Furman at Samford (Southern Conference Game of The Week)
Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012, 4:30 p.m. EST
Seibert Stadium (6,700 capacity)
Overview: It's been seven years to the day since Furman began a football season in Dixie, battling Jacksonville State on that memorable Thursday night. The second-ranked Paladins left the outcome to be decided in the waning moments by University of Florida transfer quarterback Ingle Martin, who connected with senior wideout Josh Stepp on a slant pattern as time expired to come away with a 37-35 win.
On Saturday afternoon, Furman will once again make the trip to America's Heartland to take on Samford. Furman and Samford will face off in a huge Southern Conference tilt to open the 2012 season.
It will mark the second-straight season Samford has begun a season with a Southern Conference game, while marking the first time since the 2003 campaign that the Paladins have begun a campaign with a Southern Conference game. The Paladins haven't opened a season with a road Southern Conference tilt since a 7-0 loss at VMI in 1974.
When Furman and Samford kick the season off at Seibert Stadium on Saturday afternoon, it will mark the 15th all-time meeting between the two programs, with Furman holding a narrow 8-6 series edge.
Last season, Samford was able to come to Greenville and pull off a 26-21 win at Paladin Stadium. The victory snapped a string of seven-straight wins in the series by the Paladins, dating back to the 1969 season. The 26-21 win by the Bulldogs also marked the first win by the Bulldogs over the Paladins in their fourth season as a league member.
Since Samford joined the SoCon in 2008, only one of the four meetings has been decided by more than five points, and two of the meetings have been separated by just a single point. It's becoming one of the more exciting SoCon tilts each season, with many similarities shared between the two programs.
One of the storylines heading into Saturday afternoon's contest will be the health of Samford head coach Pat Sullivan, who has been battling pneumonia this week. Sullivan took some time away from his team this week in an effort to get well for Saturday's opener.
Sullivan, who is one of the classiest coaches in all of Division I football, won the Heisman Trophy as a quarterback during his playing days at Auburn. I think I speak for the entire Bleacher Report staff by wishing the coach of the Bulldogs well.
We all hope to see him on the sidelines leading Samford on Saturday afternoon against the Paladins.
Preview: The Offenses
Furman and Samford will be in similar situations when they open the 2012 season against each other on Saturday: both the Paladins and Bulldogs will be breaking in new quarterbacks.
Furman has to replace first-team All-SoCon signal-caller Chris Forcier, while Samford will be looking to replace the school's second all-time leading passer, Dustin Taliaferro.
Samford will likely employ the services of two quarterbacks, as both Memphis transfer Andy Summelin and junior Ben Neill have been unable to separate themselves during spring and preseason camps. Expect Summerlin to get the start under center, although the 6'4", 225-pound senior has only limited college game experience.
Summerlin sat out the 2011 season with an injury. In 2010 at Memphis, Summerlin completed 45-of-94 passes for 469 yards, as he saw action in five games for the Tigers. Summerlin has looked good all spring, and he has a big arm and a good understanding of the Samford offense.
Much like Summerlin, Neill has also acquitted himself well, and the 5'11", 180-pound native of Decatur, AL, might not have the size of Summerlin, but he does have a good arm and is a more mobile quarterback. Also, like Summerlin, the junior signal-caller lacks much game experience, completing 13-of-18 passes for 146 yards and a TD last season while seeing action in three games.
Plenty of experienced talent returns at the skill positions for the Bulldogs for the 2012 season, which could make this offense scary good when Summerlin gets a feel for the attack. The Bulldogs are coming off a 2011 season which saw them rank 36th nationally in total offense (391.3 YPG), 43rd in scoring offense (28.3 PPG), 45th in pass offense (225.0 YPG) and 45th in rush offense (166.3 YPG).
One area that many Samford fans thought might see more of a drop-off in last season was the ground game, which endured the loss of the school's all-time leading rusher, Chris Evans. Evans became one of only a handful of players in FCS history to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons.
The Bulldogs replaced Evans' production with Fabian Truss (150 rush, 847 yds, 7 TDs, 5.6 YPC). In his first season as a full-time starter, all Truss did was garner second-team All-SoCon accolades, and earned first-team honors as a kick return specialist, which included an 82-yard return for a score against Stillman last fall.
