Noting a busy off-season:
With spring sports winding down at every program around the nation, and with the NFL Draft heading into its third day, naturally I have started to shift my focus towards the 2022 SoCon Football season, as well as what lies ahead for head coach Clay Hendrix and the Paladins, as the Commerce, GA., native heads into his sixth season at the helm of the program.
It’s been a slower build than usual for me when taking a look forward to Furman’s 2022 football season.
Some of it has to do with having to re-charge the batteries after what was one of the more thrilling Furman basketball seasons in recent memory, culminating with the heartbreaking loss to Chattanooga, following David Jean-Baptiste’s 36-foot contested buzzer-beating effort just over two months ago.
That said, as I have now made another trip around the moon, it’s this time of year when I start to at least devote some time to taking a look towards SoCon and Furman football for the upcoming season.
Though the last calendar year might have not produced the type of results Paladin fans might have hoped for, the truth be told is that it has been overall a pretty successful five seasons for Paladin football, having gone 31-23 during that span, with FCS playoff appearances in 2017 and ‘19, and a shared Southern Conference regular-season title in 2018.
When East Tennessee State’s Randy Sanders decided to retire following the most successful season in Bucs football history, ETSU Director of Athletics launched a national search looking for Sanders’ replacement. When it was all said and done, Sanders ended up calling one of East Tennessee’s own back home.
When Associate head coach/offensive coordinator George Quarles first arrived in Greenville, he was one of the most successful high school coaches in the history coaches in the history of the Volunteer State during his time as the head coach at Maryville High School, as he won 11 state championships at the helm of that program.
Quarles has been Furman’s offensive coordinator since the start of the 2018 season, following Drew Cronic’s departure to become the head coach at Lenoir-Rhyne, and now of course, is the head coach of the Mercer Bears, showcasing the overall success of that staff originallty was put together by head coach Clay Hendrix in 2017.
Taking over at offensive coordinator will be Justin Roper, who comes from Holy Cross, where he helped the Crusaders navigate their way to the playoffs.
Though Roper was still at Oregon in 2008, he probably remembers having caught wind of now co-worker Drew Dudzik near-heroic effort in leading the Dukes past the Montana Grizzlies in the FCS semifinals after all-everything starting quarterback Rodney Landers went down with a game-ending injury.
Though Dudzik would lead a valiant effort in relief, it was Montana that held on for a 35-27 win on a cold Virginia night in mid-December. A week later in Chattanooga, the Griz were no match for Richmond, which defeated Montana 24-7.
Roper was still at Oregon at the time, but would lead Montana to the same destination a year later after transferring from Eugene to Missoula, only to be on the end of the same negative result as a year earlier when the Griz lost a heartbreaking 23-21 decision to Villanova in the 2009 national title game.
During his time at the helm of the Holy Cross offense last season, he presided over one of the more balanced offenses participating in the FCS postseason, as the Crusaders averaged 203.8 YPG on the ground, while averaging 201.5 yards-per-game through the air.
Roper was just one of three changes, which had to be made at the conclusion of the 2021 season on the offensive side of the ball for the Paladins.
With Brian Bratton having left to take a role as the receivers coach for the Indianapolis Colts.
As a result of the loss of Bratton to the NFL, the Paladins hired the aforementioned former JMU signal-caller Dudzik to succeed Bratton as the wide receivers coach for the Paladins heading into the 2022 season.
Dudzik served in the same role as a wide receivers coach from 2019-21 at East Carolina.
As a player, Dudzik is surely most remembered for leading to JMU to one of its signature moments as a football program in 2010, as he helped lead the Dukes to that magical, 21-16, win over No. 11 Virginia Tech in flood-like conditions at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg.
The 2022 Schedule:
Sept. 1–vs North Greenville–For the first time since the 2005 season, Furman will begin its regular season on a Thursday night when the Paladins host North Greenville for the first-ever meeting between the two programs separated by only 12 miles.
The last time the Paladins took the field on a Thursday night to open a season was as the No. 2 ranked team in all of FCS football, when the Paladins traveled to Jacksonville State and claimed what was a thrilling 37-35 win over Jacksonville State at Paul Snow Stadium, as Florida transfer Ingle Martin, who was in his second season as the Paladin starting signal-caller, delivered a perfect strike to Justin Stepp on a perfect 9-yard scoring toss as time expired to claim one of the most thrilling regular-season wins in Furman football history.
The last time the Paladins opened the season with a non-Thursday night game was in 2016, as Furman opened with a Friday night, 28-13, loss to Michigan State.
