HERO Sports welcomes you to "Three-a-Days", where we will preview every single one of the 126 FCS programs, with three teams being released each day from June 17 to July 28. Then, we'll preview all 13 conferences from August 1-4. Today, we present … North Alabama.
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NORTH ALABAMA (7-3 IN 2018)
Independent last year
COACH: Chris Willis – At School: 3rd year (12-8 record) Overall: Same
LAST FCS POSTSEASON: None (new FCS program)
2018 OFFENSE: 25.9 ppg. (79th in FCS)
2018 DEFENSE: 24.3 ppg. (36th in FCS)
KEY GAME: Nov. 2 – vs. Campbell: Last year, UNA got punched in the mouth by fellow Big South newcomer Campbell in North Carolina (30-7). If the Lions want to prove they've made strides against conference competition, this is the home game to point to.
SUM IT UP: North Alabama is one of the most intriguing programs in the FCS right now. Why? Because UNA was a Division II national powerhouse used to winning 10+ games and making deep playoff runs. Plus? This is Alabama. Do we need to elaborate? Coaches like former Auburn coach Terry Bowden, Mark Hudspeth (now at Austin Peay, by the way) and the Lions' legendary Bobby Wallace won a lot of ballgames in the recent past, and the Lions are accustomed to the big 'W'. And last year? Head coach Chris Willis and the Lions didn't disappoint when they eased into their transition to the FCS level, beating 2017 Big Sky champion Southern Utah in Game 1, and following that up with a win at Alabama A&M to go 2-0 in the FCS in the first foray.
Oh, and some North Dakota State fans say UNA played NDSU tougher than others on the Bison's run to the FCS national title. The UNA program rides a four-game win streak into 2019 (which includes a win over the SWAC's Jackson State), and optimism is present. So let's get down to the nitty-gritty and spell out what could happen this year. This all gives an idea of where this program is heading in the Big South Conference. It's not necessarily us saying UNA will blow the doors off the FCS this year, but eventually, we think they'll be a frequent postseason participant.
The offense returns eight starters and 17 lettermen. That's a starting point. Quarterback Christian Lopez is clearly a team cornerstone after a 2,000-yard passing season — and he's also the leading returning rusher after gaining 376 yards and 5 TDs (netted 220 yards). Lopez has his primary four targets all returning, and three starters back blocking for him. Bottom line? He has some talent to work with to try to move the ball a bit better statistically than the team did last year, though the competition level definitely is ramping up this year.
The defense is in almost a complete rebuilding mode after losing eight starters from last year's team, including safety Chris Johnson, who will compete in next month's preseason games with the Houston Texans. The leading tackler and negative yardage guy is back (Christion Taylor). Taylor will be a rallying point as the Lions look to some new names to become well known.
OUR TAKE: There is reason for long-term optimism in this program — the Lions will be Big South contenders annually within a few years. This year, they may take their lumps as they transition to a full FCS schedule, but it will only be temporary pain. Trips to Montana and Jacksonville State and the home game with Western Illinois will not be easy within the non-conference schedule. And, of course, the road trip to two-time defending Big South champion Kennesaw State will be a challenge. There are potential wins on this 11-game schedule though, and five or six wins isn't out of the realm of possibility. We do think UNA will be near the top of the Big South standings this year.
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COUNTDOWN: The Best Player in FCS Who Wears Each Number, 1-99
TOP RETURNEE: Sr./QB Christian Lopez (2,184 yards passing, 14 TDs; 220 rushing yards, 5 TDs)
THE FOUNDATION: Jr./LB Christon Taylor (led team with 62 tackles and 9.5 TFLs); Sr./OL Cody Mann (returning starter, part-time starter in 2017); Jr./LB Will Evans (39 tackles); Soph./WR Cortez Hall (39 catches, 591 yards, 4 TDs); Soph./WR Jakobi Byrd (48 catches, 517 yards, 5 TDs); Soph./WR Dexter Boykin (35 catches, 496 yards, 5 TDs); Sr./DB A.J. Bracey (3 INTs, 4 passes defensed); Sr./DB-KR K.J. Smith (49 tackles, 3 INTs – 29.8 yards per kickoff return); Sr./OL De'Varis Nalls (returning starter).
TOP NEWCOMER: Jr./OL Zach Davis (South Alabama transfer, 3-star prospect coming out of high school).
THE QUOTE: "The biggest difference this year for us is that we have all our coaches back and don't have to worry about getting to know each other or how to work together. This spring will be more of an evaluation process than in years past. We've got a lot of young people that need the reps and that we need to look at. At the same time we only get 15 practices so we want to be careful about our contact, have everybody stay healthy and hopefully find some guys who can help us." — Head Coach Chris Willis said during spring ball
WERE WE RIGHT?: Last Year's North Alabama Preview
FCS 2020 NFL PROSPECTS: The List
BEST FCS TRADITIONS: The List
PREVIEWS: The Rest Of The Big South
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