Lehigh Mountain Hawks
2016 Record: 9-3 Overall, 6-0 in Patriot League
Head Coach: Andy Coen 12th season (77-49 Overall, 46-18 in PL)
Last Patriot League Title: 2016
Last FCS Playoff Appearance: 2016
Key Returning Players
Offense: QB Brad Mayes (Jr.) WR Troy Pelletier (Sr.), WR Gatlin Casey (Sr.), RB Dom Bragalone (Jr.), RT Zach Duffy (5th Sr.), C Brandon Short (5th Sr.), LT Tim O’Hara (Sr.), RG Liborio Ricottilli (Jr.)
Defense: DT Tyler Cavenas (Sr.), NG Jimmy Mitchell (5th Sr.), SS Sam McCloskey (Jr.), CB Quentin Jones (Sr.), CB Donovan Harris (Jr.), FS Riley O’Neil (So.)
After starting the year 0-2 Lehigh would go on a 9 game winning straight to capture the Patriot League Title and a berth in the FCS Playoffs. It was the 11th league title in program history. Leading the way was one of the most explosive offenses in FCS in 2016. Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year Nick Shafnisky had the breakout year at QB that everyone was waiting for. Shafnisky was not the only skill player to have a big season in 2016. The Mountain Hawks had a pair of 1,000 yard receivers (Troy Pelletier and Gatlin Casey) and a 1,000 yard rusher in Dominic Bragalone (1,192 yards 14 TD).
The defense improved just enough (26.6 ppg) to produce a championship team. After being historically bad in 2015 (35.2 ppg), the ability to force more negative plays and an increased number of turnovers were the main reasons for the improvement last year. The strength of the defense was a veteran linebacker group led by senior Colton Caslow (54 solo, 10 TFL). Still, the unit was often gashed upfront by their opponent’s rushing attack (205.6 ypg, 6th PL) or the secondary got beat over the top. Getting better against the run has to be the primary focus heading into 2017.
The 64-21 loss to New Hampshire in the FCS Playoffs had to leave a bitter taste in the Mountain Hawk’s mouth after entering the playoffs with a lot of momentum. The loss exposed several defense weaknesses that plagued the team in recent years. If Lehigh wants to return to the playoffs and have a legitimate chance to advance the “D” must improve further. There’s no question the offense will be one of the most explosive units in FCS.
Returning Player to Watch: QB Brad Mayes (Jr.)
Freshman to Watch: OL Jackson Evans
Lehigh has had some excellent offenses over the years but none were perhaps better than the one that will take the field in 2017. The Mountain Hawks return virtually everyone from last year’s unit that set two school records on offense (Points 466, 38.8 and yards 5,806). The only significant loss was at quarterback with 4 year starter and 2016 PL Offensive POY Nick Shafnisky graduating. However, Lehigh has a proven commodity in Brad Mayes (4-1 as starter, 15 TD 1 INT) waiting to assume the starting role. The strong armed junior is a more refined pocket passer than Shafnisky was but not nearly as dangerous a runner.
Mayes will have the fortune of having arguably the top wide receiver duo in FCS to work with. Seniors Troy Pelletier (96 rec 1,278 yards 12 TD in ’16) and Gatlin Casey (62 rec 1,135 yards 14 TD) have the perfect combination of size (6’3) and athleticism that terrorizes opposing secondaries. Pelletier is in line to break several school records if he stays healthy in 2017. Both were named to the 1st Team All-Patriot League preseason team. Pelletier also garnered Stats 2nd Team All-American honors and was named to the Walter Payton Award watch list to start the year. Junior Luke Christiano and senior Sasha Kelsey are expected to split time at the slot position. Senior Drew Paulson (12 rec 151 yards 1 TD in ’16) will once again get the nod at tight end.
Running back is also in excellent hands with the return of 2 time 1,000 yard rusher Dominic Bragalone. Often overshadowed by Fordham’s Chase Edmonds, Bragalone is putting together quite the career for himself. Dominic was named to the Patriot League 1st Team preseason squad. He also garnered 3rd team preseason Stats All-American honors. When Bragalone needs a break Lehigh has two capable backups in Micco Brisker (Jr.) and bruiser Nana Amankwah-Ayeh (Sr.).
The final piece to Lehigh’s explosive offense is a veteran offensive line. Bookend tackles (Sr.) Tim O’Hara and (5th Sr.) Zach Duffy were named 1st team preseason All-Patriot League. 5th year center Brandon Short is a 4 year starter and Liborio Ricottilli started all 12 games at LG last season. The only new face along the offensive line will be Jackson Evans. Evans will be the first freshman to start along the “O-line” since Will Rackley was bestowed the honor in 2007.
All things considered, new offensive coordinator Scott Brisson was basically handed the keys to a Maserati.
Returning Player to Watch: DT Tyler Cavenas (Sr.)
