CAA Football spring primer
(STATS) - The depth in CAA Football is exemplified by New Hampshire's excellent program.
With 12 straight appearances in the playoffs, the Wildcats boast an active streak that is the longest in the FCS and double that of any other program.
Yet as they go for another bid this year, it can be argued the Wildcats are only the CAA's fifth- or sixth-best team on paper.
Seriously, the conference is that deep.
Richmond - which went on to reach the FCS semifinals - along with James Madison and William Mary shared last year's CAA title, finishing one game ahead of Towson, Villanova and UNH in the standings. That same mix figures to be there in the end again this year, but the other six teams in the conference will have a say as well in a strong season for senior classes.
Following is a look across the CAA with spring practices getting underway in college football:
2015 Records: 3-8 overall, 2-6 CAA (11th)
Spring Practices: March 22-April 23 (spring game is April 16)
Storyline: The Great Danes took a step back in coach Greg Gattuso's second season - outscored 106-28 in the first quarter - but they return all of their starters on offense and another eight on defense. At quarterback, D.J. Crook outplayed Neven Sussman, but the position is unsettled heading into the spring. The defense must do a better job against the run, so developing linemen is a focus, although big defensive end Jack Forster won't participate as he looks to get healthier. The defense has a young anchor in linebacker Julian Cox, the CAA's co-defensive player of the year. It helps this season to have six home games and James Madison, Towson and William & Mary not on the schedule.
2015 Records: 4-7 overall, 3-5 CAA (Tie/7th)
Spring Practices: April 7-May 7
Storyline: The Blue Hens' spring practice dates are among the latest in the FCS. They must be quite anxious to get started knowing they have 18 returning starters (10 on offense and eight on defense) and many more players from the second unit. They think a first playoff bid since 2010 is within their reach. Joe Flacco might be surprised to learn the offense averaged an FCS-low 67.1 passing yards per game last season with redshirt freshman Joe Walker behind center and the wide receivers corps set back by injuries. But this will be a run-oriented team with many backs (Thomas Jefferson and Kareem Williams along with Wes Hills and Jalen Randolph returning from injuries) and a veteran offensive line. Transfer linebacker Troy Reed was a starter at Penn State and cornerback Malcolm Brown returns after missing last season. A winning season feels imperative in coach Dave Brock's fourth season, but the tradition-rich Blue Hens want more than that.
2015 Records: 4-7 overall, 3-5 CAA (Tie/7th)
Spring Practices: March 30-April 23
Storyline: Last year's win total was Elon's highest since 2011, so the team is energized going into coach Rich Skrosky's third season. The competition will be high on defense because the Phoenix return only five starters. All of the starters on the D-line are gone, and the Phoenix feel it's important for them to get stronger at both lines of scrimmage. Quarterbacks Conner Christiansen and Daniel Thompson are battling for command of the offense, which returns eight starters. The addition of freshmen to the lineup - the offensive line had C.J. Toogood, Alex Higgins and Matt Kowalewski and the wide receivers unit included Corey Joyner, Tereak McCray and Jon Thomas - will pay dividends going forward.
2015 Records: 9-3 overall, 6-2 CAA (Tie/1st)
Spring Practices: March 16-April 16
Storyline: The Dukes have to move forward after a season of "what if?" - one derailed by quarterback Vad Lee's foot injury. It gave them a jump-start on this season with Bryan Schor starting the final four games under center. Coach Mike Houston has arrived from The Citadel after Everett Withers departed for Texas State and he will keep the spread attack with the likes of running backs Khalid Abdullah and Cardon Johnson and wide receiver Brandon Ravenel returning. Linebacker Andrew Ankrah and cornerback Taylor Reynolds are among nine returning defensive starters, but the Dukes have to stop the run better, having ranked 10th in the conference a year ago. Backup D-linemen Brandon Brown and Cornell Urquhart will take on bigger roles.
2015 Records: 3-8 overall, 3-5 CAA (Tie/7th)
Spring Practices: April 14-May 7
Storyline: Behind the youngest head coach in Division I, the Black Bears believe they can make a quick rise in the CAA standings in 29-year-old Joe Harasymiak's first season. His offense will be more fast-paced than Jack Cosgrove's, switching to a pro-style approach with new coordinator Liam Coen. Harasymiak was the defensive coordinator the last two seasons, so there will be tweaks to the unit but not significant overhaul under new coordinator Corey Hetherman, last year's D-line coach. Junior quarterbacks Dan Collins and Drew Belcher are trying to separate themselves on offense, which features wide receivers Micah Wright and Jordan Dunn. Defensive end Patrick Ricard is the best player on that side of the ball. The Black Bears return 15 starters (nine on offense and six on defense).
2015 Records: 7-5 overall, 5-3 CAA (Tie/4th)
Spring Practices: April 5-May 7
Storyline: The spring game May 7 provides the Wildcats with one final game at Cowell Stadium (Wildcat Stadium opens Sept. 10 against Holy Cross). Coach Sean McDonnell's squad, which has qualified for the playoffs 12 straight years, have plenty of work to do this spring. The defense returns only four starters, although one is All-America cornerback Casey DeAndrade. Often overshadowed last season, defensive end Cam Shorey and cornerback Patrick Mensah should emerge this year. There aren't as many questions on the offensive side with seven returning starters, although quarterback Sean Goldrich is gone. Senior Adam Riese, not flashy, will be asked to manage the offense, with running back Dalton Crossman and tight end Jordan Powell the featured players.
