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2019 Northeast Conference spring outlook

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - There's a lot of getting-to-know-you going on in the Northeast Conference this year.

Long Island and Merrimack are moving into the conference from the Division II level and the similarly named Northeast-10 Conference. Also, Bryant and Central Connecticut State will have new coaches.

But expect the same old competitive title race.

LIU will be part of the standings and eligible for the conference title, making it eight teams deep in 2019, but Merrimack won't be part of the standings and play a full conference schedule until at least 2020. The Warriors will play a lot of the NEC teams, however.

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

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BRYANT

HEAD COACH: Chris Merritt (first season)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 2-4 NEC (Tie/5th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 19-April 20

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

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Bryant dipped into the high school ranks to hire Merritt as its fourth coach. The spring is about the players and staff getting to know each other and implementing new schemes.

NOTABLE: The Bulldogs will have an open competition at many positions, including quarterback following the graduation of Price Wilson. They'll return first-team All-America kick returner Jean Constant. Although they lose standout linebacker Thomas Costigan, defensive end Tomas Wright (17½ tackles for loss, 12½ sacks) is a wrecking crew.

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CENTRAL CONNECTICUT STATE

HEAD COACH: Ryan McCarthy (first season as interim head coach)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 4-2 NEC (3rd)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 23-April 27

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: N/A

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Following back-to-back winning seasons, CCSU lost coach Pete Rossomando in late January to an assistant's position at Rutgers. McCarthy, the offensive coordinator, will serve the 2019 season as interim coach. The Blue Devils have a question mark at quarterback after losing all-time passing leader Jacob Dolegala.

NOTABLE: No matter who becomes the starting quarterback, the Blue Devils will look to run the ball behind All-NEC first-team linemen J'Von Brown and Connor Mignone with the likes of running backs Aaron Dawson and Drew Jean-Guillaume. Defensive backs Tajik Bagley and D.J. Exilhomme also were All-NEC first-team selections.

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DUQUESNE

HEAD COACH: Jerry Schmitt (92-62, 14 seasons; 120-83 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 9-4 overall, 5-1 (Tie/1st)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 11-April 13

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (5 offense/7 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Running back A.J. Hines, the 2018 NEC offensive player of the year, has had three straight 1,000-yard seasons, but the Dukes are replacing four starters on the offensive line.

NOTABLE: Duquesne topped Towson for its first FCS playoff win and just the second in NEC history, and finished with a No. 21 national ranking. In addition to Hines, the Dukes return All-NEC quarterback Daniel Parr in its offensive backfield. The defense features senior Kam Carter up front.

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LONG ISLAND U.

HEAD COACH: Bryan Collins (160-72, 21 seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 10-1 Division II

SPRING PRACTICES: March 25-April 22

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 8 (3 offense/5 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: The move to Division I brings its share of growing pains, but LIU also returns only eight starters. The losses include quarterback Chris Laviano, leading rusher Malik Pierre, leading receiver Michael Richardson and leading tackler Kevin Petit-Frere.

NOTABLE: Last season, LIU was unbeaten in the regular season before falling to Slippery Rock in the first round of the D-II playoffs. Tim Marinan returns as an impact running back following a lower body injury. Junior cornerback Nazier Streater tied for third in D-II with seven interceptions last season. LIU has scheduled its first FBS game at Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 18, 2021.

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MERRIMACK

HEAD COACH: Dan Curran (29-35, seven seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 5-5 Division II

SPRING PRACTICES: March 23-April 27

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (8 offense/9 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: Unlike fellow newcomer LIU, the Warriors return an experienced starting lineup for their initial Division I season. Getting healthy and staying that way is important, especially on defense with the return of defensive backs Darion MacKenziem, Anthony Witherstone and Enrique McFarlane from injuries. They'll be competition on the defensive line.

NOTABLE: The Warriors gained momentum by winning four of their last five games with the loss by only one point. Quarterback Christian Carter (16 touchdowns versus three interceptions) started seven games as a true freshman and will only get better, although he'll no longer have No. 1 receiver Cody Demers.

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ROBERT MORRIS

HEAD COACH: Bernard Clark (2-9, one season)

2018 RECORDS: 2-9 overall, 0-6 NEC (7th)

SPRING PRACTICES: Feb. 19-March 23

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (10 offense/7 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: All offensive starters return except at quarterback, where last year's backup George Martin, got some experience as a redshirt freshman (former starter Mathew Barr converted to wide receiver last season). The struggling defense especially needs help on the line, and four junior college players were signed, with 2017 starter Derian Smith also working his way back from injury.

NOTABLE: The Colonials have lost 18 straight games on the road, 17 straight against Division I opponents and 14 in a row in the NEC. They return one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the FCS, senior Matthew Gonzalez

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SACRED HEART

HEAD COACH: Mark Nofri (44-36, seven seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 7-4 overall, 5-1 NEC (Tie/1st)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 18-April 13

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: There are openings across the two-deep, but the biggest is the starting quarterback's role, where Jake Radic, Grant Lowary and Marquez McCray hope to claim it.

NOTABLE: Nofri has led Sacred Heart to three NEC titles during his tenure. It seems likely the offense will lead the NEC in rushing again with the return of 1,400-yard back Jordan Meachum, NEC offensive rookie of the year Julius Chestnut and Eli Terry, a key returnee if healthy. The defense returns its top three tacklers, including All-NEC defensive end Chris Agyemang.

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SAINT FRANCIS

HEAD COACH: Chris Villiarrial (40-59, nine seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 2-4 NEC (Tie/5th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 11-April 13

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 8 (3 offense/5 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: Quarter Jason Brown enters the spring as the projected starter, but there will be added competition during preseason camp. The Red Flash also are retooling on the offensive line, in the secondary and across their special teams.

NOTABLE: A bounce-back appears difficult as the Red Flash come off their worst season since 2011. Graduation decimated their offensive skills positions. Senior linebacker Da'Jon Lee is a top candidate for NEC defensive player of the year, but the program's young talent, including defensive tackle and 2018 NEC defensive rookie of the year Jalen Brown, are keys moving forward.

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WAGNER

HEAD COACH: Jason Houghtaling (15-29, four seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 3-3 NEC (4th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 19-April 12

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

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: It's almost impossible to replace running back Ryan Fulse, who was second in the FCS in rushing and ranked first in all-purpose yards per game.

NOTABLE: Graduate transfer Christian Alexander is set to take over at quarterback after helping FIU to a Bahamas Bowl victory last season. Outside linebacker is stacked with Cam Gill, the 2018 NEC defensive player of the year, and Titus Leo, who flashed his potential is the second half of the season. Like 2015 and '16, the Seahawks will play two FBS opponents, UConn and Florida Atlantic.

Updated March 7, 2019

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