Lehigh Mountain Hawks
2019 Record: 3-8 (2-4)
Head Coach: Tom Gilmore, 1st Season, Career Record (72-81, 41-40)
Last Patriot League Title: 2017
Last FCS Playoff Appearance: 2017
8/31 Saint Francis
9/7 @ Villanova
9/14 @ UC-Davis
10/5 @ Colgate
10/19 @ Fordham
11/2 Holy Cross
11/9 @ Bucknell
11/16 @ Sacred Heart
Former Holy Cross head coach (’04-’17) Tom Gilmore enters his first season as the commander of the Lehigh program. Gilmore takes over for Andy Coen who was unfortunately forced to retire due to Early-onset Alzheimer’s. To many, Gilmore was a surprising hire given the fact he was abruptly fired by Holy Cross midway through the 2017 season. The Crusader program really struggled the last six years of his tenure after a promising first few seasons. He inherits a Lehigh program just two seasons removed from back-2-back Patriot League titles. Lehigh did struggle mightily in Coen’s last season as head coach. Effort and preparation were often lacking. Likely due to the strain the staff was under. The one thing that last season cannot excuse is the chronically terrible defense (35.9 ppg allowed in ’18).
If Gilmore wants the Mountain Hawks to make a run at a 13th Patriot League Title the “D” must improve drastically. The schedule is tricky but negotiable relative to other teams in the league.
The 2018 offense entered the season with high hopes before ultimately crashing and burning in rather epic fashion (16.6 ppg). Between poor intangibles and subpar offensive line play the unit failed to gain traction outside of two games, Bucknell and Lafayette. This year there’s far more stability which should go a long way in increasing productivity. Lehigh’s skill position players are among the best in the league. The “Os” fate will come down to the line and offensive coordinator Scott Brisson’s ability to mesh with new quarterback Tyler Monaco.
Senior Tyler Monaco takes over for Brad Maybes as the Mountain Hawk’s quarterback. The Florida native is well versed in the offense and has gotten a few opportunities to acquire game experience. Monaco has the potential for a breakout year given Lehigh’s talent at the skill positions. Junior Addison Shoup is expected to back up Monaco.
The Mountain Hawks return an excellent wide receiver combo. Preseason All-PL selection Jorge Portorreal (55 rec 794 yards 3 TDs) led the conference in yards last season and finished second in receptions. Devon Bibbens (33 rec 576 yards 3 TDs) gives Lehigh an extremely dangerous #2 WR. Sophomores Austin Damach and De’Shun Mickens provide the “O” with good size (both 6’3) and depth out wide. Senior Matt Prendergast and sophomore Alex Snyder will likely battle it out for time at TE. Freshman Ian O’Connor has the potential to see meaningful reps as well.
Lehigh must replace one of the best running backs in program history, Dominic Bragalone. Trying to fill those shows will be sophomore Rashawn Allen (337 yards 3 TDs in ‘18). The Georgia native showcased tremendous talent as Bragalone’s primary backup in 2018. Junior Evan Chadbourn and sophomore Peter Lucas should also see significant time.
The biggest question is in the trenches. The Mountain Hawk’s OL struggled to run and pass block throughout last season. Injuries were partly to blame for a lack of continuity. Even so, far too many one-on-one battles were lost. Seniors Nick Rosen (G) and Alex Motley (T) along with juniors Chris Fournier (T) and Matt Fest (G) are expected to start. Justin Gurth (So) and Ryan Oneidas (Jr) will be in the running for the center spot. There are some quality pieces in place but it ultimately has to produce in order for the offense to return to form.
The Lehigh defense has been among the very worst in FCS for the better part of the last 5-6 years. During that time it has surrendered points (35 ppg ’15, 26 ppg ’16, 41 ppg ’17, 35 ppg ’18) and yards (454 ypg ’15, 418 ypg ’16, 477 ypg ’17, 446 ypg ‘18) in bountiful proportions. Defensive coordinator Mike Kashurba has his work cut out in his second year on the staff. He was Gilmore’s DC at Holy Cross. The Mountain Hawks return an excellent secondary and a solid group of line backers. The DL has experience but depth and size remain a major concern.
If the “D” is going to make a legitimate improvement under the new staff the secondary will likely be leading the way. The Mountain Hawks return a loaded defensive backfield despite failing to place a single player on the Preseason All-PL Team. Fifth year senior Sam McCloskey (77 TT in ‘18) and Riley O’Neil (62 TT in ‘18) have been mainstays on the defense since they arrived at Lehigh. The cornerback position is set with senior Marquis Wilson and junior Jaylen Floyd returning as starters. Depth and experience could be an issue as the season progresses.
The linebacker unit has the potential to be solid so long as the injury bug does not hit. There’s not a lot of experience waiting in the wings. Senior Keith Woetzel (6.5 TFL in ‘18) led the team in tackles last season returns to anchor the inside. Juniors Erik Slater, Pete Haffner, Nate Norris and Jon Seighman will be the major contributors. Riley O’Neil is expected to play the hybrid LB/S position that has become quite common in recent years. Freshman Jackson Michaels has the size and skill to work his way into the rotation as the season progresses.
The biggest question/concern is along the defensive front. The recent editions have failed to stop the run and struggled to pressure the quarterback; aka “the perfect storm”. The 2019 defense’s fate lies with the lines ability to significantly improve in those two crucial areas. Fifth year senior Juwan Morrow (5.5 TFL in ’18) and senior Davis Maxie (32 TT) will likely start at end. Sophomores Bartek Rybka and Michael Laurencelle will see time in the middle of Kashurba’s 3-4 defense. Juniors Jack Kircher and Zac Troxell should also see significant action. Senior Colin Nace will have an important role once he returns from injury.
Lehigh should have one of the better return units in the Patriot League. Jorge Portorreal and Jaylen Floyd are experienced returners with big play potential. The kicking game on the other hand figures to be much more of an adventure. Do it all Ed Mish graduated leaving the kicking duties to senior Alex Henning and/or Dylan Van Dusen. Henning saw significant time in 2017 when Mish missed time with an injury.
Lehigh enters 2019 with the feel of an ultimate wildcard. There are still plenty of players left from the Mountain Hawks 2016 and 2017 Patriot League Championship teams which provides a nice intangible. The Mountain Hawks continue to have one of, if not the most athletically gifted roster in the league. But there are still questions along the offensive and defensive line which is never a good thing. Tom Gilmore’s handling of the transition will also play a major role in how the 2019 season unfolds.
For Lehigh football, last season was one they wish never happened for multiple reasons. The struggles on and off the field the program faced were well documented. The Mountain Hawks now get to turn the page to a whole new chapter. The Mountain Haws should be considerably better under Gilmore’s watch in the short term. Odds are the defense will still be the Achilles heel to some extent. The schedule is tricky without being truly difficult which should open the door for a winning record.
How he and the staff gels will determine Lehigh’s ceiling beyond 2019.
Prediction: 6-5 (3-3)