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CAA Football spring outlook

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - While James Madison may appear to be pulling away from the rest of CAA Football, there isn't a big margin for error in the conference standings.

A number of teams are ready to pounce in what should be a deep title race.

But until someone proves otherwise, the heavy favorite remains a JMU program that won the 2016 FCS national title and was the runner-up last season. New Hampshire, Elon and others figure to be ready to pounce if the Dukes stumble.

Following is a look across the CAA with spring practices underway in college football:

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ALBANY

HEAD COACH: Greg Gattuso (21-24, four seasons; 118-56 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 4-7, 2-6 CAA (Tie/10th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 27-April 28

WHAT TO KNOW: While Albany wasn't nearly the same team as it was in 2016 with All-America tailback Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks slowed by a knee injury, improving the passing game is still the priority during spring practices. Quarterback Will Brunson showed promise as a sophomore, yet the Great Danes have thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in each of the last three seasons. The defense, like the offense, returns seven starters, but coordinator Bernard Clark departed to become Robert Morris' head coach. Linebacker Eli Mencer is an emerging playmaker.

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DELAWARE

HEAD COACH: Danny Rocco (7-4, one season; 97-46 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 7-4, 5-3 CAA (Tie/4th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 13-April 21

WHAT TO KNOW: While the Blue Hens improved by three wins in Rocco's first season, they remain desperate to end a playoff drought that stretches to the 2010 FCS championship game. Quarterback has been a problem in recent years, but J.P. Caruso seemed to solidify himself in the second half of last season. The defense will still lead the way with the likes of linebackers Troy Reeder and Charles Bell and safety Nasir Adderly. Unlike many years, the Blue Hens are working toward a CAA game (Rhode Island) as their season opener.

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ELON

HEAD COACH: Curt Cignetti (8-4, one season; 61-21 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 8-4, 6-2 CAA (3rd)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 29-April 28

WHAT TO KNOW: Having spent time in the Top 10 in a surprising 2017, Elon could head back there this season with the return of nine starters on each side of the ball. A handful of young players starred in the skill positions, led by CAA offensive rookie of the year Davis Cheek at quarterback, but the Phoenix also are anxious to get back senior running back Malcolm Summers (755 rushing yards in six games) from injury. In the spring, the Phoenix will continue to build depth and work on improving in the kicking game.

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JAMES MADISON

HEAD COACH: Mike Houston (28-2, two seasons; 71-21 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 14-1, 8-0 CAA (1st)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 13-April 14

WHAT TO KNOW: The three-time defending CAA champ returns 10 starters (six on offense and four on defense) from a team whose bid to win back-to-back national titles fell short to North Dakota State in the championship game. The lineup is strengthened by the return of key players from injuries, including running back Cardon Johnson, offensive tackle Tyree Chavious and cornerback Charles Tutt. But the big storyline is the quarterback competition, where Cole Johnson, Gage Maloney or Pittsburgh transfer Ben DiNucci will be asked to replace standout Bryan Schor.

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MAINE

HEAD COACH: Joe Harasymiak (10-11, two seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 4-6, 3-5 CAA (Tie/7th)

SPRING PRACTICES: April 4-May 4

WHAT TO KNOW: Josh Mack, the FCS leader in rushing yards per game (133.5), announced a transfer after his sophomore season, so the Black Bears must find a different solution in the backfield. They'll also have to replace four of the five starters on the offensive line. At least quarterback Chris Ferguson settled the position as a freshman. Wide receiver/punt returner Micah Wright hopes to bounce back after a season limited by a team suspension and injury. The defense, which returns nine starters, will carry the team early on this year. The top eight tacklers return, including an excellent linebacking unit led by Sterling Sheffield.

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NEW HAMPSHIRE

HEAD COACH: Sean McDonnell (150-88, 19 seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 9-5, 5-3 CAA (Tie/4th)

SPRING PRACTICES: April 3-May 5

WHAT TO KNOW: A 15th straight appearance in the FCS playoffs appears to be a formality for the Wildcats. With 18 returning starters (eight on offense and 10 on defense), they may surpass last year's run to the national quarterfinals. Senior quarterback Trevor Knight is coming off a breakout season, and while the 'Cats are replacing two offensive linemen, last year's subpar run game gets Trevor Bryant back to pair with fellow backs Evan Gray and DeUnte Chatman. The 4-2-5 defense must strengthen up front, but the linebackers and defensive backs are outstanding.

