Philadelphia, PA – Who's the favorite to win the Northeast Conference this season?
It's a difficult question to answer, as any of the top-seven teams from last season could be considered a preseason favorite.
Last season, Central Connecticut State and Robert Morris tied for the conference championship, with Robert Morris claiming the FCS playoff berth - the first ever for the conference - by winning a head-to-head match-up.
But, even with conference championship rings on their fingers, neither of the co-champs from 2010 are shoo-ins to sit atop the standings.
"Your eyes are in the front of your head to look forward," Blue Devils coach Jeff McInerney said. "You can't look to the past, you have to get strapped up for the challenge."
An extra pair of eyes in the back of their heads would be helpful for McInerney and Robert Morris head coach Joe Walton, as they'll be looking both directions with the traffic jam of teams racing for a title.
With Duquesne, Albany, Monmouth, Bryant and Wagner all viable competitors for the NEC title, it's easier to list the teams who likely won't be in the running - Sacred Heart and St. Francis (Pa.).
Winning four of its last five, Duquesne showed last season the transition from Division II is complete, and with one of the most experienced offensive lines in the NEC - and the country - the Dukes could cap off their fourth year as a Division I program with a conference championship.
"We were excited about how we finished last year," Dukes head coach Jerry Schmitt said. "You know it's the sign of a good season when after the last game they (the players) don't want it to end."
Albany is another team that probably didn't want the 2010 season to come to an end, as it won three straight games to finish 6-5.
Bryant one-upped Albany record-wise last season, but the Bulldogs face incredible questions after a pair of injuries shook an offensive unit that was supposed to be the supporting cast for Jordan Brown's breakout season.
"We've lost about 11 kids from the end of the spring till now," Bryant head coach Marty Fine said. "But the two biggest names are our left guard (Raymond Bundy, pulmonary edema) and our quarterback (Mike Croce, broken foot)."
Even if Bryant can overcome injuries and win the conference title, the Bulldogs won't be eligible for a NEC title until last season.
Monmouth and Wagner - who unlike Bryant are eligible for a championship - each return experienced quarterbacks and are likely to help shape the conference race.
Once again, that conference race will end with the champion marching on into the FCS playoffs, an experience Robert Morris hopes can provide an extra intangible for its young roster that graduated 22 seniors.
"That experience of being in a playoff is certainly going to help them this season," Walton said.
Even though Robert Morris is the only team to have reached the FCS playoffs, it's still anyone's guess at which team will earn the bid this season.
Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2011 Northeast Conference race:
The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:
1. Central Connecticut State
4. Robert Morris
8. Sacred Heart
9. St. Francis (Pa.)
Offensive Player of the Year: Jeff Sinclair, QB, Robert Morris
Defensive Player of the Year: Josh Gumbs, SS, Monmouth
1. CENTRAL CONNECTICUT STATE BLUE DEVILS (8-3 overall; 7-1 Northeast Conference)
COACH: Jeff McInerney (38-18 in six seasons at Central Connecticut State; 38-18 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Gunnar Jespersen, Sr. (145 of 243 for 1,918 yards, 11 TDs, 8 INT; 141 carries for 495 yards, 6 TDs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DL Charles Williams, So. (47 TT, 6 TFL, 6 sacks)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Nate Pagan, Sr. (36 carries for 117 yards, 3 TDs) RB Chris Tolbert, So. (31 carries for 148 yards, 3 TDs;10 receptions for 149 yards, 1 TD) WR Deven Baker, Jr. (19 receptions for 215 yards, 1 TD) WR Raul DeBenedittis, Sr. (13 receptions for 155 yards, 1 TD) OL Dewayne Dawkins, Sr. OL Brendan Brackett, Sr. OL Garth Harrison, Sr. OL Casey Ryan, Sr. OL David Sabilia, So. DL Dominic Giampietro, Sr. (47 TT, 3.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks) DL Lawton Arnold, Jr. (39 TT, 2 TFL, 5.5 sacks) DL Gene Johnson, Sr. (37 TT, 1.5 sacks, 1 TFL) LB Issiah Boddie, Sr. (62 TT, 2 sacks, 4 TFL, 1 INT) LB Lorenzo Baker, Jr. (78 TT, 5 TFL, 4 PBU) LB Josh Alaeze, Fr. DB Chris Linares, So. (27 TT, 8 PBU, 2 INT) DB Londan Lomax, Sr. (15 TT) P Greg Migdal, Jr. (38.1 avg.) PR/KR Nick Bacarella, So. (9.2 PR avg.; 18.0 KR avg.)
