A look back at SoCon Football Media Day 2022

Old, new and steady ground

By John Hooper

The temperature was unseasonably hot for Asheville on Thursday, as the league’s nine head coaches made their way to the Omni Grove Park Inn to talk about the 101st season of Southern Conference football. However, while chaos seems to be happening all over college football at either level, the SoCon and its membership haven’t been swayed by the pressure to follow the recent trend of transition throughout Division I college football.

In fact, Southern Conference commissioner Jim Schaus said as much when he addressed the league’s media, coaches and sports information personnel on-hand at last Thursday’s SoCon media outing just after the luncheon, which was also highlighted by a speech from NFL Hall-of-Famer and Chattanooga alum Terrell Owens.

Schaus was quick to point out the league had not been quick to act like so many of its competing conference membership’s had, noting that the SoCon was only one of three FCS conferences that saw no changes in terms of teams coming or going during the off-season. The implication is that the league’s nine members are happy where they are, and not only that, the value of regionality of fan base along with rivalries established were something that money just can’t possibly buy.

As I tried to get around and talk to each coach off the record Wednesday night at the pre-media day reception, I knew the drive from Greenville would be worth it. Not necessarily in quotes I could use for any of media content, but more to gauge expectations for the league as a collective going forward with so much chaos and movement at both levels of Division I football classifications. I was not disappointed.

Each of the past two seasons, the league has had just one FCS playoff representative. With the creation of leagues like the Atlantic Sun and the resurrection of the WAC, while others, like the Ohio Valley Conference and Southland struggling to maintain some semblance of continuity, the Southern Conference has stood sturdy as a beacon of example among its FCS brethren. That is a direct reflection of the league office, which has gone to great lengths to keep its nine football playing members satisfied.

The fallout from the departures of Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, and Elon almost a decade ago now seems a distant memory. Chattanooga, Furman, The Citadel, East Tennessee State, and VMI form the backbone of the league, as though have called the league home the longest, according to when they initially joined the conference. Of course, VMI and ETSU have re-joined the league, but both have been a major part of the league’s rich 101-year history of gridiron glory.

Wofford’s way has become Wofford’s woes

Wofford, Samford and Mercer have made their own waves, despite shorter membership span in the league, which will celebrate its 101st season of football when the 2022 campaign kicks off on Saturday, August 27. Wofford has had the most success, winning seven titles since joining the SoCon as an official gridiron member in 1997. The Terriers’ most recent run of success came from 2017-19, claiming three-straight league crowns.

However, the only thing hotter than the late-July sun at the picturesque Grove Park Inn might be Wofford head coach Josh Conklin’s giant leather chair at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville this past week (if he were to sit in one of those at some point during the week) as the head coach of the Terriers. In fact, since winning those three-straight league titles and making four-straight FCS playoff appearances, the Terriers have lost 12 of their past 14 games heading into the 2022 campaign, which includes a winless conference campaign (0-8) last fall. Wofford will enter the 2022 season loser’s of 12-straight league games.

If the Terriers are going to get back to a familiar territory, the process of taking it one game at a time will be key. The 2022 schedule certainly offers little respite, if any, as Wofford will face a schedule that is seemingly at least as tough, but more likely even tougher, than it did in its 1-10 campaign a year ago.

In the Southern Conference coaches’ poll, the Terriers were picked last, while the media had the Terriers slotted eighth in the nine-team conference—one ahead of Palmetto State rival The Citadel.

Conklin’s Terriers welcome the return a total of 16 starters (6-offense, 8-defense, 2-specialists), highlighted by the return of three of Wofford’s top four ground-gainers last season, including leading rusher Irvin Mulligan (854 rushing yards, 8 TDs). On defense, the Terriers will be anchored by All-America candidate Michael Mason (44 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) along the defensive front. Mason, who was a first-team all-conference pick by the league’s coaches, represented the lone selection for the Terriers to either of the preseason all-conference squads.

Out the gate, Conklin’s Terriers have a chance to end that long SoCon losing streak, albeit against the team picked to win the whole thing, Chattanooga.

Uncertainty at quarterback and fixing the defense among the challenges Samford faces ahead the 2022 season

Samford has had some notable success since joining the SoCon in 2008, but head coach Chris Hatcher heads into the 2022 season with maybe as many unknowns going into a season since taking over as the Bulldogs’ head coach back in 2015. And when Hatcher’s teams have questions, that usually means they are “green” on experience at quarterback. The Bulldogs’ lone conference crown came back in 2013, tying with both Furman and Chattanooga for the league crown that year. Heading into its 15th season as a league member, the Bulldogs have made three FCS postseason appearances, making the playoffs in 2013, ’16, and ’17,respectively.

Under the direction of Hatcher, the Bulldogs have also seen a player claim the highest offensive distinction in FCS football, when Devlin Hodges won the 2018 Walter Payton Award, which is given to the top offensive player in the sub-classification. Hodges not only became the seventh player in league history to win the prestigious award, he also ended his career as the all-time career leading passer (14,584 yds), which broke the previous mark that was held by 1994 Walter Payton Award winner and former Alcorn State great, Steve McNair.

As long as Chris Hatcher is the sheriff in Homewood, points aren’t going to be hard to come by. Whoever the starter under center is, whether that be Nic Scalzo or Michael Hiers, the odds are in favor that the Bulldogs will be just fine offensively. Scalzo will have weapons like running back Jay Stanton (115 rush att, 572 yds, 6 TDs, 5.0 YPC) and wide receiver Ty King (23 rec, 240 yds, 1 TD, 10.4 YPR) at his immediate disposal, while Gavin Orr headlines an up-and-coming unit along the offensive line and is one of three All-SoCon selections for the Bulldogs heading into 2022. Orr, a graduate student and second-team, is joined on the preseason all-conference team by fellow second team picks, in graduate linebacker Nathan East (97 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 7 QBHs), as well as punter Brad Porcellato (39.6 YPP).

