Pioneer Football League spring primer
(STATS) - Teams that finish 9-2 aren't supposed to be regrouping, but in some ways, Jacksonville University football is doing just that this offseason.
The Dolphins are coming off two straight seasons of being ineligible for the Pioneer Football League title after making mistakes with awarding financial aid. They wasted opportunities because each of the teams went 9-2.
Despite the on-the-field success, the contract of longtime coach Kerwin Bell wasn't renewed in December.
But this spring, the Dolphins have a fresh start under first-year coach Ian Shields and are working toward what they hope will be a return to the title mix in what should be another competitive race.
Dayton, which represented the PFL in the FCS playoffs last season - losing to Western Illinois in the first round - as well as fellow co-champ San Diego and Morehead State remain in the likely top group of contenders.
Following is a look across the Pioneer Football League with spring practices getting underway in college football:
2015 Records: 6-5 overall. 4-4 PFL (Tie/5th)
Spring Practices: March 16-April 16
Storyline: The work on offense will be pivotal during spring practices. The Bulldogs are replacing solid quarterback Matt Shiltz with last year's backup, Malcolm Weaver, who saw a lot of action two years ago. Shiltz provided much of the run game on read options and scrambles, leaving the need for improvement among the running backs. But running back Sam Schrader (knee) missed much of last season and top offensive lineman Michael Demos (back) missed all of it, so the run game will be getting a big boost with their returns. The defense is returning nine starters, including leading tackler Sean Horan at linebacker and pass rusher Josh Willis, and appears ready for a high level of play. Some of the younger players are about to take on key roles for the Bulldogs.
2015 Records: 5-6 overall, 3-5 PFL (8th)
Spring Practices: March 15-April 18
Storyline: The Camels ranked fifth in the FCS in total defense and ninth in scoring defense last season, allowing 279.3 yards and 17.7 points per game. They will find it hard to stay at such a lofty level with the loss of seven starters, especially NFL prospects Ugonna Awuruonye and Greg Milhouse and four-year starter Dwan Hanshaw from the defensive line. Making fortifications is a focus during spring practices. On offense, the Camels must replace quarterback Kameron Bryant with Elijah Burress, Ryan Turnage or Dalton Helms, none of whom has taken a snap in college, and wide receiver is a youthful position. But they will want the ball in the hands of All-PFL first-team running back De'Shawn Jones. The Camels seek their first winning season under fourth-year coach Mike Minter.
2015 Records: 2-9 overall, 1-7 PFL (Tie/9th)
Spring Practices: March 19-April 2
Storyline: Coach Paul Nichols' third season at Davidson ended with a win at Stetson that was his first both in the PFL and over an FCS-level program, so there is a different feeling this offseason. He has reworked his coaching staff, including the hiring of offensive coordinator Vinny Marino, who has served in that role at Georgetown, Columbia and Holy Cross. Quarterback Taylor Mitchell will come back more experienced as a junior, although the Wildcats need to boost the run game to take pressure off him. Their offense struggled on third downs last season (27 percent conversion rate), and go-to receiver William Morris won't be there to bail out the Wildcats. Linebacker Ben Hart, the team's leading tackler, is the key returnee on defense. The Wildcats still need to get bigger in the weight room to match up in the deep PFL race.
2015 Records: 10-2 overall, 7-1 PFL (Tie/1st)
Spring Practices: March 29-April 24
Storyline: With a bunch of key fifth-year seniors returning, last year's co-PFL champs are highly experienced - nine starters on offense and eight on defense plus the two kickers - so coach Rick Chamberlin's squad has a target on its jerseys. Standout linebacker Chris Beaschler is coming off ankle surgery and will sit out spring practices, and left tackle Zac Morgan decided he would leave for Oregon as a graduate transfer. The offense was young last season with quarterback Alex Jeske and leading rusher Tucker Yinger, and should only get better. There is a need to improve pass protection, especially with the loss of Morgan. This year's PFL schedule is front-loaded with upper-tier opponents, so the Flyers must remain determined, not be complacent with their success.
2015 Records: 5-6 overall, 4-4 PFL (Tie/5th)
Spring Practices: March 22-April 23
Storyline: A run of 11 straight winning seasons ended last year, but Drake completed the campaign with a big win over rival Dayton. The Bulldogs are another team breaking in a new starting quarterback, having lost a three-year starter in Andy Rice. They ranked only seventh in the PFL in scoring offense, and the new starter hopes the offensive line that endured key injuries last season won't give up 40 sacks again. All-America tight end Eric Saubert is back as the safety valve. Plus, after redshirting last year, sophomore running back Drew Lauer should mix in well with senior Conley Wilkins, who should be among the PFL's leading rushers. The Bulldogs return only five defensive starters, but one of them is defensive end Mack Marrin, the PFL sacks leader. He will be joined up front by junior defensive tackle Nathan Clayberg, who is ready for an increased role.
