August 15, 2017

(STATS) - Saint Francis got over the hump last season in claiming its first Northeast Conference title and FCS playoff appearance in over two decades playing in the conference.

Make no mistake, the once-struggling program isn't content or relaxed with the new success.

"It's nerve-racking. It's a place we've never been before," coach Chris Villarial said. "This whole thing's been a learning process - learning how to win, learning how to be consistent and learning how to be a good teammate. We're taking another step and we, obviously, don't want to have a letdown."

The concern of the NEC's coach of the year the last two seasons centers around the loss of senior leaders and four-year standouts. It includes five players who earned first-team all-conference honors last season.

Plus, with the NEC such a competitive conference - there hasn't been an unbeaten champion since 2008 - Saint Francis has to reload quickly. Duquesne, last year's co-champion with the Red Flash, was installed as the league's preseason favorite.

"We expect to better play as one and just move forward from what we did last year," Saint Francis' All-America wide receiver Kamron Lewis said. "Keep our eyes moving forward and never look back and, hopefully, we can win another NEC championship."

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2017 Northeast Conference race and STATS' predicted order of finish:

1. Duquesne

2. Saint Francis

3. Wagner

4. Sacred Heart

5. Central Connecticut State

6. Bryant

7. Robert Morris

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TEAM CAPSULES=

1. DUQUESNE DUKES=

LOCATION: Pittsburgh

STADIUM: Arthur J. Rooney Athletic Field

COACH: Jerry Schmitt (76-54, 12 seasons; 104-75 overall)

2016 RECORDS: 8-3, 5-1 NEC (Tie/1st)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (5 offense/8 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Dillon Buechel, QB; Christian Kuntz, LB; Austin Crimmins, PK/P

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: A.J. Hines, RB, So. (242 carries, 1,291 yards, 13 TD; 15 receptions, 200 yards, 1 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Nathan Stone, ILB, Sr. (73 TT, 8 TFL, 2.5 Sacks, 2 PBU, 2 QBH, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Tommy Stuart, QB, Grad (Boise State graduate transfer); Brett Brumbaugh, QB, R-So.; Nehari Crawford, WR, Jr.; Matt Fitzpatrick, LG, R-Jr.; Alex Conley, LT, R-Jr.; Ben Huss, RG, Sr.; Zach Blystone, DE, R-So.; Andy Struttmann, DE, Sr.; Carter Henderson, ILB, R-Sr.; Brett Zanotto, OLB, R-So. (Maryland transfer); Jonathan Istache, CB, Jr.; Abner Roberts, S, R-Jr.; Brandon Stanback, S, Jr.; John Domit, PK, R-So.

OUTLOOK: The Dukes, who won an outright NEC title in 2015 and shared the crown last season, will play only four games at Rooney Field, where they are 99-27 (.786) all-time. But there's plenty of talent to overcome that factor (in fact, Schmitt says his team is deeper this season). The Dukes have 12 former FBS players on their roster and Hines is coming off a freshman season in which he won the STATS FCS Jerry Rice Award. He rushed for 117.4 yards per game. Buechel, the NEC's all-time passing leader, is gone, but the new starting QB, either Stuart (Boise State grad transfer) or Brumbaugh, will work behind a veteran offensive line. The veteran defense features the linebackers, as Henderson (90) and Stone (73) led the team in tackles last season.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31, at South Dakota State

Sept. 9, at Valparaiso

Sept. 16, at Dayton

Sept. 30, West Virginia Wesleyan

Oct. 7, Wagner*

Oct. 14, at Robert Morris*

Oct. 21, Saint Francis*

Oct. 28, at Sacred Heart*

Nov. 4, at Liberty

Nov. 11, Central Connecticut State*

Nov. 18, at Bryant*

* - NEC game

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2. SAINT FRANCIS (PA.) RED FLASH=

LOCATION: Loretto, Pennsylvania

STADIUM: DeGol Field

COACH: Chris Villarrial (31-46, seven seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 7-5, 5-1 NEC (Tie/1st)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Zack Drayer, QB; Solomon Leaeno, ILB; Lorenzo Jerome, FS