North Greenville is coming off a 5-6 season, which includes a 2-5 mark in Gulf South Conference play, which is traditionally regarded as one of the top Division II conferences in the nation.
One of the interesting connections among several heading into the first-ever clash between the two schools is Corey Watkins, who will be suiting up with the Crusaders this fall after transferring in from Furman.
Watkins, who did not play last year due to an injury, will be suiting up for the Crusaders this fall. During Watkins’ time as a Paladin, he rushed for 883 yards and four touchdowns on 117 attempts at Furman.
Three coaches have ties to Furman football, including head coach Jeff Farrington, as well as assistant coaches Carrol McCray and Maurice Duncan.
Farrington served nine seasons (2002-2010) as an assistant football coach at Furman, and was the Paladins’ defensive coordinator in 2010. He also served in stints at Mercer (2013) and Virginia Military Institute (2014) before taking over the reins of the North Greenville Football program in 2015.
McCray served as the offensive line coach at Furman from 2007-10 under then Paladin head coach Bobby Lamb.
Finally, Maurice Duncan, who is the Crusaders’ defensive coordinator, spent time as part of one of the best defenses in Paladin football history in 2004, helping the Paladins to a 10-2 regular-season record and a No. 2 overall seed in the Division I-AA playoffs. He was a four-year letterman 2001-04, finishing his career with 116 tackles and intercepted five passes. Duncan was a member of a pair of SoCon championship teams.
The 7 p.m. kickoff between the Paladins and Crusaders will be part of a five-game home slate for the Paladins during the 2022 season.
Sept. 10, 2022 at Clemson
For the first time since the 2018 season, Furman will face off against Clemson on the college football gridiron when the Paladins travel to Memorial Stadium on Sept. 10.
It will mark the 58th renewal of one of the oldest college football rivalries in the state of South Carolina, which first began in 1896, with Clemson claiming what was a 14-6 win in Greenville.
The Tigers hold a commanding 43-10-4 all-time lead in the series between the two schools, which includes a 48-7 win over the Paladins back in 2018. In notching the lopsided win over the Paladins, the Tigers were to claim the program’s 31st-straight win over the Paladins, dating back to a 0-0 tie between the two Palmetto State teams in 1937 in Greenville. Furman’s last win was a 12-0 triumph over the Tigers in Clemson the previous season.
Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney enters his 14th campaign as the program’s head coach, having posted an impressive worksheet during that span, posting a 150-36 record as the program’s head coach, including a pair of national titles (2016 and ’18), six trips to the College Football Playoffs (2015, ’16, ’17, ’18, ’19 and ’20), and seven Atlantic Coast Conference crowns (2011, ’15, ’16, ’17, ’18, ’19, and ’20).
Clemson brings back 15 starters (9-offense/6-defense) from a team that finished the 2021 campaign with a 10-3 overall record and final Associated Press ranking of No. 14 nationally. The Tigers claimed the Cheez-It Bowl with a 20-13 win over Iowa State in Orlando.
Furman is Clemson’s oldest gridiron rival.
Sept. 17 at East Tennessee State
Furman will square off against East Tennessee State on Sept. 17 to kick off Southern Conference play.
The Paladins suffered what was a heartbreaking 17-13 setback last season against the Bucs, which marked just the third win all-time for the Bucs inside the friendly confines of Paladin Stadium. The loss dropped the Paladins to 16-3 all-time against Furman in Greenville.
The Bucs are coming off one of the best seasons in program history, having claimed the program’s first-ever outright Southern Conference title with an 11-2 mark, which included a 7-1 mark in Southern Conference play, with the lone SoCon loss coming at the hands of the Chattanooga Mocs, dropping a 21-17 contest.
The Bucs would bow out of the playoffs in heartbreaking fashion, as Malik Murray was able to haul in 3-yard scoring pass with nine seconds remaining, concluding what was a 14-play, 80-yard scoring drive, as Murray hauled in the winning scoring strike from signal-caller Tyler Riddell to secure the winning points.
The Bucs’ win over the Paladins marked the first victory since the 2017 season, when ETSU launched its biggest come-from-behind win in school history to capture a 29-27 victory over the Paladins during the 2018 campaign. That would mark the second of three league titles that the Bucs have won as a program.
The Bucs will likely enter George Quarles’ debut season back in his native surroundings of East Tennessee as the favorite to defending their SoCon title from a year ago.
Quarles will have weapons returning on both sides of the football, including all-conference running back Jacob Saylors returning in the ETSU backfield, while Riddell returns under center.