2015 Records: 9-2 overall, 6-2 PFL (Tie/3rd, but ineligible for title)
Spring Practices: Feb. 24-March 19
Storyline: Spring practices are underway for new coach Ian Shields, who takes over a successful program (66-35 in the last nine seasons under Kerwin Bell) that wasn't eligible for the PFL title each of the past two seasons. The Dolphins, though, have eligibility again this season. Shields, formerly head coach at Lenoir Rhyne, has brought in an attacking style of play - on both offense and defense. He has to replace four-year quarterback Kade Bell, but junior Rylan Wells showed promise when he saw action. Regardless of the new signal-caller, the offense features talented running backs Ulysses Bryant and Jamal Adjaman. The Dolphins have to rebuild the defense after losing many senior standouts, although linebackers Grady Redding and Malik Slater, who ranked 1-2 in tackles, are among the returnees.
2015 Records: 5-6 overall, 4-4 (Tie/5th)
Spring Practices: March 28-April 29 (spring game is April 23)
Storyline: Coach Jim Parady is entering his 25th season in charge of the Red Foxes, and he's one win shy of 125. His offense took steps forward last season with Mike White at quarterback and young talent in the skills position, especially wide receiver Juston Christian making big plays as a freshman. This year, some redshirt freshmen will bolster the receiving corps, and defenses will have to remain honest with the return of running back Marcellus Calhoun. The Red Foxes return only five defensive starters after losing all three starters, including two-time All-PFL first-teamer Demetrius Williams, as well as the top reserve on the defensive line. Dan Njoku is ready to step in at nose tackle and the Red Foxes are anxious to get back linebacker Willie Barrett after he sat out last season with a knee injury.
2015 Records: 7-4 overall, 6-2 PFL (Tie/3rd)
Spring Practices: March 16-April 16
Storyline: Last year's win total was the Eagles' highest since 2007, and with record-breaking quarterback Austin Gahafer back to run the offense for a fourth season, they believe they can win the PFL title (defending co-champion San Diego isn't on the schedule). But the Eagles lost six starters on each side of the ball and place-kicker Shavi Bash in a transfer to Georgia State, so coach Rob Tenyer has to work in some younger players into key roles. While top receiver Justin Cornwall is gone, slot man Jake Raymond is coming off a 72-catch season. The Eagles still have to name a new defensive coordinator after losing Dontae Wright to Tennessee Tech. The defense made great progress last season - forcing 28 turnovers - but it still has to give up fewer big plays.
2015 Records: 9-2 overall, 7-1 PFL (Tie/1st)
Spring Practices: Feb. 9-March 12
Storyline: Sunny and 75 degrees lead to USD spring practices - among the earliest in the FCS. The Toreros are coming off their fourth PFL title in five years, and fourth-year coach Dale Lindsey would appear to have a strong returning nucleus with six offensive starters and eight defensive starters. However, the losses include four starters on the offensive line and three on the defensive line, and it usually takes time to overcome such departures. Also, quarterback Anthony Lawrence, the PFL offensive freshman of the year, is sitting out spring practices after suffering a broken leg in the season's final game. Safeties Ray Clark and Colton Giorgi flew under the radar last season and are ready for the limelight. The Toreros' game against Dayton comes early this season - Sept. 24 in San Diego.
2015 Records: 3-8 overall, 1-7 PFL (Tie/9th)
Spring Practices: March 15-April 16
Storyline: Quarterback Ryan Tentler is a three-year starter, but he has to win the job again after struggling as a junior. He was backed by redshirt freshman Colin McGovern last season. Coach Roger Hughes is clearly seeking considerable improvement now that his program is in its fourth season and has some fifth-year seniors among the veterans. The Hatters, who return eight starters on defense and nine on offense, were mistake-filled with interceptions and penalties. They're still seeking better results at the two lines of scrimmage, so the poor play among the quarterbacks wasn't always their fault. Everybody is following safety Donald Payne's lead as he's already a two-time PFL defensive player of the year. One of his fellow starters in the secondary, cornerback Eric Martin, had wrist surgery after he picked off five passes last season and won't participate in spring practices.
2015 Records: 1-9 overall, 1-7 PFL (Tie/9th)
Spring Practices: March 23-April 18 (spring game is April 16)
Storyline: Among the quarterbacks, Dalton Stokes, last year's season-opening starter, is still recovering from a shoulder injury and his replacement, Ryan Clarke, is coming off a dislocated kneecap, so third-year coach Dave Cecchini is limited at the position in spring practices. With a virtually non-existent run game last season, wide receiver Jarrett Morgan is expected to transition to running back. Coupled with the offensive line being young last season, the Crusaders know where the improvement must start this spring. Their passing game has solid potential with wide receivers Fran Catrine and Jean Rene returning. On defense, the Crusaders have lost linebacker Alex Green, their first All-PFL first-team selection since 2006.