Monday, August 30, 2010

Best Case, Worst Case

The best of times, the worst of times. For the Patriot League, it's closer to status quo. For now.

Some PL fans would tell you things haven't been better, with Lehigh-Lafayette (the only semi-authorized rivalry in the conference) selling out every year and plenty of "also receiving votes" mentions among its teams in the agate type of the AP and Sports Network polls. But for a league which is now seven years removed from a serious run in the NCAA I-AA playoffs, has declared one of its schools ineligible, and faces a potential schism over scholarships, the glass is decidedly half-empty.
Not to worry yet, however--there's plenty of football ahead of any December icebergs.

For the last five years, PL fans have seen a fairly stable set of standings, with three on top, two that move up and down the ladder, and two squarely in the back seat. That's been exciting if you live in Allentown or Easton, not so good for our friends in Lewisburg, and a great big yawn inside the Beltway. The lack of interest exhibited by Georgetown and Washington-area fans isn't expected to change in 2010, in part because the league standings aren't significantly changing, at least not this year.

Looking north of the Mason-Dixon line, where is the PL race headed?

First, you'd be hard pressed not to pick Colgate as a team with a bright season ahead of it. No surprise, really, as Dick Biddle has built perhaps the most consistent program in I-AA nonscholarship football outside of Harvard. In Biddle's 15 years in Hamilton, the Red Raiders have won less than seven games just twice and are coming off consecutive 9-3 seasons. Nine wins might be a tall order in 2010, but they won't be far removed from it.

The Red Raiders return 15 starters including QB Greg Sullivan (135-230-5, 18 TD, 2,740 total yards) and RB Nate Eachus, both contenders for conference Player of The year honors. Colgate has to rebuild its lines but there's little doubt they can do so, and while an early season schedule (including Furman and Syracuse) may have the Red Raiders 1-2 heading into its Oct. 2 game with Georgetown, but October is the time the Colgate momentum should kick in, with GU followed by Princeton, Cornell, Holy Cross and Lehigh.

With a matchup with Lafayette (Nov. 4) forthcoming into November, that game might decide the PL title. Colgate finishes with Bucknell and Fordham, and Biddle is 6-2 in the month of November over the past three seasons in-conference.

Best Case: The Red Raiders open some eyes with a close loss to Syracuse and never look back, sweeping the PL and returning to playoff glory.
Worst Case: The tough early schedule keeps Colgate from any momentum, and it settles for a middle of the road PL finish.

The decade has been the best of times for Lafayette, however. It was not that long ago that the very future of football at College Hill was being debated and even a move to Division III was not out of the question. Frank Tavani made believers out of a lot of people and the Leopards are regular contenders for PL honors.

Lafayette lost 14 starters from last season's team and it would be easy to knock them down a few rungs as a result, but its schedule gives them a fighting chance to be a key player in the league heading into November. Lafayette takes full advantage of the PL-Ivy scheduling arrangements which often leave Bucknell and Georgetown on the outside looking in, with four of its five non-conference games against Ivy opponents, with the Leopards favored in three of them. The bulk of Lafayette's PL schedule waits until November, with Colgate, Holy Cross, and Lehigh in consecutive order. By then, Tavani will have a seasoned group of players and they will give each of the three a tough battle.

Best Case: The Leopards are good in September, better in October, and sweep November, riding into the playoffs at Lehigh's expense.
Worst Case: Too many newcomers keep Lafayette one year away from a serious title run.

Holy Cross won the PL title for the first time in 17 years in 2009, and despite the loss of QB Dominic Randolph, HC is not to be underestimated. The Crusaders' biggest enemy might be its schedule, opening with Howard but going back to back with Massachusetts and Harvard. The Sep. 26 game at Georgetown suggests a brief respite before games with Fordham and Brown, so the Crusaders could be just 4-3 heading into a three week stretch in late October of Colgate, Lehigh, and Lafayette before ending with Bucknell. HC lost seven offensive starters but its key will be defense. The offense helped bail out a HC pass defense that was 6th in the PL last season and gave up 18 touchdowns, two fewer than the Hoyas. Rushing defense was fifth in the league. Neither of those stats will be enough if HC expects to contend for the playoffs.

