The training wheels are off for a Stony Brook football program that has grown into a budding national power at the Football Championship Subdivision level. After four straight Big South titles and two straight seasons reaching the second round of the playoffs, the Seawolves are ready for their debut season in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Think of it as the SEC of the FCS (Division I-AA) in the sense that the CAA traditionally has been a multiple-bid league in what now is a 24-team postseason tournament.
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Instead of romping, as SBU often did until the season-ending battle with Liberty in the Big South, the Seawolves will face a gantlet of proven programs. That includes the likes of Villanova, Towson, New Hampshire, Richmond and James Madison, all of which are rated higher in the CAA preseason poll than Stony Brook, which ranks 16th in The Sports Network FCS poll.
"It was the right time for Stony Brook to be playing week in and week out and be testing ourselves,'' coach Chuck Priore said.
After losing running back Miguel Maysonet and offensive tackle Michael Bamiro, both of whom are in NFL training camps, and several other key playmakers, Priore brought in 12 transfers from bigger FBS schools as a hedge against a drop-off.
Immediate contributors likely will include tight end Will Tye (Florida State), wide receivers Malcolm Eugene (Temple) and Jahrie Level (Idaho), offensive lineman Arthur Doakes (Pitt), running back Jameel Poteat (Cincinnati), defensive backs Derrick Morgan (UTEP) and Reuben Johnson (Cincinnati), and possibly the most impactful of all, former Maryland kicker and punter Nick Ferrara of Hicksville.
After losing 31 seniors, Priore had an abundance of scholarships and decided against giving all of them to freshmen.
"We knew we were going to the CAA, and the opportunity to get a kid that has played or has a little bit more talent really was attractive to me,'' Priore said. "My goal was not to come into the CAA and have growing pains. Taking the transfers is a mechanism to compete, blending them in with our other kids.''
Of course, the most important transfer of all is running back Marcus Coker, who arrived last season from Iowa as the second-leading rusher in the Big Ten but rotated with Maysonet and rushed for 1,018 yards and nine touchdowns. Although Priore will mix in Poteat and sophomore Jamie Williams, there's no mistaking the focus of this offense.
Describing Coker's selfless attitude, Priore said: "He did the right thing as a person. He took a backseat to Miguel. There were times he came to me and said, 'Keep Miguel in the game. He's a senior, he's hot.' Now this is his show.''
As a power back who takes a toll on defenses, Coker is looking forward to a more consistent workload. "I feel like that suits my running style more because it gets me going early and keeps me going like I did at Iowa,'' Coker said. "It's not stop and go, stop and go. Going two [plays] and two or every couple of series with Miguel, it was hard, but I got used to it toward the end of the season.''
Bamiro expected to play as a graduate student, and losing him because of an eligibility technicality hurt badly. But the Seawolves plugged in the 350- pound Doakes at right guard and moved Cody Precht from guard to Bamiro's right tackle spot.
There's another major change at quarterback as senior Lyle Negron replaces graduated Kyle Essington. Negron stepped in admirably for the injured Essington in a first-round playoff win over Villanova last season.
"The more reps I get, the more confident I get,'' Negron said. "That's the main thing I need is just the confidence. That's all I'm working on. I know the plays.''
Stony Brook's offense, playing a much tougher schedule, isn't likely to match last season's 35.4-point average. So a physical defense that takes its cues from hard-hitting linebacker Jawara Dudley must deliver the calling card introducing the Seawolves to the CAA.
"We want to hit you,'' Dudley said. "We're going to make you know we're here. Stony Brook is not well-known, so we want to show we can play as well. There shouldn't be any question about who left from last year. We should make it back to the playoffs.''