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FCS 2018: Pioneer Football League Preview

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - Pioneer Football League kingpin San Diego has lost more starters from last season than it has returning this season.

It might indicate the Toreros' dominance is about to end.

Consider this, however: The Toreros have swept through the PFL for two straight seasons and every win has been by double digits. They also posted the first two playoff wins by an FCS program, beating a Big Sky team each time.

No wonder San Diego was placed atop the league's preseason poll for the eighth straight year.

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2018 PFL race and STATS' predicted order of finish:

1. San Diego

2. Dayton

3. Drake

4. Valparaiso

5. Butler

6. Jacksonville

7. Marist

8. Morehead State

9. Stetson

10. Davidson

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TEAM CAPSULES

1. SAN DIEGO TOREROS

LOCATION: San Diego

STADIUM: Torero Stadium

HEAD COACH: Dale Lindsey (46-13, five seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 10-3, 8-0 Pioneer (1st)

STARTERS RETURNING: 10 (4 offense/6 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Anthony Lawrence, QB, R-Sr.; Emilio Martinez, RB/KR, So.; Joseph Binda Jr., RB, Sr.; Zach Nelson, FB/TE, R-Jr.; Michael Bandy, WR, Jr.; Daniel Cooney, OL, R-Sr.; Nolan Bisogno, OL, R-So.; Trevor Provencio, OL, Sr.; Connor Spencer, DL, R-Sr.; Kevin Glajchen, DL, Jr.; Marcus Vaivao, LB, Sr.; Kim Mahoney, LB, R-Sr.; David Tolbert, CB, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Justin Priest, WR; Ross Dwelley, TE; Jonathan Petersen, DE

OUTLOOK: Despite returning only 10 starters, San Diego is talented, and some of the backups are ready to star in larger roles. QB Lawrence, the 2017 PFL offensive player of the year, has thrown for 81 TDs in his career - the most of any active FCS signal caller. While LT Cooney is an All-American, he is the only returning starter on the offensive line, so it's rebuilt to block for Martinez, a 1,000-yard rusher as a freshman. Led by DL Spencer, the defensive front seven is punishing. Not to be overlooked, the Toreros will have a new kicker and punter. It's fewer than last season, but the Toreros still have two cross-country trips (Harvard and Marist). They will host Dayton in an always-anticipated game on Oct. 13.

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2. DAYTON FLYERS

LOCATION: Dayton, Ohio

STADIUM: Welcome Stadium

HEAD COACH: Rick Chamberlin (79-33, 10 seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 4-4 Pioneer (Tie/6th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (9 offense/6 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Alex Jeske, QB, R-Sr.; Tucker Yinger, RB, R-Sr.; Sean Prophit, RB, Jr.; Matt Tunnacliffe, WR, Sr.; Ryan Skibinski, WR/KR, Jr.; Matt Tunnacliffe, WR/LS, Sr.; Adam Trautman, TE, Sr.; Ben Gauthier, OT, Sr.; Isaac Sexton, DT, Sr.; Nick Surges, DE, R-Sr.; David Leisring, S, Sr.; Tim Simon, S, R-So.; Jason Balogh, CB, Sr.; Andrew Lutgens, Flyer, R-Sr.; Sean Smith, P, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Wes Hegemann, OG; Jack Crain, LB; Christian Searles, CB/KR

OUTLOOK: The Flyers expect to get back in the title race one year after last year's record was Chamberlin's first below .500. They placed a league-high seven players on the PFL preseason team, including a pair, RB Yinger (1,088 yards, 4 TDs) and P Smith (42.7-yard average), who made the postseason first team last year. It will help to have a full season out of 2½-year starting QB Jeske, who missed the first five games following foot surgery. The Flyers ranked second in the PFL in scoring defense (19.7 per game) despite totaling only four sacks, the second-fewest in the FCS to Valparaiso's three. They're usually strong in turnover margin, and last year it was plus-11.

