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Keeler's Corner: Previewing the SoCon football season
Courtesy: Southern Conference
Release: 08/16/2018
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Courtesy: Southern Conference
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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 two-part series of previews of Southern Conference football teams ahead of the 2018 season. “Keeler’s Corner” will also appear throughout the season.
Keeler can be found on Twitter @Scott_Keeler


THE CITADEL
2017 record: 5-6, 3-5 SoCon
Offensive starters returning: 9
Defensive starters returning: 4
Specialists returning: 3

The Citadel enters this season looking to rebound from a disappointing 2017 season. In 2015 and 2016, the Bulldogs posted more wins (19) over a two-year span than any other time in school history. After getting off to a 3-0 start last season, The Citadel won just two games the rest of the way.
The Bulldogs have plenty of talent returning to help get things back on track, including offensive backs that helped The Citadel rush for 294.6 yards per game last season. Leading rusher Grant Drakeford, who ran for 602 yards and averaged a whopping 9.6 yards per carry last season, returns along with junior quarterback Jordan Black.
While Black is set to open the season as starting quarterback for the first time, he has plenty of experience. Black appeared in 10 games in 2017 and led the Bulldogs with 584 yards passing and six touchdowns versus just one interception. The nephew of NFL Hall of Famer Mel Blount also rushed for 303 yards and two touchdowns.
Paving the way up front will be senior center Tyler Davis, a STATS preseason second-team All-American, and junior Drew McIntyre, a preseason All-SoCon second-team selection.
Defensively, the Bulldogs return just four starters but three are All-SoCon preseason picks. First-team selection Aron Spann III had a team-high five interceptions last season, while second-team picks Noah Dawkins and Ja’Lon Williams combined for 19.5 tackles for loss.
September game to watch: at Wofford, Sept. 1. The Citadel gets a big test to open the season as the 2015 and 2016 SoCon champions visit 2017 SoCon champion Wofford, which is ranked No. 10 in the STATS FCS preseason poll. The road team has won each of the last three games in the series.

ETSU
2017 record: 4-7, 2-6 SoCon
Offensive starters returning: 7
Defensive starters returning: 8
Specialists returning: 4

For the first time since the ETSU football was revived in 2015, the Bucs will have a new leader on the sideline. Randy Sanders, who’s spent the past 29 seasons as an assistant at Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida State, has taken over as head coach following the retirement of Carl Torbush in December.
Sanders has coached some talented quarterbacks over the years and he’s inherited another one this season in senior Austin Herink. Herink has started each of ETSU’s 33 games since the football program restarted after a 12-year hiatus. He enters this season ranked second in school history in completion percentage (58.5) and fifth in total yards (5,436).
In each of those 33 starts, Herink has taken snaps from the same center in Matt Pyke. Pyke enters his senior season as a second-team All-SoCon selection.
Defensively, the Bucs are led by junior defensive lineman Nasir Player. Player earned first-team All-SoCon honors last season after recording 67 tackles, including 13.5 tackles for loss with seven sacks. Another 33-game starter, senior linebacker Dylan Weigel is a second team All-SoCon preseason selection. Weigel posted a team-high 92 tackles in 2017.
Other All-SoCon preseason second-team selections for ETSU this season are senior kicker JJ Jerman (34-of-47 career field goals) and return specialist Quan Harrison (694 all-purpose yards in 2017).
September game to watch: vs. Furman, Sept. 22. ETSU went 4-2 at its new on-campus home of Greene Stadium last season. The Bucs’ two home losses were decided by six points against The Citadel (31-25) and by seven against Wofford (31-24). Backed by Henrink’s school-record passing day of 434 yards, ETSU scored more points against the Paladins than any other FCS team last season in a 56-35 loss at Furman.

FURMAN
2017 record: 8-5, 6-2 SoCon
Offensive starters returning: 5
Defensive starters returning: 9
Specialists returning: 1

