April 16, 2013
EASTON, PA. - The Lafayette football team is coming off a 5-6 campaign and a fourth-place finish in the Patriot League standings, a place Lafayette head coach Frank Tavani would like to see beneath him and his program as the 2013 season rolls around and the Leopards set their sights on a seventh Patriot League championship.
With training camp still months away and Patriot League play even farther down the road, Lafayette's coaching staff is focused on daily improvement.
"We're making sure that the team knows what it means to be focused, committed and what it takes to win at this level," Tavani said in the middle of the team's spring season. "We are trying to get better on the things that we do well. We've kept it simple and are working on getting more fundamentally sound."
Lafayette has practiced throughout March and April and the spring season will culminate in the Maroon-White Spring Game on April 20 at 11 a.m., an event Tavani has taken to calling "practice No. 15."
"We have 15 dates in the spring that we can practice and 29 more when we return to camp, so I look at those as 44 opportunities to get better and prepare our team for a season." In the spring, Tavani has worked to preserve the health of his team, holding out proven players with nagging injuries to allow them to heal for training camp while giving younger players opportunities to compete for playing time. "This is a time to focus on the backups at many positions, because we are going to depend on them down the stretch," Tavani said. "Injuries are a part of the game for everyone, but because of the way our schedule is set up, with the final five games all against Patriot League teams, it's important that guys who are suddenly thrust into games are ready for those situations."
Those late-season games proved troublesome for Lafayette in 2012, as the Leopards lost their final four contests after starting with wins over William & Mary, eventual Ivy League champion Penn and Bucknell in the Patriot League opener.
"For us last season, there was a fine line between being 8-3 and 5-6. We played a couple of bad halves of football that could have meant a couple of more wins for us, but that didn't happen," Tavani said. "One of the things I saw looking back is that our strength was an issue, especially on the offensive line and defensive line. We've placed a real emphasis on that, having them lift four days a week during their off-season workouts."
Offensively, Tavani and offensive coordinator Mickey Fein look at a wealth of returning starters, as eight of 11 return, including the front five. On the left side of the line, junior Luke Chiarolanzio and senior Brad Bormann both enter their third seasons as starters. For the first time in the last several seasons, depth does not appear to be an issue up front.
In the backfield, junior quarterback Zach Zweizig gained valuable playing experience in 2012 and is poised to be the Leopards' full-time signal caller. He will have two experienced options at tailback with two-time All-Patriot League selection Ross Scheuerman and fullback convert Greg Kessel taking handoffs. The run game will need to see improvement for the Leopards to be successful, as they finished 92nd of 121 teams in the NCAA on the ground.
In the passing game, Zweizig will be able to connect with senior Mark Ross who ranked in the top 25 nationally in receptions per game (6.8) and receiving yards per game (93.6). Ross has the opportunity to place his name in the Lafayette recordbooks as one of the top receivers ever to wear the Maroon and White.
The Lafayette defense returns five starters, none on the defensive line where Lafayette is most inexperienced. It could be a challenge for defensive coordinator John Loose to slow the run. The squad ranked 86th in the nation in rushing defense in 2012 with an experienced front line.
Conversely, the linebacker corps is probably the deepest positional group on the team, led by middle linebacker Mike Boles, who was the team's leading tackler in 2012. Eight other players will be hungry for playing time at one of the three linebacker spots.
The Lafayette secondary, which helped the Leopards intercept 22 passes in 2012 (second best in the nation) will be led by junior safeties Jared Roberts and Shane Black, both of whom have been injured during the spring.
As a team, the Leopards have 38 letterwinners coming back while losing 14 as part of a small graduating class. This year's team is a more experienced group as just three players (2012 Patriot League Rookie of the Year Jamel Smith at wide receiver, Steve Mercado at defensive tackle and potentially Colton Kirkpatrick at linebacker) are the only underclassmen currently projected at starting spots entering training camp. By comparison, at this time last season, seven underclassmen were likely filling 22 starting positions on offense and defense.
