The last two years have been exciting, new times for members of the Northeast Conference. Teams are finally eligible for the FCS postseason, so now more than ever, every conference matchup means a lot more.
The conference's automatic qualifying bid has only added to the NEC's competitive nature. Just in the last two seasons, four different teams have claimed a share of the conference title: Robert Morris and Central Connecticut State two years ago, and Albany and Duquesne last year.
While the Great Danes have literally been the top dog in recent years (finishing at least first or second since 2007), the program announced it will join the Colonial Athletic Association in football only beginning in the 2013 season.
After the 2012 season, the NEC will have eight teams unless Rhode Island follows through with a potential move from the CAA and keep the conference at nine. With the loss of Albany, a handful of teams will be looking to step up and prove the NEC can play with the rest of the FCS.
One of those teams, Duquesne, has gradually improved each year since it joined the conference in 2008. The Dukes struggled in their first two seasons, winning only four conference games. But in 2010 they went 5-3 and last year the program won a share of the conference title while finishing 7-1 and 9-2 overall.
"It has been a long process of developing our program into the NEC, which is such an outstanding conference," Duquesne coach Jerry Schmitt said. "We've learned along the way and look forward to continuing to compete each and every week. It's absolutely a competition and a battle, that's what is so challenging and so fun about this conference every week."
Duquesne's only NEC loss last season came against Albany and it cost the Dukes a trip to the playoffs. Schmitt is hoping the return of three senior players - McCoy, Patterson and Kona - not to mention, the FCS' No. 1-ranked pass defense in 2011, will result in a different outcome.
"We're going to learn from last season. As time goes on, if we can get to that point (earn a playoff bid), it will be a great reward," Schmitt said. "But we're not anywhere close to there right now ... it's so refreshing you have to prepare mentally and physically to prevent a down week, but that's what is great. We're preparing young men on a week-by-week basis, developing them and their character and intensity, to be able to do it every week. We're so happy for that."
Bryant has been knocking on the door for the NEC's top spot in recent years. The Bulldogs are finally eligible at the FCS level to compete in the postseason and bid for the conference title, after completing the NCAA's sanctioned four-year reclassifying period.
Coach Marty Fine's team was picked third in the NEC preseason poll and returns one of the FCS' most underrated running backs in Jordan Brown.
The senior won the NEC Offensive Player of the Year award and led the FCS in several rushing statistics; however, he was not recognized among the official FCS statistical leaders because Bryant was in its final season of transitioning from Division II to the FCS. The Bulldogs won seven games overall and ranked third in the conference.
Still, Fine thinks his team needs to continue to develop.
"We think we are slowly getting better ... you look at preseason poll and we're ranked ahead of two teams we've never played before," Fine said. "You say it didn't count (Brown's statistics), but it counted where it matters, we got a lot of first downs with that kid."
When Brown was in grade school, Fine actually knew of his current stud running back while coaching with Albany's Bob Ford at a summer football camp.
"Years ago, we had Jordan Brown at our camp and that's where I first met him," Fine said. "He was a little squirt in sixth and seventh grade. He's a great kid to be around and a good solid football player. What we're trying to figure out this year is how to best utilize his talents, get him in space a little more. I wish we blocked better for him (last year). We have struggled at times to get him through line of scrimmage clean, but he has never complained."
Ford, who essentially built Albany's football from the ground up, will lead his team to the well recognized CAA next year, but even he understands the strides the NEC has made.
"There's a residual effect upon that after you've played some of those teams, you know it puts your football team under a microscope," Ford said. "I think most of the coaches in our conference are pretty sharp and when you're under a microscope you start to address some of those blemishes and acne that you have and you get better in the process."
Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2012 Northeast Conference race.
The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:
5. Robert Morris
6. Central Connecticut State
8. Sacred Heart
9. St. Francis (Pa.)
1. ALBANY GREAT DANES (8-4 overall, 7-1 NEC)
COACH: Bob Ford (246-157 in 43 seasons at Albany; 255-178-1 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (8 offense/5 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Drew Smith, Sr. (194 carries, 1,092 yards, 10 TD; 30 receptions, 322 yards, 1 TD; 4-of-4, 103 yards, 4 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: ILB Jon Morgan, Sr. (106 TT, 6 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 3 PBU, 1 FR, 2 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Will Fiacchi, So.
QB Ryan Spelman, Fr.
RB Omar Osbourne, So. (56 carries, 308 yards, 3 TD; 4 receptions, 111 yards, 1 TD)
WR Cole King, So. (31 receptions, 582 yards, 6 TD)
WR Ryan Kirchner, Sr. (56 receptions, 615 yards, 10 TD)
WR Kevin Chillis, Jr. (23 receptions, 351 yards, 1 TD)
TE Paul Booker, Sr. (6 receptions, 51 yards, 2 TD)
LG Joe Hoback, Sr.
LT Kadeem Williams, Jr.
