SWAC spring football outlook

(STATS) – That every week is a championship week has taken on renewed meaning in the SWAC.

The conference championship game has been eliminated and the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl bid will be decided by the regular season. This comes just one year after the 10 teams dropped from playing a nine-game conference schedule to just seven games.

It might create some squawking in late November – especially if the division champs haven’t played each other – but the teams are turning up the focus already.

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

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EAST DIVISION

ALABAMA A&M

HEAD COACH: Connell Maynor (first season; 65-31 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 4-7, 3-4 SWAC East (Tie/3rd)

SPRING PRACTICES: Feb. 23-March 19 (spring game is March 17)

WHAT TO KNOW: Maynor arrives from Hampton with the goal of immediately lifting the Aggies program. There’s been significant competition in spring practices, especially at quarterback with Ageel Glass and Dylan Smith, who both played as freshmen, and redshirt junior Jared Olsgaard. An improved offensive line will go a long way because there are a lot of options at the skill positions, especially with junior running backs Jordan Bentley and Trevon Walters and senior wide receiver Isaiah Bailey. A&M ranked second in the SWAC in total defense and will feature pass rushers Vernon Moland and Yurik Bethune, who combined for 15 sacks. Their work is made easier by an experienced secondary.

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ALABAMA STATE

HEAD COACH: Donald Hill-Eley (5-1, second season; 64-77 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 5-6, 4-3 SWAC East (2nd)

SPRING PRACTICES: April 2-28

WHAT TO KNOW: Hill-Eley took over for Brian Jenkins on an interim basis after the Hornets‘ 0-5 start and earned the permanent job with a 5-1 finish to last season. Finding an offensive identity is key this offseason because the backfield was young with Kobie Jones and Darryl Pearson Jr. playing quarterback as a sophomore and freshman, respectively, and George Golden leading the team in rushing as a freshman. While the Hornets scored only 14 points per game, they surrendered just 18 an outing – the SWAC low. The defense, which returns seven starters, was quite balanced, with linebacker Malik Bridgers‘ 47 tackles leading the team.

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ALCORN STATE

HEAD COACH: Fred McNair (12-11, two seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 7-5, 5-2 SWAC East (1st)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 5-April 14

WHAT TO KNOW: With five new coaches on McNair’s staff, this is a get-to-know-you spring for the Braves. While they have sat atop the East Division for four straight seasons, the Braves have suffered big losses on offense, including quarterback Lenorris Footman and running back De’Lance Turner (1,357 rushing yards). Noah Johnson figures to take over at quarterback, although freshman Jyron Russell is touted. The defense is more experienced with eight returning starters. The Braves are adept at stopping the run and defending the red zone.

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JACKSON STATE

HEAD COACH: Tony Hughes (6-16, two seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 3-8, 3-4 SWAC East (Tie/3rd)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 19-April 14

WHAT TO KNOW: The Tigers have floundered in recent years, including back-to-back 3-8 records under Hughes. They won’t lack for excitement this season as Hal Mumme has stepped in as offensive coordinator to run his famed passing attack. Brent Lyles was the primary quarterback last season, but was turnover-plagued. The offense boasts depth at running back, especially junior Jordan Johnson, and wide receiver. Only four starters return on defense, but the Tigers utilized a lot of players on the line, so it’s an experienced group despite some losses. The secondary must improve, however.

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MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE

HEAD COACH: Vincent Dancy (first season)

2017 RECORDS: 2-9, 1-6 SWAC East (5th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 20-April 14

WHAT TO KNOW: Dancy, the Delta Devils‘ defensive coordinator the last three years, has replaced Rick Comegy, who was 6-38 in four seasons. They have to improve in all facets, including developing mental toughness as a program. There are seven starters returning on each side of the ball. Wide receiver Quinn McElfresh, the SWAC newcomer of the year, offers a building block. But there wasn’t a running game to keep defenses honest as the Delta Devils actually lost 103 yards on the ground for the season. Dancy made offensive linemen a focal point of his recruiting class. The defense is led by a senior, linebacker Patrick Harbin Jr.

