Furman Football: 2021 Preview

If there was a team that was a disappointment this past spring, it had to be the Furman Paladins. It was easily the most-trying of Clay Hendrix’s tenure as head coach at Furman.

Furman had looked like the team to beat early in the spring, even playing well at times with a chance to win on the road in a narrow 14-13 road loss at eventual champion VMI.

A 44-37 overtime win over what turned out to be a very good Samford team, followed by a 17-13 come-from-behind road win at East Tennessee State seemingly had the Paladins in position to make a run at the league title and a potential playoff bid in the middle of the spring.

However, the final three games of the spring the Paladin offense appeared to go into hibernation, or at least in the previous four games, Furman was able to mask–no pun intended– its offensive deficiencies better than it was late in the spring.

That was due in large part to the fact the final three foes had more film on the Paladins, and used the VMI film to help expose the major weakness–at least in the spring– for the Paladin offense, which was lack of a big-play wide receiver.

Seizing on meticulous film study of the latter half of 2019 and the spring opener against Western Carolina, Wachenheim’s new defensive alignment blitzed Furman quarterback with wreck-less abandon in the Keydets’ 14-13 win, and it worked to perfection, as VMI racked up nine total sacks in accounting for the highest yield of quarterback takedowns to FCS opposition since 1995, when Appalachian State recorded 11 sacks in a 41-28 win at Paladin Stadium.

The Paladins seemingly got worse offensively following the win at East Tennessee State, and those issues can’t solely be laid at the feet of signal-caller Hamp Sisson. Furman has to improve in all facets on the offensive side of the football to be successful this fall.

Furman’s defense was good enough last spring to have been championship-caliber defense, but couldn’t overcome the offensive ineptitude.

Previewing the Furman Offense:

Paladin offensive coordinator George Quarles obviously knows what happened in the spring on that side of the football was unacceptable.

After a 448-day layoff due to COVID-19 coming into the spring season, there is a bit of leeway, too.

Furman All-America Tight End Ryan Miller/Photo courtesy of Furman athletics and the sports information office

During that period, Furman lost starter Darren Grainger, who had been a starter for the majority of the 2019 season under center for the Paladins, and gave the Paladins a new dimension of a dual threat at the position. However, in the spring of 2020, Grainger entered the transfer portal, having opted to continue his football career at Georgia State.

His explosive quickness and speed coupled with his big-time arm was one of the primary reasons the Paladins were able to field one of their best offenses in recent memory two years ago.

At times during the untimely season, it was hard to pinpoint what the biggest area of struggle on the offensive side of the ball was for Furman, however, the lack of a big-play receiver that could stretch a defense seemed to be, at least to those familiar with what has made Furman’s offense so successful over the years, the biggest issue.

During the late 1980’s and throughout its successful seasons in the late 1990s and early 2000s and for most of the first two decades of the 21st century, the Paladins effectively used the play-action big-play pass with precise and potent efficiency against all opposition.

It lulled opposing defenses into a proverbial slumber until a speedster–Donald Lipscomb, Des Kitchings, Brian Bratton, Isaac West, Adam Mims, or Thomas Gordon was able to take advantage of that malaise to burn the opposition with speed on the deep ball. For the first time in quite sometime, that ability seemed non-existent for the Paladin offense in the spring.

The graduation of record-setting wide receiver Thomas Gordon made a more noticeable impact in the spring, but there are a couple of up-and-coming receivers that could alleviate some of the predictability of the Paladin offense displayed at times during the spring.

All told, the Paladins will return nine of 11 starters on the offensive of the football heading into the 2021 campaign. The Paladins come into the season with a stockpile of talent at running back, which is without question the strength of the offensive side of the football.

The leader of that unit is one of the best running backs in all of FCS football, in graduate senior Devin Wynn (107 rush att, 511 yds, 5 TDs, 4.8 YPC).

Wynn, who enters the season as a Walter Payton Award candidate helped spearhead an offense that ranked 56th nationally in scoring offense (21.1 PPG), 50th in total offense (339.1 YPG), 35th in rushing offense (158.7 YPG), 61st in pass offense (180.4 YPG), 69th in third down efficiency (.346), and 36th in red zone scoring (.842).

Wynn finished the spring already ranking in the top 10 in school history in total rushing yards, and he heads into his final season as a Paladin running back having gained 2,468 yards and has scored 25 rushing touchdowns. Those numbers currently rank ninth in program history in rushing yards.

Wynn is a tough, rugged runner with the ability to effectively catch the ball out of the backfield, as he is blessed with good hands. He has 30 pass receptions for 353 yards and three touchdowns during his Paladin career, which included hauling in seven passes for 72 yards this past spring.

The 2019 season was his most effective season catching the football for the Paladins, as he hauled in 13 passes for 141 yards and a pair of touchdowns during the 2019 campaign. He will likely enter his final campaign as a Paladin as an All-America candidate.

Wynn enjoyed his best game of the spring against East Tennessee State, as he carried 15 times for 113 yards and a pair of scores, while catching a pair of passes out of the backfield for 39 yards.

But Wynn is one of a litany of weapons in the Furman backfield heading into the season, and despite being the fulcrum of that ground game, there’s no doubt that Wynn also benefits from the other talented running backs the Paladins have within their offensive arsenal.

Set to team with Wynn in the backfield are Devin Abrams (60 carries, 230 yds, 3.8 YPC). and short-yardage specialist Dominic Roberto (28 rush att, 103 yds, 1 TD, 3.7 YPC), while the Paladins also have a pair of speed-merchants returning in the backfield that are versatile not only on the ground, but also the Texas two-step of running backs Kendall Thomas (12 rush att, 81 yds, 6.8 YPC), and Wayne Anderson, Jr. . (21 rush att, 44 yds, 2.1 YPC).

Abrams earned starts in all seven games as a redshirt sophomore this past spring, and provides an excellent compliment to Wynn in the backfield.
The 6-1, 226-lb, native of Pensacola, FL, could be set for a big junior season.

