SoCon Football set to open with full slate this weekend

Dins After Dark

The Southern Conference football season is finally here. The 2022 campaign began this past Saturday night, with Mercer demolishing Morehead State, 63-13, in Macon. With that said, a full slate awaits this weekend, starting with five games Thursday night and three on Saturday, which will include the first Southern Conference battle of the season. The schedules for Thursday and Saturday are listed below.

Thursday night’s schedule (Sept. 1, 2022)

The Citadel (0-0, 0-0 SoCon) at Campbell (0-0, 0-0 Big South)(6 p.m. EST/Barker-Lane Stadium/Buies Creek, N.C.)

North Greenville (0-0, 0-0 GSC) at Furman (0-0, 0-0 SoCon) (7 p.m. EST/Paladin Stadium/Greenville, S.C.)

Kennesaw State (0-0, 0-0 A-Sun) at Samford (0-0, 0-0 SoCon) (7 p.m. EST/Seibert Stadium/Birmingham, AL)

Mars Hill (0-0, 0-0 SAC) at East Tennessee State (0-0, 0-0 SoCon) (7:30 p.m. EST/William B. Greene Stadium/Johnson City, TN)

VMI (0-0, 0-0 SoCon) at Wake Forest (0-0, 0-0 ACC), (7:30 p.m. EST/Grove Stadium/Winston Salem, N.C.)

Saturday’s schedule Sept. 3, 2022)

Western Carolina (0-0, 0-0 SoCon) at Charleston Southern (0-0, 0-0 Big South) (12 p.m. EST/CSU Stadium/Ladson, S.C.)

*Wofford (0-0, 0-0 SoCon) at Chattanooga (0-0, 0-0 SoCon) (6 p.m. EST/Finley Stadium/Chattanooga, Tenn)

Mercer (1-0, 0-0 SoCon) at Auburn (0-0, 0-0 SEC West) (7 p.m. EST/Jordan-Hare Stadium/Auburn, AL)

A quick overview of the first full weekend of SoCon Football:

Some intriguing opening weekend clashes are set to take place for each of the nine SoCon member institutions. Thursday night’s slate is a full menu of matchups, with five league team’s kicking off their respective 2022 campaigns.

The Citadel’s game with Campbell, which is playing its final game as a Big South member prior to joining the Colonial Athletic Association following the 2022 campaign, was moved to Thursday night from Saturday early in the summer. The Bulldogs and Camels will be meeting for the first-time ever on the college football gridiron.

The George Quarles era at East Tennessee State will officially get underway Thursday night, as the defending SoCon champion Bucs host local Division II program Mars Hill at William B. Greene Stadium with kickoff slated for 7:30 p.m. It will mark the first meeting between the Bucs and Lions since 2018, when ETSU commenced what would eventually end up being a SoCon championship campaign, getting a 28-7 victory over the Lions.

The team ETSU beat in miraculous fashion in a second-round clash at Greene Stadium Kennesaw State–will be back in SoCon territory looking for redemption against the league that ended its season in such heartbreaking fashion, as the Owls will be in Birmingham looking to slow down the ‘Hatch Attack’ and Samford in what will be the first matchup between the two since 2018, when KSU claimed what was a 24-10 win over the Bulldogs at Kennesaw.

Furman will be at home for a 7 p.m. game against North Greenville to open its 2022 campaign. Despite hosting a school from just 13 miles up the road, the Paladins and Crusaders have never met on the college football gridiron. In fact, Furman hasn’t played all that much on Thursday nights in its history and will be taking the gridiron with purple helmets for the first time in program history.

It will be Furman’s first Thursday opener since Sept. 1, 2005, when the Paladins got a miraculous 37-35 win over Jacksonville State on a 9-yard scoring strike from Ingle Martin-to-Justin Stepp as time expired.

VMI and Wake Forest have been among the best stories in FCS and FBS football, respectively over the past few seasons. There is much intrigue with this matchup, given the Demon Deacon staff and their FCS roots.

Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson cut his teeth in the FCS, as he started his career known as an offensive genius during his time under Andy Talley as the offensive coordinator from 1996-98 before moving on to to his first head coaching job at Fordham (1999-2003) and then Richmond (2004-07).

Clawson coached some great Richmond teams, taking the Spiders to the postseason in 2005, led by outstanding quarterback Stacey Tutt, who was also known as “King Tutt.” Furman would knock the FCS Playoffs in the quarterfinals that season, as Ingle Martin and the Paladins won a thrilling 24-20 game at the old Richmond Motor Speedway.

In his final season at the helm of the former Southern Conference program, Clawson led the Spiders a round further in the playoffs, as future NFL running back Tim Hightower and the Spiders were able to run past Wofford, 21-10 at Gibbs Stadium, however, Richmond would be no problem for the other SoCon co-champion–former member Appalachian State–who downed the Spiders 55-35 thanks to a 313-yard rushing performance from quarterback Armanti Edwards at a raucous Kidd-Brewer Stadium. ASU went on to win its third-straight national title the following week.

The VMI-Wake Forest clash also offers of a clash of coaches recently named “Coach of the Year” in their respective conferences. VMI’s Scott Wachenheim was named the SoCon Coach of the Year during the COVID-19 compromised 2020-21 season, leading the Keydets to their first Southern Conference title since 1977, and their first-ever FCS playoff appearance.

Clawson, meanwhile, was the 2021 ACC Coach of the Year, leading the Demon Deacons to an ACC Atlantic Division Title and 10 regular season wins. The Deacons dropped a 45-21 contest to the Kenny Pickett-led Pitt Panthers in the ACC title clash in Charlotte but did end the season in strong fashion with a 38-10 over Rutgers in TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.

There is also one more prominent coaching connection to both the FCS and SoCon.

Kevin Higgins, who enters his ninth season as the offensive coordinator for Wake Forest, is a name known to SoCon Football fans, and most folks that keep their finger on the pulse of FCS football. Higgins was the head coach of the Lehigh Mountain Hawks from 1994-2000, building a Patriot League powerhouse in the Patriot League before leaving to embark on a four-year stint as an offensive assistant with the Detroit Lions.

After spending four seasons with the Lions, he moved back to the FCS ranks and into another head coach role at The Citadel, spending nine seasons as the head coach at The Citadel before joining Clawson’s staff in Winston-Salem.

Saturday’s slate opens with an early game in what should be sweltering heat in Ladson, S.C., as Charleston Southern hosts Western Carolina in Ladson, S.C., as the Catamounts kick off a much-anticipated campaign facing off against the Buccaneers in what will be the first-ever meeting between the two. The Catamounts were picked to finish fifth by both the league’s coaches and media.

At approximately 6 p.m. EST on Saturday evening, the first Southern Conference game of the 2022 season will kickoff, as preseason SoCon favorite Chattanooga hosts Wofford–a team picked last by the league’s coaches and eighth by the media in the preseason–as the Terriers look to put an end to a 12-game SoCon losing streak.

The meeting between the Mocs and Terriers will mark the 29th all-time meeting in the series between the two, with the Terriers holding a narrow 15-13 series edge.

The final game Saturday will see the lone matchup between the SoCon and the FBS, as Mercer travels to Auburn for a 7 p.m. EST game. It will mark the 13th all-time clash between the Bears and Tigers, with the two having most recently met in 2017. The Bears forced five Tiger turnovers on that occasion to put a bit in a bit of a scare at Jordan-Hare before the Tigers finally were able to pull out what was a 24-10 win on five years ago.

It will mark the 13th all-time meeting between the Bears and Tigers, with Auburn having won all of the previous 12 matchups.

The Bears, of course, got off to a 1-0 start with a 63-13 rout of Morehead State last Saturday night at Five Star Stadium

Thursday night game previews and predictions:

The Citadel (0-0, 0-0 SoCon) at Campbell (0-0, 0-0 SoCon), 6 p.m. EST

Venue: Barker-Lane Stadium (5,500), Buies Creek, N.C.

