Note: The following was written by Scott Keeler, who worked as a reporter at the Greenville News for more than 25 years. This is the first in a three-part series of previews of Southern Conference football teams ahead of the 2017 season. The next edition will be posted Thursday, Aug. 17. “Keeler’s Corner” will also appear throughout the season.
Keeler can be found on Twitter @Scott_Keeler.
2016 record: 10-2, 8-0 SoCon
Offensive starters returning: 3
Defensive starters returning: 6
Specialists returning: 0
The Citadel enters the 2017 football season looking to build off one of the best years in school history. For the second time ever, the Bulldogs reached double figures in wins in 2016 with 10. Only the 1992 Southern Conference championship squad had more with 11. For the first time ever, The Citadel was undefeated in SoCon play at 8-0.
For all of 2016’s superlatives, a season-ending loss to a fellow SoCon team made for a sour ending. After its 10-game winning streak was snapped at North Carolina to end the regular season, The Citadel received a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs. In their first home postseason game since 1992, the Bulldogs fell to Wofford 17-3. It was the second consecutive year that The Citadel’s season ended in round two.
“It’s that second-round hump that we’ve got to get past,” said senior quarterback Dominique Allen. “I definitely want to be able to go further this year. We have all the right pieces in place.”
While the Bulldogs don’t return their top two rushers from a year ago, Allen will have a familiar face in the backfield in senior Cam Jackson, who was a preseason All-SoCon first-team selection. Jackson was third on the team with 692 yards, including a team-best 7.3 yards per carry average. Allen ran for 659 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns.
“With this year being his fourth year, I think I’m going to give him a little bit more control of the offense,” Citadel coach Brent Thompson said of Allen. “Being that we don’t necessarily have all the weapons on offense that we did a year ago, I think we will rely on him more.”
Guiding The Citadel’s triple-option offense with 22 starts under his belt over the last two seasons, Allen is confident and looks forward to the challenge.
“That’s where the great players thrive, in being able to handle that pressure,” Allen said. “It’s being able to make the right calls and right decisions in those split seconds.”
Joining Jackson on the preseason All-SoCon first team is offensive lineman Tyler Davis.
Defensively, the Bulldogs are led by SoCon preseason Defensive Player of the Year Kailik Williams. The senior safety had a team-high 103 tackles last season, including 10 for loss.
“He’s probably the best football player, all-around, that I’ve been around,” Thompson said. “He’s got a knack for the ball.”
The Citadel’s’ defense will also count on a trio of preseason All-SoCon second-team selections in defensive linemen Ken Allen and Jonathan King and linebacker Myles Pierce.
Thompson said his seniors have been through a lot, including going from 5-7 their freshman season to winning 19 games over the past two.
““It speaks highly to where these guys are at right now,” Thompson said. “We’ve got to go out there daily with a chip on our shoulder and continue to fight.”
The Citadel, which is ranked No. 12 in the preseason FCS Coaches Poll, hosts Newberry in its season opener Sept. 2.
2016 record: 5-6, 2-6 SoCon
Offensive starters returning: 10
Defensive starters returning: 9
Specialists returning: 4
No games carry over from a previous season, but with a football program still in its infancy stages of a rebirth, a big win could be looked back on as a day a corner was turned. For ETSU, the hope is that an upset win to close out the 2016 season will be a sign of things to come in 2017.
After bringing its football program back to life with the 2015 season, ETSU returned to Southern Conference football last year. In its first SoCon game in 13 years, the Buccaneers posted a 34-31 over Western Carolina in front of 13,863 fans at the Bristol Motor Speedway.
That feel-good moment didn’t last, however. ETSU carried a six-game losing streak in SoCon play, in which it was outscored 223-44, into its season finale against 18th-ranked Samford.
The Bucs used a tremendous defensive performance and a 28-yard field goal by J.J. Jerman as time expired to pull out a 15-14 win. ETSU’s defense held Samford’s high-powered passing attack to 122 yards and no touchdowns. No other Samford opponent allowed less than 280 yards passing or fewer than two touchdown passes last season.
