Welcome to the 2020 FCS summer preview series … and the conclusion to “CAA Week”. We think the CAA is going to be a crazy mess this fall, in a fun way — at least for fans. What could be the deciding factor come November? We tend to think it may come down to stellar quarterback play, and there are some good ones in this league.
Our writer Daniel Steenkamer talked to several of the top returnees.
Nobody familiar with Colonial Athletic Association football or the FCS in general needed a pandemic to know a pair of basic truths: No. 1: The CAA has displayed stupendous depth over the years and, No. 2: A team’s strength at quarterback can decide its fate by season’s end, and can “break” those evil ties. However, the COVID-19-related closures that have rocked spring football in 2020 could very well make those textbook FCS postulates ring more true than ever this fall.
While William & Mary snuck in the entirety of its spring practices before the pandemic took hold as it got into gear for its second season under head coach Mike London, many other CAA teams were not so fortunate. Delaware, for instance, got one tantalizing taste of the practice field as a team before the coronavirus had other plans.
In North Carolina, Elon was just ramping up its series of spring practices before the disruption, rising senior quarterback Davis Cheek told HERO Sports on Monday.
“We got in the first couple weeks, just kinda getting it out of the way, helmets, then helmets (with) shoulder pads, and then got in a couple days of full pads. And then yeah, it got cut off.”
Phoenix players and coaches have been video conferencing routinely for meetings, Cheek said, but Elon is also among the first teams to see some semblance of in-person activity resume.
“Now, we are actually one of the only schools that has a few guys back on campus that are just working out. I think it’s only 16 total guys that are here, so it’s not a lot at all. We’re just kind of almost doing a test run,” Cheek, who is currently on campus for an internship, commented.
“I’m just doing (the internship) and I am just working out now,” said Cheek. “There’s a few other guys back that are not working out officially, but they are here so we can throw routes and stuff like that.”
Meanwhile, another experienced signal-caller, Villanova’s Daniel Smith, saw his squad’s spring ball end before it could begin.
“The Friday before we were supposed to start spring ball was when everything kinda happened, and by that Sunday, we were all out, so we didn’t get any spring ball in at all,” Smith explained.
The Wildcats have since compensated with Zoom and have treasured the foundation laid in the winter workout circuit that was able to be completed, Smith indicated.
In upstate New York, record-setting Albany quarterback Jeff Undercuffler, the reigning Jerry Rice Award runner-up to only Trey Lance, was itching to get back to work with the Great Danes when he, too, had spring drills conclude before they could commence.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t get any football in on the field for spring ball when this stuff hit, which is kinda out of nowhere, you know?” Undercuffler said. “So, it was bad news. A lot of people I know on the team and all the coaches and players were frustrated because we’re there to play football and that’s what we all love to do because it’s fun, but when everybody got home Coach G (Greg Gattuso) did a good job of keeping all the players on the same page, just letting them know that we gotta do what we gotta do on your own now because it is what it is.”
Spring practice is often a valuable time for coaching staffs to evaluate quarterbacks involved in a battle for the starting spot and to install new schemes as necessary.
Interestingly, although perennial conference leader James Madison is not undergoing a change in offensive system, it is one of the few Colonial schools with significant mystery at quarterback. JMU must replace Dallas Cowboys draftee Ben DiNucci and a competition is expected between Cole Johnson and Gage Moloney.
Towson also has big shoes to fill at QB with the loss of Tom Flacco to graduation, but the Tigers recently picked up Weber State graduate transfer Jake Constantine to compete for the job.
The only other CAA team lacking substantial clarity at quarterback is Rhode Island. As if losing potent wide receivers Isaiah Coulter and Aaron Parker and sturdy offensive lineman Kyle Murphy to the NFL wasn’t difficult enough, URI is tasked with replacing the reliable Vito Priore, whom it lost to the transfer portal.
Aside from Madison, Towson, and Rhody, the majority of the CAA has established players under center (or in the gun) in the fold for 2020. William & Mary, Maine, and New Hampshire return promising youngsters Hollis Mathis, Joe Fagnano, and Max Brosmer, respectively.
Stony Brook brings back Tyquell Fields, who showed a clear knack for the clutch drive in 2019, victimizing defenses down the stretch. Delaware welcomes back Nolan Henderson, the elusive, dual-threat passer who stepped in for Pat Kehoe in 2019 but who has been limited by injuries, leading Blue Hens head coach Danny Rocco to especially regret missing the chance to watch his unit’s backup quarterback battle unfold this spring between Anthony Paoletti and Cade Pribula. Richmond returns a mobile threat of its own in the underrated Joe Mancuso, who has helped the Spiders take meaningful strides under Russ Huesman.