Like Wynn, he also catches the ball well out of the backfield for the Paladins. This past spring, Abrams hauled in eight passes for 65 yards. In his career, he has caught 14 passes for 202 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

As a rushing threat in his Furman career, Abrams has 175 carries for 896 yards and six touchdowns in 23-career games for the Paladins.

Abrams’ most productive performance during the spring came in a win over Samford, as he helped the Paladins rebound from a 24-7 deficit by rushing 13 times for 54 yards.

In the 35-7 spring-opening win over Western Carolina, Abrams rushed 12 times for 57 yards. Abrams was a member of the SoCon’s All-Freshman team a couple of years ago.

Roberto was more of the short-yardage threat for the Paladins, and provides excellent work as a lead blocker coming out of the Paladin backfield as well.
He will be utilized in similar situations this season, however, he is versatile, too, in that he has deceptive and is also a reliable receiving threat coming out of the backfield.

As a receiving threat in 2019, he posted three catches for 31 yards. He has rushed for 285 yards and four scores in 18 games in his Paladin career.

Anderson is another versatile threat in the Furman backfield, and is more like the threat that Kendall Thomas offers rather, thanks in large part to his tremendous speed, than Wynn or Roberto, who are considered the power portion of the Paladin ground attack.

However, that’s not to say that both Anderson and Thomas don’t enjoy running over folks or enjoy exploring the physical nature of their position from time-to-time.
Chase Abshier (7 rush att, 28 yds, 4.0 YPC) and Jeff McElveen (3 rush att, 50 yds, 16.3 YPC) also return as contributors to the Furman backfield, adding even more depth. Will Hallmark (1 rush att, 5 yds, 5.0 YPC) , Emory Layerd (Quincy, FL/Florida HS), Grant Robinson (Plano, TX/Pope John Paul II) and Myrion Hicks (Desoto, TX/Pantego Christian Academy) are freshmen newcomers looking to make their mark as playmakers in the Paladin offense.

We’ve already detailed how dangerous young running back Wayne Anderson Jr. and Kendall Thomas are as a part of the Paladin offense, but newcomers Myrion Hicks and Grant Robinson are also strong candidates to see some action this fall because of their prep respective prep resumes.

Hicks had offers from 10 programs before settling on Furman. Two of those programs that offered Hicks were a pair of FBS schools, in both Air Force and Navy.
During his career at Pantego Christian Academy, seeing time at both running back and linebacker.

He was a two-time all-district and all-state performer at linebacker, while rushing for 678 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior. He also caught four scoring passes out of the backfield, showcasing his overall skillset as an offensive threat.

Robinson committed to Furman back in December, picking Furman among six offers, which included FBS programs Navy and Air Force. During his junior season at Pope John Paul II High School, Robinson just missed the 1,000-yard plateau for the season, finishing the campaign with 991 yards and six rushing touchdowns, helping his team to a 10-4 record and a state runner-up finish.

Overall, head coach Clay Hendrix has an embarrassment of riches at running backs to rely upon this fall, and the Paladins should be in good shape with talent and depth and running back.

There is no shortage of talent, and one might even venture to say that the Paladins showcase the most talent and depth of any team in the Southern Conference heading into the 2021 fall campaign.

As is the case with any good ground game, it can only be as effective as good as the offensive line blocks ahead of it. Inconsistencies plagued the Paladin offensive front during the spring, and finding a remedy for that will be the main responsibility of Hendrix–a former standout offensive lineman himself for Furman–during preseason camp.

Furman has a good mix of youth and veteran talent returning along its offensive line heading into the 2021 season. There has been also a change in leadership at the helm of the offensive line. Dru Duke steps into the role vacated by Peter Lusk, who left the Furman program to pursue a career as a lawyer.

Duke has been an instrumental part of the Furman staff over the past couple of seasons, and in particular, when it comes to developing tight ends, helping mold current Paladin tight end to what was an All-America spring season, in Ryan Miller.

Now his primary responsibility will be overseeing the improvement of the offensive line. Evan Jumper returns as the veteran-most player along the Paladin offensive line heading into the 2021 campaign. In his career for the Paladins, Jumper has logged 17 starts in 20 games in his career for the Paladins.

The sophomore has been a part of 984-career plays, including having started all seven games this past spring, which saw him see action on 434 plays at center. The Myrtle Beach, S.C., native will be the veteran leader along the offensive front.

Two young talents figure prominently into Duke’s plans along at the offensive guard positions, with Jacob Johanning and Clark Daniel expected to draw the opening assignments for the Sept. 4 season opener against preseason No. 25 North Carolina A&T.

Two young talents figure prominently into Duke’s plans along at the offensive guard positions, with Jacob Johanning and Clark Daniel expected to draw the opening assignments for the Sept. 4 season opener against preseason No. 25 North Carolina A&T.

Johanning plays left guard and garnered SoCon All-Freshman honors last spring, starting six out of seven contests during the spring for the Paladins. Daniel, a redshirt senior, started the final couple of games of the spring and has booked a total of 18 games over the past couple of seasons following his transfer from the Air Force Academy.

The two offensive tackle spots looked to locked down by redshirt junior Anderson Tomlin and redshirt sophomore Pearson Toomey. Tomlin is among the most talented offensive linemen in the league, and will contend for the Jacobs Blocking Award–the most distinguished offensive lineman award bestowed by the league–after picking up all-conference honors in the fall, making five starts.

Tomlin is slated to be the Paladin starter at the left tackle spot and logged 361 plays before an injury picked up against Chattanooga forced an early end to his spring season.

Toomey, a 6-3, 282-lb, redshirt sophomore, has shown tremendous potential at offensive tackle ever since stepping on campus as a freshman in 2019. Toomey did not take part in the spring season due to an upper body injury, which required surgery, however, is penciled in as the starter at right tackle entering the 2021 season.