“I think it’s shown us that we can compete. Now what we’ve got to do is compete on a weekly basis to give ourselves a chance to win in the SoCon,” ETSU coach Carl Torbush said. “I don’t care if you’re playing the first-place team in the SoCon or the last-place team, if you’re not ready to play, you’re not going to win the football game.”
The Bucs return a total of 23 starters on offense, defense and special teams. Included are a trio of preseason All-SoCon second-team selections in senior offensive lineman Alex Rios, junior linebacker Dylan Weigel and Jerman at placekicker.
Weigel collected a team-high 106 tackles last season for ETSU, while Jerman converted 12-of-16 field goals.
“In spring ball, it just felt like we’re continuing to get bigger, stronger and faster,” said ETSU quarterback Austin Herink, who’s started all 22 games since the program resumed. “With most of us having played two seasons now, we have a lot of experience. I think our football IQ has gone up tremendously.”
An extra layer of excitement exists this season as ETSU is set to unveil its new on-campus, outdoor stadium. During its previous run in the SoCon, the Bucs played indoors at the on-campus “Mini-Dome.” The last two years, Science Hill High School has been ETSU’s football home.
“It was really thrilling just to see it being built beside us every day,” ETSU defensive lineman Chris Bouyer said.
The Bucs’ new $26 million stadium is set to debut on Sept. 2, when ETSU faces Limestone at 7 p.m. in the season opener. The following Saturday, the Bucs play at reigning FCS national champion James Madison before opening league play by hosting reigning SoCon champion The Citadel on Sept. 16.
2016 record: 3-8, 3-5 SoCon
Offensive starters returning: 4
Defensive starters returning: 4
Specialists returning: 4
Any time a new head coach and staff take over a football program, there’s typically a bigger buzz as the season draws closer. That buzz may be even louder this season at Furman, where Clay Hendrix is set to make his head coaching debut.
The excitement comes with the Paladins’ hopes that Hendrix can replicate the level of success he enjoyed as a player and a coach at the school. Hendrix was a senior offensive guard on Furman’s 1985 team that played for the FCS national championship. Three years later, he was offensive line coach of a Furman squad that won the national title.
In 23 years as a player and coach with the Paladins, Hendrix experienced only two losing seasons and was part of 194 wins. Hendrix is back with the Paladins after 10 years as an assistant at Air Force. He only went through two losing seasons there, as well.
“It’s been great to be back. The months have gone by really fast,” Hendrix said. “Furman’s always a great place, and it may be better than it’s ever been – from the university, facilities and the city.”
Given the coaching background of Hendrix and his new staff, the expectation could be for improvement in the trenches. In a run-heavy SoCon, the Paladins’ biggest struggle the past few seasons has been running the ball and stopping the run.
After making 13 starts while splitting time with Reese Hannon the past three seasons, senior P.J. Blazejowski is the lone Furman quarterback with experience returning this season.
“We certainly want to be a team offensively that can run the ball, yet be balanced. Balance doesn’t mean 50-50 run-pass,” Hendrix said. “I think P.J.’s a guy that really fits the profile of what we’ll be looking for – a true, dual-threat, athletic guy.”
Furman is looking to center Matthew Schmidt and nose guard Jaylan Reid to lead the charge up front on either side of the ball. Schmidt was a preseason All-SoCon first-team selection, while Reid made the second team. Joining Reid on the second team was running back Antonio Wilcox and safety Aaquil Annoor.
“A lot of things have been different, schematically,” Schmidt said. “But (Hendrix) is a Furman guy, so not a whole lot has changed. He’s a good coach who cares about the people and so really made it an easy transition.”
The nose guard role will be a bit of a new one for Reid as the Paladins have transitioned to a 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Chad Staggs.
“It’s been a bit of a learning curve. … The three-man front is actually something I played in high school and coach Staggs was the first coach to offer me a scholarship. So there was already a little relationship there,” Reid said. “Guys are really getting after it and excited to start this new era.”
Furman opens the season by visiting SoCon preseason favorite Wofford on Sept. 2 at 6 p.m.