MEAC spring football outlook

By CRAIG HALEY

(STATS) - The suddenly decreasing MEAC is ready to reaffirm what's strong in the conference - and coming off an unbeaten season, North Carolina A&T fits that bill quite well even with coach Rod Broadway's retirement.

Hampton's impending departure from the MEAC has made for a messy offseason with coaches and athletic directors working to fill out schedules. Also, Savannah State enters its final season before dropping from the FCS back to Division II.

At least in 2018, the conference will be 10 deep. And they'll all be looking up at the Aggies, the lone team without a loss in the FCS in 2017.

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

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BETHUNE-COOKMAN

HEAD COACH: Terry Sims (20-12, three seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 7-4, 6-2 MEAC (Tie/2nd)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 19-April 21

WHAT TO KNOW: A return to their winning ways pleased the Wildcats after a disappointing 2016 season, but there's still plenty of work ahead. The 'Cats return 11 starters (five on offense and six on defense). The offense needs improvement at quarterback and wide receiver as second-year offensive coordinator Allen Suber continues to solidify his schemes. Also, the defense ranked fifth in the MEAC in scoring and seventh in total D - still below the program's high standard of 2010-14, when the Wildcats won four conference titles. Kicker Uriel Hernandez made the All-MEAC first team.

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DELAWARE STATE

HEAD COACH: Rod Milstead (first season)

2017 RECORDS: 2-9, 2-6 MEAC (Tie/8th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 14-April 14

WHAT TO KNOW: Milstead, who played for three MEAC champions at Delaware State before graduating in 1992, seeks to rejuvenate his alma mater's program. A former NFL offensive lineman, he will try to make the Hornets a more physical team. Quarterback has been a revolving position in recent seasons, but the Hornets will be strong in the skill positions with a healthier running back Mike Waters and numerous experienced wide receivers, led by senior Taronn Selby. Nine starters return on each side of the ball. Inside linebacker Malik Harris will be back after sitting out the last seven games with an injury.

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FLORIDA A&M

HEAD COACH: Willie Simmons (first season; 21-11 overall)

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

SPRING PRACTICES: March 19-April 21

WHAT TO KNOW: The hiring of Simmons, who was successful at Prairie View A&M the last three years, has energized the Rattlers program. Their best days are ahead because the junior and sophomore classes will drive this year's experienced team. Simmons will bring the run-pass option to the offense with quarterback Ryan Stanley entering his third season as the starter. But one of their goals is to control the ball for longer stretches. There is need for improvement on the defensive line, and the return of edge rusher Calvin Darville from an Achilles tear will be a key.

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HOWARD

HEAD COACH: Mike London (7-4, one season; 34-50 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 7-4, 6-2 MEAC (Tie/2nd)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 21-April 14

WHAT TO KNOW: London turned around Howard in his first season, starting with an upset at UNLV and leading to just the Bison's second winning season in 16 years. They return six starters on each side of the ball, led by quarterback Caylin Newton, the 2017 MEAC rookie of the year. His favorite receivers are juniors Jequez Ezzard and Kyle Anthony. The primary goals of the spring are to replenish at running back following Anthony Philyard's departure and to get better defensively. The Bison tied for second in the standings despite ranking last in the conference in total defense.

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MORGAN STATE

INTERIM HEAD COACH: Ernest Jones (first season)

2017 RECORDS: 1-10, 1-7 MEAC (11th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 27-April 28 (spring game is April 21)

WHAT TO KNOW: Jones has taken over on an interim basis with the goal of earning the permanent role while maintaining defensive coordinator duties. The Bears are only four years removed from winning a share of the league title. This year's team returns six starters on offense and eight on defense. Junior quarterback Deandre Harris finished the season strong and Jones went big on signing wide receivers with four in his 2018 class. Defensively, he will rely on junior linebacker Rico Kennedy, who's coming off a breakout season with 19 1/2 tackles for loss.

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NORFOLK STATE

HEAD COACH: Latrell Scott (12-21, three seasons; 37-30 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 4-7, 4-4 MEAC (6th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 13-April 14

WHAT TO KNOW: After three straight four-win seasons, Scott seeks a better campaign with the return of an experienced lineup. They return nine starters on offense, seven on defense and the kickers. Quarterback Juwan Carter had an encouraging freshman season and is matched again with wide receivers Marcus Taylor and Isaiah Winstead, but a potential third option, George Wahee, has left the program. On defense, the secondary is highly experienced with all five starters returning. The Spartans want to get faster and stronger - think commitment to the run game - as they form their team's identity.

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NORTH CAROLINA A&T

HEAD COACH: Sam Washington (first season)

2017 RECORDS: 12-0, 8-0 MEAC (1st)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 14-April 7

WHAT TO KNOW: The Aggies seek a smooth transition following coach Rod Broadway's retirement after seven seasons and Washington being elevated from defensive coordinator. There's a lot of pressure on Washington considering he's inherited an unbeaten team. The offense returns only five starters, but the offensive trio of quarterback Lamar Raynard, who was the 2017 MEAC offensive player of the year, running back Marquell Cartwright and wide receiver Elijah Bell is outstanding. The big concern is shoring up an offensive line that lost four starters. The defense returns eight starters and will be particularly strong up front and on the back end.

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NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL

INTERIM HEAD COACH: Granville Eastman (first season)

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

SPRING PRACTICES: March 20-April 21

WHAT TO KNOW: The Eagles want to get back to their championship level of 2014-16. Eastman, the interim coach, played a big role in the success on former coach Jerry Mack's staff. The defense is anxious to work in tackles Arthur Randall, who suffered a knee injury last year, and Khalid Blount, a transfer, because they're replacing eight starters on that side of the ball. The offense is much more experienced with nine returning starters, and quarterback Chauncey Caldwell and running back Isaiah Totten are only entering their sophomore seasons. A healthier Dorrel McClain also can go a long way at running back. Improving the special teams is a focal point.

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SAVANNAH STATE

HEAD COACH: Erik Raeburn (6-15, two seasons; 141-54 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 3-8, 3-5 MEAC (7th)

SPRING PRACTICES: None

WHAT TO KNOW: Savannah State can't hold spring practices because of APR penalties. It's ironic the Tigers will be leaving the MEAC after this season because they've become more competitive under Raeburn. This year's team anticipates another step forward because of the return of 19 starters, including 10 on offense. Quarterback T.J. Bell was lost to injury in the second game of his sophomore season, allowing Dvonn Gibbons to step in as one of a number of key freshmen. Linebacker Mulik Simmons, the team's tackle leader in 2016, never reached the field following a preseason injury. The Tigers seek to become more physical and do a better job of controlling the line of scrimmage.

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SOUTH CAROLINA STATE

HEAD COACH: Buddy Pough (120-64, 16 seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 3-7, 2-6 MEAC (Tie/8th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 19-April 24

WHAT TO KNOW: South Carolina State's financial concerns in recent years seem to be having a negative effect on the football program, whose 11 conference losses the last three years are one more than the seven prior seasons combined. This year's team seeks to rebound behind 14 returning starters (eight on offense and six on defense). The defense has long been the team's strength, and although it loses two-time MEAC defensive player of the year Darius Leonard, it remains solid, especially up front. Quarterback Dewann Ford Jr. and the offensive line seek more consistency this season.

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