Others that could contribute as reserves along the offensive front heading into the 2021 campaign as key reserves along the offensive front for the Paladins are Wyatt Hughes and Ryan Lamb at center, while a quartet of true freshmen and redshirt freshmen will compete for time at guard and they include: Matthew Prudhomme (Fr), Alex Cain (Fr.), E.J. Wilson (R-Fr) and Blake Hundley (R-Fr).

Slated to compete to provide depth behind Tomlin and Toomey at the respective offensive tackle positions will include redshirt freshman Dylan Davis, as well as junior Garland Greenway and the aforementioned Hundley.

The top target in the passing game for the Paladins last fall was one of the best at his position in all of FCS football. Redshirt junior tight end Ryan Miller (15 rec, 254 yds, 6 TDs, 16.9 YPR) ranked second on the team in receiving this past spring, while his six touchdowns led the team.

The Jackson, TN., native came up especially big in Furman’s win 44-37 come-from-behind win over Samford last spring, as his 73-yard sprint to the end zone on a throwback screen from Sisson proved to be the game-winning score in a win that came in dramatic fashion for Clay Hendrix’s Paladins.

All told, Miller would finish the contest with three catches for 96 yards and a score, and it would help propel him to a strong spring season, which saw him land Associated Press First-Team All-America honors, as well as First-Team All-SoCon accolades.

Miller is on pace to finish among Furman’s all-time great pass-catching tight ends, alongside the likes of former greats Luther Broughton (1993-96), Andy Shumpert (2013-17) and Colin Anderson (2008-12).

The Paladin offensive staff was able to utilize Miller in mismatches at tight end last fall, much the same as they were able to utilize Andy Shumpert in that same role back in 2017—the first season for Clay Hendrix and staff in Greenville.
Providing the needed depth at the tight end position are a quartet of true freshmen, in Landon Whittemore, Val Richter, Callway Tierney and Joe Graham, as all four will be in play to end up behind Miller on the depth chart for the opener against North Carolina A&T.

Whittemore is another tall, athletic potential target in the passing game, as the 6-4, 220-lb was an all-state performer at Macon County High School in Lafayette, Tenn. Whittemore was highly sought after, fielding offers from 23 programs, which included four FBS schools (UAB, Arkansas State, Air Force and Eastern Michigan) before settling on Furman.

While Furman lacked the kind of big-play ability in the spring they had in 2019 with deep threat Thomas Gordon, the Paladins could exploit mismatches at tight end with Miller’s athleticism, which enabled Furman to have some meaningful big plays in the passing game this past spring.

“Thomas [Gordon] was a good player for us…we didn’t adjust as well in the spring to how people played us and maybe got caught on our heels a little bit and surprised and not taking advantage of some things…I will say this that receiver group…I am excited to see them this fall and I don’t know who those big play guys will be, but I certainly know we have them. In my four years it’s taken a little bit of time to get those guys going, so I am excited about this fall and forcing people to be a little more honest in that part of the game,” head coach Clay Hendrix said at SoCon media day.

Those big-play options at receiver could more plentiful this fall, and the ability to be able to stretch teams with multiple big-play threats is a real possibility.
As you might expect, those offensive guys waiting in the wings are young, much the same as current wide receivers coach Brian Bratton and fellow teammate Isaac West were redshirt freshmen back in 2001 when Furman faced a similar question following the graduation of Desmond Kitchings off that 1999 team that tied for the Southern Conference title.

Glimpses of that next guy to follow in the footsteps of a guy like Thomas Gordon have been seen in guys like Bailor Hughes (3 rec, 42 yds, 14.0 YPR) and Kelton Gunn.

Gunn possesses the type of speed that will make him an immediate threat in the return game for the Paladins. He’s one of the fastest players on the team, and can be used in a variety of different ways.

Hughes was a standout at Powell High School in Knoxville, TN, prior to his arrival at Furman in 2020.was a standout at Hardin Valley Academy in Knoxville, TN, where he compiled 2,500 all-purpose yards and 30 touchdowns during his prep career prior to arriving at Furman.

Lex Capitano, Max Arnold, and Joshua Harris are part of a young contingent of Paladin wideouts looking to make their mark this fall. Sophomores Nick Cannon and Taylor Bell will join juniors Sam Whitney and Luke Bynum will also be looking to add their respective contributions to the Paladin receiving this fall.

Harris might be the most impressive of those newcomers heading into fall camp, and he has some stark similarities to Isaac West (2000-04), who left Furman as the Paladins’ all-time leader in receiving yards.

Harris comes to Furman from Newnan High School in Newnan, GA., where he caught 45 passes for 785 yards and six touchdowns, choosing Furman among eight offers, including FBS programs Bowling Green, Navy and Air Force before committing to Furman this past winter.

The 6-2, 177-lb Peach State product has excellent speed, and has a chance to be a contributor right away in the Paladin offense. The Paladins have been able to get some outstanding talent out of Newnan HS over the year, with maybe the most notable of those talents being former Paladin standout safety John Keith (1996-99).

Those young wideouts waiting in the wings are complimented by experienced, reliable wideouts in the passing game, with the return of Ryan DeLuca (24 rec, 441 yds, 1 TD, 18.4 YPR), Zach Peterson (7 rec, 92 yds, 2 TDs, 17.9 YPR) and Noah Henderson (7 rec, 62 yds, 8.8 YPR) representing a trio of sure-handed pass-catchers.

Another key veteran option in the passing game with the ability to make plays in space this fall is Luke Shiflett (), who originally came to Furman as a quarterback, but has battled injuries and has seen only minimal game action in his two years as a Paladin.

DeLuca, a 5-11, 185-lb senior returns leading the way career-wise for the Paladins when it comes to catching the football, having caught 56 passes for 896 yards and nine touchdowns in his Paladin career, including averaging 16.0 yards-per-catch, as he is now in his fifth season as a Paladin pass-catcher.

The veteran Paladin wideout enjoyed a pair of 100-yard receiving performances during the spring for the Paladins, as he did so in back-to-back weeks against VMI and Samford. His performance this past spring represents his best performance of his career, as he posted 24 catches for 441 yards and a touchdown.

