FCS Football 2014: A Look At The Spring Top 40 (Part 1, 1-10)


GREENVILLE, S.C.–With summer approaching rapidly, the warmer weather outside reminds us that college football season isn’t all that far away. With that thought in mind, it’s time to start putting together a sketch of what the Top 25 might look like as the season begins. Below is SaturdayBlitz.com Top 25, with some brief notes heading into the summer.

1. North Dakota State (15-0 in 2o13)–It would be hard to bet against a team that has produced one of the most dominating runs in the history of FCS football over the past three seasons, as the North Dakota State Bison equaled the feat of Appalachian State by claiming a third-straight national crown with a 35-7 win over Towson in the national title game.

The 2014 season will be challenging, just as the 2008 season was for Appalachian State. However, the Bison will be welcoming in a new head coach, with the man who helped fashion the current FCS powerhouse Bison–Craig Bohl–having announced he would take the head coaching post at Wyoming in the week,following the second round postseason win over Furman.

Chris Klieman has quite a challenge on his hands entering the 2014 season, as he must find a way to keep that winning mentality afloat, while managing the pressure that comes with a 24-game winning streak and three-straight national titles entering a season. Klieman must also find a way to replace 24 seniors, including seasoned veteran and near-flawless signal-caller Brock Jensen, who has graduated.

It’s Klieman’s second head coaching job after serving as a head coach at Division III Loras College in 2005, where he coached only one season before returning to his alma mater Northern Iowa where he was an All-American linebacker playing for head coach Mark Farley back during the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. Statistically speaking, North Dakota State has fielded one of the most dominant defenses in the history since his arrival two years ago.They are about as stingy as the 2000 Baltimore Ravens defense, which was led by budding star Ray Lewis.

The biggest loss without question on the defensive side of the ball is corner Marcus Williams, who picked off 21 passes and returned an FCS record seven for scores in his four-year career for the Green and Gold. Carlton Littlejohn (89 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 2 FFs, 1 INT) will now be looked to as one of the anchors for this defense as it looks to reload in 2014, and Littlejohn will patrol the middle of the Bison defense, at middle linebacker. The Bison led the nation in scoring defense last season, surrendering a meager 11.3 PPG.

Junior wide receiver Zach Vraa (67 rec, 1,191 yds, 15 TDs, 15.8 YPR in 2013) and running back John Crockett (190 rush att, 1,277 yds, 11TDs, 6.7 YPC) returns as a reliable and explosive option at running back.

2. Eastern Washington–Eastern Washington may well enter the campaign with the most electrifying player in FCS football–Vernon Adams, as the dual-threat signal-caller put up simply ridiculous numbers last season. The rising senior signal-caller is likely the most explosive dual threat signal-caller in the FCS since Armanti Edwards.

In a game against another league power, in preseason Big Sky co-favorites Montana State, Adams hit on 16-of-18 throws for 300 yards without throwing an INT, finishing with a 300.2 passing efficiency rating. The rating Adams put up against the Bobcats almost broke the rating of 310.2 set by Mike Tenneson set against Sonoma State in 1992.

Adams delivered perhaps the signature performance of his career in the week preceding the win over the Bobcats, as he passed for 432 yards and five scores in a win over Idaho State.

His 457 passing yards in wins against Montana and Portland State marks the fifth-best single game passing yards total in a game in school history. All told, the 2014 Walter Payton Award candidate finished the season completing 319-of-486 passes for 4,994 yards, with an astounding 55 scoring and 15 INTs. As a running threat, Adams finished as the team’s second-leading rusher with 605 rushing yards and four scores on 132 carries (4.6 YPC).

Despite setting 15 new program passing marks and six new FCS marks, Adams happened to post those eye-popping numbers the same time Terrance West was doing his record-breaking rushing routine at Towson.

The Eagles captivated the college football nation from the outset last fall in much the same fashion as the Bison did with their win over Kansas State. Eastern opened the season with a 49-46 win over FBS No. 25 Oregon State.

Under the direction of Beau Baldwin, Eastern Washington has been among the elite in the FCS for the better part of his six seasons at the helm of the program, which claimed its first FCS national title on his watch in 2010. That win by the Eagles–which came in come-from-behind (19-18) win over favored Delaware, was recently named as the fifth-best moment in Big Sky sports history, in a recent article by the league’s official website celebrating the 50 years of athletic accomplishments for the league.

The success should continue on the red field in Cheney, which might be the only football facility in the nation named after an offensive lineman, but that’s just as Baldwin and the Eagles would have it. When you consider what Adams has done, it seemed hard to imagine a quarterback after duplicating what former great and Walter Payton Award winner Erik Meyer once did under center back in the early-mid 2000s.