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WEST DIVISION

ARKANSAS-PINE BLUFF

HEAD COACH: Cedric Thomas (first season)

2017 RECORDS: 2-9, 1-5 SWAC West (Tie/4th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 27-April 28

WHAT TO KNOW: Thomas, the former Alcorn State defensive coordinator, is trying to lift a program that had losing records in 10-year coach Monte Coleman’s final five seasons. It helps that 15 starters (seven on offense and eight on defense) return, but the coaching staff will be evaluating players throughout the spring. The strengths of the team include senior running back KeShawn Williams and the linebackers, led by junior tackle leader Jontavis Testa and seniors Je’Kevin Carter and Londale Sanders. In addition, senior Jamie Gillan led the SWAC in punting average a year ago. But the Golden Lions must improve in the trenches and at quarterback, where senior LaEarl Patterson is the most experienced candidate.

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GRAMBLING STATE

HEAD COACH: Broderick Fobbs (38-11, four seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 11-2, 7-0 SWAC West (1st)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 12-April 15

WHAT TO KNOW: While the two-time defending SWAC champion Tigers return 14 starters, the losses were huge, including quarterback DeVaunte Kincade, running back Martez Carter and some of the secondary. Quarterback Geremy Hickbottom is in the mix to replace Kincade and the wide receivers unit is solid. Being strong at the line of scrimmage always solves a lot of concern, and the Tigers return first-time All-SWAC selections in offensive lineman William Waddell and defensive linemen La’Allen Clark and Brandon Varner. Also, linebacker De’Arius Christmas was the 2017 SWAC defensive player of the year.

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PRAIRIE VIEW A&M

HEAD COACH: Eric Dooley (first season)

2017 RECORDS: 6-5, 4-3 SWAC West (3rd)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 19-April 14

WHAT TO KNOW: Dooley, the new coach, is well-versed in the SWAC, having been an assistant in the conference for 21 years, including the last four as Grambling State’s offensive coordinator. Quarterback Neiko Hollins impressed as a freshman, throwing 19 touchdowns in the last six games and 21 overall. He’s one of six returning offensive starters, and a number of players have experience. On defense, there are only four returning starters, but first-team All-SWAC cornerback Ju’Anthony is one of them. Experienced safety Damond Jackson also will make a difference after missing last season. The 2018 season will open in the MEAC-SWAC Challenge against North Carolina Central.

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SOUTHERN

HEAD COACH: Dawson Odums (43-25, six seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 7-4, 5-2 SWAC West (2nd)

SPRING PRACTICES: April 2-21

WHAT TO KNOW: With NCAA-sanctioned penalties over, the Jaguars will participate in spring practices for the first time since 2012. It’s particularly important following the losses of quarterback Austin Howard, tight end Dillon Bear, defensive end Aaron Tiller and All-America cornerback Danny Johnson. The skill positions boast youth, with running back particularly deep. It also helps to be deep with size and experience on the offensive line. Despite the big losses, the Jaguars should be strong in the secondary with safeties Montavious Gaines and Andre Augustine and on the defensive line with Simeon Houston, Dak Champion, and CeaJae Bryant, who are highly experienced.

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TEXAS SOUTHERN

HEAD COACH: Michael Haywood (6-16, two seasons; 16-31 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 2-9, 1-5 SWAC West (Tie/4th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 20-April 21

WHAT TO KNOW: The Tigers were particularly young last season – no player made the All-SWAC first or second team – so Haywood signed a handful of transfers to help the team mature quickly. Included was former Tulane transfer Glen Cuiellette, who adds to a deep unit. The offense returns five starters and the defense six, and the Tigers need to get better at the line of scrimmage. Leader tacklers Sean Jones, a defensive back, and Julian Marcantel, a linebacker, are returning.