Another deep threat in the passing attack returning to the fold this fall is speedster Dejuan Bell (6 rec, 77 yds, 12.8 YPR), who has doubled as a return threat for the Paladins in his three seasons so far for the Paladins.

Bell has had trouble getting going since an all-freshman campaign back in 2018. Now one of the veteran leaders of this Paladin receiving corps, Bell will be looked to as one of the big-play threats in the Paladin passing game this fall.

The junior will also likely serve once again in his role as Furman’s primary kick return and punt return threat, thanks to his tremendous speed. The 5-9, 160-lb junior has the potential to be a big-play wideout for the Paladins this fall, and with his straight-line speed, is a threat to get behind any opposing secondary.

Overall, it appears that with the likes of Harris, Gunn and Bell, the Paladins should have more of a variety of big-play options than it did in the spring. Add to that the return of the sure-handed DeLuca, as well as Henderson and Peterson, who also give the Paladins a trio of strong perimeter blockers, wide receiver has a chance to be not only improved, but a breakout position on the offensive side of the football for Furman this fall.

When the offensive struggles in a given season, it always seems easiest to blame the quarterback spot, however, it’s not always an accurate assessment of what ails a particular offense.

Such was the case with the Furman offense last spring, and though Hamp Sisson (89-of-172 passing, 1,258 yds, 12 TDs, 9 INT, 57 rush att, 30 yds, 1 TD) struggled at times, he also produced some big plays with his arms and legs, particularly in the win over Samford.

The junior signal-caller from Birmingham, AL heads into 2021 season as the Paladins’ starter. He had his “ups” and “downs” in the spring for the Paladins, and showed flashes of being worthy of the starting job. At other times, he seemed indecisive in the pocket.

In the 44-37 win over Samford during the spring, Sisson looked like the quarterback that came in and rescued Furman against Chattanooga and led the Paladins to a come-from-behind, 35-24, road win at Chattanooga during the 2019 campaign.
In an early spring win over Samford, Sisson finished that contest by connecting on 15-of-22 throws for 277 yards, with three TDs and two INTS, while rushing for 28 yards and another score.

He also threw three scoring passes in the 35-7 win over Western Carolina to open the spring season.

At other times during the spring season, it seemed as if Sisson was hesitant to get rid of the football at times when his immediate option wasn’t available. Such was the case in the 26-7 loss at The Citadel to end the spring, when Sisson was only able to connect on 6-of-22 passes for 124 yards, with a TD and two INTs.

His also had a tendency to lock on one receiver, which sometimes allowed for a predictable outcome. Sisson finished out the spring fourth in the SoCon in total passing yards, while his 12 scoring tosses were tied for the league lead along with Samford’s Liam Welch.

There were more positives to build on as the Paladins’ No. 1 signal-caller than negatives to focus on heading into the fall, and that should give those Paladin armchair quarterbacks reason for optimism heading into the fall.

Expected to challenge to see action under center this fall for Furman this fall is Jace Wilson, who has looked polished and has shown “moxie” during the early portions of preseason camp prior to a brief illness set him back a bit.

The true freshman signal-caller, comes to Furman from Missouri City, TX, and he is a true dual threat signal-caller. During his time at Del Valle High School, as he did a little bit of everything by finishing his junior season by passing for 2,526 yards and 27 touchdowns.

Wilson played his senior season at Mayde Creek High School, where he completed 126-of-222 passes for 1,680 yards and seven scores, while rushing for 307 yards and five scores, as the team finished the season with a 4-4 mark.

Luke Shiflett, who has alternated back and forth between quarterback and wideout since arriving at Furman via transfer from Middle Tennessee State two years ago, finally appears to be settled as the Furman third string, while also likely contributing at receiver. This move was made due in large part to the sudden departure of Charlotte transfer Colt Minson at the outset of preseason camp.

Sophomore Charles Watson, redshirt freshman Gabe Johnson, sophomore Luke Hedrick and freshman Trey Wainwright round out the challengers to be the third Furman quarterback when the Paladins take the field for the season opener on Sept. 4 at home vs. North Carolina A&T.

Sisson will enter the spring as the starter under center, and until he’s beaten out, he will be the starter for the season opener against North Carolina A&T on Sept. 4. That being said, it seems to be clear the job is open for the taking if someone can show up stronger than Sisson during the preseason.

Previewing the Furman Defense:

Furman senior ‘bandit’ linebacker Adrian Hope/Photo courtesy of Furman athletics and the sports information office

For all the problems Furman had on the offensive side of the ball during the spring, it nearly made up for it on the defensive side of the ball, and the Paladins should be once again strong within their front seven.

That being said, the Paladins return 10 of 11 starters from this past spring, and have six others returning that sport starting experience. The only player lost to graduation is a significant one, in all-conference cornerback Darius Kearse, who was outstanding in the spring of 2021, leading the defense with three picks.

It was a unit that ended up finishing out the spring ranking strong in both the conference and nationally in pretty much every category. The Paladins finished out the spring ranking 28th in scoring defense (20.4 PPG), 30th in rush defense (127.1 YPG), 48th in pass defense (196.3 YPG), 31st in total defense (323.4 YPG), 55th in red zone defense (.833), 35th in third down conversion defense (36.0%) and tied for 85th in teams sacks (7.0 sacks/1.0 SPG)

The main question mark entering the fall might be the secondary, and in particular, safety, however, there were player’s like Kam Brinson (18 tackles) and Cally Chizik (14 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 FR) that got the opportunity to get meaningful reps that might not have normally gotten due to the season having been moved to the spring due to COVID-19 last year.

In my opinion, that should only make Furman’s defense strong this fall. The spring also offered opportunities for guys like linebackers Nicky Kuzemka () and Bryce McCormick () also gained experience not normally available in the untimely pandemic season.

One of the most noticeable absences on the Paladin defense in the spring was also at linebacker, as Elijah McKoy , who was slated to make the transition from inside linebacker to outside linebacker, had to miss the spring with a knee injury.

