(STATS) - Sacred Heart's RJ Noel has been selected as the Northeast Conference's first-team quarterback in each of the past three seasons.
It would be easy to consider him a relative lock for the honor again in his senior season, but it's not the case.
This is the year of the veteran quarterback in the NEC. All seven teams return their starter, led by Noel, Dillon Buechel of defending champion Duquesne, Dalton Easton of Bryant and Zach Drayer of Saint Francis.
Each of those four is a starter for at least the third season, with Buechel earning second-team all-conference honors to Noel in 2013 and '15, and Easton doing likewise in 2014.
It was Buechel who left a lasting image for the NEC offseason when he passed for six touchdowns in Duquesne's 52-49 loss to William & Mary in the FCS playoffs last November.
"We have never really been a passing league, but it has opened up a lot in last few years," said Ralph Ventre of the NEC. "Still not close to 'Big Sky' numbers, but I've definitely witnessed a lot of exciting pass plays recently."
Following is a look across the QB-laden Northeast Conference with spring practices getting underway:
2015 Records: 5-6 overall, 3-3 NEC (Tie/3rd)
Spring Practices: April 4-23
Storyline: Coming off a disappointing season in which the Bulldogs were the NEC's preseason favorite, they bring back only four starters on offense and five on defense, so young players will be asked to fill key roles. As they begin to practice inside a new indoor facility this spring, Easton will be their leader. But they were senior-dominated in the skills positions last season, so they're looking for breakout candidates. That includes senior running back Ryan Black as he steps in for NEC offensive player of the year Ricardo McCray, who had 1,270 yards. On defense, they return three of their top four tacklers in linebackers Patrick Kenney and Marquise Watson and free safety Charles Keenan. Of note this season is a Sept. 10 visit to Montana State - the program's first trip west of the Mississippi River.
CENTRAL CONNECTICUT STATE
2015 Records: 4-7 overall, 3-3 NEC (Tie/3rd)
Spring Practices: March 15-April 23
Storyline: Optimism abounds with the Blue Devils considering their two-deep was filled with underclassmen in coach Pete Rossomando's second season last year. One of the main goals this spring is to rebuild the offensive line, which had seniors on the left side. Sophomore quarterback Jake Dolegala is probably the favorite to be the starter after he shared the spot with Tavion Pauldo when both were freshmen last year. Although running back Cameron Nash had a breakout campaign with a team-best 676 yards, the Blue Devils are getting back Brenden Lytton, who was expected to be the starter but was injured in preseason camp. Defensive coordinator Andrew Christ welcomes back most of his starters, including cornerback Jevon Elmore, who racked up 18 passes defended, and safety Najae Brown in the secondary. Improvement is vital because the Blue Devils have a tough non-conference schedule which includes James Madison, Coastal Carolina and Penn.
2015 Records: 8-4 overall, 5-1 NEC (1st)
Spring Practices: March 7-April 9
Storyline: The defending NEC champion comes back strong with standout Buechel and All-America linebacker Christian Kuntz headlining the 14 returning starters (eight on offense and six on defense). There are some question marks, though, as the Dukes replace three offensive lineman, two linebackers and superb wide receiver Chris King. Wayne Capers will be Buechel's go-to target if he's granted another season of eligibility, but sophomore Nehari Crawford will get into the mix either way. The running game is deep with Rafiq Douglas and P.J. Fulmore, who is recovering from ankle surgery. The secondary welcomes back two veterans from injuries, Greg Claytor Jr. and Adam Clopton. The Dukes are the team to beat in what should be another exciting NEC title race.
2015 Records: 4-7 overall, 2-4 NEC (6th)
Spring Practices: March 15-April 16
Storyline: The offense needs improvement after averaging only 14 points and figures to get it under new coordinator Mike Miller, who began his career with the Colonials under former coach Joe Walton and has 13 years of NFL experience. The unit returns seven starters and most of the key players in the skills position, but the line lost two four-year starters as well as a third starter. Quarterback Matt Barr threw 13 of the team's 19 interceptions as a freshman, but that number should go down while emerging wide receiver Kyle Buss' 50 receptions go up. Eight starters return on defense, although both inside linebackers are gone, giving Joseph Uhatafe the chance to grab one of the spots this spring. The defense had an impressive 34 sacks last season.
2015 Records: 6-5 overall, 3-3 NEC (Tie/3rd)
Spring Practices: March 16-April 16
Storyline: The Pioneers sighed relief when Noel decided to return as a fifth-year senior. He loses the conference's best wide receiver, Tyler Dube, but coach Mark Nofri's squad returns nine offensive starters, including an excellent all-purpose threat in Nate Chavious. The defense suffered big losses, but their best player, linebacker James Rentz, is among the returnees. One of the noticeable differences from the Pioneers' NEC championship-winning squads in 2013 and '14 to last season was the production of the secondary - or lack of it - as it allowed over 238 yards per game. The Pioneers' non-conference schedule isn't taxing - it opens with three Pioneer Football League opponents - so they should get off to a solid start in 2016.
2015 Records: 6-4 overall, 4-2 NEC (2nd)
Spring Practices: March 17-April 15
Storyline: Coach Chris Villarrial used a lot of players last year and that depth will be important as the Red Flash seek to build on their best season at the FCS level. The loss of All-NEC running back Khairi Dickinson is tempered by the return of Marcus Bagley, the conference's 2014 offensive rookie of the year. The six returning starters on offense are Drayer and the five linemen, though wide receiver Daniel Adams is pursuing a sixth year of eligibility. The defense returns seven starters, perhaps the biggest concern being the loss of top cornerback DaQuan Minter (Malik Duncan is next in line). The special teams are indeed special with standout place-kicker Lance Geesey, who is coming off hip surgery, and kick returner Lorenzo Jerome. With Villarrial having built up a once-struggling program, the Red Flash want to take the next step to being a consistent contender in the NEC.
2015 Records: 1-10 overall, 1-5 NEC (7th)
Spring Practices: March 30-April 30
Storyline: Competition within the two-deep will be high after the Seahawks went from 7-4 and being a co-NEC champ in 2014 to last place in coach Jason Houghtaling's first season. Evidence of that comes at quarterback, where senior starter Chris Andrews come off an injury and will be pushed by sophomore Alex Thomson - who replaced him late last season - and Syracuse transfer A.J. Long. Whoever wins the starting job under new offensive coordinator Rich Santangello will benefit by tight end Ryan Owens' return as a fifth-year senior and the emergence of junior wideout Andre Yevchinecz. The defense was beat up last season, but linebacker Najee Harris will be back to complete a strong career as a graduate student. Overall, there are nine returning starters (five on offense and four on defense).