The Lehigh University football team looks to turn a historic year into a memorable one as they get set to begin their regular season.
The team hopes to go from a summer filled with hard work and practice to a successful season. Their season officially begins on Saturday, Sept. 6, with their first match against James Madison University of the Colonial Athletic Association.
The team looks to improve on its 2013 season, which saw some mixed results. With an 8-3 overall record, the team lost three key Patriot League matches to Fordham, Bucknell, and Lafayette. The latter allowed the Leopards the Patriot League conference, a bid to the FCS playoffs, and effectively ended Lehigh’s season.
While the season last year was by many measures a disappointment, the team returns youthful and focused. Head coach Andy Coen returns for his ninth year with Lehigh. Coen notes how much younger this season’s team is when compared with ones of the past.
“This is definitely one of our youngest teams but not without talent,” said Coen. “Our seniors were freshmen when we won a league championship, so a lot of those kids did not have much of an opportunity to play. On Saturday, we will probably start about seven seniors, but a lot of them played behind some really good players. Even though we’ve had a really good program over the last two years, some of those guys still did not get the opportunity to play. So, it’s a very young team and how those players develop over the course of the season is going to be very important.”
Although many of Lehigh’s most talented players have graduated, there are still many promising players remaining. A bulk of the duties in the backfield are expected to go to and senior Rich Sodeke and Brandon Yosha, who is in his first year with the Mountain Hawks after transferring from the University of Miami in Florida. Meanwhile, sophomore Nick Shafnisky will be starting quarterback and looks to build on a 2013 season where he gained a little bit of experience in relieving former Lehigh quarterback Brandon Bialkowski after the longtime starter sustained an injury. As a quarterback, Shafnisky is a leader who has to start thinking about his approach to the season.
“We have to take it one game at a time,” said Shafnisky. “We want to beat Lafayette, but it’s not going to mean anything if we are not winning the Patriot League or going to the playoffs, which is our goal. We are going to take it week-by-week, game-by-game. Especially in Patriot League play, we really have to buckle down and just win every game. We have to keep rolling and hopefully win that Patriot League Championship at the end of the year at Yankee Stadium.”
Another key returning player is senior wide receiver and team captain Josh Parris, who had the second most receiving yards last semester behind Kurfis. Parris was one of the players who Coen mentioned when discussing those who have looked strong in the preseason.
“It was a tough practice with a lot of competition,” Parris said, when asked about preparing for the preseason. “Coaches expect us to play at a high level, including in the classroom watching film. It is all about preparation and we had some very productive last few practices. Still, we have some things to smooth out before playing JMU.”
Changes to Lehigh’s defensive team are abound as well. This season’s group is expected to be very young, but there is a veteran presence too with players like senior outside linebacker Isaiah Campbell.
“For a young defense with a lot of sophomores and juniors, I think there is great chemistry,” Campbell said. “In terms of the inside linebackers and outside linebackers, we have been playing very strong. All four of our defensive backs are new this year, and I feel they are all stepping in and doing great.”
Coen also looks forward to the new defense, while also pointing to what they need to do to be more effective than last year’s unit.
“We’ve got some good young players there,” Coen said. “I look forward to our defense being improved, particularly in the run game. Last year we gave up a lot of rushing yards. So my expectations for the defense are that we will do a much better job of controlling the run. So, if we do that, it will help out the pass defense as well.”
The team begins its season this Saturday against JMU in Goodman Stadium. JMU played on Aug. 30 against Maryland, an FBS school, and lost 52-7.