FCS 2019: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Preview

CRAIG HALEY (STATS FCS Senior Editor=)
The Associated Press

(STATS) - With three new head coaches in the MEAC this season after there was a first-year trio last year, there's a relatively new feeling across the conference.

Whether it extends to the title race, where North Carolina A&T has become the dominating power, is uncertain.

The Aggies were installed as a heavy preseason favorite despite losing more starters than any other team. It's those changes, though, that excite the rest of the conference because Bethune-Cookman, Florida A&M and offense-stacked Howard feel they can reel in the conference leader this season.

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Following is a predicted order of finish and a team-by-team breakdown of the 2019 MEAC race:

1. North Carolina A&T

2. Florida A&M

3. Bethune-Cookman

4. Howard

5. South Carolina State

6. North Carolina Central

7. Norfolk State

8. Morgan State

9. Delaware State

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TEAM CAPSULES

1. NORTH CAROLINA A&T

LOCATION: Greensboro, North Carolina

STADIUM: Aggie Stadium

HEAD COACH: Sam Washington (10-2, one season)

2018 RECORDS: 10-2 overall, 6-1 (1st) - No. 12 in final STATS FCS Top 25

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 8 (4 offense/4 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Kylil Carter, QB, Gr.; Jah-Maine Martin, RB, Jr.; JaMichael Baldwin, WR/RS, Jr. (Savannah State transfer); Korey Banks, WR, Jr. (South Carolina transfer); Elijah Bell, WR, Sr.; Ron Hunt, WR, Sr.; Zachary Leslie, WR, Jr.; Quinzell Lockhart, TE, So.; Marcus Pettiford, LT, Sr.; De'jour Simpson, LG, Jr. (Eastern Kentucky transfer); Daquari Wilson, C, So.; Dontae Keys, OL, R-So.; Justin Cates, DT, Gr.; Alex Fumbah, LB, Jr. (Fort Scott CC transfer); Antoine Wilder, LB, Sr.; Richie Kittles, ROV, Sr.; Mac McCain III, CB, Jr.; Jalon Bethea, DB, R-Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Lamar Raynard, QB; Marquell Cartwright, RB; Darryl Johnson Jr., DE

OUTLOOK: Despite having the fewest returning starters in the conference, nobody else has the Aggies' winning culture. They're the two-time defending MEAC champions and have won three of the four Celebration Bowls with an FCS playoff appearance in the other season. Even though Raynard went 32-5 as the starting quarterback, Carter gained a lot of experience in recent seasons and should be potent in connecting with the many wide receivers, led by Bell (147 career receptions, 25 TDs). Tackles Pettiford and Keys are anchors up front. All-America CB McCain is coming off a knee injury and will work his way back to an elite level (four career interception returns for touchdowns). A&T will take its best shot at Duke on Sept. 7, having beaten an FBS opponent in three straight seasons.

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2. FLORIDA A&M

LOCATION: Tallahassee, Florida

STADIUM: Bragg Memorial Stadium

HEAD COACH: Willie Simmons (6-5, one season; 27-16 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 5-2 MEAC (Tie/2nd)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Ryan Stanley, QB, Sr.; Deshawn Smith, RB, Sr.; Bishop Bonnett, RB, R-Jr.; Chad Hunter, WR, Jr.; Xavier Smith, WR, So.; Bryan Crawford, C, So.; Calvin Ashley, OL, R-So. (Florida Atlantic transfer); Joshua Crutchfield, DE, Jr.; Moezies Telfort, DE, R-So.; Elijah Richardson, LB, Sr.; Derrick Mayweather, LB, Jr.; Herman Jackson Jr., DB, So.; Terry Jefferson, DB, Gr.; Yahia Aly, PK, Sr.; Chris Faddoul, P, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Obinna Nwankwo, OL; Antonio Miller, DE; Orlando McKinley, CB

