Not impervious to the most recent cycle of realignment, the NEC swaps reclassifying Stonehill (formerly Division II) in for the departed Bryant in 2022. In the process, the transitioning Skyhawks join a conference with some depth, a balanced competition that can be obscured nationally by the league’s tendency to send a single representative to the postseason annually.
Sacred Heart has snared the NEC’s last two automatic bids to the FCS playoffs in a historic 2021 calendar year, but Central Connecticut has conference-championship pedigree as well (2017, 2019). Further along than CCSU in ’22 are greater-Pittsburgh-area rivals Duquesne and Saint Francis, applying pressure to SHU’s place at the top.
Returning All-Conference Players
From last season
Duquesne – 5: DB Jeremiah Josephs (2nd team), DL Maxi Hradecny (2nd team), LB Todd Hill (2nd team), OL Vincent Lumia (2nd team), RB Billy Lucas (2nd team)
Merrimack – 5: DB Darion McKenzie (2nd team), DL Nicholas Lenon (2nd team), LB Rodney Samson (1st team), WR/RS Jacari Carter (1st team), TE Tyler Roberts (1st team)
Saint Francis – 5: DB Gregory Reddick (DROY), DL Donnell Brown (2nd team), K Alex Schmoke (1st team), OL Seth Osborne (2nd team), P Jordan Slaiby (2nd team)
Stonehill – 4: WR Chris Domercant (1st team DII NE10), OL Joe Bastante (1st team DII NE10), OL Thomas Walsh (2nd team DII NE10), LB Marje Mulumba (All-Rookie DII NE10)
Sacred Heart – 3: DL Kevin Peprah (1st team), LB DeAndre Byrd (2nd team), RB Malik Grant (1st team)
Central Connecticut – 2: DB Tyler Boatwright (2nd team), LB Chizi Umunakwe (2nd team)
Wagner – 1: DL Titus Leo (1st team)
Returning HERO Sports All-Americans
From last season
Saint Francis – 2: DB Gregory Reddick (Fresh.), K Alex Schmoke (Fresh.)
Sacred Heart – 1: RB Malik Grant (3rd team)
Wagner – 1: DL Titus Leo (1st team)
Merrimack – 1: WR Jacari Carter (Fresh.)
Teams With The Most D1 Transfers
Duquesne – 8 (5 FBS, 3 FCS)
Saint Francis – 5 (2 FBS, 3 FCS)
Sacred Heart – 4 (4 FCS)
Names To Know
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Malik Grant, Sacred Heart RB — The Pioneers continue to be run-first on offense, carrying on the tone set by perennial All-American tailback Julius Chestnut. Grant will inevitably draw comparisons and contrasts to Chestnut, but he is a force in his own right, as he trailed only national powers Pierre Strong Jr., Isaiah Ifanse, and Quay Holmes in rushing yards last fall. Of note, Grant’s 1,347 yards on the season outpaced eventual FBS Power 5 transfer Ramon Jefferson (via Sam Houston) and outdid 2022 CAA Football Preseason OPOY Ty Son Lawton (Stony Brook).
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Titus Leo, Wagner DL — Leo is the brightest of spots for a Wagner program that has struggled mightily of late. While the Seahawks’ last win came in 2019 over LIU, Leo has been steady as he goes, sweeping NEC Defensive Player of the Year honors in the past two seasons. The 2021 Buck Buchanan Award finalist was eighth in the nation and tops in the NEC in tackles for loss with 1.7 per game to match seven sacks and a Wagner-leading 71 total tackles.
THE NFL PROSPECT: Darion McKenzie, Merrimack DB — McKenzie is the highlight of the Warriors’ secondary and is a freshly minted 2023 Reese’s Senior Bowl Watchlist member. The graduate student led his squad with nine passes broken up in fall 2021 and recorded a forced fumble. It will be an auspicious sign for Merrimack if McKenzie even improves on his tackle total, but he was far from shabby to begin with in ’21, ranking sixth on MC out of the defensive backfield with 34 tackles, 2.5 for loss.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Sacred Heart
3. Saint Francis
5. Central Connecticut
Nov. 5 has the look of the “week of the year” in the NEC. In what projects to be a tussle for sole possession of the conference’s summit, Sacred Heart heads to Duquesne. The temptation exists to favor the Dukes with home field, but SHU has been the more consistent operation and proven team. This budding-rivalry matchup figures to constitute the class of the NEC until demonstrated otherwise.
An outfit that could conceivably demonstrate just that is the Red Flash of Saint Francis, which should contend in the tier following SHU and DUQ, but if it can hope to swipe the NEC auto-bid from either, it will need to elevate on offense in the absence of Kahtero Summers and Marques DeShields, both of whom transferred to Rhode Island. SFU did win by a touchdown at Duquesne in 2021 and fell to Sacred Heart by just a point the following week.
Merrimack maintains the all-conference talent to threaten for “best of the rest” in the league. “The Mack” will be challenged in the middle of the standings by Central Connecticut, a rebuild candidate, yet a team that handled MC a season ago, 49-21.
Returning to Nov. 5, Wagner pays a visit to Stonehill that Saturday in each team’s best chance at a conference win. Given that the pressure will fall on the existing Division I Seahawks to fend off the upstart Skyhawks new to the subdivision, Stonehill gets the slight edge at home.
LIU, if it meets expectations in its own continued initiation to the FCS, will be clear of both Wagner and Stonehill on the NEC ladder. The Sharks had a one-score loss to Duquesne in fall 2021, but weekly competitiveness is not a sure thing just yet, as cautioned with more damaging losses such as those surrendering a combined 98 points at Saint Francis and versus Merrimack in consecutive weeks.