In fact, the heart of the Paladin defense, which is its linebacking corps in Vaughn’s multiple scheme, was the area that some called into question due to lack of experience heading into the spring season.

That clearly won’t be the case in the fall, as the Paladins should field one of the top linebacking corps’ in the SoCon, and one of the better ones in FCS football. Thanks in large part to the strength of its linebacking corps, the Paladins should once again be stout defensively.

It wouldn’t be a reach to call Paladin defensive coordinator Duane Vaughn’s defense the best in the Southern Conference entering the fall. Included in that mix were three other elite defensive units as well, in Chattanooga, East Tennessee State and defending SoCon champion VMI.

If there were an area that the Paladins could use some improvement this fall, it’s in the pass-rush department. The Paladins ranked tied for last in the SoCon in sacks, totaling only seven quarterback takedowns in seven games.

In recent seasons, Furman had been among the league’s leaders in that category, primarily as a result of the exploits of bandit/defensive end Adrian Hope, who totaled 15 sacks by himself back in 2018 as a redshirt freshman.

With team’s dedicating entire blocking schemes to contain his overall speed, quickness and athleticism, the Paladin have seen their sack numbers dwindle from 27 and 25 sacks, respectively, in the 2018 and ’19 campaigns, and granted, those were campaigns which featured five more games than this past season, however, even at that, it would have been hard for Furman to come close with just seven sacks through seven games this past spring.

That being said, it will be up to Vaughn to figure out how to free up others to get to the quarterback, while Hope spends most of his time eating up blocks.

One of the areas that having had a healthy McKoy would have helped this past spring was that very thing, as it my understanding is that having both McKoy and Hope tag-team the ‘bandit’ LB position was to kind of keep teams from loading up against Hope, as McKoy is also effective and athletic enough to apply pressure to opposing quarterbacks.

But while Furman should have a strong linebacking corps this fall, everything starts along the defensive front, where Vaughn hopes to see Furman generate more pressure with its front three and front four this fall.

The lone major loss to the two-deep along the defensive front heading into the fall is Dru Seabrook, who graduated and opted to move on. Seabrook finished the spring season with 10 tackles and half-a-sack.

Set to anchor the defensive front heading into the fall will be All-SoCon candidate Cameron Coleman (13 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 FF). Coleman logged starts in Furman’s first five games this past spring. The 6-3, 304-lb, product of Elizabethton, TN., gives the Paladins one of the top nose tackles in the Southern Conference entering the 2021 fall season.

Coleman’s top performance this past spring came in Furman’s dramatic, 44-37, overtime win over Samford. Coleman registered five tackles and registered a forced fumble, which was recovered by Cally Chizik to help preserve the Paladin come-from-behind win on Samford’s opening drive of overtime.

The tri-cities Tennessee native collected second-team All-SoCon honors, according to the league’s coaches this past spring. He enters the 2021 season as one of Furman’s most-experienced starters on the defensive side of the ball, as he has 35 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, 2.0 sacks and a forced fumble in his Paladin career.

Coleman missed the final two games of the spring with an injury.
Furman’s depth at the nose tackle position along the defensive front might be as good as any team in FCS football, and that can certainly be said about the Paladins among their SoCon brethren.

Redshirt junior London Lewis (16 tackles) and senior Parker Stokes (16 tackles, 6.5 TFL), who both sport starting experience at nose tackle in their respective careers for the Paladins, both return to the fold for the 2021 campaign.

Lewis started the final two games of the 2019 and 2020-21 campaigns, and like Stokes and starter Coleman, brings a wealth of experience to the Paladin defensive front. The veteran saw action in all seven games during the spring, with the aforementioned two starts.

His best performance came in Furman’s penultimate game of the spring against Mercer, which saw him post five tackles in the 26-14 setback. The 6-4, 291-lb senior from Atlanta, GA., provides excellent size and strength in the middle of the Paladin defensive line.

For his career, Lewis has posted 28 career tackles to go with 1.5 tackles-for-loss and one sack.

Stokes will be in his fifth year as a part of the Paladin defense, and returns as one of the most-experienced Paladins on either side of the football. The 6-0, 288-lb native of Wrens, GA., has 82 career tackles, 15.5 tackles-for-loss, two sacks, and a fumble recovery in 41-career games for the Paladins, which includes a pair of starts.

Over the past two seasons, Stokes has registered 10 of his 15.5 career tackles-for-loss, and has been a great asset in the middle of the Paladin defense against the run during his previous four seasons.

Senior defensive end Landon Lawrence (28 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 0.5 sack, 1 INT) returns as a starter along the defensive front, as does senior defensive tackle Matt Sochovka (20 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 2 PBUs, 1 sack).

Veteran leadership certainly won’t be a problem along the front three starting positions along the defensive front heading into the fall, as the trio has combined for 34-career starts coming into the 2021 fall campaign.

Lawrence comes into the spring having accounted for exactly 12 of those starts in his Paladin career, and he will be Furman’s main rush defensive end once again this fall.

The 6-3, 260-lb native of Temple, GA., has posted 77 career tackles, nine tackles-for-loss, four sacks and an INT donning the Purple and White.

Sochovka will also be key to Furman’s potential success this fall, as he returns as yet another veteran leader along the defensive front, having logged 14-career starts entering the 2021 campaign.

The senior from Fayetteville, N.C., and Pine Forest High School put together a solid spring season for the Paladins, as he finished out the short seven-game season by posting 20 tackles, 1.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and forced a fumble.

In his career-to-date, Sochovka has posted 37 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, a sack, a pass breakup, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery during his Furman career. He’ll have a chance to contend for all-league honors this fall.

Depth beyond nose tackle on the defensive line also appears to be in good shape, as sophomore Jeremiah Jackson (1 tackle in spring of 2021) and Jack Barton (3 tackles in spring of 2021) are slated to serve as the understudies at both defensive end and defensive tackle, respectively.

