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In the FCS Huddle: NEC spring football primer

<p>The Northeast Conference had perhaps the best title race in the FCS last season, but this year, it could be more one-sided.</p>

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Northeast Conference had perhaps the best title race in the FCS last season, but this year, it could be more one-sided.

Sacred Heart returns a likely exceptional team after sharing the title with Duquense and advancing to the playoffs, where they lost to Fordham.

Still, the NEC has spread the wealth in recent seasons. Since the conference gained its first automatic qualifier for its champion, four different schools - Robert Morris, the now-departed Albany, Wagner and Sacred Heart - have appeared in the playoffs. Duquesne has shared a pair of titles in that timeframe as well.

Here's a look across the conference with spring practices getting underway across the nation:

STORY LINES

Only two of Sacred Heart's eight All-NEC first-team selections were seniors, and neither were returning offensive player of the year Keshaudas Spence (running back), defensive player of the year Troy Moore (defensive tackle) and offensive rookie of the year RJ Noel (quarterback).

For the first time, Robert Morris has a head coach other than Joe Walton. He retired after 20 seasons and 114 wins, turning the reins over to assistant John Banaszak. The Colonials offense, behind quarterback Paul Jones, will switch from pro-style to a high-tempo attack.

Wagner might be hard-pressed to replace Dominique Williams, who rushed for 4,440 yards and 42 touchdowns in his terrific career. Junior Matthias McKinnon is the Seahawks' leading returning rusher.

With the departure of Walter Payton Award finalist Kyle Harbridge, Saint Francis (Pa.) surely needs to get production at running back from Khairi Dickson, Anthony Abeid and incoming freshman Marcus Bagley. Factor in the Red Flash's pass offense ranked 118th in the FCS last year.

Bryant, which has been .500 in the NEC and had a losing record for two straight seasons, is trying to get healthy and then stay healthy.

THEY'RE BACK

Central Connecticut State running back/kick returner Rob Hollomon led the FCS in all-purpose yards per game (189.2).

Two players who performed highly on Wagner's 2012 NEC championship club but trailed off a bit last season are wide receiver Anthony Carrington and defensive tackle Daevonte Barnett. They need to have big seasons this year.

Saint Francis gladly welcomes back safety Ter'Shaudney Phillips after he suffered a knee injury in preseason camp and missed all of last season. The Red Flash's pass defense still remained strong without him.

POSITION BATTLES

Wagner went through four different quarterbacks last season and none grabbed control on the position. This year's starter should come from lefty Chris Andrews and Brian Gehring.

With the departure of two-year starting quarterback Mike Westerhaus, Bryant turns to Dalton Easton, Chris Schultz and Jacob Lazarus to fill the void.

Duquesne has plenty of candidates for the wide receiver jobs as Dave Thomas, Devin Rahming, Chris King (who was injured for half of the 2013 season) and Noel Oduho all caught at least 24 passes behind graduating standout Gianni Carter. New to the mix is Arizona transfer Wayne Capers, a Pittsburgh native.

BREAKOUT PERFORMERS

Wide receiver Jordan Harris is done dominating at Bryant, but rising junior Chad Ward has been second on the team in receptions in each of his first two seasons.

It will be hard for Sacred Heart linebacker James Rentz to do even more than he did as a freshman, but he will as he teams up with leading tackler Kellen Sperduto.

Central Connecticut State's Darius Cohen hopes to turn his stint on special teams into a bigger role at running back.

READY FOR IMPROVEMENT

Robert Morris averaged a mere 111.5 rushing yards per game and needs better offensive balance.

Duquesne had come to rely on running back Larry McCoy that when the Dukes tried to replace him last season, they fell short with an NEC-low 109 rushing yards per game.

New Central Connecticut State coach Pete Rossomando's first task is to lift a Blue Devils defense that ranked last in the NEC in scoring defense and total defense.

Only one team in the FCS was worse than Sacred Heart in net punting last season - a meager 30.2 yards per punt.

SPRING PRACTICE DATES

Bryant: March 29-April 26

Central Connecticut State: March 31-April 25

Duquesne: March 12-April 12

Robert Morris: March 18-April 11

Sacred Heart: March 20-April 12

Saint Francis (Pa.): March 11-April 12

Wagner: March 28-April 26

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