They come to play in the CAA. The conference schedule includes four matchups between teams that reached the FCS playoffs last season. The non-conference slate features 13 of 36 games against FBS opponents. And five teams that were ranked in the Top 25 during the season finished no better than .500 in conference play. Defending champion New Hampshire and Villanova appear to be the teams to beat.
AT A GLANCE
(Last year’s records in parentheses)
New Hampshire (12-2, 8-0): The Wildcats opened spring practice on March 31, three months after a 21-18 loss to Illinois State in the FCS semifinals on Dec. 20. Coach Sean McDonnell, the 2014 Eddie Robinson Award winner, led the Wildcats to a school record for wins, the No. 1 ranking and the FCS semifinals for the second consecutive year. The Wildcats return quarterback Sean Goldrich, who finished the season as starter and passed for 2,391 yards and 16 touchdowns with six interceptions. But they have holes to fill on both sides on the football, including running back, wide receiver and tight end.
Villanova (11-3, 7-1): Led by senior quarterback John Robertson, who won the Walter Payton Award, the Wildcats return four all-conference players. Robertson, the CAA offensive player of the year, completed 65.4% of his passes for 2,846 yards and 35 touchdowns with three interceptions and 181.3 passing efficiency to lead FCS. He also had 227 carries for 1,078 yards and 11 TDs. Linebacker Don Cherry, a first-team All-American and runner-up for the Buck Buchanan Award as the top defensive player in FCS, leads the defense (134 tackles, 10 sacks, five forced fumbles). But the Wildcats need to replace leading rusher Kevin Monangai and leading receiver Poppy Livers.
James Madison (11-3, 7-1): All-American quarterback Vad Lee, who passed for 3,462 yards and 30 touchdowns and rushed for a team-leading 1,061 yards and nine touchdowns, helped lead the Dukes to an FCS playoff berth in head coach Everett Withers’ first season. The challenge in Year Two for Withers and the Dukes will be replacing four starters on the offensive line. Linebackers Kyre Hawkins, JMU’s leading tackler, Rhakeem Stallings and Gage Steele anchor the defense.
Richmond (9-5, 5-3): The Spiders, who lost 23 seniors from last year’s team that reached the second round of the FCS playoffs, have the reverse challenge of Villanova. Set at the skill positions with rushing leaders Seth Fisher and Jacobi Green and 1,000-yard wide receivers Reggie Diggs and Brian Brown, the Wildcats need to replace their starting quarterback, Michael Strauss (2,876 yards, 22 touchdowns).
William & Mary (7-5, 4-4): The Tribe returns quarterback Steve Cluely (2,048 yards passing, 11 touchdowns) and tailback Mikal Abdul-Saboor (1,266 yards, 12 touchdowns), who led the CAA in rushing yards per game (115.1). But William & Mary also must replace leading receiver Tre McBride, an NFL prospect. Linebacker Luke Rhodes and safety Jared Velasquez, the team’s leading tacklers last season, return to lead the defense.
Delaware (6-6, 4-4): The Blue Hens, back with 75 returning players, appear reloaded. The five returning starters on offense include running backs Wes Hills and Jalen Randolph, who combined for 1,581 yards and 15 touchdowns. The five returning starters on defense include Blaine Woodson, CAA defensive rookie of the year who had a team-high 8.5 sacks. But they also must replace three-year starting quarterback Trent Hurley, three-time all-conference linebacker Patrick Callaway and defensive back Jake Giusti, the last holdover from Delaware’s 2010 national runner-up squad.
Maine (5-6, 4-4): Senior defensive end Mike Kozlakowski, who missed most of the past two seasons due to injury, returns to lead a defense that was second in the CAA and 15th nation and led the conference (and eighth in the nation) in defensive pass efficiency. Dan Collins, who passed for 908 yards and nine touchdowns in six games before an injury ended his season, a returns at quarterback for the 2013 conference champions.
Stony Brook (5-7, 4-4): The Seawolves, who have 13 seniors on the roster, return 24 players who started at least one game last season, including quarterback Conor Bednarski (1,237 yards passing, nine touchdowns) and running back Stacey Bedell (1,119 yards rushing, nine touchdowns). The defense, led by end Victor Ochi, is young – with a “ton” of redshirt freshmen who have a chance to play, coach Chuck Priore said.
Albany (7-5, 3-5): Coach Greg Gattuso, who led the Danes to a six-game improvement in his first season, must replace quarterback Will Fiacchi, the school’s all-time leading passer (7,150 yards). One candidate is Penn State transfer D.J. Crook. Whoever wins the job will throw to wide receiver Josh Gontarek, the CAA’s offensive rookie of the year. Linebacker Michael Nicastro anchors the defense.
Towson (4-8, 2-6): One year removed from the FCS championship game, the Tigers return nine offensive starters, including the entire offensive line and all-conference running back Darius Victor (1,356 yards, 12 touchdowns). They also added transfer quarterback Kevin Olsen from Miami (Fla.) and return eight starters on defense, but they must replace NFL prospects Ryan Delaire and Tye Smith.
Rhode Island (1-11, 1-7): The young Rams must settle on a quarterback after passing for only 1,770 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Matt Lowrie opened as the starter, completing 54.3% of his passes for 860 yards and five touchdowns with six interceptions as a freshman before injury ended his season. James Caparell, also a freshman, stepped in and passed for 745 yards and three touchdowns but also was intercepted nine times. Another freshman, Harold Cooper, was the team’s second-leading rusher (417 yards). Junior linebacker Adam Parker, the team’s second-leading tackler (102), leads the defense.
Elon (1-11, 0-8): The Phoenix open their second season in the CAA with a quarterback battle between redshirt freshman Connor Christiansen and early enrollee Daniel Thompson. Head coach Rich Skrosky said he’s impressed with their composure. Leading rusher Tracey Coppedge (663 yards, one touchdown) returns along with safety Chris Blair (98 tackles).
Top row from left: Delaware's Jalen Randolph (Mark Campbell/UD Athletics Media Relations Photo); James Madison's Vad Lee (Cathy Kushner/JMU Athletics); William & Mary's Mikal Abdul-Saboor (Pete Clawson/Tribe Athletics.)
Second row from left: Elon's Tracey Coppedge (Jeremy McKnight/Elon Athletics); Villanova's John Robertson (Villanova Athletics); Albany's Josh Gontarek (Bill Ziskin/UAlbany Athletics); New Hampshire's Sean Goldrich (Gil Talbot Photography); Rhode Island's Harold Cooper (Mike Scott/URI Athletics).
Bottom row from left: Richmond's Seth Fisher (Richmond Athletics); Maine's Dan Collins (Peter Buehner/UMaine Athletics); Stony Brook's Stacey Bedell (Stony Brook Athletics); Towson's Darius Victor (Towson Athletics).