Jackson was one of the most highly-sought after players in the class of 2020, choosing Furman among 15 offers, and is one of the real up-and-coming talents for Duane Vaughn’s defense. Jackson logged action in four games last spring, posting one tackle. Jackson will serve as Lawrence’s understudy at defensive end.

Barton returns to provide depth at the defensive tackle spot. The 6-4, 264-lb redshirt sophomore logged action in four games as a reserve this past spring, logging time at both defensive tackle and defensive end.

Veteran depth along the defensive front at both defensive tackle and defensive end could be provided by Jalen Clark (Jr), Trey Rogers (Jr), and Ronnie Watterson (So.), who are a trio of two juniors and a sophomore that could log action in reserve roles this fall.

Others that hope to see action along the defensive line are freshmen Jordan Bass (), Bryce Stanfield (Fr), Seth Johnson (Fr) and Christian Pairaison (Fr) are a trio of talented younger players that could see some action along the defensive line.

It could be argued that inside linebacker was one of the biggest surprises on the defensive side of the ball this past spring, and much of that surprise had to do with Nicky Kuzemka (49 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT).

Kuzemka, a former walk-on, landed on the SoCon’s All-Freshman team after seven games this past spring, thanks in large part to his speed and strength, and just sheer nose for the football. Kuzemka will enter the season slated to start at middle linebacker this fall.

The redshirt sophomore from Clifton, VA, actually saw action as a true freshman in three games back in 2019. He finished the spring with a team-leading 49 tackles in seven games, which ranked 15th in the SoCon.

Kuzemka’s 11 tackles in the 26-14 loss at Mercer were a career-high. He also finished the spring with 2.5 tackles-for-loss and an interception in addition to his tackles total in the spring. He logged starts in all seven games for the Paladins.

He will team with redshirt junior Braden Gilby (36 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR). Gilby is already one of the more experienced linebackers on the Paladin roster, having already made 11 starts as a part of the Paladin defense in his first two seasons, including starting four of the seven games in the spring for the Paladins.

The 6-2, 233-lb linebacker from St. Petersburg, FL, first made a big impact as a part of the Paladin defense back in 2019 against Virginia Tech in a 24-17 loss to the Hokies.

In that contest for the Paladins, Gilby posted a season-high 12 tackles, including one for a loss, and forced a fumble in the seven-point setback to the power five FBS foe.

Not bad for his collegiate debut. Since then, Gilby has been as reliable as any player on the Paladin defense. This past spring, Gilby posted his best performance in the 28-21 loss to Chattanooga, posting 10 tackles and an INT.

Gilby also posted 10 stops and a fumble recovery in the regular-season spring finale loss to The Citadel. His 110 tackles so far in his Paladin career ranks second on the roster. He will be slated to start at weakside linebacker for the Paladins this fall.

The depth at inside linebacker is pretty good, too. Two of the top young linebackers on the Paladin roster provide the depth in the middle of the Furman defense, with both Evan DiMaggio (10 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sack) and Bryce McCormick (24 tackles, 0.5) back as a part of the fold.

McCormick was one of Furman’s top signees out of the 2019 class, and last spring, he got a chance to show why, putting up some solid numbers in his first-career action for the Purple and White. The 6-2, 217-lb, native of Franklin, TN., enters his redshirt sophomore season already sporting good experience and ready for a breakout season.
McCormick chose Furman among 15 offers. He also starred as a tight end on the offensive side of the football during his time at Christ Presbyterian Academy, where he starred for former Paladin quarterback Ingle Martin.

Like McCormick, DiMaggio chose Furman among a slew of offers, choosing the tradition-rich FCS program among 14 offers, including 12 from FBS programs. DiMaggio saw his first action as a part of the Paladin defense in 2021, logging action in six of seven games for the Paladins during the spring.

Jalen Miller (19 tackles, 0.5 TFL) and Dan Scianna () will look to battle for spots on the depth chart this fall, while newcomers Ty Youngblood (Greeneville HS/Greeneville, TN), Tommy Beuglas (Buford HS/Buford, GA) and Luke McLaughlin (Bishop Kelly HS/Coeur d’ Alene, ID) are a trio of freshmen looking to log their first action as Paladins this fall.

Miller is a redshirt sophomore and has logged action in all 19 games over the past couple of seasons, having posted 25 tackles and 1.5 tackles-for-loss. Miller is a local product, having played his prep football at Byrnes High School prior to committing to Furman a couple of years ago, and saw his most extensive action as a reserve linebacker this past spring for the Paladins.

Beuglas is an impressive addition to the Paladin roster as a member of the 2021 signing class. Beuglas comes to Furman from Buford High School in Buford, GA., where he chose Furman among 20 offers he had coming off a stellar prep career, which saw him garner Atlanta Journal Constitution All-State honors as a senior in 2020, playing running back and linebacker as a prep.

He helped perennial Peach State power Buford to a 13-2 record and a class 5A state title in 2019. Beuglas chose Furman over FBS offers from South Alabama, Maryland, Middle Tennessee State, Army and Liberty.

Outside linebacker is also deep and stacked with heavy hitters for the Paladins. At ‘spur’ linebacker this fall, look for Dae’One Wilkins (20 tackles, 2.0 TFL) to be a player that could potentially challenge for All-SoCon accolades this fall.

The junior from Spring Hope, N.C., started his first game as a Paladin in the spring opener against Western Carolina last fall. Wilkins is a big hitter, and is a versatile athlete, possessing the ability to drop into pass coverage, as well as being able to come up and be a physical run stopper as a part of the Furman defense.

In 2019, Wilkins was the backup to All-SoCon performer Jordan Willis at the ‘spur’ position.

The question entering the fall is one that hasn’t been a problem on the defensive side of the ball at most positions, however, with the graduation of Jack Owen, there is a vacancy behind Wilkins at the ‘spur’ position entering the 2021 campaign. It’s one of the few positions on either side of the ball the Paladins will be young at in terms of overall depth.