Samford was picked to finish sixth by the league’s head coaches, while the league’s media selected Samford to finish seventh. The Bulldogs, who finished 4-7 overall and 3-5 in league play, which placed them seventh in the league’s final standings, return 17 starters (8-offense, 7-defense, 2 special teams)

The Bulldogs are coming off a 2021 fall campaign, which saw the Bulldogs lead the league in scoring offense (37.9 PPG), while ranking second in total offense (448.7 YPG). The offensive highlight of note and potentially the most memorable moment of the disappointing campaign for the Bulldogs was putting up 52 points and 530 yards of total offense in a 70-52 loss at SEC East member Florida last season. The 52 points were the most ever allowed by Florida to an opponent in a win, and the most ever scored by an FCS team against SEC opposition. 

The main concern is defense. And in coach Hatcher’s own words—it was bad.

“We were bad, John…We were last, and there’s no easy way to put that or nothing good to say about it statistically speaking,”Samford head coach Chris Hatcher said.

The Bulldogs were, indeed, the worst defense in the FCS last fall, completing the 2022 campaign ranked 123rd out of 123 FCS teams ranked in total defense, surrendering a whopping 505.4 YPG last season.

Hope does spring eternal on the defensive of the football for Hatcher and the Bulldogs, however, as Chris Boone will assume the defensive coordinator responsibilities for Samford this fall. Boone comes to Birmingham from East Mississippi Community College. In his final season at Eastern, his unit led the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 21.8 PPG.

“In the last half of the spring season [2020], I thought we were one of the hottest teams in FCS football…I mean Mercer was coming in fighting for a spot and we got after them pretty good and we were playing really well and then in the fall season…somewhere along the way it just seemed like we lost confidence,” Hatcher said.

Samford’s tough schedule will give Hatcher’s team an immediate chance to right their 2021 wrongs, although the challenge won’t be an easy one. The Bulldogs will open up the 2022 season on Thursday, Sept. 1, as Atlantic Sun member Kennesaw State pays a visit to Seibert Stadium for a 7 p.m. EST kickoff.

‘Bearing’ down on the title contenders

When Mercer brought its program back from a long winter’s nap, the Bears had a vision and it wasn’t a methodical one. It started at football and ended at scholarships and competing for SoCon titles. I suppose the latter will always be in-effect, while going from non-scholarship football in the Pioneer Football League-to-scholarship football in the tradition-rich football conference like the SoCon was almost seamless from 2013-to-2014.

That vision was a collaborative effort, which included University president Bill Underwood, as well as Director of Athletics Jim Cole, and they pulled it off with some expertise. If there was an easy part, that was most certainly it. Getting a program in order to compete for titles year-in and year-out that hadn’t fielded a football team for 72 years until 2013 against opponents who, for the most part, had at least seven decades of a head start–that was an entirely different challenge.

That didn’t change expectations, however, and while Bobby Lamb might have been the perfect hire to help fashion such a steep climb in a giant few steps, the expectations were as unrelenting as Asheville’s summer heat had been all week. So, after four seasons, which saw the Bears compete and compete well, but never able to break above .500 in league play in its first six seasons as a league member. What Lamb had done is get the foundation sturdy and competitive.

Unfortunately for Lamb, the weight of such expectation, which was powered by a vision funded by a lot of money spent to get off the ground sprinting, were too much to bear, and ultimately, Mercer’s leadership opted to go in a different direction. That said, history will one day show, if not already, Lamb’s profound impact as a head coach and the unique role that he played in helping Mercer establish itself as a regular title contender in the SoCon. That part you can’t put a price on.

That said, Lamb’s grunt work had been put in, and when he punched the time clock for the final time in Macon, he left the situation not only better, but he left it in a position to go to the next level.

Underwood and Cole made yet another shrewd hire, bringing in another household name for all those who call themselves true fans of the sport in the Peach State, hiring Georgia’s own Drew Cronic—a coach that I have thoroughly enjoyed interviewing and getting to know over the past couple of league media outings.

Cronic, who spent nine years as an assistant under Lamb at Furman from 2002-10, was the next in line to succeed Lamb in 2020-21. The savvy Cronic had worked his way up the coaching latter, with unique offensive ideas and a high football IQ. Those were enough to get Underwood and Cole’s attention almost immediately, as seemingly everywhere Cronic had been, success had followed, whether that was as an assistant at Furman, or head coach at Reinhardt or Lenoir-Rhyne. It simply didn’t matter.

In his first two years, Cronic has elevated Mercer up another rung on the ladder—a consistent SoCon title contender. Now all that’s left is winning that elusive first, which Mercer nearly did in 2021.However, the Bears came up painfully short. Cronic took over the Mercer program at a particularly tough time for a new coach to be starting any new venture, much less a program still trying to find its way as a new program at the Division I FCS level.

“To me building culture is the most important thing you can do as a leader or coach, and teaching guys to love one another and so there were certain challenges when I got to Mercer in doing that because of the pandemic and we got two days into spring practice and had to send everybody home and then we played three games in the fall, which is different and then eight games in the spring, which is different, so any kind of adversity like that presents opportunities,” Mercer head coach Drew Cronic said.

That strange start through the timing clock out of kilter for everyone, and that’s likely a major reason the Bears only played a 10-game schedule last fall, which in the end probably kept them out of making what would have been their first-ever FCS playoff appearance.

That said, the Bears were left with a hunger to leave no doubts this time around. The Bears were picked to finish in a tie for second in the media poll with East Tennessee State, while the coaches poll had Mercer third, picking up seven first-place votes in the media poll, while getting one vote in the coaches poll.

Cronic’s Bears welcome the return of 15 starters (8-offense, 7-defense), and Mercer had five preseason all-conference selections. On the offensive side of the football, wide receiver Ty James (26 rec, 611 yds, 7 TDs, 23.5 YPR) was the lone representative on either the first or second team all-conference squad, as he garnered second-team recognition. James was a big-play waiting to happen for the Bears last fall, and it was his clutch catches that put the Bears in position to pull off the upset in Johnson City at the end of last season.

