In the FCS Huddle: Ivy League spring football primer

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - That Penn-Harvard logjam atop the Ivy League football race may finally be showing cracks.

The Penn-Princeton monopoly in men's basketball fell apart, so why not football?

Harvard still earned a share of the 2013 title, so it's not as though the standings are being turned upside down. But Princeton earned the other share of the title and could grab the favorite's role this season.

Penn has some holes to fill this year, like Harvard. Meanwhile, Dartmouth returns a lot of talent, Yale was young last season and earned a big win by traveling across the country to beat Cal Poly of the Big Sky Conference, and Brown has been third-best to Harvard and Penn for some time as well.

Only Columbia and Cornell are rebuilding, so clearly the Ivy race appears more interesting than usual.

Here's a look across the league with spring practices getting underway across the nation:

STORY LINES

Princeton returns a daunting nine players who earned a form of All-Ivy honors, led by first-team quarterback Quinn Epperly.

The optimism at Dartmouth centers around the return of athletic quarterback Dalyn Williams and some of last year's young defensive talent. The Big Green have the most Ivy titles in league history, but haven't won one since 1996.

It's a long way off, but Harvard will have to play well on the road with league visits to Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth and Penn.

Penn (4-6) is coming off just the second losing season in coach Al Bagnoli's 22 seasons at the helm.

Usually in Ivy title contention, Brown might find it hard to do that with a lack of experience at certain positions. Among the players lost are quarterback Patrick Donnelly and league rushing champion John Spooney.

One of three winless teams in the FCS last season, Columbia (0-10) scored only 73 points and lost every game by at least 14 points. Quite simply, the Lions need to have one of the better offseasons in program history.

THEY'RE BACK

Yale is counting on a healthy season out of senior running back Tyler Varga, who averaged over 100 rushing yards per game but only played in six games last season.

Brown junior Chad Berry can play just about anywhere on the Bears defense. This season, he will move from outside linebacker to defensive end.

Cornell gave up too many points - 35.3 per game - but expect to get big plays out of free safety Rush Imhotep and fifth-year defensive end Justin Harris if they are healthier this season.

Columbia had three All-Ivy selections and the one returnee is junior defensive tackle Niko Padilla, who earned honorable mention accolades.

POSITION BATTLES

It's easy to spot the hole in Cornell's lineup - quarterback, where four-year starter Jeff Mathews is NFL-bound. Sam Wood, the Big Red punter in 2012 who suffered an ACL tear last year, and James Few, who won a start versus Columbia in Mathews' absence, are the main candidates for the quarterback job. The Big Red are expected to run the ball more behind an experienced offensive line.

Harvard has the "Help Wanted" sign out in the secondary, where it is replacing all of its starters.

After Yale got an excellent senior season out of quarterback Henry Furman, the starter's job will go to one of three juniors, 2012 starter Eric Williams, Morgan Roberts or Logan Scott.

Penn will find it hard to replace quarterbacks Billy Ragone and Ryan Becker. Alex Torgersen's first significant playing time in the season-ending win over Cornell earned him the Ivy League rookie of the week.

Quarterback is always the key position with Brown and coach Phil Estes. The Bears figure to turn to junior Marcus Fuller or sophomore Seth Rosenbauer.

Dartmouth has to replace workhorse running back Dominick Pierre, the Big Green's No. 2 all-time rusher. Junior Kyle Bramble seemed like a natural replacement until he suffered a knee injury in last year's finale. Junior Brian Grove also has experience.

Princeton is reworking its defensive line after losing four productive seniors, including All-America Caraun Reid and three-year starter Greg Sotereanos.

BREAKOUT PERFORMERS

The production of Harvard tight ends has been incredible in recent seasons. Coach Tim Murphy will count on senior Tyler Hamblin and junior Ben Braunecker this year.

Dartmouth junior linebacker Will McNamara showed signs of being a playmaker in a part-time role last season. He should become a force with the Big Green replacing some key players at linebacker.

As Princeton coach Bob Surace seeks answers on the defensive line, he should look first to sophomore Ty Desire, an emerging pass rusher.

Having become a starter last season, Penn defensive back Kenny Thomas hopes to become a standout.

READY FOR IMPROVEMENT

You usually don't say this in the Ivy League, but both Harvard and Penn may have concerns about their offensive lines solidifying quickly.

Ball security is vital for any team. Columbia learned the hard way with a minus-15 turnover margin.

Cornell must improve on a run game that averaged 1.9 yards per carry and an FCS-low 49.9 rushing yards per game.

Alex Gakenheimer steadied Dartmouth's field goal woes last season by going 3- for-3 on his attempts, but none was beyond 26 yards. Before then, Riley Lyons was 2-for-10, including 0-for-6 from inside 40 yards.

Speaking of special teams, Princeton is seeking more consistency out of all of its units. The punting definitely needs improvement.

SPRING PRACTICE DATES

Brown: April 4-26

Columbia: Feb. 26-March 15

Cornell: TBA

Dartmouth: April 8-May 3

Harvard: March 31-April 26

Penn: March 2-April 5

Princeton: March 28-April 19

Yale: March 26-April 19

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