Northeast FCS Football 2015 Conference Preview

George Hammond

Northeast FCS Football 2015 Conference Preview

Northeast FCS Football 2015 Conference Preview

NEC FCS Football 2015 Preseason All-Conference Teams


If the Missouri Valley Football Conference is the most competitive in the FCS, then the Northeast Conference might be a close second. Since the conference gained a FCS playoff bid in 2010 every season has ended in a tie for first place and 2015 is shaping up to be another tight race. While Bryant earned the preseason No. 1 nod from league coaches to win the crown, three teams garnered first-place bids. Last year, Sacred Heart and Wagner finished with identical 5-1 league records with Bryant close behind at 4-2. Sacred Heart earned the conference’s auto bid but fell to high-powered Fordham of the Patriot League in the first round of the playoffs.


1. Bryant

The Bulldogs (8-3, 4-2) finished last season with back-to-back losses to Sacred Heart and Wagner by a combined 10 points to miss out on a share of the NEC crown and possible playoff berth. But with a projected 17 starters back, it makes sense for Bryant to be the favorite. Quarterback Dalton Easton, who threw for more than 2,000 yards in 2014, returns and is complemented by running backs Paul Canevari (932 yards) and Ricardo McCray (814 yards). The Bulldogs will miss NEC Defensive Player of the Year Jeff Covitz, and how well they do defensively will be crucial to their success. Last year, Bryant was ninth in the nation in total defense. Ironically, Bryant has only four home games and has road contests at Brown and FCS power Coastal Carolina in September.


2. Wagner

The big offseason news on Staten Island is that Walt Hameline is stepping down after 34 years and 223 career victories. Jason Houghtaling, a former offensive coordinator at Wagner (5-1, 7-4), takes the helm and he’ll have a projected seven starters returning on offense and five on defense. The team’s philosophy is simple: control possession and don’t make mistakes. Last year, Wagner was ranked fourth nationally in time of possession (33:02) and the Seahawks didn’t commit a turnover in their final three games. Senior quarterback Chris Andrews leads the attack (657 passing yards), and he should be aided by the return of big-play threat Anthony Carrington at wideout. Senior Otis Wright (562 rushing yards) should help the run game. Defensively, Fidel Okoye and Al Page give Wagner a strong front. The schedule is difficult as the Seahawks face BYU and Rice, marking the first time two FBS teams are on the slate. The last five games are: at BYU, at Duquesne, Bryant, Central Connecticut State and at Sacred Heart.


3. Duquesne

The Dukes’ record (6-6, 2-4) doesn’t look like much, but they had a lot of close games last year. For instance, they lost to FBS Buffalo 38-28, Youngstown State 34-23, Sacred Heart 23-20 and Bryant 20-17. Six of the seven players to earn postseason NEC honors last year return, including sophomore linebacker Nathan Stone who had 100 tackles to earn the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Although the Dukes didn’t have much of a rushing attack in 2014 (119.2 ypg), the passing attack should flourish with quarterback Dillon Buechel and wideout Chris King. West Virginia transfer Chavas Rawlins is expected to play a bigger role this season in the passing game, too. Duquesne has 14 projected starters returning with four on the offensive line and three on the defensive front led by senior NEC selection Zach Zidian. All-NEC linebacker Sam Martello is back to complement Stone. The Dukes’ nonconference foes include Bucknell and Albany.


4. Sacred Heart

The Pioneers (9-3, 5-1) have won back-to-back NEC titles, but they lost 26 seniors from last year’s squad. Still, there’s a lot of talent on the roster, including two-time all-NEC quarterback RJ Noel and standout linebacker James Rentz, who had 61 tackles and 12.5 sacks last year. Noel threw for 2,477 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2014. He also rushed for 633 yards. Besides Rentz, linebacker Kellan Sperduto returns to give the Pioneers a strong presence. Sacred Heart does lose three starters on its offensive line and leading rusher Keshaudas Spence, but Sean Bell (550 rushing yards) is back. Also, wide receiver Tyler Dube, who had 79 receptions and 17 touchdowns, returns.  Sacred Heart had its share of close games last year, too. It beat Bryant, 14-7, Central Connecticut State, 35-27 and Duquesne, 23-20 while it lost to St. Francis, 30-27. The Pioneers’ November schedule will determine their fate: Nov. 7 – Duquense, Nov. 14 – at Bryant and Nov. 21 – Wagner.