2015 Records: 1-10 overall, 1-7 (12th)
Spring Practices: March 30-April 30
Storyline: The positive is URI returns nine offensive starters and eight on defense. But third-year coach Jim Fleming still faces a rebuilding project, having gone 2-21 over his first two seasons. Running back Harold Cooper is coming off a broken leg in the season finale and won't be pushed in spring practices. Senior quarterback Paul Mroz is also coming off a season-ending injury following six starts, but there is young talent at the position with Wesley McKoy and Jordan Vazzano. Left tackle Tyler Catalina, a three-year starter on the offensive line, has departed as a graduate transfer to Georgia, leaving redshirt sophomore Derek Allen as the likely candidate to replace him. Fleming has an influential sophomore class, which includes linebackers Justin Hogan and Tez Wilson. The return of junior cornerback Abdul Ibrahim, who missed all of 2015 with an injury, also is pivotal for the struggling program.
2015 Records: 10-4 overall, 6-2 (Tie/1st)
Spring Practices: March 17-April 16
Storyline: The trip to the national semifinals has the Spiders craving even more in 2016. Last year's CAA tri-champs have to energize their running game following the loss of All-CAA running back Jacobi Green and Seth Fisher, one of the top fullbacks in the FCS. Also, the left side of the line, tackle Nick Ritcher and guard Caleb High, departs after a combined 76 career starts. The offense still features All-Americans in quarterback Kyle Lauletta and wide receiver Brian Brown, and coach Danny Rocco did a great job in replacing offensive coordinator Charlie Fisher (Western Illinois' new head coach) with John Garrett, the older brother of Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. The defense, which keeps opposing offenses off-balance, returns eight starters, led by linebacker Omar Howard, safety David Jones and defensive linemen Winston Craig and Andrew Clyde.
2015 Records: 5-5 overall, 3-5 CAA (Tie/7th)
Spring Practices: March 22-April 23
Storyline: Three season-ending wins changed the complexion of the Seawolves' offseason, although they haven't quite turned the corner in the CAA (10-14 in conference games since joining in 2013). There's no doubting the defense, which has been among the nation's best in recent seasons. The unit returns seven starters, and tackle Aaron Thompson will now draw the double teams with CAA co-defensive player of the year Victor Ochi going off to an NFL career. While the offense brings back nine starters, quarterback Joe Carbone must still prove he can run the Seawolves effectively. But there are plenty of skill-position players to share the load, including wide receiver Ray Bolden coming off a breakout season, a dangerous two-man running game of Donald Liotine and Stacey Bedell, and all-purpose threat Sherman Alston Jr., a transfer from Boston College.
2015 Records: 7-4 overall, 5-3 CAA (Tie/4th)
Spring Practices: March 8-April 16
Storyline: After just missing the playoffs last season, the Tigers have a veteran lineup, which returns 17 starters (nine on offense and eight on defense). The lineup features two-time 1,000-yard running back Darius Victor, although the senior will not participate in spring practices after undergoing surgery for some nagging injuries. Oregon transfer Morgan Mahalak isn't arriving until the summer, so Ellis Knudson and Heath Dahlgren hope to gain a foothold at quarterback. The Tigers also hope to solidify the offensive line, where they have played a lot of players because of various injuries the last two seasons. The losses of Jon Desire and Tungie Coker on the defensive line are tempered by the fact coach Rob Ambrose has utilized different players in a rotation. The linebacker position is loaded, highlighted by Chris Tedder, the CAA's 2015 co-defensive rookie of the year, on the inside. Redshirt freshman safety Keon Paye looks to replace Donnell Lewis, last year's leading tackler on a balanced defense.
2015 Records: 6-5 overall, 5-3 CAA (Tie/4th)
Spring Practices: March 15-April 22
Storyline: The program is moving toward coach Andy Talley's 32nd and final season. While quarterback John Robertson's early season knee injury derailed the Wildcats' CAA and national championship aspirations last season, quarterback Zach Bednarczyk, who's cut from the same mold as the 2014 FCS offensive player of the year, got in eight starts as a redshirt freshman. The offense was good, not great, behind Bednarczyk, but the work in the spring will help prepare the 'Cats for a favorable conference schedule (it doesn't include William & Mary, New Hampshire or Stony Brook). Although the defense loses All-America linebacker Don Cherry, it returns linebacker Austin Calitro, last year's leading tackler, and a potential All-American in 6-foot-7, 275-pound end Tanoh Kpassagnon.
WILLIAM & MARY
2015 Records: 9-4 overall, 6-2 CAA (Tie/1st)
Spring Practices: March 16-April 16
Storyline: In his 37th season leading the Tribe, coach Jimmye Laycock expects to build on last year's return to prominence. Four-fifths of the offensive line along with tight end Andrew Caskin return to pave the way for an excellent group at the skill positions, led by quarterback Steve Cluley, tailback Kendell Anderson and wide receiver DeVonte Dedmon. Physical defense has long been a staple of the program, but the focus is on that side of the ball as the Tribe are replacing some All-CAA and All-America talent. The loss of CAA co-defensive player of the year DeAndre Houston-Carson is glaring, but in the secondary, cornerback is a strength with Trey Reed back as a senior, Aaron Swinton returning from injury and redshirt freshman Corey Parker arriving. Kicker Nick Dorka and punter Hunter Windmuller might give the Tribe the best tandem in the FCS.