The Pioneer Football League finally came through with a playoff win last year. San Diego defeated in-state rival Cal Poly from the Big Sky Conference 35-21 on the road before falling to North Dakota State in the second round of the playoffs. The Toreros notched the first win after the league gained an automatic bid to the playoffs in 2013.
While San Diego, and the two teams just behind them in the standings Dayton and Drake figure to be back in the title mix, all three will see a number of new players on the team. San Diego lost 19 seniors, Dayton will be young on both sides on the line, and Drake will need newcomers at the skill positions.
Marist seems also poised with many returning starters to contend this year but also will need to fill a few holes as well mostly on defense.
Jacksonville, who has historically been a top PFL squad, will also see a number of key returners but most on offense will need to see new performers on defense.
And the six other teams also have some key returners as well.
Given all of this, the PFL just may be the most competitive races amongst all the FCS conferences this year.
With this column, I will highlight one potential newcomer from each school that I believe will have a breakout season in 2017. The players shown below are in alphabetical order by school.
Butler finished 2017 just 4-7—the same record as 2015. The Bulldogs hope to return to the playoffs as Butler was the first PFL playoff team ever in 2013. The Bulldogs return five starters on offense and six on defense.
The Bulldogs will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, likely Will Marty but that will not be settled until full camp. The new signal caller will also see four new faces on the offensive line as well. The experience of wide receiver Pace Temple and running back Duvante Lane, will help ease the offensive transition.
The defense was very good against the run last season, but it must improve against the pass after allowing a PFL-worst mark against the pass.
Mason Brunner, a sophomore-to-be linebacker might be the breakout player this year on that defense. He played in six games, including one start last year and finished with 12 total tackles. He came to Butler from William Henry Harrison (Ohio) High School where he was the Conference Defensive Player of the Year in his senior high school season.
Campbell finished 5-5—the team’s best season since 2011 (6-5)—and second best all-time as a Division I program. The team hopes to ride that wave into an even better 2017 season.
Campbell hopes sophomore-to-be quarterback Elijah Burress, who sat out the spring after being injured last season, makes a full recovery and be ready this fall. Senior-to-be Anthony Robbins will also be in the signal caller mix after taking over for Burress last year. Junior-to-be wide receiver Aaron Blockmon posted a PFL bests with 1,038-yard and 10-touchdown season. The offensive will be new at running back, where all-time leading rusher De’Shawn Jones and fellow standout Jared Joyner finished their careers.
The defense had a relatively inexperienced nucleus last season, but linebacker and defensive back are its likely strengths.
With the top two running backs gone, sophomore-to-be Darius Barnes looks poised to be the breakout player for the Camels. Campbell ranked third in the PFL in rushing offense last season, standing 19th nationally at 209 yards per game so Barnes hopes to keep that pace this year. Barnes did play in three games last year and accounted for 90 yards on a touchdown so he is not completely new to the Camel backfield.
The other North Carolina PFL school in Davidson is still seeking answers from his team, which is a terrible 1-31 in PFL games during Coach Paul Nichols’ tenure. Overall, the Wildcats were just 2-9 and were winless within PFL play in 2016.
On offense, Davidson returns 2016 PFL freshman offensive player of the year Stockton McGuire at the quarterback spot. He will have two venerable targets in senior wide receivers Jaris Scott and Cam Cheuvront to be his top targets.
Pass rushers Boo Jordan and Thomas Sykes and linebacker Ryan Samuels are defensive leaders but the Wildcats still need to improve most on the defensive side. In 2016, Davidson gave up over 29 points and over 420 yards per game.
To help on the defense, sophomore-to-be from the other defensive end spot just may be the breakout performer Davidson needs to improve. Darnell was voted as the most improved player on the team in the spring practices. He did play in all 11 games last year and notched 10 tackles and two of those for a loss in his freshman year.
Dayton maybe the preseason favorite in the PFL race. The Flyers have a current seven game winning streak and finished just behind San Diego last year in posting a 9-2 overall mark. Dayton hopes to get back to the playoffs after being the first PFL team to host a playoff game in 2015.
The Flyers return 11 starters on both sides of the ball but they have to replace three starters on both the offensive and defensive lines. Senior-to-be quarterback Alex Jeske, who accounted for 15 touchdowns both on the ground and through the air will be the team leader on offense.
The Dayton defense should be anchored by seniors in linebacker Jack Crain and defensive end Nick Surges. The unit gave up an impressive just over 19 points and 350 yards per game in 2016.
While the passing game on offense seems in fine shape with Jeske, the Flyers breakout player just may be sophomore-to-be Sean Profit as a running back. Profit was a terror in the Flyers’ spring game in scoring three touchdowns. He did see some action last year with 262 yards on the ground and a score in a back-up role.
Just opposite of Dayton, Drake returns a lineup experienced on the offensive and defensive lines. The Bulldogs finished third in the PFL standings with a 7-4 overall mark. Drake has yet to breakthrough with a PFL championship since the Bulldogs won the crown in 2012—the year before the PFL was issued the automatic playoff bid.
On offense, senior-to-be Grant Kraemer is rooted at quarterback. But the Bulldogs will need to replace leading rusher Conley Wilkins (graduation) and Drew Lauer (knee injury) in the backfield. Drake also needs to find a replacement for NFL drafted tight end Eric Saubert.
The defense will be headed by linebacker Taylor Coleman, who led the team in tackles despite missing the final three games last season. 2015 All-PFL defensive end Mack Marrin’s attempt to get back to his 2015 form after he battled through injuries last season.
