Posted: March 27, 2008
Every season presents a new challenge and for the Lehigh Football program, the challenge entering the 2008 spring is to bounce back following a frustrating up-and-down 2007 season. The Mountain Hawks bring back plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, including a large number of rising sophomores that saw a good deal of time in ’07, which should pay immediate dividends. Entering his third season as Lehigh’s head coach, Andy Coen will again run a high-energy, ultra-competitive spring camp that he hopes will make his decisions regarding playing time and starting assignments that much harder when September rolls around. “We have a lot of players returning who were major contributors in 2007, but I expect to see a lot of competition out there and guys fighting for playing time,” Coen said. Last season, Lehigh was plagued by injuries and inconsistency at key positions, forcing Coen and his staff to throw several less experienced players into the mix. The result was a mixture of growing pains as well as quite a few eye-opening performances that leaves everyone around the program excited about what lies ahead in 2008.
Now in year three of defensive coordinator David Kotulski’s system, the Lehigh defense expects to be a fast-flying, physical unit. Last season the Mountain Hawks ranked near the top of the Patriot League in several defensive categories, including scoring defense (second), rush defense (third) and total defense (third). In two years under Kotulski Lehigh has surrendered an average of only 20.5 points per game. Lehigh enters this spring with three returning All-League selections on “D” and a host of other players that saw significant time in 2007. “I am very excited about our front-seven,” Coen explained. “We still need to build more depth along the line, but that is a strong group we have returning.”
The biggest question mark entering spring practice is the secondary where every player that took a snap at cornerback in 2007 is lost to graduation. Coen is confident though that the Mountain Hawks newest crop of defensive backs has the talent and overall skills to become contributors.
Last year the goal was to develop quality depth at this spot. It’s safe to say Lehigh is safely headed in that direction. Led by All-American and All-League performer Brian Jackson, the Mountain Hawks return nearly every player that saw time a season ago. Jackson finished second on the team with 63 total tackles, while his five-and-a-half sacks and three forced fumbles led the Mountain Hawks. The New Jersey native put on a defensive clinic in the 2007 opener versus Villanova, with ten total tackles and a season-high two sacks. Jackson totaled nine tackles and one sack in the Mountain Hawks win over eventual Ivy League Champion Harvard.
Playing alongside Jackson last season were starting nose guard B.J. Benning and Paul Bode, who saw plenty of time along the line. Benning’s size was a welcome addition to a Lehigh defense that had been undersized in 2006. He posted season numbers of 28 tackles, including three for loss and one sack. Coming off an injury that forced him to miss all of 2006, Bode slowly made his way back to form last season, finishing with 29 tackles, one-and-a-half sacks and two fumble recoveries, one of which he returned for the game-winning touchdown in the final minutes of that win over Harvard.
Rising sophomore Phil Winnett served as Benning’s back-up a year ago and did a solid job, particularly for a freshman. Along with him, Lehigh returns seniors Jon Warren and Keith Johnson, juniors Steven Brown, Joe Dancho and Darrell Ray, and sophomore David Brown.
This is arguably the strongest group Lehigh will march out this spring with plenty of depth, talent and experience. Senior Tim Diamond, an honorable mention All-America and First-Team All-League selection is the leader of the bunch after posting 107 tackles in 2007 marking the first time since 2004 a Mountain Hawk has registered triple digit tackles. Diamond posted six games of double digit tackles as a junior highlighted by his 22-tackle performance in a win over Harvard that earned the New Jersey native several national Defensive Player of the Week awards. Coen raves about Diamond’s ability to always be around the ball, while his teammates praise his workout habits and non-stop motor.
Joining Diamond at linebacker is 2007 All-League selection Matt Cohen who came on very strong towards the end of last season. A local product out of Central Catholic, Cohen made 55 stops a season ago and led the Mountain Hawks with 13 tackles for loss. In the final four games of his sophomore campaign, Cohen totaled 22 tackles, including eight for loss, three sacks and one fumble recovery. Cohen has very good speed and a high football IQ, making him the perfect compliment to Diamond.
Cohen’s classmate Heath Brickner saw time in all nine games he was healthy for last season and made 25 tackles to go along with two pass breakups and a blocked kick. A former safety in high school, Brickner has good speed and has added nearly 30 pounds to his frame since arriving at Lehigh which helps aid in his run support skills.
