MEAC spring outlook
(STATS) - Inexperience abounds in the MEAC at football's most important position, so the conference title race could turn unpredictable in 2017.
Count North Carolina A&T among the fortunate - the Aggies are the only top-four finisher from last season to return its starting quarterback.
Defending champ North Carolina Central will be among the teams retooling at the position during spring practices.
Following is a look across the MEAC with spring practices underway in college football:
Head Coach: Terry Sims (13-8, two seasons)
2016 Records: 4-6, 4-4 MEAC
Spring Practices: March 29-April 22
What to Know: The big step backward last season was jarring for a Wildcats program that had won at least a share of five of the previous six MEAC titles. Injuries factored in heavily and the Wildcats started the season with five straight losses. While improvement on the offensive line is a priority, there is terrific depth at quarterback, led by fifth-year senior Larry Brihm Jr., and wide receiver, led by Frank Brown and Jawill Davis, also fifth-year seniors. Safety Tiquan Richardson and linebacker Trenton Bridges, the team's leading tacklers, also are among 15 returning starters (eight on offense). The Wildcats will open the season with four straight road games, including at Miami (Florida) and Florida Atlantic.
Head Coach: Kenny Carter (1-21, two seasons)
2016 Records: 0-11, 0-8 MEAC
Spring Practices: March 15-April 8
What to Know: As they seek improvement, the Hornets return two of the MEAC's top five rushers in sophomore Mike Waters (DSU freshman-record 820 yards) and junior Bycen Alleyne, who won't participate in spring drills after undergoing offseason knee surgery. Sophomore quarterback Keenan Black will have experience over freshmen Jack McDaniels and Nasir Boykins, but the position is unsettled. While the offense returns only five starters, the defense returns nine. But they must defend better against the run after finishing last in the conference. The non-conference opponents are Delaware, West Virginia and Florida State. Yes, yikes.
Head Coach: Alex Wood (5-17, two seasons; 30-41 overall)
2016 Records: 4-7, 4-4 MEAC
Spring Practices: March 24-April 15
What to Know: APR penalties sacked Florida A&M's spring practices last season, but the Rattlers will be back on the field this spring. They are building depth behind their eight returning starters on offense and seven on defense. Quarterback Ryan Stanley is coming off an excellent freshman campaign. While the skills positions and secondary are strengths, the Rattlers seek progress on their offensive and defensive lines and must replace some linebackers and three-year place-kicker/punter Colby Blanton. Last year's .500 MEAC record represented a three-win improvement from Wood's first season.
Head Coach: Connell Maynor (14-20, three seasons; 59-26 overall)
2016 Records: 5-6, 5-3 MEAC
Spring Practices: March 1-31
What to Know: Some younger players gained experience last season, but as the Pirates mature as a team (they don't have a large senior class), there are big questions on offense. They are breaking in a new quarterback, with the competition likely occurring between Brandon Cox, Brendan Greene and Delmon Williams, and new go-to wide receivers to replace Rashawn Proctor and Twarn Mixson, who combined for three first-team All-MEAC selections in their careers. Fortunately, senior running back Yahkee Johnson is coming off a strong first season in the program. Like the offense, the defense is returning six starters and should be stronger.
Head Coach: Mike London (first season; 27-46 overall)
2016 Records: 2-9, 2-6 MEAC
Spring Practices: N/A
What to Know: London was one of the big hires of the FCS offseason as he arrives from Maryland, where he spent last season as the associate head coach and defensive line coach. London previously was the head coach at Richmond, where he won the 2008 FCS national title, and Virginia. He is trying to lift a program that has only one winning season in the last 15 years. While the Bison implement new schemes, they know to get the football to their 1-2 offensive punch of senior running back Anthony Philyaw (1,230 yards) and sophomore wide receiver Kyle Anthony. London's first recruiting class nabbed 23 signees.
Head Coach: Fred Farrier (3-8, one season)
2016 Records: 3-8, 3-5 MEAC
Spring Practices: March 29-April 29
What to Know: Farrier had the interim tag removed and will keep building the program. After big issues at quarterback last season, he brought in an SEC transfer quarterback, Elijah Staley, a 6-foot-5 left-hander. That's the kind of addition that could shake up things in the MEAC. The Bears will have a strong running game with the return of veteran offensive linemen and running backs Eric Harrell and Herb Walker, but they'll need emergence from their wide receivers. The defensive line and secondary are strengths. The seniors were part of the 2014 squad that earned a share of the MEAC title and qualified for the FCS playoffs.
