2016 Northeast Conference Preview
By CRAIG HALEY
(STATS) - Championship Saturday 2015. It still lives in the thoughts of the Saint Francis football coaches and players.
They played for the Northeast Conference championship at Duquesne on the final day of the regular season last November.
Boasting a winning record for the first time since 1992, they surely started getting ahead of themselves when they built a 14-0 lead through one quarter.
It was all Duquesne from there, with SFU suffering a 30-20 loss that still stings today.
"It's still in my heart. I can't get rid of that feeling," All-America safety and kick returner Lorenzo Jerome said.
"With the success that came," coach Chris Villarial said, "that's a hard pill to swallow."
The NEC figures to be competitive again, with 2013 and '14 champ Sacred Heart expected to get back into the championship mix. Duquesne is the preseason favorite.
Saint Francis isn't quite the upstart anymore. With an experienced team returning from the breakthrough season - and heartache - Jerome points out, "We know how to win this year."
Duquesne is equally as experienced, though, and committed to playing physical defense. The Dukes nearly upset CAA Football power William & Mary in their first-ever FCS playoff game, falling 52-49 on the road.
This year's goal, star quarterback Dillon Buechel said, "Just take it to the next level. Get back to that point and try to do some damage in the playoffs this year. … Guys on this team love to compete."
Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2016 Northeast Conference race and STATS' predicted order of finish:
2. Sacred Heart
3. Saint Francis
5. Robert Morris
6. Central Connecticut State
1. DUQUESNE DUKES
STADIUM: Arthur J. Rooney Athletic Field
COACH: Jerry Schmitt (68-51 in 11 seasons at Duquesne; 93-69 overall)
LAST SEASON: 8-4 overall, 5-1 NEC (1st)
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Rafiq Douglas, RB; Chris King, WR; Dan Buchholz, OL
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Dillon Buechel, QB, Sr. (228-for-401, 2,871 yards, 24 TDs, 8 INTs)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Christian Kuntz, LB, Sr. (72 TT, 26 TFL, 11 sacks, 4 INTs, 6 PBU, 6 QBH, 1 FR, 2 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: P.J. Fulmore, RB, So.; Wayne Capers, WR, Sr.; Reggie McKnight, WR, Sr.; Nehari Crawford, WR/KR, So.; Dave Thomas, WR, Sr.; Larson Graham, OL, Sr.; Ben Huss, OL, JR.; Jake Radziukinas, DL, Sr.; Nathan Stone, LB, Jr.; Gary Wooten, LB, Sr. (Penn State transfer); Abner Roberts, DB, Jr.; Malik Shegog, DB, Jr.; Austin Crimmins, PK/P, Sr.
OUTLOOK: The defending NEC champion Dukes' talent level remains high despite the unexpected loss of star running back Douglas, who nearly rushed for 1,000 yards as a sophomore. The strong-armed Buechel, who threw for 423 yards and six touchdowns against William & Mary in the Dukes' first-ever FCS playoff game, is a fourth-year starter who was named the NEC's preseason quarterback. He gets back Capers (51 receptions, nine TDs) and developing sophomore Crawford to keep the offense moving the ball. The Dukes are replacing three starters on the offensive line in addition to dropping in the new starting running back, Fulmore. The defense helped force 26 turnovers (which led to a plus-13 turnover margin) and seeks to remain opportunistic. It has an exceptional linebackers corps led by Kuntz, the 2015 NEC defensive player of the year. A bull's-eye is squarely on the Dukes' backs.
Sept. 1, at Youngstown State
Sept. 10, Bucknell
Sept. 17, Dayton
Sept. 24, Kennesaw State
Oct. 1, at Jacksonville
Oct. 15, Robert Morris*
Oct. 22, at Saint Francis*
Oct. 29, Bryant*
Nov. 5, at Wagner*
Nov. 12, Sacred Heat*
Nov. 19, at Central Connecticut State*
* - NEC game
2. SACRED HEART PIONEERS
LOCATION: Fairfield, Connecticut
STADIUM: Campus Field
COACH: Mark Nofri (27-20 in four seasons at Sacred Heart)
LAST SEASON: 6-5 overall, 3-3 NEC (Tie/3rd)
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Tyler Dube, WR; Connor Caveney, DL; Kellen Sperduto, LB
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: RJ Noel, QB, R-Sr. (182-for-325, 2,431 yards, 19 TDs, 9 INTs; 130 carries, 247 yards, 6 TDs)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: James Rentz, LB, Sr. (54 TT, 13 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 1 INT, 2 QBH, 1 FR, 2 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Ose Imeokparia, RB, Sr.; Nate Chavious, RB/KR, Sr.; Moses Webb, WR/DB, R-Sr.; Andrew O'Neill, WR, Jr.; Dhameer Bradley, WR, Jr. (UConn transfer); Sean Merrill, OL, Sr.; Sean Peters, OL, Sr.; Ryan Cottrell, DL, Sr.; Dylan Ackerson, DL, Jr.; Kevin Barry, LB, Sr.; Tim Johnson, CB, Sr.; Alec Finelli, S, Jr.; Alec Finney, PK/P, Sr.
