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In the FCS Huddle: Patriot League spring football primer

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - After Fordham brought national prominence to Patriot League football the last two seasons, this year's title race has the promise of being even better.

Lafayette actually advanced to the FCS playoffs with a losing record in 2013 when Fordham wasn't eligible for the league title. Bucknell gave it a run last year, but the Bison weren't in Fordham's class when the Rams were healthy.

But this year, the senior losses are huge at Fordham, and the Patriot League may not have a Top 25 squad all season. Still, parity may be good as many of the teams will be bunched together, with scholarship classes adding up and Colgate and Lehigh trying to get back to an elite level amid the other improving programs.

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

STORY LINES

Graduation day is ravaging Fordham's defending champions, but Rams coach Joe Moorhead will still rely on sophomore running back Chase Edmonds, who rushed for 1,838 yards and scored 24 touchdowns in winning the 2014 Jerry Rice Award.

While Fordham will turn to many new starters, last-place Georgetown, the league's only non-scholarship program, hopes to build on experienced underclassmen. Second-year coach Rob Sgarlata will have a combined 66 returning players in spring practices.

Bucknell's once-struggling program is coming off winning records in the last two seasons and three of the last four. With a veteran team returning, although quarterback R.J. Nitti and running back C.J. Williams are coming off injuries, the Bison will try to make the move from last year's title contender to Patriot champion.

Lehigh will have competition at most positions in spring practices after the Mountain Hawks suffered their worst record since also going 3-8 in 1992.

Lafayette running back Ross Scheuerman's 300-yard game against Lehigh at Yankee Stadium surely had the Leopards wondering if their offense can come even close to filling his shoes this year. They will need better play out of quarterback Drew Reed, who was turnover-prone after an outstanding freshman season in 2013.

Colgate's program has been built on a physical running game, and the second season under coach Dan Hunt should see the Raiders build on a league-leading attack with the return of seven key offensive linemen, all the key running backs, led by Demetrius Russell, and quarterback Jake Melville.

Holy Cross is still learning to finish off potential wins. After going 2-6 in games decided by seven points or less last season, the Crusaders are 4-17 in such games over the past three years.

THEY'RE BACK

Holy Cross has the right building block for improvement in junior Peter Pujals. Patriot teams have struggled to get an answer for his dual-threat style.

Fordham's trio of 1,000-yard wide receivers stole much of the attention last season, but Bucknell's big-play threat Will Carter earned all-league first- team honors. He finished his sophomore season with 959 receiving yards on 53 catches.

At Fordham, linebacker Stephen Hodge, the 2013 Patriot defensive player of the year, missed all of last season with a knee injury. He hopes to make up for lost time as a fifth-year senior.

Lafayette senior cornerback and return specialist Matt Smalley is back to chase All-Patriot first-team honors for a third straight season.

Lehigh received breakout seasons from linebackers Pierce Ripanti and Colton Caslow, who finished 1-2 in tackles as sophomores.

POSITION BATTLES

Holy Cross senior place-kicker Connor Fitzgerald was the starter last year, but he faces competition from junior Zane Wasp and Middle Tennessee State transfer A.J. Wells.

Lafayette sophomore DeSean Brown, who rushed for 247 yards as Scheuerman's backup last season, is competing for a heavier load against Kyle Mayfield, Rajhan Meriwether and Deuce Gruden.

Bucknell's mountain of a tackle, 6-foot-7 Julien Davenport, is a great starting point on the offensive line, but coach Joe Susan is replacing all three interior starters.

With an even stronger running game, Colgate will need a fullback. Linebackers Tyler Butler and Alex Greenawalt will get a look there, with one of them expected to move there and the other remaining on defense.

A healthier Jorge Solano is at the front of a new unit of Fordham wide receivers trying to win key spots.

FIVE BREAKOUT PERFORMERS

Colgate defensive end Patrick Afriyie is primed to become one of the better pass rushers in the Patriot League.

Fordham quarterback Kevin Anderson, who transferred into the program from Marshall last year, is expected to take over for two-time Patriot offensive player of the year Michael Nebrich.

In a Holy Cross secondary featuring 100-tackle safety John Zakrewski, sophomore cornerback Alim Muhammad is developing into one of the league's best at his position.

Georgetown defensive end Phil Novacki worked behind All-American Alec May last season. He showed flashes of his versatile game last season.

After his terrific freshman season, opponents are going to build game plans against Lafayette's rising sophomore linebacker Brandon Bryant.

NUMBERS NEVER LIE

Perhaps lost in Lehigh's subpar season was the development of quarterback Nick Shafnisky as a sophomore. He finished second in the league in total offense, averaging 263.3 yards per game and behind only Nebrich.

Bucknell led the Patriot League in scoring defense (21.7 ppg), total defense (302.4), rushing defense (107.8 ypg) and sacks (38) in last year's breakout 8-3 campaign.

In a sign for hope with Georgetown football, the Hoyas were a league-best plus-nine in turnover margin.

Holy Cross struggled for touchdowns from the red zone. Despite averaging 21 first downs - second-best in the league - the Crusaders scored only 20.8 points per game - second-worst in the league.

Fordham's FCS playoff loss to New Hampshire underscored the need for improvement in pass protection. The Rams allowed 42 sacks in 14 games.

Lafayette's special teams were excellent on returns and in coverage a year ago, but the Leopards were a mere 6-for-14 on field goal attempts.

SPRING PRACTICE DATES

With 2014 records in parentheses

Bucknell (8-3, 4-2): March 22-April 24

Colgate (5-7, 3-3): March 11-April 18

Fordham (11-3, 6-0): March 11-April 25

Georgetown (3-8, 1-5): Feb. 25-March 28

Holy Cross (4-8, 2-4): March 14-April 11

Lafayette (5-6, 3-3): March 24-April 18

Lehigh (3-8, 2-4): March 20-April 18