Players from the Lehigh secondary from left: sophomore Marquis Wilson, junior Kareem Montgomery, junior Sam McCloskey, sophomore Riley O'Neil and senior Quentin Jones stand on the practice fields before practice Tuesday behind Cundey Varsity House. The team will face Wagner College on Saturday in Staten Island, NY. (Anna Hollander/B&W Staff)

Lehigh football secondary leaves struggles in past, remains confident for matchup against Wagner

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After four defensive starters graduated in May, the Lehigh football team changed its formation with one main goal in mind for the 2017 season: stop giving up big plays.

But after four games, big plays have been the downfall of the defense. This season, the Lehigh defense has given up 28 touchdowns and its primary concern is against the run, giving up just over 296 yards on the ground per game.

“From a defense standpoint, we have to stop giving up big plays,” junior cornerback Kareem Montgomery said. “Our coaches have been preaching that we need to make teams put together long drives against us — make them beat us instead of beating ourselves.”

Defensive coach Craig Sutyak explained that in the past, the team had a three-man front with three linebackers in a 3-3-5 formation, but this year Lehigh has moved a linebacker back and switched to a 4-2-5 formation.

“We wanted to fit the personnel of what we had in the program after some of the guys had graduated,” Sutyak said. “We are really strong up front and wanted to get those guys more involved.”

Montgomery prefers the new formation because it gets more players in the position group on the field.

“It allows (us) to be more aggressive with coverages, and we have a lot of capable guys, so that’s a pretty good thing for us,” Montgomery said.

He added that the switch should help the defense force picks, but the Mountain Hawks have yet to tally an interception on the board this season.

“We’ve had a few opportunities, we just have to capitalize when those moments come,” Montgomery said. “I think by adding more pressure to the quarterback in the coming weeks, we will force them to make rash decisions and not allow them to step into their throws.”

Senior defensive back Quentin Jones said the main advantage with the 4-2-5 is more flexibility within the secondary.

“Everybody’s roles expanded,” Jones said. “We can rotate more within the secondary and each play different positions.”

Montgomery and Jones said the transition has not been that challenging.

“It makes everything easier on defense, (and) we’re at a point now where we enjoy it as well,” Jones said. “It adds variety to our game and has different dimensions with us being able to rotate spots.”

Montgomery said he knew he would be switching from cornerback to safety since last fall and has been practicing the new position for a while now.

Jones said in previous years, the five players in the secondary have all played different positions, so they are used to adjusting. Both defenders said the group is versatile, which is why they believe the switch isn’t difficult.

Sutyak said finding cohesiveness in the new defensive strategy will be more challenging for the secondary than learning the new formation itself.

“It’s more about them getting used to playing together as an entire defense and trusting each other to do their assignments,” Sutyak said.

Jones and Montgomery said there is plenty of room for improvement and they have been working to clean up their mistakes. Despite the miscues this season, Jones and Montgomery have confidence in the secondary’s skill set.

“We have the guys who are capable, we just have to do it,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery believes the team has found the winning mentality during practice and it’s a matter of bringing it to the game.

Regardless, Sutyak said the team’s effort and consistency still needs improvement.

“We’ve had stretches where we’ve been at the level we need to be, but they’ve only been stretches,” Sutyak said. “That’s what needs to change, to prolong that sense of urgency and physicality for the course of a game.”

The Mountains Hawks will have another opportunity to earn a win as they travel to Staten Island, NY to play Wagner College (1-3) on Oct. 30 before their Patriot League games begin.

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