OUTLOOK: In Simmons' second campaign, FAMU can compete for the MEAC title, but it can't advance to the Celebration Bowl due to NCAA sanctions. The Rattlers feel they have to finish out games better, but their nucleus proved it can beat North Carolina A&T last year (22-21), with this year's game set for Oct. 19 in Tallahassee. QB Stanley enters his fourth season as the starter, having passed for 6,067 yards and 41 touchdowns in his career. He gets back his top running backs and wide receivers, and OL Ashley was a strong addition to the team after All-MEAC OL Nwankwo transferred to FIU. The Rattlers allowed only 22.1 points per game, tying for No. 23 in the FCS. Faddoul returns after leading the FCS in punting average (46.8 yards per game) and PK Aly joined him on the MEAC preseason first team. The nonconference lineup includes UCF and old rival Southern.

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3. BETHUNE-COOKMAN

LOCATION: Daytona Beach, Florida

STADIUM: Memorial Stadium

HEAD COACH: Terry Sims (27-17, four seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 7-5 overall, 5-2 MEAC (Tie/2nd)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Akevious Williams, QB, Gr.; Jimmie Robinson, RB/KR, Sr.; Queshaun Byrd, RB, So.; Tupac Isme, RB, Gr.; Jonathon Thomas, WR, Jr.; Steffon Francois, WR, So.; Taron Mallard, TE, Jr.; Jamal Savage, OL, Jr.; L'Dre Barnes, OL, Jr.; Nicholas Roos, OL, Sr.; Marques Ford, DE, Sr.; Uriah Gilbert, DL, Jr.; Gerome Howard, DL, Jr.; Devin James, LB, Jr.; Marquis Hendrix, LB, Sr.; Trevor Merritt, DB, Sr.; Tydarius Peters, DB, Sr.; Vernon Walker, DB, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Keavon Mitchell, WR; Kevin Thompson, DL; Elliott Miller, DB

OUTLOOK: After posting six wins over their final seven FCS opponents last season, the Wildcats have momentum heading into the new campaign. They were picked second in the MEAC's preseason poll, but a rugged road schedule is ahead, including at North Carolina A&T. QB Williams had a 63 percent completion and totaled 18 touchdowns before he missed the final four games. With a lot of talent surrounding him in the skills positions, the offense should be strong. DE Ford (10½ tackles for loss, 8½ sacks) was joined on the MEAC preseason first team by LB Hendrix and DBs Merritt and Peters. While the kickers are new, Robinson had three of the team's four kickoff returns for touchdowns and the Wildcats returned three PAT blocks for two points three times.

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4. HOWARD

LOCATION: Washington, D.C.

STADIUM: William H. Greene Stadium

HEAD COACH: Ron Prince (first season; 17-20 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 4-6 overall, 4-3 MEAC (Tie/4th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (9 offense/8 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Caylin Newton, QB, Jr.; Dedrick Parson, RB, R-So.; Kyle Anthony, WR, Sr.; Jequez Ezzard, WR, Sr.; Malik Hyatt, TE, Jr.; Phillip Flemming, OL, Sr.; Marcellos Allison, DL, Sr.; Zamon Robinson, DL, So.; Aaron Motley, DL, Jr.; Quinton Hill, LB, Jr.; Aaron Walker, DB, Jr.; Tye Freeland, DB, Jr.; Jalen Smith, DB, So.; Jayson Robinson, DB, R-So.

THREE KEY LOSSES: James Holmon, C; Tyler Shadrach, OL; Bryan Cook, DB

OUTLOOK: Coach Mike London left for William & Mary after two seasons, but Howard hired a veteran mentor in Prince. He was an offensive analyst on Jim Harbaugh's Michigan staff last season and was 17-20 at Kansas State from 2006-08 in between Bill Snyder's two coaching stints. The Bison are very dynamic in the offensive skills positions: dual-threat QB Newton (313.3 total yards per game) is coming off the MEAC's offensive player of the year award, Parson the MEAC rookie of the year, and all-conference WRs Ezzard and Anthony are big-play threats. One point of emphasis is cutting down on turnovers (24 in 2018). The bigger priority is improving a defense that ranked last in the MEAC. An extremely competitive nonconference schedule (Maryland, Youngstown State, Hampton and Harvard) will harden the Bison.