In terms of quality, Lafayette will have a previous All-Patriot League selection returning at six positions: Ross at wide receiver, Scheuerman at tailback and return specialist, Pat Creahan at fullback, Chiarolanzio at offensive tackle and Roberts at strong safety.
Zweizig is one of the reasons that Tavani and Fein like the team's prospects on offense.
Zweizig played in five games, completing 64 percent of his passes (71-of-111) for 927 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. The Wyomissing, Pa. native split time with Andrew Shoop in 2012, throwing for 927 yards while averaging 185 yards per game. Shoop has exhausted his eligibility and is playing professional football in the Czech Republic.
Perhaps more telling of Zweizig and his abilities as a leader is the adversity he faced in 2012. The junior, who comes from the same high school as Kerry Collins and Chad Henne, battled a shoulder injury and then dealt with then untimely passing of his father.
Buoyed by those character-building experiences, Zweizig will be the starter in 2013.
"Zach returns with solid game experience after playing at a high level while facing the physical and mental challenges that he did as a sophomore. His teammates will be able to count on him as a leader," Tavani said. "He has been much more comfortable and confident out there, and for any player that goes a long way to reaching better performance levels."
"Zach is really progressing," said Zwezig's positional coach, Fein. "He doesn't make the same mistake twice and when he does make a mistake, he learns from it," Fein explained. "His knowledge of the offense in general has really improved. That's part of the progression for a quarterback. You go from knowing what you are supposed to be doing in your position to knowing the line protections and the entire offense, not just your own job."
"Zach is asking all of the right questions and that's what you expect from a quarterback who has some experience, but is also still learning," Fein continued. "Physically, we're working on his consistency and accuracy throwing the football."
Zweizig has been "hands off" during scrimmaging this spring, as he and sophomore Andrew Dzurik are the only quarterbacks on the roster following the transfers of Kyle Ohradzansky and Louie Pappas. Dzurik pushed his way past Ohradzansky on the depth chart as 2012 progressed and looks to be a solid backup for Zweizig.
The quarterback corps will double when the team reports to training camp in August with the additions of freshmen Drew Reed and Blake Searfoss. Searfoss is coming off a post-grad year at the Hun School after attending Hunterdon Central where he finished in the top 10 in passing in New Jersey in 2011. Reed threw for 6,000-plus yards, 70 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in three years at quarterback for Arlington in Lakeland, Tenn.
The running game will continue to be a focus for the Leopard program, as it always has been during Tavani's tenure. The Leopards are experienced at the position as junior Ross Scheuerman returns to the fold. Scheuerman is a two-time All-Patriot League Second-Team selection and returns as one of the top tailbacks in the conference.
Scheuerman led the team in rushing in 2012, carrying 146 times for 701 yards and five touchdowns. He started seven games and played in all 11 for the Leopards, as he did in his freshman campaign when he garnered Patriot League Rookie of the Year honors and was a finalist for the Jerry Rice Award presented by The Sports Network to the freshman of the year.
"Ross continues to improve and grow stronger in the position. He was always a good outside runner, but he has become a much better inside runner in his two seasons here. He needed time to get used to making the reads," Tavani said. "Now, he can accelerate and explode from anywhere on the field and has the ability to break a big run at any time."
In 2012, Scheuerman was also a legitimate receiving threat, reeling in 21 balls for 151 yards.
Durability is always a concern for a tailback and depth was part of what promoted Tavani to move senior Greg Kessel from fullback to tailback. The senior has been one of the most versatile competitors during his time on College Hill. The Academic All-Patriot League selection and three-time letterwinner started six games and played in all 11 as a junior. He's only had 17 carries in his career, used primarily as a blocking back, but the coaching staff is confident in the move.
"We felt he was under-utilized because every play we have him out there in the past he has delivered," Tavani said. "His 40 time isn't great, but he plays at nearly 250 pounds and when he takes the ball and lowers his pads he's going to move some piles. We hope he can really develop as a game closer."
Senior Marcellus Irving and sophomore Deuce Gruden look to add depth at the position. Irving has battled knee injuries during his career.
Gruden has been making his push at tailback, moving from wide receiver during the 2012 season. His physicality and breakout runs during the spring have shown he is a viable option at the spot.
