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Robert Morris' Walton settles in for final season

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NEC preseason poll

1. Wagner (4)

2. Duquesne (3)

3. Bryant

4. Robert Morris

5. St. Francis (Pa.)

6. Central Connecticut State

7. Sacred Heart

Note: First-place votes in parentheses

Monday, Aug. 12, 2013, 10:39 p.m.

Robert Morris' Joe Walton is the dean of Northeast Conference football coaches, with more than 40 years in the profession.

One thing he hasn't mastered: Making preseason prognostications.

“People always ask ‘What kind of season are you going to have?' I say ‘I don't know. I don't know how good the other teams are going to be. They have a tendency to get better, too,' ” Walton said during an NEC coaches event Monday.

Walton, 77, will retire after the season, capping a 20-year run with the Colonials that started with the launch of the program in 1994. His final task is trying to lead Robert Morris to a seventh division title.

NEC coaches predicted the Colonials will finish fourth in the seven-team FCS league, which saw Monmouth and 2012 co-champion Albany leave since last season. Wagner, the other co-champion, was picked to repeat, and Duquesne was chosen second.

Robert Morris, coming off a 4-7 season, features five preseason all-conference selections, including sophomore cornerback Marcelis Branch, the reigning NEC Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Perhaps the most interesting training camp battle is at quarterback, where Penn State transfer Paul Jones (Sto-Rox) is competing with sophomore Derik Abbott to replace four-year starter Jeff Sinclair (Highlands).

Jones, a redshirt junior who was a five-star recruit, spent three rocky years with the Nittany Lions. Last season, he fell to No. 3 on the QB depth chart and was briefly moved to tight end. He never threw a pass during a game for Penn State.

A change of scenery seems to be benefiting him.

“Paul is really doing well,” said Walton, whose team opens the season at 7 p.m. Aug. 29 against Eastern Kentucky. “ I'm excited about him. He has a great arm. He has good leadership ability and seems very comfortable with our team, which is a big plus. He's right in there. The only thing Derik Abbott has on him is a little more experience with the offense.”

Duquesne, which went 5-6 last season, also will be breaking in a new QB following the departure of three-year starter Sean Patterson. Senior Marty Mitchell is competing with redshirt freshman Dillon Buechel (Montour).

Also gone is three-time 1,000-yard rusher Larry McCoy, but the good news for the offense is three starting receivers return, including senior Gianni Carter, who is one of the team's three preseason all-conference selections.

The centerpiece on defense will be senior linebacker Dorian Bell (Gateway), who is a Sports Network preseason All-American. Bell led the Dukes with 92 tackles and 6½ sacks last season despite missing three games with a hand injury.

“He's done a great job this offseason improving in the weight room and improving as a leader,” said Duquesne coach Jerry Schmitt, whose team's opener is 12:10 p.m. Aug. 31 against Albany. “We're excited about having him and seeing what will happen with our defense.”

Jeff Vella is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at via Twitter @JeffVella_Trib.

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