Published March 01, 2013
| Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA – When the Pioneer Football League football coaches gathered together in January, nametags were a good idea.
Or at least a roster.
Half of the new 12-team league have first-year head coaches. First-year programs Mercer and Stetson join the league, with former Furman coach Bobby Lamb guiding Mercer and former Princeton coach Roger Hughes steering Stetson's ship.
Meanwhile, Campbell (Mike Minter), Davidson (Paul Nichols), Morehead State (Ron Tenyer) and San Diego (Dale Lindsey) all underwent head coaching changes during the offseason.
Despite all the coaching news, that's not the PFL's big story of the year. It's the addition of the new automatic bid to the league champion in the expanded 24-team FCS playoffs.
Two of last year's three champions - Butler (Matt Lancaster) and San Diego (Mason Mills) - return their starting quarterback. Drake, the other champ, doesn't have it so lucky as it loses four-year starter Mike Piatkowski and has to show it can "reload" as a program.
What's older is new again. Lindsey, at 70, is a college head coach for the first time after San Diego elevated him following Ron Caragher's departure. The Toreros figure to be the league favorite.
The potential is evident for a breakthrough at Marist. It has finished 4-7 each of the past two seasons, but it's played well defensively and five of last season's losses were by a touchdown or less, with a 12-point loss coming in a game it led in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Chuckie Looney is among the returnees.
Among the usual contenders, Jacksonville has a favorable schedule (no game against San Diego, easy second half), but it needs a healthy Kade Bell behind center. The Dolphins lost three of their last four games without him.
Dayton has finished 6-5 each of the past two seasons. It's not what Flyers fans are accustomed to from the PFL power.
Mercer and Stetson will host first-year NAIA programs in their first games on Aug. 31, with Mercer playing Reinhardt and Stetson taking on Warner. The two new PFL programs play each other in their season finale Nov. 23 at Stetson.
Campbell, Davidson and Valparaiso continue to be among the worst teams in the FCS. Can they raise their non-scholarship programs?
OH, YES, THEM AGAIN
Mills, a fifth-year senior at San Diego, led FCS quarterbacks with a 70- percent completion percentage while throwing for 3,111 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. Against Dayton, he passed for a PFL record 511 yards.
Valparaiso running back Jake Hutson was dominant late last season in becoming a Jerry Rice Award finalist for FCS freshman of the year.
Senior place-kicker Dylan Lynch gives Jacksonville a much-coveted long-range bomber.
Rees Macshara gave Morehead State its first 1,000-yard rusher in 10 years in 2012. He's back for more.
The only runner better than Macshara last season was Butler's Tra Heeter, who totaled 1,103 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
Drake is replacing Pioneer defensive player of the year Tyler Moorehead, but two other linebackers, John Hugunin and Travis Merritt, are back after finishing with 99 and 98 tackles, respectively.
Butler safety David Burke started to come on strong as a redshirt sophomore and could be a difference maker on the Bulldogs' defense.
Dayton's league-leading rushing attack would have been even better if Connor Kacsor didn't get hurt in his first season. He averaged 10.6 yards on 40 carries and rushed for five touchdowns before getting hurt.
For Davidson to improve its program, young players like sophomore outside linebacker Chris Woods are going to have to raise their play.
Marist is looking to replace deep threat Mike Rios and wide receiver Armani Martin is a candidate if he's healthier as a senior.
Like Mercer, every position is open at Stetson. But one player who stood out for the Hatters this past fall was undersized linebacker Julius Holder.
San Diego's stable of running backs is impressive. Late-season surprise Dallas Kessman (453 yards), Joe Ferguson (447) and Kenn James (410) split the duties last season. Ferguson was utilized most as a pass catcher.
Butler is replacing its leading tackler of the last three seasons, as well as the PFL's leader in two of the last three seasons, middle linebacker Jordan Ridley. Paul Yanow, Ricky Sorrentino and Sean Horan will try to win the starting spot.
Morehead State will try to replace quarterback Zack Lewis with either Boone Goldschmidt, the likely candidate, or Logan Johnson.
Campbell also has an interesting competition at quarterback. Senior-to-be Dakota Wolf started the season's final nine games and showed he can really run the ball, but the Camels were a mere 1-10. Transfer Brian Hudson, who started the first two games at Liberty last season, will vie with Wolf for the job along with incoming freshman David Salmon, an early enrollee.
SPRING PRACTICE DATES
Butler: March 20-April 20
Campbell: March 12-April 8
Davidson: March 14-April 20
Dayton: March 14-April 14
Drake: March 27-April 20
Jacksonville: March 26-April 20
Marist: April 2-27
Mercer: Feb. 18-April 13
Morehead State: March 26-April 20
San Diego: Feb. 26-March 22
Stetson: Feb. 2-March 1
Valparaiso: March 20-April 20