James and quarterback Fred Payton (112-of-195 passing,1,663 yds, 12 TDs, 10 INTs ) found a certain synergy on the deep ball last season. The pressure might be a little more magnified on being able to make those big plays in the passing game after it was learned earlier this month that all-conference running back and the league’s fifth-leading rusher Fred Davis (163 rush att, 847 yds, 14 TDs, 5.2 YPC) wouldn’t be available for the upcoming season due to being academically ineligible.

Given Cronic’s success rate and notable offensive achievements prior to coming to Macon to take over the head coaching responsibilities, it might have surprised some that the Bears have been so elite on the defensive side of the ball, however, that’s exactly what has happened. The Bears have some of the top defensive talent returning in the league for the 2022 season, including Solomon Zubairu, who returns as one of the SoCon’s top defensive lineman, having finished the 2021 campaign with 34 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, and five sacks.

Zubairu was a preseason second-team all-league selection, while defensive back Lance Wise (59 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 3 INTs, 1 FF, 1 FR) found himself as a first-team selection. Rounding out the preseason all-league picks for the Bears was sophomore linebacker Isaac Dowling (73 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2 QBHs, 1 FR), as he joined Zubairu on the second team.

Rounding out the all-conference selections for the Bears is sophomore punter Trey Turk (40.6 YPP), who garnered preseason second-team plaudits.

With both a SoCon title and an automatic bid to the playoffs on the line in what turned out to be the de facto Southern Conference title game at East Tennessee State on the final day of the regular-season, the Bears saw their season end in heartbreaking fashion, with a 38-35 setback to eventual Southern Conference outright champion East Tennessee State. The Bears, who are under the leadership of third-year head coach Drew Cronic, will again be among the favorites to claim the crown.

The Bears will be the first to open up the 2022 season, hosting Morehead State on Aug. 27 at Five Star Stadium, with kickoff set for 7 p.m.

Mocs looking to get back to title winning

Chattanooga’s started under Russ Huesman when he assumed the reins of the 2009, and had the Mocs winning consistently and challenging for league titles less than five years later. After a brief respite in 2017 and ’18 under Tom Arth, which saw the Mocs post just a 9-13 record during that span, Mocs alum and former Huesman assistant, Rusty Wright, who took over the program in 2019, has the Mocs back into title-contending form, having posted a 15-13 record entering his fourth season as the head coach.

The Mocs, who were the consensus favorites to claim the SoCon title last season, finished a disappointing 6-5 and lost its three SoCon games by a combined 10 points. Chattanooga will head into the season once again as the pick by both the coaches and media to claim the crown. If the Mocs are able to live up to their preseason expectations this time around, Wright’s Mocs will claim their first Southern Southern Conference crown since 2015, and should they win the automatic bid, the Mocs would be making their first FCS playoff appearance since 2016 should they live up to the 2022 preseason expectations.

Chattanooga received 18 first-place votes in the media poll, while garnering five first-place votes in the league’s coaches poll.

Since joining the Southern Conference in 1977, the Mocs have won seven Southern Conference titles and have made four FCS playoff appearances. Chattanooga has won three of its seven league crowns since 2009, as well as qualifying for two of its four postseason appearances.

The Mocs have a chance to be special this fall, with one of the best defensive linemen in recent memory returning, in Devonnsha Maxwell, as well as a total of 15 starters back for the 2022 campaign. The Mocs must first figure out quarterback first, following a season that UTC was mediocre under center at best. Cole Copeland (125-of-213 passing, 1,555 yds, 6 TDs, 9 INTs/78 rush yds, 5 TDs) and Eastern Michigan transfer Preston Hutchinson () will compete for the right to represent Chattanooga under center in fall camp.

Joining Maxwell as members of the 2022 preseason all-conference first or second team included other talented performers that will be just as important to whether or not the Mocs live up to preseason expectations this fall. Maxwell was joined on the preseason first-team all-league defense by edge defender Jay Person (63 tackles, 12 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 3 PBUs, 4 QBHs, 3 FR, 3 3 FFs) and linebacker Ty Boeck (90 tackles, 9.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 1 FF, 2 QBHs). The anchor of the Mocs’ secondary—CaMiron Smith (30 tackles, 1 INT)—garnered preseason second-team accolades—and linebacker Kam Jones (60 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 QBHs) rounded out the preseason picks on the Mocs defense, as he also earned second-team recognition.

Maxwell was chosen as the league’s preseason SoCon Defensive Player of the Year, which has been an award that has not been all that uncommon to the Mocs over the past 13 years. Also returning on the defensive of the football is defensive lineman Ben Brewton (23 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 6 QBHs, 1 FR, 1 FF), who much like Furman tight end Ryan Miller last season, was left off the preseason all-conference first or second team, despite garnering first-team honors in 2021.

On offense, potential record-breaking running back Ailym Ford (203 rush att, 1,071 yds, 11 TDs, 5.3 YPC) highlighted the Mocs selections, earning a first-team citation, with another NFL hopeful, in offensive lineman McClendon Curtis joining Ford on the first team. Another of those key road-pavers for Ford this fall is offensive lineman Colin Truett, who was a preseason second-team selection.

The Mocs will again be one of the top defenses in the FCS. The real challenge on that side of the ball is having to replace four of five starters in the defensive backfield, with only Smith returning to the fold from last season.

“CaMiron Smith is the oldest guy back there…good player…good student…he’s already graduated and he’s been there and done that and he’ll be a solid player for us at corner and then the rest of them…we’ve got to figure it out,” head coach Rusty Wright said.

An x-factor on the offensive side of the football for the Bucs this fall could be Gino Appleberry (37 att, 194 yds, 2 TDs, 5.2 YPC), who featured for much of the spring 2020 season, and gives the Mocs backfield a nice one-two punch now that Tyrell Price has moved on. One thing that is certain is that having both Ford and Appleberry in the backfield gives Chattanooga a dynamic one-two punch coming out of the backfield, as each compliments each other in terms of the skillset both bring to the Mocs backfield.