OUTLOOK: The Pioneers have plenty of motivated upperclassmen who won NEC titles in 2013 and '14. Among them is QB Noel, who has won All-NEC first-team honors for three straight years but wasn't the preseason pick by the conference coaches (it was Duquesne's Dillon Buechel). It seems impossible for the Pioneers to replace leading receiver Dube, but they first want to run the ball with Imeokparia and Chavious. Fourth-year starters Rentz and Cottrell lead a defense which has big hitters. The focus has been on improving the pass defense as the Pioneers allowed over 238 passing yards per game last season. Sacred Heart's non-conference schedule isn't taxing - it opens with three Pioneer Football League opponents - so the Pioneers should get off to a solid start in 2016.
Sept. 3, at Stetson
Sept. 10, Valparaiso
Sept. 17, Marist
Sept. 24, at Stony Brook
Oct. 1, at Wagner*
Oct. 15, at Cornell
Oct. 22, Robert Morris*
Oct. 29, Saint Francis*
Nov. 5, at Central Connecticut State*
Nov. 12, at Duquesne*
Nov. 19, Bryant*
* - NEC game
3. SAINT FRANCIS (PA.) RED FLASH
LOCATION: Loretto, Pennsylvania
STADIUM: DeGol Field
COACH: Chris Villarrial (24-41 in six seasons at Saint Francis)
LAST SEASON: 6-4 overall, 4-2 NEC (2nd)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Khairi Dickson, RB; Terell Smith, WR; DaQuan Minter, CB
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Marcus Bagley, RB, Sr.
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Lorenzo Jerome, FS/RS, Sr.
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Zack Drayer, QB, Sr.; Kam Lewis, WR, So.; Cyrus Holder, WR, Fr.; Sam Freireich, LT, Sr.; Christian Eubanks, LG, So.; Jimmy Marks, C, Sr.; Louie Gartner, DE, So.; Wesley Nagaseu, NT, Sr.; Erik Walker, LB, Sr.; Solomon Leaeno, LB, Sr.; Malik Duncan, CB, Jr.; Delondo Boyd, SS, Jr.; Lance Geesey, PK, Sr.
OUTLOOK: Coming of their first winning season since 1992 and their best one on the FCS level, the Red Flash could very well win their first NEC title this year. Their matchup with Duquesne is at DeGol Field. Villarrial likes to play a lot of players, so the depth will pay off. Jerome will keep the secondary at a high level and the defense has a disruptive force in NT Nagaseu. On offense, QB Drayer (152-for-250, 1,977 yards, 15 TDs, 9 INTs) is highly experienced, and the Red Flash return their starting offensive line, anchored by Marks. The loss of All-NEC RB Dickson is tempered by the return of Bagley, a bruiser who was the conference's 2014 offensive rookie of the year. The Red Flash also have dominant special teams, although standout Geesey is coming off hip surgery. Like preseason favorite Duquesne, the Red Flash had a conference-high six selections on the NEC preseason team.
