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FCS 2019: CAA Football Preview

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - New coaches at James Madison and Maine? Yeah, no pressure.

It's hard enough to win in CAA Football, where a record six teams earned FCS playoff bids last season, but defending champion Maine and 2019 preseason favorite James Madison are under new leadership which face high expectations. James Madison, picked No. 2 in the STATS FCS Preseason Top 25, hired former Elon coach Curt Cignetti, and Maine, No. 7 in the preseason, elevated offensive coordinator Nick Charlton.

One-third of the 12-team conference has new coaches with Tony Trisciani taking over at Elon and Mike London in at William & Mary.

Following is a predicted order of finish and a team-by-team breakdown of the 2019 CAA Football race:

1. James Madison

2. Maine

3. Towson

4. Delaware

5. Elon

6. New Hampshire

7. Stony Brook

8. Villanova

9. Rhode Island

10. William & Mary

11. Richmond

12. UAlbany

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TEAM CAPSULES

1. JAMES MADISON

LOCATION: Harrisonburg, Virginia

STADIUM: Bridgeforth Stadium

HEAD COACH: Curt Cignetti (first season; 67-26 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 9-4 overall, 6-2 CAA (2nd) - No. 9 in final STATS FCS Top 25

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 19 (9 offense/10 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Ben DiNucci, QB, Sr.; Percy Agyei-Obese, RB, Jr.; Jawon Hamilton, RB/KR, Jr.; Riley Stapleton, WR, Sr.; Kyndel Dean, WR, So.; Jake Brown, WR, Jr.; Liam Fornadel, RT, Jr.; Tyree Chavious, RG, Sr.; Jahee Jackson, OL, Sr.; Mac Patrick, OL, Sr.; Ron'Dell Carter, DE, Sr.; John Daka, DE, Sr.; Dimitri Holloway, OLB, Sr.; Rashad Robinson, CB, Sr.; D'Angelo Amos, S/RS, Jr.; Adam Smith, S, Sr.; Ethan Ratke, PK, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Cardon Johnson, RB; Trai Sharp, RB; Jimmy Moreland, CB

OUTLOOK: The ultra-successful Mike Houston departed for the East Carolina coaching job, but 2017 CAA coach of the year Cignetti was a terrific hire, having led Elon to a win at James Madison last October. He has inherited a team that returns 12 of its 14 all-conference players and gets back CB Robinson, the 2018 CAA preseason defensive player of the year, from injury. The defense is loaded with DEs Carter and Daka, OLB Holloway (team-high 127 tackles) and S Smith. QB DiNucci has been over maligned and should settle in nicely behind a veteran O-line. The wide receivers unit is terrific, although No. 1 Stapleton will serve a three-game team suspension to open the season. Running back takes on a relatively new look with Agyei-Obese and Hamilton. The Dukes are motivated after their run of three straight CAA titles (two outright) and two national championship game appearances (2016 title) ended last season.

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2. MAINE

LOCATION: Orono, Maine

STADIUM: Alfond Stadium

HEAD COACH: Nick Charlton (first season)

2018 RECORDS: 10-4 overall, 7-1 CAA (1st) - No. 4 in final STATS FCS Top 25

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Chris Ferguson, QB, Jr.; Emmanuel Reed, RB, R-Sr. (Buffalo transfer); Joe Fitzpatrick, RB R-Sr.; Earnest Edwards, WR/KR, Sr.; Jaquan Blair, WR, Sr.; Andre Miller, WR, Jr.; Liam Dobson, OL, Jr.; Chris Mulvey, OL, Jr.; Charles Mitchell, DL, Sr.; Kayon Whitaker, DE, Sr.; Deshawn Stevens, LB, Jr.; Taji Lowe, LB, Sr.; Jaron Grayer, LB, Jr.; Manny Patterson, CB, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Ramon Jefferson, RB; Micah Wright, WR; Sterling Sheffield, LB

OUTLOOK: As the CAA champion and a first-time national semifinalist, Maine was one of the biggest surprises in the FCS last season, but it cost the Black Bears its coach, Joe Harasymiak, to an assistant's position at Minnesota. Still, there should be continuity under Charlton, who was promoted from offensive coordinator. QB Ferguson is a gutty leader and transfer RB Reed (1,244 yards, 10 touchdowns at Buffalo) was a great addition to the offense, which also boasts big-play WR Edwards. The "Black Hole" defense will remain among the best in the nation, featuring four All-CAA preseason picks, DE Whitaker, LBs Lowe and Stevens and CB Patterson. The big concern is another difficult road schedule, including Georgia Southern, Colgate, Liberty, Elon and New Hampshire.

