Keeler's Corner: Previewing the SoCon football season, part 2
Courtesy: Southern Conference
Release: 08/18/2018
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Courtesy: Southern Conference

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 second 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

2017 record: 3-8, 3-5 SoCon
Offensive starters returning: 7
Defensive starters returning: 7
Specialists returning: 2

Injuries and suspensions made life difficult early on in Chattanooga’s first season under head coach Tom Arth in 2017. Entering 2018, the Mocs will try to build off the momentum they created down the stretch. Chattanooga won two of its last three games, including a stunning 23-21 victory at Samford. The Mocs’ lone loss in the final month of last season was a 24-21 overtime setback at SoCon champion Wofford.
Junior Nick Tiano, a Mississippi State transfer who started Chattanooga’s first four games last season, and Chris James, a transfer from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, are competing at quarterback. The offense features three players who made the preseason All-SoCon second team - junior offensive lineman Malcolm White, senior wide receiver Bingo Morton and junior running back Tyrell Price. Price is a transfer from East Mississippi Junior College, where he rushed for 989 yards and 24 touchdowns last season.
Preseason All-SoCon first team lineman Isaiah Mack leads a defensive unit that was tops in the SoCon in total defense, allowing 326.4 yards per game. Mack, a 6-3, 305-pound senior, had 54 tackles, including seven for loss, last year. Kareem Orr, who transfered from Arizona State prior to last season, is a second-team preseason selection.
Brandon Dowdell is back as the Mocs’ return specialist after averaging 23 yards per kick return and 12.3 yards per punt return as a freshman in 2017.
September game to watch: at The Citadel, Sept. 8. This will be a big early conference game between
two programs coming off losing seasons, but ones that accounted for part of SoCon championships each season from 2013-16. The Citadel rallied from a 14-7 halftime deficit for a 20-14 win at Chattanooga last season.

2017 record: 0-11, 0-8 SoCon
Offensive starters returning: 7
Defensive starters returning: 5
Specialists returning: 3

After opening the 2016 season with a 3-2 record, VMI carries a 17-game losing streak into 2018. The biggest struggles for the Keydets during the 2017 season came offensively as they ranked last in the FCS in total offense (218.5 yards per game) and scoring (8.8 points per game).
Following the graduation of Al Cobb, who became VMI’s all-time leading passer in just three seasons, the Keydets started a trio of quarterbacks in 2017. Duncan Hodges, who started six games last year, has transferred to North Alabama, leaving this year’s QB battle up to Reece Udinski and Austin Coulling.
Among the seven new assistants on head coach Scott Wachenheim’s staff is offensive coordinator Brian Sheppard, who’s installed a no-huddle, fast-tempo passing attack. Sheppard previously served as offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona. He helped the Lumberjacks average 30.2 points per game and reach the FCS playoffs last year.
Sophomore offensive lineman Brad Davis, a preseason All-SoCon second-team selection, leads VMI up front.
The Keydets return just five starters on defense and will be tasked with replacing all four of its starting linebackers. Those departed linebackers include Allan Cratsenberg and Ryan Francis, who had 118 and 103 tackles, respectively in 2017, along with Brian Lipscomb. Lipscomb, who’s now a graduate transfer at Kansas, had 70 tackles, including team highs in tackles-for-loss (18.5) and sacks (8.5), last year.
VMI will also have to replace safety Greg Sanders, who was third on the team with 92 tackles.
September game to watch: vs. ETSU, Sept. 15. VMI’s home opener is against the last team it defeated entering this season as the Keydets won 37-7 in 2016. Last season, VMI trailed 10-6 at ETSU late in the third quarter before the Bucs pulled away for a 24-6 win.

2017 record: 7-5, 5-3 SoCon
Offensive starters returning: 7
Defensive starters returning: 3
Specialists returning: 3

After a disappointing 2-9 season in 2016, Western Carolina got back on track with its third winning season in the past four years in 2017. While seven wins in each of those three winning seasons has made for a nice turnaround, every FCS team’s goal is to reach the playoffs. The Catamounts haven’t been to the postseason since reaching the Div. I-AA championship game in 1983.
If Western Carolina ends that dry spell this season, chances are dynamic quarterback Tyrie Adams will have a large role in it. Evans is a Walter Payton Award candidate after helping the Catamounts shatter the school scoring record (32.4 points per game) last season. The junior threw for 2,294 yards and a school-record 22 touchdowns, while also rushing for 746 yards and two scores.
Western Carolina has an experienced group of returning lineman protecting Adams, including preseason All-SoCon first team pick Zach Weeks and second-team honorees Nathan Dalton and Andrew Miles.
Western Carolina will have to replace standout running back Detrez Newsome and its two top receivers from 2017 in Terryon Robinson and Steffon Hill.
Defensively, the Catamounts will be led by Marvin Tillman. The senior defensive back is a Buck Buchanan Award candidate after posting 96 tackles and a SoCon-best five interceptions in 10 games last season.
Western Carolina returns a big weapon on special teams in senior punter Ian Berryman, who averaged 44.4 yards per punt last season to earn a spot on the Associated Press’ FCS All-America second team.
September game to watch: at Furman, Sept. 29. Western Carolina will look to avenge its only lopsided loss in FCS play last season. In a heavy rainstorm in Cullowhee, Furman won 28-6. That result may have ultimately earned the Paladins an FCS playoff bid and kept the Catamounts out.

2017 record: 10-3, 7-1 SoCon
Offensive starters returning: 5
Defensive starters returning: 6
Specialists returning: 2

After 30 seasons - and 207 wins - at Wofford, Mike Ayers announced his retirement days after the Terriers wrapped up their second consecutive 10-win season and a run to the FCS playoff quarterfinals. New head coach Josh Conklin inherits a team ranked No. 10 in the FCS STATS preseason poll and No. 11 in the FCS Coaches poll.
There’s only one returning starter - preseason All-SoCon first-team selection Michael Ralph - from an offensive line that helped Wofford rank eighth nationally with 244.8 rushing yards per game. However, all three starting running backs return, led by All-American fullback Andre Stoddard.
Stoddard rushed for a team-high 839 yards and a SoCon-best 15 touchdowns in 2017. Lennox McAfee, who rushed for 776 yards and six touchdowns, and Blake Morgan, who rushed for 662 yards and eight touchdowns, return as the Terriers’ starting halfbacks.
Quarterbacks Joe Newman and Miller Mosley, who each saw game action in 2017, are competing for the starting job.
Buck Buchanan Award candidate Miles Brown leads Wofford’s defense. The senior lineman led the team with 10 tackles-for-loss, including three sacks last season. The Terriers’ defense also return fellow preseason All-SoCon first team picks in linebacker DT Wilson (71 tackles) and cornerback Devin Watson (team-high four interceptions).
Placekicker/punter Luke Carter is back after earning All-SoCon first-team honors last season. He made 11-of-12 field goals in 2017 and averaged 42.3 yards per punt.
September game to watch: vs. The Citadel, Sept. 1. For the second consecutive season, the Terriers open with an in-state and SoCon rival. Wofford held on a for a thrilling 24-23 win over Furman in the 2017 opener. That was a sign of things to come as the Terriers found ways to win close games all season on their way to their fifth SoCon title.

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