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5. SOUTH CAROLINA STATE

LOCATION: Orangeburg, South Carolina

STADIUM: Oliver C. Dawson Stadium

HEAD COACH: Buddy Pough (125-70, 17 seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 4-3 MEAC (Tie/4th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (7 offense/9 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Tyrece Nick, QB, R-Jr.; Datron James, RB, Jr.; Omar Cummings, RB, R-So.; Will Vereen, WR, So.; De Montrez Burroughs, WR, Sr.; Alex Taylor, OT, Sr.; Mike Terry, C, Sr.; Paul McKeiver, DL, Sr.; Tyrell Goodwin, DL, Sr.; Bruce Johnson, DE, Sr.; Chad Gilchrist, LB, Sr.; Lane Jones, LB, Sr.; Duane Nichols, DB, R-So.; Decobie Durant, DB, R-So.; Dillon Bredesen, PK, So.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Kendrick Hair, OL; Damu Ford, DL; Alex Brown, CB

OUTLOOK: Pough's return for an 18th season was uncertain last fall, but South Carolina State announced it in January. He did a good job with a young team to position it for this season. The Bulldogs have experienced players at both lines of scrimmage (including NFL prospect Taylor at OT), and that's always dangerous for MEAC competition. The offense was sluggish a year ago, but running-style QB Nick (1,163 passing yards, 903 yards and 12 TDs on the ground) should be improved as a junior. The defense returns its leading tacklers, Gilchrist (65) and Jones (46). In a potential 12-game regular season, the Bulldogs have only an 11-game schedule with byes on back-to-back weekends in September.

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6. NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL

LOCATION: Durham, North Carolina

STADIUM: O'Kelly-Riddick Stadium

HEAD COACH: Trei Oliver (first season)

2018 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 3-4 MEAC (Tie/6th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (9 offense/5 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Chauncey Caldwell, QB, Jr.; Isaiah Totten, RB, R-Jr.; Nique Martin, WR, Jr.; Xavier McKoy, WR, Sr.; Daeshawn Stephens, WR, R-Jr.; Sherman McLeod, TE, R-So.; Andrew Dale, OG, R-Jr.; Somadina Okezie-Okeke, OL, R-So.; Darius Royster, DE, R-Sr.; Kawuan Cox, DE, Sr.; Carl Isaac, DT, R-So.; Brandon Bailey, LB, Jr.; Jerome Foster, LB, R-So.; Marcus Martin, CB, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Nick Leverett, OT; Randy Anyanwu, DT; Davanta Reynolds, S

OUTLOOK: OIiver, a former N.C. Central player and assistant coach, is back at his alma mater after spending the last three seasons as Southern's defensive coordinator. He seeks to get the Eagles back to their championship level under Jerry Mack, who departed after the 2017 season. The Eagles were the best in the MEAC at protecting the ball. The offense boasts QB Caldwell, who returns from a foot injury, and All-MEAC RB Totten, who's had back-to-back 700-yard seasons. The defense slipped last season and seeks to fortify behind Royster (17 tackles for loss) and Cox up front. The Eagles play their first three games and five of the first six on the road.

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7. NORFOLK STATE

LOCATION: Norfolk, Virginia

STADIUM: William Price Stadium

HEAD COACH: Latrell Scott (16-28, four seasons; 41-37 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 2-5 MEAC (Tie/8th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Juwan Carter, QB, Jr.; Aaron Savage, RB, R-Sr.; Justin Smith, WR, R-Jr.; Kenneth Kirby, OL, R-Jr.; Craig Rodwell, OL, R-Sr.; Walter Brantley, DL, R-Sr.; DeShaan Dixon, DL, Jr.; Kyron Speller, DL, R-Sr.; Ricky Thomas, DL, R-Sr.; Nigel Chavis, LB, R-Sr.; Marquis Hall, LB, R-So.; Tyre Givers-Wilson, LB, R-Jr.; Bobby Price, DB, Sr.; Nhyre' Quinerly, DB, R-Sr.; Josh Nardone, PK, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Marcus Taylor, WR/KR; Isaiah Winstead, WR; J.T. Wahee, DB