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Kamron Lewis, WR, Jr. (75 receptions, 1,478 yards, 11 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Malik Duncan, CB, Sr. (58 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 Sack, 2 INT, 9 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Bear Fenimore, QB, Grad (Houston graduate transfer); Marcus Bagley, RB, Sr.; Cyrus Holder, WR, So.; Christian Eubanks, RT, Jr.; Mederick Flavius, LT, R-Jr.; Luke Weiss, DE, Sr.; Shawn McCord, DE, Sr.; Sean Orsini, ILB, Jr.; Zane Stewart, OLB, Sr.; Da'Jon Lee, OLB, So.; Delondo Boyd, SS, Sr.; Jalen Wells, CB, Sr.; Hakeem Kinard, FS, Jr.

OUTLOOK: Having lost five All-NEC first-team selections as well as Drayer, a three-year starting quarterback, the Red Flash aren't the NEC favorite one year after winning a share of their first NEC title and advancing to the FCS playoffs for the first time. The new QB, likely Fenimore (Houston grad transfer), has two dynamite weapons in Lewis, who was third in the FCS in receiving yards, and Bagley, who's nearing 2,000 career rushing yards. The Red Flash are retooling on the offensive and defensive lines. The defense had an impressive 39 sacks last season. While the secondary lost an NFL player in Jerome, Boyd and Duncan will keep the unit solid.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, Lock Haven

Sept. 9, Wagner*

Sept. 16, Towson

Sept. 30, at Liberty

Oct. 7, at Presbyterian

Oct. 14, at Bryant*

Oct. 21, at Duquesne*

Oct. 28, Robert Morris*

Nov. 4, at Central Connecticut State*

Nov. 11, Sacred Heart*

Nov. 18, at Eastern Kentucky

* - NEC game

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3. WAGNER SEAHAWKS=

LOCATION: Staten Island, New York

STADIUM: Wagner College Stadium

COACH: Jason Houghtaling (7-15, two seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 6-5, 4-2 NEC (Tie/3rd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Matthias McKinnon, RB; Ryan Owens, TE; Tim Hayes, CB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Alex Thomson, QB, R-Jr. (184 of 323, 2,436 yards, 16 TD, 5 INT; 3 rushing TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Jordan Baskerville, DL, Sr. (34 TT, 9.5 TFL, 6 Sacks, 3 QBH, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Denzel Knight, RB, R-Jr.; John Williams, WR, Sr.; D'Erren Wilson, WR, R-Jr. (UCF transfer); Daniel Clifford, C, R-Jr.; Matt Diaz, LT, R-Sr.; Charbel Dabire, NT, Jr.; Christan Gore, NT, Grad; Kiser Terry, DT, Grad; Santoni Graham, ILB, R-So.; Quintin Hampton, ILB, Jr.; D.J. Paul, OLB, R-Sr.; Jesse Flaherty, FS, Sr.; James Cooper, PK, Grad

OUTLOOK: The experienced Seahawks, who improved by five wins in Houghtaling's second season, are primed for a run at the NEC title. They feature the All-NEC preseason quarterback, Thomson, in a conference which has inexperience at the position. They also bring back their leading rusher (Knight) and receiver (Williams) and a stud offensive lineman in Diaz. The 3-4 defense has to improve against the pass, but it's strong in the front seven. The Seahawks drop to playing only one FBS opponent, but it's a big one - Cotton Bowl qualifier Western Michigan.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31, Saint Anselm