3. Montana (10-3/FCS Second Round)–Montana made news for all the wrong reasons a couple of years ago, and that resulted in the program’s first losing season since 1982, however, the Grizzlies were back to their old ways last season, winning 10 games and claiming a postseason bid.

Part of the resurgence was due to the return of quarterback Jordan Johnson (220-of-388 passing, 3,387 yds, 32 TDs, 5 INTs), who returned last season after having to sit out the 2012 season dealing with alleged sexual assault charges, which he was eventually cleared and able to return to the field in 2013.

Johnson was an instant impact performer, which was much in the same fashion as he was in 2011, when he led the Grizzlies to 11 wins and all the way to the FCS semifinals before eventually losing at home to Sam Houston State.

The 2013 season saw Johnson pass for 3,387 yards and 32 TDs, while tossing just five INTs. His 148 yards on the ground ranked him fifth on the team in rushing yards last fall. Johnson’s 32 scoring passes for the Grizzlies last fall marked the fourth-most in school history.

Johnson is part of an experienced backfield, with Jordan Canada (211 rush att, 1,062 yds, 16 TDs, 5.0 YPC) also returning to the fold for the 2014 season. Canada is part of a quartet of returnees at running back that combined to rush for 2,059 rushing yards and 25 TDs, which accounted for 86-percent of the team’s 2,407 rushing yards for the season. Joey Counts, Travon Van and Joey Counts round out the top four options coming out of the backfield entering the 2014 season.

The Grizzlies are seemingly always in the mix, and many of the Grizzly fans were caught overlooking Coastal Carolina last season to a potential showdown between heavyweights, as the Grizzlies would have faced North Dakota State had they been able to deal with the Chanticleers. Look for Montana to be a team that once again threatens a deep run in the FCS postseason.

Demarcus James

Jacksonville State All-American Running Back DeMarcus James

4. Jacksonville State (11-4/FCS Quarterfinals)–The Jacksonville State Gamecocks were a bit like the Cinderella Story in the FCS playoffs last season, and the Gamecocks went a little further than some expected, as the perennial Ohio Valley Confererence power took down Samford (55-14) and McNeese State (31-10) before eventually bowing out of the postseason in a tough loss at Eastern Washington (35-24).

The Gamecocks will have a new man in charge coming off that 11-4 season of 2013, as Bill Clark left Jacksonville for Birmingham to become the head coach of the UAB Blazers. The man assigned with leading the Gamecocks forward in 2014 is John Grass, who was JSU’s offensive coordinator last season, presiding over a unit that set numerous school, OVC and national records last season.

The good news for the new head coach is several important pieces, which helped the Gamecocks finish the season with 11 wins. The biggest returnee on the offensive side of the ball is All-American running back and preseason Walter Payton Award candidate DaMarcus James (292 rush att, 1,477 yds, 29 TDs, 5.1 YPC), who is one of nine starters which returns from a unit that posted an astounding 49 school records, 13 OVC records and three NCAA milestones last fall.

Returning to lead the offense this fall will be quarterback Eli Jenkins (74-of-124 passing, 887 yds, 3 TDs, 2 INTs, 953 rush yds, 8 rush TDs, 7.0 YPC). Jenkins split time under center with Max Shortell (114-of-200 passing, 1,608 yds, 6 TDs, 7 INTs), who also returns to provide support under center this fall.

Rounding out the significant returnees from that explosive offense from a year ago is leading wideout Josh Barge (58 rec, 885 yds, 2 TDs, 15.3 YPR), who had a sensational redshirt freshman season last fall.

Seven starters return on the defensive side of the football for the Gamecocks, but the entire linebacking corps must be replaced from last fall. Leading the defense this fall will be Brandon Bender (101 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 3 FFs, 5 PBUs in ‘13), who returns at defensive back for the Gamecocks this fall.

5. Coastal Carolina (12-3 in 2013/FCS Quarterfinals)–It was an uprecedented season for Coastal Carolina (12-3) and the Big South Football Conference in 2013, as the Chanticleers found themselves among the final eight teams playing in the FCS postseason, which marked the first time in league history a program had made it that far in the postseason.

It was a banner year for the Big South Conference, which saw the Chanticleers and Charleston Southern Buccaneers stay ranked inside the FCS Top 25 for a majority of the 2013 season. Expectations are as high as they have ever been for the program, which has only been in existence since 2003.