The Series: First meeting

The Coaches: The Citadel–Brent Thompson (32-37/7th season); Campbell–Mike Minter (39-54/10th season)

Players to Watch for The Citadel: RB-Logan Billings, QB-Peyton Derrick, QB-Ahmad Green, DB-Destin Mack, DL-Carson Hatchett, OL-Tereis Drayton, RB-Alex Ramsey

Players to Watch Campbell: QB-Hajj Malik Williams, TE-Julian Hill, OL-Tyler McClellan, DE-Brevin Allen, RB-Bryant Barr, WR-Jalen Kelsey

Previewing the Matchup: The Citadel opens the 2022 season on the road at Big South member Campbell in a game that was originally slated for Saturday, Sept. 3. The Camels come into the 2022 season with as much excitement entering a campaign maybe in the 10 seasons that Mike Minter has been the head coach of the program situated in eastern North Carolina.

The Camels, who finished the 2021 campaign with a 3-8 mark, were picked to finish second in the preseason Big South poll behind projected 2022 league champion North Carolina A&T. The Camels return a healthy 19 starters (8-offense, 6-defense, 5-special teams) to the fold for upcoming season.

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, were selected to finish eighth in the SoCon by the league’s head coaches, while the media poll had the Bulldogs ninth, as The Citadel enters the 2022 campaign off a 4-7 campaign a year ago, with the Bulldogs placing seventh in the final SoCon standings, with a 3-5 league ledger. The Citadel enters the 2022 campaign with 17 starters (5-offense, 10-defense, 2-special teams) returning to the fold for the upcoming season.

Since winning the league title in Thompson’s first season as the head coach of the Bulldogs, The Citadel has struggled to find the consistency of being an elite contender among the perennial SoCon title chasers, as the Bulldogs sport just one top four finish in the league standings (2019) since Thompson’s rookie season as the head coach, which saw The Citadel repeat as SoCon champion by posting a perfect 8-0 run through SoCon play in his first season at the helm.

Thompson held on to his job in the Low Country last season primarily because of how the Bulldogs completed the campaign, closing out the season with wins over rival Wofford (45-44) and at Chattanooga (24-21), allowing the Bulldogs head into the 2022 season with plenty of momentum.

That momentum, however, was almost entirely eradicated when veteran quarterback Jaylan Adams, who finished the 2021 season as the SoCon’s leader in rushing touchdowns, and ranked third in rushing yards, announced he was transferring out of the program. For Campbell, it’s been a rocky road for Minter in his 10 seasons at the helm in Buies Creek, which has seen the program go from not existing-to non-scholarship football-to-scholarship football.

With money well spent on facilities, a prestigious name as the head coach, and with the support of the surrounding rural flat lands of eastern North Carolina, the small private school could draw some at least some comparisons to the SoCon’s own Mercer Bears in terms of how the football program is trying to build itself into a perennial conference title and FCS playoff contender. With that said, the road has been a little bit rockier than that of the Bears, however, progress is being made. The Camels weren’t long for the Big South, as the Camels are set to join the CAA after 11 years of membership in its current affiliation.

The move comes four years after Campbell announced it was going to sponsor scholarship football. The fruits of that labor as a scholarship program have already bore fruit, as the Camels were ranked as having FCS football’s top recruiting class in 2022.

The Camels are entering their final season of membership in the Big South. The 2022 season opener for the Bulldogs will see them face a Campbell team that is one of the most veteran squads in FCS football heading into the 2022 season, with 21 players on the Camels roster having already received their undergraduate degree.

The biggest question mark for Thompson’s Bulldogs will be who will start under center in Thursday’s clash-will it be the experience of former Wofford quarterback Peyton Derrick, who has one season of eligibility remaining, or will it be Ahmad Green, who had an outstanding spring, as he closed the spring with a clear lead for the starting job after it was announced veteran quarterback Jaylan Adams would be entering the transfer portal just three days into camp.

Then, in the early part of the summer Thompson was granted the luxury of having Derrick show up at his house, looking to join the staff as a grad assistant. What he ended up with is a veteran quarterback with a year of eligibility left and some familiarity with running an option-based offense.

During his career with the Terriers, Derrick completed 48-of-87 passes for 814 yards and seven TDs, while rushing for 262 yards and a touchdown.

He threw what is the longest touchdown pass in program history last season, completing an 88-yard scoring pass. Prior to his three years at Wofford, Derrick played a season at Appalachian State, seeing action in six games, completing 13-of-22 passes for 186 yards and a couple of TDs. 

While the losses are significant on offense from a year ago, the Bulldogs have some key pieces returning to their normally prolific and nationally recognized ground attack, which include running backs like Cooper Wallace (55 rush att, 317 yds, 1 TD), 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 most interesting addition to the backfield is Alex Ramsey from VMI. Ramsey, who last played at VMI and was an all-conference running back, while in Lexington, returns after sitting out both the 2020-21 and 2021 seasons, respectively.

Ramsey was a 2020 preseason FCS STATS All-American. During the 2019 campaign, Ramsey carried 266 times for 1,326 yards and 22 touchdowns, while hauling in 50 passes for 323 yards. He rushed for a career-high 207 yards in a game against Wofford, while posting a career-high six rushing scores in a game against Samford.

After averaging a healthy 268 yards per game on the ground last season, it would be a little shocking to see The Citadel’s offense struggle on the ground this fall. It’s the defense that is probably of more concern heading into the season opener.

The Bulldogs did rally to rank fifth in the league in total defense by season’s end, but still ended up yielding over 400 YPG for the season (422.5 YPG). The Citadel also finished the 2021 campaign ranking 105th in the FCS in scoring defense (34.4 PPG). The Bulldogs welcome the return of 10 starters on the defensive side of the ball, with the obvious strength on that side of the football being the secondary. The Bulldogs are multiple on the defensive side of the football, but mostly utilize a 3-4 alignment on that side of the football.

The Bulldogs will have some veteran leadership returning along the defensive line for the 2022 season, with both Carson Hatchett (44 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 PBUs) and Jay Smith (39 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 PBU) returning at both the defensive end and defensive tackle positions, respectively.

Looking to fill the role at nose tackle as a result of Dalton Owens’ graduation at the nose tackle spot this fall will be redshirt sophomore KJ Pierce (9 tackles, 0.5 TFL). Pierce saw action in all 11 games as a reserve last season for the Bulldogs.

The linebacking unit has a solid contingent of returnees for the 2022 season, with seniors Marquise Blount (51 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 FR) and Andy Davis (43 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 PBU) set to anchor the unit this fall. Blount will start at the weakside linebacker spot, and the 6-3, 223-lb senior from Charlotte, N.C., was a 2020 preseason second-team All-SoCon selection. Blount comes off a 2021 season in which he started all 11 games, posting his best performance against Charleston Southern, posting nine tackles and 2.5 sacks.

Rounding out the returning starters at linebacker for the 2022 campaign is Brian Horn (36 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 0.5 sack, 1 PBU), while the lone vacancy at linebacker is at middle linebacker, and that should be filled by sophomore Je’Mazin Roberts (6 tackles). Roberts logged action in all 11 games as a true freshman last season, having made one start.

Both Blount and Hatchett were second-team preseason All-SoCon selections. The secondary should be among the best in the Southern Conference this fall. Cornerback Destin Mack (45 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 5 INTs) was the Bulldogs’ lone first-team selection to the preseason All-SoCon team, while Dominick Poole (51 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 9 PBUs, 2 INTs), who was the media’s SoCon Freshman of the Year last season, returns as the starter at the other cornerback position. Mack’s five INTs were tied for the conference lead last season along with Furman’s Travis Blackshear.

Set to return at free safety as the starter is senior Chris Beverly (49 tackles, 2 INTs, 3 PBUs, 1 FR), as he is one of the most veteran returnees on the defensive side of the football heading into the 2022 campaign.

Campbell counters with a bevy of offensive weapons and an atmosphere of expectation maybe as high as it has been since the program originally made its return to the gridiron back in 2007.

e Camels have a good mix of veterans returning along with talent acquired from the portal, which could Campbell one of the more explosive offenses in the Big South Conference in what will be its final season of membership. It all starts under center, where Atlanta, GA., product Hajj-Malik Williams returns as the man leading the way on offense for the Camels.