When the summer rolls around, freshmen Adin Greenfield and Kyle Mayfield will push the upperclassmen.
The move of Kessel to tailback may open up things at the fullback spot, but it's not as if Kessel won't be relied on for traditional fullback duties (lead blocking and pass protection). Senior Pat Creahan has been a major contributor his entire career and was an All-Patriot League Second-Team selection as a freshman. Creahan started two games in 2012, playing in all 11. He hasn't carried the ball the past two seasons, but has been a capable receiver in addition to his pass protection, lead blocking and special teams contributions.
Sophomores Dan Dellovade and Freddie Hess find themselves higher on the depth chart, with Dellovade getting the early nod to backup Creahan.
Senior Mark Ross, who managed one of the top receiving seasons at Lafayette in a decade, heads the receiving corps. The All-Patriot League First-Team selection earned team MVP honors in 2012 with 75 catches for 1,030 yards and 10 touchdowns, all career marks that placed him atop the Patriot League statistics.
The 1,030-yard performance was the third-best single-season performance at Lafayette and his 10 touchdowns ranked him fourth. Ross had seven games with 100 yards or more, including a 168-yard game vs. Holy Cross and a 151-yard game at Robert Morris in which he tied the Lafayette single-game record of 13 catches.
Ross's time has been limited in the spring due to a concussion, but his availability for 2013 in not in question.
If the Leopards are in a two-wide receiver set, the other receiver is likely to be either Jamel Smith or Justin Adams. Smith was the 2012 Patriot League Rookie of the Year, finishing second on the team in receptions with 38 for 291 yards while playing in 10 games. Adams missed five games due to injury, but secured four catches for 45 yards.
Juniors Mike Duncan and Demetrius Dixon and sophomroe Jack Poetzsch will also see significant time. Duncan had a solid season in 2012, reeling in 19 balls for 371 yards and an average of 19.5 yards per catch.
Working as extension of the offensive line and also employed as a playmaker, the tight end position is one of the most important for the Lafayette offense.
Seniors Brandon Hall and Morgan Donohue are two of the more physically imposing tight ends in the conference, Hall checking in at 6-7, 244 with Donohue at 6-5, 260. Hall was more of a target in 2012, catching 15 balls for 253 yards (16.9 yards per catch) and three touchdowns. Donohue's importance comes more in the run game as a blocker. Sophomore Brian Keller, who is likely out for the spring with an ankle injury, has also emerged as a solid addition at tight end.
The offensive line is the most experienced positional grouping on the offensive side of the ball, as all five starters return from 2012.
Junior Luke Chiarolanzio begins his third season as a starter. He was the team's rookie of the year in 2011 when he started 10 of 11 games at right tackle and was the offensive line MVP in 2012 after starting all 11 games at left tackle.
Playing alongside Chiarolanzio is junior Brad Bormann, who also begins his third season as a starter. Bormann played every game at left guard in 2012 and saw time in 10 games with six starts as a sophomore.
Senior Pat Crosby will reprise his role as the starting center, having started all 11 games in 2012 and two in 2011.
The right side of the line is a little less experienced, but still features two returning starters in guard Maxim Ngolla, who has been slowed by an April ankle injury, and tackle Zack Mazur. Mazur started every game as a sophomore while Ngolla started the first two and the last four while dealing with an injury. He split time with Skyler Lash, who started five games in 2012 after making the switch to offense. Lash has since switched back to the defensive side of the ball where depth needs are more pressing.
Senior Garrett McNally and sophomores David Miller and Nick Zataveski are pushing to serve as backup tackles. Zataveski was the offensive scout team MVP in 2012. Danton Ponzol is likely to be the reserve left guard while junior Ben Jeannot is behind Crosby, and sophomore John Hoffman sits behind Ngolla at right guard.
"This is as good a returning group as we've had in a long time," Tavani said. "They've certainly taken their lumps at times, but now they have that game experience that is so important. Right now, it's good to see our backs running behind them they way that they are."
