Duquesne Dukes (2011 Poll Finish – 2nd)
2010 Record: 7-4, 5-3 NEC
2010 NEC Finish: 3rd
Duquesne enters the 2011 season coming off the most successful campaign in the program's three-year NEC tenure. Making the transition from the non-scholarship MAAC into the NEC, the Dukes had only six wins combined during the 2008 and 2009 seasons. In 2010, they had seven.
"We were excited about the way we finished the year last year. One of the signs of a team that has a good season is, after that last game, they don't want it to end," said head coach Jerry Schmitt.
A 5-3 conference record coupled with notable non-conference wins over Bucknell and Dayton last season have given the Duquesne faithful plenty of reason to get excited about the upcoming campaign
"I was really proud of the mental toughness our team showed last season," said Schmitt. "I'm hoping it will carry over to 2011. We were able to get a lot of quality work done this spring."
Duquesne returns 14 starters from last year's late-season surge and two of them are the team's offensive catalysts.
Junior quarterback Sean Patterson (Toledo, OH/St. John's Jesuit) will start under center for the second straight season with preseason all-NEC running back Larry McCoy (Wytheville, VA/Wythe) lining up behind him.
McCoy, a junior, has totaled 2,098 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns over his first two collegiate seasons highlighted by a 1,291-yard showing in 2010. The 6-foot-2 Patterson did a lot more than just hand off to his all-NEC tailback in 2010. He threw for 2,050 yards and 20 touchdowns compared to only 10 interceptions.
Patterson and McCoy will play behind an experienced offensive line on which four of the five members started all 11 games one year ago. Behemoth left tackle Ron Dunn (Abington, MA/Milford Academy) garnered preseason all-NEC honors and will protect Patterson's blind side. Guard Eric Warning (Monroeville, PA/Gateway) is also back as the whole left side will remain intact. Senior Cameron Downey (Dallas, TX/Jesuit College Prep) returns to the center position alongside right guard Jamaal Thomas (Upper Marlboro, MD/Eleanor Roosevelt).
Receivers Connor Dixon and Dave Williams, who combined for 1,390 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns in 2010, have graduated, but the losses don't necessarily signal a drop-off in the Dukes' passing attack.
Junior Akeem Moore (Pittsburgh, PA/Brentwood) will take on a larger role in the offense after catching 22 balls for 322 yards and two scores as a sophomore. His 14.6 yards per catch were a team high.
"We have some young guys that we're hoping can step up [at the receiver position]," said Schmitt. "Akeem Moore and Joey Cangilla are the two experienced guys we have, but we do use 3- and 4- wide receiver sets so we have to rely on the development of some of the younger guys."
Development has been a key area of focus for Schmitt and his staff since the Dukes made the step up to the NEC.
"The NEC is such a balanced league that it is imperative to build depth in your program and we are slowly doing that," said Schmitt who will be leading the Dukes into their fourth season as an associate member of the nine-team football conference. "Our first group of scholarship players make up the majority of our senior and junior classes so we are catching up to the rest of the conference."
Despite the program's progress in stockpiling talent at a scholarship level and then developing it, Duquesne enters 2011 lacking proven depth in the defensive backfield.
"We lost five of our top eight defensive backs to graduation, so it's a depth thing for us there."
Although they may not have depth, the Dukes still have playmakers in the secondary.
Junior Serge Kona, who made a name for himself at inside linebacker last year, will move to the free safety position where he'll team up with senior strong safety Khiry Carter (Philadelphia, PA/W. Philadelphia Catholic). The 5-foot-9 Carter made 58 tackles in 2010. The Dukes also have a pair of veteran options at cornerback. Jared Williams transferred back home to his native Pittsburgh after spending two seasons at Temple and the talented, but injury-plagued, Aaron Fitzpatrick is back for his senior campaign.
Duquesne lost its leading tackler – Nathan Totino -- to graduation, but Pennsylvanians Chidozie Oparanozie (Pittsburgh, PA/Linsley School) and Horvin Latimer (Bethlehem, PA/Liberty) have the ability to keep the linebacking corps strong.
Senior lineman Alex Inda (San Fernando, CA/St. Genevieve) brings preseason all-NEC credentials to the defensive front. Inda, who logged five pass break-ups and recovered three fumbles as a junior, should continue to thrive under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Dave Opfar.
Opfar, a former star lineman at Penn State who spent time in the NFL, AFL, and USFL, took the reins of the Dukes' defense in 2010 and the unit made noticeable improvements in scoring defense and overall defense.
"Dave did a great job of putting his stamp on the defense," said Schmitt. "I look for that unit to continue to improve in 2011."
It worked on defense last year, and, this year, Schmitt hopes a similar move will yield similar results on the offensive side.
Pittsburgh native Gary Dunn, who spent the last 14 seasons at Morehead State, has come home and will make the offensive play calls.
"Gary has a proven record of success at the FCS level," said Schmitt of his new offensive coordinator. "He's is great fit for our style of play."
There is clearly a buzz surrounding the Dukes, who were tabbed for second place in NEC Preseason Coaches' Poll, heading into the fall, but that hasn't changed Schmitt's long-term outlook.
"We're just looking to continue a progression here," said the head coach. "We're building in this conference."