Head coach Joe Moglia enters his third season at the helm looking to take the boys from Conway to even greater heights this fall, but Moglia will have to do so without a majority of the offensive talent, which helped the Chanticleers to rank among the top offenses in the nation all season, as the Chanticleers ranked 11th nationally in total offense (477.5 YPG), while ranking fifth in the nation in scoring offense (41.0 PPG).

Gone are players from that unit that put up huge numbers last fall, with the graduation of All-American wideout Matt Hazel, as well as All-American running back Lorenzo Taliaferro. Hazel had 990 yards and nine TDs on 70 catches last season, while Taliaferro rushed for 1,729 yards and 27 scores as a senior in an unprecedented season offensively for Coastal Carolina.

The good news for the offense is the return of quarterback Alex Ross (232-of-358 passing, 3,093 yds, 26 TDs, 9 INTs). Ross, who enters his junior season, rushed for 540 yards and six TDs last season to finish third on the team in rushing.

While Ross returns as the main cog as a part of the Coastal Carolina offense heading into the 2014 season, the defense returns seven regulars from a year ago, including All-America linebacker and Buck Buchanan Award candidate Quinn Backus (144 tackles, 10.2 TFL, 4 INTs, 6 PBUs), who will likely head into the campaign as the Big South Player of the Year once again.

Shepard Little

Eastern Illinois All-OVC Running Back Shepard Little

6. Eastern Illinois (12-2 in 2013/FCS Quarterfinals)–Eastern Illinois (12-2) was the FCS version of the Baylor Bears last season, which had a lot to do with Dino Babers, who was one of Art Briles’ top offensive assistants at Baylor before taking the head coaching job in Charleston. Babers would help the Panthers to one of the best seasons in the history of the program, as the Panthers stormed into the postseason with the No. 2 seed, which was behind only undefeated North Dakota State.

The Panthers would eventually bow out of the FCS postseason with a 49-39 loss to Towson in a game which was played during a snowstorm in the FCS quarterfinals. Babers left EIU after just two seasons, heading to Bowling Green to take the head coaching post. Now, it will be up to Kim Dameron, who takes over the head coaching post, looking the continue the tremendous tradition of the EIU football program originally started under longtime FCS legend Bob Spoo.

Fifteen starters return from that team that won 12 games last season, however, that won’t include the likes of all-everything quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who hopes to follow in the footsteps of former Panther Tony Romo at the next level. All Garoppolo did during his senior season was pass for a school-record 5,050 yards and 53 TDs, while tossing only nine INTs.

The Panthers also bid farewell to another of the top FCS offensive weapons from a year ago, in record-setting FCS wideout Erik Lora, who hauled in 123 passes for 1,544 yards and 19 scores last season.

There is good news for the Panthers heading into the 2014 season, and that is the return of both running backs, in Shepard Little (217 rush att, 1,551 yds, 15 TDs, 7.1 YPC) and Taylor Duncan (217 rush att, 988 yds, 10 TDs, 4.6 YPC). The explosive backfield duo finished the 2013 season combining to rush for 2,293 yards and 25 scores last season.

The leading returning wideout in 2014 will be Adam Drake (85 rec, 1,305 yds,13 TDs, 15.4 YPR), who finished just behind Lora in receiving yards last fall.

Defensively, the Panthers return six starters, including the top two tacklers from a year ago, in safety Jourdan Wickliffe (91 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 3 INTs, 4 FFs) and linebacker Robert Haynes (79 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks).It will be interesting to see if Dameron can continue the success started under Babers, and he will have an excellent nucleus to start with in 2014.

7. Youngstown State (8-4 in 2013/Missed Postseason) is seemingly the program that now takes the title of the richest in tradition, with Georgia Southern having now made the transition to the FBS. Georgia Southern won an FCS standard six national titles, but with the Eagles make the jump in competition, Youngstown State now assumes the title of being the most decorated FCS program, as the Penguins have won four national crowns–second to only Georgia Southern.

However, while the Penguins have been on the brink of a title in recent seasons, including a trip to the FCS semifinals in 2006 only to run into the Appalachian State buzz-saw. Youngstown State also appeared in the national title game in 1999, only to run into yet another Southern Conference and future Sun Belt Conference member, in Georgia Southern, who posted a blowout fashion, 51-31, win over the Penguins. The eight wins by the Penguins in 2013 were the most wins for the program since the ’06 season. The Penguins were an impressive 3-1 on the road in MVFC play last fall.