C Eric LaPorta, Jr.
RG Anthony Bazzoffi, Sr.
RT Adam Pasnik, So.
DE Andrew Smith, Jr.
DE Dean Mercuris, Sr. (22 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 PBU)
NG Tom Kologrivov, So.
DT Ocieka Bakou, Sr. (38 TT, 4 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 FF)
ILB Dave Plungas, Sr. (97 TT, 5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU)
OLB Kyle Jordan, So. (60 TT, 10 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 PBU, 2 FF)
CB Leon Saddler, Sr. (48 TT, 2 INT, 3 PBU)
CB Clay Harris, So.
FS Brandon Baylor, So.
SS Justinian Mason, Jr.
BIGGEST LOSS: QB Dan Di Lella (196-of-327, 2,548 yards, 25 TD, 10 INT; 308 rushing yards, 3 TD)
OUTLOOK: Ford has long been known as the architect of Albany's football program. Last year, in his 43rd season, he led his team to its first NCAA FCS playoff postseason appearance. Along the way, Ford collected his 250th career victory and the Great Danes earned a share of their fifth NEC title. Albany eventually lost to Stony Brook, 31-28, in one of last year's most thrilling playoff games. Before the Great Danes can even think about repeating as conference champs, or dream about life in the CAA, they must find a new quarterback. Gone is Di Lella, who led an offense which was first in the NEC in scoring, averaging 33 points per game, and first in total offense, gaining 415 yards per contest. Di Lella threw for 25 touchdowns versus 10 interceptions, adding in 308 rushing yards and three touchdowns. His replacement will most likely be Fiacchi, a redshirt sophomore who played sparingly last season. Albany needs to find a true leader who can get the ball in the hands of its returning group of playmakers. Among those, Smith did it all last year, rushing for 1,092 yards and 10 touchdowns, catching 30 passes for 322 yards and one touchdown and going a perfect 4-of-4 as a passer with four touchdown tosses and 103 yards. King and Kirchner both return and will be the team's most dangerous receivers once again. They accounted for 87 receptions for 1,197 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. Albany's defense lost six impact starters and could have some weaknesses in the secondary. The Great Danes bring back two seniors, Plungas and Morgan, and one sophomore, Jordan, who make up one of the best linebackers corps in the NEC. Last season, Albany bounced back after two straight losses to open the year. This team has the experience and the skill, but without a proven leader under center there are still many questions to be answered. Road contests versus Maine, Youngstown State, Bryant and Duquesne should determine if the Great Danes can compete in the CAA.
Sept. 1 - vs. Colgate
Sept. 8 - at Robert Morris
Sept. 15 - at Youngstown State
Sept. 22 - at Maine
Sept. 29 - vs. Monmouth
Oct. 6 - at Bryant
Oct. 13 - vs. St. Francis (Pa.)
Oct. 27 - at Sacred Heart
Nov. 3 - vs. Wagner
Nov. 10 - at Duquesne
Nov. 17 - vs. Central Connecticut State
2. DUQUESNE DUKES (9-2 overall, 7-1 NEC)
COACH: Jerry Schmitt (42-31 in seven seasons at Duquesne; 70-52 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 9 (5 offense/4 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Sean Patterson, Sr. (157-of-274, 2,011 yards, 23 TD, 8 INT; 552 yards rushing, 4 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: FS Serge Kona, Sr. (48 TT, 4 TFL, 1 sack, 2 INT, 4 PBU, 3 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Larry McCoy, Sr. (288 carries, 1,381 yards, 12 TD)
RB Ryan Ho, Jr.
RB Jason Douglas, Jr. (University of Pittsburgh transfer)
WR Noel Oduho, So.
WR Gianni Carter, Jr. (Montana State transfer)
WR Sean Brady, So.
WR Akeem Moore, Sr. (missed 2011 due to injury after three games)
FB Ethan Dorsey, Jr.
LG Eric Warning, Sr.
RT Jeremy Summers, Sr.
C Nick Redden, Jr.
LT Gus Sutera, Jr.
RG Frank Balmaceda, Jr.
DE Reggie Eiland, Jr.
DE Josh Lott, Sr.
NT Toby Thuer, So.
OLB Chidozie Oparanozie, Sr. (57 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 sack, 3 PBU)
OLB Derrick Lakins, Sr. (42 TT, 5.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 PBU, 2 FR, 1 FF)
ILB Horvin Latimer, Sr. (60 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FR)
LB Zach Richert, Sr.
LB Dorian Bell, Jr. (37 TT, 4 TFL, 1 sack, 3 PBU, 1 FF)
CB Brandon Martin, So.
CB Devin Williams, So.
S Rich Piekarski, So.