Best Case: The defense rises to the occasion, and HC repeats as PL champions.
Worst Case: The defense stalls while the offense fails to carry the day, and HC finishes under .500.

Perhaps the most interesting story in the PL (regardless what Fordham fans might think) is Lehigh. Some fans are putting pressure on fourth year coach Andy Coen to deliver in 2009, and some would not hesitate to hand him the same road map that Pete Lembo took. The problem for Coen is that he lined up the toughest schedule in the conference, and the impact of the first four weeks of the Engineers' season will tell much as to whether the Lehigh train is ready to roll, or it has derailed before the finish line.

Lehigh returns nine offensive starters and despite a change at QB, will line up behind junior Chris Lum with an experienced and hungry group of linemen. Defensively, the Engineers were second in the league last year and returns 8 of 11 starters--all the pieces are in place for a Lehigh championship run. So what's the problem?

Unlike Kevin Kelly, who needs wins as much or more than Andy Coen, the Lehigh schedule is no sunken log. A road game at Drake figures to be a win, but if it is not, the alarm bells will go off on South Mountain. Returning home, Lehigh gets three home games in a four week stretch with Villanova, Princeton, New Hampshire, and Fordham, and a 2-2 split is not unlikely. (Bear in mind, however, that Lehigh is 1-9 in non-conference games over the last two seasons, according to the Sports Network.) Home games with Bucknell and Colgate lead to a November ending with three straight on the road.

At least statistically, Lehigh is favored over just two of its five non-conference opponents, and under that scenario the Engineers would almost need to run the table in the PL schedule. Anything less than 7-4 (or a loss to Lafayette) is going to be a point of indigestion to Lehigh fans, and a 6-5 finish will not be well taken.

Best Case: Lehigh is battle-tested early and steamroll the rest of the league en route to a deep run in the NCAA playoffs.
Worst Case: Early losses and fan discontent overshadow the Engineers, who fall out of contention and face a program overhaul in 2011.

The "other" story in the PL this season is Fordham, whose brinksmanship with the Patriot League scholarship rules resulted in the Rams being declared ineligible for the league title, but able to sign 15 recruits to full scholarships for this fall. Some Fordham fans would have you believe this will set the Rams ahead of the entire league, but one class just isn't enough.

For the Rams, 5-6 in 2009, replacing QB John Skelton remains a priority along with patching a leaky defense that was sixth in the league last season. Fordham has the second-weakest schedule in the 2010 PL having added Division II Assumption to the schedule, but could be undefeated heading into playing PL schools on October 2 versus Holy Cross. (Remember, games with Fordham do not count in conference standings.) Fordham will certainly have a better record in 2010, but an at-large bid is all but out of the question with an average Sagarin rating of 197 for its non-conference schedule.

Best Case: Fordham's scholarships dominate the league, winning an at-large bid and leading the rest of the league (sans Georgetown) to join the scholarship bandwagon.
Worst Case: The scholarships don't provide a measurable impact on the field, and Fordham begins to look outside the PL for its future football home.

Bucknell seems mired in the 5 or 6 slot in Patriot play, with just two winning seasons since 2002. By point of comparsion, the recent Bison are a lot like Cincinnati in Big East men's basketball--one or two very good players, but never enough to carry them to the finish line. New coach Joe Susan will look to revive a Bucknell offense that finished sixth in the league and will rely on seven returning starters on defense to hold the line.

Bucknell's early season schedule is cooperative, with winnable games versus Duquesne, Marist, and Dartmouth, but the rest of the schedule (beginning in October with Cornell and Penn and ending with Colgate and Holy Cross) will be a considerable challenge. Like Georgetown, Bucknell must see 2010 as a year of progress, not of titles.

Best Case: Bison move up the PL ladder and finish above .500 in the league.
Worst Case: Bison are passed by Georgetown and take a seat at the back.

And Georgetown? Well, I'm sure there are some Lehigh Valley reporters that have all but penciled in 0-11 in their game programs, and they are not afraid to call the Hoyas on the carpet for recent performances.

0-11? That will not happen.