Freshman to Watch: LB Pete Haffner
How high the Mountain Hawks soar in 2017 will once again be determined by the defense. As has been the common theme in recent years, the “D” must improve if the Mountain Hawks want to make major waves on a national level. Craig Sutyak took over as the defensive coordinator during the offseason after Joe Bottiglieri was reassigned to more of an advisory role. The first thing Sutyak did was install a 4-2-5 defense. The new alignment is designed to improve the Mountain Hawk rush D that ranked 6th in the Patriot League in 2016.
If Lehigh wants to take a step forward on D the first order of business is rebuilding the linebacker corps after all 4 starters graduated from the old 3-4 scheme. One of those 4 starters, Colton Caslow, was the heart and soul of the unit so replacing his production and leadership will not be easy. Stepping in to try and fill Caslow’s shoes will be junior Matt Butler (6’0 225) and sophomore Keith Woetzel (6’2 215). Both linebackers are limited on game experience so there will likely be a few bumps in the road early in the year. Senior Quinton Jones returns from injury to start at the rover (hybrid LB/safety in 4-2-5) position. Expect to see Mark Walker, Jon Seighman and Brian Olshanski get significant time at LB as well. Keep an eye on freshman Pete Haffner (6’0 215). Haffner has the ability to be a contributor early on like Caslow was.
Unlike at linebacker, the defensive line returns a wealth of experience. Three year starter and 1st team All-Patriot League preseason selection Tyler Cavenas (47 solo 8 TFL in ’16) anchors the line. He’ll be joined by 5th year senior Jimmy Mitchell (6’2 275) at DT. A pair of Harrison’s, Kauffman and Johnson, seem entrenched at defensive end. Colin Nace and Julian Lynn figure to be major contributors in the trenches as well. The key for the defensive line will be getting more physical at the point of attack. Despite having good size across the board the unit was pushed around at times last year against the more physical teams on Lehigh’s schedule. If the Mountain Hawks intend to improve against the run, Cavenas and company must lead the way.
The secondary also returns a plethora of experience. Junior Sam McCloskey (39 solo 3 INT) and Sophomore Riley O’Neil (36 solo 1 INT) are back at strong and free safety respectively. Both are developing into excellent players at their position. Cornerback also sees two returning starters. Junior Kareem Montgomery and sophomore Donovan Harris were thrust into starting roles last year and faired quite well. Freshman Jaylen Floyd and sophomore Marquis Wilson should also see time at cornerback in passing situations. Depth could be a concern in the secondary as there isn’t a lot of experience outside of the starting four. Limiting big plays downfield should be priority number 1 for the backend of the defense. The Mountain Hawk secondary was burned a few times too many in 2016 by the big play.
Lehigh returns two (Punter and PK Ed Mish and Kick returner Gatlin Casey) 1st team preseason All-Patriot League selections on special teams. Kicker Ed Mish has proven to be a valuable weapon as a punter and place kicker for the Mountain Hawks. The junior is 15 for 22 kicking field goals for his career with a long of 43 yards. In addition to being a terrific wide receiver, Casey made quite an impact as a kick returner. His 96 yard kickoff return TD against Colgate last year went a long way in determining the outcome of the game.
On paper, all the pieces are in place for a special year on South Mountain. The Mountain Hawks return arguably the best set of skill players in FCS. There’s no reason to think the unit can’t break the records that were set in 2016. The key to reaching its potential will be the growth of Mayes at quarterback. The offense will have to be tweaked some due to that fact the Mayes is not nearly as mobile as Shafnisky. The read-option, a staple in the Mountain Hawk offense in recent years, will likely be used sparingly. What figures to increase is more deep passes since Mayes has a stronger arm than Shafnisky. Working behind an excellent offensive line, Bragalone and Co. are more than capable of picking up the slack in the rushing attack.
As great as the offensive will be it alone won’t earn Lehigh another Patriot League championship and FCS playoff berth. The defense must improve another notch if Lehigh wants to get by Fordham and Colgate in the league race. If it continues to sputter along against the better team’s on the schedule there’s a very real chance Lehigh will fail to live up to its favorite status in the league race. The experience is there along the defensive line and secondary for improvement to be had. But after 4 straight years of average to below average play on the defensive side of ball there remains some skepticism that things will change.
The schedule sets up rather well for Lehigh. The season opener against Top 15 Villanova gives the Mountain Hawks a tremendous opportunity to vanquish recent CAA demons and notch a crucial out of conference win. Monmouth, Yale and Penn could be tricky non-conference opponents but Lehigh should be more than capable of taking care of business in those games. The Mountain Hawk’s fate will likely come down to October road trips to Colgate and Fordham. Lehigh’s bye is the week before their showdown against the Rams so they’ll have an extra week of prep.
9/2 Villanova 12:30 PM
9/9 @ Monmouth 1 PM
9/16 Yale 12:30 PM
9/23 Penn 12:30 PM
9/30 @ Wagner 6 PM
10/7 @ Colgate 1 PM
10/14 Georgetown 12:30 PM
10/28 @ Fordham 1 PM
11/4 @ Bucknell 12 PM
11/11 Holy Cross 12:30 PM
11/18 Lafayette 12:30 PM
2017 Projection: 10-1 Overall, 5-1 Patriot League, FCS Playoff At-large Bid