P/PK Charlie Leventry, Sr. (12-of-17 FG, 37-of-30 PAT)
BIGGEST LOSSES: WR Connor Dixon (40 receptions, 792 yards, 16 TD) and LB Chris Oliver (91 TT, 9 TFL, 1 sack, 5 PBU, 1 FR)
OUTLOOK: Duquesne enters the season with a lot to prove after posting a 9-2 record and gaining a share of the conference title. The only blemish in 2011, a 39-10 loss at Albany, cost the Dukes a trip to the FCS playoffs. Schmitt brings back a core group of seniors who have gone 11-2 in their last 13 NEC games. It starts with 2011 NEC Defensive Player of the Year and All-America selection Kona at safety. Last year, after making the transition from linebacker, Kona anchored a secondary that finished No. 1 in the FCS in pass defense, allowing 139 yards per game and only nine touchdowns. Joining Kona is a talented and deep group of linebackers - led by three returning starters with over 120 career tackles each - who will be the key to success on defense. Lakins, Oparanozie and Latimer should give NEC offenses trouble once again. The biggest question for the Dukes will be replacing three starters in the secondary and three starters on the defensive line. Offensively, Duquesne returns a pair of proven skill players in Patterson at quarterback and McCoy at running back. Patterson, who is 13-3 as a starter in his last 16 games, broke out as a dual-threat signal-caller. He passed for 2,011 yards and 23 touchdowns (he ranks tied for fourth among FCS returning quarterbacks with 46 career TD passes), while rushing for 552 yards and two touchdowns. McCoy, a first-team All-NEC running back, leads the FCS' returnees in career rushing attempts (700) and is second in rushing yards (3,479) behind Wofford's Eric Breitenstein. The senior has topped the 100-yard mark in 15 of his past 19 contests and ran for 1,381 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. The only bad news for the Dukes' offense? Gone are the team's top five receivers from 2011. Just one player, McCoy, caught more than three passes. Duquesne's toughest tests will be on the road, at Old Dominion in Week 1 and Bryant in Week 4. The Dukes seek revenge at home Nov. 10 versus Albany.
Sept. 1 - at Old Dominion
Sept. 8 - vs. Dayton
Sept. 15 - at Valparaiso
Sept. 22 - at Bryant
Sept. 29 - vs. St. Francis (Pa.)
Oct. 13 - at Central Connecticut State
Oct. 20 - vs. Sacred Heart
Oct. 27 - vs. Monmouth
Nov. 3 - at Robert Morris
Nov. 10 - vs. Albany
Nov. 17 - at Wagner
3. BRYANT BULLDOGS (7-4 overall, 5-3 NEC)
COACH: Marty Fine (53-32 in eight seasons at Bryant; 68-37 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 10 (4 offense/6 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB/KR Jordan Brown, Sr. (329 carries, 1,815 yards, 19 TD; 22 receptions, 246 yards, 2 TD; 13 KR, 337 yards, 11 PR, 102 yards, 1 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DB Max Machado, Jr. (77 TT, 2 TFL, 3 INT, 1 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: WR Jordan Harris, Jr. (42 receptions, 959 yards, 9 TD)
QB Mike Westerhaus, Jr. (25-of-46, 300 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT)
RB Ricardo McCray, So. (22 carries, 145 yards, 1 TD)
RB Michael Perry, So.
WR Shavoy Lawrence, Sr.
TE John McDermott, Jr.
OL Justin Corrales, Jr.
OL Chris Willadsen, Sr.
OL Matt Lentz, Sr.
DT Connor McNamara, Jr. (35 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PBU)
DT Ryan Schermerhorn, Sr. (26 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks)
DL Jeff Covitz, So.
DL Maduka Nwanekezi, So.
DE Jordan Kelly, Jr. (56 TT, 10.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 1 FF)
LB Robert Wallace, Jr.
DB Michael Johnson, Jr. (43 TT, 1 TFL, 2 INT, 9 PBU, 1 FR)
DB/KR Jeremy Woodson, Jr. (57 TT, 2 INT, 3 PBU; 20 KR, 482 yards)
BIGGEST LOSSES: QB Mike Croce (119-of-208, 1,850 yards, 20 TD, 10 INT) and TE Matt Tracey (40 receptions, 500 yards, 8 TD)
OUTLOOK: This year marks the first time Bryant is eligible at the FCS level to compete in the postseason and bid for the conference title, after completing the NCAA's sanctioned four-year reclassifying period. The Bulldogs are coming off their best season in the Division I era after finishing 7-4 overall and third in the conference with a 5-3 record. Much of the success this season will rely on one of the FCS' top running backs in Brown. Last year, Brown had the most carries (329) and rushing yards (1,815), the highest rushing average (165 yards per game) and the third-highest touchdown total (22) in the FCS. The senior took home the NEC Offensive Player of the Year award and was a third-team All-America selection. However, he was not recognized among the official FCS statistical leaders because Bryant was in its final season transitioning from Division II to the FCS. The Bulldogs also bring back Harris at receiver. He set a program record with 42 receptions for 959 yards and nine touchdowns. Bryant certainly has some of the conference's best playmakers, but the offense only returns four starters. Paving the way for Brown will be Willadsen and Corrales. Both need to provide leadership for an inexperienced and vulnerable offensive line. Westerhaus will get the first crack at taking over an offense that was well balanced, rushing for 176 yards per game, while passing for 195 yards per game. Westerhaus had two starts last year in place of three-year starting QB Croce, throwing for 300 yards and two touchdowns. Bryant's first two contests against Marist and St. Francis are manageable and should give its quarterback some confidence before facing Maine and Duquesne in weeks 3 and 4. The Bulldogs' defense is often overlooked by its offense, but teams won't be able to ignore Machado, Kelly and Woodson, a trio of juniors who combined for 190 tackles last year. Bryant and Fine have waited two season to finally become eligible for the NEC's playoff bid. Home contests against Albany and Duquesne help, but the Bulldogs can't expect Brown and Harris to carry them, so others will need to step up.
