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In the FCS Huddle: Pioneer Football League spring primer

Philadelphia, PA ( - Jacksonville University stopped itself last season.

Nobody else may stop the Dolphins in the Pioneer Football League this year.

Jacksonville comes back as a motivated team after self-imposing ineligibility for the PFL title last November because of compliance matters regarding the league's financial aid rules. Coach Kerwin Bell's squad would have won the tie-breaker over San Diego for the league's automatic playoff bid, but stayed home with a 9-2 record.

The Dolphins figure to have the league's best offense again, even with the loss of three of their top four wide receivers. They also led the league in scoring defense.

Here's a look across the PFL with spring practices getting underway across the nation:


The damaging news for San Diego this offseason is quarterback Keith Williams' impending transfer to another school. Coach Dale Lindsey's defending league champions, who suffered big senior losses, are expected to turn to redshirt senior quarterback Trey Wheeler, a former starter at Simon Fraser, under center.

Drake has finished 5-3 or better in the league for six consecutive seasons. While the two back units of last year's league-leading defense will be sound, the Bulldogs must replace All-PFL first-teamers Matt Acree and Brett Park on the defensive line.

Despite excellent returning talent, Jacksonville must replace the leadership and production of 17 seniors.

Valparaiso's downtrodden program went an encouraging 4-8 in coach Dave Cecchini's first season, beating Butler and nearly stunning San Diego on the road. The Crusaders hope to build on their late-season momentum.

The return of some fifth-year seniors - like safety Zach Adler and defensive end Demetrius Williams - appears vital for Marist because the Red Foxes have been hit hard by veteran losses for two straight seasons. It all starts, however, with finding a consistent quarterback.

Stetson safety Donald Payne was a Buck Buchanan Award finalist as a sophomore with a ridiculously good stat line of 175 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, four interceptions, four pass breakups, eight quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.

Campbell's 4-0 start in its PFL schedule collapsed to a 4-4 finish, so the Fighting Camels will need to be mentally stronger this time around. Many starters return as third-year coach Mike Minter continues to build the program.

Davidson doesn't have a Division I win in coach Paul Nicholls' two seasons, but the Wildcats have played many younger players in that time and fully expect some dividends this season.

Morehead State is trying to fix a defense that ranked last in the PFL in scoring defense (43.6 ppg) and total defense (474.8). Defensive line coach Dontae Wright has been bumped up to defensive coordinator.

At Butler, the concern is with the league's best rushing defense (110.7 ypg) because it must replace standout Bret Shannon and five other players from the rotation.


Dayton's title contention is bolstered by All-American running back Connor Kacsor returning for a fifth year. The 6-foot, 200-pounder Kacsor rushed for 1,547 yards and 17 touchdowns and was the 2014 PFL offensive player of the year.

Campbell remains big and talented on the defensive line with end Ugonna Awuruonye and tackle Greg Milhouse.

With the loss of its top wide receivers, San Diego will want to rely even more on running back Jonah Hodges, who broke out with 1,214 rushing yards as a sophomore.

After being sidelined with a shoulder injury last season, Morehead State wide receiver Kitaro Lewis returns to build on his 49-catch season of 2013.

If it's not quarterback Kade Bell, then it's running back Ulysses Bryant causing headaches for Jacksonville opponents. The Dolphins led the PFL in scoring offense (35.4 ppg) and total offense (499.9 ypg) last season.


Junior John Cook and sophomore Taylor Mitchell could both see time at quarterback. Cook is a read-option signal caller and Mitchell is the better passer, although he has to cut down on interceptions.

After four seasons with Will Bardo starting at quarterback, Dayton turns to redshirt sophomore Blake Bir or fifth-year senior Luke Johnson.

Marist quarterbacks Anthony Francis and Ed Achziger combined on all the starts last season, but others are in the mix as veteran coach Jim Parady sorts out the depth chart.

Anybody and everybody seems in the mix with Stetson's defensive line. The Hatters are especially thin there after three key returnees left the program this offseason.

Valparaiso must find a new starting quarterback from the likes of redshirt freshman Dalton Stokes, sophomore Ryan Clarke and last year's backup, redshirt junior Scott Staal.


Davidson's William Morris caught 98 passes last season, but Tyler Hickey, who had 19 receptions in only three games before an injury, will provide plenty of production, too.

As Marist replaces three starters at linebacker, sophomore Willie Barrett has the ability to fill some of the void.

Butler quarterback Matt Shiltz was off to a terrific start last season before he suffered a season-ending hand injury midway through the campaign and the Bulldogs, the PFL's first playoff representative in 2013, spiraled to losses in five of their final six games. The redshirt senior will breathe life back into their fortunes.

Valparaiso should put the ball in the hands of Jarrett Morgan, who averaged 34.9 yards on 12 kickoff returns last season. He also is a wide receiver.

After redshirting last season, Drake running back Brock Reichardt is ready to make a name for himself alongside returning rushing leader Conley Wilkins.


Incredibly, only 630 of Drake's 2,428 receiving yards came from the wide receivers last season. Improvement is needed.

Although Guy Dibalsamo was Butler's starting running back last season, it's hard to deny Sam Schrader after he averaged 8.2 yards on 74 carries (604 yards, nine touchdowns) as a freshman.

As a sophomore, San Diego's Jamal Agnew led the FCS with 23 passes defended (19 breakups, four interceptions) in 11 games.

Jacksonville's league-low 17.5 points per game allowed was forged by its FCS- best 24 interceptions.


With 2014 records in parentheses

Butler (4-7, 2-6): March 20-April 18

Campbell (5-7, 4-4): March 10-April 6

Davidson (1-11, 0-8): Feb. 16-March 28

Dayton (8-3, 6-2): April 7-April 18

Drake (7-4, 6-2): March 25-April 18

Jacksonville (9-2, 7-1): Feb. 18-March 7

Marist (4-7, 4-4): March 23-April 18

Morehead State (4-8, 3-5): March 11-April 11

San Diego (9-3, 7-1): Feb. 10-March 14

Stetson (5-7, 3-5): March 16-April 10

Valparaiso (4-8, 2-6): March 25-April 20