OUTLOOK: Last season, Central Connecticut State split the NEC title with Robert Morris, but missed out on the conference's first FCS' playoff appearance since the Colonials won - and dominated - the head-to-head meeting. This season, Central Connecticut State will look to avenge its so-close-but- yet-so-far finish in 2010, behind dual-threat quarterback Gunnar Jespersen. The Blue Devils' top returning passer (1,918 yards, 11 TDs) and rusher (495 yards, 6 TDs), Jespersen will run an offense that must replace its top three receivers and top rusher from last season. The defense provides an interesting mix of returning starters and underclassmen, but may have a heavy heart after defensive lineman Rich Royster was killed in car accident in January. Having the motivation to avenge a tough loss to Robert Morris and playing for a fallen teammate, the Blue Devils certainly have the intangibles to win both the NEC title and coinciding playoff berth.
2. DUQUESNE DUKES (7-4 overall; 5-3 Northeast Conference)
COACH: Jerry Schmitt (33-29 in six seasons at Duquesne; 61-50 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Larry McCoy, Jr. (252 carries for 1,291 yards, 6 TDs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DB Serge Kona, Jr. (64 TT, 11.5 TFL, 3 PBU, 1 INT; moves from LB)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Sean Patterson, Jr. (156 of 288 for 2,050 yards, 20 TDs, 10 INT; 80 carries for 286 yards, 3 TDs) RB/KR Ryan Ho, So. (27 carries for 81 yards; 29.4 KR avg.) RB Bill Bair, Sr. (23 carries for 80 yards; 13 receptions for 135 yards) WR Akeem More, Jr. (22 receptions for 322 yards, 2 TDs) WR Joe Cangilla, Sr. (8 receptions for 111 yards, 1 TD) WR Brooks Roorback, Sr. TE Brian Layhue, Sr. (played OL line last season) OL Ron Dunn, Sr. OL Cameron Downey, Sr. OL Jamaal Thomas, Sr. OL Eric Warning, Jr. OL Jeremy Summers, Fr. (JC transfer) DL Alex Inda, Sr. (55 TT, 3 TFL, 3 sacks, 4 PBU) DL Mike Passodelis, Sr. (25 TT, 3 TFL) DL Aldon Sutton, Sr. (15 TT) DL Reggie Eiland, So. (9 TT) LB Ashton Burno, Sr. (29 TT, 1 TFL, 1 sack) LB Derrick Lakins, Jr. (41 TT, 2 TFL, 1 sack) LB Anthony Rhoades, Sr. (6 TT last season before injury; 51 TT in 2009) LB Christopher Oliver, Sr. (28 TT) DB Khiry Carter, Sr. (58 TT, 2 TFL, 3 PBU) DB Aaron Fitzpatrick, Sr. (14 TT, 3 PBU) DB/PR Jared Williams, Sr. (19 TT, 1 sack, 2 PBU, 1 INT) P Aaron Fleck, So. (32.8 avg.) P/K Charlie Leventry, Jr. (30.4 avg.)
OUTLOOK: Having made the move from Division II, the Dukes for the first time will have a full allotment of scholarship athletes this season, a fact which could help improve upon last season's 5-3 conference mark. The strength of the offense lies in the line that returns all five starters - even though RG Brian Layhue moves to TE. The line, which is anchored by LT Ron Dunn, will provide ample protection and pave running lanes for quarterback Sean Patterson and running back Larry McCoy. While the Dukes lose their top receivers from last season, the combination of an experienced quarterback and an even more experienced line should help ease away any issues. The defense took a step forward last season under new defensive coordinator Dave Opfar and should continue in that direction. Getting Robert Morris and Central Connecticut State st home will help the Dukes' NEC championship aspirations.
