FCS 2019: Pioneer Football League Preview

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

(STATS) - If you create a list of weekly games of the week in the Pioneer Football League, San Diego is involved more times than not.

It has a lot to do with the Toreros owning a 29-game winning streak in the PFL, but it also reflects how the group of contenders right behind are thinking they can end the run ... and it's the contenders' key game.

USD appears to be a little more vulnerable than in year's past, which includes the usual cross-country trips (this year, the Toreros play four times in the Eastern time zone at Davidson, Dayton, Stetson and Jacksonville).

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The Toreros are replacing quarterback Anthony Lawrence, the two-time PFL offensive player of the year. It's a familiar story across the league as five of the top six in passing yards last season are gone,

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

1. San Diego

2. Dayton

3. Drake

4. Stetson

5. Davidson

6. Marist

7. Butler

8. Valparaiso

9. Jacksonville

10. Morehead State

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TEAM CAPSULES

1. SAN DIEGO

LOCATION: San Diego

STADIUM: Torero Stadium

HEAD COACH: Dale Lindsey (55-16, six seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 9-3 overall, 8-0 PFL (1st) - No. 25 in final STATS FCS Top 25

PROJECTED STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (5 offense/8 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Reid Sinnett, QB, R-Sr.; Alex Farina, QB, R-Jr.; Emilio Martinez, RB, Jr.; Zach Nelson, FB/TE, RS Sr.; Michael Bandy, WR, Sr.; Dalton Kincaid, TE, So.; Michael Armstead, WR, Sr.; Aidan Valencia, OL, Sr.; Nick Friedel, DL, RS Jr.; Jacob Bergstrom, DL, R-Jr.; Kevin Glajchen, DE, Sr.; Marcus Vaivao, LB, R-Sr.; Daniel Tolbert, S, Sr.; David Tolbert, CB, Sr.; Kama Kamaka, NB, Jr.; Tanner Kuljian, P. R-Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Anthony Lawrence, QB; Daniel Cooney, OL; Kim Mahoney, LB

OUTLOOK: Despite key losses to graduation, the Toreros are the team to beat in the PFL, entering the 2019 season with a 29-game league winning streak. Six players earned PFL preseason honors, led by All-America WR Bandy (88 receptions for FCS-high 1,698 receiving yards plus 14 TDs). QB Sinnett has competed to be a senior starter after backing up Lawrence, the two-time PFL offensive player of the year. Valencia is the lone returning starter up front, so top rusher Martinez will have to raise his game even more. The defense took a big step backward last season, which was surprising. It will be bolstered by a healthier Vaivao and Glajchen. The latter will combine with Friedel and Bergstrom on a solid pass rush. The Toreros' home opener is against preseason No. 5 UC Davis on Sept. 7.

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2. DAYTON

LOCATION: Dayton, Ohio

STADIUM: Welcome Stadium

HEAD COACH: Rick Chamberlin (85-38, 11 seasons)

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

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

KEY PLAYERS: Jack Cook, QB, R-So.; Richie Warfield, RB, R-So.; Jake Chisholm, RB/KR, So.; Kyle Butz, WR/KR, Sr.; Ryan Skibinski, WR, Sr.; Adam Trautman, TE, R-Sr.; Michael Niese, OG, Sr.; Jacob Brunson, OL, R-So.; Mike Stodola, DT, So.; Andrew Lutgens, DB/LB, Sr.; Zach Rumpke, DB, R-Fr.; Tim Simon, S, Sr.; Joe Bubonics, CB, R-So.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Tucker Yinger, RB; David Leisring, S; Sean Smith, P

OUTLOOK: Picked second in the PFL preseason poll, the Flyers are the last PFL team to beat San Diego (Oct. 10, 2015), they host the Toreros on Oct. 26. They'll be hard-pressed to replace RB Yinger, but the passing game will trouble defenses. QB Cook (2,421 passing yards, 20 TDs vs. 2 interceptions) is the league's top returning passer after earning offensive freshman of the year, TE Trautman (41 receptions for 604 yards and nine TDs) is an NFL prospect and WR Skibinski also is a leading target. Lutgens plays the hybrid Flyer position and is a playmaker. They're restarting at punter after the graduation of Smith, a four-time all-league first-team selection.

