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In the FCS Huddle: Monmouth has Big South blueprint

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Updated: 7/24 2:24 pm

(SportsNetwork.com) - They were shaking hands, exchanging stories and making each other feel good on Thursday.

The Monmouth Hawks shouldn't expect too many more pleasantries out of the other Big South Conference teams the rest of the year.

The Hawks are about to play their first season as an associate member in Big South football. Last year, they got a taste of the strength of the conference when they were pummeled by 30 points at Liberty as part of an independent schedule.

But Monmouth coach Kevin Callahan already had a blueprint in his hands when he attended Big South media day alongside two of his key seniors, running back K.B. Asante and defensive tackle Pat O'Hara. The Hawks were picked fifth in the conference's preseason poll, behind favorite Coastal Carolina, Liberty, Charleston Southern and Gardner-Webb, and ahead of only Presbyterian.

If Monmouth seems out of place in football country, when its closest new "rival" is 400 miles away at Liberty, its Jersey Shore campus is actually closer than Stony Brook, which, in essence, the Hawks are replacing in the Big South. Stony Brook, like Monmouth, a former Northeast Conference member, was an associate member of the Big South for five seasons from 2008-12, parlaying continued growth into four conference championships and then an invitation to CAA Football, which it joined before the 2013 season.

Monmouth, which wasn't allowed to remain in NEC football after it left in most other sports last year, would figure to have slower progress than Stony Brook. But it basically wants to do what the Seawolves' impressive program did in the Big South. If all goes well, the Hawks could stay beyond their initial four- year contract as an associate member.

"From what we have seen, the Big South is a very fast and physical conference," Callahan said. "It is obvious that every team is well-coached, prepared and plays extremely hard. The conference is very competitive from top to bottom. In 2013 alone, you could argue that there were three teams deserving of FCS playoff bids."

Callahan is the only coach in Monmouth history, posting a 120-97 record in 21 seasons, including 6-6 last season, while winning five conference titles. Like Stony Brook, his school is upgrading athletic facilities, with a new turf field this season and stadium renovations in the works.

His team is a bit of an unknown to its Big South opponents and seems better equipped for the higher level of play this season as it returns a 1,000-yard rusher in Asante as well as a good quarterback-wide receiver tandem in Brandon Hill and Neal Sterling.

The defense gets back linebacker Dan Sullivan from a year-long suspension. In his absence, defensive end Darnell Leslie enjoyed a breakout sophomore season, and now he's one of four returning starters up front.

"We know that the Big South is a major step for our football program," Callahan said, "but I was pleased with the progress we made during spring practice. The preseason period will be important to our continued development as a football program."

Monmouth comes aboard when the Big South has standout teams in Coastal Carolina, which finished last season ranked No. 7 nationally, and Liberty, which has finished with a winning record for eight straight years. Charleston Southern and Gardner-Webb hope to force their way into the title talk, while Presbyterian, which has the smallest enrollment of all 125 FCS schools at about 1,100, is still trying to build toward success.

There was no surprise that Coastal Carolina was named the preseason favorite, coming off a program-record 12 wins and a trip to the national quarterfinals. The Chanticleers boast the conference's two preseason players of the year in junior quarterback Alex Ross and senior linebacker Quinn Backus (linebacker), and nine players on the All-Big South preseason team.

"Everybody on our team, Alex and Quinn are well aware, as we are (and) as everybody on our team is, (of) the preseason pick," third-year coach Joe Moglia said. "It's flattering, it's an honor and we appreciate that, but that's got nothing to do how anybody is going to prepare for us.

"Nobody is going to take a week off because they're going to play us. Everybody that plays us is going to give it everything they've got. We're going to have to be able to do the same thing the other way around. As long as we do that, we'll be OK."

A year from now, Kennesaw State's new program in Georgia will make its debut as the seventh Big South football program. At that point, Monmouth will no longer be the new kid on the block.

BIG SOUTH FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL

Head Coaches and Media Panel

1. Coastal Carolina (14 first-place votes), 104 points

2. Liberty (4), 92

3. Charleston Southern, 65

4. Gardner-Webb, 58

5. Monmouth, 32

6. Presbyterian, 27

PRESEASON ALL-BIG SOUTH FOOTBALL TEAM

Offensive Player of the Year - Alex Ross, QB, Coastal Carolina

Defensive Player of the Year - Quinn Backus, LB, Coastal Carolina

Offense

QB - Alex Ross, Coastal Carolina, R-Jr.

RB - Christian Reyes, Charleston Southern, Sr.

RB - Juanne Blount, Gardner-Webb, R-Sr.

WR - Kenny Cook, Gardner-Webb, R-Sr.

WR - Darrin Peterson, Liberty, Jr.

WR - Tobi Antigha, Presbyterian, Sr.

TE - Mike Estes, Gardner-Webb, R-Soph.

OL - Chad Hamilton, Coastal Carolina, R-Sr.

OL - Jonathan Burgess, Liberty, Jr.

OL - Greg Ray, Liberty, R-Jr.

OL - Clayton Truitt, Charleston Southern, Sr.

OL - Mitch Hanson, Liberty, R-Sr.

Defense

DL - O.J. Mau, Gardner-Webb, Jr.

DL - Chima Uzowihe, Liberty, Jr.

DL - Calvin Hollenhorst, Coastal Carolina, R-Jr.

DL - Dylan Black, Charleston Southern, Sr.

LB - Quinn Backus, Coastal Carolina, Sr.

LB - Nick Sigmon, Liberty, R-Sr.

LB - Tanner Burch, Gardner-Webb, Sr.

LB - Chad Geter, Gardner-Webb, Jr.

DB - Jacob Hagen, Liberty, R-Sr.

DB - Richie Sampson, Coastal Carolina, Jr.

DB - Demaris Freeman, Charleston Southern, R-Sr.

DB - Denzel Rice, Coastal Carolina, Sr.

Special Teams

PK - Alex Catron, Coastal Carolina, Sr.

P - Austin Cain, Coastal Carolina, R-Sr.

LS - Cannon Jordan, Presbyterian, R-Sr.

KR - Devin Brown, Coastal Carolina, So.

PR - Jeremiah McKie, Presbyterian, Sr.

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