OUTLOOK: The Spartans haven't won more than four games in a season since the 2011 squad went 9-3 and won the MEAC championship. Unfortunately, their schedule appears impossible through October. Ball security is important for a team that turned the ball over 24 times just one season after it was plus-15 in turnover margin (losing just 11 turnovers). Mobile QB Carter enters his third season as the starter, set to work behind an experienced offensive line. But new top receivers have to emerge after the offense lost Taylor and Winstead. Usually defensively solid, the defense was vulnerable against the run a year ago, allowing a conference-high 5.3 yards per carry. LB Chavis is coming off an All-MEAC first-team selection as a junior.

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8. MORGAN STATE

LOCATION: Baltimore

STADIUM: Hughes Stadium

HEAD COACH: Tyrone Wheatley Sr. (first season)

2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 3-4 MEAC (Tie/6th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: D.J. Golatt Jr., QB, R-So.; DeAndre Harris, QB Sr.; Joshua Chase, RB, Sr.; Manasseh Bailey, WR, Sr.; Bruce Trigg, OL, R-Jr.; Stefan Touani, OL, Jr.; Tarik Johnson, OL, Sr.; Malachi Washington, DE, R-Sr.; Ian McBorrough, LB, Sr.; Rico Kennedy, LB, R-Sr.; Donte Small, CB, Jr.; Nicholas O'Shea, PK, So.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Corey Holmes, WR; Joshua Miles, OL; Damare Whitaker, LB

OUTLOOK: Wheatley is in his first head-coaching job and the Bears remain in get-to-know-you mode after they didn't have spring practice due to NCAA sanctions. Last year, they upset North Carolina A&T on the road, lost some close games and won their last two in a bit of a puzzling campaign. The defense should lead the way as it is stacked at linebacker with Kennedy and McBorrough (a combined 19 tackles for loss and 10½ sacks), gets standout DE Washington back from injury last season and boasts a cornerback, Small, who totaled 15 pass breakups a year ago. QB Golatt was the season-ending starter and remains in competition with Harris. The Bears have to improve at Hughes Stadium, where they have lost 10 of 12 games since 2016.

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9. DELAWARE STATE

LOCATION: Dover, Delaware

STADIUM: Alumni Stadium

HEAD COACH: Rod Milstead (3-8, one season)

2018 RECORDS: 3-8 overall, 2-5 MEAC (Tie/8th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (6 offense/7 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Shayne Smith, QB, R-Jr.; Bryant Dallas, RB, Sr.; Mike Waters, RB, R-Jr.; Trey Gross, WR, Jr.; Kwannah Kollie, WR, Jr.; Isiah Williams, TE, Sr.; Kaiden Crawford, OL, Jr.; Liki Seu, DL, Jr.; Christian Johnson, DE, Sr.; Brian Cavicante, LB, Sr.; Alex Lozano, LB, Jr.; Jahad Neibauer, DB, Sr.; David Bowman, DB, So.; Devin Smith, DB, Sr.; Jose Romo-Martinez, PK, So.; Fidel Romo-Martinez, P, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Jack McDaniels, QB; Brycen Alleyne, RB/KR; Taronn Selby, WR

OUTLOOK: After an 0-7 start to the Milstead era last year, the Hornets ended strong with three wins in the final four games, most notably against North Carolina Central. This season, they play seven of their 12 games at home. Milstead's background is on the offensive line, so he should be excited by the team's experienced group. The unit will open lanes for Waters, who rushed for 820 yards in 2016, but has been slowed by injuries ever since. The defense features LB Cavicante (team-high 89 tackles, 17 tackles for loss), who was named the MEAC's preseason defensive player of the year. The Romo-Martinez brothers filled the second-team kicker spots.

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