3. ALBANY GREAT DANES (6-5 overall; 4-4 Northeast Conference)
COAH: Bob Ford (238-153 in 41 seasons at Albany; 247-174-1 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STARS: RB Andrew Smith, Jr. (162 carries for 724 yards, 7 TDs; 12 receptions for 119 yards, 1 TD) and RB/KR Dillon Romain, So. (130 carries for 547 yards, 6 TDs; 25.1 KR avg.)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DL Eddie Delaney, Sr. (41 TT, 4.5 TFL)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Dan Di Lella, Sr. (86 of 167 for 720 yards, 3 TDs, 4 INT) QB Buddy Leathely, So. (67 of 125 for 748 yards, 4 TDs, 5 INT; 53 carries for 178 yards, 2 TDs) WR/PR Ryan Kirchner, Jr. (50 receptions for 1 TD; 10.4 PR avg., 1 TD) WR Nick Hutcherson, Jr. (19 receptions for 169 yards) WR Jameel Gay, So. (18 receptions for 139 yards, 1 TD) WR Kevin Chillis, So. (6 receptions for 105 yards, 1 TD) WR John Lullen, Sr. (11 receptions for 100 yards, 1 TD) TE Paul Booker, Jr.(10 receptions for 106 yards, 1 TD) OL Kyle O'Keefe, Sr. OL Keith Peifer, Sr. OL Justin Anderson, Jr. OL Kadeem Williams, So. OL Jordan Migliore, Jr. DL Zach Gallo, Sr. (32 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack) DL Ocieka Bakou, Jr. (24 TT, 1.5 sacks, 1 PBU) DL Marc Wargo, Sr. (17 TT, 2.5 TFL, 2 sacks) LB Rayomond Dorcley, Sr. (26 TT, 2 TFL) LB Dave Plungas, Jr. (71 TT, 3 TFL, 1 PBU) LB Jon Morgan, Jr. (54 TT, 2 PBU, 1 INT) DB Justin Hassan, Jr. (51 TT, 5 PBU, 2 INT) DB Jake Ciccarello, Sr. (51 TT, 2 PBU, 2 INT) DB Leon Saddler, Jr. (41 TT, 1 sack, 4 PBU) DB Randall Exantus, So. (20 TT, 2 TFL, 5 PBU, 1 INT) P Paul Layton, So. (40.1 avg.) K Herb Glass, Sr. (8-19 FG, 28-29 XP, long 45)
OUTLOOK: In its first 11 seasons in the Northeast Conference, Albany had never suffered a losing season. It appeared that streak would end last season when the Great Danes found themselves at 1-4 in the conference with three games remaining. However, victories against Sacred Heart, Wagner and Monmouth allowed Albany to finish the season at 4-4 in the NEC. Having a number of young players step up during that stretch, including running backs Andrew Smith and Dillon Romain, the Great Danes seem poised to compete for a conference title this season. Romain and Smith combined to rush for 1,271 yards and 13 touchdowns, while sophomore quarterback Buddy Leathely emerged as a dual threat option over the last five games of the season. Lead by defensive end Eddie Delaney, who was born without a left hand, the defense is loaded with talent and may be the best in the conference. Justin Hassan and Jake Ciccarello are a more-than-capable tandem at safety, and provide a security blanket for the rest of the defense. While the kicking game has room for improvement, Paul Layton did a solid job punting as a freshman and should continue so this season. With a veteran coach leading the way, the Great Danes are one of the favorites to win the NEC this season.
4. ROBERT MORRIS COLONIALS (8-3 overall; 7-1 Northeast Conference)
COACH: Joe Walton (103-70-1 in 17 seasons at Robert Morris; 103-70-1 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 9 (6 offense/3 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Jeff Sinclair, Jr. (128 of 257 for 1,920 yards, 22 TDs, 10 INT; 70 carries for 180 yards, 5 TDs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DL Nolan Nearhoof, Jr. (49 TT, 5.5 sacks, 1 PBU)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: HB Jamar Cromwell, Sr. (10 carries for 60 yards) HB Deonatae Howard, So. WR Anthony Coleman, Sr. (22 receptions for 350 yards, 5 TDs) WR Jamie Cobb, Sr. (18 receptions for 280 yards, 3 TDs) TE Paul Evans, Sr. (4 receptions for 70 yards, 2 TDs) TE Shadrae King, Sr. (43 receptions for 431 yards, 7 TDs) OL Logan Miles, Sr. OL Brad Rodgers, Sr. OL Brain Bevilacqua, Sr. OL AJ Dalton, So. OL Taylor Evans, Fr. OL Nate Hargraves, Jr. DL Sam Miller, Sr. (converted from center) DL Steve Mitchell, Jr. (37 TT, 2 TFL, 2.5 sacks) LB Brad Banas, Jr. (39 TT, 2.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 INT) LB Jon Krepps, Sr. (15 TT, 2 TFL) LB Andrew Douglas, Jr. (JC transfer) LB Sanchez Fauge, Sr. (8 TT) DB Alex Tarr, Sr. (8 TT, 1 PBU, 1 INT) DB Antwan Smith, Jr. (JC transfer) DB Eric Lowry, Jr. (17 TT, 2 INT) DB Ben Ridgley, Jr. (4 TT, 1 TFL, 2 INT) P Anthony LaMancusa, Fr. K Greg Langer, Jr. (15-16 XP, 1-2 FG, long 46) PR/DB Evan Taylor, So. (15.3 PR avg.)