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RHODE ISLAND

HEAD COACH: Jim Fleming (7-38, four seasons; 28-39 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 3-8, 2-6 CAA (Tie/10th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 26-April 28

WHAT TO KNOW: It was just a slight improvement, but last season's overall and conference records were Fleming's best at CAA lightweight Rhode Island. With the return of nine starters on offense and seven on defense, there is reason for optimism. One of the offseason priorities is to overcome losses at linebacker, and the Rams hope junior college transfers Bryan Castillo and Isaiah Moak provide the answers. A former linebacker, Zoe Bryant, hopes to return from injury at running back. Rhode Island still needs consistency at QB, but an experienced offensive line and a deep wide receivers unit, led by junior Aaron Parker, bring stability to the offense.

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RICHMOND

HEAD COACH: Russ Huesman (6-5, one season; 65-42 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 6-5, 4-4 CAA (6th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 20-April 20

WHAT TO KNOW: Huesman's first season at Richmond was disappointing, and the Spiders have to replace three-year quarterback Kyle Lauletta, the 2017 CAA offensive player of the year. Junior Kevin Johnson, who redshirted last season, made all three playoff starts in 2016 when Lauletta was sidelined by an ACL tear. Look for the offense to run the ball more this season because it's deep at running back. Senior Andrew Clyde (defensive tackle) and Justin Rubin (linebacker) are the top returnees on defense.

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STONY BROOK

HEAD COACH: Chuck Priore (77-61, 13 seasons; 116-70 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 10-3, 7-1 CAA (2nd)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 27-April 28

WHAT TO KNOW: Last year's senior class was an experienced group, so the Seawolves are seeking replacements this spring. But their best season in the CAA should flow into this year considering they return senior quarterback Joe Carbone off a breakout season and a terrific front seven on defense, led by defensive end John Haggart and linebackers Shayne Lawless and Noah McGinty. Overall, there are 13 returning starters (seven on offense and six on defense).

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TOWSON

HEAD COACH: Rob Ambrose (52-54, nine seasons; 55-61 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 5-6, 3-5 CAA (Tie/7th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 13-April 21

WHAT TO KNOW: There is jelling going on between the players and some of the new assistant coaches hired under Ambrose. Many of the players gained valuable experience early in their careers, so the Tigers are returning a CAA-high 20 starters - including sophomore quarterback Ryan Stover. Running back/kick returner Shane Simpson, defensive lineman Zain Harps Upshur and cornerback Justice Pettus-Dixon each seek a healthier campaign after a disappointing year. The defense boasts linebacker Diondre Wallace, the Tigers' leading tackler last season.

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VILLANOVA

HEAD COACH: Mark Ferrante (5-6, one season)

2017 RECORDS: 5-6, 3-5 CAA (Tie/7th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 12-April 20

WHAT TO KNOW: The post-Andy Talley era began with a deluge of season-ending injuries, including quarterback Zach Bednarczyk, running back Matt Gudzak, wide receiver Changa Hodge and All-America safety Rob Rolle. Their return, with the addition of some of the young players who gained experience, will make the Wildcats formidable again. A lack of offense taxed the defense, but it still ranked No. 2 in the CAA in scoring defense (16.1 points per game). Linebacker Ed Steeb teamed with Rolle again makes for a dominating combo.

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WILLIAM & MARY

HEAD COACH: Jimmye Laycock (245-189-2, 38 seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 2-9, 0-8 CAA (11th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 19-April 21

WHAT TO KNOW: The Tribe would love to get Laycock to the 250-win plateau in his 39th season, but climbing out of the CAA basement is more of a priority. A number of young players gained playing time last season. With Tommy McKee graduating following his redshirt junior season, sophomore Shon Mitchell and junior Brandon Battle will battle to be the starting quarterback. The offensive execution should rise with the return of standout wide receiver DeVonte Dedmon, who was injured last year. While the defense features athletic players among its six returning starters, there's a need for building depth at cornerback.

Updated March 9, 2018

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