Sept. 3, at Montana
Sept. 10, at Towson
Sept. 17, at Columbia
Sept. 24, at Albany
Oct. 1, Malone
Oct. 8, at Robert Morris*
Oct. 15, Bryant*
Oct. 22, Duquesne*
Oct. 29, at Sacred Heart*
Nov. 12, Central Connecticut State*
Nov. 19, at Wagner*
* - NEC game
4. BRYANT BULLDOGS
LOCATION: Smithfield, Rhode Island
STADIUM: Bulldog Stadium
COACH: Marty Fine (75-55 in 12 seasons at Bryant; 90-60 overall)
LAST SEASON: 5-6 overall, 3-3 NEC (Tie/3rd)
STARTERS RETURNING: 9 (5 offense/ 4 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Ricardo McCray, RB; Chad Ward, WR; Abe M'Bodj, OL
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Dalton Easton, QB, Sr. (205-for-374, 2,601 yards, 22 TDs, 13 INTs)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Patrick Kenney, LB, Sr. (85 TT, 8.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 QBH, 2 FR, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Ryan Black, RB, Sr.; Alfred Dorbor, RB, Fr.; Hunter Taute, FB, Jr.; Taylor Barthelette, WR, Sr.; Matt Sewall, WR, Jr.; Keenan Thompson, WR, Sr.; Tyler Cardoze, OL, Sr.; George Smith, OL, Sr.; Dillon Guthro, DE, R-So.; Joe Mendez, DE, So.; Kevin Lazo, DL, So.; Marquise Watson, DL/LB, Sr.; Robert Brown, LB, Fr.; Thomas Costigan, LB, So.; Charles Wingate, DB, Sr.; Charles Keenan, FS, Sr.; Brandon Owens, SS, Sr.; Patrick Champagnie, DB, Jr.
OUTLOOK: Still seeking their first NEC title, the Bulldogs were picked first in the conference's preseason poll last year and it seemed to weigh on them while they slumped to a mediocre season. With only nine returning starters, they will need young players to fill key roles. Easton is coming off a season in which he led the NEC in passing yards and yards per game, but he won't have running back Ricardo McCray, the 2015 NEC offensive player of the year, around to keep defenses more honest. The Bulldogs should be solid defensively as they return three of their top four tacklers in LBs Kenney and Watson and FS Keenan, while Wingate made the NEC preseason team. The Bulldogs will make a Sept. 10 visit to Montana State - the program's first-ever trip west of the Mississippi River.
Sept. 3, Merrimack
Sept. 10, at Montana State
Sept. 17, Brown
Sept. 24, Central Connecticut State*
Oct. 1, Maine
Oct. 15, at Saint Francis*
Oct. 22, Wagner*
Oct. 29, at Duquesne*
Nov. 5, Robert Morris*
Nov. 12, at Coastal Carolina
Nov. 19, at Sacred Heart*
* - NEC game
5. ROBERT MORRIS COLONIALS
LOCATION: Moon Township, Pennsylvania
STADIUM: Joe Walton Stadium
COACH: John Banaszak (5-17 in two seasons at Robert Morris)
LAST SEASON: 4-7 overall, 2-4 NEC (6th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Forrest Mason, DE; Mike Stojkovic, ILB; Jake Tkach, ILB
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Kyle Buss, WR, R-So. (50 receptions, 742 yards, 2 TDs)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Marcelis Branch, CB, R-Sr. (63 TT, 2 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 1 BK)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Matt Barr, QB, So.; Rameses Owens, RB, Jr.; Cole Blake, RB, Jr.; Warren Robinson, WR/PR, So.; Nic Lamica, TE, R-Jr.; Blake Chambliss, OL, R-Jr.; Ryan Lewis, DE, Sr.; Austin Trgovcich, DE, R-Sr.; Zack Zamiska, DT, R-Jr.; Jimmy Masson, OLB, Sr.; Gerald Ferguson, OLB, Jr.; Drew Allen, CB, Jr.; Ryan Richards Jr., SS, Jr.; Andy Smigiera, WS, Sr.
OUTLOOK: As expected, Banaszak is turning the Colonials into a hard-nosed team. They were among the best in the FCS against the pass last season and their 34 sacks were impressive. With Branch and Smigiera back to anchor the secondary, the Colonials expect similar success this year. But the offense needs improvement after it averaged only 14 points per game. It has a new coordinator in Mike Miller, who began his career with the Colonials under former coach Joe Walton and has 13 years of NFL experience. Barr figures to cut down on interceptions as a sophomore and has a terrific go-to target in Buss, the 2015 NEC offensive rookie of the year. They have to shore up the offensive line, which lost three starters. A healthier Owens (125 carries, 456 yards, 4 TDs) alongside Blake boosts the run game.
