Published April 18, 2012
| Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA – Spring practices at many FCS schools are winding to a conclusion, if they haven't done so already.
What some teams see today is not necessarily what they will have in four-and- a-half months when the season kicks off on Aug. 30. There will be injuries, late transfers and plenty of depth chart adjustments along the way.
Some uncertainty will linger for a long time, but teams use spring practice to answer as many questions as possible and develop backups and newcomers for key spots.
Following are perhaps the biggest issues being solved by teams that could comprise the national preseason top 10 come August:
North Dakota State (14-1, 7-1 Missouri Valley) - The reigning FCS champion Bison don't return a player who has caught a touchdown pass in the last two seasons and will struggle to replace Warren Holloway on the perimeter and the blocking size of tight end Matt Veldman. Still, the Bison receiving corps has gotten a boost this spring. Sophomore-to-be wide receiver Trevor Gebhart, who's been injury-prone, has stood out and figures to be an answer opposite returning starter Ryan Smith. Zach Vraa is another talented, though often- injured wide receiver, and Garrett Bruhn should step into Veldman's role despite being a good six inches shorter at 6-foot-1.
Sam Houston State (14-1, 7-0 Southland) - Last year's national runner-up is filling only a small handful of holes, but that includes two spots on the offensive line after the losses of two first-team All-Southland Conference selections, center Travis Watson and left guard Chris Crockett. The O-line rotated eight players last season, so it should be able to keep a high level of play. The Bearkats are expecting center Justin Havard and left guard Joey White, who will be sophomores, to take over the starting spots. Some of their work is literally coming on the fly, as new offensive coordinator Doug Ruse has been installing a no-huddle philosophy.
Georgia Southern (11-3, 7-1 SoCon) - Neither Jerick McKinnon nor Ezayi Youyoute has separated himself as the Eagles try to replace Jaybo Shaw at quarterback, but that might be a positive. Coach Jeff Monken did not name a starter and said after the Blue-White game that both would see time at quarterback and likely be on the field together a lot. McKinnon has more experience and his one completion in the intrasquad game was a 75-yard touchdown, but Youyoute will be trusted more as a passer. Neither QB ran the triple option in high school, although both have the breakaway ability to excel in it. Indeed, two just may be better than one.
Montana (11-3, 7-1 Big Sky) - As spring practice winds down - so much better than the way it started - how the new leadership is healing the program outweighs the big need of replacing nine defensive starters. Interim head coach Mick Delaney, a coaching veteran of 44 years - including the last four at Montana - has steadied the program since the firing of Robin Pflugrad. He knows to give a lot of responsibility to his assistants, so the last three weeks have allowed the coaching staff to work on necessary issues like plugging the holes on defense.
Montana State (10-3, 7-1 Big Sky) - If you didn't know about the questions on the offensive line, you might consider the Bobcats a leading favorite to win the national title. But the O-line, through injuries and youthfulness, is a work in progress that first-year offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven has been put in charge of solving for quarterback DeNarius McGhee and a superb running game. John Weidenaar should be an excellent left tackle and smallish center Shaun Sampson and right tackle Steven Foster bring senior experience to the table. Redshirt freshmen are in the mix at tackle, although sophomore Quinn Catalano, Weidenaar's backup, could move there.
Appalachian State (8-4, 6-2 SoCon) - Head coach Jerry Moore has so many new assistant coaches that it's been a huge offseason issue, but the Mountaineers also are looking for new playmakers offensively. Quarterback Jamal Jackson is entrenched, but no longer can rely on playmakers Brian Quick and Travaris Cadet. Tony Washington is the likely new No. 1 wideout, and possession receiver Andrew Peacock and 6-5 redshirt freshman Sean Price are having strong spring campaigns. At running back, senior Rod Chisholm is back from academic ineligibility last fall, when Steven Miller excelled as a backup to Cadet. The newcomers include Western Kentucky transfer Quartterrio Morgan and Tysean Holloway, a highly touted true freshman who already is on campus after an early high school graduation. Michael Frazier has moved over from the defensive side of the ball to be a short-yardage back and pass-catcher.
Old Dominion (10-3, 6-2 CAA) - Head coach Bobby Wilder made changes with the defensive coaches after his team ranked 81st nationally in total defense and surrendered 55 points in a FCS playoff loss to Georgia Southern. Bill Dee has moved to acting defensive coordinator and secondary coach Keita Malloy is the assistant defensive coordinator. The focus has been on improving the tackling, the pass defense and the overall speed. Having installed a back-to-basics approach, the Monarchs feature some excellent pieces in nose guard Chris Burnette, linebacker Craig Wilkins and cornerback Eriq Lewis.
Towson (9-3, 7-1 CAA) - The Tigers not only need the secondary to improve this season, they have needed it to jell this spring. Although last season was a wildly successful one, the playoff loss to Lehigh still stings, and quarterback Chris Lum put an exclamation on the fact four of the last five opponents scored at least 30 points. The secondary has three FBS transfers in potential starters Darren Givens, a safety from Rutgers, and Jordan Love, a cornerback from Georgia, as well as Ben Harvey (South Carolina). First-team All-CAA strong safety Jordan Dangerfield returns alongside both starting cornerbacks, Corey Ford and Tye Smith. The individual competition has been fierce this offseason.
James Madison (8-5, 5-3 CAA) - The running game will be strong again, but the Dukes are trying to improve one of the FCS' least productive passing units at 126.2 yards per game last season. Tight end Brian Barlow is outstanding; it's the wide receivers who must step up their play. Renard Robinson is the breakaway threat for quarterback Justin Thorpe. But Robinson, Andre Coble, Quintin Hunter, DeAndre' Smith and Daniel Brown combined to catch only 38 passes and three touchdowns last year. The experience of another season should make the unit better.
New Hampshire (8-4, 6-2 CAA) - Up north, the Wildcats go later into the spring with a May 5 wrap-up. The focus has been on replacing quarterback Kevin Decker, the 2011 CAA Offensive Player of the Year. The starter will come from senior James Brady and sophomore Andy Vailas, who are neck-and-neck in the race. Brady is the more seasoned signal-caller, as he was Decker's backup last season after transferring in from Georgetown in 2010, but Vailas is highly regarded as well. No matter who wins the starting job, the new QB gets back the entire starting offensive line, so there's a chance for quick success.
Traditional powers Northern Iowa and Wofford will garner significant consideration for the preseason Top 10, but may fall just outside it. UNI has a rugged schedule early in the season and both squads lost some key seniors.
The Sports Network Preseason FCS Top 25 will be released Aug. 13.