Dayton and Jacksonville of the Pioneer Football League finished with playoff worthy 10-1 records a year ago, but neither were selected for an at-large spot. Both teams shared the league championship by finishing the season at 8-0 within league play, since those two teams did not play each other in league play.
By Kent Schmidt
College Sporting News
CSN West Columnist
The Pioneer Football League has tried to get into the FCS playoffs with an automatic bid for the past two years - but has been denied, even with the expanded 20-team field.
The league will grow to 12 schools in 2013 with the addition of start-ups programs Stetson and Mercer, who both compete in Division I in other sports. With 12 schools, the league could have a league championship game should they so choose and continue to be shutout of the playoff automatic bid process.
To get an at-large playoff spot, the league’s teams will play members of other FCS conference teams at a higher rate than in past years. In fact, Jacksonville and Marist will play an entire Division I schedule, while Dayton, Campbell, Morehead State, and Valparaiso will play just one sub-Division I opponent. Butler, Drake, Davidson, and San Diego will have two sub-Division I teams on their slates.
In past years, most schools played at least two or more non-Division I opponents, and all PFL schools play at least one school from another Division I conference in their non-conference play.
The league hopes for favorable outcomes in these contests to prove to the playoff selection committee that the PFL is deserving of a postseason berth. This year, Jacksonville and Dayton, along with Drake and San Diego, appear to the schools to beat coming into the season for the PFL crown.
comes into the 2011 season on a nine game winning streak and the only loss that they endured a season ago came against the 2010 Southern Conference champions Appalachian State.
The first three games of this season may show how good this team could be with three scholarship teams. This includes a road contest at a 2010 FCS playoff participant in the Missouri Valley’s Western Illinois.
But this year’s team will need to replace a number of players from last year - in fact, 18 seniors were lost from last year’s squad.
Two areas that do not need any replacing for the Dolphins are the quarterback and top wide receiver positions. Seniors Josh McGregor at quarterback and Josh Philpart make up what arguably could be the best pass-receiving combo in FCS this year. McGregor threw for 3,049 yards and 32 touchdowns with only seven interceptions a season ago. The majority of his passes went to Philpart, who already is JU’s all-time leading career pass catcher in receiving yards (2,156) tallied 48 receptions for 800 yards and 12 touchdowns a season ago. Those two were the main reasons that the Dolphins led the nation in scoring with a 42.2 points and 486.3 yards per games.
The offensive line for the Dolphins lost two All-PFL performers but two such honorees return this fall in seniors tackle Chad Cypher and guard Kevin Halverson to lead the newcomers up front. Coach Kerwin Bell’s team will also need to replace the school’s all-time rusher in Rubell Small, but experience running the ball will not be a concern. Small’s backup of senior J.J. Laster was second to Small in the PFL rushing rankings with 810 yards and seven scores. He also was a valuable member of the pass catching with 226 yards and an passed for additional score through the air.
The JU defense returns several All-PFL performers including junior defensive backs Jordan Dewhirst, Colby Walden, and Leonard Smith, senior defensive lineman Rolando Fines and junior defensive lineman Mike Mayoral. The Dolphins also return the PFL Defensive Freshman of the Year in linebacker Mike Klein, who moved into the starting lineup midseason due to a season-ending injury to Layne McCombs and totaled 5.5 tackles for a loss, including 2.5 sacks, with 39 tackles. Dewhirst led a much-improved JU secondary a year ago after moving from linebacker and led the team with four interceptions, eight pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Smith led the team in tackles with 66 and also had two interceptions. Walden also had two picks and added 23 tackles. Fines had 7.5 tackles for loss and a total of 54 stops a year ago. Mayoral led the team in fumble recoveries with three and totaled 32 tackles.
tied the Dolphins for the PFL crown last year and were also undefeated in league play in going 10-1 overall. Unlike Jacksonville, however, the Flyers will need to replace much more of their production from last year this season.
But that is not unusual for Coach Rick Chamberlin’s team as they always seem to be senior dominated and have many reserves that now earn their chance to play this year. Each season under Chamberlin, Dayton has posted a better record in the PFL than the previous year. In 2008, Chamberlin led UD to a 6-2 league record. In 2007 they improved to 7-1 and this season the Flyers posted an 8-0 mark.
The Flyer offense will need to replace the graduated 2010 PFL Offensive Player of the Year Steve Valentino at the quarterback spot. In spring practice, the most impressive player at that position was redshirt freshman Zachary Splain but three others are also in contention. Whichever signal caller emerges, he will have senior wide receiver Justin Watkins, who led the team with 777 yards on 48 receptions in 2010.
