CAA Football spring outlook

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(STATS) - There are four new head coaches in CAA Football, the most of any FCS conference.

And, oh, is the pressure high in the CAA.

Mike Houston set the standard in 2016, leading James Madison to the FCS national championship in his first season after an undefeated run through the CAA schedule.

The new coaches this year are Delaware's Danny Rocco, who moved across the conference from Richmond; Elon's Curt Cignetti; Richmond's Russ Huesman; and Villanova's Mark Ferrante, who was promoted following Andy Talley's retirement. Out of those four schools, only Elon hasn't won a national title.

About seven or eight CAA teams could be nationally ranked at some point during the 2017 season as the conference remains strong.

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



Head Coach: Greg Gattuso (17-17, three seasons; 114-49 overall)

2016 Records: 7-4, 4-4 CAA

Spring Practices: March 21-April 22

What to Know: Coming off its best season since joining the CAA in 2013, the Great Danes have a realistic chance of reaching the FCS playoffs this season. They return six starters on offense, although only one on the line, and seven on defense. Running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks rushed for 1,401 yards as a sophomore, but he suffered a torn ACL in the final game and won't be participating in spring drills. One of the focal points is developing quarterbacks Nevin Sussman and Will Brunson. While the defense will be a strength, the Great Danes have to replace last year's emotional leaders, Michael Nicastro and Rayshan Clark. Defensive end Malachi Hoskins is coming off an All-CAA season.



Head Coach: Danny Rocco (first season; 90-42 overall)

2016 Records: 4-7, 2-6 CAA

Spring Practices: April 6-May 6

What to Know: The Blue Hens' tradition-rich program is preparing to get back on track under its new coach, Rocco. The Hens are coming off their first back-to-back losing seasons since 1938-39 and hoping a large senior class could fuel a turnaround. Player evaluation and development are keys in the spring, but 19 returning starters (10 on defense) hope to reclaim their jobs. Quarterback Joe Walker has struggled as a passer for two seasons, but the running game is strong with Wes Hills and Thomas Jefferson. On defense, linebacker Charles Bell made the All-CAA first team and linebacker Troy Reeder and defensive tackle Bilal Nichols the second team.



Head Coach: Curt Cignetti (first season; 53-17 overall)

2016 Records: 2-9, 1-7 CAA

Spring Practices: March 29-April 29

What to Know: Following coach Rich Skrosky's unexpected departure after three seasons, Elon has turned to Cignetti, who had great success over six seasons at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania. His father, Frank Cignetti Sr., was the head coach at West Virginia and IUP, and his brother, Frank Cignetti Jr., coached for several NFL and Division I teams. Cignetti inherits a young but experienced team that returns 18 starters (10 on offense). With the offense in need of consistency, all eyes are on the quarterback position, where returnees Connor Christiansen and Daniel Thompson will battle freshmen Davis Cheek and Jalen Greene, who were both early enrollees, in the spring. The Phoenix have only gone 4-20 in CAA games since joining the conference in 2014.



Head Coach: Mike Houston (14-1, one season; 57-20 overall)

2016 Records: 14-1, 8-0 CAA

Spring Practices: March 2-April 11 (spring game is April 8)

What to Know: The defending national champs have to replace some key senior losses, but they appear strong enough to go back-to-back. While the offense returns only five starters, Houston has replaced rushing star Khalid Abdullah with Georgia Tech's two-time leading rusher Marcus Marshall, and the backfield has two other key returnees in Cardon Johnson (Achilles) and Tre Sharpe. Also, quarterback Bryan Schor, the CAA offensive player of the year, returns as the Dukes' poised offensive leader. Defensive end Andrew Ankrah and safety Raven Greene headline the defense. Unlike last season, the Dukes will play the other top CAA contenders at Bridgeforth Stadium.



Head Coach: Joe Harasymiak (6-5, one season)

2016 Records: 6-5, 5-3 CAA

Spring Practices: April 3-May 6

What to Know: The Black Bears return 17 starters (nine on offense) for Harasymiak's second season, but their few losses are significant. After Dan Collins had helped settle the quarterback position, the responsibility will fall to up-and-down veteran Drew Belcher, redshirt freshman Chris Ferguson or transfer Max Staver. However, all of the surrounding positions are solid. On the other side of the ball, departed defensive end Pat Ricard and linebacker Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga were such productive leaders. Linebacker Sterling Sheffield figures to be the vocal leader. The kicking was so poor last season (1 of 7 on field goals) that the Black Bears gave to a scholarship to a kicker (Kenny Doak) for the first time in a while.



Head Coach: Sean McDonnell (141-83, 18 seasons)

2016 Records: 8-5, 6-2 CAA

Spring Practices: March 28-April 29

What to Know: By rallying for a 13th straight FCS playoff appearance and whipping Patriot League champ Lehigh before falling to James Madison, the Wildcats had yet another successful season. This year's team returns 13 starters (seven on defense). The defense is young, but already experienced, including the duo of sophomores Prince Smith Jr. and Pop Lacey in the secondary. While the wide receivers also have grown up quite nicely, quarterback Trevor Knight must improve as a passer. Senior running back Trevon Bryant is ready for a larger role, but the Wildcats are replacing three starters on the offensive line. It's interesting that UNH is opening the season against rival Maine.