Cheek, Smith, and Undercuffler represent the class of the CAA at QB heading into 2020, however, and are major sources of stability for their teams in a spring shaken up by extenuating circumstances.
“I don’t think it’s as detrimental to us to miss a spring ball,” said Smith of Villanova, referencing the 10 starters whom the ’Cats return on their explosive offense, including dangerous skill position talents in wideout Changa Hodge and tailback Justin Covington, who is expected to be back at full strength from injury. “Of course you don’t want to miss spring ball; you want to have those practices and you want to get the reps, but I think if we can get six, seven weeks before our first game, we can hit the ground running a little bit because everyone should know what their role is and what their job is from all the meetings and film we’ve been doing over the past two months.”
Cheek echoed that sentiment in the case of Elon, citing experience gained by Phoenix youth in 2019 ahead of 2020, Tony Trisciani’s second season at the helm.
“We had a lot of guys that may have been three-, four-year guys, but they had never played football before in terms of playing DI college football. That’s a tough thing and there’s absolutely nothing they can do about it, so we gotta work through those growing pains and things like that.”
“But it was really good to have all those guys back, guys like (running back Jaylan Thomas and wide receiver Kortez Weeks) and even more, guys that have been getting some time, whether it was not as much time as a starter or they started to grow into a starting role as the year went on,” Cheek continued. “Those kinds of guys, that’s huge for them, because they got to see it live and not just like a spring practice or anything like that; the games are always different than spring ball, of course… It’s really invaluable to have that experience coming back.”
Undercuffler and Albany are coming off a season in which the Danes defied preseason expectations en route to a home FCS playoff win in their first appearance as a Colonial team. After being pegged dead last in the CAA preseason poll, Albany was one of the league’s three postseason representatives, cementing the minimal meaning of preseason chatter and resetting the program’s internal expectations, according to Undercuffler.
“We already know what our standard is for this year,” the rising redshirt sophomore stated. “We’re definitely aiming higher than last year’s standard because we know what we can do, we have the skill set to do it, we have the brains to do it, and we have the coaches and everyone to do it in our program. All it is is just a matter of time, really.”
While Albany raised the bar in 2019, Villanova and Elon remain driven by unfinished business from a year ago, their starting quarterbacks say.
Smith recalled about the aftermath of the Wildcats’ heartbreaking first-round loss at Southeastern Louisiana, “After the game, Forrest Rhyne, our captain linebacker, he took a picture of the scoreboard and sent it to the team and was pretty much like, ‘Never forget this. Don’t forget how you feel right now. This isn’t gonna happen again.’ So, that’s been a driving force for our winter workouts. We don’t want to feel that way again. We know how good we are and we know we have our own expectations for ourselves and that (loss) wasn’t it. It was a driving force, but at the same time, I don’t think it was how it ended, I think it was more so we didn’t feel like we should have lost that game, so we’re not gonna let that happen.”
After qualifying for the playoffs in 2018 with Cheek sidelined with a season-ending injury, Elon missed out in 2019, its first season following Curt Cignetti’s departure for JMU.
“I think that our guys, we understand that last year was not the type of football that we like to play,” Cheek remarked. “We didn’t play up to our standards at all, especially for the mid part of the season. What’s good is we ended on a high note with a win, but the big thing is none of that really matters now. Everyone comes into this year 0-0 and we’ve gotta play our brand of football, which is gonna be hard, it’s gonna be physical, and it’s gonna be us just grinding away. That’s what it’s gotta be. We’re never the most talented team in the world, but we’ve got some talent coming back and I think that we’ve got a lot of guys that are more determined to make this a really good year.”
With James Madison, which Undercuffler not-so-controversially termed a “national powerhouse,” not necessarily showing weakness by any stretch, but dealing with more unknowns and question marks than in recent years in its run, a slew of CAA teams anchored by formidable starting quarterbacks is taking aim at the Dukes’ crown.
“Our mindset last year was, ‘This is our league to go get’ even though JMU’s been the top dog for the past few years,” Smith reflected on Villanova’s approach, just one example of a Colonial contender’s mentality while gunning for the title in a league with “insane parity,” as Undercuffler calls it.
Concluded Smith, “We look at it as, as long as we play our game, we play together, it doesn’t matter what they have coming back, it doesn’t matter what they’re doing in the offseason. We know the work we’re putting in. We know we think it’s ours to take regardless of what anybody else has because we believe in ourselves.”