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3. DRAKE

LOCATION: Des Moines, Iowa

STADIUM: Drake Stadium

HEAD COACH: Todd Stepsis (first season)

2018 RECORDS: 7-4 overall, 6-2 PFL (Tie/2nd)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 12-April 20

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 10 (7 offense/3 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Alex Bray, QB, Sr.; Drew Lauer, RB, R-Sr.; Steve Doran, WR, R-Sr.; Devin Cates, WR, R-Sr.; Mitch McFarlane, WR, Sr.; Isaiah Kent-Schneider, OL, R-Sr.; Jacob Bacon, OL, Sr.; Erin Morgan, DE, R-Sr.; Gavin Dineen, DT, Sr.; Jeran Proctor, DB, Jr.; Zac Rujawitz, LB, Sr.; Will Warner, S, Sr.; Ross Kennedy, P, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Grant Kraemer, QB; Nathan Clayberg, DL; Sean Lynch, DB

OUTLOOK: Stepsis was elevated from defensive coordinator following Rick Fox's resignation, so the Bulldogs should have a smooth transition into the 2019 season. His defense was the PFL's best last year, ranking ninth in the FCS with allowing only 19.1 points and 298 yards per game, and sixth in rushing defense (96.8 yards per game). S Warner finished second in the nation with eight interceptions. Bray seeks to replace Kraemer behind center, and it helps to have a wide receiver trio - Doran, Cates and McFarlane - that caught 131 passes and 21 touchdowns last year. But the Bulldogs also allowed a league-high 39 sacks. The road schedule is tough, including North Dakota and South Dakota State out of conference and San Diego within the PFL.

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4. STETSON

LOCATION: DeLand, Florida

STADIUM: Spec Martin Memorial Stadium

HEAD COACH: Roger Hughes (24-42, six seasons; 71-94 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 8-2 overall, 6-2 (Tie/2nd)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (6 offense/11 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Gaven DeFilippo, QB, Gr.; Jareem Westcott, RB, So.; Grant Hodges, FB, R-Jr.; Steven Burdette, WR/KR, Sr.; Jack Bowen, WR, R-So.; Justin Jordan, WR, Jr.; Tony Gilotti, TE/H-Back, Sr.; Alex Brown, OL, Jr.; Bradley Alexander, OL, Jr.; Greg Moore DT, R-So.; Shane Parton, DT, R-Jr.; Fermon Reid, DE, R-So.; Jamieson Craske, LB, R-Sr.; Colby Duncan, LB, Sr.; Reggie Gantt, DB, Sr.; J.J. Henderson, DB/PR, Jr.; Jalen Scott, DB, Sr.; Johnny Messina, PK, R-Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: TE Donald Parham, QB Colin McGovern, C Jim McCammon

OUTLOOK: Hughes earned a contract extension after leading the Hatters to a breakout season, including a tie for second place. With the most returning starters in the league, they should remain in the title race. The Hatters have lost Parham, the first-team All-America tight end, but QB DeFelippo (a part-time starter in 2016) will get the ball in the hands of RB Westcott (774 yards, 13 TDs as a freshman) and WR Burdette (52 receptions, 10 TDs). The defense didn't lose much. DT Moore is a run stuffer, LB Duncan the leading tackler (88) and Gantt and Henderson a standout duo in the secondary. Stetson may have the easiest non-league schedule in the FCS - PFL-bound Presbyterian (in 2021) and three sub-FCS programs.

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5. DAVIDSON

LOCATION: Davidson, North Carolina

STADIUM: Richardson Stadiuma

HEAD COACH: Scott Abell (6-5, one season; 45-29 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 3-5 PFL (6th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Tyler Phelps, QB, Jr.; Wesley Dugger, RB, Jr.; Jorell Story, RB, Sr.; Khalil Shaw, RB, R-Sr.; Will Wicks, Slot, Sr.; Eli Turner Jr., Slot, So.; Hunter Louthan, TE, Sr.; Ethan Steinbacher, OG, Sr.; Chibuike Odo, DE, So.; Bryce Perry-Martin, DT, Sr.; Tony Collins, LB, Sr.; T.J. Elliot, LB, Jr.; George Hatalowich, LB, Sr.; Dreylan Hines, S, So.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Brice Simmons, OT; Clay Robinson, DT; Nick Pearson, DE