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3. TOWSON

LOCATION: Towson, Maryland

STADIUM: Johnny Unitas Stadium

HEAD COACH: Rob Ambrose (59-59, 10 seasons; 62-66 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 7-5 overall, 5-3 CAA (Tie/3rd) - No. 20 in final STATS FCS Top 25

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

KEY PLAYERS: Tom Flacco, QB, R-Sr.; Shane Simpson, RB, R-Sr.; Yeedee Thaenrat, TB/FB/RS, Sr.; Shane Leatherbury, WR, Sr.; Jabari Allen, WR, Jr.; Darian Street, WR, R-So. (Pittsburgh transfer); Aaron Grzymkowski, OG, R-Jr.; Andrew Garnett, OT, R-Sr.; Bryce Carter, DL, R-Jr.; Jesus Gibbs, DL, R-Fr. (South Carolina transfer); Ricky DeBerry, DE/OLB, R-Sr.; Robert Heyward, LB, R-Sr.; Mantriel Reaves, LB, Jr.; Keon Paye, LB, R-Sr.; Terrill Gillette, DB, Sr.; Aidan O'Neill, PK, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Matt Kauffman, OT; Diondre Wallace, MLB; Monty Fenner, S

OUTLOOK: Picked second in the CAA preseason poll, this should be Towson's best team since its 2013 national runner-up squad. But a subpar performance against Duquesne in the playoffs underscored the Tigers' need for defensive improvement. They ranked last against the run and in total defense in the CAA, so they have a new defensive coordinator in Eric Daniels. The offense could be one of the more explosive units in the FCS, led by QB Flacco, the CAA's offensive player of the year (332.8 total yards per game). There's also RB Simpson, who was second in the FCS in all-purpose yards per game; and plenty of top receivers. The big question is, can Towson weather a road schedule that includes Maine, Stony Brook and James Madison in conference as well as The Swamp at Florida?

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4. DELAWARE

LOCATION: Newark, Delaware

STADIUM: Delaware Stadium

HEAD COACH: Danny Rocco (14-9, two seasons; 104-51 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 7-5 overall, 4-4 CAA (Tie/6th) - No. 24 in final STATS FCS Top 25

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

KEY PLAYERS: Pat Kehoe, QB, R-Sr.; DeJoun Lee, RB/KR, R-Jr.; Andre Robinson, RB, R-Jr. (Penn State transfer); Gene Coleman, WR, R-So.; Owen Tyler, TE, R-Sr.; David Kroll, OL, Jr.; Mario Farinlla, OL, R-Sr.; Cam Kitchen, DL, R-Sr.; Caleb Ashworth, DL, R-Jr. (Cincinnati transfer); Colby Reeder, LB, R-Jr.; Johnny Buchanan, LB, So.; Nijuel Hill, DB, Jr.; Tim Poindexter, DB, R-Jr.; Nick Pritchard, P, R-Sr. (Maryland transfer)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Charles Scarff, TE; Troy Reeder, LB; Nasir Adderley, S

OUTLOOK: The Blue Hens suffered key senior losses after their first playoff season since 2011, but they continue to build the talent base under Rocco to keep the momentum going. Rocco hired Jared Ambrose, who had been the Towson offensive coordinator under his brother Rob, to fill the same role with the Blue Hens. QB Kehoe returns off a solid season and RBs Lee (618 rushing yards) and Penn State transfer Robinson will form a dangerous tandem. The Blue Hens' defense could step back after the losses of Adderley and fellow DB Ray Jones and LBs Charles Bell and Troy Reeder. But Reeder's younger brother Colby is now one of the key defenders. In nonconference games, the Hens face FCS champion North Dakota State and Pittsburgh.

