In the FCS Huddle: CAA spring football primer

Philadelphia, PA ( - Five CAA Football teams had Top 25 rankings last season and then didn't even finish with a winning record in conference play.

The grinding nature of the CAA schedule never changes.

The 12-team conference's depth makes spring practices an important time for teams to develop a depth chart and get players acclimated to new and larger roles.

Defending champion New Hampshire and Villanova still appear to be the ones to beat this year, but the teams nipping at their heels - like fellow 2014 FCS playoff qualifiers James Madison and Richmond - form a deep group.

William & Mary, Delaware, Albany, 2013 CAA champ Maine and 2013 FCS national runner-up Towson were the five which had national rankings but did no better than .500 in conference play.

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


It's great for Villanova to have quarterback John Robertson back, the 2014 Walter Payton Award winner, but the Wildcats have to replace their leading rusher (Kevin Monangai) and leading receiver (Poppy Livers).

It will be hard for New Hampshire to top 2014 in the final season playing at Cowell Stadium. The Wildcats set a school record for wins (12), earned the No. 1 ranking and reached the FCS national semifinals for a second consecutive season. Coach Sean McDonnell, the 2014 Eddie Robinson Award recipient, is guarding against a drop-off following some heavy senior losses.

After reaching the FCS playoffs in coach Everett Withers' first season, the Dukes lost a bunch of key seniors. The big problem for star quarterback Vad Lee is his offensive line and replacing four starters.

Richmond had a banner season under coach Danny Rocco, but last year's second- round playoff squad lost 23 seniors.

Towson coach Rob Ambrose hopes his program struck it big with transfer quarterback Kevin Olsen from Miami (Fla.). A productive Olsen teamed with running back Darius Victor would make the Tigers offense quite dangerous.

Delaware's streak of missing the playoffs is at four and the Blue Hens have a relatively young squad in coach Dave Brock's third season. But it's still a good nucleus to build around, including 2014 CAA defensive rookie of the year Blaine Woodson.

After William & Mary had a quarterback (Steve Cluley) make every start for the first time since 2009, the Tribe will begin the new season with some rare continuity at the position. Coach Jimmye Laycock enters his 36th season with 229 career wins.

Stony Brook had a dominant defense last season and must work toward improving the offense. Quarterback Conor Bednarski should be more settled and Stacey Bedell rushed for over 1,000 yards. But coach Chuck Priore needs to slot in three new starters on the offensive line.

Albany made a big jump in coach Greg Gattuso's rookie season, winning six more games (including three in than CAA) than in 2013, but the Great Danes had a strong senior class, so they are working on building depth and becoming a more physical team.

Elon's first year in the CAA was similar to Albany's in 2013 - a 1-11 record and winless in the conference - so second-year coach Rich Skrosky is seeking more consistent play on both sides of the ball. The Phoenix could very well have a freshman quarterback in either Connor Christiansen, who redshirted last season, or Daniel Thompson, an early enrollee.

Rhode Island also is retooling with a second-year coach, Jim Fleming, and the Rams have to remain patient considering their long-time struggles in the CAA. The Rams only beat Towson to end last season, but it provided some good vibes for the offseason.

Veteran Maine coach Jack Cosgrove, who guided the 2013 CAA championship squad, also is developing young talent, but the work on the offensive line may be second-to-none as the Black Bears mature as a unit.


Delaware junior running backs Wes Hills and Jalen Randolph shared carries a year ago and combined for 1,581 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground.

Stony Brook has one of the conference's premier defensive players in end Victor Ochi.

As Elon builds around its younger players, a great starting point is sophomore safety Chris Blair, who earned third-team all-conference honors as a rookie, notching 98 tackles.

If Maine defensive end Mike Kozlakowski can stay healthy after two injury- plagued seasons, he will provide excellent play up front.

James Madison needs to develop pass rushers, but the linebackers corps is strong with leading tackler Kyre Hawkins, Rhakeem Stallings and Gage Steele.

Having finished second in the Buck Buchanan Award voting last season, Villanova linebacker Don Cherry still has his senior year to terrorize the opposition.

