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Know Your 2012 Opponents: Central Connecticut State

Most casual Lehigh football fans recognize a lot of schools on the schedule.

I mean, everyone knows who Princeton and Columbia are - they're Ivy League schools.

Liberty?  Not only were they members of the FCS Top 25 last year, they have a decidedly national reputation as a conservative, faith-based institution of higher learning, where Willard Romney makes speeches in the run-up to the Presidential election.

But aside from knowing where Central Connecticut State is generally located - hint, it's about 20 minutes southwest of Hartford - I think most Lehigh fans might be able to be forgiven if they look at September 8th on the schedule and say, "Who are these guys?"

The answer to that question is that the Blue Devils have tasted a lot of success over the last six years under head coach Jeff McInerney, with signature wins over Georgia Southern and Lehigh, both on the road.

And with a newly-revamped Arute Field, which will be able to hold upwards of 6,500 fans, Central Connecticut State will be looking to one message on their home opener against the Mountain Hawks September 8th: that they have arrived.

According to the Hartford Courant, Blue Devil junior DE Chris Williams, a communications and business management double major, is out in the streets of New Britain, Connecticut, spreading the word about Central Connecticut State's home opener.

Williams, from West Philadelphia, is a good football player, but his value to the team, and Central as a whole, goes well beyond the blue jersey he wears and tackles he compiles on Saturdays during the fall. Next semester, he will be on the executive board of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee. Last semester, he volunteered to read to children at local elementary schools as part of CCSU's community outreach program backed by a financial grant from the Walmart Foundation.

Central athletic director Paul Schlickmann likes to refer to the athletic department as the front porch to the university, and in many ways Williams is the smiling, charismatic host who stands proudly on that porch, welcoming everyone in for a good time.

"I love Chris," Schlickmann said. "He's the best, just a terrific kid. He's got such charisma, a high-character kid who oozes sincerity. If you had a son, you'd want him to be like Chris. He was like the Pied Piper with the Walmart program. He just really values the opportunities he has, and we couldn't ask for a better ambassador. He embodies all of our core values."

Williams is merely the public face of an effort to gradually raise the profile of CCSU football over the last few years.

When president Jack Miller hired Schlickmann away from Stony Brook in April of 2010, he sent a message that the Blue Devils weren't simply content with one of the tiniest fields in all of FCS football.

Schlickmann, who had overseen athletic finances at Stony Brook, already had experience with upgrading facilities.  He was not only a key player for the Seawolves in not only an $8 million upgrade of LaValle Stadium, but he also led their fund-raising efforts as well.

In the realm of athletics administration, he is thought of as a "rising star", with positive feedback from all the people he worked with at Stony Brook.  When you get glowing quotes from both America East commissioner Patrick Nero and NEC commissioner Noreen Morris in the same press release, you know you're doing something right.

And due to his intimate involvement in facilities and fundraising, he was a gigantic part of taking Stony Brook from the NEC in football only into 63 scholarship football with the Big South.

(And, if the rumors are true about the Seawolves heading to the CAA in some capacity, he will have indirectly helped bring that about as well.)

Central Connecticut State's facility improvements aren't as extensive as the ones made to LaValle stadium - it's really just the addition of new seating on the visiting side of the stadium -  but they are significant improvements that effectively double their seating capacity, and put them on par with other Eastern-based FCS programs like New Hampshire and Rhode Island, among others.

Just a year ago, it might have been doubtful that CCSU could have handled Lehigh's travel crowd, which is hardly the largest away crowd in the world of FCS.  Now, though, there's a halfway decent chance of a sellout in newly-revamped Arute field.

The hiring of this young, talented athletic director and their facilities improvements send a message that this is a program on the rise. 

*****

With all the Blue Devils' strides in athletics, however, it opens up a question that most every athletic department is asking themselves these days.

Namely: where does Central Connecticut State belong?

Central Connecticut State has always been an odd fit for the Northeast Conference whose institutions are mostly private, like Sacred Heart in Fairfield, CT and Wagner in Staten Island, NY.