A preview of the Hoyas follows Thursday.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Five Questions: Defense

One of the key drivers of the 2010 season will be a move to revive Georgetown's anemic offense, but the defense has questions as well. In the second part of some pre-season questions to consider for the 2010 Hoyas, this column focuses on defense.

1. How will the Hoyas fare in the 4-3? After various iterations of a "multiple" defense, the 3-4, and even the 5-2, the implementation of a traditional 4-3 is a recognition that if Georgetown doesn't stop the run, it can't hope to win many games, even in a much softer schedule as seen in 2010. That Georgetown was, on average, trailing by two touchdowns at halftimes of its games,  the need to close the ground game remains a top priority to give the Hoyas at least the theoretical chance to compete in the fourth quarter. New defensive line coach Doug Goodwin's impact in this area this cannot be dismissed--the Hoyas play a fairly solid defense as a whole under defensive coordinator Rob Sgarlata, but the D-line has suffered for years in keeping teams from pounding the ball downfield, especially on first down. Last season's opponents averaged 4.7 yards a carry on the run, and in the season finale versus Fordham, first down rushes averaged over five yards a carry, Georetown rushes were, in comparison, less than a yard. Second and five is a world removed from second and nine in college football, and if the defense can set a goal of, say, three yards per carry, it opens up options that the Hoyas simply haven't had at their discretion in recent years.

2. How good can Nick Parrish be? OK, some disclosure, Nick Parrish went to my high school (Dallas Jesuit) and that school has turned out a number of solid college prospects through the years, but I've always remained impressed by Parrish's ability to disrupt plays and get to the ball. As Georgetown LB's go, his senior season could be the stuff of an all-conference season, notwithstanding the fact that GU's reputation in the Patriot League may prevent further national consideration. With Parrish's ability to pick up assisted tackles and play across the field and not just up and down, the move to the 4-3 could elevate his game even further. it's been a long time since opponents feared a Georgetown LB. A big season by Parrish could make believers out of the rest of the league, and maybe even earn him a free agent call after next spring's NFL draft.

3. Does Wayne Heimuli return to form? Before injuries wiped out his sophomore season, Heimuli was beginning to build some stature as a defender who was not afraid to make the big hit in the secondary.  Heimuli also came from a great high school program in Euless (TX) Trinity that prided itself on really tight defense, and Heiumli's return could provided some much needed depth back in the secondary.

4. Are There Freshmen of Influence? If we didn't hear a thing defensively about the freshmen this year, I'd almost call that a success. It usually takes a year for freshmen to get acclimated defensively, and if you see 5 or 6 freshmen in the starting defensive lineup in November, that's a bad sign.  While Georgetown still lacks the defensive depth of its competition in recruiting, the seeds for growth are there among the freshmen defenders to really grow and develop at Georgetown--assuming, of course, they're committed to doing so. Players like Shannon Adams, Charlie Dann, and James Ford arrive with size and that's a step forward in the inevitable transition to college ball, but experience still takes time. I wouldn't be surprised to a see a sophomore or two really step up, and the freshmen to follow accordingly.

5. Can Time of Possession Be Controlled? For whatever success teams had rushing the ball against Georgetown (and most did), the rest of the GU defense tended to fare better than many might expect. However, there is one statistic that cannot be ignored: time of possession. Georgetown's defense was on the field over 35 minutes a game last season, and you cannot win consistently when the defense gets worn out like that over the course of a season. Obviously, the offense could do a lot more on its part, but for its own sake the defense needs to work on improving third down conversion rates, particularly early in the season when the legs are still fresh and injuries and attrition have not yet taken its toll.  During one of the games last season, I figured out that in games where the defensive time of possession was under 32 minutes, the Hoyas were close to a .500 team; of course, when you're 5-38 over the past four years, such possession times were the exception and not the rule.

Georgetown's defense took its share of grief last year, and the rush defense was a big, big part of it. If it improves, so will the Hoyas.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Five Questions: Offense

So much for being an optimist.

Back in last year's preview of the offense, I made the claim that "The cynic can rightly say that Georgetown could easily lose every game this year. An optimist would look at the same schedule and make an argument that eight of the 11 games on the schedule are winnable, but with the right mix of talent, teaching, and execution."