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3. DRAKE BULLDOGS

LOCATION: Des Moines, Iowa

STADIUM: Drake Stadium

HEAD COACH: Rick Fox (26-18, four seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 7-4, 6-2 Pioneer (2nd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Grant Kraemer, QB, R-Sr.; Cross Robinson, RB, So.; Drew Lauer, RB, Sr.; Steven Doran, WR, Sr.; Devin Cates, WR, Sr.; Mitch McFarlane, WR, Jr.; Jordan Lewinsky, OT, R-Sr.; Nathan Clayberg, DT, R-Sr.; Gavin Dineen, DT, Jr.; Erin Morgan, DE, Sr.; Jacob Hardy, DE, Jr.; Kieran Severa, LB, R-Sr.; Connor Willis, LB, R-Sr.; Jabari Butler, CB, R-Sr.; Will Warner, DB, Jr.; Terry Saul III, DB, So.; Terry Wallen, DB, R-Sr.; Sean Lynch, DB, R-Sr.; Danny Donley, PK, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Payson Wick, OL; Mack Marin, DE; Tanner Evans, DE

OUTLOOK: Last year's second-place squad has a deep lineup, and a handful of the key players are fifth-year seniors. The Bulldogs also bonded during a 12-day offseason trip to China. Third-year QB Kraemer (2,616 yards, 20 TDs) is primed for a big season, armed with an excellent group of receivers. The offense's late-season improvement with rushing the ball must continue into 2018. The secondary, led by Lynch, returns intact to fuel the defense. Drake hosts PFL kingpin San Diego on Nov. 3, but has lost to the Toreros in each of the last five years.

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4. VALPARAISO CRUSADERS

LOCATION: Valparaiso, Indiana

STADIUM: Brown Field

LOCATION: Valparaiso, Indiana

STADIUM: Brown Field

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (9 offense/7 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Jimmy Seewald, QB, Jr.; Kyle Cartales, RB, Jr.; Cody Boxrucker, RB, Jr.; Jean Rene, WR, Sr. ; Bailey Gessinger, WR/RS, Jr.; Mason Sutter, TE, Sr.; Jack Jarnigan, OL, R-Jr.; Tom Schofield, OL, Sr.; Andrew Lundberg, OL, R-Jr.; Nick Turner, LB, Sr.; Drew Snouffer, LB, Sr.; Austin Petrie, LB, Jr.; Jamari Booker, DB, Jr.; Josmar Diaz-Martinez, DB, Sr.; Jalin LeAndre, DB, Sr.; Dimitrios Latsonas, PK, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Jarrett Morgan, RB; Frank Catrine, WR; J.J. Nunes, DB

OUTLOOK: Valpo won just three games in the four seasons prior to Cecchini's arrival - all against the same opponent. After last year's first winning season since 2003, the 2017 PFL coach of the year was rewarded with a contract extension through the 2020 season. With 16 starters and good depth returning, optimism abounds for an even bigger season. The offense took some hits in the skills positions, although QB Seewald (2,602 yards, 18 TDs) returns off an excellent sophomore campaign. As juniors, LBs Stouffer and Turner both had 100-tackle seasons. The one PFL team not on the Crusaders' schedule is San Diego.

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5. BUTLER BULLDOGS

LOCATION: Indianapolis

STADIUM: Butler Bowl

HEAD COACH: Jeff Voris (70-65, 12 seasons; 85-99 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 6-5, 4-4 Pioneer (Tie/6th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (8 offense/3 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Will Marty, QB, R-Sr.; Anthony Scaccia, RB, R-Sr.; Pace Temple, WR, Sr.; Tommy Kennedy, OL, R-Jr.; Dakota Sneed, OL, R-Sr.; Bobby Jensen, OL, R-Sr.; Matt Hawkins, DL, R-Sr.; Mason Brunner, LB, Jr.; Xavier Colvin, LB, R-Jr.; Carter Raleigh, LB, R-Sr.; Luke Sennett, DB, R-Jr.; Dalton Rogers, DB, Sr.; Drew Bevelhimer, PK, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Sam Schrader, RB/QB; Chad Burdo, DT; Isaak Newhouse, DB

OUTLOOK: Butler's 6-5 overall and 4-4 PFL records last season reflect in it ranking 52nd in the FCS in both points scored per game (26.7) and points allowed per game (25). If the Bulldogs' graduation-depleted defense can patch up the holes, the offense can lead them higher in the standings. The Marty-to-Temple connection is lethal, with Temple catching 65 passes for 1,075 yards and four touchdowns as a junior. On defense, where some backups are needed to step into bigger roles, the top returning tacklers are DB Sennett (57) and LB Brunner (53). All-PFL kicker Bevelhimer was 16 of 21 on field goals.