Sept. 1 - vs. Marist
Sept. 8 - at St. Francis (Pa.)
Sept. 15 - vs. Maine
Sept. 22 - vs. Duquesne
Sept. 29 - at Wagner
Oct. 6 - vs. Albany
Oct. 13 - vs. Robert Morris
Oct. 20 - at Monmouth
Nov. 3 - vs. Sacred Heart
Nov. 10 - at Central Connecticut State
Nov. 17 - at Bucknell
4. MONMOUTH HAWKS (5-6 overall, 4-4 NEC)
COACH: Kevin Callahan (109-86 in 19 seasons at Monmouth; 109-86 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 19 (10 offense/9 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Julian Hayes, So. (216 carries, 805 yards, 14 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: MLB Dan Sullivan, Jr. (67 TT, 13 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Kyle Frazier, Sr. (injured last year in Week 6; 119- of-183, 1,159 yards, 4 TD, 5 INT; 239 rushing yards, 2 TD)
QB Craig Peterson, Sr. (106-of-169, 1,262 yards, 10 TD, 6 INT)
RB Pete Nagy, Sr.
RB Asante Kwabena, Jr. (West Virginia transfer)
FB Justin Pandorf, Sr.
TE Tyler George, Sr. (36 receptions, 282 yards)
WR Neal Sterling, So. (57 receptions, 677 yards, 5 TD)
WR/KR Mitchell Pollard, Jr. (53 receptions, 582 yards, 1 TD; 21 KR, 324 yards)
WR Tristan Roberts, Sr. (37 receptions, 429 yards, 6 TD)
LT Mike Murphy, Sr.
LG Josh Patterson, Sr.
C Mike Hunchak, Sr.
RG Dino Molina, Sr.
DL Chris Luma, Sr.
DL Brad Harris, Sr. (27 TT, 6.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 FR)
DL Mike Upham, Jr. (34 TT, 5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 PBU)
DL Eric Macik, So. (17 TT, 7.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF)
OLB Bill Lauch, Sr. (21 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2 PBU)
OLB Colin Cooper, So. (33 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FR, 1 FF)
DB Reggie Hildebrandt Jr., Sr. (44 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 1 FR)
DB Elijah Phillips, Sr.
DB Andrew Sutton, Sr. (33 TT, 1.5 TFL, 2 PBU)
DB Pat Gray, So. (26 TT, 2 TFL, 4 INT, 1 FR)
PK Eric Spillane, Jr. (9-of-12 FG, 33-of-35 PAT)
BIGGEST LOSSES: DL Ian Simon (35 TT, 13.5 TFL, 9 sacks, 1 PBU, 2 FR, 3 FF) and S Jose Gumbs (75 TT, 5.5 TFL, 2 INT, 7 PBU, 4 FF)
OUTLOOK: Monmouth surprised many teams last year by finishing fourth in the conference with a record of 4-4. All five wins for the Hawks came on the road, while they lost all six home contests. Quality wins came against Villanova and Bryant, but Monmouth was outscored 199-111 at home. Callahan will hope for a little more consistency in their own backyard in 2012. This year's schedule won't be any easier with tough away games versus Lehigh, Albany, Cornell and Duquesne. Monmouth returns 19 starters on both sides of the ball and many important impact players who are underclassmen. The backfield returns Hayes, a Jerry Rice Award finalist who rushed for 805 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. Add in Nagy, who needs to stay healthy, and West Virginia transfer Kwabena, and the Hawks could be even better on the ground in 2012. Frazier (torn ACL in Week 6 last season) and Peterson are both capable of leading MU under center, especially when they will be able to play catch with the Hawks' top returning receivers. Sterling, Pollard and Roberts all bring something different to the table as pass catchers. Collectively, they should be one of the NEC's most reliable receiving corps. The Hawks return four of five starters on the offensive line (they only need to replace the center), including second-team All-NEC tackles Molina and Murphy. Monmouth's defense was very banged up last year, particularly in the secondary. The unit no longer has Simon, a first-team All-NEC pick and MU's sack leader, and Gumbs, a third- team All-America safety - both big losses. Expect players like Sullivan, Cooper, Macik and Gray to play much better if they can stay healthy. If the Hawks don't play better at home, they could be looking at finishing in the middle of the conference yet again.