“I think you said it..They both compliment each other,” Wright said. “Ailym [Ford] has worked hard over the past year…year-and-a-half to be better blocking and to catch the ball out of the backfield and become a complete and total back and I think Gino [Appleberry] brings the element of catching the ball out of the backfield and do some things a little better in the pass game than what Ailym does, but they are two very talented young men…they both can run and Ailym looks like a Greek god right now and he’s in the best shape I’ve ever and again Gino would probably be starting if Ailym wasn’t there,” Chattanooga head coach Rusty Wright said.

Chattanooga kicks off its season with an intriguing challenge, hosting the Wofford Terriers in a Southern Conference game to open the season on Sept. 3 at Finley Stadium.

ETSU ready for the George Quarles era to commence following an unprecedented 2021 season

East Tennessee State is coming off its best season in program history last fall and the program, which just re-started its own football program after a 12-year hiatus in 2016, re-joining its former conference affiliation a year after bringing the program back from the dead. The Bucs had played a full 80 seasons of football before shutting down the program in 2003.

With little tradition and history to call upon from the past, the ETSU football program seemingly was as dead as Boston University or Pacific when it ended sponsorship of the program, which ultimately departure from the SoCon. It comes with some irony that the conference the Bucs would end up landing in during that non-football era was a program—the Atlantic Sun—which had no members in its membership at the time, which sponsored scholarship football.

Some six years after bringing its football program back to the SoCon, the Bucs have won two league titles and has never looked better. From 1920-2003, the previous major claim to fame for the Blue and Old Gold was a 1969 OVC regular-season title and trip to the Cigar Bowl under then head coach John R. Bell. ETSU has made three FCS playoff appearances, sporting a 3-3 record in the postseason play in its history. The Bucs were 1-1 this past season, getting a dramatic 32-31 come-from-behind win over Kennesaw State before bowing out of the postseason with a loss to eventual league champion North Dakota State, 27-3, in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs in Fargo.

Prior to returning to the gridiron in 2015, ETSU’s lone playoff appearance in its history came in 1996, which still remains one of the greatest campaigns in the history of ETSU football. The Bucs finished the campaign with a 10-3 record, which included an opening round win over Villanova (W, 35-29) before eventually losing on the road at eventual national runner-up and No. 2 ranked Montana (L, 14-44).

It will be a new start for Bucs football in 2022. A new head coach and elevated expectations will greet him in his new job this fall. The Bucs were picked to finish second by the league’s head coaches, with two first-place votes, while were tied for second in the media poll with Mercer, garnering seven first-place votes.

ETSU will be under the direction of new head coach George Quarles this fall, who will be the third coach for the program since re-starting the program back in 2015. The Bucs football program was entrusted with leadership, care and veteran know-how under the direction of both Carl Torbush and Randy Sanders, as the two former head coaches were able to steer the program on a good course, establishing a good foundation going forward.

“The chance to get back to Tennessee…and like I saw in my [introductory] press conference…While I don’t have an ETSU degree, I’m from east Tennessee and I think that’s important and I know east Tennessee and the whole state of Tennessee and the people there are super supportive whether it’s because…we’re a little bit removed from Knoxville or football died for 10 or 11 years or when they killed it I guess in the middle 2000s and they brought it back and I think fanbase is super appreciative and it’s one of the places…when you drive through town in Johnson City…you see a lot of Es…there’s a lot of the Es running around,” first-year head coach George Quarles said.

Quarles was previously the offensive coordinator at Furman, where he presided over one of the most explosive Paladin offensive units in recent memory back in the 2019 campaign.

A native of Jefferson County TN., Quarles was a part of Furman’s 1988 national championship team, and he is a member of the Tennessee Football and Tennessee Secondary School Athletics Halls-of-Fames, and has also been named to the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, as well as the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall-of-Fame for his accomplishments during his time as a high school head coach. 

During his time as head coach at Maryville High School, Quarles was outstanding, posting a 250-16 (.939) record, and was the fastest head coach to 250 wins in US High School football history, leading Maryville to 11 state titles and 15 state title game appearances in 18 seasons as the head coach.

Like his predecessor Torbush did at the conclusion of the 2017 campaign, Randy Sanders also called it a career and retired following the Bucs’ historic 2021 season, which saw the Bucs win a school-record 11 games and claim their second SoCon crown in a four-year span. That leaves the door open for Quarles and staff to keep that tradition alive this fall. Much of the reason why ETSU football finds itself on better footing than it ever has can be linked to both Torbush and Sanders, as well as the foresight of Director of Athletics Scott Carter and president Brian Noland.

ETSU was selected to finish second in both the media and coaches poll, receiving seven of the 30 first-place votes in the media poll, while receiving two first-place votes in the coaches poll. The Bucs return a total of 18 starters (7-offense, 7-defense, 4 specialists) off that team that claimed that outright SoCon title a year ago, suffering its lone regular-season and Southern Conference loss at Chattanooga (L, 16-21) in the Rail Rivalry.

Highlighting the four first-team all-conference selections set to return for the Bucs is veteran running back Jacob Saylors, who was selected as the preseason SoCon Offensive Player of the Year following a 2021 season that saw him rush for 1,019 yards and a career-best 10 rushing touchdowns. Saylors, along with teammate Quay Holmes (1,553 rush yds and 19 rushing TDs) who has graduated, became just the 12th-pair of running backs to rush for 1,000 or more yards in the league’s 101-year history.

Saylors’ historic season was highlighted by a school-record rushing performance in the wild 55-35 win over Western Carolina, as he finished the contest with 266 yards rushing and three touchdowns. It certainly could be argued that the ETSU football program is on better footing now since its re-start season in 2015 than it ever was in the 80 seasons of sport sponsorship from 1920-2003.

Saylors was one of 11 Bucs chosen to the preseason all-conference squad by the league’s coaches. He was joined on the first-team offense by offensive lineman Tavon Matthews, as well as quarterback Tyler Riddell (211-of-338 passing, 2,464 yds, 19 TDs, 5 INTs) and wide receiver Will Huzzie (58 rec, 798 yds, 5 TDs, 13.8 YPR). On the second-team offense, the Bucs had offensive linemen Joe Schreiber and Fred Norman Jr. receive second team honors.