The Flyer running game will likely be headed by junior Taylor Harris, who led the team with 13 touchdowns with just 343 yards on the ground. Upfront, senior tackle Dan Prindle and senior center Justin Griffis will lead the group to open the running lanes for Harris and protecting the new quarterback.
The Flyer defense hopes to continue its domination after ranking second in rush defense in all of FCS a year ago (78.4 yards/game). Helping this out will be senior defensive end Devon Langhorst, who was a First Team All-Pioneer Football League selection in 2010. He led the Flyers and was second nationally in sacks (14) and was second on the team in tackles (77). The Flyer secondary should be headed by sophomore cornerback Kyle Sebetic after he totaled 51 tackles last year.
A team that hopes to finally get into the top spot is Drake
, who has finished the last two seasons in the third position in the PFL standings.
The Bulldogs got a chance to play the first ever football game on the African continent this past May dubbed as the Mount Kilimanjaro Bowl in Tanzania. They against a team of all-stars from the Mexican CONADEIP conference—a game Drake won 17-7.
Head coach Chris Creighton must be hoping that 17 is a magic number for the Bulldogs, since this year’s team will have 17 starters back this fall. The experience should be there to allow the Bulldogs to make a run at the championship - and they also get Jacksonville and Dayton in Des Moines this year to close out the season. At home, they'll have a golden opportunity to take care of business.
The Drake defense may be the strong point for the team this year after ranking second in the league with just 20.5 points allowed per game in 2010. The group will miss PFL Defensive Player of the Year in defensive end Dain Taylor, but fellow first team All-PFL linebacker in senior Tyler Moorehead should be able to continue the strong defensive performance. He tallied a team best 62 tackles with 4.5 for a lose. Senior defensive tackle John Sawhill should head the four men upfront after a team second best nine tackles for a loss with 28 total tackles, Senior cornerback Michael Lahart should head the secondary. He ranked third on the team in 2010 with 51.5 tackles, and had one interception and 11 pass breakups. He also led the PFL in punt-return average (10.6) in 2009.
In his career, Lahart has scored touchdowns via four different methods: Interception return (2010), punt return (2010), blocked kick return (2009) and rush (2008).
The Bulldog offense should also be fine and be headed by junior quarterback Mike Piatkowski. He threw for 1854 yards and 15 scores with just seven interceptions a year ago. He will miss graduated All-PFL wide out Steve Platek but fellow All-PFL Drew Blackmon (41 recept, 535 yards, 5 TD) looks to take over the top receiver spot The line will be anchored by two All PFL performers in seniors; tackle Evan Lawrence and guard Stephen Flynn. The running game should be headed by last year’s leading ground gainer in senior Pat Cashmore (357 yards, 6 TD).
The Bulldog kicking game will be handled by All-PFL honorable mention Billy Janssen, who averaged over 38 yards per punt and also made 3-of-9 field goal attempts.
is another team that hopes to rebound and get back to the top of the PFL standings. The Toreros won or at least a share of the PFL title in 2005, 2006, and 2007. Coach Ron Caragher led USD to the last of those titles and finished 2009 also at 9-2 overall, but has seen two seasons under the .500 mark; 4-7 in 2009 and 5-6 a season ago.
The Toreros did finish last season winning four of their last five contests and were a very young squad. In fact, USD only lost ten seniors from last year so expectations have to be high to better the results from last year.
The biggest area of optimism is on the defensive side with senior defensive end Mario Kurn, who was named to a number of All-American squads a year ago. He is coming off a terrific season as he totaled 66 tackles, 17 sacks, and an astounding 27 tackles for loss with the sack total leading all of FCS.
He will be joined by another All-PFL performer in senior cornerback Al-Rilwan Adeyemi, who led the team in interceptions (6) with one of them returned for a touchdown, while also tying for the team second lead in tackles (48). Kurn will also have a defensive line mate in senior tackle to help in Dustin Geyer, who was an honorable mention All-PFL honoree after recording 22 tackles, eight of those for loss, and 5 sacks a season ago.
The Torero offense will again be headed by quarterback Mason Mills, who threw for 2,160 yards and 18 scores. The junior signal caller will be under All-PFL senior center Christian Fetters, who will pace the offensive line but will need to find a new top receiver after the graduation loss of Godfrey Smith. That replacement maybe junior Sam Hoekstra, who was the team’s third leading receiver (23 receptions, 149 yards, 1 TD) last year from a running back spot. Hoekstra was also prolific as a kick returner in being named as an All-PFL honorable mention for that position in ranking third in kick returns and fourth in punt return yardage within the PFL.
