2014 Football Team Preview: Bucknell Bison

PATRIOTLEAGUEDOTORG Bucknell's Matthew Steinbeck
PATRIOTLEAGUEDOTORG
Bucknell's Matthew Steinbeck
PATRIOTLEAGUEDOTORG

Aug. 19, 2014

CENTER VALLEY, Pa. - While Lafayette won the Patriot League title and Fordham joined the Leopards in the postseason, perhaps no team was as impressive in the final month of the 2013 season as Bucknell. Now, the Bison try to build on that momentum and contend for the League title this time around.

Bucknell finished 6-5 last season, winning five of the final six games with the only loss coming in the final seconds at Fordham. The Bison were hot on both sides of the ball down the stretch, scoring at least 27 points four times and holding opponents to 14 points or less in four of the final six games. The run included blowout wins over Colgate and Lehigh as well as the close loss at Fordham.

The Bison bring back most of the core from last year's team. Sophomore running back C.J. Williams will be led by a veteran offensive line, with fellow sophomore R.J. Nitti likely to take over at quarterback. A defense that has been solid in recent seasons returns three Preseason All-Patriot League picks and the top five tacklers overall. The Bison have not made a run at the Patriot League title in more than 15 years, but that may change in 2014.

A preview of the 2014 Bucknell Bison season is included below, with a look at the offense, defense, special teams and schedule, five burning questions and links to information and video previews for the season.

For more on all of the teams, read the 2014 Patriot League Football Preview and watch all of the preseason video features on the YouTube Football Playlist,

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Schedule
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News

HEAD COACH: Joe Susan, 5th Season: 26-28 overall/16-28 at Bucknell, 8-16 Patriot League
2013 RECORD: 6-5 overall, 3-2 Patriot League (T2nd place)
PATRIOT LEAGUE PRESEASON POLL: 4th
PRESEASON ALL-PATRIOT LEAGUE: C.J. Williams (So., RB); Julie'n Davenport (So., OL); Lonnie Rawles (Sr., OL); Demetrius Baldwin-Youngblood (Sr., DL); Evan Byers (Sr., LB); Matthew Steinbeck (Sr., DB)
PLN VIDEOS: Strong Defense Returns for 2014 | Williams, Nitti to lead offensive charge for Bison

OFFENSE: For the first time since 2010, the Bison go into the season with a question mark at starting quarterback. Brandon Wesley took over the job early that year as a freshman, and held it through his final campaign last year. RJ Nitti and Trey Lauletta have both gained experience with spot starts, with Nitti likely to enter the season as the starter. They have the makings of a solid group at their disposal, as running back C.J. Williams (899 rushing yards, 8 TD) is a preseason All-Patriot League pick and Josh Brake, Will Carter and Victor Walker form a solid wide receiving group along with tight end Patrick Kelly. Lonnie Rawles and Julie'n Davenport are preseason All-League picks on a veteran offensive line.

DEFENSE: Bucknell had a player make the preseason All-Patriot League defense at each position and has depth across the board, making the defense an expected strength once again. Linebacker Evan Byers led the Patriot League with 129 tackles last year and is a preseason All-American, while Demetrius Baldwin-Youngblood (45 TT, 8 sacks) and safety Matthew Steinbeck (5 INT) joined Byers as preseason All-League honorees. The Bison have their top five tacklers back in Byers, Steinbeck, linebacker Lee Marvel and safeties Clayton Ewell and Louis Taglianetti, though they do lose All-American Tracey Smith on the defensive line.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Derek Maurer returns as the placekicker after hitting on 9-of-13 field-goal attempts last season. The Bison need to find a punter and punt return man after Kyle Sullivan handled both duties last season. Nick O'Brien and Brian Regan each have experience returning kicks.

SCHEDULE: The Bison return four of their five opponents from last year's non-League schedule, and will play all of their non-League contests before the Patriot League slate begins. Bucknell hosts VMI (Aug. 30) and Cornell (Sept. 27) and visits Marist (Sept. 6), Sacred Heart (Sept. 20) and Bryant (Oct. 4) in non-League action. The Bison went 2-2 against the first four teams in 2013, and beat Bryant at home in the 2012 season finale. Bucknell starts League play on the road, heading to Lehigh (Oct. 11) and Georgetown (Oct. 25) in October. The Bison play three of four November games at home as they welcome Lafayette (Nov. 1), Fordham (Nov. 7) and Colgate (Nov. 22) while visiting Holy Cross (Nov. 15).

Five Questions

1. Are the Bison ready for the next step?
Bucknell was the surprise team in the Patriot League last season, finishing 6-5 overall and 3-2 in the Patriot League with blowout wins over perennial contenders Lehigh and Colgate. Bucknell was also a blocked field goal away from dealing Fordham its first loss of the year in November and won five of its last six games overall. Posting the school's second winning season in the past three years and finishing over .500 in League play for the first time since 2004 were solid steps, but now the Bison have to show that they can contend for the League crown. Bucknell has not seriously contended for the League title since it lost a de facto championship game at Colgate in 1997, but has pieces in place on both sides of the ball to do it this year. The Bison need to continue the progress, something that has escaped them in the last decade as the team has not posted consecutive winning seasons since a seven-year stretch from 1995-01.

2. Sophomore stars or slumps?
Bucknell had as many or more contributions from first-year players as any other school in the initial Patriot League scholarship class, and will rely on a few of those players for key roles again as sophomores. Running back C.J. Williams and offensive lineman Julie'n Davenport emerged as freshmen All-Patriot League selections last season, while R.J. Nitti enters his sophomore campaign as the likely starting quarterback. The Bison also feature a 25-player freshman class, and will rely again on young players to supplement a solid group of veterans.

3. Is the offense ready to take off?
Bucknell's offense has ranked towards the bottom in the Patriot League in recent seasons, but the Bison showed signs of a turnaround down the stretch last year. After a slow start, Bucknell scored 17 points or more in each of its final seven games and totaled at least 27 four times in that stretch. Williams proved capable of handling the load at running back, multiple wide receivers with experience return and the offensive line has two preseason All-Patriot League players back along with two other returning starters. The only position lacking experience is at quarterback, but last year showed young players can come out of nowhere and succeed as signal-callers in the Patriot League. If the Bison can get consistent quarterback play, they have the makings of a potent offense for the first time in years.

4. Can the defense do it again?
Even in down years, Bucknell's defense has been trending in the right direction under Joe Susan. The Bison allowed under 22 points per game last season, and held four of the last six opponents to 14 or less. The opportunistic unit was second in the Patriot League in fumbles recovered (16) and turnovers forced (27), and has big-time playmakers returning in Byers, Steinbeck and Baldwin-Youngblood among others. The Bison forced 17 turnovers in the final five weeks while the offense picked up its play, and could have the same impact in the 2014 season if the other side of the ball performs well again.

5. Can the Bison use early season schedule to prepare for tough Patriot League start?
Bucknell plays all five of its non-League games before the Patriot League schedule opens, making them the only school with that dynamic this season. Bucknell has three road tests, including a visit to defending Northeast Conference champion Sacred Heart, in the non-League slate before opening Patriot League play on Oct. 11 at Lehigh. After a bye and a visit to Georgetown, the Bison host Lafayette and Fordham on consecutive weeks in November to make it three of the first four League games against the teams picked ahead of them in the standings. The Bison will want to get off to a better start this season after struggling early in League play last year, and they have a manageable slate to have plenty of confidence riding into the League opener in Bethlehem.