On defense, the Bucs had a pair selected first-team all-conference and one on the second-team all-league preseason list. Both safety Mike Price (73 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 6 PBUs) and defensive lineman Jalen Porter (37 tackles, 10.0 TFL, 6.0 sacks, 1 INT, 4 QBHs) were first-team picks, while defensive back Alijah Huzzie (76 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 9 PBUs, 3 INTs, 2 FFs) garnered second-team recognition.

Rounding out the preseason all-conference selections for the Bucs was ultra-talented place-kicker Tyler Keltner (18-of-23 FGs, 51-of-51 PATs), who was voted to the first-team all-conference squad.

While the Bucs open the season on a Thursday night, hosting Mars Hill on Sept. 1 in a 7:30 p.m. kickoff at William B. Greene Stadium, the most intriguing matchups on the ETSU schedule are probably Sept. 17 and Oct. 1, which are both home contest. On Sept. 17, the Bucs will entertain Quarles’ former employer, Furman in a 7:30 p.m. kickoff at Greene Stadium, while hosting preseason league favorite Chattanooga on Oct. 1 in the “Rail Rivalry”. Kickoff for that contest is slated for 7:30 p.m.

Furman’s looks to reclaim its winning edge

Furman’s Clay Hendrix discusses the upcoming season with WSPA Sports Reporter Pete Yanity

No program has had more success on the SoCon gridiron than Furman, as the esteemed Greenville, S.C.-based liberal arts institution is the program of the league’s current membership to have won an FCS (formerly Division I-AA) national championship (1988), and the Paladins have claimed 14 Southern Conference titles, while having posted a 20-18 all-time postseason mark in 18 playoff appearances.

The Paladins haven’t claimed a SoCon regular-season crown since tying for the league crown in 2018, while charting their last FCS playoff appearance in 2019. The 2022 season sees Hendrix Paladins as an under-the-radar team. A place that could make his Furman team a dangerous one in the Southern Conference race come the fall of 2022.

There were both positives and negatives that could be gleaned from the Paladins’ 116th season as a football program, with probably more positives than negatives to go with a 6-5 mark, which included a 4-4 mark (4th) in league play in 2021.

With 15 starters (8-offense, 7-defense) returning to the fold, the Paladins, which were picked fourth by both the media and coaches, receiving one first-place vote in the coaches’ poll, the feeling around the program is one of an excited, yet guarded expectation.

One that is as simple as the equation being solved at quarterback. If that happens, the Paladins could be in the hunt for the title in November. If not, the Paladins are probably good enough on both sides of the ball to ask “what if” should the issues not be resolved.

Furman was solid on the defensive side of the football last season, finishing 70th in the FCS in total defense, and the Paladins rated best nationally in terms of scoring defense. In other words, the Paladins were good last season on defense, and good enough that if things had been more consistent on the offensive side of the football, and in particular under center, the Paladins could have very well found themselves being a part of the FCS postseason.

The good news is the quarterback issues were more about getting experience and having adequate depth. True freshman Jace Wilson was learning the scheme and system after having his redshirt pulled, and by season’s end, he was playing some of his best football of the season, leading Furman to big offensive afternoon’s in wins over VMI and Samford in the final two games of the 2021 campaign.

When there were problems on offense in 2021, especially under center, it magnified the few times the defense struggled last fall, and it quite often came against the particular teams in the league that had some experience under center.

“When you talk about the quarterback position and you look at our league…in the couple of games we struggled…you know the Western Carolina game…They had a sixth-year quarterback and had been in three programs in the same system for six years and we struggled against him,” Furman head coach Clay Hendrix said.

The offense would finish the season strong, steadily improving over the final three games of the regular-season, winning two of those and playing well on that side of the ball in all three. In fact, the Paladins generated an average of 40.0 PPG and averaged 464.3 YPG over that final trio of games to close the 2022 campaign.

Furman has some weapons returning on offense, including first-team all-conference selection Ryan Miller (43 rec, 749 yds, 7 TDs, 17.4 YPR) at tight end, as well as Dominic Roberto (96 rush att, 709 yds, 6 TDs, 7.4 YPC)—a second-team all-league preseason pick—returning at a couple of key areas of talent and depth on the offensive side of the ball for Furman. The Paladins also return Joshua Harris at receiver. He comes off a campaign, which saw him haul in 26 passes for 295 yards and a TD last season, adding an 11.3 yards-per-catch average. That was enough to help Harris garner SoCon all-freshman team laurels.

If you factor in that head coach Clay Hendrix has probably his most talented collection of starters along the offensive front, coupled with the most adequate depth in the offensive trenches heading into the campaign, it certainly makes for what could be another special season in Greenville. Up front, the Paladins welcome the return of preseason first-team All-SoCon selections Anderson Tomlin at offensive tackle, as well as Pearson Toomey at guard, as Furman was the lone team in the league to have two first-team offensive line selections.

While Wilson, who garnered SoCon All-Freshman Team honors last season will be one to keep an eye on this season, the Paladins added some experience and veteran leadership with addition of PC graduate transfer Tyler Huff—one of five brought in by Hendrix and staff during the off-season—set to battle for the starting responsibilities under center during fall camp.

All five graduate transfers could have some impact, Hendrix said.

“We feel really good about all the guys we brought in via the transfer portal…One of those [Adebayo/Northern Colorado] we will be announcing tomorrow and we fill like he’s going to be able to give us some help at outside linebacker…But we feel really confident about all of them and really their ability to have an immediate impact for us this fall.”

Furman’s defense will be built upon the backs of leaders like Cameron Coleman (32 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 PBU) at nose guard. Coleman was a preseason second-team All-SoCon choice, and is one of the most experienced players on the Furman roster, logging action in 31 games over four seasons, including having made 19 starts.

Another key strength for the Paladin defense could be its secondary, which among the most experienced and deepest units in the league heading into 2022, highlighted by Travis Blackshear (52 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 5 INTs, 5 PBUs, 2 FRs, 1 FF), who is a preseason first-team All-SoCon selection.