Despite having to find a new quarterback, Richmond is strong in the skills positions with returning rushing leaders Seth Fisher and Jacobi Green and two 1,000-yard wide receivers in Reggie Diggs and Brian Brown.

A healthy return of running back Markey Clarke will give Rhode Island a bruising power back to pair with speedy Harold Cooper.

Towson's Bryton Barr (linebacker), Brian Dowling (wide receiver) and Shawn Flaherty (center) may have all started last season had they not been injured in the preseason.

William & Mary tailback Mikal Abdul-Saboor was particularly strong in the second half of last season, finishing with the CAA high in rushing yards per game (115.1).


Delaware's No. 1 quarterback job is always a revered spot, and the Blue Hens are replacing a three-year starter, Trent Hurley. They turn to Blake Rankin, a second-year transfer from Rutgers; redshirt freshman Joe Walker; and Jamie Jarmon, a 22-year-old freshman who spent three years in the Texas Rangers' minor league baseball system.

After sophomore Dan Collins was injured last season, Maine's true freshman quarterback Drew Belcher was thrust into the starter's job and performed well. There's reason for an open competition this spring.

New Hampshire junior Dalton Crossan is probably the favorite to be the No. 1 running back, but sophomores Donald Goodrich and Trevon Bryant will factor into playing time.

After going from national runner-up to 4-8, Ambrose basically says all positions at Towson are up for grabs this year.

William & Mary is replacing its two starting wide receivers, but rising sophomore DeVonte Dedmon could win a spot and provide big-play ability.

Rhode Island returns redshirt sophomores Mack Lowrie and James Caparell at quarterback, but the Rams' recruiting class went deep at the position, including JUCO transfer Paul Mroz. The Rams passed for only 1,770 yards and nine touchdowns last season.

Albany has a Penn State transfer quarterback in D.J. Crook, but the competition also is open to Dan Harding, Steve Shanley, Shane Sweeney and Will Brunson.


Lee needs a No. 1 target at James Madison. It could be junior wide receiver Brandon Ravenel.

Stony Brook has to replace All-American Christian Ricard at the rover position, but Tyrice Beverette is capable of a high level of play.

Richmond is banking on a big season from athletic safety David Jones, a redshirt junior, who needs to be healthier.

The focus will be on junior Casey DeAndre in New Hampshire's secondary, but fellow safety D'Andre Drummond-Mayrie will turn some heads as a sophomore.

Limited to six games last season due to injury, Villanova junior defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon, at 6-foot-7, 270 pounds, might be hard for any team to stop.


Albany's plus-15 turnover margin led the CAA.

Delaware was minus-13 in turnover margin, forcing 10 overall, which bettered only transitioning FCS member Incarnate Word. The Blue Hens' five interceptions were their fewest since interception records were first kept at the school in 1951.

Robertson's 181.3 passing efficiency led all FCS quarterbacks. He passed for 35 touchdowns with only three interceptions.

Special teams can decide tight games. William & Mary blocked 10 kicks to lead the FCS.

Villanova was a mere 5-of-11 on field goal attempts and missed a whopping nine PATs a year ago.

Richmond ranked No. 2 in the FCS in converting 51.6 percent (111-for-215) of third downs. But among winning teams, Richmond had the worst turnover margin at negative-14.


With 2014 records in parentheses

Albany (7-5, 3-5): March 24-April 25

Delaware (6-6, 4-4): March 24-May 2

Elon (1-11, 0-8): March 30-April 25

James Madison (9-4, 6-2): March 30-April 25

Maine (5-6, 4-4): April 9-May 2

New Hampshire (12-2, 8-0): March 31-May 2

Rhode Island (1-11, 1-7): Not available

Richmond (9-5, 5-3): March 19-April 18

Stony Brook (5-7, 4-4): March 24-April 25

Towson (4-8, 2-6): March 10-April 18

Villanova (11-3, 7-1): March 17-April 24

William & Mary (7-5, 4-4): March 16-April 11