FCS Spring Football: Pioneer League Preview
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By CRAIG HALEY
(Stats Perform) - The FCS is ready to get back on the field and command the college football spotlight this spring after conferences postponed their 2020 fall schedules due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not all schools have decided to play this spring. In the Pioneer Football League, eight of the 10 non-scholarship programs - all but Dayton and Marist - will play a six-game conference schedule, which begins on March 13.
Teams are permitted to schedule up to two nonconference games as well. Following is a capsule look at PFL spring participants in order of predicted finish:
1. SAN DIEGO TOREROS
LOCATION: San Diego
STADIUM: Torero Stadium
HEAD COACH: Dale Lindsey (64-19, eighth season)
2019 RECORD: 9-3, 8-0 PFL (1st)
THE SKINNY: The six-time defending PFL champ has won 37 straight league games, which is two shy of Duquesne's FCS-record 39 in a row in the MAAC from 1999-2006. In a program with a rich tradition of quarterbacks, either redshirt senior Mason Randall or redshirt junior Bryce Fledderman figures to get the keys to the offense, and while the Toreros are starting over with their receivers, they'll look to run the ball often with seniors Emilio Martinez (2,215 rushing yards and 27 total touchdowns in career) and Terrence Smith working behind an experienced offensive line. The long offseason cost the defense of perhaps its best player, defensive end Nick Friedel, but nickel back Kama Kamaka (182 career tackles) also was a 2019 All-PFL first-teamer.
2. DAVIDSON WILDCATS
LOCATION: Davidson, North Carolina
STADIUM: Richardson Stadiuma
HEAD COACH: Scott Abell (14-9, third season; 53-33 overall)
2019 RECORD: 8-4, 5-3 PFL (4th)
THE SKINNY: The Wildcats fell late at CAA member Elon in an early spring opener, but they'll be quite competitive within the PFL after posting their first winning league record since 2007. Senior quarterback Tyler Phelps, who entered the season with over 5,000 yards of total offense with 36 total touchdowns in his career, leads the ball-control rushing attack (322.6 yards per game in 2019), but it would be even stronger if three-time 1,000-yard rusher Wesley Dugger had remained in the program instead of entering the NCAA transfer portal (that give larger roles to Dylan Sparks and Coy Williams). The defense was a huge surprise in 2019, ranking No. 1 in the PFL in fewest yards and points allowed per game, and it returns defensive end Chibuike Odo, who was sidelined by injury for much of the 2019 campaign, linebacker Jalen Jefferson and free safety Cade Vela.
3. DRAKE BULLDOGS
LOCATION: Des Moines, Iowa
STADIUM: Drake Stadium
HEAD COACH: Todd Stepsis (6-5, second season)
2019 RECORD: 6-5, 6-2 PFL (Tie/2nd)
THE SKINNY: In Stepsis' second season, Drake might have threatened to unseat San Diego, but woulda, coulda, shoulda, a number of key fifth-year seniors moved on after the fall semester, none bigger than defensive lineman Gavin Dineen and safety Will Warner, creating a much younger two-deep. The Bulldogs, who host the Toreros in their PFL opener on March 13, are building around sophomore quarterback Ian Corwin, who passed for 2,101 yards and 20 touchdowns as a rookie, but he lacks the veteran playmakers from that season. Defensive backs Danny Morales (67) and Alex Rogers (62) ranked No. 2 and 3, respectively, on the team in tackles.
4. STETSON HATTERS
LOCATION: DeLand, Florida
STADIUM: Spec Martin Memorial Stadium
HEAD COACH: Roger Hughes (31-46, eighth season; 78-98 overall)
2019 RECORD: 7-4, 4-4 PFL (Tie/5th)
THE SKINNY: Stetson has progressed with 15 wins over the last two seasons after having 16 in its first five seasons after returning to football. The offense returns most of its starters, although not at quarterback, where junior Alex Piccirilli will try to settle into the starting job. He'll have support in the backfield: Running back Jalen Leary rushed for 1,013 yards and seven touchdowns while being named the PFL's 2019 offensive rookie of the year. The defense is much younger than the offense, including the loss of all three starting linebackers, but it has a building block in sophomore defensive end Fermond Reid. Sophomore Jaylon Johnson is an outstanding returner.