Graduation took the defensive line from being one of the most experienced groups on the team to one of the least seasoned. Tackles Rick Lyster and Jason Marshalek and defensive end Tahir Basil have all departed and junior James Coscia is the lone returning starter. Coscia played in nine games, starting eight for the Leopards at the defensive end (anchor) position. He made 26 tackles in 2012 and will be backed up by sophomore Bobby DiPietro.
Senior Darius Glover played in 11 games with 13 tackles last season and is expected to take over at tackle, lining up on the center in the Leopards' 4-3. Lash, whose move from defense to offense for 2012 and offense to defense for 2013 were in the name of depth, will look to back him up. The other tackle is likely to be sophomore Steve Mercado who is battling with classmate Ryan Sanders.
At the end opposite of Coscia, several players are in the mix. Junior Shane Dorner started three games and played in 11 while racking up 30 tackles in 2012. Dorner was the MVP of the Bucknell game, making five tackles with three sacks and a pass breakup in a 20-14 victory. Senior Jake McTighe played in 11 games last season and is vying with sophomore Tyler Vickers and Dorner for playing time.
The Leopards are also hoping for contributions from senior Alex White and junior Tyrus White at end.
Junior Jared Roberts emerged as a playmaker at strong safety in his sophomore campaign, picking off four passes in 11 games while finishing fifth with 53 tackles. Roberts started every game before leaving the Lehigh game in the first half with an injury. Roberts has sat out much of spring ball, but will be ready for training camp. Senior Shane Brady, who missed all of 2012 with a knee injury, and sophomore Mike Moralle will back up Roberts.
Free safety is expected to be occupied by either junior Shane Black or sophomore Kyle Sakowski. Black was 19th in the nation with four interceptions in 2012 and was the team's second-leading tackler with 73. Sakowski played in nine games with one start, making 30 tackles with one interception and is currently ahead of junior Anthony Loyacona, who has played in 17 games in his first two seasons, on the depth chart.
Both starting corners are gone from the secondary with the graduation of Darius Safford and Kyni Scott who took with them six picks in 2012. Junior Damarcus Ingram played in every game as a sophomore and is a projected starter at corner as is senior Randall Logan. Logan started the final two games at corner and played in all contests, while breaking up eight passes.
Senior DeOliver Davis is a versatile player who missed 2012 following shoulder surgery. His health continues to be a concern as toe injuries have hampered his return. Davis along with sophomore Matt Smalley are expected to be the backups at corner. Smalley got his first taste of collegiate action last season, playing primarily on special teams.
Linebacker went from being the team's biggest question mark in 2012 to being one of the team's projected strong suits as the 2013 season approaches.
The man in the middle will be senior Mike Boles at MIKE linebacker. Boles is a three-year letterwinner and begins his second season as a starter. He was the team's leading tackler in 2012 with 88 stops and added two sacks and an interception. Playing behind Boles are sophomore Mark Dodd and junior Matt Gill, both of whom played in eight games last season.
At WILL linebacker, sophomores Colton Kirkpatrick and Chris Brockman are competing for playing time in the spring. Kirkpatrick played in 11 games with eight starts and was third on the team in tackles (77), adding three sacks and two interceptions. Brockman saw time in all 11 games with 21 stops and two sacks and collected Patriot League Rookie of the Week honors on Oct. 15 following a win over Yale in which he had eight tackles, a sack and an interception.
Ben Aloi's season-ending knee injury on Sept. 30 opened up a spot for Kirkpatrick. Aloi is being held out of the spring game, but is hoping to be ready to compete for a starting spot when the team returns to campus in the summer.
"Aloi was really coming on when we lost him last season," Tavani said. "We're hoping his knee is where it needs to be when we start back up."
The SAM linebacker race is also benefitting from depth at the position, as seniors Dion King, Tyler Robinson and Kasheem Hill are all vying for time. King made the move from defensive back to linebacker in 2012 and responded with solid play. His first start of the season came at Yale on Oct. 13 when he made 13 tackles including 10 unassisted stops. Robinson played in seven games in 2012 with a start against Princeton after 11 games in 2011.
