College football season is back. Dave Preston will be taking you through all the local schools this week and we’ll have a sport-wide preview and set of predictions Friday.
For college football fans in the D.C. metro area, this has been one rough decade. Maryland has had multiple reboots since firing the ACC Coach of the Year, while Virginia Tech saw the sad decline from perennial Coastal Division contender to a team that needed to schedule a bonus game against Marshall in order to keep its bowl streak alive. Virginia hasn’t beaten the Hokies since “Friends” was still on the air. Even Navy wasn’t immune last fall, with a 3-10 season that included a third straight loss to Army.
Thank goodness for the FCS. Area programs annually contend for conference crowns, deliver trips to the Football Final Four, and occasionally play for or even bring home a National Championship. Once again this fall there’s plenty of anticipation involving schools in the CAA, MEAC, and Patriot League — especially when one factors in the head coaching carousel.
James Madison (9-4, 6-2 CAA, FCS Second Round) is the CAA Preseason favorite and begins the fall ranked second nationally in both FCS Polls. The Dukes lost head coach Mike Houston to East Carolina, but for the second time in three years hired a proven replacement from the FCS ranks. Curt Cignetti led Elon to the tournament in both of his seasons with the school, and last fall the Phoenix beat JMU in Harrisonburg. He comes to a program that’s loaded: 19 of 22 starters return, and of those 19, 12 were All-CAA last season. Quarterback Ben DiNucci returns for his second season as a starter, and he’ll have his top two targets back in wide receivers Riley Stapleton and Kyndel Dean. Cignetti will have to revamp a running game that lost its top three ground gainers to graduation.
But just like last season, this year’s Dukes will once again begin with D. Four of the returning 10 starters from the CAA’s No. 1 unit in 2018 were voted First Team All-Conference. That includes senior linebacker Dmitri Holloway, who finished second in the league with 81 tackles in 2018. The secondary may have lost Jimmy Moreland to the Redskins and the NFL, but Rashad Robinson (seven interceptions in 2017) is back after missing last season.
Last year, the Dukes kicked off their season with a loss at NC State. This year’s Power Five trip is to Morgantown, where they’ll visit West Virginia in Coach Neal Brown’s debut. The Mountaineers will also have a new quarterback, as Will Grier is gone to the NFL. Of the five CAA schools in the Preseason Top 25, JMU will not play No. 7 Maine or No. 22 Delaware. While they visit No. 21 Elon Sept. 28, No. 11 Towson comes to Harrisonburg October 26.
Towson (7-5, 5-3 CAA, FCS First Round) is back too, by the way. After missing the tournament for four straight years, Rob Ambrose has the Tigers thinking title. He’s got a senior quarterback in Tom Flacco, brother of Joe — and no, he’s not thinking about transferring to the University of Denver. Flacco the Younger threw for 3,237 yards, 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while also leading the Tigers with 742 yards rushing last year. He’ll lean on a pair of senior Shanes: running back Shane Simpson (687 yards with six touchdowns rushing last fall) on the ground and wide receiver Shane Leatherbury (67 catches for 885 yards and seven TDs).
The team’s ability to deliver on the preseason hype will rest on the shoulders of a defense that finished last against the run and overall in the CAA. New defensive coordinator Eric Daniels comes to the Tigers from NAIA Briar Cliff University (Iowa), where he turned around the Chargers’ defensive woes. Daniels has a pair of solid building blocks, beginning with senior defensive lineman Bryce Carter (6.5 sacks in 2018) and senior linebacker Robert Heyward (99 tackles plus a fumble recovery).
The schedule serves up a mixed bag. The other top two projected teams in the CAA are James Madison and Maine, and Towson visits both schools this year. They do draw Delaware and Elon at home in November, potentially providing Coach Ambrose’s team with some necessary late-season momentum if they’re on the FCS Playoff bubble again.
Richmond (4-7, 2-6 CAA) did not get any favors from the schedule-makers last year, facing four ranked conference foes. So instead of contending for an FCS Playoff berth like the previous November, the Spiders saw their first losing season since 2011. Even with the departure of quarterback Kyle Lauletta to the NFL, head coach Russ Huesman’s offense still finished second in the conference in passing. Junior quarterback Joe Mancuso led the team in rushing while splitting time last fall with Kevin Johnson; this year he’ll be pressed by Air Force transfer Beau English. Whoever wins the job won’t have Dejon Brissett to throw to, as last year’s top receiver transferred to Virginia. Regardless, ball security will be a priority one autumn after the Spiders lost a CAA-high 27 turnovers.