The veteran signal-caller was the 2020 Big South Offensive Player of the Year and has 3,418-career passing yards and 996 rushing yards in his three previous campaigns with the Camels. He comes off a 2021 campaign, which saw him see action in only four games before an injury cut his campaign short. The redshirt junior signal-caller passed for 714 yards and seven scores and an interception last season.

He was a 2021 preseason All-Big South selection and will enter the 2022 season with that very same distinction. In addition to what he provided as a passer in limited action last season, Hajj Malik-Williams also added 127 rushing yards in 2021. He leads an offense that returns a total of eight starters, including two others that joined Hajj Malik-Williams on the preseason all-conference team, in tight end graduate tight end Justin Hill and graduate offensive lineman Tyler McLellan. Hill was the Camels’ second-leading receiving option a year ago, as he hauled in 34 passes for 367 yards and two scores last fall, averaging 10.8 yards-per-catch.

With the departure of Caleb Snead at wide receiver, the onus will fall on both Hill and returning veteran wideout Jalen Kelsey to lead the way in the passing game for the Camels this fall. Kelsey could be a key piece to the offense this fall, as he comes off a solid 2021 season, which saw him finish the season with 22 catches for 408 yards and four scores.

Campbell, which uses the run to set up its big-play passing attack, returns running back Bryant Barr, who comes off a 2021 season, which saw him rush for 318 yards and five scores on 64 rush attempts last season. The Camels come off a 2021 season, which saw them average 372.5 YPG and 25.6 PPG last season.

Defense was a big issue for the Camels last season, surrendering 399 yards per game and 29 PPG last season. The Camels surrendered 156.8 YPG on the ground, while giving up 242.2 YPG through the air. The top returning player on the defensive side of the ball for the Camels is defensive end Brevin Allen, who enters the season as one of the top defensive performers in the Big South. The redshirt senior was named the preseason Big South Defensive Player of the Year and will likely be the best defensive lineman until the The Citadel faces Chattanooga and Devonnsha Maxwell.

Allen is also one of the top defensive players in all of FCS football, as he was also named to the STATS FCS preseason Buck Buchanan Award list. He comes off a 2021 season that saw him contribute 44 tackles, 17.5 tackles-for-loss, 9.5 sacks, forced two fumbles and had one fumble recovery.

The Citadel has arguably the toughest five games of anyone in the SoCon to open the season, facing a Campbell program with maybe its highest expectations since returning to the gridiron 15 years ago, while facing three games against teams predicted to finish in the top four of the SoCon this fall, while also facing perennial Group of Five power and former Southern Conference rival Appalachian State in Boone on Oct. 1. With such a gauntlet of games to open the season, it likely makes Thursday night’s opener in the “must win” category.

The Citadel needs this game, and the SoCon needs this game. This is the type game the league must win in order to gain its respectability back.

Unfortunately, I think this Citadel team is opening against a Campbell program at the one time you didn’t want to face it since returning to the gridiron in 2007.

Remember, this is a Campbell team that won a 34-27 contest at Mercer back in 2019, with several of those key performers still around, including dynamic signal-caller Hajj-Malik Williams. With uncertainty on the other side under center, I’m afraid I have to go with the Big South over the SoCon in this matchup as painful is that is to write because the league needs The Citadel to win this ball game.

Prediction: Campbell 31, The Citadel 28

Furman (0-0, 0-0) at North Greenville (0-0, 0-0 GSC), 7 p.m. EST

Venue: Paladin Stadium (14,518), Greenville, S.C.

The Series: First meeting

The Coaches: Furman–Clay Hendrix (31-25, 6th season)/North Greenville-Jeff Farrington (44-44, 8th season)

Players to Watch for Furman: QB-Tyler Huff, RB-Dominic Roberto, RB-Devin Abrams, TE-Ryan Miller, OL-Anderson Tomlin, OL-Pearson Toomey, CB-Travis Blackshear, NT-Cameron Coleman, LB-Braden Gilby

Players to Watch for North Greenville: QB-Bryce Fields, OL-Dalton McKittrick, OL-Jonathan Holton, DL-Bryson Capps, De’lveon Donald, DL-Kwame Livingston

Previewing the Matchup: Furman will open its 2022 campaign at home facing an opponent for the first time in its gridiron history, when the Paladins welcome the North Greenville Crusaders from just 13 miles up the road in Tigerville, S.C., to Paladin Stadium for Thursday night’s season opener.

It will mark the first time since 2005 that the Paladins have opened a season on a Thursday night. On that particular occasion, the Paladins were able to pick up what was a 37-35 win at Jacksonville State, as time expired on a 9-yard pass from quarterback Ingle Martin-to-Justin Stepp, allowing the Paladins to escape Paul Snow Stadium for the thrilling season-opening win.

Furman doesn’t have much Thursday night history to speak of, however, as it has rarely participated in non-Saturday regular-season games in its storied history. In 2016, the Paladins opened the campaign on a Friday night with a 28-13 setback in East Lansing.

The Paladins, of course, played on a Friday night in the 2001 national championship game, dropping a 13-6 decision to the Montana Grizzlies. In 1997, the Paladins opened the season on the road on a Thursday night, as the Paladins emerged from Seibert Stadium with a key, 29-10, road win over then non-conference foe Samford.

In 1963, Furman played then Southern Conference member West Virginia on a Thursday night, as the Paladins took on West Virginia in a game moved to Nov. 28 (Thanksgiving Day) after being originally scheduled for a Nov. 23 contest in that particular season. However, the assassination of then President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, saw the game moved to the following Thursday night.

Of note, Furman has suffered at least one home loss per season dating back to 2007. Furman hasn’t posted an unblemished home slate since the 2006 campaign, when the Paladins finished with a 6-0 mark. The six wins in ’06 in the shadows of Paris Mountain came on the heels of a ’05 campaign, which saw the Paladins finish with a 7-0 record on the home turf.

In fact, from 2004-06, the Paladins went a combined 19-1 record inside the friendly confines, with James Madison having been the only team to hand the Paladins a home setback during that span, handing the second-seeded Paladins a 14-13 setback in the quarterfinals of the 2004 Division I-AA playoffs en route to the Dukes becoming the first program to ever win three-straight road games and a neutral site victory to go on and claim a national title.

The Paladins ended up winning 14-straight at home before Wofford came to Greenville and eventually ended the Paladins’ winning streak in 2007, handing Furman a 45-20 setback on Sept. 29, 2007. There will be plenty of familiarity between the two coaching staffs when Furman and North Greenville do battle in the season opener Thursday night at Paladin Stadium.

Two coaches have ties to Furman football, including head coach Jeff Farrington, as well as assistant coach and defensive coordinator Maurice Duncan. Farrington served nine seasons (2002-2010) as a defensive assistant for the Paladins, and was the Furman’s 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.

During his time as a player at Furman, Duncan 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.

Duncan was a four-year letterman 2002-05, finishing his career with 116 tackles and intercepted five passes. Duncan was a member of a pair of SoCon championship teams. He helped the Paladins to FCS playoff appearances in 2002, ’04 and ’05. Current Paladin running backs coach Antonio Wilcox once served as running back and wide receivers coach at North Greenville as a grad assistant before returning to take over as Furman’s running backs coach and recruiting coordinator.

Furman strength and conditioning coach Andre Bernardi is a 2010 graduate of North Greenville, and a former three-time All-America football player for the Crusaders football program. He would be responsible for starting the strength and conditioning football program at North Greenville before coming to Furman to head up the same role in 2018.

Furman head men’s basketball coach Bob Richey, who has won 111 games in just five seasons as the head coach, also calls NGU his alma mater, having graduated from the nearby university in 2006.Finally, North Greenville running back Corey Watkins, who spent the 2018 and ’19 campaigns as a part of a talented Furman backfield, will be suiting up for the Crusaders. 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.

