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Can Richmond give CAA another title?
In some people’s minds, defending national champion Richmond is one of the favorites to win the 2009 title. But the reality of the Colonial Athletic Association is that the Spiders might not even survive their own division, let alone the NCAA playoffs.
A year ago, Richmond tied New Hampshire for the third-best record in the CAA regular season, but roared through the postseason for its first NCAA title. In 2007, Delaware tied for the fourth-best mark in the league before falling to Appalachian State in the title contest.
Richmond actually tied Massachusetts for the 2007 CAA crown, but was ousted in the semifinals of the playoffs. UMass tied for second in 1998, when the league was still called the Atlantic 10, on the way to its lone FCS championship.
CAA teams have learned that winning a league title doesn’t equate to playoff success, but that the rigors of this conference are a wonderful training ground for the postseason.
The Spiders come into the current campaign as co-favorites for CAA’s honors with talent-laden Villanova. But any one of a half-dozen teams from the league could end up making their way to Chattanooga for this year’s national title game.
In this decade alone, Delaware (twice), James Madison, UMass and Richmond have made championship appearances, with the Blue Hens, Dukes and Spiders coming away with trophies in 2003, 2004 and 2008.
JMU (2008) and New Hampshire (2005) have also finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in The Sports Network top-25 poll, only to come up short in the playoffs.
“Going .500 or above in this league is a good year,” said Delaware coach K.C. Keeler.
This season, a veteran Villanova squad is viewed by many as the favorite for the league’s automatic bid. The Wildcats’ only significant losses were wide receiver Phil Atkinson, tackle Izzy Bauta, defensive ends Greg Miller and Dave Dalessandro, cornerback Salim Koroma and strong safety Darrel Young.
Villanova and Richmond shared the top spot in the CAA’s preseason poll, with New Hampshire the favorite to repeat as the North Division champion.
“We know the target is on our backs,” said Richmond quarterback Eric Ward. “We have to work that much harder.”
The CAA has earned a record five playoff berths in each of its first two seasons. But with UMass athletic director John McCutcheon no longer chairing the NCAA Division I football committee, such a feat could be tougher to duplicate in 2009.
But the CAA teams that do qualify will have their sights set on Chattanooga, after another competitive campaign within the league.
1. New Hampshire (10-3 overall, 6-2, first in North)
One of the constants in FCS is that coach Sean McDonnell will have the Wildcats firing on offense. With quarterback R.J. Toman, the CAA preseason offensive player of the year, leading the high-octane attack, UNH will score points at a high rate.
Toman (3,110 yards passing, 28 TDs), a Payton Award nominee, has a strong supporting cast with multi-talented speedster Chad Kackert (1,247 all-purpose yards, eight TDs) and All-American tight end Scott Sicko (50 catches, 13.2 average, seven TDs) in the lineup. But the Wildcats lost leading rusher Robert Simpson (731 yards, seven TDs) from the backfield and top receiver Michael Boyle (67 catches, 16.7 average, 10 TDs).
The biggest challenge on offense will be replacing three offensive linemen, but McDonnell is impressed with some of the team’s young talent there.
For New Hampshire to make a deeper playoff run after five straight appearances in the first round or quarterfinals, continuing to improve on defense is a necessity. The Wildcats can build around nine returning starters, including cornerback Dino Vasso (99 tackles), linebackers Hugo Souza (66 tackles) and Sean Ware (88 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss) and CAA defensive rookie of the year Brian McNally at defensive end.
The Wildcats were 12th nationally in turnover margin last season, in large part due to the ability of the defense to make big plays. Tom Bishop (41.3 punting average, 33.9 net) will be a big loss to the special teams.
“We have to keep our kids healthy,” said McDonnell."If we can do that, we can have a very good season.”
2. Massachusetts (7-5, 4-4, third)
The Minutemen had been a fixture in The Sports Network top-25 for several years, but season-long troubles on defense and late struggles offensively led to a surprising fall last season. Kevin Morris, who had been the offensive coordinator for five years, moves into the head coaching job to replace Don Brown, who moved to Maryland as the defensive coordinator.