Head Coach: Latrell Scott (8-14, two seasons; 33-23 overall)
2016 Records: 4-7, 3-5 MEAC
Spring Practices: March 14-April 15
What to Know: The Spartans have finished 4-7 in each of Scott's first two seasons and haven't had a winning season since they captured the MEAC title in 2011. They returned a fairly veteran lineup - seven starters on offense and eight on defense. Last year's young offensive line is continuing its development and the depth and talent on the defensive line is undeniable, including second-team All-MEAC defensive tackle Chris Lee, defensive end Nigel Chavis and nose guards Walter Brantley and Deshaywn Middleton. The offense is replacing quarterback Greg Hankerson Jr., a two-year starter. Last year's backup Tyre Givers-Wilson and freshman Tripp Harrington are the only scholarship QBs in spring camp.
NORTH CAROLINA A&T=
Head Coach: Rod Broadway (47-22, six seasons; 115-45 overall)
2016 Records: 9-3, 7-1 MEAC
Spring Practices: March 13-April 8
What to Know: The Aggies have reached the post-Tarik Cohen era, but they're solid enough to overcome the loss of their All-America running back and challenge for the MEAC title. Quarterback Lamar Raynard will work behind an offensive line that returns four starters, led by All-America left tackle Brandon Parker, and added Jackson graduate transfer Christian Marshall. There are eight returning starters on each side of the ball. The defense must shore up its pass defense after ranking last in the conference, although that was a by-product of the Aggies ranking first in rush defense. Senior linebacker Jeremy Taylor is coming off a big season.
NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL=
Head Coach: Jerry Mack (24-11, three seasons)
2016 Records: 9-3, 8-0 MEAC
Spring Practices: March 21-April 22
What to Know: N.C. Central isn't living in N.C. A&T's shadow anymore after the Eagles won the outright MEAC championship and reached the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl (both teams were part of shared titles in 2014 and '15). The offseason is about retooling the offense because it lost three-starting quarterback Malcolm Bell and four starters on the offensive line. Returning QBs Naiil Ramandan and Shoalin McGuire have familiarity with the offense, but touted freshman Chauncey Caldwell will be in the mix this summer. Nick Leverett, a redshirt sophomore, is the only returning starter up front. On defense, the Eagles return eight starters, although the coaches signed six defensive linemen in February, including transfer defensive tackle Chris Burton from Cincinnati.
Head Coach: Erik Raeburn (3-7, one season; 138-46 overall)
2016 Records: 3-7, 3-5 MEAC
Spring Practices: TBA
What to Know: For a change, the Tigers are trending upward. They received word from the NCAA that they are allowed to have spring practices following past APR penalties. Plus, last season marked just their second with more than two wins since the school moved to the FCS level in 2000. They return 16 starters - eight on each side of the ball - to try to build on the momentum. There's competition on the offensive line as well as at quarterback, although T.J. Bell played more than fellow sophomore Blake Dever last season. On defense, two of three starting linebacker spots have to be solidified. But the Tigers will be more comfortable knowing the coaching staff's schemes and philosophies. That could lead to more consistency in the second season under Raeburn.
SOUTH CAROLINA STATE=
Head Coach: Buddy Pough (117-57, 15 seasons)
2016 Records: 5-6, 5-3 MEAC
Spring Practices: March 21-April 15
What to Know: Last season's 5-6 record tied for the worst in the highly successful Pough era, but the Bulldogs expect to bounce back and be in title contention this year. The defense remains the team's strength, returning eight starters, including MEAC defensive player of the year Darius Leonard and fellow linebacker Dayshawn Taylor. The offense took a hit with the transfer of quarterback Caleb York, who had showed great promise in 2015. Mykal Moody, a converted wide receiver, excelled in his season-ending start against Bethune-Cookman, and the Bulldogs also return Dewann Ford in a likely two-man competition.