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Stony Brook football preview: What Seawolves need to do to make FCS playoffs

Stony Brook Seawolves quarterback Joe Carbone (10) lets

Stony Brook Seawolves quarterback Joe Carbone (10) lets loose with pass over the middle during the first half of the game on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015 at Stony Brook University. Credit: Joseph D. Sulliva

Three seasons in the Colonial Athletic Association have put the brakes on all the momentum Stony Brook’s football program built when it was winning Big South titles, rolling up impressive victories and winning FCS playoff games in 2011-12. The Seawolves haven’t had a winning record since joining the CAA, and if you believe a preseason poll that predicted an eighth-place finish for them in 2016, their prospects for a breakthrough this season are dim.

But as he considers the depth of talent he has recruited, coach Chuck Priore believes the Seawolves are poised to compete for an FCS playoff berth in a conference that placed six teams in various preseason top-25 rankings.

“I definitely do for several reasons,” said Priore, who is in his 11th year as coach. “Maybe the most important reason is now we’ve got three full recruiting classes that are representing us being in a tough conference . . . This is the deepest team I bring to the table by far in my career here.”

The biggest difference should be on offense, which has been a major weakness the past two seasons, scoring as many as 21 points only four times in 16 CAA games in that span, including only once last season.

“We have to figure out how to score points,” Priore said. “That’s not a secret. We were able to get five transfers to go along with our players on offense that I think are going to make an immediate impact; three of them at the skill positions that could be game-changers. Then, it’s to get the quarterback position right.”

Priore committed to redshirt sophomore Joe Carbone as his starting quarterback. Carbone gained experience alternating at the position last season but managed only two touchdown passes with eight interceptions. He should benefit from the addition of three Boston College transfers, including running back Jordan Gowins and wide receivers Harrison Jackson and Sherman Alston Jr. On the offensive line, transfer guards Mason Zimmerman from Maryland and Jonathan Haynes from West Virginia join preseason all-CAA tackle Timon Parris and veteran Armani Garrick, who moved from guard to center.

Top running back Stacey Bedell returns from the shoulder injury that caused him to miss the final seven games last season, and transfer wide receiver Tim Keith (Western Michigan), who sat out last season with an injury, joins preseason all-CAA wide receiver Ray Bolden and veteran Donavin Washington.

“We’ve never been this deep at receiver in my 10 years here,” Priore said. Expressing confidence in Carbone’s improved passing game, he added, “Joe stayed here all summer, and he’s developed that connection with the receivers. It’s actually a strength of our team right now.”

As for the running game that has been a Priore trademark, the coach said the addition of the 225-pound Gowins, a former St. Anthony’s star and winner of Newsday’s 2013 Hansen Award as the top high school player in Suffolk County, to Bedell and last season’s leading rusher Donald Liotine “is crucial. That position is back to where we have a 1-2 punch and a third punch.”

Stony Brook’s defense was among the best in the nation statistically the past two seasons but it loses all-American defensive end Victor Ochi. Still, it should remain strong with preseason all-CAA defensive end Aaron Thompson assuming Ochi’s role and the leadership of rover back Tyrice Beverette and safety Jaheem Woods in a deep, athletic secondary.

“I want my defense to keep the legacy going, keep our aggressiveness going,” Beverette said. “We cannot live off what we did last year. We’ve got to live off what we’re going to do this year. A lot of people will say, ‘How are you going to react without Ochi?’ But we want to prove to people we’re not stopping.”

In the end, however, Stony Brook’s success likely will be determined by whether it can keep pace with the high-powered offenses of CAA favorites Richmond, William & Mary, James Madison, Villanova, New Hampshire and Towson. Carbone said his preparation and tape study has improved, and he believes he can become more of a pocket passer.

“I’d like for the passing game to become my main weapon,” Carbone said. “If I need to run, I will, but I really want to live in the pocket and learn how to perform as a pro-style quarterback . . . This year, there’s no excuse. We have all the pieces in place.”

Making the FCS playoffs requires a minimum of a 7-4 record and, most likely, a 6-2 or 5-3 CAA record. Stony Brook has gone 3-5, 4-4 and 3-5 the past three years in conference and was beset by injuries each season.

“It’s do you have enough talent to sustain injury and do you have enough ability to score points?” Priore said. “Our first year in the CAA, we scored points, but our defense wasn’t as good. We graduated a lot of [offensive] talent that year. It’s taken us two years, but I think we’ve reloaded offensively.”

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