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2019 Missouri Valley spring outlook

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - Easton Stick. Taryn Christion. Sean McGuire. Eli Dunne.

There are some "Help Wanted" signs at quarterback across the Missouri Valley Football Conference. No fewer than half of the 10 teams in the strongest FCS conference are seeking a new starter to run their respective offense.

Everybody's chasing North Dakota State, of course. The Bison have won at least a share of a record eight straight MVFC titles in addition to their two straight and seven of the last eight FCS national titles.

Following is a look across the MVFC with spring practices underway in college football:

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ILLINOIS STATE

HEAD COACH: Brock Spack (74-45, 10 seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 3-5 MVFC (Tie/6th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 17-April 13

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: Despite a solid season out of the defense, the Redbirds seek to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They totaled only 15 sacks, with defensive end Romeo McKnight's three the team high. They also seek to replace the production of wide receiver Spencer Schnell.

NOTABLE: The offense improved with the return of offensive coordinator Kurt Beathard. Despite quarterback Brady Davis' return this season, the Redbirds will go with a heavy dose of running back James Robinson. The Redbirds lost four fifth-year transfers, including two starters, linebacker/defensive end Jason Harris and defensive back Willie Edwards.

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INDIANA STATE

HEAD COACH: Curt Mallory (7-15, two seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 7-4 overall, 5-3 MVFC (Tie/4th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 19-April 27

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (10 offense/6 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Coming off a seven-game improvement which was the largest in the FCS, the Sycamores have to handle higher expectations. They felt snubbed of an FCS playoff bid last season. With an experienced squad returning, they'll be picked by many people to get there.

NOTABLE: The Sycamores believe a second season of being in new schemes - the offense moved from a spread to pro style and the defense from 3-4 to a 4-3 last year - will make them even stronger. Quarterback Ryan Boyle was the MVFC's newcomer of the year and has a full set of receivers back. All-MVFC linebacker Jonas Griffith has had over 100 tackles for the last two seasons, with the chance to be the school's all-time leader. Seven of the Sycamores' 12 games will be at home.

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MISSOURI STATE

HEAD COACH: Dave Steckel (12-32, four seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 2-6 MVFC (9th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 28-April 28

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: The Bears return only one full-time starter on the offensive line, junior center Casey O'Brien. Dual-threat quarterback Peyton Huslig has to cut down on turnovers, having thrown 27 interceptions the last two seasons. He benefits from the return of a veteran receivers unit, including emerging tight end Jordan Murphy.

NOTABLE: Although the Bears enter the season with five straight losses, they took important steps a year ago with quality wins over Northern Arizona, Illinois State and Indiana State. The defense ranked ninth in the conference, but it should be much improved if it plugs two losses in the secondary.

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NORTH DAKOTA STATE

HEAD COACH: Matt Entz (first season)

2018 RECORDS: 15-0 overall, 8-0 MVFC (1st)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 27-April 26

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 7 (3 offense/4 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: The transition from former coach Chris Klieman to Entz has been smooth, so the Bison are focused on bigger concerns: the loss of 15 starters. The preseason spotlight is at quarterback, where Trey Lance, Holden Hotchkiss or Iowa State transfer Zeb Noland will replace 3½-year starter Easton Stick. But there are openings across the board, including on the interior of the offensive line and at wide receiver and linebacker.

NOTABLE: Fresh off a visit to the White House, the FCS champs are anxious to get back to work. Despite the loss of long-time running backs Bruce Anderson and Lance Dunn, the trio of Ty Brooks, Seth Wilson and Adam Cofield are highly experienced, having combined for 2,821 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns in their careers. Opposing offenses will look to avoid junior linebacker Jabril Cox, the 2018 MVFC defensive player of the year.

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NORTHERN IOWA

HEAD COACH: Mark Farley (149-78, 18 seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 7-6 overall, 5-3 MVFC (Tie/3rd)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 24-April 24

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 10 (6 offense/4 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: The losses are substantial, but the Panthers return some reserves with starter's experience. They're replacing key losses at quarterback (sophomore Will McElvain is part of an all-freshman and sophomore mix that follows the graduated Eli Dunne), in the front seven of the defense and the two kickers.

NOTABLE: The new quarterback will have an excellent receivers unit, led by senior tight end Briley Moore. Linebacker Chris Kolarevic appeared to be headed toward MVFC freshman of the year before he was lost to a season-ending injury after six games. Not surprisingly, UNI will have one of the nation's more challenging road schedules (Iowa State, Weber State, North Dakota State, Missouri State, Illinois State and South Dakota State).

