AP Photo
July 21, 2016

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (STATS) - It's being hailed as the season of the quarterback in the Northeast Conference.

That has caught the attention of defenses across the league.

"Every team seems like they have a (quarterback) that can make plays," Wagner coach Jason Houghtaling said. "It's an exciting thing for the conference, but it's a real tough thing to game plan against."

It's such a good season for signal-callers that Dillon Buechel, who leads defending champion Duquesne, was voted the NEC preseason quarterback even though Sacred Heart standout RJ Noel has been the All-NEC first-team selection each of the past three postseasons and is returning for his senior campaign. Add in the likes of Saint Francis' Zack Drayer and Bryant's Dalton Easton, who are third-year starters, and the defenses will have to raise their play.

Duquesne was favored over Sacred Heart in the NEC preseason poll, gaining six of the seven first-place votes. Saint Francis was third followed by Bryant, Central Connecticut State, Robert Morris and Wagner.

People aren't necessarily focusing on the defenses leading up to preseason camp next month, but they will after realizing that will be a difference maker across the NEC. Saint Francis led the conference and Duquesne was second in scoring defense last season.

And it's not a coincidence those two teams met for the title on the final Saturday of the regular season. Duquesne won 30-20.

"I think year in and year out the defenses in this conference keep getting better and better," Saint Francis coach Chris Villarial said. "I know from sitting back and watching, guys are getting bigger, the holes are closing much faster."

The feeling among NEC coaches is the defenses will have to blitz and get pressure on the quarterbacks while also being disciplined on the back end. They don't want to let the QBs get a rhythm going.

The NEC's top two quarterbacks are fourth-year starters. Buechel has great timing from the pocket and terrific skills position players surrounding him. Noel, who's won 25 games and 2013 and '14 conference titles, is the more mobile QB, but he needs to overcome the loss of All-America wide receiver Tyler Dube.

Buechel (7,455) and Noel (7,111) head into the season nearing the NEC's all-time career passing mark of 8,803 yards, so it was realistic for the coaches to make Buechel the preseason quarterback. But, said Sacred Heart coach Mark Nofri, "Knowing RJ, it might drive him. He's a competitor."

The other teams in the conference have an experienced quarterback as well. Central Connecticut State (Jake Dolegala) and Robert Morris (Matt Barr) can grow behind their sophomores, while Wagner's Alex Thomson got nine starts after replacing an injured Chris Andrews. The junior must hold off Syracuse transfer A.J. Long.

"From top to bottom," Bryant linebacker Marquis Watson said, "the quarterbacks that teams are putting out on the field are amazing. From a defensive perspective, we have to line up and go against these guys, you've got to bring your 'A' game, your best game."

"Most of them can run, pass, so it's a couple things you have to worry about, it's not just one," said Duquesne linebacker Christian Kuntz, the 2015 NEC defensive player of the year. "It's always fun going against everyone, especially talented guys because you want to go against the best competition. It's going to be a fun year."

Duquesne's fun might only come with another conference title. The Dukes are the hunted after last year's breakthrough season. While they lost good leadership in their graduated seniors, they return 13 starters from the 8-4 squad.

And coach Jerry Schmitt senses they are hungry for more success.

"I think our guys do a great job of not just measuring ourselves on wins and losses," he said. "They understand that's what is the final product, but I think they do a really good job on getting better, focusing on each and every week and each and every game. We were getting on the plane (to attend NEC media day), and one of my friends noticed Christian and said, 'Hey, we expect an undefeated season.' The first thing he and Dillon said was, 'One at a time.'"

NORTHEAST CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL

Head Coaches Poll

1. Duquesne (6 first-place votes)

2. Sacred Heart (1)

3. Saint Francis

4. Bryant

5. Central Connecticut State

6. Robert Morris

7. Wagner

NORTHEAST CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TEAM

Offense

QB - Dillon Buechel, Duquesne, Sr.

RB - Marcus Bagley, Saint Francis, Jr.

RB - Cameron Nash, Central Connecticut State, Jr.

WR - Wayne Capers, Duquesne, Sr.

WR - Kyle Buss, Robert Morris, So.

WR - Moses Webb, Sacred Heart, Sr.

TE/HB - Ryan Owens, Wagner, Grad

OL - Jimmy Marks, Saint Francis, Sr.

OL - Tyler Cardoze, Bryant, Sr.

OL - Matt Diaz, Wagner, Sr.

OL - Sean Merrill, Sacred Heart, Sr.

OL - Ben Huss Duquesne, Jr.

Defense

DL - Ryan Cottrell, Sacred Heart, Sr.

DL - Asia Bolling, Central Connecticut State, Sr.

DL - Wesley Nagaseu, Saint Francis, Sr.

DL - Jake Radziukinas, Duquesne, Sr.

LB - Christian Kuntz, Duquesne, Sr.

LB - James Rentz, Sacred Heart, Sr.

LB - Nathan Stone, Duquesne, Jr.

LB - Randall Laguerre, Central Connecticut State, Jr.

DB - Lorenzo Jerome, Saint Francis, Sr.

DB - Marcelis Branch, Robert Morris, Sr.

DB - Chuckie Wingate, Bryant, Sr.

DB - Andy Smigiera, Robert Morris, Sr.

Special Teams

PK - Lance Geesey, Saint Francis, Sr.

P - Bryan Rafano, Wagner, Sr.

RS - Lorenzo Jerome, Saint Francis, Sr.

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