Until a late-season injury, Truss was among the national leaders in all-purpose yards, completing the season with 1,774, which led the SoCon. In addition to his prowess as a rush and kick-return threat last season, Truss also proved he could catch the football coming out of the backfield. He hauled in 23 passes for 137 yards.
Truss had one of his best games against the Paladins, finishing the 26-21 win with 136 yards on 26 carries.
But as good as Truss is, the top threats for the Samford offense entering the 2012 season will be its wide receiving corps, which should be among the best in the SoCon and FCS this fall. The leader of this talented, experienced unit will be Kelsey Pope (86 rec, 810 yds, 6 TDs, 9.4 YPR), who will enter the season as a first-team All-SoCon selection has been a member of a couple of All-America teams entering the 2012 season.
Pope, a 6-0, 200-pound native of Sycauga, AL, has good speed and a great pair of hands, coming off a 2011 season which saw him lead the team and rank second in the SoCon with 86 receptions.
Pope enjoyed his best outing of the 2012 season against Gardner-Webb, with six catches for 125 yards and a TD. Against the Paladins, Pope hauled in eight passes for 104 yards and a score, while catching a season-high 10 balls for 82 yards in a home loss to Chattanooga. He set a school record for single-game receptions (17) in the SoCon finale win at The Citadel.
Pope was a multi-threat for Samford last fall as well—he rushed 33 times for 175 yards and four TDs, while completing 4-of-6 passes for 66 yards and a score last season. Pope played quarterback in high school, and was one of the top athletes in the state in the 2010 recruiting class. He has 114 catches for 1,044 yards (9.2 YPR) and six TDs so far in his Samford career.
The veteran of the Samford receiving corps this fall will be redshirt senior Riley Hawkins (37 rec, 472 yds, 2 TDs, 12.8 YPR). Hawkins has been a starter for the Bulldogs in each of his three active seasons, and has proven that he will be a vital part of the Samford passing attack this fall.
Hawkins has been a significant piece of the Samford passing game in his three seasons, as he has been able to haul in 96 passes for 1,576 yards and 10 TDs, averaging 16.4 YPR for his career. He had his best outing of the 2011 season against Elon, hauling in eight passes for 89 yards in the win over the Phoenix. He also had four catches for 72 yards, including a 9-yard scoring reception, against the Mountaineers of West Virginia.
Chris Cephus (25 rec, 339 yds, 4 TDs, 13.6 YPR) will complete the trio of wide receivers set to start this fall for the Bulldogs. The 6-2, 215-pound native of East Dublin, GA, combines great athleticism and power. He has above average speed, making him a downfield threat, but, with his size, also has great ability as an extra perimeter blocker for the Samford ground game.
Cephus had a solid effort against the Paladins last season, hauling in three passes for 55 yards, which included a 6-yard scoring catch in the 26-21 road win. He had his best performance of the 2011 campaign against Appalachian State, with six receptions for 89 yards, including a 32-yard scoring pass in the fourth quarter of the 35-17 loss in Boone.
Rounding out the receiving options for the Bulldogs heading into the season and SoCon opener against the Paladins is redshirt sophomore tight end Sidney Jordan (1 rec, 9 yds). Jordan will be filling one of the few positional losses due to graduation from a year ago, as he will be replacing Daniel Diamond at tight end this fall for Samford.
This has been one of the focuses of the preseason for the Bulldogs, as the tight end position is one of the key elements of Samford's spread offense. Jordan did see action in all nine games for the Bulldogs last season.
One of the strengths of the Samford offense in 2012 should be the offensive line, as the Bulldogs welcome the return of four starters from a unit that proved to be one of the better O-lines in the SoCon last season.
Returning to anchor the unit this fall will be center Ryan Dudchock, who started all 11 games for the Bulldogs last fall, and was certainly one of the leaders of the unit. Jacob Kirschenbaum (RG), Branden Moore (LT) and Charlie Sanford (RT) round out the returning starters along the unit this fall.
The lone new starter in 2012 will be Kasey Morrison at left guard, who will replace Joe Collins. Sanford and Kirschenbaum, who are both experienced performers in their own right, will have a chance to garner All-SoCon recognition at season's end.