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5. ELON

LOCATION: Elon, North Carolina

STADIUM: Rhodes Stadium

HEAD COACH: Tony Trisciani (first season)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 4-3 CAA (5th) - No. 19 in final STATS FCS Top 25

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Davis Cheek, QB, Jr.; Jaylan Thomas, RB, So.; Kortez Weeks, WR, Jr.; Cole Taylor, WR, Sr.; Matt Foster, TE, Sr.; Matt Kowalewski, OL, Sr.; Chad Nelson, OL, Jr.; Marcus Willoughby, DL, Sr.; Tristen Cox, DL, Jr.; Zack Monson, LB, So.; Greg Liggs Jr., DB, Sr.; Daniel Reid-Bennett, DB, Sr.; Cole Coleman, S, So.; Skyler Davis, PK, So.

KEY LOSSES: Oli Udoh, OL; Warren Messer, LB; Tyler Campbell, S

OUTLOOK: The Phoenix have turned around their program with two straight playoff appearances, but they've ended both seasons with three-game losing streaks. Trisciani, who's coached 13 seasons in the CAA, was elevated from defensive coordinator following Curt Cignetti's departure to James Madison. The Phoenix play with a disciplined style and will be even better with the return of QB Cheek, who was sidelined for nearly six games. The bread-and-butter run game features Thomas, the CAA offensive rookie of the year who averaged 6.6 yards while rushing for 761 yards. Liggs totaled four interceptions and nine pass breakups last season. The Phoenix will face a difficult schedule, beginning at North Carolina A&T.

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6. NEW HAMPSHIRE

LOCATION: Durham, New Hampshire

STADIUM: Wildcat Stadium

HEAD COACH: Sean McDonnell (154-95, 20 seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 3-5 CAA (9th)

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

KEY PLAYERS: Tommy Herion, QB, So.; Max Brosmer, QB, Fr.; Carlos Washington, Jr., RB, So.; Evan Gray, RB, Sr.; Malik Love, WR, Sr.; Justin Malone-Woods, TE, Sr.; Riley Burns, OL, So.; Matt Matulis, OL, Sr.; Jeff Carter, OL, Sr.; Brian Carter, DE, Jr.; Josh Kania, DE, Sr.; Elijah Lewis, DT, Jr.; Evan Horn, S, Jr.; Pop Lacey, S, Sr.; Isiah Perkins, CB, Sr.; Prince Smith, Jr., CB, Sr.; Drew Sanborn, P, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Trevor Knight, QB; Neil O'Connor, WR; Quinlen Dean, LB

OUTLOOK: UNH's incredible run of 14 straight playoff appearances ended in an injury-plagued season last year. There is uncertainty this season. Finding a new quarterback is the overwhelming story line, with Herion the most experienced candidate. As a freshman, RB Washington broke out with 100-yard games in three of the final four games, and he should excel again behind an experienced offensive line. Conversely, the defensive line was hit hard by graduation. The defensive strength is the veteran secondary, which is led by S Lacey. The Wildcats will have a late start to the season, Sept. 7 at Holy Cross.

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7. STONY BROOK

LOCATION: Stony Brook, New York

STADIUM: LaValle Stadium

HEAD COACH: Chuck Priore (84-66, 14 seasons; 123-75 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 7-5 overall, 5-3 CAA (Tie/3rd) - No. 16 in final STATS FCS Top 25

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 11 (3 offense/8 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Tyquell Fields, QB, So.; Isaiah White, RB, Sr.; Ty Son Lawton, RB, R-Fr.; Nick Anderson, WR, Sr.; Andrew Trent, WR, Sr.; Jean Constant, Gr., WR/RS (Bryant transfer); Kyle Nunez, OL, So.; Mason Zimmerman, OL, Sr.; Casey Williams, DL, So.; Sam Kamara, DL, Sr.; Justin Burns, LB, Jr.; Gavin Heslop, CB, Sr.; Augie Contressa, DB, Jr.; Synceir Malone, DB, Sr.; T.J. Morrison, CB, Jr.; E.J. Finerson, S, Jr.;

THREE KEY LOSSES: Joe Carbone, QB; Jordan Gowins, RB; Shayne Lawless, LB

OUTLOOK: Stony Brook seeks a third straight playoff season, and the prospect is helped by seven games at LaValle Stadium, where the Seawolves are 11-1 the last two seasons. But the offense was decimated by graduation, most notably losing three-year QB Carbone and "Long Island Express" RBs Liotine and Gowins, who rushed for a combined 2,143 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. QB Fields will be asked to do a lot with the young offense. The veteran defense is tough on third downs and defends the red zone well. DL Kamara seeks to turn NFL eyes with a big senior season. The Seawolves also received a big addition in Bryant grad transfer Constant, who was first-team STATS FCS All-American as a kickoff returner last year.

