District college football preview: FCS
At RMU, Walton's final stand
If Robert Morris' players needed a cause to rally around, coach Joe Walton provided one.
Walton, the only coach in the team's history, will step down after this season, his 20th. His career includes 109 wins and six Northeast Conference regular-season titles, but his players want to send him off with even more glory.
The Colonials have a collection of returning starters who should allow them to run the ball as well as any team in the NEC. Top rusher Evan Taylor, a senior, returns after gaining 847 yards on 183 carries. In front of him are five seasoned linemen, including senior left tackle A.J. Dalton, whose 27 career starts leads all active players.
Robert Morris lost quarterback Jeff Sinclair to graduation, but it received a boost when Sto-Rox alum and junior Paul Jones transferred from Penn State.
Six of the top 10 tacklers are back, including senior linebacker Mike Cook, who had a team-high 88 tackles. RMU must find a new playmaker on the defensive line to compensate for the graduation of Nolan Nearhoof, the 2012 NEC Defensive Player of the Year after finishing with 76 tackles and 10 1⁄2 sacks. Senior Chris Thompkins is a front-runner after making nine tackles for a loss, including six sacks, last season.
What to watch for
Graduation removed a rare trio from Duquesne's roster.
The Dukes lost Larry McCoy, their all-time rushing leader (4,549 yards); Sean Patterson, the QB who made 33 consecutive starts; and safety Serge Kona, a two-time first-team All-NEC selection.
McCoy ranks second among NEC career rushing leaders. He had 24 100-yard games. The most yards gained in one game by a current Dukes running back is 78.
Patterson accounted for 903 attempts, 6,420 yards and 60 TDs dating to 2010. No current Duquesne QB has started in college.
Kona was the NEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2011.
Several additions will ease the transitions at Duquesne.
Monessen grad Chavas Rawlins transferred from WVU. A QB in high school, Rawlins enrolled early at WVU and participated in spring practices but left in mid-July.
Rawlins will compete with senior Marty Mitchell, redshirt freshman Dillon Buechel and sophomore Michael LoPresti, a James Madison transfer.
Junior safety Chris Johnson joined the Dukes after making 26 appearances in two years at Florida.
Duquesne is hard-pressed to endure the number of heartbreaking losses it went through in 2012. The Dukes lost their final four games and five of their last six. Each came by seven points or fewer.
Who to watch
Duquesne, senior, OLB
Named a third-team FCS All-American by Sports Network last year, Bell looks to build on his legacy — the Gateway grad transferred from Ohio State. He led the Dukes in tackles (92), tackles for a loss (12), sacks (6 1⁄2) and forced fumbles (3).
Robert Morris, soph., DB
The NEC's Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, Branch impressed with his speed and savvy. He had three INTs, forced two fumbles and made 58 tackles, including a team-high 35 solo stops. He earned second-team All-NEC honors.
Duquesne, senior, WR
Few NEC receivers were more dangerous than Carter, a first-team all-conference pick who finished with 57 receptions for 865 yards and seven TDs. He ranked second in the NEC in yards per game (78.6) and third in receptions per game (5.18).
Best on the schedule
Albany at Duquesne
Albany contended for the NEC title almost every year for the past decade but left for the Colonial Athletic Association. This season-opener for Duquesne no longer carries NEC weight, but it still is likely to stir up both sides.
Duquesne at Robert Morris
Their seasons went in opposite directions after they met in November last season. Robert Morris, which won, 17-13, hopes to heat up earlier this season. The Dukes intend to exact revenge and finish the season strong.
Sacred Heart at Robert Morris
Coach Joe Walton will lead the Colonials in the stadium that bears his name for the last time in the regular season. The Colonials also might have playoff positioning to worry about.