Western Carolina’s Bell Curve in full effect in Cullowhee

It’s not how you start, but how you finish. That’s true in anything, and in this case, Western Carolina head coach Kerwin Bell will hope that the ending is really just a prolonged beginning to 2022, or maybe that 2021 never ended and its just a prolonged conclusion. Whatever the case, he did something to help the Catamounts turn the tides during the 2021 season, and if Bell Curve’s value the best scores, the Catamounts certainly had their share of winning, grade A type performances over the final five weeks of the campaign.

Bell and staff would had have to deal with tragic loss of offensive line coach John Peacock due to complications from COVID-19 during fall camp, and less than two weeks later, were forced to deal with the sudden loss of legendary Hall-of-Fame wide receiver David Patten, who was involved in a fatal motorcycle accident in Columbia, S.C., just prior to the Catamounts’ season-opening contest vs Eastern Kentucky. The team rallied. It rallied around its new leader and became stronger from adversity rather than being divided by it.

My own theory is the veteran head coach handled all the adversity the job could throw at him with the grace of a coastal sea breeze. His player’s responded to his unflappable poise and confidence to finish the campaign by winning four of their final five games of the season and head into 2022 as a potential title dark horse.

The season didn’t turn around on one play or in one instant, but rather an accelerated progression, especially on offense, with each passing week. Add to that the a quarterback with six years of experience like Rogan Wells, and the ingredients of turning the season on its head proverbial head were always a possibility. It was the Bell Curve in full effect, and by the time exam rolled around in the classroom, the Catamounts were ring bells all over the place—gridiron included, leaving defensive coordinators reaching for the aspirin.

Western’s furious race to the finish line in 2021 was one that was fun for Catamount fans to witness. Included in the exciting finish to the campaign were wins over Furman (43-42) and a huge road win at VMI (52-24). The win over the Paladins snapped a five-game winning streak in the series by the Paladins, while the 52 points scored on the road in a win at VMI

Fast-forward to 2022 and the question is can that momentum accelerate even more. Well, that is a question that will be answered in due time, but the Catamounts, who were picked to finish fifth by both the media and coaches, are hungry to be a title contender and playoff qualifier.

They have the talent. That question was answered emphatically last season, with player’s like first-team All-SoCon selection Raphael Williams (73 rec, 959 yds, 9 TDs, 13.1 YPR), as well as projected starting quarterback Carlos Davis (75-of-115 passing, 902 yds, 6 TDs, 5 INTs/28 rush att, 85 yds) answering the bell. Davis has some huge shoes to fill under center, replacing a veteran leader like Wells, but he showed glimpses of how could he could be in the Catamounts’ win at The Citadel (W, 45-31), which sparked the turnaround to the entire season last fall.

Williams ended up being one of six Catamounts chosen preseason all-conference, as he was joined by running back TJ Jones (125 rush att, 589 yds, 9 TDs, 4.7 YPC/33 rec, 651 yds, 4 TDs, 17.4 YPR), defensive back Andreas Keaton (45 tackles, 3 INTs, 6 PBUs), place-kicker Richard McCollum (12-of-12 on FGs/42-of-42 on PATs), offensive lineman Tyler Smith and return specialist Calvin Jones (32.5 YPR, 1 TD). Smith joined Williams as a first-team pick, while McCollum, Jones, Keaton and Jones were second-team selections. Keaton’s outstanding rookie season in Cullowhee helped him take home SoCon Freshman of the Year honors last fall.

It hasn’t been easy for Western Carolina since joining the league back in 1977, and after having some initial success in its early years as a league member, culminating in becoming the first SoCon school to ever play for a national championship on the football gridiron under legendary and Hall-of-Fame head coach Bob Waters back in 1983, losing to Southern Illinois (L, 7-43) in the title game in The Citadel’s Stadium after getting there by winning a game in Furman’s, however, the well has seemingly run dry since.

It’s been 39 years since the Catamounts won their way into FCS postseason, and though having been close on several occasions, the Catamounts have never lifted a Southern Conference regular-season championship. Bell and staff are looking to change the narrative in Cullowhee, and after the finish to 2021, those title and championship droughts appear to be nearer to an immediate end than an indefinite to extension to Catamount futility.

VMI’s fight to remain among the league’s elite is not an easy task

One of my favorite coaches to talk to at the SoCon’s media event each year is VMI’s Scott Wachenheim. If you’ve ever met the accomplished head coach, they you know what I am talking about. He’s one of the kindest people you’d ever want to meet.

He also has a team that will be tough to beat again this fall. That’s because Wachenheim’s Keydets return the services of 17 starters off last season’s 6-5 team, and many of them were around in 2020 when VMI captured its first SoCon title since 1977.

Most know VMI has a unique situation, as it is a military institution located smack dab in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia. While the scenery is breathtaking in that particular era of Virginia, the Keydets have also been a pretty good draw since winning the Southern Conference regular-season title in the spring of 2020.

Like both Furman and The Citadel, the Keydets have called the Southern Conference for a very long time. In fact, the Keydets joined the league as a member just three years after the league was founded in 1921, as VMI joined as an official member in 1924. The Keydets are the second-most successful team in the SoCon’s gridiron history, claiming eight SoCon crowns, however, seven of those came in a 26-year span, dating from 1951-77.

There was really dark periods for the program during that 52-year span, which included a period were the Keydets had fallen far enough behind other programs in the league, forcing it to leave after the 2003 season to join the Big South and was asked to return some 11 years later.

That said, when Wachenheim’s Keydets won the 2020 Southern Conference crown, it felt like a breath of fresh air for the program, as it gathered renewed energy that it hasn’t had in nearly the half-a-century.

The offense that VMI employs is similar to the air-raid attack that Chris Hatcher employs at Samford, although not entirely, but very similar. One thing is that it’s an exciting unit to watch when hitting on all cylinders.

Over the past couple of seasons, the Keydets have posted a combined 12-7 record, which includes a 10-6 record against Southern Conference competition. The back-to-back winning seasons for VMI in 2020 and ’21 marked the first time since the John McKenna era in 1961 and ’62 that VMI has finished consecutive campaigns above .500.