Redshirt freshman Caden Richards (Gaffney HS/Gaffney, S.C.) is a player that could compete for time at ‘spur’ in preseason camp, as well as a player like true freshman Amaah Achina.

Richards is a local product out of Gaffney, S.C., by way of Gaffney HS, choosing Furman over offers from Richmond, Mercer and Army. Playing primarily as a free safety during his time “The Reservation”, Richards put together a strong senior season, which saw him amass 105 tackles, record four fumble recoveries, pick off four passes, and record 10 pass breakups en route to being chosen to play in the Shrine Bowl.

Achina was an impressive member of Furman’s most-recent recruiting haul, playing his prep football at Northern Guilford High School in Greensboro, N.C., where he chose Furman among 13 offers. Among those he chose Furman over were FBS offers from Army and East Carolina.

Though his senior season was delayed due to COVID-19, he played safety where he garnered 3-5A all-conference honors, helping his school to the second round of the state playoffs and an 8-5 final overall record.

Furman is loaded with experience and talent returning at the ‘bandit’ linebacker position heading into the fall, with a pair of all-conference caliber performers expected to share the duties at the position, with redshirt junior Adrian Hope (17 tackles, 2.5, 2.0 sacks, 3 QBHs, 1 FF) and redshirt senior Elijah McKoy (64 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 FF in 2019) returning for a sixth year of eligibility to the Paladin defense.

Both will see plenty of action splitting the snaps ‘bandit’ linebacker this fall, and are arguably Furman’s two most important defensive players.

McKoy is Furman’s career-leader with 236 career tackles, and he missed out on the entire spring season. McKoy originally moved to the ‘bandit’ following the 2019 season before the onset of the pandemic. He brings a wealth of experience to the position and has plenty of know-how.

As a freshman, McKoy garnered SoCon All-Freshman honors and as a sophomore, his 91 tackles helped him rank second in the SoCon. In addition to his 236-career tackles, McKoy has also posted 10 tackles-for-loss, a pair of sacks, four forced fumbles, four pass breakups and an INT. McKoy will provide excellent support against the run on the perimeter for the Paladins. He is also athletic and quick enough to be an effective edge rusher.

The last time McKoy took the field for the Paladins was the 2019 campaign, where he posted 64 tackles in 13 games, starting 10 of those contests. He was an instrumental part of a Furman defense that helped the Paladins qualify for the FCS playoffs.

Hope has had a Hall-of-Fame type career for the Paladins, and enters his final season ranking third in school history in sacks with 23.5 quarterback takedowns in his career. Furman’s all-time record-holder in that category are Kelly Fletcher (1986-89) and Bryan Dailer (1994-97), who both tallied 31.5 sacks during their respective careers donning the Purple and White.

With a season anywhere comparable to his freshman campaign, which saw him post one of the best season’s in the history of Furman football for a pass-rusher, as he posted 15 quarterback takedowns, Hope could easily walk away with the program record by season’s end.

Since that outstanding freshman campaign, it hasn’t been easy to find the type of freedom to approach those same kind of numbers since that outstanding rookie season.

Hope is also a pretty good at stopping the opposing running game in its tracks, as evidenced by his 29.0 career tackles-for-loss. Additionally in his career, Hope has also registered 89-career tackles, forced six fumbles, and has two career fumble recoveries.

Settling in behind Hope and McKoy as reserves at ‘bandit’ linebacker will be a vacancy that will have to be addressed by Vaughn, as Dru Seabrook has graduated and decided to move on.

A player like redshirt freshman Luke Clark (7 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PDs) has a chance to garner a spot on a depth chart behind both Hope and McKoy with a strong performance in preseason camp.

The 6-3, 243-lb native of Louisville, KY., was one of the young players that benefitted most from the rare spring season, as he logged action in all seven games for the Paladins.

His three tackles-for-loss during the spring stick out from those meaningful reps garnered this past spring, and had three tackles and an INT in a home loss to Chattanooga. Clark is ready to step in and provide support right away at ‘bandit’ this fall.

While Clark benefitted as a young, individual player on the defensive side of the ball in the unprecedented spring campaign, as far as a unit that benefitted as a whole, it’d be hard to look past a Paladin secondary, which has plenty of youth that gained meaningful reps within its ranks.

Returning as Furman’s top cover-corner and returning as one of the top cornerback’s in the Southern Conference is junior Travis Blackshear (21 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 INT, 4 PBUs). Blackshear is a ballhawk and has instinctual playmaking ability at one of the cornerback positions for the Paladins.
Blackshear started all six games he saw action in this past spring, fashioning a solid overall individual performance, which included a season-high nine tackles and an INT playing not too far from his hometown of Savannah, GA, in Furman’s 26-14 loss at Mercer this past spring.

Blackshear has put together a solid career so far in the Purple and White, having logged action in 23-career games, starting 19 of those contests, having posted 73 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 3 INTs, 8 PBUs, forced two fumbles, and a fumble recovery in his Paladin career thus far.

His speed could also make him an asset as a part of the Paladin special teams, and Blackshear garnered SoCon All-Freshman honors back in 2019, and was a preseason All-SoCon selection heading into last spring.

With the graduation of all-league Darius Kearse-Furman’s only lost starter on the defensive side of the ball-Blackshear will now be the veteran anchor of that Paladin secondary heading into the 2021 fall campaign.

Likely to try and fill the big shoes left by Kearse at the other cornerback spot and join Blackshear as a starter in the Furman secondary at cornerback this fall will be Cally Chizik (14 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 FR).

Chizik, who is the son of former Auburn national championship coach Gene Chizik, has been a playmaker in the Furman secondary ever since setting foot on the field for the Paladins a couple of years ago.

He is coming off a strong spring season, as the redshirt sophomore logged action in the first five contests of the spring before having to sit out the final couple of games due to injury. Chizik logged his first-career start in the third game of the spring against Samford, and would end up making one of the most important defensive plays of the COVID-shortened season.

