ST. LOUIS – The Stetson Hatters will enter the 2014 season, their second in the Pioneer Football League, with high expectations.
The league coaches have picked Stetson to finish ninth in the Hatters' second season of competition in the league. The Hatters completed their first season with a 2-9 overall record, a mark that included a 1-7 record in league play.
For the third consecutive year, the University of San Diego has been picked to win the Pioneer Football League regular-season race in a preseason vote of the league’s coaches.
The PFL will announce its preseason All-PFL teams, Wednesday, followed by a preseason coaches teleconference, Thursday.
The upcoming 2014 season marks the 22nd year for the Pioneer Football League – the nation’s only non-scholarship, football-only NCAA Football Championship Subdivision conference. The league will feature 11 teams each playing an eight-game schedule to determine the league champion and recipient of the automatic bid to the 2014 NCAA FCS Championship.
Last season, the PFL race ended with Butler and Marist each claiming a share of the league title with 7-1 records, Butler earning the league’s automatic bid due to a tiebreaker. Another close race is forecast in 2014 with four teams claiming at least one first-place votes and the top three teams separated by 10 points.
San Diego received five of a possible 10 first-place votes and 90 of a maximum 100 points as coaches were not allowed to vote for their own team in the poll. Dayton was ranked second with 82 points despite not receiving a first-place vote. Jacksonville received three first-place votes and was ranked third with 80 points. Butler rounds out the league’s top four with two first-place votes and 77 points.
Drake picked up one first-place vote and was picked fifth with 73 total points. Marist, a league co-champion just eight months ago, fell to sixth in the preseason poll with 61 points.
Campbell (7th, 38 points), Morehead State (8th, 35), Stetson (9th, 30), Davidson (10th, 20) and Valparaiso (11th, 19) round out the league’s 11-team poll.
San Diego head coach Dale Lindsey begins his second year at the reins with big questions on both sides of the ball. The Torreos return just 12 starters from last season’s team – six on offense, four on defense and two special teams players. San Diego lost quarterback Mason Mills, the 2013 PFL Offensive Player of the Year, along with two other first-team All-PFL picks: running back Joe Ferguson and defensive end Steve Gargiulo. Still, San Diego returns a veteran receiving corps led by Reggie Bell (65 receptions, 1,050 yards, 9 touchdowns), a First-Team All-PFL pick, and Brandon White (47 receptions, 590 yards, 12 touchdowns). Defensively, San Diego will lean on a deep secondary that includes each of its four returning starters on that unit, including defensive backs Jamal Agnew (46 tackles, 7 passes defensed) and Matt Miller (90 tackles, 2 fumbles forced).
Dayton has posted back-to-back 5-3 conference marks, finishing tied for fourth in last season’s race. Flyers head coach Rick Chamberlin will seek to take a step forward in the league ranks in 2014 with 13 returning starters. Dayton will see quarterback Will Bardo (2,434 yards total offense, 22 touchdowns responsible for) return for his fourth campaign as starting quarterback. The Flyers backfield also will be bolstered by the return of running back Connor Kacsor (966 yards, 10 TDs), who is the PFL’s leading returning rusher. The Dayton defense will be led by defensive end Pat Dowd (37 tackles, 11½ sacks) and linebacker Christopher Beaschler (83 tackles).
Jacksonville battled through another injury-filled campaign and finished with a 4-4 league mark last season. Head coach Kerwin Bell enters his eighth season with an all-new Milne Field hopefully a sign of the program’s future direction. The preseason focus has been on wide receiver Andrew Robustelli (51 receptions, 1,063 yards and 11 TDs), who has been named to both The Sports Network’s Preseason All-America squad and the College Football Performance Awards Preseason Watch List. The Dolphins defense will be anchored by lineman Maroa White (55 tackles, 9 sacks), who will be backed up by linebacker Mike Klein (76 tackles).
What a difference eight months will make for co-defending champion Butler, which returns just nine starters from last season’s squad that finished 7-1 in the league earned the first PFL automatic bid into the NCAA FCS Championship. The Bulldogs defensive line claims three of those returnees with Glen Somers (34 tackles, 5 tackles for loss), Kyle Annis (34 tackles, 5 TFL) and Christian Eble (21 tackles) each returning to anchor the unit. The Butler offensive line claims another three returnees with Greg Ambrose, David Tiwari and Michael Demos leading a unit that surrendered a PFL-low 13 sacks in 13 games.
