RMU, Duquesne making NEC 'Burgh thing
Teams from Connecticut, New York and New Jersey won nine consecutive Northeast Conference football titles from 2001-09, but the power balance has shifted, taking on a Pittsburgh flavor with the recent successes of Robert Morris and Duquesne.
Robert Morris (8-3) last season captured its first NEC championship since 2000 and earned the conference's inaugural automatic bid to the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs, even jumping into the national rankings at one point.
Duquesne, which had six total wins during its first two years in the NEC, went 7-4 in 2010 and was picked to finish second this fall, the result of returning 14 starters.
"We've been holding it down for Pittsburgh," said Robert Morris quarterback Jeff Sinclair, a Highlands graduate who threw for 1,920 yards last season and tied the single-season school record with 22 touchdown passes.
Robert Morris and Duquesne will challenge preseason favorite Central Connecticut State, though they'll go about it in vastly different ways.
The Colonials, picked to finish third, graduated the 2010 NEC Offensive Player of the Year in running back Myles Russ but return plenty of talent in the passing game, including preseason All-American tight end Shadrae King.
King, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound McKeesport graduate, emerged as Sinclair's favorite target last fall and finished with 43 catches for 531 yards and seven touchdowns. He needs 19 more catches and six touchdowns to set school records.
Receiver Anthony Coleman holds RMU records for kick returns (69) and yards (1,470) but should contribute more in the passing game, especially with Sinclair's maturity. Duane Mitchell, Justin Brooks, Danny Duvall and Deontae Howard (Clairton) are battling to replace Russ.
Duquesne lost 70 percent of its receiving yards from last year in Dave Williams and Connor Dixon, but the Dukes bring back one of the NEC's most talented running backs in junior Larry McCoy, who had 1,291 yards and six touchdowns in 2010.
McCoy caught only three passes last season, though Dukes coach Jerry Schmitt said McCoy spent the offseason trying to become more of a threat out of the backfield.
"We really think we're going to be able to give (McCoy) the ball more this year," said Schmitt, who guided the Dukes to three consecutive Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference titles from 2005-07 before the team moved to the NEC. "He's bigger, stronger and faster, and we should be able to do more things with him."
Defensively, Robert Morris returns junior defensive end Nolan Nearhoof (Mars), who had 5.5 sacks and 49 tackles on a defense that led the NEC in points per game (20.5) and rushing yards per game (113.8).
Ohio State transfer Dorian Bell (Gateway) should bolster a talented group of linebackers for Duquesne, which moved its top returning tackler, junior Serge Kona, from inside linebacker to safety this offseason.
The Colonials and Dukes got hit hard in the secondary, with Duquesne losing five of the eight players who saw significant time there last fall and Robert Morris graduating all four starters.
Both open this Saturday — Robert Morris at home against Dayton; Duquesne at Bucknell — and play three of their first five games on the road. And should both teams make good on those preseason predictions, it's worth nothing that the Steel City Showdown was moved from Week 8 to the final week of the season, adding to possible postseason intrigue.
"I think the whole Northeast Conference has improved tremendously," RMU coach Joe Walton said. "Every week it's a tough game, and it's nice to see that the two teams from Pittsburgh are holding their own."
GAMES TO WATCH
Robert Morris at Duquesne, noon Nov. 19: The Steel City Showdown has been moved to the final week of the season. A de facto conference championship game• Perhaps.
Thomas More at Washington & Jefferson, 1:30 p.m. Sept. 24: Thomas More has snatched control of the PAC, a league once dominated by W&J, winning the past three titles. Maybe these Presidents can reverse a trend.
Mercyhurst at Cal U, 3:30 p.m. Oct. 22: Mercyhurst snapped Cal's 24-game PSAC West winning streak last year -- and received an invitation to Cal's homecoming this year.
West Liberty at Shepherd, noon Oct. 15: An excellent test for the Hilltoppers against nationally ranked Shepherd, the reigning WVIAC champion and an NCAA semifinalist in 2010.
IUP at Slippery Rock, 7 p.m. Sept. 24: Always a fierce rivalry, this battle could decide who challenges Mercyhurst and Cal in the PSAC West.
Teams to watch
Cal U: The Vulcans are the preseason favorite to win the PSAC West for the sixth straight year; 14 starters return, including nine on a defense that was the league's best in 2010.
IUP: Curt Cignetti, son of IUP coaching legend Frank Cignetti, takes over. Can the former Alabama assistant and talented recruiter resurrected one of the PSAC's traditional powers?
Mercyhurst: Picked to finish fifth in the 2010 preseason, the Lakers had a memorable year, snapping Cal's 24-game PSAC win streak and capturing the conference title. Encore anyone?
W&J: The Presidents finished second in the PAC, despite having seven Week 1 starters miss significant time with injuries. Finally healthy, could W&J regain its familiar perch atop the PAC?
Bethany: The Bison secured their first .500 season since 2001 last fall. Fifth-year coach Tim Weaver brings back 19 starters for a team that was surprisingly picked to finish fourth in the PAC.
Waynesburg: Yes, the Yellow Jackets were third in the PAC last fall. But they lost to three-time champion Thomas More and runner-up W&J by a combined five points. Waynesburg's four losses in 2010 came by a total of 15 points.
Slippery Rock: The Rock started 5-1 the past two seasons only to finish 6-5. With 18 starters back, including preseason All-America tailback Akeem Satterfield, Slippery Rock has the tools to finish strong in the second half.
Division II players to watch
WR Trevor Kennedy, Sr., Mercyhurst: The reigning PSAC West Offensive Player of the Year caught 75 passes for 924 yards and 11 TDs last year. Also a dangerous punt returner.
RB Akeem Satterfield, Jr., Slippery Rock: His 20 touchdowns last fall ranked second in Division II, his 135.2-yards-per-game average sixth. Poised to put up massive numbers.
OT Larry Wreidt, Sr., West Liberty: A preseason All-American by several publications, the 6-foot-7, 320-pounder helped the Hilltoppers become the first Division II team to lead the nation in scoring and total offense in consecutive seasons.
WR Thomas Mayo, Sr., Cal U: A two-time All-American at Concord (W.Va.), Mayo transferred to Cal U after catching 146 passes for 2,683 yards and 25 touchdowns the past two seasons.
LB Brett Diamond, Sr., Cal U: Had a career-best 64 tackles last season, including nine for a loss to go with 4.5 sacks. Was a first-team All-PSAC West pick for the second straight year.
Division III players to watch
TE Adam Moses, Jr., Waynesburg: The PAC's best tight end, he caught 37 passes for 431 yards and seven touchdowns, picking up numerous postseason accolades.
RB Jake Nardone, Jr., Carnegie Mellon: Beaver graduate will assume a prominent role with the graduation of Justin Pratt, who led the Tartans in rushing the past two seasons. Nardone was third in the University Athletic Association last fall with 102 carries for 599 yards and eight touchdowns.
OT Gary Flavion, Sr., W&J: Two-time All-PAC selection, listed at 6-foot-2, 280 pounds, helped running back Tim McNerney gain 1,009 yards and 18 touchdowns last fall.
QB Aaron Smetanka, Sr., St. Vincent: Transfer from Robert Morris started the 2010 season platooning and finished as a first-team All-PAC pick. Eclipsed the 300-yard mark four times and finished with 1,966 yards and 17 touchdowns.
DB Sean Hunt, Sr., Waynesburg: Led the PAC and ranked eighth in Division III with eight interceptions. Also had 30 tackles and broke up 14 passes to solidify his status as one of the region's top defensive backs.