Furman donned purple pants in its uniform back in 1993 and it marks one of the few times in its history it has moved the purple from its jersey to either the pants or helmet/photo courtesy of Chattanooga athletics

Furman, which returns 15 starters (8-offense, 7-defense), and will be donning black jerseys for the first time since 2016, while the sharp, purple matte helmets will mark the first time in 50 years. Rarely does Furman move the purple in its uniform scheme. The last time Furman has worn purple somewhere on its uniform other than as its primary home jersey is 1993, when the Paladins donned purple pants. Furman finished that season with a 5-5-1 record in what would be Jimmy Satterfield’s swan song as the head coach.

This uniform combo of black jerseys, black pants and purple helmets will be part of the uniform options for the future, however, won’t replace Furman’s iconic home purple jerseys, white pants and white helmets with a diamond logo, nor will they serve as a replacement for the Paladins immaculate road uniform combination of white helmets, white jerseys and white pants.

Furman will have five new coaches making their debuts on the Paladin coaching staff in Thursday night’s season opener. Justin Roper (offensive coordinator), Drew Dudzik (wide receivers coach), Matt McCutchan (offensive line), Chad Byers (co-defensive coordinator/inside linebackers) and Tommy Spangler (special teams/cornerbacks) will all be making their respective debuts on the sidelines and in the booth in Thursday night’s opener.

The offensive side of the football will see the most drastic change, with three of the five new additions being on that side of the ball with the most notable of those being offensive coordinator Justin Roper, who will replace predecessor George Quarles, as he moved on to become the head coach at East Tennessee State following the 2021 season.

Roper comes to Furman from Holy Cross after helping lead the Crusaders FCS postseason in 2021. Roper, who was an accomplished quarterback at Montana during his time as a player, will look to flip the script for an offense that struggled at times during the 2021 season.

The Paladins are coming off a 2021 campaign, which saw them average 24.3 PPG (76th in FCS) and 359.8 YPG (65th in FCS). Furman’s bread-and-butter on offense was the ground game, which saw them average 184.1 YPG (24th in FCS) and posted 175.7 YPG (92nd in FCS) in passing offense. Furman finished the 2021 season 40.4% on third down (45th in FCS), while scoring points on 85.7% (28th in FCS) of their trips to the red zone last season.

One of the primary reasons the Paladins struggled a year ago was due in large part to inconsistent play under center. With the addition of new signal-caller Tyler Huff from Presbyterian College via the transfer portal, and with the return of true sophomore quarterback Jace Wilson (63-of-123 passing, 1,020 yds, 6 TDs, 3 INTs/101 rush yds, 2 TDs), the Paladins look to be in as good a situation at the position since 2017, when the Paladins had reputable experience and talent at the position in the form of P.J. Blazejowski and Harris Roberts.

That is backed up by Blazejowski having led the Paladins to the second round of the FCS playoffs as the quarterback in his senior season of 2017. A year later, Roberts turned in one of the best passing efficiency ratings for a single season in his only campaign as the Paladin signal-caller in 2018. A number of issues kept Furman from at least equaling that experience at the position over the past three seasons, with the transfer of Darren Grainger out of the Paladin program to Georgia State having the most unintended profound impact on the experience dynamic under center.

With that said, Huff narrowly beat out Wilson in strong quarterback battle during fall camp. With Huff’s experience and know-how, Roper hopes that will equate as the missing piece, which saw the Paladins miss out on an eight-win season by a total of five points in losses at Western Carolina (L, 42-43) and No. 9 East Tennessee State (L, 13-17). Wilson was thrust into action last season, having to completely learn Quarles’ offensive scheme on-the-run, as he missed most of fall camp battling COVID-19.

With Quarles having moved on, the talented Lone Star State product was asked to learn a completely new offensive system for a second-straight season, with Roper bringing a new offense, which will be unique in comparison to what Paladin fans are accustomed to. Huff’s experience and success at PC helped put him line to lead the Paladins under center for what will be his final campaign as a collegiate quarterback.

Huff ended up passing for 2,560 yards and 21 touchdowns on 232-of-376 passing, while also rushing for 515 yards and six scores during his time spent in Clinton.

While the Paladins are solid up front, with a pair of preseason first-team All-SoCon selections, in Anderson Tomlin and Pearson Toomey, as the Paladins might have their best collection of talent along the offensive front since Clay Hendrix assumed the reigns as the head coach in 2017.

The top weapons on offense for the Paladins include tight end Ryan Miller, whose 16 touchdown receptions are a school record for tight ends. He garnered Associated Press Third-Team All-America in 2021, as he became the 11th player in Furman football history to garner multiple All-America citations in the history of Furman football.

Miller was a consensus First-Team All-SoCon selection during the 2021 campaign, leading the Paladins with 43 receptions for 749 yards and seven TDs last fall, and averaged a league-best 17.4 yards-per-catch in doing so. Miller started the season with a bang, hauling in an 87-yard pass from Hamp Sisson, doing most of the work with his feet by out-pacing the North Carolina A&T secondary in the process, as his play highlighted Furman’s season-opening 29-18 win over the Aggies.

Joshua Harris (26 rec, 295 yds, 1 TD, 11.3 YPR) is another solid option in the passing game, and Kyndel Dean is one of seven transfers, which includes five on the offensive side of the ball, that could give the passing game its most potent versatility downfield since the graduation of Thomas Gordon in 2019.

The running game is blessed with a plethora of options. Among the best are Dominic Roberto (96 rush att, 709 yds, 6 TDs, 7.4 YPC/4 rec, 29 yds) and Devin Abrams (72 rush att, 334 yds, 3 TDs, 4.6 YPC/6 rec., 40 yds), while Kendall Thomas (24 rush att, 64 yds/5 rec 26 yds) could be in line to see his most action with the program to date.

Furman’s defense could be in line to have a season not unlike some of its greatest in program, which it did in back-to-back campaigns in 2003 and ’04, respectively. Veteran leadership returns at all three levels, highlighted by Cameron Coleman (32 tackles, 1.0 TFL) and Matt Sochovka along the defensive front, while Braden Gilby anchors a strong corps of linebackers. Coleman was a second-team preseason All-SoCon pick, while Sochovka returns after having his 2021 season cut short after suffering a season-ending injury in the season opener.

Set to join Gilby as a returning starter at inside linebacker heading into the 2022 campaign is redshirt junior Nicky Kuzemka (44 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FF), giving the Paladins excellent run-support at the heart of the defensive unit.

The strength of the Paladin defense should be its secondary, which sports both talent and depth as its primary attributes. First-Team All-SoCon pick Travis Blackshear (52 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 5 INTs, 5 PBUs, 2 FRs, 1 FF)., who tied for the SoCon lead with five INTs last season, highlights the highly regarded unit. Furman free safety Hugh Ryan (62 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 3 PBUs, 1 INT, 1 QBH) led the Paladins in tackles last fall.

While the defense was solid last season, there is still room for improvement. One of the issues that was somewhat baffling was Furman’s inability to get off the field on third-and-long. The other was creating pressure on opposing quarterbacks, particularly with its front three and from the ‘bandit’ position.

That should change this fall, and one might expect to see the most drastic improvement at bandit, as defensive coordinator Duane Vaughn moves back to that position as his primary responsible as a position coach this fall. All told, the Paladins finished the 2021 campaign ranking a solid 70th in total defense (383.1 YPG) in total defense last season, which was one spot below league champion East Tennessee State.

Furman also finished the campaign ranking 72nd nationally in passing yards allowed (230.0 YPG), 38th in scoring defense (23.5 PPG), 62nd in rush defense (153.1 YPG), tied for 79th in total team sacks (19.0 sacks/1.73 SPG), and 117th in third down conversion percentage defense (47.8%) last fall.

North Greenville enters the contest coming off 5-6 finish to the 2021 season and are projected to finish seventh in the preseason Gulf South Conference poll. The Crusaders were 2-5 in league play a year ago, finishing seventh. Highlighting the returnees for NGU are a pair of talented defensive players, in linebacker De’lveon Donald (63 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 3 PBUs) and defensive lineman Kwame Livingston (44 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 FF). Both were preseason first-team All-Gulf South Conference selections, and Donald was the GSC’s Freshman of the Year last fall.