Yes, I thought Georgetown could win its share of games, but can still hear the voice of Bob Uecker in the movie Major League with the call: "JUST a bit outside..." The 2009 season was a disaster in every sense of the word: no wins, flagging fan support, and the loss of a quarter of the returning lettermen from the season. For the first time in two decades, the mood of the campus was not when we will get better in football, but if we ever will.

OK, I'm not saying there are eight winnable games in 2010. (I'll post a number later in the week and get my prediction skills into more trouble.) But what is different about 2010?

Answer: Dave Patenaude.

The former New Haven head coach and Hofstra expatriate offers the promise of delivering something that a decade of offensive coordinatorrs (from Tim Breslin and Joe Moorhead to Elliot Uzelac, and Jim Miceli) could not (especially Uzelac and Miceli): a chance for excitement. You can only run so many quarterback keepers or line of scrimmage passes before the opponent takes it and stuffs it right back in your face; which, of course, is what happened eary and often in the 2009 season. This was the case most notably in the Oct. 31, 2009 game at Old Dominion, where Isaiah Kempf finished the first half 4-16 for 25 yards. The first year Monarchs simply took it to the staid and predictable Miceli offense and Georgetown had nothing to show otherwise.

The early word from practices suggests that Patenaude's experience with CAA offensive sets (a conference which, after all, has produced four national champions in the last seven years) will open up the Georgetown play book and make it a little harder for the Lafayettes and Lehighs of the world to drop eight in the box and kick sand in the Hoyas' offensive sets. Clearly, Georgetown's talent remains well behind its PL opponents, but some new play calls may be enough to keep Georgetown in games where they were demoralized early on, with nothing left in the arsenal from which to respond.

Last year's preview asked five questions of the offense, left largely unanswered last year. With that in mind, let's ask them again.

1. Is this the year for stability at quarterback? However new-look the Hoyas suggest they'll be, nothing suggests that the days of Aley Demarest, Bill Ring, Bill Ward, and J.J. Mont (the four starters of the entire decade of the 1990's) are back anytime soon.  With 14 different starters since 2001, Georgetown has no choice but to platoon Scott Darby and Isaiah Kempf until talent, injuries, or sheer frustration takes over. Depending on the offensive calls, however, a platoon setup at QB could be just enough of a wrinkle to make things interesting, which is why I'm rooting for Tucker Stafford to get into some sort of rotation.

Aaron Aiken may be the Hoyas' QB of the future, but too many Hoya QB's of the past have been ground into the dirt as rookies and any time Aiken can spend to develop before jumping into the fray could be time well spent.

2. Is this the year of the running back? If Charlie Houghton made it back for a fifth year, well, maybe, but it appears not to have happened and the GU running corps remains a little too small and a  little too slow to take over in 2010. Philip Oladeji and Wilburn Logan figure to get carries but neither has had the opportunity to really take over games, while freshmen Brandon Durham (5-7, 170) and Dalen Claytor (5-9, 180) might need a few more pounds to absorb the beatings that GU running backs face. If Georgetown gets away from the simplicity of the Uzelac and Miceli running back calls of the past, we might be able to see more from this group. Absent a better line, that may be asking a lot.

3. Can we "hold that line"?  It's the Achilles heel of Georgetown football: it can't recruit the line size and depth needed to compete in the Patriot League. The starters are too small and every team knows it.

Georegetown lost three senior stalwarts in the line and four reserves that left the team early. A lot of expectations fall on freshmen and sophomores to step up and learn the hard way--in the trenches. Seniors Dan Lenihan (6-3, 250) and Erik Antico (6-2, 265) are now the smaller members among a line that bulked up in freshmen recruiting, with an average OL weight entering training camp of 278 lbs. among the class of 2014. But even that isn't close to a Lehigh or Colgate offensive line that averages over 300.

Size is no guarantee of success--Billy Wuyek (6-5, 325) or Tom Amaro (6-6, 320) never settled in the starting lineups, but it is a bellwether of a team that intends to run the ball.