The Blue Devils have an enrollment of over 12,000, and they're the only public institution in the NEC that plays in the conference for all sports.

And when the teams of the NEC decided to go from need-based aid to a limited number of conventional football scholarships starting with the 2004 season, it could be argued that no team benefited more than Central Connecticut State.

Coach McInerney was one of the biggest beneficiaries in the transition to scholarships, landing RB James Mallory from former head coach Tom Masella's first scholarship recruiting class, and RB Justise Hairston from Rutgers, who transferred to be closer to his home in Connecticut.

Suddenly, New Britain went from being a sleepy backwater to having players going to NFL camps.

With a newly-renovated stadium and a surprisingly good number of very solid football recruits that want to stay local, might the Blue Devils think about joining a football league that offers the full complement of scholarships at the FCS level of 63?

While their home stadium is still fairly small, they have played home games at a larger venue before, when they defeated North Carolina Central in front of a crowd of nearly 9,000 in New Britain's Veterans Memorial Stadium.

With such an arrangement, it's not that difficult to see the Blue Devils in a sort-of new "Yankee Conference", the informal group of New England schools that competed together in the 1970s and later morphed into what is now the CAA. 

Albany, Stony Brook, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island and Central Connecticut State would make for an interesting football grouping in a compact, bus-trip FCS conference.

And if you add Bryant and Monmouth, it's the near-perfect grouping of eight schools who could support 63 scholarship football.

There's another possibility, too - the Colonial Athletic Association..

With the CAA losing Georgia State, Old Dominion, and VCU, the coastal league are reportedly looking around for potential members.

Could CCSU fit into their plans?  Absolutely.

If, as rumored, the CAA expands with two or more Southern schools, and any of those schools play football, there will be a strong incentive for the conference to additionally look north for members that play football.

That's because a 10 team conference with more teams down South might be devastating to Maine and New Hampshire, whose travel costs in the CAA are already very large.

And the Blue Devils, with an up-and-coming program that's the "one of these schools that don't look like the others" in the NEC, would have to be a CAA candidate - especially if a football solution for the CAA would involve divisional play and if, as has been rumored, Rhode Island may not be leaving the CAA as originally thought in 2014.

A 12-team CAA football conference featuring a Northern division of Maine, New Hampshire, Albany, Stony Brook, Rhode Island, and Central Connecticut State could be "Yankee Division" of the CAA that is awfully compelling for all of the schools involved.

*****

While Central Connecticut State fans dream of a 63 scholarship future, the here and now is pretty darned good for McInerney and his always-surprising triple-option offense.

And when Lehigh comes to town, they'll have a stable of very, very good running backs to try to run over the Lehigh defense, including Kent State transfer RB Rob Holloman, who rushed for 2 TDs in CCSU's Blue/White game this spring.  He'll join their leading returning rusher, junior RB Chris Tolbert (816 yards, 5 TDs), and their leading receiver, senior WR Deven Baker (589 yards, 6 TDs).

Junior QB Andrew Clements - a converted linebacker - was the No. 1 quarterback in the spring, and the 6'2, 210 lb Southbury, CT native impressed with two rushing touchdowns and one passing touchdown.

But in the preseason he might have some company at the position.

"It hasn't officially been announced by the school," CCSU fan aceinithehole mentioned on Any Given Saturday, the national FCS message board,"but word has it that this spring we brought in a transfer from Tulane, QB Nick SanGiacamo."

A 6'3, 209 lb player originally from Barnegat high school in New Jersey, it's possible that he went to the Blue Devils to play and compete a little bit closer to home.  Due to the fact that he redshirted last year as a member of the Green Wave, he has four years of eligibility at CCSU - and underscores the fact that the Blue Devils will have plenty of talented players at their disposal September 8th.

On defense, too, a lot of talent returns from last years' disappointing 4-7 team, most notably senior LB Lorenzo Baker (90 tackles, 8 tackles for loss) and sophomore DB Tyrell Holmes (57 tackles, 3 INTs).

This is a team that seems to always have a lot of top-notch talent, and only a fool would look past this game on September 8th as an easy W for Lehigh.

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