Redshirt freshman running back Taylor Murph just may be the newcomer the Bulldogs need in the backfield. The Omaha (Nebraska) native was named to the 2015 All-ITG by Omaha.com and also earned honorable mention all-state honors. He recorded 929 rushing yards with 10 touchdowns in 2015 and was even better as a junior—rushing for 1,251 yards. He had a strong spring and scored a touchdown in the Bulldog spring game.
Perennial power Jacksonville finished fifth in the standings in Coach Ian Shields’ first season in northern Florida. The Dolphins finished 5-5 overall in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year with the new coach.
The offense returns all but one starter, the school’s second all-time rusher Ulysses Bryant, but was on-and-off due to injuries, so others broke through behind him. Quarterback Rylan Wells should be the team’s leader and actually finished as the team’s rushing leader a year ago.
The defense returns six starters. It finished 10th out of the 11 teams in the PFL in points allowed per game and must get better play upfront to stop the run game.
That defense may see a breakout in sophomore defensive lineman Crandal Maines. From the Coach Shields, he stated he had a tremendous offseason after playing sparingly in 2016. He had eight sacks, five TFL, 39 solo tackles, 80 total tackles in being named Florida High School Football All-Area and All-State Honorable Mention while at Naples (FL) High School.
Marist likely is the dark horse pick in the PFL race this year. The Red Foxes’ return a veteran group is that stared off 4-0 within PFL play, but finished just 1-3 in the second half of the season. The team returns 15 returning starters (eight on offense) in hoping to finish the season a better fashion.
On offense, quarterback Mike White set the program’s single-season passing yards record last year, and has firepower returning in wide receiver Juston Christian and fifth-year senior running back Marcellus Calhoun.
The Red Fox defense will be headed by redshirt junior free safety Wesley Beans and fifth-year senior linebacker Ruben Avalos III.
Sophomore corner back Drew Danial might be the breakout performer this year for the Red Foxes. He did start eight games last year and will look to grow his talents in his second year in Poughkeepsie, New York. Last year, he tallied one pass breakup, 26 tackles, and two interceptions and was also a part-time punt returner.
Last year, Morehead State looked like they might be poised at a title run after finishing 2015 with a 7-4 record especially with PFL record setting quarterback Austin Gahafer back for his senior season. Instead, however, the Eagles slumped to a 4-7 mark.
With Gahafer gone, the new signal caller is up in the air with three vying for the spot include senior Jack Sherry, sophomore Lawson Page and redshirt freshman Ethan Jeffers.
Just as the offense side, the defense returns five starters with the most experience on the defensive line. This is the side of the ball that needs to improve the most as the Eagles gave up a conference worst 34.5 points per game.
One bright spot in spring was sophomore-to-be linebacker Kordell Brown. Brown played as a true freshman last year and actually started four games for MSU. He notched 32 tackles on the year with his season high against national champion James Madison (9). He was a tackling machine at Washington, DC St. John’s High. He notched 93 tackles and four sacks as a junior and followed up with 85 tackles and five sacks in 2015 as a senior.
Defending PFL champion San Diego was very senior laden last year. The Toreros need to replace seven defensive starters as well as PFL offensive player of the year in running back Jonah Hodges.
The USD offense will again be headed by quarterback Anthony Lawrence and another strength will be that offensive line, which returns all five starters.
The Toreros defense while losing much still returns defensive end Jonathan Petersen, as well as safeties Ray Clark and Colton Giorgi. That trio will provide the nucleus to build around.
While it is not for certain, it appears redshirt freshman running back Jordan Charles will make a run at being the USD breakout player. He was the star of the Torero spring game—rushing 12 times for 87 yards and 3 scores. He earned first team All-League honors in each of his final two campaigns as a junior (2014) and senior (2015). In his senior year, he was named Palomares League MVP. Jordan rushed for over 1,000 yards on the ground in both his junior and senior years at Chino Hills (CA) Ayala High School.
Stetson started back its football program in 2013 and in 2015 looked like it was on the right track to a winning program after finishing 5-7 but the team regressed the last two years in finishing 3-8 and 4-7. To make matters worse, Stetson returns just 11 starters including just four on offense.
Quarterback Gaven DeFilippo made seven starts last year for the Hatters, but he won’t play this year after suffering a severe injury mid-season last year. To replace him, Colin McGovernis back this year after being injured before the season started last year.
The defense will be the most experienced on the line, but one huge loss is All-America safety Donald Payne and now hopes to provide that talent in the NFL.
To try to replace Payne, sophomore safety Rich Stanzione looks like the most poised to be the breakout player for the Hatters. Stanzione had a game high six tackles and a forced fumble in the Stetson spring game. In limited play last year, he tallied 13 tackles. He was an a South Jersey All-Defense first team member after playing at Williamstown (NJ) High School where he had a nack of getting the ball with three interceptions and two defensive touchdowns his senior year.
Valparaiso looks poised to make a run this year as 17 returning starters with nine on offense. Last year’s three conference wins were the most since 2003—the year that Valpo won the PFL title (8-4 overall).
Quarterback Jimmy Seewald is poised to be a team leader on offense after a strong freshman season. His presence has led to one-time starter Ryan Clarke moving to tight end, and another former signal caller, Dalton Stokes, switching to wide receiver.
The Crusaders defensive back J.J. Nunes has been given a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA because injuries have limited him to two seasons and should be a team leader on the defense this year after many of his teammates were lost in the secondary.
Seewald seems to be poised to make a breakout this year after playing on-and-off last year. In total, however, he Jimmy Seewald threw for 1,443 yards and 13 touchdowns in 10 games in 2016. He was a two time All-Area selection by the Detroit News after playing at Divine Child High School in Dearborn, MI.