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6. JACKSONVILLE DOLPHINS

LOCATION: Jacksonville, Florida

STADIUM: D.B. Milne Field

HEAD COACH: Ian Shields (12-9, two seasons; 28-15 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 7-4, 5-3 Pioneer (Tie/3rd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Irvin Riley, RB, Jr.; Keenan Simpson, RB, Jr.; Prince Gray, WR, R-Sr.; Mitchell Bailey, WR, Jr.; Jake Dempsey, OL, Sr.; Jake Howell, OL, Jr.; Chris Tremblay, OL, Jr.; Myles Harris, DL, So.; Crandall Maines, DL, So.; Thomas Oporto, LB, R-Jr.; Trevor Tufano, LB, Jr.; Caysaun Wakeley, LB, Jr.; Jeremiah Johnson, DB, Jr.; Tommy Mack, DB, Jr.; Calvin Turner Jr., DB, So.; Javier Arce-Ramirez, K, R-Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Rylan Wells, QB/P; Griffin Garland, DB/LS; Emon Smith, DB

OUTLOOK: The Dolphins are moving toward relevance again under Shields, but they still have to beat the upper echelon of the PFL - which used to be a regular occurrence. It's likely the offense will have a freshman running the option attack, but RBs Riley and Simpson are back after combining for 1,090 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. When they go to the air, WR Gray is reliable. The defense seeks great improvement after allowing 35 points per game, which ranked 111th in the FCS. But it's stacked at linebacker, where Oporto was the team's leading tackler and Tufano and Wakeley made the PFL preseason team. The big defensive losses are in the secondary.

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7. MARIST RED FOXES

LOCATION: Poughkeepsie, New York

STADIUM: Leonidoff Field

HEAD COACH: Jim Parady (133-139-1, 26 seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 4-7, 3-5 Pioneer (Tie/8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (5 offense/8 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Jacob Hallenbeck, QB, R-So.; Mike Husni, QB, R-Fr.; Areg Nazarian, RB/PR, Jr.; Dan Wittekind, C, Jr.; Aaron Jackson, OL, R-Jr.; Juston Christian, WR, Sr.; Peter Delatour, DE, R-Jr.; Eddie Zinn-Turner, NT, R-Jr.; Enmanuel Soriano, DL, R-Sr.; Willie Barrett, LB, R-Sr.; Maliek Carr, LB, Jr.; Grant Dixon, LB, R-So.; Peter Delatour, LB, R-Jr.; Wesley Beans, FS, R-Sr.; Andrew McElroy, S, R-Jr.; Drew Daniel, CB, R-Jr.; Brandon Miller, CB, R-Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Mike White, QB; Marcellus Calhoun, RB; Rich Duncan-Murphy, LT

OUTLOOK: Last season was a rarity for a Parady-led team because it underperformed, finishing below .500 in the league for the first time since 2012. White, the Red Foxes' three-year starting quarterback, isn't using his final season of eligibility, so the Red Foxes are starting over at the position with Hallenbeck, last year's backup. The offense boasts All-PFL WR Christian, a big-play specialist who has averaged over 20 yards on 143 career receptions The defense returns eight starters, although the Red Foxes often fell behind in the first quarter and allowed 30.7 points per game a year ago. The strength of the team is linebacker, led by first-team All-PFL choice Barrett.

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8. MOREHEAD STATE EAGLES

LOCATION: Morehead, Kentucky

STADIUM: Jayne Stadium

HEAD COACH: Rob Tenyer (22-35, five seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 4-7, 3-5 (Tie/8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Lawson Page, QB, Sr.; Arien Beasley, RB, Jr.; Logan Holbrook, RB, So.; Jarin Higginbotham, WR, Sr.; Landon Hurst, Slot/PR, So.; Sugar Ray Wyche, Slot, So.; Patrick Rice, DT, Jr.; Jamil Butler, DE, R-Sr.; Jerome Brooks, LB, Jr.; Kordell Brown, LB, Jr.; Brandon Duncan, CB, Sr.; Sayyid Kanu, DB, Sr.; Starr Hutcherson, S, So.; Chauncey Johns, S, Sr.; Bradley Boone, P, R-Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Christian Robinson, WR; Braylyn Cook, CB; Juanyea Tarver, S/KR

