Questions need some answers
A few things in particular stand between Leopards and improvement in 2019
For his first year, Lafayette College football coach John Garrett wanted his Leopards to “Be Relevant”; for Year 2, it was “Be Significant.”
Now, it’s “Break Through.” Whether a 6-16 record — 5-9 in the Patriot League and 1-7 outside the league — qualifies as a successful progression depends on who is asked.
But to be sure, achieving goal No. 3 will be no easier task. The ability to get positive answers to the following five questions will have a lot to say about that.
LAFAYETTE PROBABLE STARTERS
1. Can the Leopards “Ram” the ball more often?
In monsoon-like conditions last season, Lafayette ran the football for 280 yards on 58 plays and only attempted nine passes in a 21-13 victory over Fordham.
Selwyn Simpson had runs of 51 and 38 yards that day. The total yards wound up being 29% of the team’s rushing yards for the 11-game season.
2. Can Malik Hamm it up again to jump-start the defense?
The 250-pound defensive end really lit things up last year, including with a three-sack effort in the victory over Fordham. His 8 sacks and 15 tackles for a loss were outstanding, and from all reports he’s taking up where he left off.
Shawn Reilly (2000) was the last Lafayette player to record more sacks in a single season. He had nine. The team record is 11 by three different players.
Keith Earle had three sacks and Harrison Greenhill two a year ago, and they combined for 13 tackles for a loss. So Hamm is not the only disrupter on the defense.
3. Can Lafayette win the thirddown battles?
The statistics don’t tell us how many of them were long-yardage situations, but Lafayette’s most consistent problem in 2018 was getting the defense off the field on third downs.
Opposing teams converted for first downs — or sometimes touchdowns — on 46.8% of their third plays against the Leopards last year, meaning they got either points or new sets of downs 73 times. Eventually, those failures are going to take their toll. On the other side, Lafayette converted just 32% of their third downs.
Those numbers must be improved.
4. Can the Leopards get some big results from the little guys?
Running back J.J. Younger, at 5foot-8, 165 pounds, and wide receiver Nick Pearson, at 5-9, 170, are two of the smallest guys on the team. But last year, they accounted for 20 of the 45 20-plus-yard gains for the Leopards. Each had 10 of them.
Younger, who is expected to handle kickoff returns again, had a 95-yard touchdown return against Monmouth and three other returns of more than 40 yards. For Pearson, nine of his 10 long plays were on passes, including 46-and 43-yarders. But the Leopards didn’t have a single touchdown pass of over 20 yards — in fact, only four TD passes of any distance. Both Younger and Pearson have 4.3 speed in the 40.
5. What can the defense or special teams do to contribute points?
It’s been a while since Lafayette got a touchdown from the defense.
The last pass interception returned for a TD was in 2016 by Phil Parham, a 35-yarder against Fordham. The last fumble-recovery touchdown was by James Coscia, a 40-yarder against Lehigh in 2015. The last blocked punt that produced by TD was by Kyni Scott in 2010; it was recovered in the end zone. The last time a Leopard scored points on a safety was Rob Hinchen against Colgate in 2016.
According to Lafayette records, a blocked field goal has never been returned for a score and the Leopards haven’t blocked a punt since 2014.
Former sports columnist Paul Reinhard is a freelance writer.
Lafayette’s Nick Pearson had 10 plays last season that gained at least 20 yards, including receptions covering 46 and 43 yards. However, all four of the Leopards’ touchdown passes in 2018 came on plays totaling fewer than 20 yards.