It probably goes without saying that the word “unprecedented” will be associated with this incoming Lehigh football class forever, thanks to the strange world everyone finds themselves in 2020.
The signing day celebrations sometimes came with masks, but that didn’t make them any less important or meaningful to a group of athletes that have had a senior year like no other.
In a normal year, Lehigh head coach Tom Gilmore would wrapping up the early signing period sometime after the Mountain Hawks competed against their bitter Rivals, the Lafayette Leopards, the third week in November.
This season, however the 2020 Lehigh Mountain Hawks haven’t played a single game. Practices on campus happened in spurts as the school partially opened, then closed, several times, with athletics activities being suspended at that time due to COVID-19 concerns on campus.
So how does the Lehigh coaching staff figure out what their recruiting needs are for the fall when there’s still supposed to be competition in the spring?
“While we normally get some commitments for the next class before we play a typical season, we still have the entire season to adjust our assessments and finalize the class before the signing periods,” coach Gilmore told me by email. “We didn’t have that luxury this year, so we simply had to make those decisions on what slots were opening based on the seniors that were slated to graduate. Those decisions were made last winter when the recruiting process was getting underway for this year.”
Not only was the assessment different, COVID-19 also prevented many of the normal visitation process that athletes normally went through.
“The two biggest challenges were not being able to meet the prospects in person and not being able to get them to campus on visits,” Gilmore said. “There are many things you can better evaluate in person, such as physical assets, as well as personality and character traits that are more difficult to evaluate online. While we did hundreds of virtual tours, FaceTimes and phone calls, it is still difficult to experience everything you can see when you are physically on campus, especially on an official visit. Our biggest assets at Lehigh are the people and the atmosphere. It is impossible to get a good feel for those unless you are experiencing that in person.”
Even with the challenges, it looks like the coaching staff closed on some really talented players.
“It has become so much more competitive over the years, so you have to outwork the competition over the long haul but you also have to close the deal at the right time,” Gilmore said. “Making a decision like this is already hard. Modern recruiting with modern technology and communication has made so many things possible. It is powerful but can be overwhelming.”
It’s the personal connection, though, that coach Gilmore values the most.
“Having Lehigh and our football program to present certainly helps get people interested, but the competition works hard to sell their positives too,” he continued. “Developing a strong relationship is the only way people will trust you. Lehigh is a choice that will change the trajectory of a young man’s life. We’re proud to work at Lehigh and that genuinity shows through in the process.”
The eleven names in the early recruiting class include three defensive backs, two offensive linemen, one quarterback, one running back, one tight end, one defensive lineman, one linebacker, and one player, Dajuan Fields, who is listed as a possible wideout or defensive back.
“They’re good football players, good students, and better people. We feel like we’ve put together a well-rounded class,” he said in the official school release.
On the recruiting site 247sports.com, 6’9, 315 lb offensive lineman Andrew Canelas is listed as a 3* prospect, with offers from Army, Duke, Dartmouth and East Carolina.
Another interesting name is a recruit from Lehigh’s backyard. QB Matt Rauscher played at nearby Allentown Central Catholic under former Lehigh position coach Tim McGorry, and committed to the incoming class fairly early in the process. The fact that the Vikings run a very similar offense to Lehigh’s also gives him an advantage when he transitions to the next level.
“Having a coach that could answer his specific questions gave him a great deal of insight into the program as he was making his decision, Gilmore told me. “His work ethic will allow him to build on his experience. He is stepping up to a much higher level but he has the advantage of knowing the system, which should allow him to compete sooner. It has always been important to our program to keep the top prospects from the Lehigh Valley (and the state of PA) home. Matt joins a long line of outstanding local products to choose Lehigh and help to continue the great tradition we have here. “
Another interesting prospect comes from West Virginia, which hasn’t normally been a place where Lehigh has recruited heavily in the past. RB Blake Hartman elected to come to Lehigh over preferred walk-on opportunities at West Virginia and Cincinnati.
“Blake is a beast,” Gilmore said. “His numbers in the weight room are impressive and he set multiple state records during his high school career. His leadership abilities are through the roof. Both [OL Coach Alex] Stadler, who knows many people in that area, and Running Backs Coach Anthony] DiMichele did an outstanding job of recruiting Blake, who had many options to choose from. They really hit it off and made a great connection from the beginning.”
Copley (OH) LB Landon Robinson shared his recruiting process with The Akron Beacon-Journal.
“This all came together after a very well put together virtual tour of Lehigh with the entire staff where I truly fell in love with the campus and the program,” Robinson told them. “The entire coaching staff was on the meeting and involved with such energy and enthusiasm. I just felt so loved and a true connection between the coaching staff and myself.
“They also have such a bright future ahead of them, including a new health and sciences facility that they are adding to campus, a new indoor facility, and a brand new weight room on top of their already amazing facilities. I just could not miss out on such an amazing opportunity.”
Finally, Lehigh continued their great success in recruiting Georgia, where two student-athletes, Dajuan Fields and Andrew Worthy, are from. Fields was coached by a former Lehigh football great, LB Bryant Appling, class of 2001.
“There is a very good talent pool in Georgia and many good school districts, producing talented players with the academic background needed to succeed at Lehigh,” Gilmore said. “Georgia was one of the first out-of-region states Lehigh recruited a few decades ago and it has been very good to our program over the years. The metro Atlanta area has exploded over recent decades and part of that is fueled by transplants from all around the country. There seems to be a legitimate interest in travelling out of the region and Lehigh offers an excellent option with elite academics and a rich football tradition. We also have begun to fill in the area in between Georgia and Bethlehem, attracting talented prospects from the mid-Atlantic states in the last few classes.”
2021 Early Signing Period Recruit List
Andrew Canelas – OL; 6-9/315; Durham, N.C./Leesville Road
Christian Curatolo – OL; 6-4/280; Collegeville, Pa./Malvern Prep
Dajuan Fields – WR/DB; 6-0/170; Buford, Ga./Buford
Scott Fulton – TE; 6-4/230; Ottawa, Ont./Salisbury School (Conn.)
Blake Hartman – RB; 6-0/210; Inwood, W. Va./Musselman
Logan Jones – DB; 6-3/185; Charlotte, N.C./Charlotte Christian
Connor Lavelle – DB; 6-0/200; Pittsburgh, Pa./Baldwin
Matt Rauscher – QB; 6-2/200; New Tripoli, Pa./Allentown Central Catholic
Landon Robinson – LB; 6-1/230; Fairlawn, Ohio/Copley
Xavier Stephens – DE; 6-3/260; Daleville, Va./Lord Botetourt
Andrew Worthy – DB; 5-11/170; Marietta, Ga./Hillgrove
Chuck has been writing about Lehigh football since the dawn of the internet, or perhaps it only seems like it. He’s executive editor of the College Sports Journal and has also written a book, The Rivalry: How Two Schools Started the Most Played College Football Series.
Reach him at: this email or click below: