Patriot League as good as silver
By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Bethlehem, PA (Sports Network) -
Now about that rusty play ... it's sterling (silver).
Bucknell football player Josh Eden made every start on defense as a freshman in 2006, won All-Patriot League first-team honors as a sophomore in '07 and then missed two seasons while completing a Mormon mission.
So how did he celebrate his return last year? Oh, he shook off any rust by blocking eight kicks (six extra points and two field goals) to set a record for the Football Championship Subdivision and make the all-league team again.
Surely, the Patriot League could have found some special teams' position for Eden on its 25th anniversary team which was feted Tuesday at its annual preseason football media day.
But that's the beauty of the Patriot League as it turns silver this year. As head coach Andy Coen of defending champion Lehigh says, it stands out how many great players aren't on the 25th anniversary team as much as the ones on it.
Mike Groome was named the Patriot League Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
Lehigh heads into the season as the league's preseason favorite, but it barely edged Colgate in the preseason poll. Following the Mountain Hawks' impressive (silver) FCS playoff road win at Northern Iowa last season and Colgate returning a Walter Payton Award (sponsored by Fathead.com) finalist in 2010 FCS rushing leader Nate Eachus, the Patriot League is hoping for a banner season.
It's a league that produced the first Payton Award winner (Colgate running back Kenny Gamble) and the first Eddie Robinson Award winner (Holy Cross coach Mark Duffner) back in 1987 - one year after the league formed.
"I think (the 25th anniversary team) really speaks for the history of good football that this league has really produced," marveled Coen, whose senior linebacker Mike Groome was named the Patriot League Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
"It's a special team. I was amazed to see the kinds of names that are on there," added Eachus, who was named the preseason offensive player of the year.
In a college sports landscape that changes by the day, five of the six original Patriot members - Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, Lafayette and Lehigh - are still together, with Fordham replacing Davidson in 1989 and Georgetown coming on board beginning with the 2001 season. Towson was a seven-year member from 1997-2003.
The decision to go to scholarships or not may break some of those bonds in the future, but, clearly, the league membership is good for each other.
Holy Cross dominated the league in its infancy, winning five of the first six titles and losing only one league game in the process. Many people considered the Crusaders, with Gordie Lockbaum winning Heisman Trophy votes, the best team in Division I-AA (now FCS) during their unbeaten season in 1987.
After the league began to dip in the mid-1990s, Colgate and Lehigh have become the league powers, with Holy Cross and Lafayette making their runs as well.
The 25th anniversary team features the likes of Lockbaum, Gamble, Lehigh tight end Adam Bergen and offensive lineman Will Rackley, Towson defensive end Andrew Hollingsworth, Colgate linebacker Greg Manusky, Holy Cross cornerback Dave Murphy and Fordham cornerback Tad Kornegay. There's such depth in league history that the team doesn't have a player from Colgate's 2003 national runner-up squad, which was on a 21-game winning streak and included Payton Award winner Jamaal Branch.
QB- Ryan Vena, Colgate (1996-99)
RB- Kenny Gamble, Colgate (1986-87)
RB- Gordie Lockbaum, Holy Cross (1986-87)
WR- Corey Hill, Colgate (1995-98)
WR- Javarus Dudley, Fordham (2000-03)
TE -Adam Bergen, Lehigh (2001-04)
OL- Will Rackley, Lehigh (2007-10)
OL- Luke George, Colgate (1995-98)
OL- Paul Clasby, Colgate (1996-99)
OL- Mariusz Misiec, Bucknell (1994-97)
OL- Nick Hennessey, Colgate (2005-08)
PK- Jason McLaughlin, Lafayette (1991-94)
AP- A.J. Kizekai, Bucknell (2006-09)
DL- Nick Martucci, Lehigh (1995-98)
DL- Andrew Hollingsworth, Towson (1997-00)
DL- Corey Vincent, Holy Cross (1988-91)
DL- Hunter Adams, Bucknell (1995-98)
LB- Greg Manusky, Colgate (1986-87)
LB- Ian Eason, Lehigh (1996-99)
LB- Andy Romans, Lafayette (2005-08)
LB- Matt Cohen, Lehigh (2006-09)
DB- Dave Murphy, Holy Cross (1986-89)
DB- Tad Kornegay, Fordham (2001-04)
DB- B.J. Gallis, Lafayette (1993-96)
DB- Abdul Byron, Lehigh (1998-01)
P- Barry Cantrell, Fordham (1994-97)
The head coach of that team, Dick Biddle, the dean of Patriot coaches who enters what he hopes will be a sweet 16th season at Colgate, has seen change across the league during his tenure.
"It's becomes much more of a balanced league," he said. "If you look at last year, other than Lehigh - they beat everybody in the league - somebody beat somebody else, so it's fairly competitive. That's the way it is right now.
"It's a level playing field, that's what it is."
With academic standards, facilities and campuses comparable across the league, it's become a coaches' league in the sense that Biddle, Coen and their brethren make a profound difference on the sideline. There's been so many talented running backs and quarterbacks (three-time first-team all-league signal-caller Dominic Randolph of Holy Cross didn't even make the silver anniversary team!), that defense often wins out in the end.
Lehigh had a dynamite defense a year ago - one that surrendered only 13 points per game while sweeping its league opponents - but it's replacing all four starters in its secondary. Six members of the front seven return, and the offense, with quarterback Chris Lum and wide receivers Ryan Spadola and Jake Drwal back, will help out the defense considerably.
Plus there's no complacency among the defending champions, much to the delight of Coen, whose concern has been dispelled this offseason.
"You try to put last season behind you," Groome, a preseason All-America, said, "and focus on getting better every day and coming out and do the same thing every day."
Lehigh will likely have to sweep the difficult back-to-back games at Colgate (Oct. 29) and Holy Cross (Nov. 5) to keep its annual finale against Lafayette - college football's most-played rivalry, now in its 147th season - from having title implications.
Nate Eachus was a Walter Payton Award finalist in 2010.
But the race may change. Preseason favorites have a way of not realizing the expectations in the Patriots League. Plus Lafayette hopes to rebound under veteran coach Frank Tavani, Georgetown raised its program considerably last season and Bucknell has the league's most returning starters (17) for coach Joe Susan's second season. Fordham always has talent, but is ineligible for the league title because it added athletic scholarships last year.
"Top to bottom, the gap is starting to shrink," Georgetown coach Kevin Kelly said. "I think that's evident in some of the wins and the losses in this league. You can't take anybody for granted and anybody can beat anybody in this league. That's what's the fun part about the Patriot League."
PATRIOT LEAGUE FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL (Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors)
1. Lehigh (8 first-place votes), 58 points
2. Colgate (6), 55
3. Holy Cross, 38
4. Lafayette, 36
5. Georgetown, 19
6. Bucknell, 16
Fordham ineligible for league championship
PRESEASON PATRIOT AWARDS
Offensive Player of the Year - Nate Eachus, RB, Colgate
Defensive Player of the Year - Mike Groome, LB, Lehigh