(Stats Perform) – The FCS is ready to get back on the field and command the college football spotlight this spring after conferences postponed their 2020 fall schedules due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not all schools have decided to play this spring. In the Northeast Conference, six of the eight schools – not defending champion Central Connecticut State and Saint Francis – will play a four-game conference schedule, which begins on March 7, before a first-ever championship game on April 11.
Nonconference games are allowed prior to the conference schedule.
Following is a capsule look at NEC spring participants in order of predicted finish:
1. DUQUESNE DUKES
STADIUM: Arthur J. Rooney Athletic Field
HEAD COACH: Jerry Schmitt (98-67, 16th season; 126-88 overall)
2019 RECORD: 6-5, 4-3 NEC (Tie/3rd)
THE SKINNY: Faced with having the fewest returning starters in the conference, the Dukes have loaded up on transfers, 13 overall and nine who were enrolled for the fall semester. Quarterback Joe Mischler (Ohio) is joined in the offensive skills positions by running backs Garrett Owens (Mercyhurst) and DeMarcus Townsend (FIU) and wide receiver Cyrus Holder (Saint Francis). The defensive line has added A.J. Garson (UConn) and Nathan Proctor Jr. (Iowa Central/Virginia Tech). The returnees include running back Ky’ren Cunningham, who learned behind Duquesne’s all-time rushing leader A.J. Hines, and safety Spencer DeMedal, who’s been second on the team in tackles in two straight seasons. The NEC regular season will open with its most important game when Sacred Heart visits The Bluff on March 7.
2. SACRED HEART PIONEERS
LOCATION: Fairfield, Connecticut
STADIUM: Campus Field
HEAD COACH: Mark Nofri (51-41, ninth season)
2019 RECORD: 7-5, 4-3 NEC (Tie/3rd)
THE SKINNY: The Pioneers, who have earned a share of three NEC championships since 2013, join Duquesne as chief title threats. They boast the conference’s most explosive player in junior running back Julius Chestnut, whose 1,495 rushing yards in 2019 marked the second-highest single season in program history, while quarterback Marquez McCray gained experience over the final three games of his freshman campaign. Both are glad to work behind All-NEC preseason offensive linemen J.D. DiRenzo and Josh Sokol. Linebacker Chris Outterbridge, the team’s leading tackler, is back to direct the defense. Wide receiver Tyrese Chambers, the NEC offensive rookie of the year, and defensive end Chris Agyemang made transfers.
3. BRYANT BULLDOGS
LOCATION: Smithfield, Rhode Island
STADIUM: Bulldog Stadium
HEAD COACH: Chris Merritt (4-8, second season)
2019 RECORD: 4-8, 3-4 NEC (Tie/5th)
THE SKINNY:- After an 0-5 start to the Merritt era, the Bulldogs finished strong in 2019, and they hope to build off that success. While the offense ranked only seventh among nine NEC teams, it returns quarterback Kory Curtis, leading rusher Daniel Adeboboye (605 yards, five touchdowns) and pass yardage leader Anthony Frederick. The defense is less experienced, needing to replace six of its seven leading tackles, including two-time All-NEC first-teamer Tomas Wright. Defensive back Andre Brackett’s leadership is as important as his all-around production, including as a returner.
4. WAGNER SEAHAWKS
LOCATION: Staten Island, New York
STADIUM: Wagner College Stadium
HEAD COACH: Tom Masella (first season, 44-66 overall)
2019 RECORD: 1-11, 1-6 (7th)
THE SKINNY: Having back-to-back Super Bowl champions in former left tackle Greg Senat (Kansas City, 2019) and linebacker Cam Gill (Tampa Bay, 2020) is a boon for the program, but the Seahawks’ overall talent didn’t match the 16-40 record under former coach Jason Houghtaling. Masella, who’s twice been a Wagner assistant coach, is known for turning around programs quickly. He can rely on three All-NEC preseason selections: wide receiver Joshua DeCambre, linebacker Titus Leto and defensive back Ahmad Lyons. In 2019, the Seahawks ranked last in the FCS with 59.2 rushing yards per game, so improvement is one of the bigger priorities. Sophomore quarterback Ryan Yost has previous playing experience, which junior transfer Jaalon Frazier did not gain at Georgia Southern.
5. MERRIMACK WARRIORS
LOCATION: North Andover, Massachusetts
STADIUM: Duane Stadium
HEAD COACH: Dan Curran (35-40, ninth season)
2019 RECORD: 6-5 FCS independent
THE SKINNY: The Warriors are a part of the NEC standings for the first time, but aren’t eligible for the conference championship game. They had a difficult schedule lined up for the fall, including Patriot League champ Holy Cross, FCS runner-up James Madison and FCS power New Hampshire. There’s no doubt the Warriors were pleased with their first Division I season in 2019, but many key players are gone, including sophomore quarterback Christian Carter via a transfer. Running back Jamari Venter will grab even more of the spotlight. The defense should be ahead of the offense with the return of safety Jovan Grant and defensive end Cory Hagerman (13 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks).
6. LIU SHARKS
LOCATION: Brookville, New York
STADIUM: Bethpage Federal Credit Union Stadium
HEAD COACH: Bryan Collins (160-82, 23rd season)
2019 RECORD: 0-10, 0-7 NEC (8th)
THE SKINNY: After a winless debut on the FCS level, Collins inspires his team with the phrase, “Tough times don’t last; tough people do.” His Sharks, who averaged just 9.7 points per game in 2019, will have a new starting quarterback, perhaps sophomore Camden Orth or Northern Colorado grad transfer Conor Regan. Leading rusher Jonathon DeBique and No. 2 leading receiver Tosin Oyekanmi hope to get the offense moving as well. The defense gets back its leading tacklers, senior defensive back Jerome Brooks III (81) and redshirt sophomore linebacker Liam McIntyre (66). Last fall, the Sharks were supposed to play out of conference against Montana State, Delaware and Lehigh, so Collins isn’t shying away from getting better against tough competition.