Sept. 1, Alderson-Broaddus
Sept. 10, at Dayton
Sept. 17, at Youngstown State
Sept. 24, Malone
Oct. 1, at Liberty
Oct. 8, Saint Francis*
Oct. 15, at Duquesne*
Oct. 22, at Sacred Heart*
Oct. 29, Central Connecticut State*
Nov. 5, at Bryant*
Nov. 12, Wagner*
* - NEC game
6. CENTRAL CONNECTICUT STATE BLUE DEVILS
LOCATION: New Britain, Connecticut
STADIUM: Arute Field
COACH: Pete Rossomando (7-16 in two seasons at Central Connecticut State; 49-29 overall)
LAST SEASON: 4-7 overall, 3-3 NEC (Tie/3rd)
STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (7 offense/9 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Tavion Pauldo, QB; Tyler Hurd, OL; Jevon Elmore, CB
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Cameron Nash, RB/KR, Jr. (118 carries, 676 yards, 3 TDs; 18 receptions, 218 yards, 1 TD)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Asia Bolling, DE/OLB, Sr. (64 TT, 14.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 1 FR, 2 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Jake Dolegala, QB, So.; Brenden Lytton, RB, Sr.; Dan Hebert, WR, Sr.; Joey Fields, WR, Jr.; Alex Jamele, WR, So.; K.J. Smith, TE, So.; Chris Tinkham, DL, So.; Randall LaGuerre, LB, Jr.; Keir Minor, OLB, Sr.; Seth Manzanares, OLB, Jr.; Najae Brown, S, Jr.; Jarrod Cann, S, Jr.; Tymir Hinton, S, So.
OUTLOOK: The two-deep was filled with underclassmen last season, so there's cause for optimism at CCSU. The mobile Pauldo shared time at quarterback as a freshman, but he's no longer in the program, leaving Dolegala to run the offense full-time. The Blue Devils like the ball in the hand of the versatile Nash, although the run game also is getting back Lytton, who was expected to be the starter last year but was injured in preseason camp. All-America CB Elmore, who racked up 18 passes defended, was lost to academics, which means Brown must steady the secondary. Bolling and LB LaGuerre are the defensive standouts. Improvement is vital because the Blue Devils have a tough non-conference schedule which includes James Madison, Coastal Carolina and Penn.
Sept. 2, Lafayette
Sept. 10, at James Madison
Sept. 17, Bowie State
Sept. 24, at Bryant*
Oct. 8, at Penn
Oct. 15, Wagner*
Oct. 22, at Coastal Carolina
Oct. 29, at Robert Morris*
Nov. 5, Sacred Heart*
Nov. 12, at Saint Francis*
Nov. 19, Duquesne*
* - NEC game
7. WAGNER SEAHAWKS
LOCATION: Staten Island, New York
STADIUM: Wagner College Stadium
COACH: Jason Houghtaling (1-10 in one season at Wagner)
LAST SEASON: 1-10 overall, 1-5 NEC (7th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 8 (5 offense/3 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Otis Wright, RB/KR; Stephon Font-Toomer, LB; Greg Hilliard, LB
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Ryan Owens, TE, Grad (29 receptions, 353 yards, 1 TD)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Najee Harris, OLB, Sr. (58 TT, 10 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 INTs, 4 PBU, 3 QBH, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Alex Thomson, QB, Jr.; A.J. Long, QB, Jr.; Matthias McKinnon, RB, Sr.; Denzell Knight, RB, Jr.; Andre Yevchinecz, WR/PR, Sr.; Brandon Peoples, WR, Sr.; Matt Diaz, OL, Sr.; Jordan Baskerville, DE. Jr.; Randall May, LB, Jr.; Tim Hayes, CB, Sr.; Sterling Lowry, CB, So.; Kemani Howard, FS, Jr.; Bryan Rafano, P, Sr.
OUTLOOK: The transition from former coach Walt Hameline to Houghtaling wasn't smooth last season as the Seawhawks dropped off from a 7-4 record and share of the NEC title in 2014. They weren't the usual ball-control team and the defense struggled up the middle. Houghtaling thinks they have to play harder, but it shows in the preseason competition for playing time. Thomson (90-for-175, 1,085 yards, 8 TDs, 6 INTs) is the incumbent at quarterback, but he's been pushed by Long, a transfer from Syracuse. New offensive coordinator Rich Santangello will rely on fifth-year TE Owens for leadership as well as production. The defense seeks improvement after ranking at the bottom of the NEC. Harris is asked to lead a turnaround. With four of the first games at home, the Seahawks can envision a stronger start this season.
Sept. 1, St. Anselm
Sept. 10, Concordia (Mich.)
Sept. 24, at Boston College
Oct. 1, Sacred Heart*
Oct. 8, Columbia
Oct. 15, at Central Connecticut State*
Oct. 22, at Bryant*
Oct. 29, at Massachusetts
Nov. 5, Duquesne*
Nov. 12, at Robert Morris*
Nov. 19, Saint Francis*
* - NEC game
Updated August 15, 2016