Final Prediction: Furman 45, North Greenville 7

ETSU and Mars Hill last faced each other in 2018/photo courtesy of ETSU athletics

Mars Hill (0-0, 0-0 South Atlantic Conference) at East Tennessee State (0-0, 0-0 SoCon), 7:30 p.m. EST

Venue: William B. Greene Stadium (14,518), Johnson City, Tenn

The Series: This will mark the 12th all-time meeting between the two, with the Bucs holding the 8-2-1 all-time series edge.

The Coaches: ETSU-George Quarles (0-0)/Mars Hill-Tim Clifton (151-147/29th year)

Players to Watch for East Tennessee State: QB-Tyler Riddell, RB-Jacob Saylors, DL-Jalen Porter, WR-Will Huzzie, DB-Alijah Huzzie, DB-Mike Price, OL-Joe Schreiber, OL-Fred Norman, LB-Zach West, PK-Tyler Keltner, OL-Tavon Matthews

Players to Watch Mars Hill: QB-Jimmy Urzua, LB-Dexter Fitzpatrick, LB-Landon Honeycutt

Game Preview: East Tennessee State opens the George Quarles era against nearby Division II program Mars Hill, who makes the short 44-mile trek to take on the defending SoCon champion East Tennessee State on Thursday night.

Just like it did when it faced Mars Hill in 2018, the Bucs will have a new head coach four years to the day after Randy Sanders made his debut as ETSU’s head coach, as ETSU posted a 30-3 win over Mars Hill on that particular occasion. Quarles is well-known within the Volunteer State and the East Tennessee region, mostly as a result of what he did as the head coach at Maryville High School. He also served as an offensive assistant from 2017-21, which included the last four as the Paladins’ offensive coordinator.

When Quarles took the reins back in December, he became 19th head coach in ETSU football history after Sanders abruptly retired not too long after ETSU’s 27-3 FCS quarterfinal round loss at North Dakota State last season.

In 2019, Quarles became the offensive coordinator for the Paladins in the spring of 2017 after Drew Cronic left to assume the head coaching vacancy at Lenoir-Rhyne before moving on to take the head coaching job at Mercer prior to the 2020 season.

Quarles was oversaw a his most prolific Paladin offense in 2019, and was one of best in recent memory, as the Paladins averaged 33.5 PPG, which led the SoCon, while the Paladins’ 410.3 YPG ranked second in the league in total offense. Furman’s potent offensive unit scored 40 or more points six times during the 2019 season, while recording two 60-point games and a 50-point outing.

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-Fame 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 at Maryville, Quarles was outstanding, posting a 250-16 (.939) record in his time as a head coach, 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.

He will now be charged with helping maintain and even elevate what predecessors Carl Torbush and Randy Sanders helped build when the program was brought back after an 11-year hiatus in 2014. With the Bucs’ 7-1 conference mark last season, it marked just the second conference title in school history, while it was the first-ever outright SoCon crown in program history.

The Bucs were picked to finish second in the league by both the coaches and media at the preseason media day, which was held back in July at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C.

Plenty of talent is back on both sides of the football, with the most notable returnees on offense being preseason Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Year Jacob Saylors (143 rush att, 1,019 yds, 10 TDs, 7.1 YPC),  and first-team All-SoCon Tyler Riddell (211-of-338, 2,464 yds, 19 TDs, 5 INTs), under center, as he will once again head up the Bucs’ offense.

Saylors was of course a part of a Bucs offense that featured two 1,000-yard ground gainers a year ago, as he served in more of a Robin in comparison to Quay Holmes’ Batman role for the Bucs offense. Those roles switch this season, however, with Saylors being the primary focal point of the ground game.

While ETSU’s offense will likely be more balanced towards the passing attack this fall, it shouldn’t diminish the importance of Saylors because of his versatility as a receiver coming out of the backfield. In fact, I expect his importance to only increase as a receiving threat out of the backfield for ETSU this coming season.

His 1,019 yards rushing last season marked the eighth-highest rushing total in a season in ETSU history. His 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.

The Bucs have a top-notch corps of wideouts, headlined by preseason All-SoCon selection Will Huzzie (58 rec, 798 yds, 5 TDs, 13.8 YPR), as the redshirt junior saw action in and started all 13 games for the Bucs last season, and proved to be one of the main deep threats for ETSU.

He ended up garnering second-team All-America honors by HERO Sports, and while his 798 yards receiving led the team last season, his 58 receptions ranked as the sixth-most in a single-season in program history. Huzzie ended up turning in his best performance in ETSU’s 55-48 win over Samford, hauling in eight passes for 113 yards and a touchdown.

The offensive line is again a strength, and despite losing offensive line coach Matt McCutchan to Furman, where he serves in that same role, and Tre’Mond Shorts, who transferred to LSU following the 2021 season, the Bucs have a solid contingent of four starters back under new offensive line coach Dru Duke, who joined Quarles in making the trek from Greenville, S.C.-to-Johnson City, Tenn.

The Bucs were as good up front as any unit in the nation last season, as wel as being one of the top units in school history, rivaling offensive lines of 2018 and 1996, which featured guys like Matthew Pike and Travis Crusenberry as pillars of those respective offensive lines in different eras.

Slated to anchor the talented unit this fall will once again be center Joe Schreiber and Fred Norman, who was a preseason All-SoCon selection and should be in line to compete for the prestigious Jacobs Blocking Award this fall. Tavon Matthews is another returnee along the offensive front with reputable experience.

The good news for the ETSU defense is that it retained former defensive coordinator Billy Taylor, who is arguably one of the best in the SoCon and FCS football, but the bad news is the Bucs most replace some big-time talent from the front seven, which were so instrumental in helping ETSU to the regular-season title last season.

The four starting linebackers should be interesting for the Bucs this season, as that was the heart and soul of the Bucs defense last season, with Donovan Manuel and Jared Folks served as the primary spine of the ETSU defense last fall, but Folks’ eligibility has expired and Manuel has moved on as a transfer to Florida International.

The leading returning defensive performer for the Bucs is defensive lineman Jalen Porter (37 tackles, 10.0 TFL, 6.0 sacks), who is a preseason All-SoCon pick, and his 10 stops behind the line of scrimmage led the team. Twenty-three of his 37 tackles were of the solo variety last fall.

Replacing both Folks and Manuel at linebacker won’t be easy to state the obvious. Zach West (53 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 INT, 2 FRs) and Chandler Martin (3 tackles, 1.0 TFL) will look to fill those two vacancies at linebacker, respectively.

West had a career-high nine tackles in the playoff win over Kennesaw State, and Martin saw action in four games for the Bucs last season, making his collegiate debut for the Bucs against Furman last season. West helped seal the win at Furman by coming up with the final fumble recovery of the game. He also contributed four tackles and an INT in the 17-13 win over the Paladins.

Despite losing Tyree Robinson and Karon Delince to graduation, the Bucs should still end up having one of the top secondaries in the Southern Conference this fall. Highlighting the returnees on the back line are two outstanding safeties, in preseason all-league selections Alijah Huzzie (76 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 3 INTs, 9 PBUs, 2 FFs).and Mike Price (73 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 6 PBUs).

Mars Hill counters with pretty stout challenge for a Division II program, as the Lions won six of their final seven games last season to finish off the campaign with an impressive 8-3 overall record and tied for second with Lenoir-Rhyne in the final South Atlantic Conference standings last season. The Lions were picked fourth in the preseason SAC poll, which included receiving four first place votes this past fall.

The Lions boasted one of the top defenses in Division II football last season, holding foes to a meager 292.1 YPG, thanks in large part to a pair of preseason all-league picks in the linebacking corps, in Dexter Fitzpatrick (75 tackles, 12.0 TFL, 9.0 sacks, 4 PBUs, 1 FF) and Landon Honeycutt (105 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 2 FRs, l blkd kick). The Lions had the SAC’s third best passing attack last fall, averaging 252.3 YPG through the air. Leading that passing attack under center once again this fall will be Jimmy Urzua (169-of-345 passing, 2,618 yds, 24 TDs, 6 INTs).