The defense had issues in 2018, allowing the most points per game in the CAA while ranking last or second to last in most categories. The 4-2-5 formation has been ditched for the 4-3 this fall, but no matter how the Spiders line up it all begins with senior defensive lineman Maurice Jackson, who led the CAA with 10 sacks in 2018.
This year’s slate is backloaded, with two bye weeks in September. How improved the turnover/defense issues are will be apparent over a four-week stretch where Richmond faces Delaware, Stonybrook and James Madison.
William & Mary (4-6, 3-4 CAA) has a new head coach for the first time since the Carter Administration. Jimmye Laycock’s retirement brings back a familiar face to both the Commonwealth and the CAA as former Richmond and Virginia coach Mike London crosses the Potomac after a two-year stint with Howard where he breathed new life in a long-dormant program. The Tribe is nowhere near as low as the Bison were two years ago, but they have posted three consecutive losing seasons and have notched just one winning conference campaign since 2010.
London will find quite a contrast in Williamsburg from the offense he left behind. The Tribe returns junior quarterback Shon Mitchell and leading rusher Albert Funderburke, but last year W&M ranked last in the CAA in rushing, scoring, total offense, and third down conversions. Coastal Carolina transfer Kilton Anderson originally played at Fresno State before completing 58% of his passes for 1,010 yards and 8 touchdowns while with the Chanticleers in 2018, proving two things: 1. He’s a viable option at QB, and 2. I like to work the word “Chanticleers” into conversation way more than one should.
The Tribe return eight starters on defense, with seniors Nate Atkins and Isaiah Laster the top two tacklers from 2018. Developing a pass rush (last in the conference in sacks) will be a priority for coach London. The new regime begins Aug. 31 against Lafayette, and the schedule is marked with games against two of London’s former employers: at Virginia Sept. 6 and at Richmond Nov. 23. What, they couldn’t add Howard?
Howard (4-6, 3-4) will have its fifth head coach this decade, as Ron Prince takes over for Mike London. The former Kansas State coach and Michigan assistant enters an envious situation. Preseason CAA Offensive Player of the Year Caylin Newton (2,629 yards passing and 504 yards rushing last year) has his top targets back in Jequez Ezzard and Kyle Anthony, the latter of whom led the MEAC last fall with 53 receptions while Ezzard’s 1,064 yards topped the league. Running back Dedrick Parson (706 yards with 9 rushing touchdowns) returns to provide a nice counterpunch on the ground.
Coach Prince’s main task this fall will be shoring up a defense that ranked last in the MEAC and concluded the year by allowing 56 points to Bryant. Bryant!?! Leading tackler Marcellos Allison is back, as is top pass rusher Zamon Robinson. The season begins with a bang: trips to Maryland, Youngstown State and Delaware State, plus a showdown with longtime rival Hampton dot the first month. For some reason, they don’t play the other FCS team located in D.C. this year.
Georgetown (5-6, 4-2 Patriot League) is coming off its best season under head coach Rob Sgarlata. Their four league wins in 2018 were more than the three posted over his previous four years with the Hoyas. This was after being picked to finish not just last in the Patriot, but by a country mile. Heady times indeed. The difference last fall was a defense that ranked second behind league juggernaut Colgate, and that’s where any hopes of unseating the Raiders begins. Look no further than a pass rush that led the Patriot League in sacks and interceptions. Senior defensive lineman Kristian Tate (a conference-high 10 sacks last year) along with junior Owen Kessler (6.5) generates most of the heat from the trenches. Linebacker Wes Bowers (4.5 sacks last season) is more than just a pass rusher, as the junior paced the team with 91 tackles and four interceptions.
While the defense might help them catch Colgate, they only way they’ll pass the Raiders will be if the offense improves from the unit that averaged just 15 points per game in 2018. Starting quarterback Gunther Johnson returns for his senior season and the Hoyas also get back their leading rusher in sophomore running back Herman Moultrie and top receiver in senior Michael Dereus.
The Hoyas’ regular season begins with a major test at Davidson Aug. 31, as the Wildcats averaged 433 yards rushing and 44.9 points per game last fall. Georgetown will face a nonconference D.C. foe when Division III Catholic comes to Cooper Field two weeks later. And while Georgetown and the rest of the league may be chasing Colgate, the Raiders have to come to D.C. Nov. 2.