Head Coach: Jim Fleming (4-30, three seasons; 25-31 overall)

2016 Records: 2-9, 1-7 CAA

Spring Practices: March 28-April 29

What to Know: It's been difficult for URI to turn around its program in the powerful CAA, but this year's team returns eight starters on each side of the ball. At times last season, the Rams utilized seven freshmen on offense, including quarterback Jordan Vazzano, who finished strong over the final two games. Senior running back/kick returner Harold Cooper supplies much-needed veteran leadership and the Rams hope to continue improving the run game, which still ranks last in the conference. On defense, the line is a strength, including seniors Jose Duncan and Mike Ezrike.



Head Coach: Russ Huesman

2016 Records: 10-4, 5-3 CAA

Spring Practices: March 14-April 15

What to Know: The return of Huesman, the defensive coordinator of Richmond's 2008 FCS championship team, tempers the loss of coach Danny Rocco after five seasons. Huesman brought his coordinators, Jeff Durden (offense) and Adam Braithwaite (defense), with him. The offense will feature a two-time 3,000-yard passer in Kyle Lauletta, who is still recovering from a torn ACL in November. Kevin Johnson, who replaced an injured Lauletta for the Spiders' playoff run to the quarterfinals, has proven he can run the offense. Due to other injuries, Deontez Thompson became the featured running back and went over 1,000 yards in his first season, but Gordon Collins and Xavier Goodall will be back in the fall. The defense lost some key players, but senior safety Brendan Coniker is coming off a banner season.



Head Coach: Chuck Priore (67-58, 12 seasons; 106-67 overall)

2016 Records: 5-6, 4-4 CAA

Spring Practices: March 21-April 22

What to Know: The Seawolves are anxious to rid the bad taste left by a season-ending four-game losing streak that followed a nationally ranked start. It seems likely with the return of nine starters on each side of the ball. The running backs (Stacey Bedell, Jordan Gowins and Donald Liotine) and linebackers (Shayne Lawless, Noah McGinty and rover Tyrice Beverette) are the team's strengths. Quarterback Joe Carbone has the experience, but after he threw 12 interceptions and only three touchdowns, redshirt freshman Tyqell Fields will get a long look. The offensive and defensive lines both need improvement.



Head Coach: Rob Ambrose (47-48, eight seasons; 50-55 overall)

2016 Records: 4-7, 3-5 CAA

Spring Practices: March 14-April 22

What to Know: Three straight wins to end last season pumped energy into the Tigers, who nonetheless were a disappointment. They lose only one starter on defense, but they'll be spending the spring adjusting to the schemes of new coordinator Lyndon Johnson. The defense must improve on third downs after ranking last in the conference. The team's most important player might be sophomore running back/kick returner Shane Simpson, who is both the present and future after winning CAA offensive freshman of the year honors. With a healthier Morgan Mahalak at quarterback, Ellis Knudson will try to shift to tight end. The Tigers have 18 new or past transfers on their roster.



Head Coach: Mark Ferrante (first season)

2016 Records: 9-4, 6-2 CAA

Spring Practices: March 14-April 15

What to Know: While Ferrante will put his stamp on the 'Nova program, the transition following veteran coach Andy Talley's retirement will be smooth. Ferrante played collegiately under Talley and coached under him the last 30 seasons, most recently as the offensive line coach. His staff includes three new assistants and a new strength and conditioning coach. The Wildcats are coming off a season in which they reached the second round of the FCS playoffs. The cupboard isn't barren with 15 returning starters (nine on offense), including the likes of quarterback Zach Bednarczyk and running backs Aaron Forbes and Matt Gudzak back on offense and safety Rob Rolle and linebackers Jeff Steeb and Ed Shockley on defense. The Wildcats seek more big plays out of the wide receivers. Ferrante's first game will be at defending Patriot League champ Lehigh on Sept. 2.



Head Coach: Jimmye Laycock (243-180-2, 37 seasons)

2016 Records: 5-6, 3-5 CAA

Spring Practices: March 15-April 15

What to Know: Laycock will enter the 2017 season just seven wins shy of 250 in his career. His team faces the challenge of replacing three-year starting quarterback Steve Cluley and two-time all-conference tailback Kendell Anderson. The QB derby includes Tommy McKee, Brandon Battle, Dean Rotger and true freshman Shon Mitchell. The tailback spot will benefit after Albert Funderburke recovers from a knee injury, but in the spring, senior Jonathan Dunn, Noah Giles and Brehon Britt will seek inroads. At least the receiving corps is stacked with DeVonte Dedmon, Jalen Christian and tight end Andrew Caskin. The defense returns seven starters - one more than the offense - and needs to develop edge rushers after a subpar season.