Heading into 2022, the media have the Keydets slotted to finish sixth at season’s end, while the coaches selected VMI to finish seventh. This is where there is a disconnect. While the Keydets are picked somewhat low, considering VMI won the title in 2020, however, VMI charted 10 all-league perfomers across both the media and coaches all-conference teams. Go figure. It’s one of those things that oftentimes makes no sense at preseason conference media days. Only ETSU’s 11 preseason selections were more than VMI’s 10 preseason citations.

For a program that hasn’t been all that used to being a defending champion in the recent past, learning how to adjust to being the team to beat was new for VMI last fall. And the Keydets were right at the doorstep of both a conference title and playoff berth once again, losing its final three games of the season, including heartbreakers to East Tennessee State (L, 20-27) and Furman (L, 31-37) in back-to-back weeks, ultimately determining their hopes of defending that 2020 title, and squelching any playoff aspirations. However, the Keydets could’ve easily been the two-time defending champion coming into 2022. They weren’t all that far away.

“I think we handled [being the defending champion] well,” head coach Scott Wachenheim said. “We had the change at quarterback with Seth Morgan taking over, which he had taken over during the championship year when Reece [Udinski] went down, but last season he was the starter and we encountered some adversity with him getting injured and Colin Ironside having to step in, but we started out well and we were 6-2 and we were right there and really control of winning the conference you know, but we had some injuries and we lost Jake Heres…we lost Chance Knox and we lost Leroy Thomas, so three out of our top receivers and we didn’t win those last three games…tough losses on the road and the game against Furman could have gone either way and that probably would have propelled us to a seven-win season and another playoff berth,” Wachenheim added.

It is true. The Keydets’ season likely was over when it lost by a narrow six-point margin in Greenville. While the Keydets lost some talent on both sides of the ball to the portal, there is more than enough returning to help ensure VMI will be squarely in the mix for a third-straight season. If you didn’t know that, you didn’t look at the all-conference teams.

Highlighting the 10 Keydets chosen for preseason all-league recognition is quarterback Seth Morgan (201-of-326 passing, 2,175 yds, 14 TDs, 11 INTs), who finished the campaign by ranking as the SoCon’s third-leading passer last season. Morgan is a much different quarterback than his predecessor Udinski, who set the NCAA record for passes thrown without an INT. In fact, Morgan is more of a polar opposite to Udinski, and his coach saw what I saw in the young talent…He’s got a little of that Brett Favre in him, which means he is an impromptu decision maker because that plays to his talents as one of the top quarterback’s in the SoCon.

Morgan will enter the campaign as a second-team all-league pick. Also cited by the coaches on the VMI offense were offensive lineman Jarvis Chandler, wide receiver Leroy Thomas (55 rec, 557 yds, 3 TDs, 10.1 YPR), and tight end Aidan Twombly (18 rec, 180 yds, 1 TD).

On defense, the Keydets have one of the best players in all of FCS football, in linebacker Stone Snyder. He finished the season by posting an impressive 120 tackles, which led the SoCon last season. He also added four sacks and totaled 11 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Snyder was part of a Keydet defense ranked 108th nationally in total defense (443.6 YPG). The Keydets struggled the most against the run, ranking 120th out 123 ranked teams in FCS football in rush defense last fall (232.9 YPG). In the spring and fall seasons combined, Snyder posted an impressive 208 total stops. He has already been a SoCon Defensive Player of the Year, two-time FCS All-American and a Buck Buchanan Award finalist in his career. Snyder was VMI’s lone offensive player or defensive player chosen to the league’s first time. Both veteran defensive lineman defensive lineman Eric Weaver (41 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1 FR) and defensive back Aljareek Malry (62 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2 passes defended) were second-team picks.

However, in the special teams department, the Keydets almost had a clean sweep of the first-team all-league picks, with place-kicker Jerry Rice (17-of-19 FGs, 39-of-39 on PATs), punter Jack Culbreath (43.7 YPP) and long-snapper Robert Soderholm selected to the first team.

VMI will open its 2022 season Sept. 1 when it travels to Groves Stadium in Winston-Salem to take on the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in a 7 p.m. kickoff. Oh, and if you’re looking to bitter rival The Citadel—there is one—as Kevin Higgins, who coached the Bulldogs for nine seasons from 2005-13, including having been named the 2012 SoCon Coach of the Year, is the Demon Deacons’ offensive coordinator. Higgins has served in that role under former Richmond and current Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson since 2014.

The story of how a Terrier showed up on a coach Thompson’s doorstep and became a Bulldog

The Citadel head coach Brent Thompson was left scrambling in the spring. Not like his quarterback at the time, Jaylan Adams, who had done that well in two seasons as a starter, but the now eighth-year head coach was scrambling because of Adams. Adams had informed his coach a few days into spring practice that he wanted to transfer to another school and play receiver.

That caught the 2016 SoCon Coach of the Year off guard, and with all the momentum the Bulldogs had to finish the season, winning their final two games over both Wofford (W, 45-44) and Chattanooga (W, 24-21), hung in the balance in, as the veteran head coach had to find himself a quarterback.

He did just that. Well, sort of. One day in the late spring, former Wofford quarterback Peyton Derrick showed up on his doorstep looking for an opportunity. That opportunity was for a chance to play quarterback, and not a graduate assistant’s job, which he had originally showed up on coach Thompson’s doorstep to pursue.

“Jaylan Adams who had been a starter for us during the spring and fall seasons and he came to my office three or four days into spring camp and decided he was going to enter the transfer portal…and that was a little bit hard to take and hard to take as a football program and about a day or two later, Peyton Derick showed up on my doorstep essentially,” The Citadel head coach Brent Thompson said.

Derrick’s closest competition under center during fall camp will be Ahmad Green, who was the leading candidate for a majority of the spring. But Derrick, who started his career at former SoCon member Appalachian State before transferring to Wofford, where he spent the past three seasons as the off and on starter for Wofford. Derrick’s biggest issue in his career has being able to stay healthy for long periods of time. If he can do that this year, it gives the potential for once again being pretty good offensively, especially running the ball.