Hill started the first four games of the 2012 season, registering 18 tackles and an interception that included a 42-yard return. He was suspended for a violation of school rules and will be eligible to play on Oct. 12 vs. Princeton. In the meantime, Hill is able to practice with the team.
Lafayette continues to place an emphasis on the special teams' units, requiring starters on offense and defense to be a starter on at least one of the special teams' units, overseen by four coaches on the staff.
Sophomore Ryan Gralish returns at kicker. The team's kicker beginning with the second week of 2012, he converted 6-of-8 field goal attempts with a long of 46 yards in a win at Bucknell. Gralish also handled kick-offs, averaging 57 yards per kick with nine touchbacks.
With the graduation of 2011 All-Patriot League selection Ethan Swerdlow, Gralish is handling punting duties in the spring, but it will be freshman Ryan Forrester's job to lose when the summer rolls around, as Tavani prefers that each player be able to focus on the two distinct kicking motions.
Junior Anthony Baker will be the long snapper for the second straight season and will be backed up by Donohue, who will be the snapper on field goals and PATs. Adams will take over holding duties from Zweizig who will be the back up.
In the return game, Scheuerman is the likely candidate to be the deep man on kickoffs. He took back 18 kicks for 304 yards (16.9 yards per return) in 2012. In 2011, Scheuerman averaged 23.1 yards per kick return along with a 78-yard touchdown return vs. Colgate, while being named All-Patriot League Second Team at kick returner. Smalley will also get some looks back deep.
The punt returners are likely to be Smith and Roberts. Smith was sixth in the nation in punt returns, returning 15 punts for 190 yards, an average of 12.7 yards per punt.
Matchups with CAA opponent William & Mary and a slate of traditional Ivy League foes in Penn, Princeton and Harvard highlight the 2013 football schedule.
The 2013 campaign kicks off at home for the first time since 2010, as the Leopards welcome Sacred Heart on Sept. 7. It will be the first matchup between the two schools since 2006 and begins a home-and-home series with the Pioneers, who are coming off a 2-9 overall record in 2012.
The second game of a four-game series with William & Mary will take place at Fisher Stadium a week later. The Leopards traveled to Williamsburg, Va. to face the CAA squad in 2012 and left with a 17-14 victory amid a thunderstorm.
Lafayette's first road game of the season on Sept. 21 comes against defending Ivy League champion, Penn. In 2012, the Quakers clinched their third outright Ivy League title in the last four seasons and 16th overall league championship. The Leopards have taken five out of the last six meetings with the Quakers.
Following an open week, Lafayette will commence Patriot League play and celebrate Homecoming Weekend against Bucknell on Oct. 5. The Leopards have taken 10 of the last 11 games versus the Bison, including a 20-14 victory in 2012 in a nationally televised game.
Fisher Stadium then becomes a distant memory as Lafayette embarks on a four-game road swing. Beginning Oct. 12, the Leopards travel to Princeton, Harvard, Holy Cross and Georgetown. Princeton is coming off a 5-5 overall record and a 4-3 league mark.
The following week, Lafayette ventures to Cambridge, Mass. and historic Harvard Stadium. The Leopards did not play the Crimson in 2012, but did square off with them in the previous four seasons.
New England will again be the setting in week eight when a return to Patriot League play sends the Leopards packing to Worcester, Mass. against Holy Cross. Lafayette beat the Crusaders 30-13 in 2012, snapping a four-game series slide.
The road stretch ends on Nov. 2 in the nation's capital. Georgetown and the Leopards have split the last four meetings including a three-point Hoya win last season. Lafayette plays its final two home games on Nov. 9 against Colgate, the reigning Patriot League champions, and Nov. 16 versus Fordham, an associate member of the Patriot League currently ineligible for the Patriot League title.
On Nov. 23, Lafayette and Lehigh will meet for the 149th time in College Football's Most-Played Rivalry. The all-time series record of 76-67-5 favors the Leopards. The Maroon and White will be looking to snap a five-game losing streak against the Brown and White before the two teams clash in the 150th game in 2014 at Yankee Stadium.