Switching gears, Furman will have a lot more question marks on the offensive side of the football entering the opening week matchup than the Bulldogs will. The Paladins return only six starters on the offensive side of the ball, including first-team All-SoCon signal-caller Chris Forcier, who was simply sensational for head coach Bruce Fowler in his first season at the helm in 2011.
Statistically speaking, Furman finished the 2011 season ranking 39th in the FCS in total offense (389.4 YPG), 48th in passing offense (222.5 YPG), 42nd in rushing offense (166.8 YPG) and 28th nationally in sacks allowed (1.36 SPG).
Taking the reins of the Furman offense in the season opener in Birmingham will be senior Dakota Derrick (8-of-17 passing, 104 yds, 1 TD, 0 INTs/10 rush att, 34 yds, 1 TD in 2011 ). The 6-4, 222-pound native of Conway, S.C., pushed Forcier for the starting job for the entirety of spring camp last season, until Forcier was finally able to win the job in the final week of competition.
Though he hasn't seen all that much action in his collegiate career, Derrick has been effective in leading the Furman offense when he has been in the lineup. He is 1-1 as a starting quarterback, with both starts coming in his sophomore season of 2010. In total, Derrick has seen action in 12 games in his previous three seasons as a Paladin QB, including six last fall.
Derrick has been effective as both a passing and a rushing threat in his Furman career. As a passer, he has completed 28-of-58 passes for 300 yards, with three TDs and an INT, while rushing for 251 yards and three scores on 40 attempts (6.3 YPC) in his career.
Though he has deceptive speed, Derrick's most effective weapon is his cannon-like arm. He is in some ways a better passer than Forcier was, and certainly has a stronger arm. The only area in which he might not measure up in comparison to his predecessor as a passer is with his accuracy. However, the difference likely won't be all that noticeable to the casual fan.
Obviously, Derrick will not offer the same type of threat on the ground as Forcier did, but he is not scared to tuck the ball and run it if the occasion calls for it.
Arguably the best weapon returning on the offensive side of the ball for the Paladins in 2012 is All-SoCon running back Jerodis Williams (199 rush att, 1,055 yds, 9 TDs, 5.3 YPC). The 5'11," 208-pound senior from Prattville, AL, became the first Paladin to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season since Hindley Brigham last accomplished the feat for the Paladins back during the 2003 season.
Williams' performance last season restored the Paladin faithful's confidence in their ability to run the football, especially in short-yardage situations, which had been lost in recent seasons. Williams enjoyed several strong rushing performances last fall, including rushing for a career-high 175 yards and a TD in a 47-21 road win at Western Carolina. It was one of five occasions in which Williams eclipsed the century mark in rushing last fall.
In fact, his 175-yard rushing effort against Western Carolina last fall were the most yards gained on the ground by a Furman running back since Louis Ivory went for 176 yards in a 47-28 Paladin win over PC in the 2001 regular-season finale. Samford's defense had the ancedote against Williams last season, limiting the All-SoCon running back to season-low 25 yards on 10 rush attempts in the Bulldogs' five-point road triumph last October.
Williams is also an effective receiving threat out of the backfield, catching nine passes for 60 yards last fall. He needs just 73 yards to eclipse the 2,000-yard plateau for his Paladin career.
Teaming with Williams to give Furman one of the top one-two punches in the offensive backfield in the SoCon entering the 2012 campaign will be sophomore Hank McCloud (58 rush att, 241 yds, 1 TD). McCloud has good size and deceptive power for a somewhat diminutive running back. McCloud turned in his best effort of the 2011 season in the 47-21 win at Western Carolina, as he posted 61 yards on 12 carries. He also posted three receptions for 37 yards in 2011.
One of the positions hardest hit by graduation on the offensive side of the football for the Paladins was wide receiver, with the loss due to graduation of two of the Paladins' top four pass-catchers from a year ago—Sederrik Cunningham and Tyler Maples. Maples and Cunningham combined to haul in 55 passes for 923 yards and seven TDs last season.
The good news is Furman returns a preseason first-team All-American to its ledger of receiving threats this fall, senior tight end Colin Anderson (40 rec, 696 yds, 7 TDs, 17.4 YPR).
No doubt Anderson was a key cog in the Paladin offense last season, and the former high school quarterback will again be one of the key pieces to the Furman offensive puzzle this fall.
