The talk at Bowie State is of the football program's having one of its best recruiting classes in a long time. But will this, coupled with a healthy number of veterans on both sides of the line, be enough to improve on last season's 2-8 record?
If it's any consolation to the Bulldogs, they aren't the only area team fielding almost as many questions as players.
Among the inquiries: Can Salisbury State win without Marc Thomas at quarterback? Can Johns Hopkins climb even higher than last year, when it matched its best finish in the Centennial Conference? Will the Blue Jays be looking up or down at conference rival Western Maryland, which returns record-setting quarterback Brian Van Deusen but little else in the way of experience on offense?
And can Frostburg State build on the winningest five-year period in school history, including an 8-2-1 record last fall, while trying to replace, among others, its quarterback, an explosive punt returner and five regulars on the offensive line?
It won't take long for these teams to begin finding their answers. Bowie State and Western Maryland open the regular season today, Salisbury and Hopkins start next Friday and Frostburg gets under way next Saturday.
The Bulldogs have eight starters back on offense, and eight more on defense. Coach Sherman Wood, beginning his third season, says, "I'm looking at us finishing at .500, although we are definitely shooting higher."
It all sounds promising, but the Bulldogs need a few things to fall into place, starting with the continued improvement of senior quarterback Darrell Foote, who set school records for completions (104) and passing yards (1,293), but also had 18 interceptions compared with six touchdowns.
Foote, who has his entire offensive line back, including senior tackle Arthur Wigfall and junior tackle Brandon Flowers, again will be throwing to junior Mike Gordon (25 catches) and senior Thomas Destry (21). Starting running backs Craig Mitchell and Monty Bennett are gone, and sophomore Scott Strother (36 carries, 206 yards) should get the nod at fullback. The tailback position is wide-open.
The defense lost two quality players: free safety Chris Banks and end Tracy Ledbetter. Still, Wood said he expects the Bulldogs to "continue where we left off last year."
The challenges continue at Frostburg, where 16 players have moved on, including All-America split end Ariel Bell and two-year starting quarterback Gilbert Telleria.
But there is some good news for coach Mike McGlinchey. Four of the top six rushers are back, including junior E. J. Fuller (513 yards), who also averaged 12.6 yards on punt returns. The backfield depth is bolstered by Corey Simpson, Shawn Freeman and Travis Harriston. Last year, Frostburg averaged 254.7 yards rushing.
The Bobcats, who lost in the ECAC South Region playoffs after making the NCAA Division III postseason the previous year, will suit up their biggest-ever offensive line. Center Bryan Solesha and tackle Andy Potter are the leaders.
There will be plenty of familiar faces on the Bobcats' 3-4 defense, with nine starters returning.
The secondary remains intact with cornerbacks Neddy Vernon and Ron Wallace and safeties Chris Jackson and Brandon Reece, all juniors.
Linebackers Keith Arnold, Vince Stofa and Buddy Edmond each started at least five games. And sophomore lineman Yinka Olarinde led the Bobcats with four sacks in limited duty.
Hopes are running high at Hopkins, which won its last two games in 1994 and wound up third in the Centennial Conference at 4-3. And without the injuries and early narrow losses early that contributed to their 4-6 overall record, the Blue Jays might have done even better.
The strength of coach Jim Margraff's team again will be defense, where eight players with starting experience return. Last year, Hopkins ranked second in the conference in total defense, allowing just 15.1 points a game, but lost three starters on the line.
The emotional leader of this unit is senior strong safety Rob McGuire, who registered a team-leading 104 tackles and had three sacks despite missing two games with injuries. He is a two-time All-Centennial Conference pick.
Also back in the secondary is junior safety John Donovan, a second-team all-conference selection, and senior cornerback Preston Young.
The linebacking corps is just as strong, with senior Victor Carter-Bey and junior Stu Clutterbuck, who combined for 147 tackles, and senior Shawn Fallon, who made 88 tackles. Carter-Bey also had 3 1/2 sacks.
There's plenty of experience on offense, as well, led by senior quarterback Dan Redziniak, who threw for 1,073 yards and five touchdowns last year and completed 64.5 percent of his passes.
Just one starter is gone from the offensive line, and senior center Joe Koch is coming off two straight second-team all-conference seasons. Sophomore Don Zajick led the Blue Jays in rushing last year with 425 yards and will be the featured back. The coaching staff will try to get the ball into the hands of speedster Hari Lymon as much as possible. He averaged 31.7 yards on kickoff returns.
The Sea Gulls had a deceptive record last year. Though they finished 2-7, three of those losses came by a total of eight points.
Can they make up the difference this year? If they do, it will be with an unproven quarterback, since Thomas (1,918 yards, 10 touchdowns), suffered an off-season neck injury and will work as an assistant coach.
Among the candidates to take his place for coach Joe Rotellini are senior David Doy, who completed 22 of 37 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns last year, sophomores David Westervelt and Scott Parker and freshman Kris Kershaw.
The running game suffered the loss of Byron Push, Salisbury's first 1,000-yard rusher since 1986, to graduation, so the pressure is on two returnees: sophomores Mac James and Michael Okoh.
Salisbury is deep at receiver. Junior Freddy Grant led the team with 45 catches last year, the fourth-highest total in school history. Senior Derrick Arnold and junior Mike Muldoon each added 21 receptions.
The top priority on the offensive line is replacing three starters, one fewer than the number lost on the defensive line. Linebacker is more set with senior Marc Hannah and sophomore Shane Claiborne returning. They combined for 118 tackles.
The secondary also looks promising with senior strong safety Tim Jones and junior free safety Travis Royall.
The Green Terror is green on offense. Van Deusen, senior receiver Derrick Ray and senior center John Carroll are the lone starters back from a team that went 5-4 last year, 4-3 conference.
Nine starters are back on defense, and it would have been 10 if sophomore linebacker Russell Cromwell hadn't balked at moving to defensive end and left camp.
Van Deusen, named a preseason Division III All-American by National Football Gazette, completed 180 of 309 passes for 2,312 yards and 17 touchdowns. He holds school records for completions (397), attempts (719) and passing yards (4,851), and is tied for most touchdown passes with 35.
Ray had 21 catches for 248 yards and one touchdown last year. Junior Donte Abron added 15 receptions for 228 yards and two touchdowns, and he will be moved from slot to split end in the Green Terror's run-and-shoot.
Coach Tim Keating's defense includes leading tackler Bob Symanski, a senior linebacker who was named a preseason Division III All-American by College Football Preview, and senior tackle Joe Krcma, who led the team with 7 1/2 sacks.
Western Maryland schedule Today at Susquehanna 1:30 p.m.
Sept. 9 Juniata 1:30 p.m.
Sept. 16 at Gettysburg 1:30 p.m.
Sept. 23 Ursinus 1:30 p.m.
Sept. 30 at Muhlenberg 1:30 p.m.
Oct. 14 at Dickinson 1:30 p.m.
Oct. 21 Franklin & Marshall 1:30 p.m.
Oct. 28 at Lebanon Valley 1:30 p.m.
Nov. 4 at Swarthmore 1:30 p.m.
Nov. 11 Johns Hopkins 1:30 p.m.