While this game is not as easy as it might look, I expect the Bucs to overpower the Lions with a new-look, electrifying offense under their new head coach and win this one comfortably.

Final Prediction: ETSU 55, Mars Hill 17

Samford and Kennesaw State will be squaring off for fourth time Thursday night/photo courtesy of Kennesaw State athletics

No. 8 Kennesaw State (0-0, 0-0 Big South) at Samford (0-0, 0-0 SoCon), 7 p.m EST

Venue: Seibert Stadium (6,600)/Homewood, AL

The Series: This will mark the fourth all-time meeting between Samford and Kennesaw State on the gridiron, with KSU holding a 2-1 lead.

Players to Watch for Samford: LB-Nathan East, QB-Michael Hiers, RB-Jay Stanton, OL-Gavin Orr, DL-Tay Berry, DL-Seth Simmer

Players to Watch for Kennesaw State: QB-Xavier Shepherd, SB-Isaac Foster, WR-Xavier Hill, OL-Zion Katina, OL-Terrell Paxton, LB-Mike Mincey, LB-Jalen Barnum, LB-Garland Benyard, DB-Markeith Montgomery

Game Preview: The 2022 season is one in which Samford will look to get back to competing within the top tier of the Southern Conference, and they will jump right into the first Thursday night, facing a Top 10 FCS opponent, in Kennesaw State, who is obviously no stranger to games against the Southern Conference competition, having faced the likes of Samford (2-1), Wofford (3-0), Furman (1-0), and East Tennessee State (1-2) heading into its night season as a program, and it was a SoCon team that ended the Owls campaign in 2021, as East Tennessee State captured a miraculous 32-31 win in Johnson City in a second round FCS playoff matchup last season.

Thursday night’s meeting between the Owls and Bulldogs will mark the first meeting between the two since Sept. 29, 2018, as the Owls captured what was a 24-10 win in Kennesaw. It was a Samford team that was the preseason pick to win the Southern Conference and had nearly knocked off Florda State in Tallahassee just three weeks earlier.

-Samford is a program that seemingly is one with no shortage of talent, and that can be said for the Bulldogs year-in and year-out during the Chris Hatcher era during his seven previous seasons as the head coach in Homewood. However, after winning at least six games in his first three seasons as the head coach at Samford, the Bulldogs have failed to win at least five in each of the past two, which includes the COVID-19 shortened 2020 campaign, which saw the Bulldogs rally down the stretch of that seven-game season to finish out as one of the hottest teams in FCS football, winning three of its final four games to finish as one of the first four teams left out of the 2020-21 FCS playoff field.

Perhaps, though, the most disappointing season for Samford wasn’t any of the past three campaigns, however, but likely the 2018 campaign, which saw the Bulldogs win just six games despite being the consensus preseason favorite to win the league title. Despite putting the all-time leading passer and Walter Payton Award winner–Devlin Hodges–under center that season, the Bulldogs could still only muster a 6-5 finish to the season, which included a 5-3 mark in the Southern Conference and also out of playoff consideration.

In fact, during that 2018 season, the Bulldogs nearly became the first team from Alabama that is an FCS member to knock off Florida State before eventually falling 36-26 in Tallahassee. It would have been aprospros seeing as how Bobby Bowden, an Alabama boy, got his start as the head coach at Howard College (now known as Samford). Unfortunately for Hatcher and the Bulldogs, that wasn’t in the cards. In the fall of 2020, the Seminoles would lose to an FCS school from the state of Alabama, dropping a 20-17 contest to Jacksonville State.

That game has kind of represented a turning point for the Samford football program and Hatcher’s career as the head ball coach in Birmingham. In fact, since that loss to FSU in 2018, Hatcher and Samford have gone just 18-21. Prior to that loss to the Seminoles in 2018, Hatcher was 22-15 as the head coach of the Bulldogs. There has been a definite downward turn since that loss.

The question now becomes has Samford become a program that has become stagnant among the SoCon football programs after looking as if it were going to be one that was on the upswing at the latter portion of the Pat Sullivan era to one that had even been elevated by Hatcher and staff following the 2017 season, which saw the Bulldogs qualify for the FCS playoffs.

Since joining the Southern Conference in 2008 as an official football-playing member, the Bulldogs have posted an 83-62 overall record, which includes a 63-50 mark against Southern Conference foes. The Bulldogs have been to the FCS playoffs three times (2013, ‘16, and ‘17) as SoCon members, with one title, which it was later forced to vacate. Two FCS of those FCS playoff appearances have come on Hatcher’s watch, however, the time might be ticking on his career as the head coach at Samford if he doesn’t produce a third in 2022.

Set to lead the Samford offense after winning the quarterback battle in camp is JUCO transfer Michael Hiers, who beat out both Quinton Crittendon and Kentucky transfer Nic Scalzo for the starting job. This season is not unlike the 2019 season in terms of the uncertainty at the position. That would be the season that Liam Welch and future South Dakota State transfer Chris Oladokun would tag-team the duties for much of the season.

homever is able to emerge at the conclusion of fall camp as the starter will be leading an offense that routinely is one of the more explosive aerial big-play offenses in FCS football. 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. Another area of concern on the offensive side of the ball could be wide receiver, where the Bulldogs must replace leading wideout Montrell Washington, who was selected in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft just this past weekend. Samford must also replace one of the top pass-catching tight ends in the SoCon, with the departure of Michael Vice, who transferred to Troy during the off-season.

Expected to step into the role as the Bulldogs’ go-to-wideout this fall should be Ty King (23 rec, 240 yds, 1 TD, 10.4 YPR), who returns for his senior campaign in 2022.King battled injuries last season, but returns where he should be the go-to-receiver in that explosive Samford passing attack. So far in his Samford career, King has proven to be quite the big-play receiver, having hauled in 63 catches for 946 yards and four TDs.

Two seniors that could be significant impact players for the Bulldogs as pass-catching threats this fall are both Chandler Smith (42 rec, 406 yds, 2 TDs, 9.7 YPR) and Peyton Ringer (8 rec, 61 yds, 7.6 YPR), who are both experienced and reliable targets in the passing game. Smith saw his most extensive action as a receiver for Samford last season, seeing action in all 11 games, which included seven starts.

A potential impact transfer on the offensive side of the ball is Villanova transfer wideout Quadir Ismail. At 6-6, 215, the senior wideour will give the Bulldogs outstanding size at wideout and create plenty of matchup issues against smaller SoCon defensive backs. During his time with the Wildcats, Ismail moved from quarterback to wide receiver following his junior season. He saw action in nine games for the Wildcats last season, hauling in 11 passes for 181 yards on the season.
Another wideout that is set to see some significant action in the ‘Hatch Attack’ this fall is Southern Utah transfer Judd Crockett. During his four seasons with the Thunderbirds, Crockett logged action in a total of 43 games, registering 69 catches for 610 yards and three touchdowns during his career in Cedar City.

Set to replace Vice at tight end for Samford this fall could be J.R. Tran-Reno (11 rec, 111 yds, 8.5 YPR), who plays more like a wide receiver at tight end, rather than a true tight end. The 6-1, 222-lb senior saw action in 11 games as a receiving option for the Bulldogs last season, hauling in 11 passes for 111 yards in 2021. He enjoyed his most productive outing of the campaign against East Tennessee State, as he hauled in five passes for 59 yards in a narrow overtime home loss.

One of the most experienced returnees on the offensive side of the football for the Bulldogs will be running back Jay Stanton (115 rush att, 572 yds, 6 TDs, 5.0 YPC). Stanton led the Bulldogs ground attack last season, and during his three seasons at Samford, has rushed for 1,741 yards and 19 TDs thus far in his Bulldogs career. He logged action in all 11 contests last season, which included making eight starts. Stanton has also proven his worthiness as a receiver catching the football out of the backfield, and has hauled in 48 passes for 322 yards and four touchdowns in his Samford career.

