Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Northeast Conference no longer looks the same or feels the same.
Albany's departure to CAA Football and Monmouth not being asked back has dropped the NEC to seven football programs, which is still enough to keep its automatic bid to the FCS playoffs, but not enough for the conference to keep its cachet. This despite Wagner earning the conference's first playoff win last November.
The teams will play six conference games each, which left some holes to fill in their schedules.
Adding to the losses of Albany and Monmouth are some of the conference's key quarterbacks, such as Wagner's Nick Doscher, Duquesne's Sean Patterson, Robert Morris' Jeff Sinclair and St. Francis' John Kelly.
Wagner has to replace 27 seniors from its championship team. Although senior Kramer Berg probably is the favorite to win the quarterback position, the Seahawks may have to adjust last year's "gun-run" attack because he is a drop- back passer, unlike Doscher a year ago.
Robert Morris received something not a lot of NEC programs usually get: a Penn State transfer quarterback. Paul Jones, all 6-foot-4, 250 pounds of him, could get the Colonials back on track.
Saint Francis (Pa.) coach Chris Villarrial worked one of the nation's more underrated performances in his third season last year, going 5-6 overall and 4-4 in the NEC for the Red Flash's best record since 1992. Can he rebuild a strong running game?
Having won seven games in three of its first four seasons on the FCS level, Bryant was one of the bigger disappointments across the FCS last season, losing its first six games before rallying to a 4-7 finish. The Bulldogs are replacing their all-time leading rusher, Jordan Brown.
OH, YES, THEM AGAIN
Bryant's other Jordan, wide receiver Jordan Harris, returns along with his 2012 NEC offensive player of the year award.
Duquesne linebacker Dorian Bell should dominate in conference play - the favorite to win the conference's top defensive honor.
Unless, that is, Bryant's Jeff Covitz has something to say about it. Covitz was all over opposing teams' backfields, corralling 17 tackles for loss as a sophomore.
The NEC has lost some key running backs, but Sacred Heart's Kashadus Spence is coming off a terrific sophomore season.
One of the returning running backs is Kyle Harbridge of Saint Francis. He missed last season with a knee injury after rushing for a school-record 1,474 yards in 2011.
The surprise NEC rushing champion, Central Connecticut State's Rob Hollomon, also is back. Including his return skills and Hollomon provided 171 all- purpose yards per game, which ranked eighth nationally.
Duquesne junior Ryan Ho is being asked to replace running back Larry McCoy, a three-year starter who ended his Dukes career as their all-time leading rusher. He's a smaller back than McCoy and excels on kickoff returns.
Wagner's three defensive tackles last season were freshmen, but 6-4, 270- pound Daevonte Barnett was the best of the bunch. He will keep getting better.
Sacred Heart's two quarterbacks, Luke Wischnowski and Tim Little, were redshirt juniors last season, but neither decided to use his final year of eligibility this season, leaving interim coach Marc Nofri to pick from RJ Noel, Shane Scramby and Even Pittman.
The Bryant secondary has too many candidates, but that's a good thing for the Bulldogs. Injuries to cornerback Michael Johnson and free safety Max Machado during the season opened up playing time to Chuckie Wingate, Bobby Rutland and others.
Junior college transfer Timothy Morovick is enrolled at Central Connecticut State this spring with the hope he can unseat returning quarterbacks Andrew Clements and Nick SanGiacomo for the starting job.
It all starts offensively with the center-quarterback exchange. At Saint Francis, John Watson and Garrett Lucas are battling at center, and Capri Thompson and J.J. Paige hope to win the quarterback job.
SPRING PRACTICE DATES
Bryant: March 27-April 20
Central Connecticut State: March 16-April 19
Duquesne: March 18-April 20
Robert Morris: April 1-19
Sacred Heart: March 20-April 27
Saint Francis (Pa.): March 12-April 6
Wagner: March 22-April 20