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Duquesne expected to contend for NEC title again

| Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012, 2:52 p.m.

According to coaches in the Northeast Conference, there are no doubts about which direction Duquesne's football program is headed after a breakthrough 2011 season.

The NEC's preseason coaches' poll, released Thursday, put Duquesne at No. 2 behind defending co-champ Albany, which received six of nine first-place votes. Duquesne's placement reflects what it achieved a year ago, when the Dukes had their best finish in four seasons as an NEC member, going 9-2 overall and 7-1 in conference play to tie for first. Albany finished with the same conference record but beat Duquesne, so it earned the NEC's FCS postseason berth.

Robert Morris and St. Francis (Pa.) also learned how they're perceived by their peers, as the Colonials received the No. 6 spot, and St. Francis was picked to finish last.

“It's been a long process of developing our program in the NEC,” said Duquesne coach Jerry Schmitt, whose team thrived in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, winning 11 titles in 14 seasons. “What's very recognizable is being in the NEC, across the board, every single game counts. … It's a very challenging league, and that's what's great about it. It's so refreshing.”

The Dukes have three preseason All-NEC picks, including the conference's 2011 defensive player of the year, Serge Kona, a senior safety. The others are senior quarterback Sean Patterson and senior running back Larry McCoy. The NEC also mistakenly named Jared Williams, a defensive back who graduated last season.

Robert Morris is coming off a two-win season, its worst since 2005. But associate head coach John Banaszak said the Colonials consider themselves ready to rebound — and they'll get an idea of where they stand in Week 1.

Led by senior preseason all-conference defensive lineman Nolan Nearhoof, the Colonials will travel to Fargo, N.D., to face defending FCS national champion North Dakota State, the team that knocked Robert Morris out of the playoffs in 2010.

“We know it's going to be a very hostile environment,” said Banaszak, who spoke in place of Joe Walton, who had a schedule conflict. “(The players) know what it's going to take for us to go out there and play well. … I think it will set the table for our game the following week against the defending NEC champion (Albany).”

St. Francis (Pa.) coach Chris Villarrial acknowledged the Red Flash, a last-place finisher the previous four seasons, is still looking for solutions to the team's woes. He emphasized the promise of a reshuffled coaching staff, which added defensive coordinator Scott Benzel, a former Robert Morris assistant, and offensive coordinator Eric Long, a former Mercyhurst assistant.

“I think you'll see some of our base stuff and some of our foundation stuff,” Villarrial said of this season's play-calling. “But I think you'll also see an overhaul, see some of the stuff they ran at Mercyhurst and Robert Morris.”

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at wwest@tribweb.com or 724-543-1321.

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