OUTLOOK: In Abell's first season, the Wildcats played in the highest-scoring games in the FCS, averaging 44.9 points per game and allowing 40.8 points on average. Their FCS-leading rushing attack (429.9 yards per game) returns a wealth of talent, including QB Phelps and leading rusher Dugger (1,241 yards, 16 touchdowns), while breakaway No. 2 rusher Wick handles a slot back position off a 14-touchdown season. Improvement in the passing game is a must. The defensive leader is DE Perry-Martin (58 tackles, PFL-high 15 tackles for loss) and S Hines was a co-winner of PFL freshman defensive player of the year. The Wildcats barely lost to San Diego (56-52) last season, and this year they meet at Davidson on Oct. 12.

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6. MARIST

LOCATION: Poughkeepsie, New York

STADIUM: Leonidoff Field

HEAD COACH: Jim Parady (138-145-1, 27 seasons)

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

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (8 offense/4 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Austin Day, QB, R-So.; Mekhai Johnson, RB, Jr.; Darryn Jordan, RB, R-Jr.; Anthony Olivencia, WR, R-Sr.; Jon Kanda, TE, R-Sr.; Dan Wittekind, C, Sr.; Luke Buters, OG, R-Jr.; Matt McKnelly, OT, R-Jr.; Maliek Carr, LB, Sr.; Grant Dixon, LB, R-Jr.; Andrew McElroy, S, R-Jr.; Justice Seales, S, R-Jr.; Ryan Webb, CB, R-Jr.; Joe Giordano, LS, R-So.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Juston Christian, WR; Willie Barrett, LB; Brandon Miller, CB

OUTLOOK: Marist has finished at least .500 in the PFL in five of the past six seasons, including a share of the title in 2013. This year's league schedule is front-loaded with top-tier teams, so the Red Foxes have to be ready early on. There's no replacing WR Christian, who totaled 4,069 receiving yards in his career, but the Red Foxes were fairly young in the offensive skills positions last year. QB Day is a building block and has to be more consistent as a passer. He will work behind an experienced offensive line, including PFL preseason pick Wittekind. The defense lost its five leading tacklers. Marist has gone 1-8 in non-league games over the last three seasons.

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7. BUTLER

HEAD COACH: Jeff Voris (74-72, 13 seasons; 89-106 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 2-6 PFL (Tie/7th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 9 (4 offense/5 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Sam Brown, QB, R-So.; Brad Sznajder, RB, R-Sr.; Kavon Samuels, RB, So.; John McArthur, OL, R-Sr.; Stephen Dennis, WR, R-Sr.; Austin Schwantz, TE, R-So.; Mickey Kane, DE, R-So.; Mason Brunner, LB. Sr.; Dan DelGrosso, LB, R-Sr.; Luke Sennett, DB, R-Sr.; Devin Aguilar, DB, R-So.; Joe Zuccari, DB, R-So.; Drew Bevelhimer, PK, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Will Marty QB; Pace Temple WR; Tommy Kennedy OT

OUTLOOK: The Bulldogs stunned Youngstown State in a 3-1 start last season yet fell apart from there despite avoiding significant injuries. This season, they're replacing more starters than any other PFL team. The biggest losses are on offense, including OT Kennedy as a grad transfer to Miami (Fla). They're still figuring out quarterback, although RB Sznajdar just missed having a 1,000-yard rushing season. The defense will have to carry the team at least early, with S Sennett coming off the program's first 100-tackle season since 2012, LB Brunner adding 73 tackles and DE Kane earning PFL co-freshman defensive player of the year. The non-league schedule includes last year's only two FCS unbeaten teams, North Dakota State (Aug. 31) and Princeton (Sept. 21).

