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Duquesne picked 2nd, RMU third in NEC preseason football poll

| Monday, Aug. 4, 2014, 4:47 p.m.

Finally at the top of Robert Morris football's coach hierarchy after more than a decade as an assistant, John Banaszak intends to tweak the Colonials' team culture.

Banaszak and the Northeast Conference's six other coaches provided outlooks for the fall Monday after the conference unveiled its preseason All-NEC selections and coaches poll. Robert Morris landed in third place on the poll and had three players named to the All-NEC list. Duquesne, which received one first-place vote, came in second and had five players named. St. Francis (Pa.) came in last but had three player selections.

“It's been an exciting 11 years (with Robert Morris), and there are a lot of changes going on now,” Banaszak said. “We're going from Coach (Joe) Walton, who ran the program more along the NFL lines, to trying to run the program the way the rest of the teams in the Northeast Conference run their programs.”

Walton established Robert Morris' football program in 1993. He stepped down after last season and transitioned into a new role with the university's athletic department.

“He's still the foundation of our football program,” Banaszak said. “There's still a lot of Coach Walton left in me, and I share that with our players.”

Robert Morris, which finished 5-6 overall and 3-3 in conference in 2013, will lean on the versatility of senior defensive back and return specialist Antwan Eddie, who received a preseason All-NEC nod for both positions. Eddie led the NEC and ranked third in Division I Football Championship Subdivision in punt -return average (15.0).

Senior defensive end Forrest Mason and senior wide receiver Duane Mitchell also earned spots on the preseason list.

Duquesne, which went 7-4 overall and tied Sacred Heart for first place in the conference with a 4-2 record, returns 16 starters, including preseason All-NEC selections Rich Piekarski, a senior defensive back; junior defensive lineman Zach Zidian; sophomore linebacker Aaron Reed; junior offensive lineman Dan Buchholz; and sophomore kicker Austin Crimmins.

The Dukes will play a Division I Bowl Championship Subdivision opponent for the first time in school history, when they open at Buffalo.

“We feel our depth is better than it has ever been,” coach Jerry Schmitt said. “Ultimately, we're looking to prepare for the NEC, because there's no greater challenge than a conference like ours.”

St. Francis, one year removed from a 5-6 season in which it went 3-3 in conference play, has high hopes for preseason All-NEC selections Bishop Neal, a senior linebacker from Clairton, sophomore defensive back Lorenzo Jerome and redshirt senior offensive lineman Thurston Kino.

Sacred Heart finished first in the coaches poll. But there was a possible sign of hope for St. Francis: The conference's director of communications, Ralph Ventre, noted that the team picked to finish last in the preseason poll won the NEC title the past two years.

An unprecedented seven NEC games will appear on ESPN3 this fall, including four featuring local teams: Duquesne at Central Connecticut on Oct. 11, St. Francis at Sacred Heart on Oct. 25, Wagner at Robert Morris on Nov. 8 and Robert Morris at Duquesne on Nov. 22.

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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