Anderson is not only a reliable, big target, he is also extremely athletic. He is the first tight end to lead the Paladins in overall receiving since 1996, when Luther Broughton was the Paladins' main threat in the passing game. In his previous three seasons combined, the former high school quarterback from Dallas, Texas, has hauled in 60 passes for 1,043 yards and 11 TDs.
Anderson's 11 TD receptions in three seasons are the most ever by a Furman tight end, surpassing former great Brette Simmons' 10-career TD catches from 1974-78. Anderson is also within striking distance of Furman's all-time receiving yards mark for a Furman tight end, which is also currently held by Broughton, who finished his four years in the Purple and White with 1,565 yards receiving.
Anderson needs 523 yards receiving this fall to set a new all-time mark. His seven TD grabs in a single season last fall tied for sixth all-time for TD grabs in a single-season by a receiver.
Anderson also threw a TD pass on a double-pass in the season finale loss at Florida. His TD pass was a 47-yard strike to a wide-open Cunningham, who had gotten behind the Florida secondary for the easy score.
Anderson turned in a solid performance against Samford last fall, as he led the Paladins' receiving efforts with nine catches for 110 yards and a TD in the 26-21 setback.
When Furman is not looking to Anderson, the Paladins will no doubt be looking to Ryan Culbreath (18 rec, 265 yds, 2 TDs, 14.7 YPR) and Will King (3 rec, 36 yds, 1 TD, 12.0 YPR). Culbreath brings NFL size to the Furman receiving corps. He will enter his second season as the starter at split end for the Paladins.
Culbreath served as a great blocking presence on the perimeter for the Paladins last season, and he also proved what a valuable asset he could be as a wide receiver, hauling in four passes for 62 yards and a TD in his signature performance of the season, which was a 41-34 loss to Elon.
One of the real surprises during the final portion of the 2011 season was walk-on Will King, who has now worked his way into the starting lineup for the Paladins this fall. The 6-0, 180-pound senior from Rock Hill, S.C., is a good athlete and is blessed with some of the best hands in the wide receiving corps.
Like Anderson, King spent his prep career under center as a quarterback and now has become one of the most reliable pass-catchers and blockers in the Furman receiving corps. He will start at flanker for the Paladins in the season opener against Samford.
Rounding out the starters at wide receiver for the Paladins will either be senior Daniel McFadden (8 rec, 180 yds, 2 TDs, 22.5 YPR) or freshman Jordan Snellings, as both are vying for the right to start at slot receiver for the Paladins in 2012.
McFadden, a 6-2, 198-pound native of Daytona, FL, sports tremendous speed and has shown the potential to be an explosive big-play threat at times throughout his career. Both of his scoring catches came in the 62-21 win over Presbyterian, covering 39 and 20 yards, respectively. He had a season-long 61-yard reception in the 41-34 loss to Elon.
Snellings, a 6-2, 185-pound redshirt freshman from the Marist School in Atlanta, GA, has proven to be one of the most impressive receivers on the Paladin roster since his arrival on campus last fall. Snellings garnered all-conference honors in his senior season, hauling in 24 passes for 337 yards and three TDs in 2010.
The offensive line returns three starters for the 2012 season, but the losses were substantial along the offensive line, with the graduation of left guard Ryan Lee and a four-year starter at center in Daniel Spisak. Depth is a huge question mark entering the 2012 season, and the two starters that must be replaced along the offensive front could be former walk-ons.
Furman left tackle Dakota Dozier was a Second-Team All-Southern Conference selection last season. The current coaching staff has said that he has the potential to be one of the best to ever suit up along the offensive line for Furman. The 6-4, 291-pound product of West Columbia, S.C., started all 11 games for the Paladins last season, and has great feet and overall athleticism.
Joining Dozier in all-conference recognition last season was redshirt freshman Charles Emert, who garnered SoCon All-Freshman team accolades after starting at various positions along the offensive front last season, the majority of those starting assignments coming in four starts at left guard. The Statesboro, Ga., native showed his versatility by also logging starts at right tackle last fall.
Rounding out the returning starters along the offensive line for the Paladins heading into the 2012 season will be Ryan Storms, who will likely enter preseason camp as the starter at right guard entering fall camp. Storms has garnered starts in 12 games out of the 16 he has played in his career.