He stepped in and started for an injured Travis Blackshear and made the most of that opportunity, as he posted six tackles, a tackle-for-loss, and recovered what proved to be the game-winning fumble in what was a 44-37 overtime win by the Paladins over Samford.

Other young corners like Ivan Yates (5 tackles, 1 TFL) and Micah Robinson (4 tackles, 1 PBU), who were among those young players in the Paladin secondary that benefitted from the spring campaign, will provide the needed depth behind Blackshear and Chizik.

Yates, a 5-11, 178-lb, native of Roswell, GA, saw some limited action as a reserve cornerback in all seven games for the Paladins this past spring. He was among the most highly sough after signees in the 2020 class, choosing Furman among 16 offers, which included four FBS offers.

Like Blackshear, Yates has outstanding speed and overall athleticism. He has the makings of another big-time cover-corner for the Paladins this fall, but it could be quite a learning curve this fall.

Robinson, a 5-11, 170-lb, redshirt freshman from Atlanta, GA., chose Furman among 12 offers. He saw action limited action as a reserve cornerback in seven games last spring and is slated to be in the mix to challenge for a starting job at corner this season.

Others competing to log action at cornerback for the Paladins this fall will be senior Braedon Domino and newcomer Dominic Morris (Klein Oak High School/Spring, TX). Domino brings veteran leadership to the fold for the Paladins, and has been an instrumental part of the special teams unit during his Paladin career. He hasn’t logged any action in the Paladin lineup since the 2013 season.

Furman’s strength in its secondary will reside at the two safety positions. Both starting safeties return, in DiMarcus Clay (22 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 QBH) and Hugh Ryan (33 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU).

Clay will be one of the veteran leaders of this Paladin defense, and he will also enter the season as one of the four captains. The 5-9, 184-lb fifth-year senior from Atlanta, GA., will be Furman’s starter at the strong safety position for the Paladins.

In 2019, Clay garnered starts in 11 of 13 contests, finishing that campaign with a pair of interceptions. For his career-to-date, Clay has posted 90 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, nine pass deflections, and forced a fumble. Clay is a big hitter as a member of the Paladin secondary, and will be one of the candidates to garner All-SoCon honors at season’s end.

One of the emerging stars on the Furman defense has been redshirt sophomore Hugh Ryan (33 tackles,0.5 TFL, 3 PBUs, 1 INT).

The 6-1, 200-lb, product out Irmo High School by way of Palmetto State powerhouse Dutch Fork High School is poised to be one of Furman’s premier playmakers on the defensive side of the ball this fall.

He started all seven games during the spring for the Paladins, finishing with his best performance against Chattanooga, posting five tackles and an INT in a 28-21 loss to the Mocs. Ryan posted four tackles and 0.5 tackles-for-loss in Furman’s spring finale loss to The Citadel.

The Paladins should have quality reserves at safety as well heading into the season, as both Jack Rhodes (6 tackles) and Kam Brinson (18 tackles) return to provide depth at both safety positions heading into the fall. Both Rhodes and Brinson are redshirt freshman, logging some important reps in the spring.

Rhodes enjoyed his best performance of the spring against Samford, totaling three tackles. Brinson, who made the transition from cornerback-to-safety prior to the spring season, also posted his best performance against Samford, finishing with six tackles in that contest.

Rhodes will serve as Ryan’s understudy at free safety, while Brinson will serve as Clay’s understudy strong safety.

Furman’s defense is stacked with talent and experience, and the ability to get younger players some experience in what was a rare spring season, the unit could be even stronger this fall. One of the areas needed improvement is the pass-rush, and if the Paladins can improve that, they are set to have not only one of the best defensive units in the SoCon, but in all of FCS football.

The Special Teams:

Furman always has a strong special teams unit, and this fall will be no different. The Paladins seemingly picked up where they left off with Grayson Atkins in 2019 this past spring, with Timmy Bleekrode handling both the place-kicking and punting duties this past fall.

As a redshirt sophomore this past spring, Bleekrode garnered SoCon first-team honors as a punter, while claiming second-team accolades as a kicker, according to the league’s head coaches, following a spring that saw him connect on 6-of-7 on field goal attempts, while averaging 43.6 yards-per-punt. Additionally, Bleekrode connected on 16-of-17 PATs during the spring.

While Bleekrode returns to handle the kickoff and punting duties this fall, redshirt freshman Axel Lepvreau returns to handle kickoffs for the Paladins in the 2021 fall season, as he comes off a spring campaign in which he averaged 56.7 yards-per-kickoff on 30 kickoffs, which included six touchbacks and three of which went out of bounds.

Set to handle the kickoff return duties for the Paladins this fall will likely be Dejuan Bell and Wayne Anderson Jr. Both have great speed and hands, and the ability to break a long return if given an opening.

Final Thoughts on the Paladins:

Furman’s non-conference performance will go a long way in determining its momentum going forward for the season, and the season opener against North Carolina A&T amounts to one of the biggest season openers in recent memory for the Furman Paladin football program.

A win against a Top 25 foe to open the season could go establish momentum towards the remainder of the season.

The second game at Tennessee Tech is also important, considering the third non-conference game is against a pretty good North Carolina State, which will present the Paladins a nice check for coming to Raleigh.

The Paladins have two of their biggest SoCon games on the road, facing Chattanooga (Oct. 30) and at Samford (Nov. 20), while getting defending champion VMI at home on Nov. 13.

The first two weeks of the season and the last two weeks of the season will go a long way in determining whether or not the Paladins can compete for a Southern Conference title and FCS playoff appearance for the third time in five seasons with Clay Hendrix at the helm.

Please click on the link below to check out a tribute to the 2001 SoCon champion and national runner-up Furman Paladins.


Published by soconjohn

I am a lover of all things SoCon, and I have had a passion to write about, follow and tell the world about this great conference for pretty much my entire life. While I do love the SoCon, and live in the SoCon city, which is home to the Furman Paladins, have a passion for sports in general, with college football and college hoops topping the list.

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