4. Whither the passing game? This is a point of legitimate concern. With just one of its top four wide receivers returning from 2009, Coach Patenaude really has to build from the ground up. WRs Kenneth Futlough and Patrick Ryan arrive with limited experience from 2009, while FAU transfer Jamal Davis has  the opportunity to become a game changer. The Hoyas haven't developed a major downfield threat in a decade, and it remains to be seen if the offensive line can give a quarterback enough time to create opportunities downfield. Davis might be that option.

Georgetown really needs to develop its receivers. Too much of its passing attack in recent years has been in short passes to running backs which defenses can adjust to. With no seniors among the receivers, this is an area for development and growth.

5. Can Keerome Lawrence be a game changer? I sure hope so. Now a senior, Lawrence has played three different positions in three years and gives it 100% every time. His play has been unpredictable at times but, with experience comes predictability. At least once this season, I think Lawrence can carry this team to an upset win. And with a former quarterback in the slot, a comment from last year's column which bears repeating:

Moving a quarterback to the slot is a risky move, but in this situation I think it could be a real given Lawrence's skill set and the ability to introduce something Georgetown hasn't had in the backfield in six years: unpredictability.

In 2003, Bob Benson introduced a lineup that, for the first half of the season, thoroughly confused opponents and led Georgetown to three straight wins by late October, by adding to a freshman quarterback named Alondzo Turner into the lineup. Announced as 6-0, but just barely, the 180 lb. Turner could run, pass, and when in a slot, add some interesting options to the backfield and was named the league's rookie of the week in two consecutive weeks. For 2003, his only season with Georgetown, Turner was third on the team in rushing and threw three touchdowns.

While the experiment with Turner didn't develop, the ability of Lawrence to develop in the backfield is in intriguing one...With his ability, Lawrence could be a great addition to the backfield that enters 2009 ranked among the bottom of I-AA in yardage per game.
These were questions that really weren't answered in 2009. For the Hoyas to improve, you'll see it first with these five.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Summer Of George

With the off-season winding down, it's interesting to look back and see what Georgetown's been talking about this summer with regards to football. Or, just as important, what it hasn't.
  • No stories about seven on seven games with Maryland or Towson.
  • No stories about incredible off-season workouts.
  • No stories about players coming back early, or that "can't wait" until opening day.
(And, sadly, no stories that the Multi-Sport Field is just around the corner.)

For whatever reason, these summer staples of the past were never posted on the athletics web site, and thus off-season coverage has been next to nothing for a team that, in 2009, was next to nothing in the win column. Even in the first week of August, the fall roster remains unpublished, through you'd think it will be in place for the Patriot League Media Day. But perhaps Georgetown has taken to heart the truism that no team wins championships in July, and all the rah-rah articles don't carry any weight when you're 0-11, anyway.

The summer is a time for planning and preparation, and the staff knows that this year will be looked upon very, very closely by fans and a new athletic director to see where the program is headed. The mistakes of 2010 aren't that of Jim Miceli, Dassin Blackwell, or Frank Colaprete. With a considerably lighter schedule, a healthy crop of returning upperclassmen (published roster notwithstanding), and three returning QBs, expectations of a more successful season must be a mandate and not wishful thinking.

It's also a time for player preparation, too. When you face the size and talent gap that the Hoyas do week in and out, summer preparation is critical to success in the fall. The late Scotty Glacken once said that the 40 weeks of the off-season is the time to prepare for the roughly 40 hours on the field during a season. Whether  a player is a starter, a backup, or a newcomer, the coaches need men that are physically and emotionally ready to battle come training camp next week.Without it, all the coaching in the world won't get this team where it needs to be. So just because it's quiet doesn't mean nothing is going on.

Speaking of quiet, what's been going on around the rest of the Patriot League?

-- Bucknell fans were given a summertime jolt when it was learned that its Oct. 2 home game with Cornell would be picked up by the CBS College Sports Network (formerly CSTV), a national cable and satellite carrier. This isn't Time-Warner Cable or Channel 69 we're talking about, but truly national coverage. It's an outstanding opportunity for the teams and the Patriot League to reach a wider audience, and you've got to hope that Bucknell officials do everything in their power to make Christy Mathewson Memorial Stadium sell out for the occasion. The worst thing CBS needs is to have fans surfing the networks after Texas-Oklahoma or Penn State-Iowa to see 8,000 empty seats at Lewisburg. Who knows, maybe CBS could give Georgetown a look when that new field is built....