OUTLOOK: Last season, Robert Morris clinched the Northeast title and the conference's first-ever playoff berth with a 42-24 victory against Central Connecticut State late in the season. This year, many of those players who played a key role in the victory, and the rest of the season, are gone as the Colonials return only nine starters. The offense (six starters back) shouldn't struggle that much, as it'll be in the more-than-capable hands of quarterback Jeff Sinclair, who could challenge for some postseason honors. Losing the top four running backs off last season's depth chart hurts, but should add extra opportunity for Sinclair to hook up with his top receiver from last season, Anthony Coleman, and both of his big tight ends - Shradae King (6-foot-3, 225 lbs) and Paul King (6-4, 240 pounds) - who could become valuable targets as both safety-valves and in the red zone. While the offense has its field general back, the defense is going to certainly go through some growing pains as only three starters from the championship season return. While Dolan Nearhoff and Steve Mitchell provide a pair of valuable pass rushes at defensive end, converted center Sam Miller must figure out the nose guard position quickly or an inexperienced secondary and linebacking core could be in trouble. The schedule doesn't lend much to success either, as the Colonels have to visit Albany, Central Connecticut State and Duquesne this season.
5. MONMOUTH HAWKS (3-8 overall; 3-5 Northeast Conference)
COACH: Kevin Callahan (104-80 in 18 seasons at Monmouth; 104-80 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 10 (5 offense/5 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Kyle Frazier, Sr. (182 of 297 for 2,072 yards, 9 TDs, 6 INT; 84 carries for 334 yards, 4 TDs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DB Jose Gumbs, Sr. (76 TT, 3 TFL, 8 PBU, 1 INT)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Balial Sloan El, Sr. (51 carries for 231 yards, 2 TDs) RB Kwabena Asante, So. (transfer from West Virginia) FB Justin Pandorf, Jr. (4 receptions for 32 yards) WR Mitchell Pollard, So. (23 receptions for 364 yards, 1 TD) WR Neal Sterling, So. WR Darvin Henderson, Sr. (1 reception for 8 yards) TE Michael McLafferty, Jr. (7 receptions for 69 yards) TE Tyler George, Sr. (36 receptions for 366 yards, 2 TDs) OL Mike Murphy, Sr. OL Dino Molina, Jr. OL Jim Sullivan, Sr. OL Josh Patterson, Jr. OL Mike Hunchack, Jr. DL Chris Luma, Jr. (24 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack) DL Mike Pranulis, Jr. (20 TT, 1 TFL) DL Mike Upham, Jr. (32 TT, 1 TFL, 1.5 sacks) DL Ian Simon, Sr. (8 TT) LB Chris Mastrangelo, Sr. (66 TT, 4 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 PBU) LB Jon Rogers, Sr. (20 TT, 1 TFL) LB Nick Bonturi, Sr. (missed 2010 with an injury) LB Dan Sullivan, So. (3 TT, injured much of 2010) DB Dorian Evans, Sr. (5 TT) DB Andrew Sutton, Jr. DB Elijah Phillips, Jr. (missed 2010 with injury; 29 TT, 1 INT, 2 PBU in 2009) DB Reggie Hildebrandt, Sr. (transfer from Morgan State) K/P Eric Spillane, So. (24-29 XP, 16-22 FG, long 46)
OUTLOOK: Last season the Hawks lost four games by a single point and another three by single digits, proving Monmouth was more competitive than its 3-8 record would lead you to believe. However, in a results-based game, close losses need to be turned into wins, and that's the challenge facing Monmouth this season. On offense, the Hawks have a reliable quarterback in Kyle Frazier, but a lack of depth at wide receiver is a major concern - other than Mitchell Pollard (23 receptions) the rest of the wide receivers coming back combined for one catch last season. With questions surrounding the passing attack, the running game could improve this season, as the offensive line is loaded with upperclassmen and West Virginia transfer Kwabena Asante could combine with Balial Sloan El to create one of the better running back tandems in the league. While the defense only returns five starters from last season, that number is misleading because cornerback Elijah Phillips and linebackers Nick Bonturi and Dan Sullivan return from injuries. Phillips, who showed some shutdown ability as a true freshman in 2009, is part of strong safety Jose Gumbs' supporting cast in the secondary, and that group has potential to be one of the best in the conference. With most of its tougher opponents visiting Kessler Field, expect Monmouth to turn last season's close losses into victories and once again post a winning record.