Sept. 1 - at Lehigh
Sept. 8 - vs. Rhode Island
Sept. 15 - at Wagner
Sept. 22 - vs. Sacred Heart
Sept. 29 - at Albany
Oct. 13 - at Cornell
Oct. 20 - vs. Bryant
Oct. 27 - at Duquesne
Nov. 3 - vs. Central Connecticut State
Nov. 10 - vs. St. Francis (Pa.)
Nov. 17 - at Robert Morris
5. ROBERT MORRIS COLONIALS (2-9 overall, 2-6 NEC)
COACH: Joe Walton (105-79-1 in 18 seasons at Robert Morris; 105-79-1 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Jeff Sinclair, Sr. (116-of-232, 1,373 yards, 11 TD, 10 INT; 231 rushing yards, 6 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Nolan Nearhoof, Sr. (60 TT, 12.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 2 FR)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Deontae Howard, Jr. (98 carries, 386 yards, 1 TD)
QB Matt Layman, So.
WR William Quarles, Sr.
WR Donte Jeter, Jr. (17 receptions, 201 yards, 1 TD)
WR Quinton Pirl, Sr.
TE Paul Evans, Sr.
LT A.J. Dalton, Jr.
LG Vince Mongelluzzo, Jr.
RT Nate Hargraves, Sr.
RG Jon Hill, Jr.
C Nick Faraci, So.
DE Steve Mitchell, Sr. (48 TT, 5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 FF)
NG Farren Mason, Sr.
OLB Brad Banas, Sr. (47 TT, 5 TFL, 3 PBU, 1 FR)
OLB Andrew Douglass, Sr. (39 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 PBU)
ILB Kyle Cooper, Sr. (67 TT, 5.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT, 1 PBU)
ILB Dan Mignogna, Sr.
CB Antwan Eddie, So.
DB Cameron Chadwick, Sr. (80 TT, 1 INT, 3 PBU)
SS D.J. Myers, Jr. (75 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2 PBU)
PK Greg Langer, Sr. (12-of-15 FG, 22-of-25 PAT)
P Tony LaMancusa, So.
BIGGEST LOSS: WR Shadrae King (51 receptions, 524 yards, 5 TD)
OUTLOOK: After winning the conference title in 2010, and becoming the first NEC school to obtain an automatic playoff bid, Robert Morris won only two games last year and finished eighth in the conference. One of RMU's biggest problems last year was finding a reliable run game. The Colonials offense ranked No. 8 in the NEC in rushing (108 yards per game) and scored only 10 touchdowns on the ground, the fewest in the conference. Howard returns as the leading rusher after gaining 386 yards and one touchdown. Sinclair enters his senior season and was effective running the ball (231 yards, 6 TD), but was inconsistent passing ir, throwing for 1,373 yards, 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Jeter will be his favorite target because the team must replace its four leading receivers from last year. Walton should be able to look to his defense for leadership with a handful of upperclassmen returning, including the Colonials' four leading tacklers, Chadwick, Myers, Cooper and Nearhoof. Robert Morris has the experience and the capability to win the NEC, yet a tough non- conference schedule will alter any momentum early on in the season. Establishing a run game will be easier said than done.
Sept. 1 - at North Dakota State
Sept. 8 - vs. Albany
Sept. 15 - at Dayton
Sept. 29 - vs. Lafayette
Oct. 6 - at St. Francis (Pa.)
Oct. 13 - at Bryant
Oct. 20 - vs. Central Connecticut State
Oct. 27 - at Wagner
Nov. 3 - vs. Duquesne
Nov. 10 - at Sacred Heart
Nov. 17 - vs. Monmouth
6. CENTRAL CONNECTICUT STATE BLUE DEVILS (4-7 overall, 3-5 NEC)
COACH: Jeff Mclnerney (42-25 in six seasons at Central Connecticut State; 42-25 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Chris Tolbert, Jr. (171 carries, 816 yards, 5 TD; 10 receptions, 92 yards, 1 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Lorenzo Baker, Sr. (80 TT, 8 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 5 PBU, 2 FR, 2 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Andrew Clements, Jr.
QB Nick SanGiacomo, R-Fr.
RB Rob Hollomon, So. (Kent State transfer)
WR Devon Baker, Sr. (44 receptions, 589 yards, 6 TD)
WR Denzell Jones, Jr. (20 receptions, 246, 1 TD)
WR/KR Nick Bacarella, Jr. (26 receptions, 324 yards, 2 TD; 32 KR, 619 yards)
LT Devon Dixon, Sr.
LG Kris Patterson, Jr.
