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Lafayette pieces falling into place
Lafayette quarterback Ryan O’Neil should benefit from a group of talented receivers and a veteran offensive line.
Looks like most pieces have fallen into place for Lafayette College football to forget a miserable 2010 and move ahead to 2011.
“We have got a bad taste in our mouths from last season,” senior linebacker Ben Eaton said. “We’re trying to set things right.”
To do so the Leopards return 17 starters and 37 lettermen from last year’s 2-9 (1-4 Patriot League) team, the first losing season on College Hill since 2003.
In quarterback Ryan O’Neil, Lafayette has a tested senior who threw for 2,183 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2010. O’Neil, who enjoyed an impressive spring practice, has an array of productive skill position players to work with and will be sheltered behind a veteran line.
Defensively, the Leopards looked more athletic and physical in the spring, added highly touted Hofstra transfer Tyler McFarlane at linebacker, return almost the entire starting secondary and look deeper across the board.
So every piece has fallen into place, it would seem … except one. And it’s a big one.
The Leopards open the season with four away games — at North Dakota State, Georgetown, Penn and Stony Brook. Only two other Football Championship Subdivision teams play four away games to start 2011.
Not just any away games, either. Two scholarship teams in North Dakota State and Stony Brook – the Bison enter the season ranked No. 11 in FCS and Stony Brook is picked second in the Big South preseason poll. The Hoyas, the league opener, defeated Lafayette in 2010. The Quakers are the overwhelming Ivy League favorite.
When the Leopards come home, they face Harvard and Yale (combined 19-4 against Lafayette) and Fordham with two scholarship classes under its belt.
“We know our schedule is difficult,” said O’Neil, who holds the highest pass-completion rate (66.4 percent) in Lafayette history. “We don’t have a problem with the four straight away games. It’s going to be a test of the kind of team we have. We’re going to be put into tough situations where we’ll see what we’re made of, and it will make us better when we play Patriot League teams.”
Coach Frank Tavani faces other challenges, too, to bring the Leopards back to the plus side of .500. Special teams, which were a disaster for most of 2010, will prove a challenge again as Lafayette needs a new kicker and punter.
Offensively, a stronger, more confident O’Neil operating in the spread offense throwing to senior wideouts Mitchell Bennett (33 catches, 394 yards, 3 TDs) and Kyle Hayes (39-547-5) should make for a productive passing game. But the Leopards only averaged 3.1 yards a rush in 2010 and scored just five TDs on the ground, which is very unlike a typical Tavani team.
“Running the ball is going to continue to be a huge priority for us,” Tavani said. “We’ve loaded up with a big group of running backs who should allow us to do that.”
Five tailbacks — Alan Elder (Leopards’ leading rusher in 2010 with 450 yards), Pat Mputu, Jerome Rudolph, Marcellus Irving and Vaughn Hebron — return. All had their moments last season but were either slowed by injury — Rudolph, listed as the 2011 starter, missed eight games with a concussion — inconsistency or both.
Lafayette’s No. 89 rating in the nation in rushing defense last season also must be corrected. Opponents averaged 4.5 yards per carry, and long ground-based drives doomed the Leopards against Penn, Harvard and Colgate.
“Look at the Princeton game, the Fordham game; all we needed was one stop to win the game but we couldn’t get off the field,” Eaton said. “We couldn’t get a stop when we needed to.”
The Leopards managed to force only 17 turnovers and posted just 15 sacks.
“We need turnovers,” said Tavani, speaking of his veteran secondary, “and they need to convert on interception opportunities.”
“We didn’t have what it takes to win games; we couldn’t finish,” Eaton said. “At the end of the game we couldn’t pull it off. We need to get that edge back.”
Coach: Frank Tavani (12th season, 62-62)
2010 record: 2-9 overall, 1-4 league
Returning starters: Offense — Sr. WR Mitchell Bennett, Sr. G Scott Biel, Sr. T Anthony Buffolino, So. FB Pat Creahan, Sr. C Jake Crooks, Sr. TE Kevin Doty, Sr. WR Kyle Hayes, So. RB Pat Mputu, Sr. QB Ryan O’Neil, Sr. T Matt Welch. Defense — Sr. LB Ben Eaton, Sr. CB Brandon Ellis, Sr. DE Mike Grimaldi, Jr. DT Rick Lyster, Sr. SS Evan McGovern, Sr. LB Nick Nardone, Jr. CB Kyni Scott, Sr. FS Kyle Simmons
Key returnees: So. G Brad Bormann (Hunterdon Central), Sr. LB Leroy Butler, Sr. LB Nate Dixon, Sr. RB Alan Elder, Sr. DT Andrew Holmes, So. RB Marcellus Irving, Sr. WR/KR Jet Kollie, So. NT Jason Marshalek, Sr. RB Jerome Rudolph
Other local players: Jr. FB Pete Bross (Parkland), Fr. LB Matt Gill (Northern Lehigh), Sr. OL Greg Kreiger (Belvidere), Fr. OL Zack Mazur (Freedom), So. OL Danton Ponzol (Palisades)
Home field: Fisher Stadium (13,132, FieldTurf)
By Brad Wilson, The Express-Times