6. BRYANT BULLDOGS (7-4 overall; 4-4 Northeast Conference)
COACH: Marty Fine (46-28 in seven seasons at Bryant; 68-37 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (7 offense/5 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Jordan Brown, Jr. (268 carries for 1,489 yards, 15 TDs; 12 receptions for 134 yards, 1 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DB Samad Wagstaff, Sr. (45 TT, 5 PBU, 3 INT)
OUTLOOK: QB Mike Croce, Sr. (143 of 251 for 1,780 yards, 13 TDs, 6 INT; broken foot) QB Mike Westerhaus, So. QB Ray Doucette, Jr. RB Michael Perry, So. (24 carries for 128 yards, 1 TD) WR Jordan Harris, So. (25 receptions for 476 yards, 2 TDs) WR Shavoy Lawrence, Jr. (5 receptions for 63 yards) TE Matt Tracey, Sr. (30 receptions for 382 yards, 5 TDs) OL Tony Edwards, Sr. OL Jon Lewis, Sr. OL Chris Willadsen, Jr. OL Cody Aughney, Sr. OL Justin Corrales, So. DL Joshua Janes, Sr. (42 TT, 3 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 INT) DL Jordan Kelly, Jr. (18 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 PBU) DL Christopher Sywetz, Jr. (28 TT, 3.5 TFL) DL Michael Garcia, Jr. (6 TT) LB Franck Tebou, Sr. (55 TT, 5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 PBU) LB Dominick Mitchell, So. (13 TT) LB Paul Hanley, Sr. (15 TT, 2 TFL) DB Max Machado, So. (30 TT, 4 PBU, 4 INT) DB Tyler Carter, Sr. (16 TT, 1 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 INT) DB Stefaun Whitehead, Jr. (38 TT, 3 TFL, 6 PBU, 1 INT) P Brandon Lockerby, Jr. (37.0 avg.) K Nolan Gelman, So. KR/PR/DB Jeremy Woodson, So. (15 TT, 1 PBU; 11.6 PR avg.; 18.9 KR avg.)
OUTLOOK: One of the success stories when it comes to making the transition from Division II, Bryant is a program on the verge or being a bona fide competitor in the NEC. However, this season will give coach Marty Fine a test as he'll have to deal with a number of unforeseen injuries. The Bulldogs were supposed to have all five members of the offensive line returning this season, but left guard Raymond Bundy suffered a career-ending injury. In addition to Bundy's injury, Bryant also will be without starting quarterback Mike Croce for a undetermined amount of time after he broke his foot. Filling in for Croce - which will likely be a four- or five-game stretch - will be Mike Westerhaus and Ray Doucette, neither of which have thrown an collegiate pass. Injuries around him have added pressure to running back Jordan Brown, who ran for 1,410 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. The defense is a talented group, which despite some questions at linebacker, should be difficult to pass against this season. Samad Wagstaff (3 INT) and Max Machado (4 INT) anchor the secondary, and each could improve upon their takeaway totals as the defensive line could give quarterbacks fits. If not for the injuries, Bryant would have had potential to beat any team on its schedule, but with Croce missing time and needing time to recover, the Bulldogs are in for an interesting season.
