By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The whispers are getting louder.
There's talk that this might be the year CAA Football - the mark of excellence in the Football Championship Subdivision - has the gap closed on it by other conferences.
The Big Sky boasts the reigning national champion in a veteran Eastern Washington team, and Montana State might have an even better squad than the Eagles. The Southern Conference will be especially strong with three teams that ranked No. 4 (Appalachian State), 5 (Georgia Southern) and 6 (Wofford) this past season.
Those two conferences and all the rest in the FCS are usually chasing the CAA, which has had a national champion or runner-up in seven of the last eight seasons. The CAA remains the deepest conference, it's just that the so-called SEC of the FCS might have a lot of very good teams and not a great one.
The majority of the teams are figuring out their quarterback situation this spring. The two seemingly with the best chance to dispute that notion are Delaware and William & Mary, last year's co-champions. William & Mary has to be considered the favorite - and actually could develop into a great team - even though it fell in the second round of the playoffs while Delaware went on to reach the national title game.
As CAA teams work this offseason to avoid a dropoff, the following are some of their priorities heading into spring practices:
James Madison (6-5, 3-5) - Head coach Mickey Matthews hasn't been shy about voicing his dissatisfaction with the offense, and the offseason hasn't been helped by running back Scott Noble's dismissal from the team. Although there's depth at quarterback, the Dukes have to find out who's the right starter. Justin Thorpe, the 2009 starter, is back from a knee injury, while Dae'Quan Scott lit up William & Mary with his running (though he might be best-suited for the Wildcat or back at wide receiver). Billy Cosh, the all-time leading passer in Maryland high school history, has transferred in from Kansas State. The running back and wide receiver spots are even more unsettled, and the offensive line lost its anchor in four-year starter Theo Sherman. The good news is the defense will be full of experienced upperclassmen.
Maine (4-7, 3-5) - The Black Bears are coming off two straight disappointing seasons, but they will have one of the more experienced starting lineups in the conference. Coach Jack Cosgrove had a lot of youth on both lines last season, so his staff will take the time to continue developing them. They could use some more depth at wide receiver, where production wasn't especially high, and in the secondary, where both starting cornerbacks are departing. Cosgrove is three wins shy of 100 in Orono.
Massachusetts (6-5, 4-4) - In the all-important theme of the CAA offseason, the Minutemen need to figure out their quarterback situation. They are replacing Kyle Havens, who enjoyed a strong senior campaign. Brandon Hill redshirted as a freshman last season, while sophomore Ian Shultis didn't throw a pass in two brief appearances. The road may be paved for strong-armed Bowling Green transfer Kellen Pagel to take the top job.
New Hampshire (8-5, 5-3) - OK, let's put quarterback on the backburner. The Wildcats will be returning five starters on each side of the football, so they will need a number of younger players to step into key roles. The biggest losses are in the secondary, where they must replace four starters, led by standout cornerback Dino Vasso. Up front, there will be competition for the two starting defensive tackle spots. The loss of three-year starting quarterback R.J. Toman is tempered by the confidence the coaches have in redshirt senior Kevin Decker, who made one start and impressed with his efficiency last season.
Old Dominion (8-3 as FCS independent) - It's all different this year for the Monarchs, who are an impressive 17-5 in two seasons, but haven't been fed a weekly diet of CAA opponents. Coach Bobby Wilder is going to have to raise the play and the mindset of his players this spring. Departing defensive end Deron Mayo was such a playmaker that the Monarchs need to find someone to fill his role. It wouldn't hurt to get Rashad Manley some work behind starting quarterback Thomas DeMarco. The Monarchs have relied heavily on DeMarco in their first two seasons.
Rhode Island (5-6, 4-4) - The Rams improved by four wins in CAA Coach of the Year Joe Trainer's second season and are on the upswing. Of course, they have just two more seasons in the CAA before dropping to the Northeast Conference. The chief goal this spring is to solidify the linebackers unit after it lost the team's top two tacklers, Matt Hansen and Joseph Harris. Returning outside linebacker Chris Edmond is a bit undersized and Dave Zocco is stepping into a much larger role in his second season of playing.
Richmond (6-5, 4-4) - Quarterback Aaron Corp, the Southern California transfer, is still rehabbing his surgically repaired right knee which he injured in the fifth game last season, so even though he will not face any contact during spring drills, the Spiders are counting on him to be fully healed by the start of the season. He will benefit from a veteran offensive line (four returning starters) and a healthier receivers unit. It's on defense that coach Latrell Scott needs to find some answers after the Spiders lost defensive tackle Martin Parker and cornerback Justin Rogers, presumably to NFL careers, as well as linebackers Eric McBride and Patrick Weldon, who was the captain of the defense. At linebacker, the frontrunners appear to be junior Darius McMillian on the inside with junior Derek Mayo and redshirt freshman Eric Wright on the outsides.
Towson (1-10, 0-8) - The offense is experienced, although the Tigers must work on ball security and improve at quarterback. Sophomore Peter Athens played extensively as a freshman in 2009, but sat out last season because of an ACL injury. He will battle junior Brian Potts, the 2007 Delaware Gatorade Player of the Year, for the starting job. The position hardest hit is cornerback, where coach Rob Ambrose is replacing two four-year starters, Jeremy Gardner and Ollie Thomas.
Villanova (9-5, 5-3) - No CAA team lost a better senior class than the Wildcats, so head coach Andy Talley has the "Help Wanted" sign out this spring. The left side of the offensive line must be rebuilt because Ben Ijalana and Brant Clouser, who both started every game the last four seasons, exhausted their eligibility. The Wildcats have to replace their leaders like quarterback Chris Whitney and wide receiver Matt Szczur, but just as pressing are their holes at running back, linebacker and in the secondary. They recruited a superb freshman class, but the Wildcats need players to step up during the spring.
William & Mary (8-4, 6-2) - The Tribe figure to name a new defensive coordinator soon, so it should be a get-to-know-you spring. The front seven suffered some key losses, but the return of All-CAA linebacker Jake Trantin, who missed last season because of family reasons, is a boost. He will move standout Dante Cook from the middle back to his natural outside position. Up front, the Tribe have to develop depth alongside seniors Marcus Hyde and Harold Robertson. Michael Paulus is expected to win the starting quarterback job over Brent Caprio, but after an unsteady first season with the Tribe, the 2010 North Carolina transfer has to take command of the offense this spring. A big season out of him would give the CAA its best chance of putting another team in the national title game.