2014 Football Team Preview: Lafayette Leopards

PATRIOTLEAGUEDOTORG Drew Reed aims to lead Lafayette to another Patriot League title in 2014.
PATRIOTLEAGUEDOTORG
Drew Reed aims to lead Lafayette to another Patriot League title in 2014.
PATRIOTLEAGUEDOTORG

Aug. 21, 2014

CENTER VALLEY, Pa. - Coming off a season to remember, the Lafayette Leopards hope to make the entire 2014 campaign just as special before playing a game that no one will forget.

The Leopards did not dominate in 2013, but they got hot down the stretch behind freshman quarterback Drew Reed to win their first outright Patriot League title since 1994 and first of any kind since 2006. The finishing run included a victory over No. 5 Fordham and a thumping of No. 15/17 Lehigh on the road with the League title at stake.

Despite winning the League title last season, there are plenty of additional goals for 2014. The Leopards have not finished with a winning record since 2009, as they ended up 5-7 a year ago. Lafayette has also never repeated as outright League champion, as the crowns from 2004-06 were all shared. And of course there's the season finale against Lehigh at Yankee Stadium in the 150th meeting of the most-played rivalry in college football, where the Leopards will look to leave a lasting memory for the 50,000 or so fans in attendance.

A preview of the 2014 Lafayette Leopards season is included below, with a look at the offense, defense, special teams and schedule, five burning questions and links to information and video previews for the season.

For more on all of the teams, read the 2014 Patriot League Football Preview and watch all of the preseason video features on the Youtube Football Playlist

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HEAD COACH: Frank Tavani, 15th Season (76-82 Overall/Lafayette, 45-42 Patriot League)
2013 RECORD: 5-7 Overall, 4-1 Patriot League (1st place)
FCS PLAYOFFS: First Round: Lost at New Hampshire

PATRIOT LEAGUE PRESEASON POLL: 3rd
PRESEASON ALL-PATRIOT LEAGUE: Ross Scheuerman (Sr., RB); Luke Chiarolanzio (Sr., OL); Matt Smalley (Jr., DB & RS)
PLN VIDEOS: Lafayette's offense starts with Scheuerman | Reed returns after stellar freshman campaign | 2013 late rally forges season to remember

OFFENSE: It almost seems hard to believe that Drew Reed only started six games last season, since the quarterback made such an impact when he took over midway through his freshman season. Reed completed 73% of his passes for 1,887 yards and threw 17 touchdowns while leading Lafayette to the League title. He has a big weapon returning in the backfield as running back Ross Scheuerman (1,920 all-purpose yards) enters the year as a Preseason All-American. Demetrius Dixon (35 rec., 405 yards), Justin Adams (27 rec., 402 yards) and Mike Duncan (29 rec., 346 yards) all have experience at wideout, though the loss of Lafayette's all-time leading receiver, Mark Ross, will be a blow. Seniors Luke Chiarolanzio, Zack Masur and Maxim Ngolla lead a veteran offensive line.

DEFENSE: The secondary should be a strength for the Leopards as both Matt Smalley (63 TT, 5 INT) and Jared Roberts (59 TT, 3 INT) earned All-Patriot League status last season. The line also features some key returnees in James Cosica (49 TT, 6 TFL) and All-Patriot League pick Steve Mercado (34 TT, 4.5 sacks). The biggest change will come at linebacker, where the team's top two tacklers from last season, Mike Boles and Tyler Robinson, have both departed along with Ben Aloi.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Lafayette has potential for big plays in the return game with both Smalley (29.6 avg) and Scheuerman (24.6 avg) proficient in returning kicks and Adams (10.4 avg) and Tim Vangelas (6.1 avg.) as solid punt return men. Ryan Gralish returns after a solid season where he made 9-of-11 field goals, while Ryan Forrester averaged 35.4 yards per punt.