7. WAGNER SEAHAWKS (5-6 overall; 3-5 Northeast Conference)
COACH: Walt Hameline (200-116-2 in 30 seasons at Wagner; 200-116-2 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 7 (3 offense/4 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Nick Doscher, Jr. (148 of 296 for 2,067 yards, 16 TDs, 15 INT; 188 carries for 672 yards, 6 TDs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Julian Stanford, Sr. (64 TT, 5.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 3 PBU)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Dominque Williams, Jr. (missed 2010 with injury) RB Wandy Saintilien, (JC transfer) WR David Crawford, Sr. (35 receptions for 629 yards, 3 TDs) WR Justin Matthews, Sr. (30 receptions for 450 yards, 5 TDs) WR Sean O'Reilly, Sr. WR Dan Ford, Jr. (12 receptions for 91 yards, 1 TD) TE Joe Sidaras, So. TE Bryant Watts, So. OL Steve Ciocci, Jr. (transfer from Temple) OL Anthony Harper, Jr. OL Omar Fahnbulleh, Jr. OL David Frederickson, So. OL Ian Cunningham, So. DL Quintin Anderson, Sr. (26 TT, 1 FF, 1 FR, INT) DL Sal Gigante, Sr. (8 TT) DL Derrick Forrest, Sr. (22 TT, 2.5 TFL, 2 sacks) DL Lawrence Williams, Jr. (18 TT, 1 sack) DL Josh Martinez, So. (2 TT) LB Carl-Oliver Prime, Jr. (71 TT, 3.5 TFl, 1.5 sacks, 1 PBU) LB Don Gaston, Sr. (35 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack) LB Sidiq Soulemana, Jr. (JC transfer) DB Jeremiah Brown, Sr. (26 TT, 1 TFL, 2 PBU) DB/PR Torian Phillips, Jr. (played running back last season) DB Jarret Dieudonne, So. (transfer from Purdue) DB Dannie Bolden, Sr. (transfer from Central Michigan) K David Lopez, Jr. (11-17 FG)
OUTLOOK: Last season, Wagner handed head coach Walt Hameline his 200th career win with a 31-20 win against Monmouth. That victory proved to be the last of the season, as the Seahawks dropped their final two games to finish with a sub-.500 record. This season, the Seahawks only return seven starters and have new offensive and defensive coordinators, which suggests this season is a rebuilding one for Wagner. Quarterback Nick Doscher, a former minor league baseball player with the Kansas City Royals, could improve this season, but with only two other offensive starters its likely his statistics won't reflect his improving skill set. On defense, the Seahawks are hoping for some quick fixes in the secondary in the form of transfers and position changes. Torian Phillips, a running back and a former transfer from Syracuse, makes the move to defensive back and is joined by FBS transfers Jarret Dieudonne and Dannie Bolden. With a difficult road schedule - at Richmond, Bryant, Cornell, Duquesne and Robert Morris - Wagner is likely to once again finish below the .500 mark.
8. SACRED HEART PIONEERS (4-7 overall; 2-6 Northeast Conference)
COACH: Paul Gorham (29-45 in seven seasons; 29-45 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (6 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: TE Rich Rossi, Sr. (51 receptions for 704 yards, 5 TDs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Chris Mandas, Sr. (88 TT, 7.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 5 PBU, 1 INT)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Luke Wischnowski, So. QB Tim Little, So. RB Gregory Ibe, So. (79 carries for 453 yards, 2 TDs) RB Gregg Moore, So. (10 receptions for 76 yards) WR Gary Coles, Sr. (30 receptions for 411 yards, 5 TDs) WR Rock Tate, Jr. (17 receptions for 203 yards, 1 TD) WR Sean Kessler, Jr. (13 receptions for 151 yards, 1 TD) WR Jo Jo Jamiel, Jr. (5 receptions for 57 yards) OL Justin Martel, Sr. OL Dylan Larson, Sr. OL Bill Romaniello, Jr. OL Jake Cuneo, So. OL Ben Eedle, So. DL Justin Embler, Sr. (52 TT, 9 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 INT) DL Vinny Branchini, Sr. (32 TT, 1 TFL) DL Tyler Foehr, Jr. (16 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PBU) LB Mike Zambarano, Sr. (79 TT, 5.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 int) LB Niko Sierra, Jr. (49 TT, 1.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 10 PBU) LB Paul Graziadei, Sr. (8 TT) DB Ahmad Covington, Sr. (41 TT, 3.5 TFL, 6 PBU, 2 INT) DB Titus McIntosh, Jr. (43 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 PBU) DB Alex Aitkens, So. (8 TT) DB Jean-Daniel Roussel, Fr. DB Rueben McIntosh, Jr. (5 TT, 2 PBU) P Robert Shepherd, Jr. (38.7 avg.)