The offensive line has a strong core returning to the fold, as all five starters return along the offensive front for the Bulldogs heading into the 2022 season. Set to anchor the offensive line this fall will be Gavin Orr–a graduate student–is a preseason second-team All-SoCon pick at right tackle.Improvement on the defensive side of the football is a must for Samford. he Bulldog defense was, in a word, bad last year. That has to change this season if the Bulldogs hope to remain relevant the Southern Conference race, and perhaps most importantly as far as head coach Chris Hatcher is concerned–for him to keep his job.

Hatcher has brought in a new defensive coordinator that will try and get things turned around sooner rather than later in Birmingham, and that is Chris Boone. 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. Boone’s project will be to repair a defense that ranked as the worst unit in all of FCS football last season. The Bulldogs finished the campaign ranking 123rd out of 123 FCS teams ranked in total defense, surrendering a whopping 505.4 YPG last season.

The good news is the Bulldogs will have some talent on the defensive side of the ball returning to address the issues, which they had last season. A total of seven starters return on the defensive of the football for Samford heading into the 2022 season. Set to lead things along the defensive front heading into the 2022 campaign will be graduate defensive tackle Tay Berry (30 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1 QBH) as well as senior defensive end Joseph Mera (35 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 1 QBH), who will account for two of the more veteran performers on the Samford defense this fall.

Samford has the second-most transfers coming in of any program in the Southern Conference, and several should help make an immediate impact on the defensive side of the football this fall. Joshua Mathiasen, who comes to Samford from Olivet Nazarene, could be an immediate impact player on the defensive interior. The 6-2, 320-lb sophomore spent one season at Olivet Nazarene, posting 71 tackles and had one sack.

Also returning to provide some veteran leadership along the defensive front this fall are senior Braeden Royal (19 tackles, 1 QBH) at one defensive tackle position, while graduate Seth Simmer (63 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 FF) returns after garnering second-team All-SoCon laurels last fall. Junior defensive end Nick Jackson (19 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 FRs) is another player that could play a significant role in the Bulldogs’ new defensive alignment this fall.

The strength for the Bulldogs on the defensive side of the ball heading into the 2022 season could be Samford’s linebacking unit, with two out of three starters returning, in graduate Nathan East (97 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 7 QBHs) and junior Noah Martin (72 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 2 FRs, 1 INT). East was a preseason second-team All-SoCon selection. Martin started all 11 games at linebacker last fall for the Bulldogs. The defensive backfield is highlighted by the return of graduate cornerback Hakeem Johnson (26 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 3 PBUs, 1 INT, 1 FF), as well as senior safety Midnight Steward (15 tackles, 1.0 sack, 1 PBU, 1 INT).

The Owls are making the conference transition from the Big South Conference to the Atlantic Sun this fall, and the preseason favorite in the newly formed league. Led by All-American quarterback Xavier Shepherd (77-of-123 passing, 1,341 yds, 15 TDs, 3 INTs/team-leading 867 rush yds, 23 TDs, 3.6 YPC), KSU again will have a rushing attack among the nation’s elite. Last season, the Owls averaged an impressive 278.6 yards-per-game on the ground, while the defensive unit was stout, surrendering just 311.5 YPG last fall. Shepherd will enter the 2022 season as a Walter Payton Award candidate, and he leads a KSU offense that averaged more yards on the ground than any SoCon program last season by a full 10 yards.

Among the plethora of options at running back and slotback for the Owls include Preston Daniels (72 rush att, 301 yds, 4.2 YPC), Isaac Foster (8 rush att, 51 yds, 6.4 YPC) and Gabriel Benyard (14 rush att, 90 yds, 1 TD, 6.4 YPC). Both Foster and Benyard will play the slot back positions, while Daniels will act as the B-back or fullback in KSU’s flex bone look offense.

The Owls have fielded a Top 20 defense in all eight previous seasons of its FCS history, and the Owls should be strong on that side of the ball once again this season. Leading the KSU defense this fall will be linebacker Garland Benyard (35 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FR, 1 blkd kick), who was the 2021 Big South Defensive Freshman of the Year, while free safety Markeith Montgomery (35 tackles, 2 INTs, 2 PBUs, 1.0 TFL, 1 FF, 1 FR), who has picked off five passes in his Owls career, anchors a solid secondary.

The game against KSU is the first of two games to start a season against Peach State football programs ranked in the national top 10 at both the FCS and FBS preseason polls, respectively. Following the home opener against No. 8 Kennesaw State, the Bulldogs will be on the road at No. 3 and defending national champion Georgia next Saturday.

While I think the Bulldogs keep this game closer than most of those out there think, I think the Owls will wear down an improved Samford defense over the duration of the game and that will show down the stretch in the fourth quarter.

Final Prediction: KSU 45, Samford 35

VMI (0-0, 0-0 SoCon) at No. 22 Wake Forest (0-0, 0-0 ACC), 7:30 p.m.

Venue: Truist Field (31, 500)

The Series: This will mark the eighth all-time meeting between VMI and Wake Forest, with the Demon Deacons owning a 3-2-2 all-time series edge

The Coaches: VMI-Scott Wachenheim (23-52, 8th yr)/Wake Forest-Dave Clawson (51-48/9th yr.)

Players to Watch for VMI: QB-Seth Morgan, WR-Max Brimigion, WR-Leroy Thomas, LB-Stone Snyder, RB-Rashad Raymond, TE-Aidan Twombly, DB-Alex Oliver, SPUR-Christian Dunn, DB-Aljareek Malry

Players to Watch for Wake Forest: QB-Mitch Griffis, WR-A.T. Perry, RB-Justice Ellison, DB-Nick Anderson, LB-Ryan Smeda Jr., DB-Caelan Carson

Game Preview: Once again in 2022, there is plenty of excitement surrounding the start of another start to start to a football season for Scott Wachenheim’s VMI Keydets, who have strung together back-to-back winning seasons, which includes a Southern Conference title run back in the COVID-19 compromised 2020-21 season, which was played in the spring of 2021. In many ways, VMI and Wake Forest share a common thread in that they are a couple of programs that have become the Cinderella stories of their respective classifications. For VMI, it’s breakthrough in the spring of 2021 represented the program’s first Southern Conference title since 1977 and marked the first-ever FCS playoff appearance for the Keydets.

Wake Forest, who is led by Dave Clawson-the 2022 ACC Coach of the Year-is one that made a name for himself as an offensive play-caller at the FCS level at both Villanova and UMass before getting head coaching gigs at both Fordham and Richmond. VMI’s Wachenheim is similar in that way, as he is an astute offensive coach, and like Clawson, who brought Richmond’s football program back from the dredges of the CAA, is doing the same thing at a VMI program that hasn’t had championship success in the SoCon since the late 1970s.

Wake Forest broke through to win 11 games last season in what was a Cinderella run through the ACC, making to Charlotte and the ACC Championship game, however, the season didn’t offer a storybook finish, with Pittsburgh knocking off the Demon Deacons, 45-21. It was Wake’s most successful season since 2006 under the direction of Jim Grobe, when the Demon Deacons finished the season with an 11-3 overall record and captured the ACC Championship with a 9-6 win over Georgia Tech for their 11th win of the season in the championship game, which was played in Jacksonville, FL. That Demon Deacons team would go on to the Orange Bowl to face Louisville, losing 24-13 to the sixth-ranked Cardinals in Miami.

Now the narrative has these two Cinderella story programs from their respective classification’s paths crossing to start the 2022 season. It will mark the first time that has happened since 1944, when the Demon Deacons captured a 38-7 win in Greensboro. In fact, the Demon Deacons has won each of the last three meetings between the two.

Whenever Scott Wachenheim’s offense takes the field, not only are they worth the price of admission, and they execute with precision and potentcy. Despite losing some key offensive weapons to both graduation and the transfer portal, the Keydets have enough returning that probably ensures they should once again be not only near the top of the league, but also among the best offenses in the FCS once again in 2022.