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SOUTH DAKOTA

HEAD COACH: Bob Nielson (16-19, three seasons; 202-99-1 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 3-5 MVFC (Tie/6th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 20-April 17

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: The difference in the run game reflects in the final records of the last two seasons. As a playoff team which went 8-5 in 2017, the Coyotes averaged 190.8 rushing yards and allowed 150.8 per game. Last year, those averages were 125.4 and 211.1, respectively.

NOTABLE: With a lot back in the offensive skills positions, including 3,100-yard passer Austin Simmons, USD should make a jump offensively. Defensive end Darin Greenfield has 34 tackles for loss and 15 sacks in the last two seasons. The graduation of All-MVFC safety Andrew Gray is tempered by the return of Phillip Powell, the team's third-leading tackler as a freshman in 2017 who played in just four games last season.

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SOUTH DAKOTA STATE

HEAD COACH: John Stiegelmeier (158-100, 22 seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 10-3 overall, 6-2 MVFC (2nd)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 12-April 13

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: The offense has to replace 3½-year quarterback Taryn Christion. Stiegelmeier signed former Iowa Western/Arizona State quarterback Kurt Walding to join a competition that includes redshirt freshman J'Bore Gibbs and junior Kanin Nelson, the backup last season. While most of the focus is at QB, the secondary also must replace three starters, including NFL-bound cornerback Jordan Brown.

NOTABLE: With 30 wins in the last three seasons and back-to-back appearances in the national semifinals, the Jackrabbits have jumped to elite status in the FCS. There will be plenty of offensive talent surrounding the new quarterback, including running back Pierre Strong Jr., the 2018 MVFC freshman of the year, and wide receiver Cade Johnson. Linebacker Christian Rozeboom seeks to lead the defense in tackles for the fourth straight year.

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SOUTHERN ILLINOIS

HEAD COACH: Nick Hill (10-23, three seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 2-9 overall, 1-7 (10th)

SPRING PRACTICES: Feb. 27-April 6

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (6 offense/10 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: New defensive coordinator Jason Petrino - the cousin to former Louisville and Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino as well as Idaho coach Paul Petrino - is installing his new system to a unit that ranked last in the MVFC a year ago. On offense, the Salukis will have a new quarterback, likely redshirt freshman Nic Baker or former Wisconsin QB and junior college transfer Karé Lyles.

NOTABLE: Running back D.J. Davis was fourth in the conference in rushing and first in all-purpose yards per game as a junior last season. Any defensive improvement figures to be led by defensive end Anthony Knighton and safety Jeremy Chinn. The Salukis haven't had a winning conference record since 2013.

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WESTERN ILLINOIS

HEAD COACH: Jared Elliott (5-6, one season)

2018 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 4-4 MVFC (5th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 18-April 12

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 11 (6 offense/5 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: There's nothing more important in Elliott's second season than replacing 3½-year quarterback Sean McGuire. Connor Sampson and Trey McJunkin are the two returnees in the competition. It seems impossible to replace defensive tackle Khalen Saunders and linebackers Pete Swenson and Quentin Moon, but the defense is seeking to find a way.

NOTABLE: The Leathernecks made playoff appearances in 2015 and '17, but last year's starting lineup is one of the most hard-hit of senior leaders heading into the 2019 season. They will play six home games for the first time since 2014. Two of their three 60-yard receivers, wideout John Brunner and running back Clint Ratkovich, are back.

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YOUNGSTOWN STATE

HEAD COACH: Bo Pelini (27-22, four seasons, 94-49 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 3-5 MVFC (Tie/6th)

SPRING PRACTICES: Feb. 25-March 30

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 9 (4 offense/5 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: Only North Dakota State, which has stronger depth, is replacing more starters than Youngstown State. Among the standouts who have to be replaced are running back Tevin McCaster (injury-plagued Joe Alessi, Christian Turner and Braxton Chapman are candidates) and four-year startling linebacker Armand Dellovade. In addition, there's a complete overhaul going on in the kicking game.

NOTABLE: Fifth-year senior quarterback Nathan Mays played in only four games before he was lost to injury last season. As he returns, only one full-time starter will be back on the offensive line. On defense, the Penguins get back a difference maker in defensive end Justus Reed, who seeks to return to form following an Achilles injury last offseason. Carl Pelini, Bo's back, has returned as assistant head coach following one season as Bowling Green's defensive coordinator.

Updated March 13, 2019

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