“We are not going to change very much of what we have been doing on offense, or defense,” said Morris. “We are going to run the ball on offense and we are going to put a lot of pressure on teams with our defense.”
The offense has a Payton Award candidate in hard-nosed running back Tony Nelson (1,325 yards, 5.5 average, 12 TDs) and one of the best receiving duos in the country with Victor Cruz (71 catches, 15.0 average, six TDs) and Jeremy Horne (50 catches, 17.9 average, eight TDs), but it must replace four-year starter Liam Coen (11,031 career passing yards, 90 TDs).
Fifth-year senior Scott Woodward and JC transfer Kyle Havens are the candidates to move into Coen’s role. All-American tackle Vladimir Ducasse is one of the top-rated pro prospects in FCS and anchors a top-notch offensive line.
The defense, usually the calling card for UMass, was embarrassed to give up almost 29 points per game and rank 72nd nationally last season, despite the presence of some top-flight talent. But the Minutemen have gone back to work in the off-season and will be helped by returning Buchanan Award candidate Jeromy Miles (104 tackles) at strong safety and Josh Jennings at linebacker (90 tackles).
Armando Cuko was a solid 45-of-46 on PATs and 6-of-8 on field goals, but his one extra-point miss at Maine led to a 21-20 loss at Maine and dropped the Minutemen out of playoff contention. UMass has featured some of the top punters in FCS in recent years, but must replace Brett Arnold (45.2 average, 34.1 net).
3. Maine (8-5, 5-3, second)
The Black Bears were floundering midway through the season when Michael Brusko replaced an injured Adam Farkas as the starting quarterback. From there, Maine won six of its last eight games and reached the FCS playoffs.
“The experience we had last year is going to be tremendously helpful to this team,” Maine coach Jack Cosgrove said. “You just see the confidence developing.”
Brusko (1,353 yards of total offense, 12 TDs) is joined by All-American fullback Jared Turcotte (910 all-purpose yards, eight TDs as a redshirt freshman), Pushaun Brown and Derek Session (538 all-purpose yards) in a versatile backfield.
The offensive line could be a key, as it must replace three starters, including center Ryan Canary.
On defense, Maine must replace Buchanan Award runner-up and two-time CAA defensive player of the year Jovan Belcher (98 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks) at end, as well as six other starters. But Jordan Stevens (53 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss) will inherit Belcher’s mantle for a unit that seems to reload every year.
Linebacker Mark Masterson (68 tackles, seven pass breakups) and strong safety Brandon McLaughlin (51 tackles) will also provide leadership. The kicking game needs improvement. The Black Bears must replace their punter, and kicker Brian Harvey was just 5-of-13 on field goals last season.
4. Hofstra (4-8, 2-6, fourth)
The 2008 season started going downhill when veteran quarterback Bryan Savage was lost with a back injury shortly before the first game. The injury plague didn’t get much better the rest of the way for Dave Cohen’s team, but there is optimism on Long Island with a CAA-best 18 starters returning.
“It’s kind of got to the point where it was ‘let’s go, we’re going to work through this together,’” Cohen said. “Going through a year like that brings you together as a team.”
Cory Christopher (1,435 yards of total offense, nine TDs) and Steve Probst (1,242 yards of total offense, eight TDs) split time at quarterback last season. Christopher went down with a knee injury midway through the year and will battle Probst for the starting job this season. If one of them establishes himself, an attack that averaged 22 points per game last season could improve.
Everette Benjamin (860 all-purpose yards) and Brock Jackolski (1,210 all- purpose yards) give the Pride a productive rushing duo, while Aaron Weaver (70 catches) is one of the league’s top possession receivers. Akron transfer Jose Cruz could help make the tight end position more dangerous and should also benefit an offensive line that has six players with starting experience back.
One of the top linebackers in the country, Luke Bonus (96 tackles) will secure the center of the veteran Pride defense. He will be assisted by safeties Gregory Melendez (72 tackles) and Ray McDonough (56 tackles, seven pass breakups, four interceptions) and linebacker Chris Edmond (71 tackles).