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8. VALPARAISO

HEAD COACH: Landon Fox (first season)

2018 RECORDS: 2-9 overall, 2-6 PFL (Tie/7th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 11 (6 offense/5 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Jimmy Seewald, QB, R-Jr.; Chris Duncan, QB, R-Jr.; Kyle Cartales, RB, Sr.; Cody Boxrucker, RB, Sr.; Bailey Gessinger, WR/RS, Sr.; Jack Jarnigan, OL, R-Sr.; Andrew Lundberg, OL, R-Sr.; James Reed, DL, Sr.; Nick Turner, LB, R-Sr.; Austin Petrie, LB, Sr.; Cam Kelly, DB, Jr.; Jamari Booker, DB, Sr.; Dimitrios Latsonas, PK, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Griffin Norberg, WR; Tom Schofield, OL; Drew Snouffer, LB

OUTLOOK: As Valpo celebrates its 100th anniversary season, Fox will be a head coach for the first time. He spent the last 11 years as Dayton's defensive coordinator and secondary coach, helping the Flyers to an 86-38 record and three PFL titles. The Crusaders surrendered an astounding 165 points in the second quarter a year ago, so defensive improvement is a must. DB Booker racked up 91 tackles and will anchor the defense. QB Seewald passed for 2,602 yards and 18 TDs in 2017, but injuries limited him to four games last year, opening playing time for Duncan. With positional competition high in the preseason, the Crusaders hope the energy flows into their special season.

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9. JACKSONVILLE

LOCATION: Jacksonville, Florida

STADIUM: D.B. Milne Field

HEAD COACH: Ian Shields (14-17, three seasons; 30-23 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 2-8 overall, 1-7 PFL (10th)

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

KEY PLAYERS: Calvin Turner Jr., QB, Jr.; Garnett Nicholas, B-Back, So.; Irvin Riley, Slot, Sr.; Craige Saxton, WR, So.; Dane Cordell, C, R-Jr.; Logan Langemeier, OL, So.; Myles Harris, DL, Jr.; Cedric Wilcox III, LB/DE, Jr.; Caysaun Wakeley, LB, Sr.; Ethan Hull, LB, So.; C.J. Lewis, CB, Sr.; T.J. Coley, S, Jr.

KEY LOSSES: Jake Dempsey, OL; Dakota Trice, LB; Javier Arce-Ramirez, PK

OUTLOOK: Last year's poor season was uncharacteristic of the Dolphins, who allowed nearly 38.7 points per game and beat only Butler in the PFL while finishing in last place. The odd thing was Turner enjoyed great success at quarterback, converting from safety to rush for 1,431 yards and 17 touchdowns. However, he is returning from a broken leg suffered in the final game. Nicolas, a fullback, and Riley were potent complements to Turner. LB Wakeley was No. 3 in tackles last season and leads all returnees.

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10. MOREHEAD STATE

LOCATION: Morehead, Kentucky

STADIUM: Jayne Stadium

HEAD COACH: Rob Tenyer (25-43, six seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 3-8 overall, 2-6 PFL (Tie/7th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 11 (6 offense/5 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: DeAndre Clayton, QB, R-Jr. (Malone transfer); Zach Hardin, QB, R-So.; Jovan Smith, RB, R-So.; Landon Hurst, Slot/KR, R-Sr.; Ian Holder, Slot, So.; Cameron Bailey, OL, R-Sr.; Josh Poe, OL, Sr.; Jeremiah Draper, DL, R-Sr.; Vaughn Taylor, DL, Jr.; Kordell Brown, LB, Sr.; Beau Griego, LB, Sr.; Aaron Turk, DB, R-Sr.; Brandon Barbee, DB, So.; Starr Hutcherson, DB, R-So.; Eldee Edwards III, DB, Jr.; Andrew Foster, PK/P, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Lawson Page, QB; Jarin Higginbotham, WR; Sayyid Kanu, DB

OUTLOOK: With a pair of sub-FCS opponents in the first three games, the Eagles should steady a lineup that has a new look. They will have more even-man fronts, and hopefully more pressure on quarterbacks, after Tenyer hired Tony Brinson, who had success at Wagner, to run the defense. It was needed after the Eagles ranked last in the PFL in scoring defense the last three seasons, including 43.2 points per game a year ago. Quarterback has been a position of strength in recent seasons, but the Eagles will struggle to replace Page's high production. RB Smith rushed for 521 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman. The Eagles still seek the level of Tenyer's one winning season - 7-4 overall and 6-2 in the league in 2015.

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