The Bulldogs will enter the season picked to finish towards the latter half of the league, as the charter member of the Southern Conference, as the Bulldogs were selected to finish eighth by the league’s head coaches, while the media had The Citadel slotted to finish ninth.

The Citadel had four players selected by the league’s head coaches to one of the two pre-season all-conference teams. Defensive back Destin Mack (45 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 5 INTs) was the Bulldogs’ lone first-team selection, while linebacker Marquise Blount (51 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR) and defensive lineman Carson Hatchett (44 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 PBUs) were also second-team picks.

Thompson’s ground attack is among the nation’s top rushing offenses year in and year out. The Bulldogs are coming off a 2021 campaign, which saw them rank fourth overall nationally in in total ground production, posting 268.3 yards-per-game on the ground.

Despite having to replace some significant pieces on offense, the Bulldogs have return some solid talent at both A and B-back, respectively. While the losses are significant, the Bulldogs have some key pieces returning to that ground attack, which include running backs like Cooper Wallace (55 rush att, 317 yds, 1 TD, 5.8 YPC), Logan Billings (133 rush att, 511 yds, 6 TDs, 3.8 YPC), Emeka Nwanze (57 rush att, 203 yds, 1 TD, 3.6 YPC), Sam Llewellyn (10 rush att, 72 yds, 7.2 YPC), and Nkem Njoku (34 rush att, 136 yds, 4.0 YPC). 

The Citadel opens the 2022 season on Sept. 1 at a Campbell squad picked to finish second in the Big South. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. EST at Barker-Lane Stadium in Buies Creek, N.C.

In Conclusion:

The SoCon hasn’t seen much movement, and it’s a conference willing to commit to its own history and rivalries before being quick to sell out to the new trend of poaching from other leagues, but more importantly, keeping its current membership happy and not allowing themselves to be poached. That’s commendable and that’s a league worthy of attention, and as a journalist, a joy to cover.

The preseason poll and all-conference teams are listed below.

2022 Preseason Southern Conference Coaches Poll
Team (1st-place votes)                  Total
1. Chattanooga (5)                          60
2. ETSU (2)                                     54
3. Mercer (1)                                   53
4. Furman (1)                                  43
5. Western Carolina                         38
6. Samford                                      26
7. VMI                                             23
8. The Citadel                                  14
9. Wofford                                       13 


2022 Preseason All-Southern Conference Football Teams
Offensive Player of the Year: Jacob Saylors, Sr., RB, ETSU
Defensive Player of the Year: Devonnsha Maxwell, Sr., DL, Chattanooga
 
First team offense
QB         Tyler Riddell, R-So., ETSU
RB         Jacob Saylors, Sr., ETSU
RB         Ailym Ford, Jr., Chattanooga
OL         Tavon Matthews, Jr., ETSU
OL         Anderson Tomlin, R-Sr., Furman
OL         Pearson Toomey, R-Jr., Furman
OL         John Thomas, Jr., Mercer
OL         McClendon Curtis, Sr., Chattanooga
OL         Tyler Smith, R-Jr., Western Carolina
TE         Ryan Miller, 5th, Furman
WR        Will Huzzie, R-Jr., ETSU
WR        Raphael Williams, R-So., Western Carolina
 
First team defense
DL         Jalen Porter, R-Jr., ETSU
DL         Devonnsha Maxwell, Sr., Chattanooga
DL         Jay Person, Jr., Chattanooga
DL         Micheal Mason, Sr., DL, Wofford
LB          Nathan East, Gr., Samford
LB          Ty Boeck, Sr., Chattanooga
LB          Stone Snyder, Sr., VMI
DB         Destin Mack, Sr., The Citadel
DB         Mike Price, R-Jr., ETSU
DB         Travis Blackshear, R-Sr., Furman
DB         Lance Wise, Jr., Mercer

First team specialists
PK         Tyler Keltner, Jr., ETSU
PK         Jerry Rice, R-Jr., VMI
P           Jack Culbreath, Jr., VMI
LS          Robert Soderholm, R-Sr., VMI
RS         Jacob Saylors, Sr., ETSU
 
Second team offense
QB         Seth Morgan, R-Jr., VMI
RB         Dominic Roberto, R-Jr., Furman
RB         TJ Jones, Sr., Western Carolina
OL         Tereis Drayton, Jr., The Citadel
OL         Fred Norman, R-So., ETSU
OL         Joe Schreiber, R-Jr., ETSU
OL         Gavin Orr, Gr., Samford
OL         Colin Truett, Jr., Chattanooga
OL         Jarvis Chandler, R-Jr., VMI
OL         Al Hogan, 5th, Wofford
TE         Aidan Twombly, Jr., VMI
WR        Ty James, R-So., Mercer
WR        Leroy Thomas, Sr., VMI
 
Second team defense
DL         Carson Hatchett, Jr., The Citadel
DL         Cameron Coleman, R-Sr., Furman
DL         Solomon Zubairu, Jr., Mercer
DL         Eric Weaver, R-Sr., VMI
LB          Marquise Blount, Sr., The Citadel
LB          Isaac Dowling, So., Mercer
LB          Kam Jones, Sr., Chattanooga
DB         Alijah Huzzie, R-So., ETSU
DB         CaMiron Smith, Sr., Chattanooga
DB         Aljareek Malry, Sr., VMI
DB         Andreas Keaton, So., Western Carolina
 
Second team specialists
PK         Richard McCollum, Jr., Western Carolina
P           Trey Turk, So., Mercer
P           Bradley Porcellato, Gr., Samford
LS          Colin Springer, 5th, Wofford
RS         Calvin Jones, So., Western Carolina
 
NOTE: Coaches were not permitted to vote for their own players or team.
 
2022 Preseason Southern Conference Media Poll
Team (1st-place votes)                  Total
1. Chattanooga (18)                        256
t2. ETSU (7)                                    226
t2. Mercer (5)                                  226
4. Furman                                       175
5. Western Carolina                         125
6. VMI                                             119
7. Samford                                      106
8. Wofford                                       60
9. The Citadel                                  57

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