Northeast Conference spring football glance

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

(Stats Perform) - Spring practices in the Northeast Conference feel a bit more important this season.

There's uncertainty across the conference - with jobs to be won - following all the key losses after last season.

Only three of the nine programs - Bryant, Robert Morris and Saint Francis - return their No. 1 quarterback. Defending champ Central Connecticut State has to replace its signal caller, Aaron Wincester, who was named the NEC offensive player of the year.

Following is a look across the NEC with spring practices underway in college football:

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BRYANT

HEAD COACH: Chris Merritt (4-8, one season)

2019 RECORD: 4-8, 3-4 NEC (Tie/5th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (7 offense/5 defense)

PRIORITIES: Explosive offensively under former coach James Perry, the Bulldogs have to move the ball better after a step backward last season. Find a pass rusher to replace two-time All-NEC first-teamer Tomas Wright.

NOTABLE: Despite the struggles, the Bulldogs ended last season with two straight NEC wins. They led the conference in red zone offense and showed defensive growth during the second half of the season. Quarterback Kory Curtis, leading rusher Daniel Adeboboye and leading pass catcher Anthony Frederick are returning in 2020, when the Bulldogs will face an FBS opponent for the first time (Central Michigan).

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CENTRAL CONNECTICUT STATE

HEAD COACH: Ryan McCarthy (11-2 one season)

2019 RECORD: 11-2, 7-0 NEC (1st)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)

PRIORITIES: Meeting high expectations after losing a large senior class. Overcoming the loss of dual-threat quarterback Aaron Winchester.

NOTABLE: The NEC champ set a school record for wins and didn't lose to an FCS opponent until its first-round playoff exit against UAlbany. The Blue Devils could be favored to repeat in conference despite their uncertainty at quarterback. They will remain strong on the offensive line with J'Von Brown returning from injury to combine with Connor Mignone. The kicking and punting last season were below the standard for a championship program.

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DUQUESNE

HEAD COACH: Jerry Schmitt (98-67, 15 seasons; 126-88 overall)

2019 RECORD: 6-5, 4-3 NEC (Tie/3rd)

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

PRIORITIES: Replacing a lot of offensive production, especially with two-year quarterback Daniel Parr and all-time rushing leader A.J. Hines. Developing the offensive and defensive lines, which both lost three starters.

NOTABLE: After underachieving as the NEC favorite last season, the Dukes return a conference-low eight starters. Quarterbacks Alex Smith and Bryce Veasley will compete with Ohio University transfer Joe Mischler, while Ky'ren Cunningham is the top returnee at running back. Safety Spencer DeMedal has been second on the team in tackles in two straight seasons. The Dukes face a rough start to the schedule with consecutive nonconference games at Air Force, Youngstown State and Coastal Carolina.

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LONG ISLAND U.

HEAD COACH: Bryan Collins (160-82, 22 seasons)

2019 RECORD: 0-10, 0-7 NEC (8th)

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

PRIORITIES: Improving the pass protection after it allowed an NEC-high 35 sacks. Maturing as a second-year FCS program.

NOTABLE: Huge success in Division II didn't transition in LIU's FCS debut as the Sharks averaged just 9.7 points per game while going winless. LIU suffered a great loss in December when junior quarterback Clay Beathard, the grandson of legendary former Washington Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard, was killed outside a Nashville bar. The defense boasts redshirt sophomore Liam McIntyre and senior Abdoulay Konate at linebacker. Briant DeFelice, who handled place-kicking and punting as a redshirt freshman, transferred to Division II New Haven. The Sharks will test themselves out of conference against Montana State, Delaware and Lehigh.

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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: Yet another team not taking it easy out of conference, the Warriors will face Patriot League champ Holy Cross, FCS runner-up James Madison and FCS power New Hampshire. But they will remain ineligible for the NEC title until they face a full conference schedule (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.

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ROBERT MORRIS

HEAD COACH: Bernard Clark (9-14, two seasons)

2019 RECORD: 7-5, 6-1 NEC (2nd)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)

PRIORITIES: Improvement in the passing game following the losses of tight end Matthew Gonzalez and wide receiver DeLano Madison. Getting stronger against the run.

NOTABLE: Expectations are high at RMU after last year's breakthrough campaign (the Colonials' first winning season since 2010). Improving quarterback George Martin III will benefit from the return of all five starters on the offensive line and leading rusher Alijah Jackson, who was just shy of 1,000 yards. Linebacker Aniello Buzzacco racked up an NEC-high 131 tackles, but it will be hard for the defense to replace Mason Gray's leadership in the secondary.

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SACRED HEART

HEAD COACH: Mark Nofri (51-41, eight seasons)

2019 RECORD: 7-5, 4-3 NEC (Tie/3rd)

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

PRIORITIES: Finding pass rushers as the returning defenders accounted for less than one-third of the sacks last season. The Pioneers must replace leading receivers Tyrese Chambers - the NEC offensive rookie of the year - and Naseim Brantley.

NOTABLE: The 1-2 rushing duo of Julius Chestnut and Jordan Meachum, who has gained a sixth season of eligibility, is lights out for a program that has winning records in six of the last seven seasons. It was important for the offense that quarterback Marquez McCray gained experience over the final three games. Standout defensive end Chris Agyemang, like Chambers, left the program as a transfer.

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SAINT FRANCIS

HEAD COACH: Chris Villarrial (46-65, 10 seasons)

2019 RECORD: 6-6, 3-4 NEC (Tie/5th)

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

PRIORITIES: Bolstering the offensive line and run game. Replacing linebacker Da'Jon Lee, who had 44 tackles for loss the last two seasons.

NOTABLE: Only 3-4 in the NEC, the Red Flash weren't far off being in from title contention, having lost three conference games in overtime. They expect to have the most returning starters in the conference. They'll feature quarterback Jason Brown, who led the conference in passing yards (3,048) and touchdown passes (28), and 90-catch wide receiver Ra'Shaun Henry, but the offense seeks to run the ball better. Defensive tackle James Watkins and cornerback Dorian Jackson are coming off banner seasons as sophomores.

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WAGNER

HEAD COACH: Tom Masella (first season, 44-66 overall)

2019 RECORD: 1-11, 1-6 (7th)

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

PRIORITIES: Improving a run game that ranked last in the FCS (59.2 yards per game). Filling in many holes on defense, most prominently defensive tackle Chris Williams and All-America linebacker Cam Gill.

NOTABLE: Known for turning around programs quickly, Masella has been the head coach at Boston University, Central Connecticut State and Fordham, and he's twice been an assistant coach at Wagner. He inherits a team that struggled on offense and needs a new quarterback (rising sophomore Ryan Yost gained some experience last season). The new starter will glad to have back wide receiver Joshua DeCambre.

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