Pioneer Football League spring outlook

(STATS) - There's uncertainty across the far-reaching Pioneer Football League because last year's top teams have questions.

While defending champ San Diego, Dayton and Drake figure to be back in the title mix, San Diego lost 19 seniors, Dayton will be young along the line of scrimmage and Drake is seeking newcomers at the skill positions.

Those factors have opened the door for Marist to be in title contention and the potential for one of the better races in the FCS.

Following is a look across the PFL with spring practices underway in college football:

---=

BUTLER=

Head Coach: Jeff Voris (64-60, 11 seasons; 79-94 overall)

2016 Records: 4-7, 2-6 PFL

Spring Practices: March 14-April 14

What to Know: The Bulldogs are breaking in a new starting quarterback, perhaps Will Marty, but the tougher task might come on the offensive line, where they are replacing four starters. The experience of wide receiver Pace Temple and a deep group of running backs, led by Duvante Lane, will help ease the transition. The defense was outstanding against the run last season, but it must improve against the pass after allowing a PFL-worst 289 yards per game through the air. The Bulldogs return five starters on offense and six on defense.

---=

CAMPBELL=

Head Coach: Mike Minter (18-27, four seasons)

2016 Records: 5-5, 3-4 PFL

Spring Practices: March 21-April 15 (spring game is April 8)

What to Know: Quarterback Elijah Burress will sit out the spring after being injured last season, but he's expected to make a full recovery. Anthony Robbins did a credible job in relief and the change didn't stop wide receiver Aaron Blockmon from posting a 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown season. The focus is at running back, where all-time leading rusher De'Shawn Jones and fellow standout Jared Joyner finished their careers. Youngsters Darius Barnes and Kahlil Dixon will step into larger roles. The defense had a relatively inexperienced nucleus last season, but linebacker and defensive back are now strengths.

---=

DAVIDSON=

Head Coach: Paul Nichols (5-40, four seasons)

2016 Records: 2-9, 0-8 PFL

Spring Practices: March 14-April 8

What to Know: Nicholls is still seeking answers from his team, which is 1-31 in PFL games during his tenure. Last season, the Wildcats lost three of their first four league games by four points or fewer, so they need to finish games better. As a sophomore, 2016 PFL freshman offensive player of the year Stockton McGuire has to improve as a passer, and he should considering senior wide receivers Jaris Scott and Cam Cheuvront provide a strong duo. Pass rushers Boo Jordan and Thomas Sykes and linebacker Ryan Samuels are defensive leaders. One excellent sign: the Wildcats were plus-four in turnover margin, finishing third in the league.

---=

DAYTON=

Head Coach: Rick Chamberlin (74-27, nine seasons)

2016 Records: 9-2, 7-1 PFL

Spring Practices: March 17-April 9

What to Know: The Flyers have the longest winning streak (seven) among FCS teams that didn't play in the postseason last year, and that's where they intend to finish this season. Quarterback Alex Jeske, who accounted for 15 touchdowns both on the ground and through the air as a sophomore, will be working with a new offensive coordinator and QBs coach (who is yet to be announced). The Flyers return half of the starting lineup, but they have to replace three starters on both the offensive and defensive lines. Wide receiver Jack Euritt, who caught seven touchdowns, is recovering from knee surgery.

---=

DRAKE=

Head Coach: Rick Fox (19-14, three seasons)

2016 Records: 7-4, 6-2 PFL

Spring Practices: March 21-April 22

What to Know: After finishing in third place, the Bulldogs return a lineup that is experienced on the offensive and defensive lines. Adding to that will be All-PFL defensive end Mack Marrin's attempt to get back to his 2015 form after he battled through injuries last season. Grant Kraemer is entrenched at quarterback, but he will miss leading rusher Conley Wilkins (graduation) and Drew Lauer (knee injury) in the backfield and NFL-bound tight end Eric Saubert. Linebacker Taylor Coleman led the team in tackles despite missing the final three games last season.

