HERO Sports welcomes you to "Three-a-Days", where we will preview every single one of the 126 FCS programs from June 17 to August 6. Then, we'll preview all 13 conferences from August 12-15. Today, we present … Saint Francis.
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Saint Francis (4-7 IN 2018)
NEC (SFU finished T5th in the FCS)
COACH: Chris Villarrial – At School: 10th Year (40-59) Overall: Same
LAST FCS POSTSEASON: 2016 (First Round)
2018 OFFENSE: 26.2 ppg (74th in FCS)
2018 DEFENSE: 20.2 ppg (11th in FCS)
KEY GAME: Nov. 2 @ Duquesne: Everyone in the conference will be gunning for the Dukes as they were the unanimous pick to win the NEC again. Can Saint Francis shake up the standings late in the season?
SUM IT UP: Saint Francis lost six games last year by eight points or less. The Red Flash's 2-4 record in NEC play saw three of those close losses, including against the co-champs: 27-20 versus Duquesne and 13-7 at Sacred Heart. About half of the starting lineup is gone from last year with five starters back on offense and six returning on defense. But plenty of other players who saw valuable playing time are ready to step into bigger roles.
The defense was outstanding in 2018, finishing seventh in the FCS with 290 yards allowed per game and 11th with 20.2 points allowed a game. SFU has three starting linebackers, two starting defensive backs and one starting defensive lineman coming back. While the d-line has the least experience returning, it is led by Jalen Brown, last year's NEC Defensive Rookie of the Year who plugged up the middle of the defense. Outside linebacker Da’Jon Lee is also a huge disrupter and was named to the All-Conference First Team after leading the FCS with six forced fumbles and finishing eighth with his 19.5 tackles for loss.
The Red Flash have had tremendous talent in the secondary in recent years with a defensive back being named to an All-American team in each of the past four seasons. Safety Nick Rinella looks to be that guy as he leads the experienced secondary coming off a Second Team All-NEC season.
Offensively is where improvements are needed if SFU wants to turn its close losses into wins. The unit was slightly below average in 2018, ranking 74th in the subdivision with 26.2 points per game. In a move you don't see too often, Marco Pecora has switched his defensive coordinator role to being the new offensive coordinator.
The quarterback spot has a new starter and it appears Jason Brown leads the open competition heading into preseason camp. SFU needs to replace its top rusher and top wide receiver. Joel Denley looks to step up in the backfield and is a threat in the passing game alongside Chris Cropper. And running back Avery Miliner started some games in 2017 before missing last year due to injury. In the passing game, look for Zach Campbell to emerge and compliment Cyrus Holder, who had 47 receptions for 692 yards and five touchdowns in 2018. The Red Flash have a lot of production to replace in the WR room with three-time All-NEC performer Kamron Lewis gone.
Up front, Christian Eubanks is one of two starters returning. Eubanks is the lone offensive player coming back who earned 2018 All-NEC honors. West Virginia transfer Alec Shriner adds valuable experience and versatility after playing tackle and guard last year for the Red Flash. Some younger offensive linemen also saw action but will see bigger roles this season.
This is a program that prides itself on solid special teams, and it'll be key to replace All-NEC performers in kicker Eric Bofenkamp and punter Andrew Zecca.
OUR TAKE: On the surface, it might not appear SFU is ready to compete for an NEC title. The Red Flash were picked to finish sixth in the preseason poll. They were as competitive as any other team last year, though, but just couldn't finish the job in the fourth quarter. The defense should remain strong while the offensive question marks are big. If some new playmakers can fill roles and provide solid production, this team should finish higher than sixth place.
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TOP RETURNEE: Sr./LB Da'Jon Lee (All-Conference First Team, 63 tackles, 19.5 TFLs and 8 sacks)
THE FOUNDATION: So./DL Jalen Brown (NEC Defensive Rookie of the Year, 19 tackles and 2.5 TFLs); Sr./WR Cyrus Holder (All-Conference Second Team, 47 rec. for 692 yards and 5 TDs); Sr./OL Christian Eubanks (AC Second Team); Sr./DB Nick Rinella (AC Second Team, 59 tackles and 5 PD)
TOP NEWCOMER: Fr./OL Ben Phillis (Originally committed to FBS Akron, but grey-shirted there in 2018)
THE QUOTE: "Jason has a new found confidence as quarterback. I have a great relationship with him, I recruited him hard out of high school, and he's been fun to work with this spring and I'm excited to watch him grow." — Offensive Coordinator Marco Pecora said on QB Jason Brown
WERE WE RIGHT?: Last Year's SFU Preview
FCS 2020 NFL PROSPECTS: The List
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PREVIEWS: The Rest Of The NEC
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