5. MOREHEAD STATE EAGLES
LOCATION: Morehead, Kentucky
STADIUM: Jayne Stadium
HEAD COACH: Rob Tenyer (30-50, eighth season)
2019 RECORD: 5-7, 3-5 PFL (7th)
THE SKINNY: The Eagles, who have only one winning season since 2007, took a beating by James Madison in its spring opener, but will now settle into PFL opponents. Tenyer has one of his more veteran teams, including 29 players who are seniors or redshirt juniors. It includes senior defensive end Vaughn Taylor, who racked up 18 tackles for loss even while often facing double-teams in the 2019 season. Quarterback Mark Pappas finished strong, averaging over 311 yards of total offense in his final four games, and running back Issiah Aguero (958 yards, 7 TDs) takes a lot of pressure of him. The special teams are in good shape: Ian Holder was the first-team All-PFL return specialist, while Andrew Foster led the league in punting average (41.6) and was reliable on field goals, including 6 of 6 between 40 and 49 yards.
6. BUTLER BULLDOGS
STADIUM: Bud and Jackie Sellick Bowl
HEAD COACH: Jeff Voris (77-81, 15th season; 92-115 overall)
2019 RECORD: 3-9, 2-6 PFL (8th)
THE SKINNY: The Bulldogs have been above .500 in the league only three times under Voris, but they captured a share of the title each time (2009, '12 and '13). They should be improved this season. Quarterbacks Sam Brown and Nick Orlando - a pass and run duo, respectively - will operate behind an experienced offensive line, anchored by center Trevor Scott and tackle Skyler Spetter, but the offense needs to find playmakers. The defense is reloading in the front seven, but the secondary is strong with safety Mike Manning, the first sophomore captain under Voris, and cornerback Devin Aguilar. The Bulldogs are replacing four-year standout kicker Drew Bevelhimer.
7. VALPARAISO CRUSADERS
LOCATION: Valparaiso, Indiana
STADIUM: Brown Field
HEAD COACH: Landon Fox (1-11, second season)
2019 RECORD: 1-11, 1-7 (Tie/9th)
THE SKINNY: Valpo seeks significant improvement after it only beat Stetson in Fox's first season. Fifth-year senior quarterback Chris Duncan has thrown for 3,725 career yards, eighth-best in school history, and his top two wide receivers, Deuce Larose and Ollie Reese, also are returning. It's key for the Crusaders' struggling program to get bigger and stronger across the offensive and defensive lines. Offensive lineman Sam Vas and defensive lineman Trejuan Purty hope to have a say in that goal. They're set at linebacker with Jaxon Peifer and Laddie Skarecky, but it will be hard to replace safety Jamari Booker. The schedule includes home-and-home series with Butler and Drake.
INELIGIBLE FOR PFL TITLE
PRESBYTERIAN BLUE HOSE
LOCATION: Clinton, South Carolina
STADIUM: Bailey Memorial Stadium
HEAD COACH: Tommy Spangler (50-49, 10th season)
2019 RECORD: 2-10, 1-5 Big South (7th)
THE SKINNY: Originally expected to be an FCS independent this academic year, incoming member Presbyterian is a part of the PFL standings this spring, but it won't be eligible for the league title or the automatic playoff bid. The Blue Hose are a mere 12-43 over their last five seasons. Senior linebacker Colby Campbell is the leader, having set the school's single-season record with 150 tackles in 2019. The offense should score more often due to its experience in the skills positions: Tyler Huff finished as the starting quarterback over Brandon Thompson, and there are difference-makers with running back Jarius Jeter and wide receiver Keith Pearson (71 receptions, 777 yards, 3 TDs).
Updated February 26, 2021