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8. VILLANOVA

LOCATION: Villanova, Pennsylvania

STADIUM: Villanova Stadium

HEAD COACH: Mark Ferrante (10-12, two seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 2-6 CAA (Tie/10th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 10 (4 offense/6 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Qadir Ismail, QB, R-Fr.; Daniel Smith, QB, Jr. (Campbell transfer); Justin Covington, RB, Jr.; Jalen Jackson, RB, So.; Changa Hodge, WR, Jr.; Simon Bingelis, TE, Sr.; M.J. Dumas, OL, Jr.; Paul Grattan, OL, Jr.; Malik Fisher, DE, Jr.; Amin Black, LB, Jr.; Drew Wiley, LB, Sr.; Keeling Hunter, LB, Sr.; Jaquan Amos, CB, Jr.; Christian Benford, CB, So.; Julian Williams, DB, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Zach Bednarczyk, QB; Ethan Greenidge, OT; Jeff Steeb, LB

OUTLOOK: Injuries have played a huge role in Villanova's back-to-back 5-6 records under Ferrante. The Wildcats seek improvement with the fewest returning starting in the CAA and don't appear ready to contend in the title race. The defense still ranked 16th in the FCS despite the team's losing record last season. CB Benford won the conference's defensive rookie of the year award and forms a strong duo with Amos. Their work on the back end will allow DE Fisher (five sacks) and LBs Black and Wiley to put pressure in offensive backfields. The 6-foot-6 Ismail is a touted QB and the son of former NFL player Qadry Ismail. The Wildcats also added another dual-threat signal in Smith, the Campbell transfer. The Wildcats play in the first FCS game of the season, Aug. 24 at Colgate.

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9. RHODE ISLAND

LOCATION: Kingston, Rhode Island

STADIUM: Meade Stadium

HEAD COACH: Jim Fleming (13-43, five seasons; 34-44 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 4-4 CAA (Tie/6th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Vito Priore, QB, R-Jr.; Jakari Grant, QB, R-So.; Zoe Bryant Jr., RB, R-Sr.; Naim Jones, RB, Sr.; Aaron Parker, WR, Sr.; Ahmere Dorsey, WR/RS, Sr.; Isaiah Coulter, WR, Jr.; Kyle Murphy, LT, Sr.; Raees Johnson, OG/C, Jr.; Brandon Ginnetti, DT, Sr.; James Makszin, DT, So.; Andre Bibeault, DL, R-Jr.; L.B. Mack III, DE/OLB, Sr.; Branyan Javier-Castillo, LB, Sr.; Chris Arrington, LB, R-Fr.; Rashod Dickerson, CB, Sr.; Momodou Mbye, S, R-Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: JaJuan Lawson, QB; Tyler Burke, TE; Nas Jones, LB

OUTLOOK: The Rams will be three games deep into the CAA schedule before the end of September, so they'll need to come out quickly like last season, when they opened with a 4-1 record and went on to post their first winning mark in 17 years. It will be hard to replace QB Lawson, but the offense returns a number of key weapons, led by All-CAA WR Parker (135 receptions and 21 TD catches in career). Priore is the favorite to be the starting signal caller. CB Dickerson, who was playing at an all-conference level before a season-ending injury, will be back in the lineup. Despite the CAA's depth, another.500 conference season is within reach.

