Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Spring in the Patriot League: Holy Cross

I'm having some good vibes about the 2016 Lafayette football team, knowing that so many variables will contribute to how things finally play out. 

I'll be going to Fisher Stadium today to have my first look at the Leopards since their March 29 spring-camp opening day.  I'm interested in talking to Coach Tavani and some players to see how they feel about the new spring format, which calls for no full-pads workouts.

In the meantime, I thought  I'd begin to look around the league and see what's happening in other camps. Lafayette, after losing 10 games a year ago, has a lot of ground to make up.

You can bet that the competition has not been standing still and will also be looking to get better in 2016, which will make the Leopards' task even more difficult.

It looks like the first Patriot League team to wind up spring camp might be the Holy Cross Crusaders. Their spring game is scheduled for Saturday, not on Fitton Field but on the Holy Cross Field turf.

Tom Gilmore's team was 6-5 last season and 3-3 in the league. The Crusaders tore the Lafayette pass defense to shreds en route to a 42-0 victory in which Peter Pujals threw for 358 yards and six touchdowns,  completing 27 of 36 passes.

I remember thinking -- and writing -- in 2013 that I thought Lafayette quarterback Drew Reed should have been the PL Rookie of the Year after his blistering stretch run that led to a Lafayette championship. Instead, that honor went to Pujals.

But as the two players enter their senior seasons, there is no question which has made the bigger strides. Pujals passed for 3,195 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2015 and also ran for 319 yards.  He was the first-team pick on the league all-star team, and he's a lot more dangerous than another recent Holy Cross QB who gave Lafayette fits, Dominic Randolph, who was a two-time league offensive player of the year.

The Crusader offense should be terrific again in 2016. Brendan Flaherty, who had four TD catches against Lafayette, leads a long list of returning receivers. For the record, he wears No. 33, and the Leopards' defensive backs would do well to put him on their most-wanted list.

But perhaps the most impressive thing about the Crusaders is that 10 offensive starters from last year return -- and all of them are seniors. On the offensive line, three players started all 11 games last year, one started 10 and the other six. 

Coach Tavani talked prior to spring camp about the day when Lafayette would be able to have more seniors and juniors among the starters rather than having to rely on incoming freshmen to play major roles as some have in recent years. 

Patriot League teams, with the exception of Georgetown, now have four classes of merit-scholarship athletes. But Tavani said that his Leopard seniors are "a little fragmented because it was late by the time [the league] made the decision [for scholarships] and we found out what we were doing. We didn't have the full year to recruit like we do now. By last Christmas, we were all but done."

Lafayette's spring camp two-deep chart has seven seniors and 11 juniors among the starters. Four of the first-teamers right now will be sophomores in the fall, and three of them are on the offensive line, where there is no substitute for maturity. While Tanner Kern and Kevin Zataveski showed plenty of promise as freshman starters, they still have lots of growing to do. And Logan Grieser, the third rising sophomore on the o-line, actually has freshman eligibility in 2016.

Holy Cross has six returning starters on defense this year -- three of them are senior three-letter men and the other three are juniors. The Crusaders gave up an average of 22.6 points per game, including 47 to Fordham and 51 to Lehigh. But Lafayette got a total of just 250 yards of offense on 55 plays in its loss to the Crusaders. 

The Lafayette-Holy Cross game has been moved up on the schedule this year and is the league opener for both teams. It's scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Oct. 1 at Fisher. The Crusaders open the season with three straight road games -- at Morgan State, New Hampshire and Albany -- before they play at home against Dartmouth.

The Holy Cross game was the low point of the 2015 season for Lafayette. In the course of four weeks, the Leopards gave up 157 points and scored only 14. To their credit, they never wrote off the season and played some of their best football in the final three games, scoring 112 points. Alas, no victories.



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