---=

JACKSONVILLE=

Head Coach: Ian Shields (5-5, one season; 21-11 overall)

2016 Records: 5-5, 4-3 PFL

Spring Practices: March 4-April 8

What to Know: Perennial power Jacksonville's eighth-place forecast in the PFL's preseason poll almost seemed silly last preseason, and the Dolphins exceeded the expectations with a fifth-place finish in Shields' first season. The offense returns all but one starter, the school's No. 2 all-time rusher Ulysses Bryant, but he played through injuries, so others developed behind him and quarterback Rylan Wells wound up as the team's rushing leader. The defense returns six starters. It finished 10th in the PFL in points allowed per game and must get better against the run and put more pressure on quarterbacks.

---=

MARIST=

Head Coach: Jim Parady (129-132-1, 25 seasons)

2016 Records: 5-6, 5-3 PFL

Spring Practices: March 22-April 22

What to Know: The next step for the Red Foxes' veteran group is late-season title contention. They were in last year's race with a 4-0 start, but fizzled out in the second half of the season. Parady enters his 26th campaign with 15 returning starters (eight on offense). Quarterback Mike White set the program's single-season passing yards record last year, and has firepower returning in wide receiver Juston Christian and fifth-year senior running back Marcellus Calhoun. Their 3-3-5 defense gained experience in what was a young front six last season.

---=

MOREHEAD STATE=

Head Coach: Rob Tenyer (18-28, four seasons)

2016 Records: 4-7, 3-5 PFL

Spring Practices: March 22-April 22

What to Know: No PFL team may have more to prove than the Eagles, who slumped from a 7-4 record in 2015 despite having record-setting quarterback Austin Gahafer back as a senior. Tenyer will assume play calling on offense and get back to an extremely fast tempo. The signal caller duties could go to senior pocket passer Jack Sherry, mobile sophomore Lawson Page or redshirt freshman Ethan Jeffers. The Eagles also will be inexperienced at wide receiver. Like the offense, the defense returns five starters. With more experience on the defensive line and at linebackers, the defense hopes to surrender fewer than last year's league-low34.5 points per game. The kickers won't be in spring camp because they are incoming freshmen.

---=

SAN DIEGO=

Head Coach: Dale Lindsey (36-10, four seasons)

2016 Records: 10-2, 8-0 PFL

Spring Practices: Feb. 7-March 3 (spring game was Feb. 25)

What to Know: The defending PFL champs hope to be solving a lot as their spring practices wind down. They are replacing seven defensive starters from a team that became the first in league history to win an FCS playoff game (35-21 over Cal Poly). The Toreros will need more playmakers, but the defense features one of the better players in the league in defensive end Jonathan Petersen, who had 23 tackles for loss and 12 1/2 sacks last season, and excellent safeties in Ray Clark and Colton Giorgi. While it's imperative for the offense to replace running back Jonah Hodges, the PFL offensive player of the year, quarterback Anthony Lawrence and all five starters on the offensive line return.

---=

STETSON=

Head Coach: Roger Hughes (14-31, four seasons; 61-83 overall)

2016 Records: 4-7, 2-6 PFL

Spring Practices: March 21-April 22

What to Know: The Hatters' startup program hasn't quite flourished under Hughes and it might be hard to improve this season. The offense is basically starting over, with only four starters, including just Jim McCammon on the line. Quarterback Gaven DeFilippo made seven starts, but he won't play this year after suffering labrum and ACL tears on the same play. But Colin McGovern, the expected starter who was injured in the preseason, is back. The line is expected to be strong on a defense that returns seven starters, but All-America safety Donald Payne is gone after a brilliant career. The Dolphins' special teams are replacing their snapper, place-kicker and punter.

---=

VALPARAISO=

Head Coach: Dave Cecchini (9-24, three seasons)

2016 Records: 4-7, 3-5 PFL

Spring Practices: March 29-April 24 (spring game is April 22)

What to Know: With 17 returning starters (nine on offense), the Crusaders must think they can take an even bigger step under Cecchini. Last year's three PFL wins were the most since 2003. Quarterback Jimmy Seewald returns off a strong freshman season. His presence has led to one-time starter Ryan Clarke moving to tight end, and another former signal caller, Dalton Stokes, switching to wide receiver. The Crusaders are hoping defensive back J.J. Nunes is given a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA because injuries have limited him to two seasons and the secondary was hit hard by graduation.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide — from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Grant Wahl, Andy Staples and more — delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.