Furman experienced a quick turnaround during Clay Hendrix’s first season as head coach in 2017. The Paladins enter this season ranked No. 21 in the AFCA FCS Coaches' Top 25 and No. 23 in the STATS FCS poll after posting their first winning season - and first trip back to the FCS playoffs - since 2013.
Furman is tasked with replacing quite a few weapons from a big-play offense that led the SoCon in scoring (32.6 points per game). Those departed include quarterback P.J. Blazejowski, running back Antonio Wilcox, tight end Andy Schumpert and offensive linemen Matt Schmidt and Terrell Bush.
Senior Harris Roberts and redshirt freshman JeMar Lincoln are among those competing to replace Blazejowski. Senior running back Kealand Dirks is a first-team All-SoCon preseason pick after rushing for 720 yards and nine touchdowns in 2017. Leading receiver Thomas Gordon (717 yards), a second-team All-SoCon preseason selection, also returns.
Reed Kroeber, a freshman All-American selection last year, has shifted to center to replace Schmidt. He’s joined up front by fellow second-team All-SoCon preseason selection Jake Walker at tight end. They will lead an offensive line that led the FCS in fewest sacks allowed last season with seven.
Furman returns many players on a defense that led the SoCon with 34 sacks last season. These include All-SoCon preseason first-team picks in linebacker Elijah McKoy (81 tackles) and safety Aaquil Annoor (64 tackles, 4.5 for loss). Second-team selection Jaylan Reid (8.5 tackles for loss) anchors the line at nose guard.
September game to watch: at Elon, Sept. 8. Just call it round three. After Elon won 34-31 at Furman on a last-second field goal last September, the Paladins held on for a 28-27 win at Elon in the opening round of the 2017 FCS playoffs.

MERCER
2017 record: 5-6, 4-4 SoCon
Offensive starters returning: 7
Defensive starters returning: 8
Specialists returning: 3

After back-to-back 4-4 records in SoCon play, Mercer will try to break through for its first winning season in league play this season. The Bears appear to have the numbers to do it as they return 18 starters this year, including eight All-SoCon preseason picks.
Offensive starters returning include first-team selections in junior right tackle Austin Sanders, senior tight end Sam Walker, senior wide receiver Marquise Irvin and second-team pick Tee Mitchell. Irvin led the Bears in catches (41), receiving yards (536) and receiving touchdowns (4) last season, while Mitchell led in rushing (626 yards) and touchdowns (7).
Directing the offense will be 2017 SoCon Freshman of the Year Kaelan Riley. Riley completed 59.4 percent of his passes last season for 2,030 yards, with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also ran for 193 yards and four touchdowns.
Defensively, Mercer returns eight starters but will have replace departed tackling machine Lee Bennett. Linebacker LeMarkus Bailey, a first-team All-SoCon preseason pick, returns after posting 63 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, last season. Also back are second-team picks Isaiah Buehler and Eric Jackson. Buehler has started 33 consecutive games at defensive end and led the Bears in tackles-for-loss (7.5) and sacks (5.5) last year. Jackson, a junior safety, was second on the team with 89 tackles.
Second -eam preseason All-SoCon pick Matt Shiel has returned to the team at punter. The graduate student from Australia averaged 44.1 yards per punt in his lone season with Mercer in 2015.
September game to watch: vs. The Citadel, Sept. 22. After three losses by a combined margin of five points against The Citadel from 2014-16, Mercer knocked off the then No. 17-ranked Bulldogs 24-14 last season in Charleston.

SAMFORD
2017 record: 8-4, 6-2 SoCon
Offensive starters returning: 10
Defensive starters returning: 6
Specialists returning: 4

Samford enters the 2018 season ranked No. 10 in the AFCA FCS Coaches' Top 25 and No. 11 in the FCS STATS poll and a prohibitive favorite to win the SoCon championship. One look at the quantity and quality of talent returning reveals why.
Among the 20 starters returning are the reigning SoCon Players of the Year in senior quarterback Devlin Hodges and senior defensive lineman Ahmad Gooden. Hodges is once again a Walter Payton Award candidate as the FCS’ top offensive player, while Gooden is again a candidate for the Buck Buchanan Award, which goes to the FCS’ top defensive player. Hodges and Gooden finished fourth and seventh, respectively, in last year’s voting.
After passing for 3,931 yards and 31 touchdowns last season, Hodges is 4,195 yards shy of Steve McNair’s career record for FCS passing yards. Hodges, who completed 65.7 percent (347-of-528) of his passes last year, is 262 completions away from that FCS career record.
Hodges is one of 10 starters back on offense, including preseason All-SoCon first-team picks in junior offensive lineman Nick Nixon and senior wide receiver Kelvin McKnight (86 rec., 1,179 yards, 12 TD in 2017). Also returning is junior receiver Chris Shelling (73 rec., 907 yards, 7 TD in 2017), a second-team selection.
Gooden piled up 101 tackles last season, including 15.5 tackles-for-loss with 5.5 sacks. Also back defensively for the Bulldogs are senior linebacker Christian Stark and senior defensive back Darius Harvey, who each made the preseason All-SoCon second team.
September game to watch: at Kennesaw State, Sept. 29. Like Furman-Elon, here’s another “round three” game for 2018. Samford opened the 2017 season by handing Kennesaw State its only regular-season loss by a score of 28-23. Twelve weeks later, the Bulldogs’ season ended at Kennesaw State as the Owls prevailed 28-17 in the opening round of the FCS playoffs.

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