FCS independents offseason glance

CRAIG HALEY (Stats Perform FCS Senior Editor=)
The Associated Press

(Stats Perform) - The four independents in FCS college football will hardly be powers this season, but the anticipation in their programs is as high as anywhere else in the nation.

Dixie State and Tarleton are moving up from Division II. Both will join the Western Athletic Conference, which doesn't sponsor football, so they will compete as FCS independents.

Presbyterian will leave the Big South Conference after dropping scholarships and will spend the 2020 season as an independent before joining the Pioneer Football League in 2021.

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Merrimack remains an independent as it works to fill out a full Northeast Conference schedule.

Following is an offseason glance at the independent programs. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted activities across college campuses, shutting many down to help address the worldwide emergency.

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DIXIE STATE

HEAD COACH: Paul Peterson (8-3, one season)

2019 RECORD: 8-3 Division II

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: N/A

PRIORITIES: Develop at the line of scrimmage to match the rise in competition. Lift average time of possession, which was 27 minutes, 13 seconds last season.

NOTABLE: The Trailblazers, whose campus is in St. George, Utah, have only four home games and six of their seven road games are at Big Sky and Missouri Valley Football Conference opponents. The quarterback unit is deep, led by 6-foot-7 Kody Wilstead, and averaged over 300 passing yards with 31 touchdown passes last season. On a balanced defense, defensive back Darrius Nash returns as the leading tackler, but the secondary will be hard-pressed to replace Aaron Simpson's production (seven interceptions and 12 pass breakups).

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MERRIMACK

HEAD COACH: Dan Curran (35-40, eight seasons)

2019 RECORD: 6-5 FCS independent

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)

PRIORITIES: Increasing execution and decreasing penalties during its second FCS season. Developing FCS-level linemen.

NOTABLE: The Warriors, still ineligible for the Northeast Conference title, expect to have a full conference schedule in either 2021 or '22. Quarterback Christian Carter helps lead a strong junior class. Having safety Jovan Grant healthy and back in the lineup is huge for the defense. However, the unit suffered a big loss when standout linebacker Mike Mercuri graduated without using his final season of eligibility. The Warriors will face Patriot League champ Holy Cross, FCS runner-up James Madison and FCS power New Hampshire.

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PRESBYTERIAN

HEAD COACH: Tommy Spangler (50-49, nine seasons)

2019 RECORD: 2-10, 1-5 Big South (7th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (6 offense/9 defense)

PRIORITIES: Maturation in the offensive skills positions to improve a sluggish offense. Improve defensively on third downs because opponents converted nearly 46 percent of the time.

NOTABLE: The Blue Hose showed improvement in their final Big South season, including a win over Gardner-Webb which was just their second in conference in the last three years. As an independent this season, the schedule lightens, including four sub-Division I opponents. Rising senior linebacker Colby Campbell is the leader, having set the school single-season record with 150 tackles last season. Tyler Huff finished as the starting quarterback over Brandon Thompson, and the No. 1 this season has difference-makers with running back Jarius Jeter and wide receiver Keith Pearson.

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TARLETON

HEAD COACH: Todd Whitten (79-37, 10 seasons; 104-65 overall)

2019 RECORD: 11-1 Division II

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 11 (3 offense/8 defense)

PRIORITIES: Replacing All-America quarterback Ben Holmes. Develop the younger players who are stepping up to face FCS competition for the first time.

NOTABLE: The Texans, whose campus is in Stephenville, transition into Division I as an independent, playing six established FCS programs plus Dixie State as part of an 11-game schedule. The opponents include heavy hitters Sam Houston State, Kennesaw State and South Dakota State. They're starting over on offense with just three returning starters, but running back Khalil Banks rushed for 655 yards and nine touchdowns even though he wasn't a starter. The defense gets a boost from the return of star cornerback Devin Hafford from injury, while defensive tackle Jordan Wells is a fierce pass rusher. Given the four sub-Division I opponents, the Texans could post a winning record.

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