Another pair of rising juniors, Al Pierce and Tobi Showunmi have seen limited time throughout their first two seasons and will be expected to take the next step. Showunmi will unfortunately miss the spring session due to a season ending knee injury he suffered last season. Newcomer Troy Taylor, a transfer from the University of San Diego, turned heads last season when he earned the program’s defensive scout team MVP award. The son of a former Lehigh standout, Taylor impressed Coen with his off season workouts and weight room test results.
Seniors Ben Pravata and Brad Thomas have also seen time throughout their careers and will add depth and experience to the linebacking corps, while sophomores Billy Dokouslis and Sean Linder also figure to be in the mix, although Linder will have to wait until preseason camp as he recovers from a shoulder injury.
Lehigh will line up an entirely new group of cornerbacks this spring after losing everyone that took a snap at this position to graduation. Though young, the Mountain Hawks newest cornerbacks are talented and will push one another on a daily basis as they compete for playing time. Coen feels good about the pair of rising senior safeties he has in local products Brendan Van Ackeren and Quadir Carter. One of the smartest players on the team, Van Ackeren showed he can bring it on the field as well last season, particularly in Lehigh’s game versus archrival Lafayette where he posted a career-high eight tackles, which included several bone crushing blows.
Carter is one of the bigger safeties Lehigh has had in recent memory, checking in at 200 pounds. He has played in every game he’s been healthy for over the course of the past two seasons, topping out with a career-high 32 tackles last year. His size should pay dividends in lending support to the Mountain Hawks run defense.
Senior Steve Santora, a special teams standout last season, and junior Jesse Sanchez also return at the safety spot and will battle with Van Ackeren and Carter for playing time. Santora is a big, physical standout at 6-3, 215 pounds, while Sanchez is one of the more athletic players on the Lehigh roster, as evidenced by his block of a punt in last year’s win over Princeton.
At cornerback Coen has a wide selection of players to choose from including senior Jarvis Lewis, junior Femi Ajewole and sophomores Jarard Cribbs, Casey Eldemire, John Kennedy, R.J. Overton, and John Veniero. With so little experience amongst them, there promises to be plenty of competition throughout the spring and into summer camp.
Coen showed in 2007 that he is not afraid to play freshmen as first-year players saw time at every offensive position and several were major contributors. That group is now a year older, stronger and more familiar with the system, which raises the level of expectation for them all. Entering last spring, there were concerns about the line and its depth, but this year’s group has a good deal more of collective experience and overall skill than a season ago. The area that is sure to receive the most attention this spring is at quarterback where a trio of Mountain Hawks will have an opportunity to showcase their skills and try to earn a leg-up for when preseason camp begins in August. Nearly every receiver and running back returns from last season and if those two positions can avoid the injury bug, it should help to ease the transition of whomever the Mountain Hawks new quarterback will be.
Gone are All-American center John Reese and two time All-League performer Jimmy Kehs from an offensive line that allowed only 14 sacks last season, which ranked 23rd in the nation and tops in the Patriot League. Coen is confident however that this group has an opportunity to have more depth than they’ve had during his tenure. Senior Kevin Bayani has a tremendous upside and Coen expects a big year from the New Jersey native, while classmate Chris Tiefenthal started every game he was healthy for as a junior, earning offensive team MVP honors following the win over Harvard. Junior Frank Giacalone was a pleasant surprise in 2007 providing quality depth and a spot start for Kehs when he was injured.
Sophomores William Rackley and Ricky Clerge both saw time as freshmen with Rackley starting nearly every game and Clerge appearing in each. Clerge is one of several candidates to replace Reese at center along with classmate Keith Schauder and junior Ben Harden who after missing the 2006 season with a leg injury is back to full strength. Senior Alex Kuziel made solid strides in the off season with his strength training, and Coen expects him to be a major contributor, while sophomores R.J. McNamara and Alex Rowe will compete for playing time and help add to that expected depth.
A trio of Mountain Hawks enters the spring on the depth chart including senior Troy Healion and sophomores Alex Wojdowski and Bradon Radke. All three possess good size, standing at least 6-3, and weighing 220 pounds or more. Healion caught 12 passes for 136 yards and a team-leading three scores last season, while Wojdowkski played in all eleven games and hauled in a touchdown pass versus Fordham. Radke will be given a chance to see playing more playing time as the spring wears on with the graduation of last year’s starter Joe Sutherland.
With only one receiver gone off last year’s roster (Pete Donchez), Coen will look for this group to perform with more consistency than it did last year. Lehigh had its full arsenal of receivers for just two games last season, so keeping everyone healthy will also be a focus.
