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LHU season preview

Written by: on Saturday, August 29th, 2015. Follow William Albright on Twitter.

 

By BILL ALBRIGHT
WesternPAFootball.net Senior Writer

LOCK HAVEN — When Lock Haven and Clarion kick off the 2015 football season Thursday, September 3, at Hubert Jack Stadium, it will mark the beginning of another new era in LHU football history.

Taking over the reins of the LHU program to begin the 2015 season will be Dave Taynor following a successful stint at Urbana College, his alma mater.

As the Bald Eagles prepare for the season opener with Clarion on September 3, it will be a learning process for both coach Taynor and his assistants as well for the players.

The players will have to learn the new system, while the coaches will have to evaluate the pluses and minuses of the athletes.

“One of the first things I did when I accepted the position I met with every single one of our guys during the first three days,” said Taynor. “Not only did I get the opportunity to meet each one of them, but I also had the opportunity to see the spring game and meet with the entire team. I was also able to see two practices and hopefully that was the beginning for me to establish what our standard of excellence is going to be.”

So what did Taynor think about his first exposure to the LHU student-athletes?

“The great things about those individual meetings is that we have a lot of phenomenal kids who want to be successful and are coveted,” said Taynor. “They needed to develop the confidence that comes through investment and with the thirty-plus guys who have been up here over the summer, they were able to see what the expectation is from the strength and conditioning aspects of our program. Those guys are going to be the catalysts in the development of the program. I was very happy with the commitment the guys showed over the summer while basically sacrificing their summer instead of being at home or on the beach. Instead of enjoying the easy life, they were up here working their butts off and that was great to see.”

The Bald Eagles return 44 letterwinners from a 2-9 season in 2014. As for starters, LHU welcomes back nine on offense and five on defense.

Headlining the offensive starters is quarterback Caleb Walton, a redshirt junior. Walton led Lock Haven’s offense for the second straight season in 2014 while passing for 2,164 yards and 15 touchdowns. He became the first Bald Eagle quarterback since 1995 to throw for over 2,000 yards in a season and it was just the seventh time in school history where a Lock Haven quarterback has surpassed the 2,000-yard passing mark in a single season.
Walton now has 3,320 career passing yards, the seventh-most in school history. His 24 passing TDs are No. 5 in school history.

The big target for Walton back for another year of Crimson & White football is red shirt-senior wideout David Cook. One year ago, Cook hauled in 47 balls for 630 yards and four touchdowns.

When Walton isn’t throwing the ball, the Bald Eagles call on the legs of senior running back Beau Swales. During his junior season, Swales carried the ball 190 times for 598 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also caught 32 passes from Walton for another 253 yards and two more touchdowns.

While the Bald Eagle offense showed signs of being able to move the football down the field, the unit at times would either run out of gas or turn the ball over.

“As I get more experience and maturity I am learning when it is appropriate to take chances, when to try and force a pass in or make a ‘gutsy’ throw,” said Walton. “The biggest thing I have learned is that I don’t have to try and do it all because I have ten other teammates on the offense who I can share the load with. Learning those things is just going to help me to reduce the number of turnovers and be more consistent.”

Walton was also quick to point out the importance of playing behind an improved offensive line.

“We found ourselves in a hard spot last year having to play three true freshmen up front,” Walton said. “It is not fair for those freshmen linemen to be put in that spot. There is a lot of pressure on them and they don’t get a lot of credit when they mess up. It seems like they get blamed for everything. I think that because they had to learn things the hard way, you know, getting thrown into the fire right from the start, they had to grow up rather quickly. Now that all five of them return with more coming in with the recruiting class, it should give us some depth to help them compete at a higher level and that is all you can ask for.”

As a freshman Walton spent the season battling for starting nods with Dillon Mazzoni. Now that he has emerged as the man in the “driver’s seat” of the team, he feels that it has provided him with some relief in his preparation although he knows that he is going to have be on his toes to remain in that position.

“It gives you a little feeling of relief, but that moment is very short,” he said. “I realize that I can’t sit back and be happy just having the starting job. I just want to continue to work hard and grow into hopefully the best quarterback in the PSAC and lead our team to the conference championship. I have higher goals other than just being the starter so my getting the starting job is just the beginning.”

With the departure of defensive standout George Christas from the 2014 squad, the role of leadership falls squarely into the hands of a pair of seniors in linebacker Tony Ballon and defensive back Mike Williams along with junior defensive back Daniel Strawbridge .

Ballon started all 11 games last season and led a tough Bald Eagle defensive unit, Ballon finishing with 74 tackles (35 solo & 39 assisted). In 2013, he played in all eleven games and was second on the team with 81 tackles.
Williams totaled 63 stops (38 and 25) along with three QB sacks, while Strawbridge recorded 81 tackles (60 and 21). 4.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions and one quarterback sack.

Although the Bald Eagles played tough defense at times during the 2014 season, the one glaring weakness was the inability to get off the field on third down. Time after time the Bald Eagles would “stuff” their opponent on first and second down, only to allow them to come up with a big play on third down to keep the drive alive.

“As of this time, we are just trying to get our veterans to play like veterans,” said Ballon. “We have been working our tails off all summer to hopefully not only get off the field on third down, but to close out games in the third and fourth quarters. It just seems like we start to wear down in the second half. Right now we are working our butts off just trying to make sure that we can finish our plays, finish our drives and finish games.”

As for how the Bald Eagles are buying in to the approach, Ballon says he likes what he sees from his teammates.

“Right now, the guys are buying into the approach more than ever,” he said. “We had a ton of guys who stayed up (at LHU) over the summer, just working very hard on consistency. Everyone has bought into the idea that Lock Haven football is a top tier team and hopefully we can make that happen.”

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