You don’t have to scrimmage to be at risk of injury. Lafayette’s football team learned that painful lesson last year, and I’m sorry to say the phantom-injury bug has taken its toll on the Leopards again, with less than two weeks to go before the season opener.
When I greeted Coach Frank Tavani Thursday morning in Fisher Stadium, his first words were not something like “glad to see you,” but rather something more like “wait’ll you hear what’s happening again.”
By the count of the head coach, the Leopards have had 187 plays of “live” all-out scrimmage during the first 2 ½ weeks of preseason camp. Those plays, the equivalent of more than two full games, have been injury-free.
But when Lafayette opens the season on Friday, Sept. 2 in New Britain, Conn., against Central Connecticut State, two projected senior starters – offensive tackle Nick Zataveski and defensive tackle Matt Rothrock – won’t be in the lineup.
Rothrock, who start 22 consecutive games over the last two seasons and was looking to be a major contributor in his final season, suffered a partially torn foot ligament (Lisfranc variety) injury when he simply rolled the foot during a non-contact drill on Monday. His foot is in a cast, and Tavani said it will be at least a month before he is expected to play again – and then, only if things heal well.
Zataveski, who missed his entire sophomore year after having hip surgery and who had to play more than half of 2015 with a club-like cast protecting his broken hand, suffered a medial collateral ligament knee injury when a teammate accidentally fell into him during another drill last week. He is likely to miss the first couple of games but told me “it’ll be all right” because, fortunately, he was wearing a brace on the knee at the time and the brace absorbed a good bit of the hit. Because it will already have been 2 ½ weeks by the time Lafayette opens the season, Tavani said he was told by trainer Matt Bayly that “he thinks we’ll get him back quicker.”
“I can’t make this up,” Tavani told me of the “out-of-my-control injuries” that have struck again, causing him to remember the epidemic of such things that took place last year. Every member of the team knows the result of all that devastation – almost weekly patch jobs at almost every position led to a 1-10 season.
Tavani said it’s most likely that the starting right tackle in place of N. Zataveski will be freshman Jake Marotti, who is a strong 6-6, 295-pound kid who Tavani says “is really good – but he’s a freshman!” It has become too routine to have freshmen starting on the o-line – last year, it was Kevin Zataveski starting all 11 games and Tanner Kern starting nine; in 2014, Cam Smith had one start. Coach Tavani is not a proponent of this kind of thing, but situations dictate it.
Right now, the offensive line contingent for the Leopards is down to 10 men – which means you’re automatically on the two-deep. This year, Kern is missing the entire season while on a medical leave from college and two other freshmen o-linemen left the team after only a couple of days of summer workouts. One player, David Nelson, has been moved from defense to o-line; and Tavani said on Thursday that he’ll very likely add another o-lineman to the wish list for a 2017 recruiting class. “I have to start with 15” next year, he said.
Rothrock, a Wilson West Lawn grad and a second-team all-Patriot League selection last year, was pretty resolute about his situation on Thursday, but he’s not about to be thrilled by not being in the lineup. The members of the defensive unit made a strong commitment to one another to step up their game for 2016. He spent eight weeks this summer in Easton working out to prepare for the senior-year push. He assured me on Thursday that he’d be back, but that’s not going to be his decision. In the meantime, he’ll do what he can in the weight room to stay in shape.
The first-team replacement for Rothrock will come from a group that has plenty of experience. Robin Cepeda has been slowed at times during preseason camp bgut started seven of the last eight games in 2015. Andy Labudev also has previous starter experience, and Tavani hinted that there’s a possibility that Lavel Ramsey, currently No. 2 on the depth chart at defensive end, could be moved inside because he has the siz and quickness to make plays.
I’ve already spent more time than I like on the negativity of the day. Legendary University of Alabama Coach Bear Bryant once said, “It’s not the will to win but the will to prepare to win that makes the difference.” The Leopards sure seem to me to have that will to prepare.
The Leopards practiced in uppers, and one of the first periods of the day interested me a lot. In it, the offense went up-tempo – not for one or two plays, as Lafayette has done from time to time the last couple of years, but for perhaps 10 consecutive plays down the field. I don’t expect the Leopards to become an every series no-huddle offense, but I do think the team has playmakers – like DeSean Brown, C.J. Amill, Joey Chenoweth, Matt Mrazek, Yasir Thomas and quarterbacks Drew Reed and Blake Searfoss – to be a scoring threat from anywhere on the field. I liked it.
I also liked the segment of the practice devoted to third-down situations. The Leopards were anything for a big third-down team last year, converting only 51 of 155 chances for 33 percent. While tackling was forbidden and quarterbacks were not really touched, players on both sides of the ball got into the action, with the offense getting off some successful plays and the defense sometimes applying the kind of pressure that would have blown up the called play.
It’s always difficult to determine which unit is getting the best of it in intrasquad matchups because everyone is well aware of the schemes being run by the other side. That first game against Central Connecticut State is going to be an important one. The Blue Devils (who have the same team colors as those other Blue Devils from North Carolina) have nine defensive starters back on from a team that was 4-7 last year.
While the Leopards may have looked a little bit at Central Connecticut this week, the preparation for Friday night’s game starts in earnest on Sunday, which, on a normal week, is a day off. The freshmen will be involved in orientation on Sunday and won’t practice, and that means that, when you combine the missing frosh with the players I the “yard” and not taking part in that day’s practice, the squad will be down to something like 45 players.
Tavani said he’s planning to name his opening-game starter at quarterback and other positions as well on Sunday and he will also reveal his 2016 captains. He didn’t give any hints on Thursday, but he said that a straw poll of team members came out just as his own thinking did. He also said it’s possible that only two seniors will be starting on offense and three on defense against CCSU.
The Reinhard darkhorse player of the day: freshman cornerback Eric Mitchell. He was matched up a couple of times during team drills against Matt Mrazek, who I think is headed for a huge year, Mitchell didn’t back down from the challenge, and each player had his chance to “win” a one-on-one battle. He wasn’t listed on the two-deep prior to camp. I’ll bet he’s there now.