Penguins have returning as a part of the Penguins offense for the 2014 season, as leading wideout Andre Stubbs (29 rec, 359 yds, 5 TDs, 12.4 YPR) returns to the offense as another big-play weapon on the offensive side of the football.

The signal-calling duties will fall to Dante Nania, who saw only limited action under center in relief of Hess. Nania will have some stiff competition for that starting job, as he will battle Nick Wargo, Tanner Garry and Ricky Davis for the starting responsibilities this fall. Whoever gets the starting job, he will have some big shoes to fill, as Hess started the past 47 games for Youngstown State.

On the defensive side of the football, Youngstown State has five of seven players returning up front that have starting experience. Emanuel Kromah (39 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks) is the top returnee on the defensive line, and will be one of the anchors of a defense which welcomes the return of eight starters entering the 2014 season.

Youngstown State enters the 2014 season coming off a campaign which saw the Penguins finish the campaign with an 8-4 record, as YSU just missed out on the playoffs, struggling down the stretch with losses to South Dakota State and North Dakota State down the stretch.

One of the key returnees on the offensive side of the football is sophomore running back Martin Ruiz (192 carries, 1,094 yds, 15 TDs), who was a finalist for the prestigious Jerry Rice Award after his big 2013 season. Ruiz will have to be the weapon the Penguins rely on offensively this season, with the graduation of Kurt Hess, who led an offense that scored 50 or more points in three games last season. His 2,229 passing yards in 2013 marked the fourth-straight season in which the the talented quarterback had passed for 2,000 or more yards in a single season.

8. McNeese State (10-3/FCS Second Round)–has been to the penultimate stage of the FCS stage twice before, but have not been able to bring home the prize on either occasion, dropping a 10-9 game to Youngstown State in 1997 and a 34-14 loss to Western Kentucky in 2002.  The Cowboys return 14 starters off that team that won 10 games last season, and ended up hosting a game at a place they call “The Hole.”

The good news for a McNeese State offense that proved prolific at times during the 2014 season is the return of four of its five offensive linemen from a year ago, which includes Antoine Everett, who garnered All-Southland Conference honors last fall.

The Cowboys must replace their starting signal caller from last season, as three-year starter Cory Stroud has graduated. Expected to challenge for the starting job are Tyler Bolfing, Will Briscoe,Grant Ashcraft and Joe Lissard.

The offensive backfield will also have a wealth of talent, with Kelvin Bennett (108 rush att, 774 yds, 4 TDs, 7.2 YPC), Dylan Long (79 rush att, 335 yds, 10 TDs, 4.2 YPC), while reinforcements have also been added to the mix, in SEC transfers Derek Milton (Mississippi State) and Nate Holmes (Arkansas).

One of the areas that McNeese seems to always manufacture talent is on the defensive line, and the 2014 season should follow that same theme, with first-team All-Southland selection Everette Ellefsen (44 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks, 1 INT) returning at defensive end. Bo Brown (75 tackles, 12.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 2 FFs)–a second-team all-conference pick last fall–returns to anchor the second level of the defense–while Aaron Sam (84 tackle, 8.5 TFL, 1 FR) will anchor the third line of the defense after finishing, as he finished the campaign with second-team All-Southland Conference honors.

9. Towson (13-3 in 2013/FCS National Title)–Since 2011, Rob Ambrose has done a masterful job of building Towson into an elite contender in one of the toughest conferences in FCS football–The Colonial Athletic Association.

The Tigers did nothing to disparage the CAA once in the postseason, acquitting itself extremely well when it got to the postseason, and the Tigers were a worthy title contender, however, all-everything running back Terrence West and the Tigers happened to run into one of the best teams in FCS history, when the Tigers dropped (35-7) title game clash with unbeaten North Dakota State.

Ambrose has much to replace heading into the 2014 season, including junior running back Terrence West, who declared for the NFL Draft just after the season. Few will soon forget his FCS record-setting 354-yard rushing performance in the FCS quarterfinals at Eastern Ilinois in what were snowy conditions. All West did was set FCS records with 2,509 rushing yards and 42 TDs. All told on both sides of the ball, Towson must replace eight players that garnered All-CAA recognition last fall.

The Tigers return just three players from an offense that was pretty explosive last season, averaging 465.8 YPG and 36.6 PPG last fall. The biggest concerns for the Tigers will be replacing the entire offensive line, as well as quarterback Peter Athens.

Athens’ replacement appears to be a two-horse race coming out of spring drills, as both Connor Frazier and senior Joe Brennan will enter fall camp as the primary competitors to end up with the starting job for the season opener at Central Connecticut.