C Blaise Rosati, So.
RT Taylor Fuller, Jr.
DE Willie Maxen, So.
DT Darnell Benjamin, Jr.
NG Pete Lodini, So.
DE Victor Harris, Jr.
DE Josh Alaeze, So.
LB Patrick Atkinson, Jr.
LB D.J. Radich, Sr. (38 TT, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 3 FF)
DB Chris Abner, So.
CB Chris Linares, Jr. (41 TT, 2 INT, 9 PBU, 1 FF)
CB Markeith Cirinna, Jr.
CB Antwione Reese, Jr. (73 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT, 4 PBU, 2 FR)
FS Tyrell Holmes, So. (57 TT, 3 INT, 1 PBU, 1 FR)
PK Juan Duque, Sr. (4-of-5 FG, 34-of-36 PAT)
BIGGEST LOSSES: QB Gunnar Jespersen (142-of-255, 1,681 yards, 12 TD, 11 INT; 452 rushing yards, 6 TD) and DL Charles Williams (66 TT, 12 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF)
OUTLOOK: Central Connecticut State has one of the conference's most difficult schedules. The Blue Devils will face a challenging early season non-conference stretch of games versus three teams which made the FCS playoffs last year. They go to Stony Brook in Week 1, host two-time Patriot League champion Lehigh in Week 2 and then travel to New Hampshire in Week 3. On top of a tough schedule, Mclnerney must find a replacement at quarterback for Jespersen, running back Brian Fowler and many key members of the offensive line. Clements, a converted linebacker, is battling SanGiacomo, a redshirt freshman, to become the lead signal-caller. Neither have quality collegiate experience. On the bright side, whoever wins the job will have a solid group of receivers led by Baker, Jones, and Bacarella, who accounted for nine touchdowns collectively and caught at least 20 passes. Tolbert crept under the radar last season, rushing for 816 yards and five touchdowns. He will be without depth in the backfield and those blocking for him up front, but his production should increase. The Blue Devils defense ranked No. 39 in the FCS in allowing 347 total yards per game, but struggled against the run, giving up 192 yards per contest, good for second-to-last in the NEC. Baker led the team in tackles with 80 and is joined by Reese, Holmes and Linares in a developing secondary that came away with 11 interceptions and gave up 155 yards per game. CCSU needs to have a leader at quarterback who can compete right away; the schedule won't allow for anything less. The season's final two games versus Bryant and Albany could have huge implications not only for the Blue Devils, but for many teams in the conference.
Sept. 1 - at Stony Brook
Sept. 8 - vs. Lehigh
Sept. 15 - at New Hampshire
Sept. 22 - vs. Wagner
Sept. 29 - at Sacred Heart
Oct. 13 - vs. Duquesne
Oct. 20 - at Robert Morris
Oct. 27 - vs. St. Francis (Pa.)
Nov. 3 - at Monmouth
Nov. 10 - vs. Bryant
Nov. 17 - at Albany
7. WAGNER SEAHAWKS (4-7 overall, 4-4 NEC)
COACH: Walt Hameline (204-123-2 in 31 seasons at Wagner; 204-123-2 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Dominique Williams, Jr. (274 carries, 1,338 yards, 14 TD; 15 receptions, 176 yards, 1 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: ILB Mike Lombardo, Sr. (82 TT, 8.5 TFL, 6 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Nick Doscher, Sr. (73-of-163, 909 yards, 7 TD, 6 INT; 290 rushing yards, 4 TD)
QB Kramer Berg, Jr.
RB Otis Wright, So.
WR David Crawford, Sr. (8 receptions, 124 yards, 1 TD)
WR Anthony Carrington, So.
WR/KR Wandy Saintillien, Sr. (14 receptions, 249 yards, 2 TD; 21 KR, 411 yards)
TE Joe Sidaras, Jr. (20 receptions, 293 yards, 1 TD)
LT Brett Buzzard, So.
LG Ian Cunningham, So.
C David Fredrickson, So.
RG Brandan Byrne, Sr.
RT Steve Ciocci, Sr.
DE Davon Johnson, Jr.
DT Carl-Oliver Prime, Sr. (81 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 1 FR, 4 FF)
DE Adams Issaka, Sr.
OLB Greg Burton, Sr. (49 TT, 4 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 PBU)
OLB Mike Milone, Sr.
ILB Max Wessell, Jr.
CB Blake Bascom, So.
CB Jarrett Dieudonne, So. (52 TT, 2 TFL, 2 INT, 7 PBU, 3 FF)
FS Patrick O'Conner, Jr. (55 TT, 2.5 TFL, 2 FR)
SS Sidiq Soulemana, Sr.
PK David Lopez, Jr.