Special teams was another area of concern last year, both in the kicking and punting games and needs attention heading into the season.
5. Northeastern (2-10, 1-7, tied for fifth)
The ever-optimistic Rocky Hager is hopeful that this will be the year that things turn around for a Huskies squad that has five consecutive losing seasons. But he must get his team through another brutal early-season schedule that includes a game at Boston College and then matchups against Maine, Youngstown State, Villanova, Holy Cross and William & Mary.
The offense must replace running back Alex Broomfield (1,244 combined yards, 14 TDs), quarterback Anthony Orio (2,188 yards of total offense, 12 TDs) and tight end Brian Mandeville (24 catches, 14.0 average) and most of its 2008 production.
John Griffin is the top returning rusher (207 yards) and Tony Lott (35 catches, 12.8 average) is a capable receiver, but either junior Alex Dulski or redshirt freshman Matt Carroll must establish themselves as the new signal- caller in the new no-huddle spread offense.
There will also be major changes on defense as the Huskies return to a 3-4 set. At least they can build around players such as All-American safeties Nate Thellen (58 tackles, five interceptions) and Daryl Jones (57 tackles) and linebackers Phil Higgins (122 tackles), David Akinniyi (59 tackles) and Michael Laperriere (56 tackles).
“We feel like we are making progress in our program and are ready to turn a corner,” said Hager. “Like every team at this level, we have issues with our depth and have to avoid injuries.”
6. Rhode Island (3-9, 1-7, tied for fifth)
The Rams will have their third coach in three years, with Joe Trainer taking over for Darren Rizzi, who took an assistant’s job with the Miami Dolphins in February. Trainer served as URI’s defensive coordinator last season, so at least there is some familiarity for the Ram players.
Of more concern is the loss of All-American senior fullback Joe Casey (2,915 career rushing yards), who suffered a right ankle injury in practice last week. He had endured a compound fibula fracture in his left leg in last year’s season-opener. Anthony Ferrer and Ryan Lawrence will step into that huge void.
Rutgers transfer Chris Paul-Etienne will be the likely replacement for Derek Cassidy (2,759 passing yards, 15 TDs) at quarterback. Brandon Johnson-Farrell had 57 catches to earn All-CAA third-team honors as a freshman and senior Shawn Leonard (44 catches, 14.7 average) also returns to an experienced receiving group.
The Rams allowed 39 sacks last season, but Dave Valley heads up a unit that returns six veterans.
Matt Hansen (111 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss) had a breakout season last year as a sophomore after moving to linebacker. He will lead a young defense that needs improvement after finishing 94th in FCS last year.
“We’re going to field a better product,” said Trainer, who takes over a program that has 13 losing seasons in the past 14 years. “It’s really year two of the transition. The bottom line is we have to have better players in the program.”
1. Villanova (10-3, 7-1, second in South)
In 24 seasons as coach, Andy Talley has done just about everything other than take the Wildcats to a national championship game. That could change this season as Talley returns one of his most experienced teams ever.
“This is the season we’ve really been shooting for,” said Talley. “We should be good. The question is, ‘Will we be good?’”
Villanova needs to find a defensive end to pair with All-American caliber performers in Tim Kukucka at end and Phil Matusz at tackle in its pressure- oriented, 3-3-5 defense. Buchanan Award candidate linebacker Osayi Osunde (77 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions) and Marquis Kirkland (65 tackles) control the middle, while Ross Ventrone, John Dempsey and Martel Moody return in the secondary.
The Wildcats have probably the best one-two punch in FCS at quarterback with Chris Whitney and Antwon Young, who combined for 2,845 yards of total offense and 21 touchdowns. Matt Szczur (1,162 combined yards, nine TDs), who plays receiver, wildcat and returns kicks, may be two of the most complete offensive players at Villanova since Payton Award winner Brian Westbrook.