The Keydets utilize a spread/air raid offense, which will be led by redshirt junior Seth Morgan (201-of-326 passing, 2,175 yds, 14 TDs, 11 INTs/191 rush yds, 3 TDs) once again this fall. Morgan has now been the starter in Lexington for 1.5 seasons, and he ended up leading a VMI offense that finished the 2021 season ranking 24th nationally in total offense (417.9 YPG), 28th in scoring offense (31.3 PPG), and 23rd nationally in passing offense (256.9 YPG).

Morgan saw action in and started 10 games for VMI last season, looking to pick up off of what was an outstanding redshirt freshman season, which saw him garner SoCon Freshman of the Year honors in helping lead the Keydets to the 2020-21 Southern Conference title.

The preseason second-team All-SoCon pick had his most memorable afternoon under center in VMI’s thrilling 46-45 win over Samford last season, as he passed for a career-high 472 yards and three touchdowns on 28-for-41 passing in the contest.

Later in the season on the road at Furman, Morgan passed for 415 yards and three touchdowns on 33-of-56 passing. Morgan also led the Keydets to maybe their best win of the season against Chattanooga, helping a Keydets offense that would ultimately rack up 485 yards, which included 306 on 30-of-42 passing through the air, and throwing three touchdowns, as the Mocs held on for what was a memorable 37-34 overtime win at Foster Stadium over the 19th-ranked Mocs. The 485 yards surrendered by the Mocs offense would end up being a season-high yield. Morgan will enter the 2022 season as a preseason second-team All-SoCon selection.

Returning as Morgan’s main weapons in the Keydets’ air raid offense this fall include senior wideout Leroy Thomas (54 rec, 594 yds, 3 TDs, 11.0 YPC), as well as junior Chance Knox (29 rec, 264 yds, 2 TDs, 9.1 YPR) and senior Max Brimigion (24 rec, 253 yds, 1 TD, 10.5 YPR) forming what is a solid trio of receivers at Morgan’s disposal. Thomas is one of the top receiver’s in not only the Southern Conference, but also in FCS football, and he will have a bigger responsibility this season, as he will be the leading wideout with the departures of Jakob Herres and Michael Jackson.

Like Morgan, Thomas enjoyed his best performance of the 2021 season against Samford, as he hauled in nine catches for a season-high 143 yards. In his career so far, Thomas has 134 receptions for 1,367 yards and seven scores, averaging 9.9 YPR.

Thomas was one of four Keydets that garnered preseason second-team All-SoCon praise, with Aidan Twombly (18 rec, 180 yds, 1 TD) and offensive lineman Jarvis Chandler rounding out the preseason offensive selections. Getting Twombly more involved as a receiving threat as a tight end this fall will likely end up being a recipe for success for Wachenheim and his potent offense this fall.

Chandler helps anchor an offensive line that returns just two starters from a year ago. The unit, which primarily excels as a pass-blocking unit, also helped pave the way from running backs Hunter Rice (66 rush att, 289 yds, 7 TDs, 4.4 YPC), and Rashad Raymond (90 rush att, 492 yds, 3 TDs, 5.5 YPC) last season. Chandler will be joined along the offensive front as a starter by Marshall Gill, who is enters 2022 as a redshirt senior and started all 11 games at left tackle for VMI during the 2021 campaign.

Nick Reveiz was one of seven new coaching hires for the Keydets coming into the 2022 season, and he will succeed Tom Clark at defensive coordinator, following his resignation this past February. Defensively, a lack of size up front to generate pressure in a three-man or four-man front has been an issue at times even in current times as the program is undergoing a current run of success.

The 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).

The defense for the Keydets is an area head coach Scott Wachenheim hopes to see drastic improvement this season, and they will get a substantial test right out of the gate against what is a prolific Demon Deacons offense. With that said, there is reason for optimism on the defensive side of the football, and that optimism almost always starts with having one of the premier defensive players in all of FCS football returning, in linebacker Stone Snyder (120 tackles, 11.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 3 FRs). Other defensive returnees, like defensive lineman Eric Weaver (41 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 FFs, 1 FR, 1 pass defended) help with that overall optimism.

Snyder returns as a preseason first-team All-SoCon selection and is a contender for the Buck Buchanan Award. He highlights the second level of a defense that also returns spur linebacker/defensive back Aljareek Malry (60 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 INTs, 9 PBUs), as well as redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Christian Dunn (61 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 3 PBUs, 1 FR).

Two of four starters return in the Keydet secondary, with junior cornerback Alex Oliver (44 tackles, 2 INTs, 14 PBUs, 1 FF) returning as the top cover-corner for the Keydets, while junior Josh Knapp (82 tackles, 2 passes defended) started all 11 games for the Keydets last season.

Wake Forest was dealt quite the blow when it was learned early last month that Sam Hartman would be forced to miss an indefinite amount of time with an undisclosed health issue. Last season, Hartman was among the best quarterbacks in college football, and he led one of the nation’s most prolific offensive units.

In fact, the Demon Deacons completed the 2022 season with 574 total points becoming the first Demon Deacon offense in program history to finish a season by scoring over 500 points, averaging a school record 41.0 PPG. It also marked just the 20th ACC football team in the modern era (post-World War II) to surpass 500 points in season and finished seventh in league history in points in a single season.

Hartman’s numbers were outstanding in their own right. He completed the season completing 299-of-508 passes for 4,338 yards, with 39 touchdowns and 14 INTs. Hartman’s 72-career scoring strikes are a program record, surpassing Riley Skinner’s 60 career scoring tosses last season. Should he return at some point this season, Hartman needs only 497 yards passing to surpass Skinner’s school-record career passing yards mark of 9,762 yards, which was established from 2006-09.

Set to replace Hartman under center for the Demon Deacons Thursday night will be Mitch Griffis, who will be making his first-career start for the Demon Deacons. He’s thrown just 15 passes in his Wake Forest career, connecting on 4-of-15 throws for 56 yards, including a pair of touchdown passes.

His biggest offensive weapon also happens to be one of the premier wideouts in the ACC, in All-American wideout A.T. Perry (71 rec, 1,293 yds, 15 TDs, 18.2 YPR). Along with Perry, the Demon Deacons also have a reliable running back, in sophomore Justice Ellison (107 rush att, 541 yds, 7 TDs, 5.1 YPC), who started all 14 games for the Deacons last season.

Even though Griffis is starting for Wake Forest Thursday evening, its undeniable that he will be leading an offense that still is blessed with talent all over the place, with the return of eight starters from a year ago. The 41.0 PPG, the 468 yards of total offense, and the 307.4 passing yards per game all ranked fourth in the FBS last season.

The best news for VMI’s prolific offense is that Wake Forest’s defense wasn’t exactly one that would draw comparisons to Clemson or Georgia, as the Demon Deacons ranked 91st in the FBS, surrendering 413.3 YPG last season, while ranking 88th nationally in scoring defense (28.9 PPG). A total of six starters are back on the defensive side of the football, which will be led by a new defensive coordinator, in Brad Lambert, who served as the defensive coordinator of the Demon Deacons from 2001-10, helping Wake Forest produce five winning seasons in that span. Lambert returns to Winston-Salem from West Lafayette, IN, where he was the Boilermakers’ co-Defensive coordinator. Lambert also has some head coaching experience, logging seven years as Charlotte’s first-ever college football coach from 2011-18.

While the Demon Deacons struggled to stop foes, they were pretty effective at turning foes over, finishing the season by creating 29 turnovers, sporting an impressive +9 turnover margin. A big reason for that success has much to do with defensive backs Nick Anderson (44 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBUs) and Caelen Carson (31 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 INTs), who are among the ACC’s best. The leading returning tackler is Ryan Smenda Jr (83 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 PBUs, 3 FFs), who anchors the Demon Deacon defense at linebacker.

Interestingly enough, VMI and Wake Forest did battle on Dec. 14, 2021, on the college basketball hardwood, with the Demon Deacons overcoming a 13-point halftime deficit to come away with a thrilling 77-70 win over the Keydets.

While I don’t see the Demon Deacons having to do that Thursday night, I do think this game will be closer than the experts think because of VMI’s ability to score point and the inexperience of Griffis under center.

Final Score Prediction: Wake Forest 38, VMI 21

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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