In the FCS Huddle: Pioneer Football League spring primer

9:38 AM, Mar 4, 2014   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The three-best teams in the Pioneer Football League last season had senior quarterbacks, so the development of newcomers at the sport's most important position is vital in this year's title race.

Butler, following the lead of quarterback Matt Lancaster, earned the PFL's first FCS playoff bid on a tiebreaker over Marist and quarterback Chuckie Looney. San Diego and quarterback Mason Mills, the PFL's offensive player of the year, would have made the playoff appearance if the Toreros had not been ineligible for the league title.

Each program has a "Help Wanted" sign up this spring.

The PFL will drop to 11 teams with Mercer, last year's most surprising team, moving into the Southern Conference.

Here's a look across the league with spring practices getting underway across the nation:

STORY LINES

After Butler earned a share of each of the last two PFL titles, the Bulldogs have lost 22 seniors, including Lancaster, running back Trae Heeter and defensive end Jeremy Stephens. It might be a transition season for the Bulldogs.

Drake, under new coach Rick Fox, wants to be a major player in the title race again. Its six returning players who earned a form of All-PFL honors are the most in the league.

While Marist looks for its next starting quarterback (maybe sophomore Ed Achziger?), the Red Foxes also have to replace four starters on the offensive line. They have several backups with game experience, but coach Jim Parady will be doing some mixing and matching at positions until the line settles in.

It's year two for coach Roger Hughes and his Stetson program, which returned to football with a 2-9 record last year. The Hatters immediately found a star in safety Donald Payne, who has three seasons of eligibility remaining as their chief building block.

New Valparaiso coach Dave Cecchini has arrived from Lehigh, where he was the offensive coordinator, to try to lift a Crusaders program that is 4-51 over the past five seasons. He's installing new systems on both sides of the ball.

THEY'RE BACK

Fifth-year senior Will Bardo will be at the controls of Dayton's offense for the fourth season. He's as much a threat running the ball as he is passing it.

Despite losing an influential class of 20 seniors, San Diego has two terrific playmakers in running back Kenn James and wide receiver Reggie Bell.

After being slowed by injury each of the last two seasons, Jacksonville quarterback Kade Bell is ready again to team with standout wide receiver Andrew Robustelli.

The league was dominated by young punters last season, with only one senior among the top eight in punting average. Drake's Cam Bohnert, who will be a junior, was the All-PFL first-team selection, and San Diego's Ryan Belden, a sophomore-to-be, made the second team.

The healthy return of running back Jake Hutson from a knee injury is critical at Valparaiso. His work will be limited in the spring.

POSITION BATTLES

Davidson, one of only three winless teams in the FCS, must replace its all- time passing leader, Jonathan Carkhuff. J.P. Douglass, a senior who transferred in from Southern University one year ago, and sophomore John Cook are battling for the position.

Second-year Campbell coach Mike Minter probably can't go wrong with either sophomore running back Keith Goss or DeShawn Jones, who both played well as freshmen. The Camels program appears to be on the rise.

Morehead State has a quarterback derby going with sophomore Austin Gahafer, redshirt freshmen Jack Sherry and Mitch Gilles, and UT Martin transfer Tyler Rice. Gahafer made 10 starts last season, but was inconsistent.

San Diego will try to replace the experienced Mills with a young signal caller, either Keith Williams or Trey Wheeler.

Valparaiso is graduating starting quarterback Eric Hoffman, and senior Ben Lehman will be pushed by Scott Staal and Trae Hoeske.

Drake should be able to run the ball effectively. T.J. James, the Bulldogs' leading rusher in 2012, is back after missing last season, and Gary Scott Jr., Conley Wilkins and A.J. Washington combined on 1,159 yards in his absence.

BREAKOUT PERFORMERS

Butler will be inexperienced in the skills positions. A strong offensive line will aid running back Rico Watson as he takes on a bigger workload.

Marist lost PFL defensive player of the year Terrence Fede, but defensive end Landon Moore, who had 6.5 sacks in a part-time role, is the next standout on the line.

After sitting out last season following a transfer from Georgia State, Isaiah Howard is expected to step in as a starting cornerback at Campbell.

Drake is counting on a big season, and an injury-free one, from sophomore linebacker Taylor Coleman.

READY FOR IMPROVEMENT

Morehead State ranked last in the FCS in total defense and second-to-last in scoring defense. Second-year coach Rob Tenyer's squad needs both stronger play at linebacker and a better pass rush.

Situational football is so underrated. Stetson was one of the best in the FCS in stopping opponents on third downs, but the Hatters were terrible in converting their own third downs into first downs. Improvement offensively is imperative this season.

Jacksonville ranked 114th nationally in stopping the run and loses three of its four starters on the defensive line.

Dayton must cut down on its 23 turnovers. The Flyers' offense will be helped if running back Connor Kacsor stays healthy for the entire season.

Valparaiso will try to limit the number of big plays surrendered by its secondary. The Crusaders allowed 296 passing yards per game, which were fewer than only two other FCS teams.

SPRING PRACTICE DATES

Butler: Feb. 26-March 29

Campbell: March 11-April 7

Davidson: March 11-April 12

Dayton: March 20-April 13

Drake: March 26-April 20

Jacksonville: Feb. 11-March 9

Marist: March 31-April 27

Morehead State: March 27 to April 19

San Diego: Feb. 8-March 6

Stetson: Feb. 15-March 19

Valparaiso: April 2-26

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