BIGGEST LOSS: LB/DL Julian Stanford (53 TT, 11.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 3 INT, 1 FF)
OUTLOOK: Wagner started the 2011 season with a win, but dropped seven games in a row, before ending the year with three straight victories. The Seahawks will take that momentum into 2012 with Williams leading the way. The junior running back ranked No. 3 in the NEC in rushing, with 121 yards per game. He was one of the few bright spots on offense for a Seahawks team that relied heavily on the run. He totaled 274 carries for 1,338 yards and 14 touchdowns, while catching 15 passes for 176 yards and one touchdown. Wagner was one of the FCS' worst passing offenses last season (117th out of 120 FCS teams), finishing just in front of the SoCon's three triple option teams, Georgia Southern, Wofford and The Citadel. As a junior, Doscher started 10 of the Seahawks' 11 games, but only passed for 909 yards and seven touchdowns with six interceptions. Hameline is hoping his 25-year-old signal-caller (a former catcher in the Kansas City Royals' farm system) can put up numbers like he did in 2010. That year, he passed for 2,074 yards (second in the NEC) and 18 touchdowns, while rushing for 672 yards. Last year's receiving corps didn't help his cause. Sidaras is the only returnee with at least 20 catches, as the tight end caught 20 passes for 293 yards and one touchdown. Wagner threw eight touchdowns and has to become more balanced. Inside linebacker Lombardo (82 TT, 8.5 TFL, 6 sacks) and fellow senior Prime should lead a unit that was first in the NEC in rushing defense, allowing 141 yards per game. The Seahawks' weakness last season was its pass defense, which gave up 226 yards per game. Wagner plays two Patriot League opponents in Georgetown and Holy Cross and at FBS foe Florida Atlantic to open the season. The road to improvement in 2012 lies in the Seahawks' ability to have better balance offensively.
Aug. 31 - at Florida Atlantic
Sept. 8 - at Georgetown
Sept. 15 - vs. Monmouth
Sept. 22 - at Central Connecticut State
Sept. 29 - vs. Bryant
Oct. 6 - at Sacred Heart
Oct. 20 - at St. Francis (Pa.)
Oct. 27 - vs. Robert Morris
Nov. 3 - at Albany
Nov. 10 - vs. Holy Cross
Nov. 17 - vs. Duquesne
8. SACRED HEART PIONEERS (5-6 overall, 3-5 NEC)
COACH: Interim Mark Nofri (filling in for Paul Gorham)
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (6 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Greg Moore, Jr. (108 carries, 576 yards, 5 TD; 41 receptions, 447 yards, 3 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: OLB Niko Sierra, Sr. (57 TT, 7.5 TFL, 1 sack, 4 INT, 5 PBU, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Tim Little, Jr. (233-400, 2,465 yards, 16 TD, 12 INT)
RB Kashaudas Spence, So. (133 carries, 480 yards, 7 TD)
RB Greg Ibe, Jr.
WR Jo Jo Jamiel, Sr. (38 receptions, 265 yards)
WR Rock Tate, Sr. (36 receptions, 392 yards, 2 TD)
WR Robert Dim, So. (14 receptions, 149 yards, 1 TD)
LT Justin Martel, Sr.
RG Paul Link, Jr.
RT Ben Eedle, Jr.
C Steve O���Brien, Jr.
LG Jamie Martinez, So.
NG Jeff Keffer, Jr.
DT Troy Moore, So. (29 TT, 6.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 PBU)
DE Chaz Partosan, Jr.
DE/OLB Tyler Foehr, Sr. (46 TT, 7 TFL, 6 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF)
ILB Justin Sexton, Jr. (57 TT, 8 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FR)
CB Preston Sanford, So.
CB Stephan Thomas, So. (40 TT, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 5 PBU)
CB J.D. Roussel, So. (25 TT, 1 TFL, 3 INT, 6 PBU, 1 FF)
SS Gordon Hill, So.
FS Dennis Regan, So.
PK Chris Rogers, So. (11-of-11 FG, 30-of-34 PAT)
P Robert Shepherd, Sr.
BIGGEST LOSS: LB Chris Mandas (112 TT, 18.5 TFL, 8 sacks, 3 PBU, 2 FF)
OUTLOOK: Sacred Heart had a very difficult offseason without Gorham around the program due to personal health problems. Gorham, who has had a remarkable recovery from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease, will not be on the sidelines this year. Instead, his assistant, Nofri, has taken over as the interim head coach. The Pioneers should be in good hands under Nofri, who enters his 18th season with the team and is the longest-tenured coach in program history. Despite leading the NEC in passing the last three seasons, the Pioneers offense has been last in the conference running the ball. SHU has good depth at running back with Moore, Spence Ibe and Eckel. Moore turned into a dual-threat weapon last season and is the Pioneers' leading receiver (41 receptions, 447 yards, 3 TD) and rusher (108 carries, 576 yards, 5 TD). His counterpart, Spence, had a productive rookie campaign, rushing for 480 yards and seven touchdowns. The offensive line needs to replace two starters from a team that ranked No. 103 in the FCS, averaging 97 rushing yards per game. Those numbers need to get better with the type of athletes they have in the backfield. Sacred Heart's secondary had many young and inexperienced players last year, but with a better understanding of defensive coordinator Dave Wissman's system, this group could be building something special. Mandas is lost to graduation, which will impact the Pioneers' run defense. However, defensive end-turned-linebacker Foehr and classmate Sierra played very well alongside each other in 2011; expect that chemistry to grow. Gorham's message to his team during his struggles in the offseason focused on overcoming adversity. This year's team would love nothing more than to make the head coach happy.