One more team that appears to be on the climb within the PFL is Morehead State
. The Eagles, like the Toreros, finished the season at 5-6 and ended the season with two straight victories. And MSU also loses just ten seniors from last year’s team, so experience should not be a problem coming into this season.
MSU once was a top team when the PFL had the North and South Divisions—winning the South Division four straight seasons from 2002 to 2005 - but Coach Matt Ballard has only finished with a winning record just once since their last divisional title (2007 at 7-4).
MSU’s offense last year was not much of a problem with junior Zack Lewis at quarterback leading the attack. He threw for 2898 yards and 15 touchdowns last year and nearly broke the school record for passing yardage with 458 yards and four touchdowns against St. Francis—one yard shy of the all-time MSU mark.
He will have several key members around him back this fall including senior fullback Ronnie McDermott, who was the leading pas catcher for the Eagles a season ago with 49 catches for 673 yards and a touchdown, as well as leading wide receiver junior Donte Sawyer (43 recept, 457 yards, 2 TD). He will be protected by an All-PFL returnees in junior tackle Eric Matteson. He will have leading ground gainer in senior running back Desmond Cox (448 yards, 2 TD) back as well.
Should the Eagles improve, the defense is the area of the most potential. The team gave up over 30 points per game, and ranked eighth within the PFL in total defense. MSU will have three senior All-PFL members to build around in linebacker Tony Bachman and ends Jerome Raymond and Mark Hall. Bachman finished 2010 ranked second in the PFL and first on the team with 122 tackles. Raymond ranked third in the PFL with 19.5 tackles for loss and finished fourth in the league and first on the team with 11.5 sacks. Hall finished with 55 total tackles, including 16.5 of those for loss.
The kicking game should be a strength with All-PFL placekicker Rainer Duzan, who led the team in scoring with 59 points and was 11-of-13 on his field goal attempts. He also handled the punting for the team and averaged 38.4 yards per punt.
slipped in 2010 after being the league co-champions in 2009. The Bulldogs slipped to 4-7 overall last year after winning the final Gridiron Classic against NEC champions Central Connecticut State in 2009. The Bulldogs can take solace in that three of their losses were by eight points or less. In 2009, the Bulldogs seemed to win all the close contests and Coach Jeff Voris hopes to get to that form this year.
The strength of their team last was the defense, which ranked first in scoring in giving up just 19.2 points per game. This side of the ball should again be a strength with the return of All-PFL linebacker junior Jordan Ridley, who led the PFL in tackles a season ago with 130. He also tied for the team lead in pass interceptions (2) and finished second on the squad in tackles for loss (9.5). He will be joined in the linebacker position by senior Nick Caldicott, who was second on the team with 60 tackles. The Bulldog line will be headed by senior end Ross Teare, who added 45 tackles with five for a loss. The secondary should be led by senior safety Logan Sullivan, who was third on the team with 54 tackles and tied for the interception lead with two.
The offense was the area that took a decline from 2009 to 2010. The team went from averaging just 18.4 points last year, where as they averaged 27.7 points in 2009. The team will have quarterback Andrew Huck and top receiver Zach Watkins back to try to return to the 2009 form. Huck passed for 1865 yards and 12 touchdowns last year after throwing for 2454 yards and 24 scores the season before. Watkins had 147 receptions for 1,621 yards and 13 touchdowns over the past two seasons. His 10 touchdown catches last season were the second-most in Butler football history.
The Bulldogs will also return All-PFL honorable mention performers in senior guard Pete Mattingly and junior tight end Carter Walley on the line. Walley also added 44 yards and a touchdown through the air.
The Bulldogs also return two All-PFL kickers in junior punter Michael Wilson and senior place kicker David Lang. Wilson averaged 38.5 yards per punt, while Lang converted on 14-of-23 field goal attempts.
seemed to be poised for a climb in the PFL in their second season in the conference, but the Red Foxes dipped from a 7-4 mark in 2009 to just 3-8 last year. The team will need to replace 14 seniors including record setting wide receiver James LaMacchia in hopes to getting back to the upper echelon of the PFL in their third season in the PFL after moving from the now defunct MAAC.
The Red Fox offense will center around senior quarterback Tommy Reilly, who set a single-season school records for completions (173), attempts (298) and yards (2,383) and also threw for 15 touchdowns against just six interceptions. While he will miss LaMacchia, he will have second leading wide out Michael Rios to be his key target. Rios led the Red Foxes by averaging 22.9 yards per receptions and was second on the team in receiving touchdowns (5) and yards (642). Senior tackle Phede Celestin will head the offensive line.