Drake’s three-loss PFL campaign was its worst outing since 2008, but at 5-3 it still finished tied for fourth in the league race. First-year head coach Rick Fox takes over after six seasons as an assistant coach with the Bulldogs. Linebacker John Hugunin (113 tackles, 11 TFL) returns after sharing the league lead in tackles en route to First-Team All-PFL honors last season. Offensively, Drake will see Eric Saubert (47 receptions, 549 yards) a First-Team All-PFL tight end as the team’s leading receiver after the departure of Nick Rosa. In addition, Bulldogs punter Cam Bohnert (50 punts, 39.8 yards per punt) returns to Des Moines after earning First-Team All-PFL accolades as a sophomore.
Marist, which posted a 7-1 league mark and claimed a share of its first PFL title last season, also will have plenty of questions to answer as the season progresses. Head coach Jim Parady will begin his 23rd season with a few answers in hand. Linebacker Paul Sakowski (62 tackles, 6 TFL) returns after a First-Team All-PFL performance last season and will anchor the Red Foxes’ defense. Running back Atiq Lucas (166 carries, 798 yards, 11 touchdowns) and wide receiver Armani Martin (45 receptions, 770 yards, 12 touchdowns) return to guide an offensive unit which will be helmed by a new quarterback for the first time since late 2011.
Campbell enters 2014 with most of its questions on offense after posting a 2-6 mark last season. Second-year head coach Mike Minter lost his top two leaders in rushing, passing and receiving at the end of 2013. In their place, the Camels return their third-leading rusher – DeShawn Jones (62 carries, 517 yards) – and third-leading receiver – Ben Bolling (31 receptions, 489 yards, 5 TDs). Defensively, Campbell will have fewer concerns with each of its top five tacklers returning, including lineman Ugonna Awuruonye (44 tackles, 14 TFL) and linebacker Matt Farris (77 tackles, 4½ TFL), who were each honorable mention All-PFL picks last season.
Morehead State, battled to a 3-5 mark in 2013 as rookie quarterback Austin Gahafer (2,430 yards passing, 13 TDs) learned the ropes. Rob Tenyer will return the bulk of his offensive unit for his second campaign leading the Eagles. Gahafer returns as does Morehead State’s leading rusher Rees Macshara (131 carries, 534 yards) and leading receiver Jake Raymond (56 receptions, 644 yards). The Eagles final standing in 2014 may well lie in the development of a defensive unit that sees just three of its top six tacklers returning and will be led by safety Michael Jackson (72 tackles, 10 passes defensed).
What does Year Two hold for Stetson and head coach Roger Hughes? The Hatters picked up a conference win in their inaugural season and put a scare into more than one PFL foe. Defensive back Donald Payne took the PFL by storm in his rookie year, finishing the campaign as a co-leader in tackles and ranking second in tackles for loss. On the offensive side, quarterback Ryan Tentler (2,149 total offensive yards and 15 TDs responsible for) returns after leading the team in passing and rushing last season.
Davidson soldiered through a winless PFL campaign in 2013 and second-year head coach Paul Nichols looks ahead to a 2014 that will see someone besides Jonathan Carkhuff at quarterback, a position he held the past four years. Running backs Robert Klein (113 carries, 439 yards) and David Rogers (66 carries, 373 yards in 5 games) return to lead the backfield while William Morris (67 receptions, 1,090 yards, 5 TDs) will captain the wideouts. Defensively, the two Casey’s– both linebackers but unrelated Matt and Dan – return to hold down the fort again. Matt Casey (106 tackles) finished the season fourth among PFL tacklers while Dan Casey (66 tackles, 10 TFL, 4 sacks) was eighth in tackles for loss.
Valparaiso will enter 2014 with head coach Dave Cecchini in his first year as head coach after the Crusaders picked up one win against the league’s toughest schedule last season (they faced each of the top five teams). Valparaiso will also be under new leadership at quarterback this season, but will return running back Brandon Hall (89 carries, 365 yards) and wide receiver Tanner Kuramata (879 yards, 8 TDs, 56 receptions) – the leading rusher and receiver on last year’s squad. Defensively, linebacker Alex Green (110 tackles, 4½ TFL) returns after ranking third among PFL tacklers last season.
Three PFL squads will kickoff the 2014 campaign on opening day, Thursday, August 28, followed by five other teams kicking off Saturday. Butler, Dayton and San Diego will each wait to open their respective 2014 marches in Week 2, Sept. 6. The 22nd season of PFL regular-season action gets underway in Jacksonville, Florida for a second consecutive year, when San Diego meets Jacksonville in a Saturday, Sept. 13 contest.