5. St. Francis

There were a lot of positives in 2014: It was the third consecutive season that St. Francis (5-6, 3-3) had won five contests in a season, marking a first for the program since it joined the NEC in 1996. Coach Chip Villarial’s team also won three in a row for the first time since moving to FCS status in 1993. Although St. Francis is 18-37 in the last five years, they are 15-18 in the last three so progress is evident.  The Red Flash return running backs Marcus Bagley (NEC Offensive Rookie of the Year) and Khairi Dickson, who led the FCS nationally in rushing yardage per game. Dickson had more than 1,700 yards and scored 12 TDs as he was selected NEC’s Offensive Player of the Year. The top scoring offense in the NEC from a year ago also returns junior quarterback Zack Drayer, who threw for 15 touchdowns in 2014. St. Francis had only the fifth-best defense In the NEC last year, but the Red Flash were 27th nationally. The nonconference schedule includes games at Towson and Youngstown State.


6. Central Connecticut State

The Blue Devils (3-9, 1-5) beat two CAA teams last year and can’t be taken lightly. Although all-purpose standout Rob Hollomon Jr. and quarterback Rick SanGiacomo are gone (SanGiacomo opted against using his last year of eligibility), sophomore Taz Pauldo could be the quarterback or incoming freshman Jake Dolegala. Senior Tyler Hurt, a preseason NEC selection, will anchor the offensive line. Defensively, preseason NEC picks Asia Bolling and Jevon Elmore should help on the line and secondary, respectively. Head coach Pete Rossomando has added Ryan McCarthy, former assistant at the University of Albany, as CCSU’s offensive coordinator this season. The Blue Devils have nonconference dates with Stony Brook and New Hampshire – both on the road.


7. Robert Morris

The Colonials (1-10, 1-5) hope to rebound in Coach John Banaszak’s second season. To do that, Robert Morris must cut down on the mistakes. It had a league-high 37 turnovers in 2014 and were last in turnover margin nationally in the FCS. Four quarterbacks return this season as Luke Brumbaugh, Derik Abbett, Marcus Prather and Joe Carroll all saw action last year. Rameses Owens, who played in seven games last year, should key the run game. Owens had 199 yards against North Dakota and 154 against Monmouth. Nick Faraci and Forrest Mason return on the offensive line while senior linebacker Mike Stojkovic anchors the defense.


Conference Game To Watch:

Duquesne at Bryant, October 17 – There are several games to choose from, but this is a midseason contest that should set the tone for the remainder of the season. Bryant won in Pittsburgh last year, 20-17, when the Dukes missed a potential game-tying 28-yard field goal in the final minute.


Another Conference Game To Watch:

Bryant at Wagner, November 7 – Wagner won a thrilling 23-20 contest in the regular-season finale last year that kept Bryant out of the playoffs. The winning touchdown came with just 44 seconds remaining.  This year’s contest isn’t the finale, but it’s still a November contest and should loom large for the NEC standings.


Non-Conference Game To Watch:

Bryant at Coastal Carolina, September 26 – Last year, Bryant visited Lynchburg, Va., and bowed to Liberty 38-21. The Bulldogs were in the FCS playoff hunt until the last week in the Northeast Conference. This season, Bryant will go farther south – to Conway, S.C., to take on Coastal Carolina. A victory over the Chanticleers would be huge for the Bulldogs’ program so this is a nonconference game that Coastal must be wary of.


Another Non-Conference Game To Watch:

Wagner at BYU, October 24 – What are the odds of seeing this matchup 10 or 15 years ago? My, how the college landscape has changed. The contest came about partly due to a scheduling conflict BYU had when it scheduled Missouri. The 63,000-plus Lavell Edwards Stadium will be the largest venue Wagner has ever played in.


FBS Upset Watch:

Wagner at Rice, September 5 – This is the first time Wagner has played two FBS opponents in the same season and while Rice is no pushover, one figures Wagner has a better chance against Rice than it does BYU.  The Owls went 8-5 last year and defeated Fresno State 30-6 in the Hawaii Bowl.


Top NFL Prospect:

Khairi Dickson, RB, St. Francis – The senior led the nation in rushing yards per game last year with an average of 156.3 ypg. In addition, Dickson scored 12 TDs. He’s not the biggest guy around, but if he has another season like 2014, people will notice.


Coach on the Hot Seat:

He’s only in his first year as head coach but it’s difficult to replace a legend. That’s what Jason Houghtaling is doing at Wagner where Walt Hameline stepped down after 34 seasons on the sidelines. Plus, Wagner has won or shared the NEC title in two of the last three seasons.


Freshman To Watch: (Complete FCS Recruit Rankings)

Central Connecticut State must replace two-year starter Rick SanGiacomo at quarterback, and one of the candidates to do so is redshirt freshman Jake Dolegala.  


Most Overrated:

Although ball control is Wagner’s game, the Seahawks would love to see more production from senior quarterback Chris Andrews, who had three touchdown passes and three interceptions last year.


Most Underrated:

Duquesne wide receiver Chavas Rawlins, a West Virginia transfer, caught 18 passes for the Dukes last year. But look for more production out of Rawlins this season. The 6-3 junior could really aid Duquesne’s passing attack.


FCS All-Conference Teams

FCS Conference Previews