Colonial FCS Football 2015 Conference Preview

George Hammond

Colonial FCS Football 2015 Conference Preview

Colonial FCS Football 2015 Conference Preview

Colonial FCS Football 2015 Preseason All-Conference Teams


While defending champion New Hampshire (12-2, 8-0) came within one quarter of reaching the FCS  national championship before losing to Illinois State last year, Villanova enters the 2015 season as the CAA team to beat. But just as easily as you could make arguments for each of the CAA contenders, there are questions surrounding many teams, too. And because of that, the CAA race could be as entertaining as ever.


1. Villanova

With the preseason CAA Offensive Player of the Year John Robertson and the CAA Defensive player of the Year Don Cherry back this fall, it’s not difficult to see why the Wildcats (11-3, 7-1) were picked to win the CAA in the coaches/media poll this summer. Robertson, who was injured the week leading up to the FCS quarterfinal against Sam Houston State and didn’t play in the loss, threw for 2,846 yards and 35 touchdowns last year. Plus, he rushed for 1,078 yards and 11 scores. Along with former Villanova great Brian Westbrook, Robertson is the only other Wildcat to have three 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Meanwhile, Cherry had 134 tackles last year, including 16 in the loss to Sam Houston State. Villanova returns two of its top three receivers as well as most of the offensive line, but it must replace leading rusher Kevin Monangai and leading receiver Poppy Livers. Villanova opens against FBS Connecticut in a contest where Villanova likely will be favored. The Wildcats don’t meet New Hampshire but finish at JMU.


2. James Madison

In his first season, Everett Withers took the Dukes (9-4, 6-2) to a berth in the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2011. Although JMU lost to Liberty in the first round, there are key players returning from that team, including quarterback Vad Lee, who was the only player in the CAA to gain more than 4,000 yards through the air and on the ground in 2014. Lee helped JMU set school records for total offense and completions, and the Dukes were 10th in the country in total offense. The Dukes, however, must rebuild their offensive line and lost their top two receivers. But senior tight end Deane Cheatham and offensive lineman Mitchell Kirsch did receive all-CAA preseason mention this summer. In addition, the Dukes’ linebacking corps remains intact, including the team’s top tackler Kyre Hawkins. The early schedule could see JMU jump out to 3-0 before it heads to Texas to meet SMU. The last game of the season could be interesting when Villanova visits Harrisonburg, Va.


3. New Hampshire

The Wildcats set a school record for wins in a season last year (12) and reached the FCS semifinals for the second consecutive year. New Hampshire was picked to finish first last year and went unbeaten in the league to win their third league title under veteran coach Sean McDonnell and first outright championship since 1994. The Wildcats lost six starters on offense and six on defense from a team that qualified for the FCS playoffs for a nation’s best 11th straight season. The big losses are defensive end Cody Muller, wide receiver R.J. Harris and tight end Harold Spears. But the Wildcats do return quarterback Sean Goldrich (2,702 total yards and 25 touchdowns), who missed five games because of injury last year, and first-team all-CAA corner Casey DeAndrade. The schedule could be tricky. New Hampshire opens at San Jose State followed by a game against Patriot League member Colgate then the Wildcats visit Stony Brook. Interestingly, New Hampshire doesn’t meet Villanova or James Madison this fall.


4. William & Mary

Jimmye Laycock enters his 36th season in Williamsburg with 229 career wins. The Tribe (7-5, 4-4) was one of three CAA teams to have players taken in the NFL draft this spring. Wideout Tre McBride went to the Tennessee Titans in the seventh round, and they lost CAA Defensive Player of the Year Mike Reilly from the defensive front. So there are questions, but there’s talent returning too. Tailback Mikal Abdul-Saboor (CAA leading rusher with 115.1 yards per game), linebacker Luke Rhodes and quarterback Steve Cluley are back along with the entire offensive line that was decimated by injury in 2014. The injury bug played a key role in William & Mary being next to last in the CAA in sacks allowed last season. If the Tribe can stay healthy, they have a shot to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010. The schedule is tough – especially in October when William & Mary meets Villanova, New Hampshire and James Madison.