Sept. 9, at Saint Francis*

Sept. 16, at Columbia

Sept. 23, at Western Michigan

Sept. 30, Lehigh*

Oct. 7, at Duquesne*

Oct. 14, Central Connecticut State*

Oct. 28, Bryant*

Nov. 4, Robert Morris*

Nov. 11, at Stony Brook

Nov. 18, at Sacred Heart*

* - NEC game

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4. SACRED HEART PIONEERS=

LOCATION: Fairfield, Connecticut

STADIUM: Campus Field

COACH: Mark Nofri (33-25, five seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 6-5, 1-5 NEC (Tie/5th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (9 offense/7 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: RJ Noel, QB; Ryan Cottrell, DL; James Rentz, DE/LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Nate Chavious, RB/KR, R-Sr. (137 carries, 737 yards, 6 TD; 24.3-yard KO return average, 1 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Kevin Barry, LB, R-Sr. (62 TT, 9.5 TFL, 4 Sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 1 FR, 2 FF in nine games)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Kevin Duke, QB, Sr.; Sean Merrill, OG, R-Sr.; Ose Imeokparia, RB, R-Sr.; Jordan Meachum, RB/KR, Jr.; Byron Barney, WR, Sr.; Andrew O'Neill, WR, Sr.; Sean Peters, OT, R-Sr.; Andrew Starr, OT, Jr.; Dylan Ackerson, DL, Sr.; C.J. Parvelus, LB, Sr.; Alec Finelli, DB, Sr.; Khaamal Whitaker, DB, R-Sr.; Tim Johnson, DB, R-Sr.

OUTLOOK: The Pioneers were rolling along at 6-1 until late October, when they proceeded to lose their final four games - all in the NEC. This year, they have one of the conference's more experienced lineups and Matt Gardner has returned to the program as the offensive coordinator. His unit will have to get in sync quickly following the graduation of Noel under center, but the Pioneers will look to continue running the ball after they led the conference in rushing yards per game (207) with Chavious and Imeokparia. On defense, LBs Barry and Parvelus (100 tackles) lead the way. As the Pioneers seek a fifth straight winning season, they will be a senior-led team.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, Stetson

Sept. 9, at Lafayette

Sept. 16, at Stony Brook

Sept. 23, at Bucknell

Sept. 30, Central Connecticut State*

Oct. 14, Dartmouth

Oct. 21, at Robert Morris*

Oct. 28, Duquesne*

Nov. 4, at Bryant*

Nov. 11, at Saint Francis*

Nov. 18, Wagner*

* - NEC game

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5. CENTRAL CONNECTICUT STATE BLUE DEVILS=

LOCATION: New Britain, Connecticut

STADIUM: Arute Field

COACH: Pete Rossomando (9-25, three seasons; 51-38 overall)

2016 RECORDS: 2-9, 1-5 NEC (Tie/5th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Lee Jones, LT; Asia Bolling, DE; Ed Groth, PK/P

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Jacob Dolegala, QB, Sr. (258 of 432, 2,934 yards, 15 TD, 9 INT)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Randall LaGuerre, ILB, Sr. (116 TT, 5.5 TFL, 2 Sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 1 QBH, 2 FR)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Cameron Nash, RB, Sr.; Drew Jean-Guillaume, RB, R-So.; Joey Fields, WR, Sr.; Courtney Rush, WR, Jr.; Jose Garcia, WR/PR, Jr.; K.J. Smith, TE, Jr.; Darrick Orange, C, Sr.; Chris Tinkham, NT, Jr.; Chad Woodfine, DT, Sr.; Brandon Puritt, DT, Jr.; Kenneth Keen, MLB, Jr.; Jevon Elmore, CB, Sr.; Darryn Horner, CB, Sr.; Tymir Hinton, FS, Jr.; Jarrod Cann, SS, Sr.

OUTLOOK: Although the Blue Devils are rebuilding on the offensive line, they are excellent in the skills positions. Dolegala led the conference in passing yards, Nash has opened his career with two strong seasons and Fields is coming off a breakout season. Defensively, LaGuerre paced the conference in tackles a year ago and former All-American Elmore returns to the secondary after missing last season due to academics. The Blue Devils face a potentially rough start with Syracuse, Fordham and Youngstown State in a row, but they will be much improved in the NEC.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 1, at Syracuse

Sept. 9, Fordham

Sept. 16, at Youngstown State

Sept. 23, Walsh

Sept. 30, at Sacred Heart*

Oct. 7, Penn

Oct. 14, at Wagner*

Oct. 21, Bryant*

Nov. 4, Saint Francis*

Nov. 11, at Duquesne*

Nov. 18, Robert Morris*

* - NEC game

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6. BRYANT BULLDOGS=

LOCATION: Smithfield, Rhode Island

STADIUM: Bulldog Stadium

COACH: James Perry (first season)