OUTLOOK: Four of Tenyer's five teams have finished 3-5 in the PFL, so the Eagles are striving to have another season like 2015, when they were 7-4 overall and 6-2 in the league. New defensive coordinator Dovonte Edwards seeks to fix one of the worst defenses in the FCS last season - it allowed 466.4 yards (116th) and 40.7 points per game. DB Kanu is the team's top returning tackler, but LB Brooks probably would have led the way if he hadn't been injured and missed two games. The offense will follow the lead of QB Page (2,682 yards, 21 TDs). He has a go-to option in WR Higginbotham (48 receptions, 974 yards, 10 TDs). The early season schedule is difficult.

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9. STETSON HATTERS

LOCATION: DeLand, Florida

STADIUM: Spec Martin Memorial Stadium

HEAD COACH: Roger Hughes (16-40, five seasons; 63-92 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 2-9, 1-7 Pioneer (10th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (10 offense/5 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Colin McGovern, QB, Sr.; Gaven DeFilippo, QB, R-Jr.; Bryce Blackmon, RB/KR, Jr.; Jeremiah Nails, WR, R-So.; Justin Jordan, WR, So.; Jack Bowen, WR, R-Fr.; Donald Parham, TE, Sr.; Jim McCammon, OL, Sr.; Josh Miller, OL, Jr.; Andrew Rogalski, OL, Sr.; Zane Smith, DT, Sr.; Greg Moore, DL, R-Fr.; Colby Duncan, LB, R-Jr.; Tyler Mirabella, LB, R-So.; J.J. Henderson, DB/PR, So.; Jackie Johnson, DB, Sr.; Jonny Messina, PK, R-So.; Matias Gasc, P, R-So.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Gordon Stetson, RB; Jeb Boudreaux, LB; Eric Martin, SS

OUTLOOK: To try to stimulate growth in Stetson's struggling program, Hughes has brought in five new coaches. He's only 8-32 in PFL games, and the 2017 season was the Hatters' worst since the program restarted in 2013. QB DeFilippo, who made seven starts in 2016, sat out last season with labrum and ACL tears, which turned McGovern into the starter, and the offense struggled to average just over 15 points per game. However, the receivers are strong, led by 6-foot-9, 235-pound TE Parham (58 receptions, 817 yards). Only a sophomore, DB Henderson already is the Hatters' best defensive player. Their special teams also expect to be excellent.

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10. DAVIDSON WILDCATS

LOCATION: Davidson, North Carolina

STADIUM: Richardson Stadium

HEAD COACH: Scott Abell (first season; 39-24 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 2-9, 0-8 Pioneer (11th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (11 offense/5 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Tyler Phelps, QB, So.; Wesley Dugger, RB, So.; William Wicks, Slot/RS, Jr.; Pat Tabor, Slot, So.; Satchel Moore, WR, So.; Hunter Louthan, TE, Jr.; Zion Johnson, OL, So.; Bryce Simmons, OL, Sr.; Bryce Perry-Martin, DT, Jr.; Clay Robinson, DT, Sr.; James Boyle, DE, So.; Tony Collins, LB, Jr.; George Hatalowich, LB, Jr.; Stephen Shank, LB, Jr.; Preston Grase, S, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Ben Rowell, DB/PR; Conrad Mueller, LS; Trevor Smith, PK

OUTLOOK: Abell arrives from Washington & Lee to try to improve a Wildcats program that has only seven wins (and just one against FCS competition) in the last five seasons. The 'Cats are building with younger players and all 11 offensive starters are back. RB Dugger (1,131 yards, 8 TDs) and WR Wicks (51 receptions, 704 yards, 5 TDs) are coming off exceptional seasons, and, like Dugger, QB Phelps is only a sophomore. DT Perry-Martin, a junior, got into opposing backfields for 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. The Wildcats open with three straight home games against sub-FCS teams, so they should at least match last year's win total by the time they enter the league schedule. That would be progress.

Updated August 22, 2018

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