ETSU was knocked out of the postseason in the FCS quarterfinals by eventual national champion North Dakota State, dropping a 27-3 decision at the Fargo Dome.
The Paladins and Bucs will be meeting on the college football gridiron for the 37th time in series history, with Furman owning the 27-9 series edge. The Paladins claimed a 17-13 win over ETSU in come-from-behind fashion in the spring of the 2021 (2020 season), and had won the previous two prior to last season’s win by the Bucs in Greenville last fall.
ETSU has a number of significant departures on the defensive side of football, with pillars like linebacker Jared Fowlkes, as well as All-American defensive back Tyree Robinson, however, the good news is the Bucs will have at least some playmakers back that helped contribute to their magical run through the SoCon and FCS playoffs a year ago, with Alijah Huzzie returning to anchor the Bucs’ secondary.
Overall, Quarles’ first spring as the head coach of ETSU went off smoothly, despite having had to recruit on the run, as well as having to had some unforeseen departures in the transfer portal, with maybe the two most notable being Tre’Mond Shorts from the offensive line, as well as one of the league’s top defensive performers–linebacker Donovan Manuel–deciding to play their trade at the FBS level, with Shorts set to continue his career at LSU next season, while Manuel will continue his career at Florida International.
Following Quarles from Furman to ETSU was Dru Duke, who will serve as the tight ends and offensive line coach for the Bucs this fall.
No kickoff time has been set for the contest at William B. Greene Stadium.
Sept. 24-at Charleston Southern
It will be back-to-back Bucs for Furman when it takes on Charleston Southern to close out the opening month of the 2021 season.
In the first-ever meeting between the Paladins and Bucs back in 2019, the Paladins made easy work of Charleston Southern at Paladin Stadium, using a three-headed monster in the backfield to do a majority of the damage, as the Paladins rolled up 369 yards on the ground behind the efforts of Devin Wynn, Devin Abrams, and Corey Watkins, as the trio delivered a performance worthy of a tip-of-the-cap from Charleston Southern head coach and Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher, Autry Denson, who was making his debut at the helm of the CSU football program on that very same sun-splashed season opener in Greenville some three years ago.
Since that afternoon, Denson has slowly built the Bucs into a viable contender in the Big South Conference, and has done so using a version of the Air Raid offense in the process.
Denson saw his Bucs continue to take incremental steps as a program last season, as the Bucs look to chase the tradition first established under head coach Jay Mills and quarterback Colin Drafts, and after some really trying times early in the Jamey Chadwell era, increased its program profile to easily its highest point in 2017, when CSU dropped a heartbreaking 24-17 overtime decision to juggernaut and reigning national champion North Dakota State to open the 2016 season.
Charleston Southern posted a 4-6 overall mark last season, which included a 3-4 mark in the Big South. One of the breakout performances of the 2021 season for CSU came against cross-town rival The Citadel, 38-21, in the 2021 season-opener.
The biggest adjustments for Denson’s Bucs will need to be made on the offensive side of the ball, having to replace Jack Chambers, who led CSU with 2,967 yards of total offense (2,490 pass yds/477 rush yds) and accounted for 24 TD responsibilities (17-passing, 7-rushing) last season.
The good news is the Bucs do return first-team All-Big South wideout Cayden Jordan this fall, as he hauled in 53 passes for 752 yards and a touchdown, averaging 14.2 YPR in 2021.
It will mark Furman’s first-ever trip to Ladson, and kickoff is slated for noon at Buccaneer Field.
September Prediction: If Furman makes it out of September with a 2-2 record, it won’t be the end of the world, but it will likely be what will likely happen if we were to go by the games the Paladins will be favored in and the ones that they won’t be.
Facing perennial national title contender Clemson is no picnic, but there are positives to facing the Tigers…Simply knowing you won’t face a team as talented the remainder of the season is one of those, while the other is that I am a big believer in the notion that team’s like Furman get better after facing a team like Clemson as the season moves forward.
The key game of the month is a no-brainer, as Furman’s trip to Johnson City is one that most all around the league have circled on their respective schedules. Furman represents the program by which to be measured in terms of all-time success and tradition, and are the only current member with a national title, will likely look on as one of those significant pieces of that national title puzzle leads ETSU in his first SoCon game as a head coach, while his team will likely be getting rightfully admonished for the accomplishments of such a dominant 2021 season.
It all will be an interesting backdrop to that league opener on Sept. 17. It will have a little bit of a biting edge to it, and should be a great game as it almost always is.
Predicted record after Sept. 2-2