Penciled as the two starters at left guard and center heading into the season opener are former walk-ons Eric Thoni at center and Tank Phillips at left guard. Both have had solid spring and fall camps, and will be relied upon to fill some pretty big roles along the Paladin offensive front this season, especially Thoni, who will be stepping into a position that has been occupied each of the three previous seasons by a polished veteran in Spisak.
Preview: The Defenses
The Samford defense welcomes the return of six starters from a unit that completed the 2011 season ranked 65th nationally in total defense (356.5 YPG), 101st in rush defense (193.5 YPG), 13th in pass defense (172.1 YPG), 97th in sacks (16.0 sacks, 1.45 SPG) and scoring defense (24.8 PPG).
The biggest strength of this Samford defense heading into the 2012 season appears to be linebacker play, as the unit returns two veterans from a year ago in Keith Shoulders (61 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1 INT) and Darion Sutton (56 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2 INTs).
Shoulders, a 6-1, 236-pound senior from Tanner, AL, will find himself starting at middle linebacker this fall. He is coming off a campaign in which he started all 11 games for the Bulldogs last fall. Shoulders enjoyed his best game of the season against Appalachian State, recording a season-high eight stops in a 35-17 setback. Shoulders also recorded seven tackles in wins over Furman and Gardner-Webb.
Sutton will be set to start at the weakside linebacker position for the Bulldogs heading into the 2012 season. The 6-2, 235-pound senior from Columbiana, AL, joined his mate Shoulders in starting all 11 games for the Bulldogs last season. One of Sutton's best performances came in a win over Elon, recording six solo tackles and one of his two INTs on the season. In the SoCon finale at The Citadel, Sutton recorded a season-high eight stops and a key fumble recovery in the 14-10 road win.
Rounding out the trio of expected starters at linebacker heading into the 2012 season for the Bulldogs will be strong side linebacker Durrell Hill (49 tackles, 4 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 2 PBUs, 1 FF).
Hill, a 6-2, 238-pound senior from Oxford, AL, is another experienced, big and powerful linebacker returning for Pat Sullivan's Bulldogs this fall. Last season, Hill saw action in all 11 games, including nine starts. Hill enjoyed his top performance of last season in the season opener against Georgia Southern. He recorded seven tackles, including six of the solo variety, along with a tackle-for-loss in the 35-17 loss.
A few weeks later, in a 38-23 road loss at Wofford, Hill equaled that total of seven tackles and a TFL. He also registered a season-high seven stops in the regular-season finale, a loss at Auburn.
Another strength of this Samford defense in 2012 should be its secondary, which returns two of four starters from a unit that helped the Bulldogs boast one of the nation's top aerial defenses a year ago, helping the Bulldogs rank 13th nationally in pass defense. The biggest question mark is obviously at cornerback, where the Bulldogs must replace Corey White—a fifth-round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints this fall.
The top player in the secondary for Samford this fall will be Alvin Hines II (66 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 9 PBUs, 3 INTs) at strong safety. The 6-1, 217-pound junior is one of the top safeties in the FCS and he enters the campaign as a First-Team All-SoCon selection. He was able to lead the Bulldogs in tackles last fall with 66.
Hines II came up big in several games last fall for the Bulldogs last season, including the big 26-21 win at Furman. In that contest, Hines II recorded nine tackles and a crucial INT. Hines II also posted a season-high 10-tackle performance—alll solo—in the 35-17 road loss at Appalachian State. He also started all 11 games in the secondary for the Bulldogs last season.
Teaming with Hines II at safety in 2012 will be free safety Jaquiski Tartt (23 tackles). Tartt will be in his first season as a starter in the Samford secondary. The redshirt selection saw action in 10 contests for the Bulldogs last season. In those 10 contests, he tallied 23 tackles, including 20 solo stops.
Set to man the two cornerback positions for the Bulldogs in 2012 will be a veteran tandem in Justin Sly (7 tackles, 2 PBUs) and Tae Lewis (20 tackles, 2 PBUs).