Seniors Mike Fitzgerald and Sekou Yansane, who led Lehigh in receptions (35) and receiving yards (513), respectively, along with classmate Nick Johnson, will be counted on to lead a group that though talented, is still young overall. Yansane will miss spring practice following off season knee surgery, which should allow for Coen to give several of the younger receivers longer looks.
Johnson had a breakout season as a junior, hauling in 13 receptions for 269 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Maryland native earned offensive MVP honors following his performance in Lehigh’s big win over VMI, but was slowed through the middle of the year by a shoulder injury.
Senior Ben Ivester, juniors Jimmy Potocnie and Brien Ruyak have played sparingly throughout their first two seasons but will have a chance to change that, beginning in the spring, while senior Jason Figura, who did not play much in 2007, has the tools to contribute as well.
A trio of talented sophomores in Travis Artim, Brad Walter and Craig Zurn enter the spring with high expectations placed upon them, particularly Artim, who caught nine passes for 124 yards as a freshman and showed the ability to take the big hit. Walter was slowed by injury coming out of preseason camp and never fully got on track, but is back to full strength now.
Bolstered by the return of a healthy Matt McGowan the Mountain Hawks ground game should be back to normal beginning this spring. Coen was forced to start a pair of freshmen throughout most of 2007, and while talented, they went through their share of growing pains. Kwesi Kankam decided to leave the program during the offseason, but rising sophomore Jaren Walker returns after rushing for 375 yards and one touchdown in 2007. Walker also earned a Patriot League Rookie of the Week accolade along the way, and with a full season under his belt, Coen expects the Las Vegas native to improve upon what he learned in the fall and team with McGowan to give Lehigh a solid rushing attack. Sophomore Jay Campbell also returns after earning the scout team’s offensive MVP award in 2007.
Sophomore Jay Campbell also returns after earning the scout team’s offensive MVP award in 2007.
Senior Adam Watson started every game at fullback last year scoring his first collegiate touchdown versus Georgetown. One of the toughest players on the team, he will once again serve as a valuable lead blocker for Lehigh’s rushers. Junior Anthony Fossati saw time on special teams last year and will have a chance to receive more playing time as Watson’s back up.
Lehigh will have a new quarterback when it lines up versus Drake in the season opener in September. The question is, who will it be? The Mountain Hawks graduate Sedale Threatt who threw for over 4,600 yards during his two-and-a-half year stint under center, but struggled with injuries and accuracy a season ago. “That will be the number-one point of interest is the competition at the quarterback spot,” Coen said. “We have a good group in junior Chris Bokosky and sophomores J.B. Clark and Trace Cisneros and they’ll all have an opportunity to show what they can do.”
Bokosky has the most experience of that trio, having started three games last season and appearing in seven. He threw for 469 yards and two scores in that time, while Clark played in five games, but only attempted eight passes. “We’re going to give each one equal reps throughout the spring, “Coen explained, “I think the competition will go into the fall unless someone really doesn’t perform. But we’re not going to rush it.”
Three time All-League selection and 2007 All-American Jason Leo returns for his senior season after a junior year in which he ranked 14th in the country with a 42.1 per punt average and helped the Mountain Hawks to a third place ranking in the country in net punting with a 39.7 average. Leo also scored a team best 61 points as Lehigh’s place kicker, but a point of emphasis throughout spring ball will be to improve his field goal accuracy where he missed seven of 18 attempts last season.
Sophomore Tom Randazza was given spot duty on kick offs and did a solid job in 2007. Coen expects Randazza to continue to push Leo for playing time on kick offs and field goals.
Sophomore John Kennedy had an electric freshman season as Lehigh’s kick returner, capped off by an All-League selection. The Philadelphia native set the all-time Patriot League mark in both number of returns (45) and kick return yards (1,087). He averaged 24.2 yards per return and helped Lehigh lead the Patriot League in kick-off return average at 23.5 yards.
It took some time for Lehigh to settle on a holder and long snapper in 2007, but J.B. Clark eventually won the holder’s job with his size and athleticism, while Brad Walter (punts) and Alex Kuziel (field goals/extra points) took the long snapping duties. As Lehigh enters into spring, Coen will look for these spots to again generate serious competition.
While Kennedy is locked into the kick return spot, a number of Mountain Hawks will have a chance to show their stuff at punt return, including receivers Mike Fitzgerald and Travis Artim.
For the complete 2008 Lehigh Football Spring Prospectus, click on the link above.