NEC spring football outlook

(STATS) – The Northeast Conference title race has the potential to be one of the best in the FCS this year.

But stop if you’re heard that before.

Incredibly, seven schools have earned the NEC’s FCS playoff berth since the conference gained one eight years ago.

This year, everybody’s gunning for defending champ Central Connecticut, with Duquesne, Bryant and Saint Francis the top challengers.

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



HEAD COACH: James Perry (6-5, one season)

2017 RECORDS: 6-5, 4-2 NEC (Tie/2nd)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 22-April 21

WHAT TO KNOW: A four-game winning streak to end Perry’s first season was a springboard for the offseason. Almost the entire starting lineup and a large senior class return, so the Bulldogs will be tough in the conference. Because they play fast with quarterback Price Wilson at the controls, the offense will work on its technique in the spring. But the running game will improve with healthier backs and the offense will be potent. Linebacker Tom Costigan is coming off NEC defensive player of the year honors.



HEAD COACH: Pete Rossomando (17-29, four seasons; 59-42 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 8-4, 6-0 NEC (1st)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 23-April 23

WHAT TO KNOW: The Blue Devils will make a strong run at winning back-to-back conference titles. Inexperience on defense, where only four starters return, is the big question surrounding that bid. The secondary has been outstanding under Rossomando, but the majority of it needs replacing. The offense is a different story with nine returning starters. Fueling the Blue Devils, who averaged 34.3 points per game, are senior quarterback Jacob Dolegala (5,908 career passing yards), running back Drew Jean-Guillaume and wide receiver Joey Fields, who was injured most of last season.



HEAD COACH: Jerry Schmitt (83-58, 13 seasons; 111-79 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 7-4, 4-2 NEC (Tie/2nd)

SPRING PRACTICES: Feb. 14-March 24

WHAT TO KNOW: The 7-4 record last year doesn’t reflect the entire story because the Dukes melted down after winning seven of their first eight games. Their early spring practices have given them a look at their five FBS transfers, including former Florida Atlantic quarterback Daniel Parr. Whoever succeeds last year’s QB, NEC offensive player of the year Tommy Stuart, will have terrific playmakers in running back A.J. Hines and wide receiver Nehari Crawford. The experience on the offensive line also makes the Dukes formidable. Like the offense, the defense returns six starters. The secondary is particularly strong with Abner Roberts, Jonathant Istache and Brandon Stanback.



HEAD COACH: Bernard Clark (first season)

2017 RECORDS: 2-9, 0-6 NEC (7th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 13-April 14

WHAT TO KNOW: The defense has led the way in recent seasons, and it will be re-enforced by the Colonials‘ new coach Clark, the former defensive coordinator at Albany. Although the defense switches schemes under new coordinator Dave Plungas, their six returning linemen are the strength of the unit. For a change, quarterback will be a strength as well, as starter Jimmy Walker is back and LSU transfer Caleb Lewis has joined the program. Plus, there are plenty of wide receivers, led by Tim Vecchio. The Colonials were a mere 7 of 17 on field goals last season, so the new coaching staff is addressing that issue.



HEAD COACH: Mark Nofri (37-32, six seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 4-7, 2-4 NEC (Tie/5th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 15-April 14

WHAT TO KNOW: It may not bode well for this season, but the Pioneers can grow with a lot of young talent in the program. The leadership must come from fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Duke, who will take a big step in the passing game. A more potent offense is key for the Pioneers because the defense is retooling with just three or four returning starters. They’ve won only three NEC games over the last two seasons, but were competitive in a number of the losses, so they’re looking to turn the corner.



HEAD COACH: Chris Villiarrial (36-52, eight seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 5-6, 3-3 NEC (4th)


WHAT TO KNOW: After a disappointing season last year, the 2016 NEC champion Red Flash will challenge for the title again, returning 16 starters (10 on offense). It’s a team that leads by example, but the coaches want more vocal leadership. Transfer quarterback Bear Fenimore got acclimated to the offense last season, most of the top skills position players return including wide receiver Kamron Lewis, and running back Marcus Bagley is back after missing the campaign. While the front seven on defense is strong, only safety Hakeem Kinard returns as a starter in the secondary.



HEAD COACH: Jason Houghtaling (11-22, three seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 4-7, 2-4 NEC (Tie/5th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 21-April 21

WHAT TO KNOW: The Seahawks, who return 18 starters (10 on defense), are the dark horse of the deep NEC title race. Quarterback Alex Thomson could have returned after suffering an early season injury in September, but he’s opted against it, leaving senior Luke Massei as the starter. Running back Ryan Fulse (1,306 yards, 12 touchdowns) was dominant after transferring into the program, but this season the offense has to overcome the loss of standout tackles Matt Diaz and Greg Senat. The strength defensively is at linebacker, led by Cameron Gill and Quintin Hampton.