The Marist defense will also need to replace a top performer in linebacker Rory Foley. Looking to do that will be junior linebacker Tyler Ramsey and senior cornerback Jaquan Bryant, both of whom being named as All-PFL honorable mention performers a season ago. Ramsey despite playing in just seven games still ranked second on the team in tackles (68) with four of those for loss. Bryant led the team with six pass break-ups, and was third in interceptions (2) while recording 45 tackles.
is another team that hopes to turn things around in 2011 as 2010 was somewhat of a rebuilding year for Tripp Merritt’s team. Last year, the Wildcats finished just 3-8 overall with all three wins coming against PFL opposition. It was the third straight losing season for Davidson. This year’s team will return 15 starters including five of their All-PFL team honorees.
Another PFL honoree that is back is sophomore quarterback Jonathan Carkhuff, who was named the 2010 PFL Freshman Offensive Player of the Year. He was the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Davidson since Beaux Jones in 2004. He threw for 2,002 yards, ranking ninth on the Davidson single-season chart, and 12 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He took over for Matt Heavner and Chris Cochrane, who both struggled while starting the first two games of the 2010 season. Junior wide out Lanny Funsten was his top target after contributing 47 receptions for 685 yards and six touchdowns.
Another area that should help the Wildcats offense, that only produced just 14.8 points per game, is the hiring of new coordinator Matt Mumme to institute the pass-heavy Air Raid offense. Mumme is the son of Hal Mumme, the former Southeastern Louisiana and Kentucky coach that invented this pass-happy offense.
The Wildcat defense also hopes to improve after giving up 30.5 points per game a season ago. This group will have three senior All-PFL performers to build around in defensive end Morgan Popham (42 tackles, 10 TFL, 2 sacks), linebacker John Behm (69 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks), and safety Peter Kidwell (68 tackles, 6 TFL, 2 INT).
is coming into their fourth year of play since reinstating the program in 2008 after dropping the sport in 1950. The Fighting Camels are coming off a 3-8 season in 2010 and also finished the 2009 season with the same record. Coach Dale Steele’s team will see 16 starters back to build upon.
The Camel offense is centered around the option running attack. In fact, three of the six top rushing leaders in the PFL resided from Campbell. Two of these three will return this fall to lead the attack in Rashaun Brown (673 yards, 3 TD) and Carl Smith (502, 5 TD). The one of the three that is not returning is quarterback Daniel Polk. His replacement appears to be last year’s back of sophomore Dakota Wolf, who had the best spring ball amongst the signal callers.
The strength of the offense likely will be within the offensive line as three All-PFL team members return all for their senior years including tackles Sam Issermoyer and Jeremy Hill and guard Branden Burt.
The CU defense will have two key, All-PFL seniors to build around in defensive tackle Randel Herring and cornerback Jared Hart. Herring ranked sixth on the team and first among all defensive linemen with 48 tackles. Hart ranked eighth on the team with 43 stops and recorded four pass defense and 2.5 tackles for loss.
The Camels also have two key kickers in seniors punter Ted Moore and place kicker Adam Willets. Moore placed second a year ago in the conference with a school-record 40.28 yards a punt. Willets was second on the team in points (55) and made nine field goals with two of those over 40 yards out.
rounds out the PFL rankings this year in what they hope is one that gets them out of the standings basement. The Crusaders, in fact, likely have the goal of just winning a game—something that the team has not done in their last 20 tries dating back to the 2009 season. The team hopes to build on six returning starters from each side of the ball for second year Coach Dale Carlson.
The highlight of the team last year was junior punter Greg Wood, who set a new school and PFL record averaging 43.6 yards per punt in his sophomore season. His efforts ranked third in all of FCS play a season ago.
The Crusader offense will need to build around senior wide receiver Sean McCarty, who led the team with 43 receptions for 526 yards a season ago. Fellow seniors in tackle Nate Blair and center Ferdinand Velez will head the offensive line. How Valpo improves likely will be on how their quarterback play improves. Last year’s starter of Nate Goergen three more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (4). Redshirt freshman Eric Hoffman appears as if he will get the first chance to be the starter this fall.
The Valpo defense will have a duo of All-PFL senior defensive lineman back in Grant Bushong, who made 59 tackles last season, including six for loss, and Brian Plachinski, who made 28 stops, including seven for loss and a team-high five quarterback sacks. Fellow All-PFL junior Cody Gokan, who finished second on the team with 69 tackles in just nine games due to injury, should pace the linebacker corps.
Predicted Order of Finish
4. San Diego
5. Morehead State
Offensive Player of the Year:
Josh McGregor, QB, Jacksonville, Sr.
Defensive Player of the Year:
Mario Kurn, DE, San Diego, Sr.
Biggest Shoes to Fill:
DE Dain Taylor, Drake