Sept. 1 - at Morgan State
Sept. 15 - at Colgate
Sept. 22 - at Monmouth
Sept. 29 - vs. Central Connecticut State
Oct. 6 - vs. Wagner
Oct. 13 - at Dartmouth
Oct. 20 - at Duquesne
Oct. 27 - vs. Albany
Nov. 3 - at Bryant
Nov. 10 - vs. Robert Morris
Nov. 17 - at St. Francis (Pa.)
9. ST. FRANCIS (PA.) RED FLASH (2-9 overall, 1-7 NEC)
COACH: Chris Villarrial (3-19 in two seasons at St Francis; 3-19 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 20 (11 offense/9 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Kyle Harbridge, Sr. (249 carries, 1,430 yards, 14 TD; 25 receptions, 164 yards, 1 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Anthony Bowman, Jr. (141 TT, 7.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB John Kelly, Sr. (130-of-260, 1,677 yards, 12 TD, 11 INT, 440 rushing yards, 7 TD)
WR/KR A.J. Alexander, Sr. (25 receptions, 490 yards, 6 TD; 31 KR, 675 yards)
WR Jeffrey Wasilewski, Sr. (15 receptions, 236 yards, 2 TD)
WR Ryan Laduke, Sr.
RB Kieon Wade, Sr. (63 carries, 323 yards, 4 TD)
TE Kevin Parker, Sr.
OL Jake Smith, Sr.
OL William Houston, Sr.
OL Brandon Bunting, Jr.
RG Llyod Hill, Jr.
LG Thurston Kino, Jr.
DT Terrace Bourne, So. (39 TT, 10.5 TFL, 6 sacks, 1 FR)
DE Lorenzo Coscarelli, So.
DE Brody Maughan-Evanson, Jr. (13 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT)
DL Paul Print, Sr.
DL Matthew Lewis, Jr.
DL Robert Smith, Sr. (38 TT, 4.5 TFL)
LB Asalmo Frueaan, Jr.
LB Bishop Neal, So. (43 TT, 4 TFL, 2 PBU)
LB Timmy Myers, Sr.
DB Jakob DeMedal, Jr. (78 TT, 4 TFL, 1 sack, 2 INT, 7 PBU, 2 FF)
DB Mike Dennis, So.
PK Josh Thiel, Jr. (9-of-12 FG, 36-of-39 PAT)
BIGGEST LOSS: DB Austine Miele (77 TT, 3 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FR)
OUTLOOK: St. Francis is a program that has struggled the last couple of years. Since 2007, the Red Flash have won eight games overall, with only five of those in conference play. In his first two years, Villarrial has won three games and had difficulty finding any kind of reliable defense. Last season, St. Francis ranked as the third-worst defense in the FCS, giving up 489 yards of total offense per game. The Red Flash were bad against the pass (247 yards per game) and the run (242 yards per game), which was last in the conference under both categories. Bare in mind, in order to rebuild for the future, the Red Flash have played many quality non-conference opponents. This includes road games at Northern Iowa and New Hampshire in 2009, at Liberty and Cal Poly in 2010 and at North Dakota State and Youngstown State last season. They continue the tradition this year with out-of-conference away games versus James Madison, Towson and Morehead State. Despite the program's troubles, Harbridge has turned into one of the NEC's premiere running backs. As a junior in 2011, he rushed for 1,430 yards and 14 touchdowns, leading the conference in both yardage and average, with 130 yards per game. Kelly returns at quarterback to lead an offense that has gotten better. Last season, he was more effective running the ball (440 yards, 7 TD) than he was passing (1,677 yards, 12 TD, 11 INT). If he can limit his turnovers, the Red Flash's offense can open up with Alexander and Wasilewski in the slot positions and Wade, who is a speedy backup to Harbridge. Not many teams in the FCS play the type of non-conference schedule that St. Francis plays year in and year out. Eventually, that will pay off, but it won't be this year.
Sept. 1 - at James Madison
Sept. 8 - vs. Bryant
Sept. 15 - at Morehead State
Sept. 22 - at Towson
Sept. 29 - at Duquesne
Oct. 6 - vs. Robert Morris
Oct. 13 - at Albany
Oct. 20 - vs. Wagner
Oct. 27 - at Central Connecticut State
Nov. 10 - at Monmouth
Nov. 17 - vs. Sacred Heart