5. Richmond

The Spiders (9-5, 5-3) made the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2009 last year, and they advanced to the second round with a 46-24 triumph over Morgan State before falling to Coastal Carolina in the second round. Richmond led the CAA in passing, but both quarterbacks, Michael Strauss and Michael Rocco, are gone. The good news is that preseason All-CAA running back Seth Fisher returns. Fisher led the Spiders with 777 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns a year ago. Running back Jacobi Green also returns as do two 1,000-yard receivers in Reggie Diggs and Brian Brown. Richmond’s schedule, however, is difficult. The Spiders open at Maryland and finish the regular season at New Hampshire, at Villanova and home against rival William & Mary.


6. Maine

After winning the Colonial Athletic Association title two years ago with a squad that was picked to finish in the lower half of the league standings, Maine (5-6, 4-4) slipped back last year – but it was a drop that wasn’t unexpected considering the personnel losses from that championship team. The Black Bears, however, did win three of their last four in 2014 to build momentum heading into this fall. Included in that span was Maine’s 33-20 triumph over FCS playoff team Richmond. The Bears are hoping a year’s experience among their young players will bolster an offense that was last in the CAA in 2014. The defense was a different story as Maine finished second in the CAA in total defense and several key players from that unit return in 2015. Leading the way will be linebacker Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga who was the team’s top tackler in 2014 with 95. The team’s outstanding defensive player last year, Tshimanga had 12-plus tackles in four games. Also back on defense is defensive end Trevor Bates, who had 60 tackles last year and was named the team’s most valuable player. Bates will get help on the defensive line from redshirt senior Mike Kozlakowski, who missed almost all of the last two seasons with injuries. Sherrod Baltimore returns to anchor the secondary. Maine has tough nonconference games at Boston College and Tulane.


7. Towson

One year after reaching the FCS national title game, Towson fell on hard times last season, but it wasn’t totally unexpected. After its history-making season two years ago, Towson found itself with eight new starters on offense and four on defense. The result? The Tigers struggled from beginning to end, losing their opener to Central Connecticut State. They finished 4-8 overall and 2-6 in the difficult Colonial Athletic Association. This fall should be a different story. The Tigers return much more firepower on offense and though they’ve lost key players on defense, including cornerback Tye Smith, a fifth-round draft choice of the Seattle Seahawks, there are enough veterans to help Towson have a say in the CAA race. Last year’s weakness should be this year’s strength. The Tigers, who were ranked 108th out of 121 FCS programs in scoring last year (16.1 pts), return nine starters, including quarterback Connor Frazier and running back Darius Victor. October will be a key stretch for the Tigers who face JMU, Stony Brook, Villanova and Delaware in that month.


8. Delaware

It seems like a long time since the Blue Hens (6-6, 4-4) were in the national final against Eastern Washington (2010) because they’ve missed the playoffs the last four seasons and 2015 opens with several question marks. Gone are All-CAA performers Michael Johnson and Nick Boyle, the latter drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the fifth round. Delaware also needs a quarterback to replace Trent Hurley, but running backs Wes Hills and Jalen Randolph return. They combined for 1,581 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2014. The defensive line should be solid with sophomore standout Blaine Woodson, but the rest of the defense has many new faces. This is a big year for third-year coach Dave Brock, who is 13-11 in two seasons in the post KC Keeler era. There are tough games early (Villanova and North Carolina) as well as late (New Hampshire and JMU) so making the playoffs won’t be easy.


9. Stony Brook

Chuck Priore, now in his 10th season with the Seawolves, has a young but experienced team in 2015. Stony Brook (5-7, 4-4) has just 13 seniors but the Seawolves return 24 players that started at least one game in 2014. The Seawolves lost four games last year by six points or less and battled New Hampshire before losing 28-20. Running back Stacey Bedell, who averaged 5.3 yards per carry last year as a sophomore returns. Eight starters return from a solid defense in 2014 that yielded just 15.3 points a game. And the schedule, while difficult early, could ultimately work in Stony Brook’s favor if it can weather the early season storm that includes games with Toledo, New Hampshire, William & Mary and James Madison.


10. Albany

The Great Danes (7-5, 3-5) were picked 10th in the preseason CAA coaches/media poll as Greg Gattuso prepares for his second season at the helm. Last season, Gattuso led the Great Danes to a six-win turnaround. Although Albany lost almost all its backfield, including quarterback Will Fiacchi, it returns CAA Offensive Rookie of the Year Josh Gontarek at wide receiver. Last year, the Mount Airy, Md., native recorded a team-high nine touchdowns, had 58 receptions for 687 yards. In addition, nearly the entire offensive line returns as do eight starters on defense. Penn State transfer D.J. Crook could be one of those battling to replace Fiacchi at quarterback.