Aaron Ball emerged as a first-class runner last season with 1,081 yards and 13 TDs and could be even better as a junior, while Brandyn Harvey (43 catches, 12.8 average) is looking to improve on his numbers as a senior. With All- Americans Ben Ijalana at tackle and Brian Brannigan at center, the veteran offensive line has a strong foundation.
Angelo Babbaro (23.5 average on kickoff returns, 340 yards rushing), Szczur (36.5 kickoff return average) and Harvey (8.1 punt return average) are solid in the return game. But the Wildcats must replace dependable Joe Marcoux as a kicker with redshirt freshman Nick Yako, and need better work from Zach Ugarte (38.6 average, 31.2 net) as a punter.
2. Richmond (13-3, 6-2, third)
After earning three playoff berths in four years, including a semifinal appearance in 2007 and a national title in 2008, Richmond has moved among the elite teams of FCS. But with 16 returning starters, coach Mike London knows expectations have increased.
“There is a bunch of senior leadership on this team,” said London, who won the national crown in his first season coaching his alma mater. “We’ve just got to make sure we stay humble and hungry,”
There were not many graduation losses from that team, but those that occurred were huge ones. Lawrence Sidbury and Sherman Logan were two of the top defensive ends in FCS and Josh Vaughan piled up 1,884 yards and 20 TDs rushing as the workhorse running back. The loss of fullback John Crone is another hit.
Vaughan’s absence will put additional pressure on the sometimes-erratic quarterback, Ward (3,248 yards of total offense, 25 TDs). Speedster Justin Forte returns from injury to take over for Vaughan, but he will need help.
Kevin Grayson (61 catches, 14.0 average) could develop into one of the top receivers in FCS, if he can stay healthy, while Tre Gray (59 catches, 12.3 average) and Jordan Mitchell (24 catches, 18.3 average) are other targets for Ward. The biggest strength on offense, however, is a line that returns All- Americans Michael McCracken and Tim Silva.
The defense will put plenty of pressure on teams again, if it can replace Sidbury (now with the Atlanta Falcons) and Logan. Pierre Turner will be the man on the hot seat.
Richmond has one of the top linebacking groups in FCS, with preseason CAA defensive player of the year Eric McBride (108 tackles), Patrick Weldon and Collin McConaghy. The secondary is anchored by Buchanan Award candidate Justin Rogers (seven interceptions, 13 pass breakups) and safeties Derek Hatcher and Michael Ireland.
Andrew Howard (59-of-61 PATs, 17-of-27 field goals), the NCAA record-holder for consecutive extra points, was one of the most consistent kickers in FCS, but must regain his confidence after a late-season slump.
3. William & Mary (7-4, 5-3, fourth)
How important is the offensive line? If Jimmye Laycock’s team can answer some questions up front, the Tribe could be among the top teams in the country. If not, William & Mary will likely miss the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year.
“We have a lot of talent back,” said Laycock. “We’ll see how we come along on the offensive line and we’ve got to find some guys who can make plays at wide receiver.”
Athletic R.J. Archer should join a long line of top-notch Tribe quarterbacks and Jonathan Grimes (1,782 all-purpose yards, 10 TDs) is another threat in the backfield. D.J. McAuley (40 catches, 18.0 average, eight TDs) is the top returning receiver.
William & Mary showed tremendous improvement defensively in 2008 and should be even better with Buchanan Award nominee Adrian Tracy (10 sacks) back at defensive end. Strong safety David Caldwell (78 tackles, six tackles for loss) will help make up for the loss of cornerback Derek Cox to the NFL.
The Tribe should be tough again on special teams with All-American kicker Brian Pate (13-of-16 field goals, 41-41 on PATs) and Grimes on hand.
4. James Madison (12-2, 8-0, first in South and overall)
JMU turned in a magical regular season in 2008 on the way to becoming the top- ranked team in FCS. Coach Mickey Matthews, who won his second Eddie Robinson Award last year, knows he has a lot of talent coming in, but success for the Dukes will depend a lot on team chemistry.
