2016 FCS Preview: St. Francis (PA) Red Flash

St. Francis's Marcus Bagley gets away from ETSU's DeAngelo Holt in the Bucs' 58-9 loss to the Red Flash (Joe Avento/Johnson City Press)
St. Francis’s Marcus Bagley gets away from ETSU’s DeAngelo Holt in the Bucs’ 58-9 loss to the Red Flash (Joe Avento/Johnson City Press)

St. Francis (PA) Red Flash

Head Coach: Chris Villareal, 6th season (24-41)

Biggest strength in 2016: The theme of the 2015 Red Flash season had to be defense (almost) wins championships. With one of the top-rated defenses in FCS, St. Francis had a season to remember, securing their first winning season since 1992 and coming oh-so-close to winning their first NEC title and FCS playoff appearance.

There’s every reason to believe that the Red Flash’s strength will carry over into 2016, too. The top-rated defense in the NEC boasts the return of nine starters, including S Lorenzo Jerome. The Sunrise, FL native was third on the team in tackles last season (58) and tied for the team lead in interceptions.

Biggest Challenge In 2016: The biggest challenge for a team that enjoyed its last winning season since Bill Clinton was president is to simply take that final step – to become a championship team, to win games when you are the hunted instead of the hunters. The task this St. Francis (PA) team accomplished last season was a thing of beauty. But they need to learn how to replicate that beauty over consecutive years.

Biggest Departures: RB Khairi Dickson gained over 1,000 yards in his final season in a Red Flash uniform and gained over 3,000 yards during his career in Loretto. Though St. Francis rotates their running backs, Dickson’s 5.5 yards per carry will be missed…

Players To Watch: …however, the Red Flash already have a pretty good back to step into the role of primary rushing threat, RB Marcus Bagley (626 yards, 2 TDs). The 5’11, 230 lb Bagley should take the majority of the carries, and RB Byron Johnson, with only four carries last year, slides into Bagley’s spot.

Biggest Game: vs. Bryant, 10/15/2016. It’s the game every Red Flash football player has to have looked at, wondering what could have been. After Dickson’s touchdown closed St. Francis’ deficit to two vs. the Bulldogs, all the Red Flash needed to do to tie the game was make a 2-point conversion. But the pass from QB Zach Drayer to WR Will Martin fell incomplete, and Bryant held on to win. Had St. Francis held on, and the rest of the season played out the same way, we’d be calling them “St. Francis: Defending NEC Champions.”

The Red Flash’s out-of-conference schedule is nothing short of brutal, starting with a trip out to Missoula, Montana to face off against the Griz of Big Sky fame, followed by three more road games vs. Towson, Columbia, and Albany to further battle test the Red Flash. So it’s critical that Villareal’s team, right after a trip to nearby Robert Morris, that they come away with the revenge game here in mid-October.

Rose-Colored Glasses Say:We are RIGHT THERE. RIGHT THERE. We were one or two plays away from winning the NEC last year, and we didn’t lose a whole lot of people from last season. It’s the same cast of guys that proved that they could win last season. Every since these freshmen got here it’s been constant improvement – and this year, it will be improvement to NEC champions!”

Glass Half Empty Says: “Remember who we played last season? Sure, we had some challenges vs/ Towson and Yougstown State, but we had a non-counting game vs. University of Faith, and we beat up on under-.500 Georgetown and East Tennessee State, who was essentially a start-up program. This year, we start off with five of the first six on the road, including a brutal stretch with three games against FCS playoff division teams. Can we navigate through those treacherous waters to do as well this year as we did last year? It ain’t going to be easy.”

St. Francis (PA) In Two Sentences: Don’t kid yourselves; St. Francis is a long way from the Noughties, where the Red Flash couldn’t string together more than 3 wins in a single season. But that brutal early game stretch – and a possible championship game on the road vs. Duquesne – seems to indicate the Red Flash could be second bananas again.

CSJ Projected Ranking: 2nd, NEC