11. Elon

The Phoenix (1-11, 0-8) are entering their second year of play in the CAA after coming over from the Southern Conference. Rich Skrosky enters his second season as coach with the difficult job of making the Phoenix competitive in the CAA. Safety Chris Blair, who had more tackles than any other freshman in the CAA last year with 98, is back to head Elon’s defense. Despite Elon’s poor record last year, the Phoenix led the nation in fewest fumbles lost (three), and they led the league in fewest penalty yardage per game (30.0 ypg).


12. Rhode Island

Jim Fleming also is in his second year as coach for the Rams (1-11, 1-7). Eighteen starters return for the Rams, giving Rhode Island more than any other CAA team besides Maine. Rhode Island did lose standout linebacker Andrew Bose, who led the CAA in tackles last year with 124. Sophomore James Caparell returns at quarterback, but he’ll have two strong running backs in Markey Clark and Harold Cooper. The Rams’ all-CAA preseason picks include senior cornerback and kick returner Myles Holmes and junior left tackle Tyler Catalina. Rhode Island opens its season at Syracuse.


Conference Game To Watch:

Villanova at James Madison, November 21 – A lot can happen between now and the end of November, but these two were picked as the top teams in the preseason CAA coaches/media poll so a league title and possible playoff berth could be on the line when these two meet in Harrisonburg, Va.


Another Conference Game To Watch:

New Hampshire at Stony Brook, September 19  –  It’s unlikely New Hampshire will overlook the Seawolves, but the Wildcats open at San Jose State and then face Patriot League power Colgate in the first two weeks. Plus, this is a Saturday night contest on Long Island so you figure the Seawolves will be pumped. Stony Brook gave New Hampshire all it could handle last year before losing 28-20 so expect another close contest.


Non-Conference Game To Watch:

New Hampshire at Colgate, September 12 – This is an interesting game that pits one of the better CAA programs against one of the favorites of the Patriot League. Two years ago, New Hampshire cruised to a 53-23 victory, but expect the outcome to be much closer this time.


Another Non-Conference Game To Watch:

Lafayette at Delaware, September 12 – These two old rivals square off for the first time since the Blue Hens won a thrilling FCS playoff game in Newark, Del., in 2004. This will be a good early season barometer for both schools.


FBS Upset Watch:

Villanova at Connecticut, September 3 – Villanova is a slight favorite in this contest so it might not be considered an upset. Still, it’s an FCS team going up against a FBS foe. Last year, the Wildcats lost their opener to Syracuse, 27-26, in double overtime so they should be more than capable of beating UConn.


Another FBS Upset Watch:

William & Mary at Virginia, September 19 – The Tribe is only 6-27-1 against their in-state opponent, but William & Mary did beat the Cavaliers in 2009. They last met in 2011 with Virginia getting the win, 40-3. But this game sets up nicely for William & Mary. The week before, the Cavs host Notre Dame.


Top NFL Prospect:

Don Cherry, LB, Villanova – The CAA preseason Defensive Player of the Year recipient, Cherry (6-1, 240) had 134 tackles last year, 10 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles.


Coach on the Hot Seat:

Fans in Newark, Del., are antsy to return to the playoffs – something Delaware hasn’t done in four years. So they want to see progress, something third-year coach Dave Brock needs to deliver this season. It won’t be easy, though, as Delaware has a young team that must fill a hole at quarterback.


Freshman To Watch: (Complete FCS Recruit Rankings)

Delaware’s Jamie Jarmon is a 21-year-old freshman who was the Texas Rangers’ second-round draft pick in 2012. But a lackluster baseball career has prompted the talented athlete to return to football where he could see action at quarterback or in the secondary for the Blue Hens.  


Most Overrated:

Towson quarterback Connor Frazier threw for more than 1,400 yards last year, but he was inconsistent. That might not have been all his fault because the Tigers were so inexperienced. But his play will be crucial if Towson is to do any damage in the CAA this season.


Most Underrated:

Maine’s Mike Kozlakowski is a fifth-year senior who has missed the last two seasons because of injury. He had 5.5 sacks as a sophomore and hopefully is healthy for the 2015 campaign. If he is, his will be a name to remember.


FCS All-Conference Teams

FCS Conference Previews