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Defense can't rest if Lehigh expects to repeat
Mountain Hawks, talented front seven a key in bid for another league title.
The fans who will come out to Goodman Stadium this fall for the six Lehigh University football home games generally want to see two things — the ball in the air when the Mountain Hawks are on offense and lots of points on Lehigh’s side of the scoreboard.
Lehigh football, traditionally, has been about the offense. And the fans particularly crave the stretch-the-field, throw-the-ball-around version.
But if the Mountain Hawks are going to repeat the success of 2010, when they went 10-3, won the Patriot League title and advanced to the second round of the NCAA FCS playoffs, the defense will likely be the unit leading the way.
Lehigh enters the season as the preseason favorite in the Patriot League and is ranked in the top 15 in two national polls.
And much of that hype comes from the belief that the defensive line and linebackers will be dominant again as they were last year, when Lehigh led the league in scoring defense, sacks and takeaways.
While the secondary is untested, the defense will attempt to take the pressure off the defensive backs by putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
“I really like how the secondary has looked throughout the preseason camp, but a big thing for us to get after the quarterback and not allow teams a ton of time to throw,” Lehigh coach Andy Coen said. “That’s a big piece of it for us this year and we think we’ve got talented people up front who can get the pressure we’re looking for.”
Senior defensive tackle Ben Flizack, a Jim Thorpe product, is one of those charged with making things happen.
At 6-foot-7, Flizack is the tallest member of the team and he intends to stand out on a star-studded front group for Lehigh that features Patriot League preseason defensive player of the year Mike Groome and hard hitters like outside linebacker Colin Newton and defensive end Andrew Knapp.
“We’re basically all returning starters in that front seven and feel we have the makings of a very good defense,” said Flizack, an all-league selection last year. “We can help out the secondary by pressuring the quarterback. They have been coming along and any help we can give them is a plus.”
As preseason camp was winding down and preparations were turning toward Saturday’s season opener at Monmouth, Flizack said he was hoping that the defense could “ratchet it up a notch or two.”
“We know what’s going on; we know what to do,” Flizack said. “We just need to worry more about the little things, but I see a defense with good camaraderie and lots of leaders. We have captains, but we also have captains among the captains. Leadership won’t be a problem.”
Flizack, like everybody else who played a major role in last year’s championship team, has vowed not to allow all of the preseason buzz distract from this team’s mission.
“You can’t ignore everything coming our way and what people are saying, but at the same time you have to stay focused on what you’re doing,” Flizack said. “We know we have a target on our back, but it makes it that much harder. Right now, we can’t wait to get to Monmouth.”
Groome agreed about the need for the front seven and the entire defense to prove itself all over again.
“It’s a real different feeling, a different experience this year. It’s very weird to come off a 10-3 season after struggling the previous years,” Groome said, referring to the 5-6, 5-6 and 4-7 records over the previous three seasons before last year’s breakthrough. “It’s nice. But it’s a different emotion and I don’t know how to describe it other than it’s weird.”
Groome promised, however, that there will be nothing strange about the team’s determined, focused effort.
“We’re confident,” he said. “We have a lot of experience. We know a lot about each other and we know how each other plays. We feed off each other.”
The September schedule is demanding.
The home opener on Sept.10 is against New Hampshire, a perennial FCS powerhouse that is ranked 10th in both national polls. Before October arrives, Liberty University, ranked as high as No. 18 in one poll, also comes to Bethlehem.
“We need to get off to a fast start,” Groome said. “We play a tough nonleague schedule, but that’s good because it will get us ready for the league.”
LEHIGH LINES — Backup quarterback Michael Colvin, who ran a lot of plays out of Wildcat formation last season, has missed a large part of camp with a nagging hamstring injury, but is expected to be able to play against Monmouth. … Offensive tackle Troy McKenna will miss “several games,” according to Coen, with a leg injury. … As for the play of the defense, Coen has been pleased, especially with the secondary. “Bryan Andrews has done a super job at the right corner and Gabe Johnson has performed well at the other corner coming off the torn ACL he suffered against Lafayette."… Freshman receiver Josh Parris, who made his mark in both football and basketball at Palisades, is still learning the offense but “is a fast learner and showing us some really good things,” Coen said. “He may get his chance at some point this season.”
By Keith Groller, The Morning Call