-- At Colgate, the Red Raiders are taking a page out of some of the SEC schools and initiating a summer caravan for fans. "This summer['s] road tour will make stops at towns throughout the Central New York area to give fans chances to win tickets to Colgate football games, receive free giveaway items, take photos with championship trophies and receive information about football ticket discounts, " wrote the Colgate web site. "Fans can meet Raider along with coaches and former standout wide receiver Pat Simonds ’10 at select stops on the Tour." With Colgate awaiting its biggest regular season game in a generation at Syracuse next month, getting the word out is good timing.

-- Fordham fans have been awaiting 2010 as its first year with schoalrship players since 1954, though it is not altogether clear whether only recruited freshmen are on scholarships, or some upperclassmen have been converted onto scholarships (I think it is the former). The university is also seeking to inmprove conditions by building new locker rooms for the team, in a somewhat unlikely place--a former pool which sat underneath Rose Hill Gymnasium. "The new space will feature over 90 lockers, wide screen televisions and a theater-type viewing area for the team...", reads the Fordham web site. "When finished, the room will be approximately 4,800 square feet, more than four times larger than the current locker room."

Fans from other schools are astounded to hear that game-day locker rooms at Georgetown don't really exist. This too, waits for the decade-long Multi Sport Field project to awaken, but as the MSF sleeps, others move forward.

--From Holy Cross, a project of a different kind--the school is introducing a "Ring Of Fame" at Fitton Field to honor Crusader gridiron greats of the past. The inaugural class includes names such as Bill Osmanski '39, Ed Murphy '43, Vince Promuto '60, John Provost '75, Gil Fenerty '86, and Gordie Lockbaum '86, ostensibly the last Division I-A athlete that was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. 

Were Georgetown to do the same! Yes, we 're still waiting on the MSF, but in research for the soon to arrive Football History Project, Georgetown has some great figures from its football past that could be honored thusly. From Harry Costello to Johnny Gilroy, Jack Hagerty to Jim Mooney, Augie Lio to Jim Castliglia, and the one and only Al Blozis, the names of Georgetown's football past need not be banished to the library archives.

--At Lafayette, a quiet summer as far as news goes, but the Leopards' web site did not that two former quarterbacks were set to square off in the European Federation for American Football championship in Chur, Switzerland. There are some Georgetown grads that play in arena ball (Luke McCardle, now 28, is still active) and other have seen time in Europe. While the NFL remains a distant dream for most PL athletes, it's itneresting to see that some ahve been able to continue their careers, sometimes in places one might now expect. (and for the record, Germany defeated Finland, 26-10.)

--Lehigh football alumni were feted at a summer golf tournament sponsored by that school's version of the Gridiron Club.  "I thought the event went great,” explained event organizer Mark Yeager.“The most important thing that we took away from the golf outing was that it accomplished our goal of bringing guys back together. It gave them a reason to get together for an afternoon with older and younger alumni, meet the coaches and hear about the program; we were able to re-engage them with the program and the athletics department and elevate awareness, which are fundamental goals that I think we accomplished.”

Oh, and about the title to this article. Fans of the TV show Seinfeld will no doubt recall the episode where George Costanza proclaims a season of taking it easy, which he calls "the summer of George", to include, in no particular order, frisbee golf, reading a book from start to finish ("in that order", he notes), watching TV, and taking mid-morning naps. Unfortunately for George, a turn of events ends him right back to where he was the year before, namely, in the hospital.

"Mr. Costanza, your legs have sustained extensive trauma. Apparently your body was in the state of advanced atrophy, due to a period of extreme inactivity," said the doctor. But with a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, I think there's a good chance you may, one day, walk again."

"[But] this was supposed to be the Summer of George!", Costanza said.

Well, it's easy to go through a summer and, if you're not careful, end up right back to where you were. For Georgetown, let's hope the summer of 2010 doesn't lead back to the autumn of 2009.