OUTLOOK: It's hard to dissect the Pioneers' 4-7 record from last season. Sacred Heart had close losses to Dartmouth, Robert Morris and Bryant - all teams with above .500 records - but also had an inexplicable 41-0 defeat at the hands of NEC cellar dweller St. Francis. This season, the Pioneers have to replace their running back, quarterback and leading wide receiver from last season, a formidable task which adds pressure to the offensive line. The line - in addition to tight end Rich Rossi - will be the stars of the unit, and how well they protects either Luke Wischnowski or Tim Little could determine this team's fate. On defense, the Pioneers return seven starters, a group which had one of the better pass defenses in the conference last season. Chris Mandas provides stability in the linebacking unit, with fellow senior Mike Zambarano which will make life easier on some of the younger players in the secondary. With five of its final eight games on the road, Sacred Heart isn't going to climb much higher than the bottom of the Northeast standings.
9. ST. FRANCIS (PA.) RED FLASH (1-10 overall; 1-7 Northeast Conference)
COACH: Chris Villarrial (1-10 in one season at St. Francis; 1-10 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Kyle Harbridge, Jr. (117 carries for 593 yards, 3 TDs; 22 receptions for 168 yards, 1 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DB Jakob DeMedal, So. (63 TT, 1.5 TFL, 4 PBU, 2 INT)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB John Kelly, Jr. (141 of 267 for 1,314 yards, 12 TDs, 8 INT; 66 carries for 148 yards, 2 TDs) RB Taylor Holby, Jr. (17 carries for 48 yards) FB Kevin Parker, Jr. (8 receptions for 101 yards, 1 TD) WR Anthony Howze, Sr.(31 receptions for 289 yards) WR Jeffrey Wasilewski, Jr. (10 carries for 114 yards, 2 TDs) WR Dane Domonkos, So. (5 receptions for 100 yards, 1 TD) WR Jacob Novicki, So. (3 receptions for 35 yards) OL William Houston, Jr. OL Jordan Kelly, Sr. OL Jake Smith, Jr. OL William Hall, Sr. DL Robert Smith, Jr. (10 TT, 1 TFL, 1 INT) DL Christopher Shepard, Jr. (28 TT, 3 sacks) DL Keaena Moose, So. (19 TT, 2 sacks) DL Paul Print, Jr. (10 TT, 1.5 TFL) LB Ryan Revtai, Sr. (55 TT, 2 sacks, 3 TFl, 1 PBU) LB Anthony Bowman, So. (27 TT, 2.5 TFL) DB Tony Armstead, Sr. (25 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PBU, 1 INT) DB Michael Brown, So. (28 TT, 1.5 TFL, 3 PBU, 1 INT) DB Alford Thompson, So. (28 TT, 2 PBU, 1 INT) DB Luke McConnel, Sr. (35 TT, 2 TFL, 3 PBU, 2 INT) P Andrew Penska, So. (37.8 avg.) K Josh Thiel, Jr. (2-5 FG)
OUTLOOK: It's been 18 seasons since the Red Flash have posted a winning season and St. Francis would have gone winless if not for a shocking 41-0 win against Sacred Heart last season. Head coach Chris Villarrial, a former NFL offensive lineman, has 13 starters returning, but needs some players to surpass their past performances in order for the Red Flash to win some games this season. Running back Kyle Harbridge is the offense's best weapon and with four starting linemen back, the sophomore could come close to a 1,000-yard season. The defense, which is led by new defensive coordinator Jake Nulph, has a good mix of young players, including sophomore defensive backs Jakob DeMedal, Michael Brown and Alford Thompson, who could be the conference's best unit in a couple years. Facing a tough schedule, the Red Flash might be a better team than last season, but may still only post a single victory.