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10. WILLIAM & MARY

LOCATION: Williamsburg, Virginia

STADIUM: Zable Stadium

HEAD COACH: Mike London (first season; 62-61 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 4-6 overall, 3-4 CAA (8th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Shon Mitchell, QB, Jr.; Kilton Anderson, QB, Gr. (Coastal Carolina grad transfer); Ted Hefter, QB, Jr.; Albert Funderburke, RB, Sr.; Tyler Crist, FB, Jr.; Mark Williamson, OL, Sr.; Nick Wimmer, OL, Sr.; Gavin Johnson, DE/OLB, Sr.; Will Kiely, DT, Jr.; Bill Murray, DT, Sr.; Nate Atkins, LB, Sr.; Arman Jones, LB, Sr.; Isaiah Laster, S, Sr.; Corey Parker, DB, Sr.; Nate Lewis, CB, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: DeVonte Dedmon, WR; Josh Dulaney, LB; Raeshawn Smith, CB

OUTLOOK: Coach Jimmye Laycock retired after 39 seasons and the Tribe did well to hire London, who guided Richmond to the 2008 FCS title and also has coached Virginia and Howard. He has a fairly experienced team, which stunned FCS semifinalist Maine last October. This season starts with much-needed offensive improvement. The Tribe averaged a mere 13.6 points per game last season, ranking fourth-worst in the FCS. QBs Mitchell and Anderson are competing for the starting job and the offense will be gritty with All-America FB Crist playing a big part. The defense has to do a better job stopping the run and forcing turnovers. With Laster and Parker, the Tribe boast an excellent secondary. London will coach on the road against two of his former programs: Virginia on Sept. 6 and Richmond on Nov. 23.

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11. RICHMOND

LOCATION: Richmond, Virginia

STADIUM: Robins Stadium

HEAD COACH: Russ Huesman (10-12, two seasons; 69-49 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 2-6 CAA (Tie/10th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (5 offense/8 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Beau English, QB, R-So. (Air Force transfer); Joe Mancuso, QB, R-Jr.; Xavier Goodall, RB, R-Jr.; Aaron Dykes, RB, R-Fr.; Charlie Fessler, WR, Gr. (Northwestern grad transfer); Seyoum Settepani, OL, R-Jr.; Tim Coleman, OL, R-Jr.; Maurice Jackson, DL, Sr.; Colby Ritten, DL, Jr.; Jimmy Marchese, LB, Gr. (Illinois grad transfer); Billy Caughell, LB, Sr.; Daniel Jones, S, Sr.; Brandon Feamster, CB, Gr. (Duke grad transfer); Roland Williams, CB, So. (Ellsworth CC rransfer

THREE KEY LOSSES: Dejon Brissett, WR; John Yarbrough, OL; Andrew Clyde, DL

OUTLOOK: The Huesman era is off to a disappointing start, so some transfers were brought in to get the program back on track. They include Air Force transfer English, who is competing with returning QB Mancuso for the starting job. Between the QBs and RBs Goodall and Dykes, the running game will be improved. The Spiders switched their 4-2-5 defense to 4-3 during the second half of the season and seeks to drop their opponents' 32.6-point average. Jackson (15 tackles for loss, 10 sacks) will lead the way up front after being named the CAA's preseason defensive player of the year. The senior class also includes last year's two leading tacklers, S Jones (86) and LB Caughell (74).

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12. UALBANY

LOCATION: Albany, New York

STADIUM: Bob Ford Field

HEAD COACH: Greg Gattuso (24-32, five seasons; 121-64 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 3-8 overall, 1-7 CAA (12th)

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

KEY PLAYERS: Jeff Undercuffler, QB, R-Fr.; Karl Mofor, RB, Jr.; Dev Holmes, WR, So.; Jerah Reeves, WR, So.; Juwan Green, WR, Sr.; L.J. Wesneski, TE, R-Jr.; Griffin Clancy, OL, R-Sr.; Micah Royster, OL, R-Jr.; Nick Dillon, DL, R-Sr.; Anthony Lang, DL, R-So; Eli Mencer, DE/OLB, R-Sr.; Danny Damico, LB, R-So.; Levi Metheny, LB, R-Jr.; Josh Wynn, S, R-Sr.; Tyler Carswell, CB, Sr.; Kareem Gibson, CB, R-Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks, RB; Brian Dolce, DL; Kareem Brown, CB

OUTLOOK: Albany is coming off a last-place finish in the CAA and have only three conference wins in the last two seasons. The Great Danes hope QB Undercuffler settled the position as a true freshman late last season, which included a win over playoff-bound Stony Brook. He will work behind an experienced offensive line and with some talented players in the skills positions, RB Mofor and WR Holmes (50 receptions as a rookie). The linebackers unit, led by leading tackler Metheny, has playmakers. The defensive line has been a position of strength in recent seasons, but it lost three starters.

Updated August 14, 2019

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