Three talented running backs return to help try and replace the best running back in school history, as Darius Victor (629 yards, 7 TDs in 2013), Rutgers transfer Dontea Ayers and freshman Colby Grant are the players to keep an eye on coming out of the backfield for the 2014 season.

The top returnee on the offensive side of the football, as well as the deepest position on the offensive side of the ball entering the 2014 season is wide receiver, where All-CAA performer Spencer Wilkins (40 rec, 691 yds, 4 TDs, 17.3 YPR) returns after pacing the Tigers in receiving yardage last fall. UMass transfer Brian Dowling (32 rec, 419 yds, 1 TD, 13.1 YPR) and senior Derrick Joseph (36 rec, 379 yds, 1 TD, 10.5 YPR) team with Wilkins to give the Tigers a solid corps of wideouts heading into 2014.

On the defensive side of the football, the cupboard is far from bare for the Tigers, who welcome the return of seven starters. Tye Smith (103 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 INTs, 12 PBUs) will be one of the top cornerbacks in the nation entering the 2014 season, while Bryant Barr returns at linebacker after seeing his 2013 season cut short after a season-ending injury in just the second game of the season. All-CAA defensive end Ryan Delaire (68 tackles, 17.5 TFL, 11.5 sacks, 4 FRs) returns after turning in what was an outstanding 2013 season.

10. Sam Houston State (9-5 in 2013/FCS Quarterfinals)–Over the past three seasons, Sam Houston State has been a team that has been among the elite of FCS football under the direction of Willie Fritz, but with Fritz taking over the head coach at Georgia Southern following the 2013 season, the Bearkats will have a new man in charge, and that man just happens to have led school to a place where Sam Houston State has yet to reach at the FCS level–a national title.

The new sherriff in town in Huntsville, Texas will be former Delaware head coach K.C. Keeler, who knows a little something about succeeding a predecessor that set a high bar having stepped into the huge shoes left after Tubby Raymond’s retirement at Delaware, leading the Blue Hens to a national title in his first season as the head coach back in 2003.

He would lead the Blue Hens back to to the title game twice more, losing to Appalachian State in 2007 and Eastern Washington in 2010.

Over the past three seasons, Sam Houston State has been at the pinnacle of success in FCS football, as the Bearkats have posted a comibined 34-10 record during the last three campaigns, which has included a pair of trips to the FCS title game.

The Bearkats have also ranked in the Top 20 of the FCS polls for 39-straight weeks. The Bearkats are also one of just three teams to garner an FCS postseason bid each of the past three seasons.

Keeler will have plenty of talent to replace, including all-everything running back Tim Flanders. There are 13 starters returning with solid experience this fall, and despite the loss of the likes of Flanders and Richard Sincere. The Bearkats must also find a new starting quarterback for the commencement of the 2014 season, as one of the best in school history has departed due to graduation, in quarterback Brian Bell.

There are positives returning to the fold for the Bearkats, and on the offensive side of the football, the Bearkats welcome back six starters. First thing first for the Bearkats heading into the season, however, as the Bearkats will have a pair of talented athletes competing for the starting signal-calling duties, in Jared Johnson (5-for-17 passing, 82 yds)and Don King III (3-for-8 passing, 82 yds, 1 INT). Both have electrifying potential under center, and have ability to make things happen with their legs.

Johnson rushed for 132 yards and on 30 carries, averaging 4.4 YPC. King finished the 2013 season with 85 yards and a pair of scores, with an average of 4.7 YPC last fall.

kc keeler

Former Delaware Head Coach (2003-13) K.C. Keeler Ready To Take The Reins Of Sam Houston State Football Program After Willie Fritz Departed For Georgia Southern This Past Winter

The Bearkats return one wideout from a year ago, as the diminutive but speedy Chance Nelson (22 rec, 307 yds, 3 TDs, 14.0 YPR) returns to the fold this season after putting together a solid 2013 season. His numbers were a bit down from a 2012 season, but his two years as a Bearkat have seen him haul in 57 passes for 978 yards and 12 TDs, averaging 14.0 YPR.

The best news for the Bearkats on the offensive side of the ball is the return of four starters along the offensive line, which is the nucleus of any football team. Four starters are back on defense, and the leading returnee on that side of the football heading into the 2014 season is free safety Michael Wade (105 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 INTs, 8 PBU).

The Bearkats head into the 2014 season with the longest home winning streak in FCS football, having won 22-straight home games. Stay tuned for all four parts of this series this spring to get the Top 40, as SaturdayBlitz.com ranks its Top 40 FCS schools heading into the 2014 season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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