(Stats Perform) - New programs, new coaches, new schemes … Big South football is growing up quite well.
The conference has gone through a lot of change since it first competed in football in 2002, and Kennesaw State and Monmouth have been the recent powers despite being relatively new members themselves. Both won FCS playoff games last season.
This year, the Big South race will be down one program after Presbyterian's departure for the non-scholarship level. But HBCU power North Carolina A&T is on the way, scheduled to join in 2021.
Following is a look across the Big South with spring practices underway in college football:
HEAD COACH: Mike Minter (36-42, seven seasons)
2019 RECORD: 6-5, 3-3 Big South (4th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)
PRIORITIES: Develop stronger depth to take the next step in the program's third season in the Big South. Improvement in run defense.
NOTABLE: A strong schedule in September will prep the Camels for their conference games. They jumped out to a 6-1 start last season before losing their final four games. The offense had a good answer for losing quarterback Daniel Smith to a grad transfer in true freshman Hajj-Malik Williams, who averaged over 244 yards of total offense per game and accounted for 26 touchdowns. A dangerous receivers unit, led by junior Caleb Snead, will make Williams even more dangerous. Defensive end Damien Dozier is not returning this season.
HEAD COACH: Autry Denson (6-6, one season)
2019 RECORD: 6-6, 4-2 Big South (3rd)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)
PRIORITIES: Continuing to build on Denson's offensive scheme while replacing go-to receiver Kam Brown, who transferred to Coastal Carolina. Replacing stalwart J.D. Sosebee at linebacker.
NOTABLE: The Buccaneers went into the offseason off a four-game Big South winning streak and appear to be the wild card in this year's race. Quarterback Jack Chambers should be more effective in his second season running the offense, and getting full seasons out of wide receiver Cayden Jordan and running back Jonathan Earl will help boost the production. The defense has to improve against the run and it should behind defensive ends Nick Salley and Anton Williams, who combined for 34½ tackles for loss and 14 sacks a year ago. The Bucs' excellent special teams feature All-Big South place-kicker Alex Usry and All-America long snapper Ethan Ray.
HEAD COACH: Tre Lamb (first season)
2019 RECORD: 3-9, 1-5 Big South (Tie/5th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (7 offense/9 defense)
PRIORITIES: Transition to Lamb and his new coaching staff. Determine who will run the fast-paced passing offense, Jordan Smith if back from injury (he is missing spring practices) or Wake Forest transfer Tayvon Bowers.
NOTABLE: The new coaching staff is young and will mature with the program, which last posted a winning season in 2013. The quarterback who leads the offense will gain from a superb wide receivers unit, which is led by 6-foot-4 junior Izaiah Gathings, a future NFL prospect who dominated in Big South games, and sophomore Devron Harper. The defense finished last in the conference a year ago, but its front seven should become a strength, particularly at linebacker with leading tacklers Darien Reynolds and Cade Hamilton.
HEAD COACH: Robert Prunty (12-10, two seasons)
2019 RECORD: 5-7, 1-5 (Tie/5th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)
PRIORITIES: Replace the offensive production of quarterback Deondre Francois and running back Shai McKenzie. Get better in the secondary to shore up the pass defense.
NOTABLE: The Pirates' only conference win in their first Big South season was against the departed Presbyterian, so improvement is quite necessary. This season, they'll benefit from having seven home games, including five of their first six with only a short trip to Old Dominion for their second game. The offense controlled the ball last season and the new quarterback will target Jadakis Bonds, who caught 15 touchdowns as a sophomore. Linebacker DeAndre Faulk tied for the team high in tackles (72) as a redshirt freshman.
HEAD COACH: Brian Bohannon (48-15, five seasons)
2019 RECORD: 11-3, 5-1 Big South (2nd)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)
PRIORITIES: Replacing leading rusher Bronson Rechsteiner. Replacing the starting defensive ends, most likely with Peyton Moore and Joel Parker.
NOTABLE: After finishing second in the Big South last season, the Owls enjoyed a big postseason and should be the preseason favorite again. They're well-stocked in triple option quarterbacks with Tommy Bryant and Jonathan Murphy, who both figure to get playing time. All-America linebacker Bryson Armstrong seemingly has been around forever (OK, this is just KSU's sixth season as a program). The special teams are experienced, although top returner Isaac Foster is coming off a broken leg last season. While the nonconference schedule is lackluster again, it includes a trip back to Kent State, where the Owls lost in overtime.
HEAD COACH: Kevin Callahan (163-124, 27 seasons)
2019 RECORD: 11-3, 6-0 Big South (1st)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (8 offense/9 defense)
PRIORITIES: Overcoming the loss of 3½-year starting quarterback Kenji Bahar, the Big South offensive player of the year. Improving the pass defense.
NOTABLE: Monmouth enjoyed its best season ever, winning the Big South title and finishing with a No. 12 national ranking. The loss of Bahar appears bigger than NFL-bound Pete Guerriero, the FCS rushing leader, because Juwon Farri is back after missing last season, and he was a 1,000-yard rusher in 2018. Brandon Harris, last year's backup quarterback, has been in the program for three seasons, but hasn't played much. He will gain from the return of wide receivers Lonnie Moore IV and Terrance Greene Jr. The defense may be as deep as it's ever been. The Hawks, now in their seventh season in the Big South, will face key foes Kennesaw State, Charleston Southern and Campbell at Kessler Stadium.
HEAD COACH: Chris Willis (16-5, three seasons)
2019 RECORD: 4-7 FCS independent
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (6 offense/7 defense)
PRIORITIES: Getting likely quarterback Reid Herring, an East Carolina transfer, comfortable in the offensive system. Developing depth in the secondary even with cornerback K.J. Smith being granted an additional season of eligibility by the NCAA
NOTABLE: The Lions haven't shied away from tough competition, including trips to Virginia Tech and BYU, but in the third year of their transition from Division II, they will remain ineligible for the Big South title. Having a healthier offensive line, which added transfers, will go a long way for the Lions, and the wide receivers unit is strong. Junior linebacker Christon Taylor, a starter in 2017 and '18, is back after missing last season. He rejoins a defense that returns nine players who had 29 or more tackles last season.