“I’m excited about the talent we have in our program,” said Matthews. “We lost some players like Rodney [Landers] who had done great things in our program, but we’re excited about our future.”
Payton Award runner-up Landers (6,506 career yards of total offense, 63 TDs) has graduated, leaving Drew Dudzik and Justin Thorpe to battle for the quarterback job. Whoever starts will benefit from the likes of Jamal Sullivan at running back, Rockeed McCarter and Bosco Williams at receiver, Mike Caussin at tight end and All-American Dorian Brooks at guard.
The defense must plug some holes, particularly at linebacker, but the Dukes are solid up front with Arthur Moats (65 tackles) at end and All-American Sam Daniels at tackle. Griff Yancey, one of the best athletes on the squad, has moved from running back to free safety to replace Buchanan Award finalist Marcus Haywood.
Scotty McGee (1,005 combined yards, 29.1 kickoff return average, 12.9 punt return average, four TDs) almost single-handedly won three games for JMU last year as an All-American kick returner and remains one of the Dukes’ biggest threats. He also starts at cornerback. But the kicking and punting games will be a question mark.
5. Delaware (4-8, 2-6, fifth)
A year after advancing to the NCAA title game, the Blue Hens suffered through their worst season in school history as the offense fell apart behind injuries and inexperience.
Keeler hopes to solve one of the major problems with Penn State transfer quarterback Pat Devlin, who has quickly established himself. Promising running back Jerry Butler (162 yards rushing) is finally healthy again and there is some young depth around him.
Mark Duncan (39 catches, 9.0 average) is the best of a receiving crew that was depleted by graduation, while the line must deal with the loss of All-American center Kheon Hendricks. Senior tackle Corey Nicholson will provide leadership.
“Last year, there were times we didn’t look like a CAA team,” said Keeler. “We look better in every way this year.”
There are few concerns defensively with a group that includes Buchanan Award nominee Charles Graves (78 tackles, five interceptions, five pass breakups) and Anthony Bratton at safety, cornerback Anthony Waters and linebacker Andrew Harrison (75 tackles). Matt Marcorelle (156 tackles, 15.5 sacks in his career), an All-American as a defensive end, is moving to middle linebacker.
Jon Striefsky (7-of-13 field goals, 26-of-26 PATs) was an All-American kicker in 2007 and should return to his sophomore form as a senior. Butler is a threat as a kick returner.
6. Towson (3-9, 1-7, sixth)
Rob Ambrose returns to his alma mater as the head coach and has already brought a large dose of enthusiasm to the Towson campus. But he has a large rebuilding process ahead of him as he replaces 17-year veteran Gordy Combs.
“We’re trying to change a culture,” said Ambrose. “Our goal is to get our team to play hard and to play with enthusiasm and excitement.”
The Tigers return 15 starters, but most of the playmakers on offense have departed, including quarterback Sean Schaefer (career 11,644 yards and 76 TDs passing), receivers Marcus Lee (225 career receptions) and Tommy Breaux (35 catches, 14.7 average last season) and running back Matt Castor 543 yards rushing). Castor, a senior, quit the team before the start of training camp and left the running game in disarray.
Blair Peterson is the likely starter at quarterback. Tight end John Godlasky (30 career receptions) will be one of his better targets, while Hakeem Moore (45 catches, 11.7 average), Steve Holmes (45 catches, 11.1 average), David Newsome (41 catches, 11.8 average) and Casey Ceagles (36 catches, 12.5 average) give Peterson some quality receivers.
The defense returns eight starters from a group that finished 107th nationally a year ago. Among the losses are linebacker Jordan Manning (105 tackles, 10 tackles for loss) and strong safety Drew Mack (82 tackles, nine pass breakups, six tackles for loss).
Linebacker Alex Butt (62 tackles) is the top returning tackler. while Boston College transfer Brady Smith (11.5 career tackles for loss) should help at defensive end. Cornerback Ollie Thomas (57 tackles, nine pass breakups) will lead a veteran secondary.
By David Coulson, Sports Network