starters on the offensive line.
Much of the focus will focus on replacing Lum, the Patriot League and ECAC Player of the Year and the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award. Rising junior Mike Colvin has seen significant action in his first the seasons and should get the first opportunity.
“Mike had been the backup the last couple of years,” Coen said. “He’s been on the field quite a bit. He has all the skills, he just needs to trust himself more in his decision making and be more confident. Mike is a great kid and a great competitor. He’s done great things for us, but he will have to step up.”
Rising junior Brandon Bialkowski and sophomores Gerard Poutier and Matt McHale will compete for time as well.
At the running back position Lehigh returns its two top runners in Zach Barket and Keith Sherman. Barket gained over 700 yards before suffering a season-ending injury but is on track for a summer return, while Sherman added 340 yards. Senior Marcus Dormevil, junior Cody Haupt and sophomore Rich Sodeke will all be in the mix as well. Lehigh also returns two tough fullbacks in Zach Hayden and Sean Farrell, who is back at full strength after missing time late last season.
Lehigh’s top offensive weapon entering the spring is All-America wide receiver Ryan Spadola, who enjoyed one of the finest single receiving seasons in league and school history. Spadola caught 96 passes for 1,614 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior, finishing 98 yards shy of the FCS single-season record. On the other side, Lehigh loses the tough Jake Drwal and third receiver Jimmy Jefferson to graduation. Rising junior Lee Kurfis started Lehigh’s quarterfinal game at North Dakota State and should see an increased role. Coen is also hoping for contributions from sophomores Alex Buford and Josh Parris, along with Derek Gaul, who moves to offense from the secondary. Also in the mix are senior Tony Kablan, junior Sergio Fernandez-Soto and Ryan Burke, who missed all of last season due to injury.
All-League performer Jamel Haggins returns at tight end, with Max Anderson and rising sophomores Dylan Colgate and Tyler Coyle contributing as well.
The offensive line is an area Coen will keep a close eye on in the spring, with a lot of new faces being allowed to show what they can do. Veterans Jim Liebler, Troy McKenna and Keith Schauder will graduate while last year’s starters Matt Lippincott and Mike Vuono along with contributor A.J. Hood will all miss spring ball as they recover from surgery. Rising seniors Tom Ruley and Lex Utt along with junior Shane Rugg and sophomores Matt Douglas, Cornell Harriott and Kyle More will all get plenty of reps in practice.
Coen also figures to do more with the kicking game than in past years. Lehigh returns four kickers but this year Lehigh will look to do more in the coverage and return games.
“You don’t want to have too many questions left unanswered,” Coen said about his goals for the spring segment. “Defensively we need to establish who the front seven will be. On offense we’ll look at the quarterbacks. Hopefully Mike grabs the bull by the horns. We’ll look at the development of depth on the offensive line. I think offensively we need to do better in the red zone and on both sides we need to improve in terms of taking care of the ball and creating turnovers.”
Lehigh will conclude its 2012 spring season on Saturday, April 21 with the annual Brown and White game inside of Goodman Stadium. The event, which will begin at 10 a.m., is free of charge and open to all.
2012 Lehigh Football Spring Practice Schedule
Friday, March 23 – 4:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 24 – 10:30 a.m.
Tuesday, March 27 – 4:30 p.m.
Friday, March 30 – 4:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 31 – 10:30 a.m.
Tuesday, April 3 – 7:15 p.m.
Friday, April 6 – 4:30 p.m.
Saturday, April 7 – 10:30 a.m.
Tuesday, April 10 – 4:30 p.m.
Thursday, April 12 – 4:30 p.m.
Saturday, April 14 – 10:30 a.m.
Monday, April 16 – 4:30 p.m.
Tuesday, April 17 – 4:30 p.m.
Thursday, April 19 – 4:30 p.m.
Saturday, April 21 – Brown and White Spring Game, 10 a.m.^
^inside Goodman Stadium
Please note that all practice dates, times and locations are subject to change due to adverse weather conditions and other factors.