2016 RECORDS: 5-6, 4-2 NEC (Tie/3rd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 7 (3 offense/4 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Dalton Easton, QB; Taylor Barthelette, WR; Marquise Watson, DT

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Matt Sewall, WR/RS, Sr. (39 receptions, 522 yards, 7 TD; 28.9-yard KO return average, 1 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Dillon Guthro, DE, Jr. (48 TT, 10.5 TFL, 4.5 Sacks, 2 PBU, 6 QBH)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Kyle Presti, QB, Jr.; Brenden Femiano, RB, Jr.; Jean Constant, WR, So.; Andrew Jones, C, Jr.; Shawn Gholson, LG, Sr.; Kevin Lazo, DT, Jr.; Tomas Wright, DE, So.; Robert Brown, LB, So.; Jesse Nemerowicz, LB, So.; Pat Champagnie, SS, Sr.; Thomas Costigan, LB, Jr.; Gavin Rowley, PK, So.

OUTLOOK: Despite a 53-47 record since moving to the FCS level, including 31-25 in the NEC, Bryant has yet to finish higher than third place. Perry hopes to be the difference maker. He played collegiately at Brown only 15 miles away, and he's instilling the fast-paced offense that he used as Princeton's offensive coordinator the last seven years. While his team returns a mere seven starters, he gets to grow with the junior- and sophomore-laden lineup. Sewall, a senior, is the Bulldogs' go-to player, having scored nine touchdowns last season.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, Merrimack

Sept. 9, at New Hampshire

Sept. 16, at Brown

Sept. 23, Fordham

Sept. 30, at Maine

Oct. 14, Saint Francis*

Oct. 21, at Central Connecticut State*

Oct. 28, at Wagner*

Nov. 4, Sacred Heart*

Nov. 11, at Robert Morris*

Nov. 18, Duquesne*

* - NEC game

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7. ROBERT MORRIS COLONIALS=

LOCATION: Moon Township, Pennsylvania

STADIUM: Joe Walton Stadium

COACH: John Banaszak (7-26, three seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 2-9, 1-5 NEC (Tie/5th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Dante Satcher, RB; Ryan Lewis, DE; Marcelis Branch, DB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Tim Vecchio, WR, So. (35 receptions, 308 yards, 1 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Gee Stanley, LB, So. (59.5 TT, 12.5 TFL, 8.5 Sacks, 1 PBU, 4 QBH, 3 FR, 3 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Mathew Barr, QB, Jr.; Jimmy Walker, QB, Jr. (Cerritos College transfer); Harrison Dreher, RB, So.; Cole Blake, RB, Sr.; Jamison Williams, WR, Sr.; Rene Rodriguez, OL, So.; Matthew Fennell, OL, So.; Amir Fenwick, DL, Jr.; Zack Zamiska, DL, R-Sr.; Adam Wollet, LB, Jr.; Andy Smigiera, DB, R-Sr.; Ryan Richards Jr., DB, Sr.; Travon Stott, DB, So.; Adam Check, P, Jr.

OUTLOOK: Banaszak is excited for improvement after playing a lot of freshmen and sophomores a year ago. The youth showed on offense, where the Colonials ranked last in the FCS in yards per game (151.8) and second from the bottom in points per game (11.1). While the offense has been riddled by interceptions for two straight seasons, Walker, a former San Diego State walk-on who starred at Cerritos College the last two seasons, and a healthier Barr hope to solve the issue. The defense has been strong during the struggles and Stanley is coming off NEC defensive rookie of the year honors. The Colonials are 1-16 on the road under Banaszak.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, Dayton

Sept. 9, at Youngstown State

Sept. 16, VMI

Sept. 23, at North Dakota State

Oct. 7, at East Tennessee State

Oct. 14, Duquesne*

Oct. 21, Sacred Heart*

Oct. 28, at Saint Francis*

Nov. 4, at Wagner*

Nov. 11, Bryant*

Nov. 18, at Central Connecticut State*

* - NEC game

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