SCHEDULE: All eyes are on the season finale, as Lafayette takes on rival Lehigh at Yankee Stadium in the 150th Meeting of the Most-Played Rivalry in College Football on Nov. 22. The Leopards gave up their home game for the matchup at the historic venue, so they will only appear at Fisher Stadium four times in 2014 with non-League matchups against Robert Morris (Sept. 13) and Wagner (Sept. 27) and League games versus Georgetown (Oct. 11) and Holy Cross (Oct. 25). Lafayette will play at Sacred Heart (Sept. 6), William & Mary (Sept. 20) and Harvard (Oct. 18) in non-League games, and visit Fordham (Oct. 3), Bucknell (Nov. 1) and Colgate (Nov. 8) in Patriot League play.

Five Questions

1. Will the real Leopards please stand up?
Most teams coming off a championship season have few negatives to look back on from the year before, but Lafayette's 2013 campaign was certainly unique. After a 1-5 start to the season that included a few lopsided losses, the Leopards heated up down the stretch in Patriot League play with four wins in the last five games to capture the League title. The stretch included a 27-14 win over No. 5 Fordham and 50-28 rout of No. 15/17 Lehigh in the last two weeks. Then, the positive vibe took a negative final ending as the Leopards lost 45-7 at New Hampshire in the FCS playoffs. It all ended up in a 5-7 overall campaign where the Leopards could call themselves Patriot League champions. The object to win the Patriot League remains paramount in 2014, but the Leopards also hope to do enough in the non-League schedule to post their first winning record since 2009.

2. Is Reed for real?
There is one easy answer to the up-and-down play of the Leopards last season. When Drew Reed was manning the quarterback position, the Leopards were up a lot more than they were down. Reed completed 73% of his passes for 1,887 yards and 17 touchdowns while starting only six games in his freshman season. While the offense will feel the loss of the school's all-time leading receiver Mark Ross, there are plenty of weapons for Reed to get the ball to including Scheuerman and multiple wideouts with experience. It would be a lot to ask to produce another completion percentage over 70% or so many touchdowns per game, but Reed enters a very positive situation to continue his development as a sophomore.

3. Can Scheuerman and Smalley be X-factors?
Most teams are happy to have one player that can affect the game in multiple ways, but Lafayette has two in running back Ross Scheuerman and defensive back Matt Smalley. Scheuerman is a preseason All-American who stands among the top all-purpose players in the nation with the ability to run, catch the ball out of the backfield and return kicks. Smalley has the explosiveness to make big plays in the return game and from his position in the defensive backfield. Getting a big play in the return game, on an interception or from a dual-threat running back could give the Leopards a leg up in close contests.

4. Who will be the next linebacking star?
When Lafayette has been good in the last decade, you can usually find a standout linebacker on the defense. From Maurice Bennett and Blake Costanzo to Andy Romans and Mike Schmidlein, Lafayette has put a player capable of a 100-tackle season on the field more often than not under Frank Tavani. But with the graduation of top tackler Mike Boles and fellow starters Ben Aloi and Tyler Robinson, a Leopard defense that is strong in other areas has to fill holes at linebacker. Colton Kirkpatrick has the most experience going into his senior year, while Chris Brockman plays a hybrid linebacker/defensive back position. With Coscia and Mercado on the line and Smalley and Roberts at defensive back, the Leopards have players with star potential on the defense. If a linebacker emerges to join that group, the unit could be primed for a big season.

5. How will the Leopards focus on the first 10 games?
The buzz has been growing for the 150th meeting of the Lafayette-Lehigh rivalry for nearly two years, ever since the announcement that the game would be played at Yankee Stadium. And student-athletes and coaches can't help but hear the excitement at the school as they prepare to play a nationally-televised game in front of nearly 50,000 people. But there's a long way to go until Nov. 22, and a tough schedule to navigate to get there. In the first seven weeks of the season, Lafayette has road trips to a pair of defending conference champions in Sacred Heart and Harvard and top 25 squads in William & Mary and Fordham. The matchup at Fordham on Oct. 3 will be a nationally-televised contest with the Rams looking for revenge in a key early Patriot League battle. The game with Lehigh will be huge even if the Leopards are 0-10, but Lafayette has a difficult road to build momentum and make the game with the Mountain Hawks count for more than the rivalry.