Sly, a 5'11", 195-pound senior from Hoover, AL, will be asked to fill some incredibly large shoes, replacing Corey White at the right cornerback position this fall. All White did was establish himself as one of the premier cover corners in the FCS last season, completing the 2011 season with 58 tackles and finishing second in the SoCon with four INTs last fall.
Sly has good speed, strength and will, and has shown the ability to hold his own against the experienced, talented Samford wideouts during spring and fall camp.
Lewis will start at the other cornerback position. The 5'11", 194-pound native of Columbiana, AL, logged action in all 11 games last fall, which included six starts. He turned in one of his top performances of the season and of his career against Furman, registering a season-high six tackles, including four solo stops, in the win over the Paladins. He brings good speed and physical skills to the position, and he is probably one of the more underrated players on this Samford defense heading into the 2012 season.
The area that looks to be most like a concern heading into the 2012 season on the defensive side of the football for the Bulldogs is the defensive line. Gone are three of four starters from a year ago, including the anchor of that unit, Austin Hayes, who garnered All-SoCon accolades after leading the Bulldogs with 12.0 TFLs and five sacks last fall.
The lone returning starter along the defensive front from a year ago will be Nicholas Williams (23 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks), who at 6'4", 310 pounds, will present quite a formidable force on the interior of the Samford defense.
Williams started all 11 games for the Bulldogs along the defensive front last fall. He enjoyed his top performance of the season against both Georgia Southern and Western Carolina, recording four tackles apiece in each of those respective contests.
Lining up alongside Williams at nose guard will be sophomore Jerry Mathis (18 tackles). Mathis will be in his first season as a starter along the defensive front for the Bulldogs, and like his teammate on the interior Williams, Mathis brings good size and strength to the position, at 6'3," 292 pounds.
Mathis did see action in all 11 games as a reserve along the Samford defensive front last season, enjoying his top performance of the season in the SoCon finale win over The Citadel, with four tackles.
Set to man the defensive end positions for Samford heading into the season opener against the Paladins will be Aaron Bethune (21 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FR) and Brandon Wilkinson (7 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FR).
Bethune completed the 2011 season tied for second on the team in both sacks and tackles-for-loss. The 6-3, 260-pound product of Opeilika, AL, will be the player looked to pick up most of the pass-rushing slack after the graduation of Hayes.
Bethune saw action in all 11 games for Samford last fall, which included one start. He registered his top performance of the campaign against Gardner-Webb, recording seven tackles, including six solo stops.
Wilkinson is the least experienced Bulldog among the starting quartet slated to take the field against Paladins on Saturday. The 6'3", 212-pound redshirt sophomore from Venice, FL, did manage to log action in nine contests as a reserve last season for Samford. He had a couple of tackles and a fumble recovery in the regular-season finale, a 35-17 loss at Auburn.
There is much expectation surrounding Wilkinson's presence as a starter along the defensive front, as he was rated the No. 54 defensive end in the country according to Scout.com's 2010 rankings.
Overall, the Samford defense should be one that develops as the season progresses. This unit will have to rely on a strong linebacking corps and safety tandem, as the Bulldogs get their footing under them early in the season along the defensive line and at cornerback.
With some younger players developing experience and role responsibilities along the way, this Bulldog defense might be one of the surprises in the SoCon by season's end.
For Furman, the 2012 season presents an opportunity to get even closer to the tradition-rich roots they have established as one of the top defensive clubs in the SoCon and FCS.
Prior to Fowler's arrival last fall, Furman was struggling to regain that footing as a major force on the defensive side in the SoCon, a position that they had enjoyed so many times in the past under former coaching legends Bobby Johnson, Jimmy Satterfield and Dick Sheridan.
But Fowler—Johnson's defensive coordinator at both Furman and Vanderbilt-—has begin to once again lay a foundation that should ensure Furman's defensive success in the very near future, if not the 2012 season. The seeds of that turnaround were planted last season, as the Paladins did several things well, including leading the SoCon in turnover margin (+0.82), and ranking fourth in the league in sacks (1.82 SPG).
That Paladins nearly tripled their meager eight sack total from the previous campaign, completing the 2011 season with 21 sacks in 2012.
In total, the Paladins completed the 2011 season ranking 74th nationally in total defense (374.4 YPG), 33rd in pass defense (193.6 YPG), 93rd in rush defense (180.8 YPG), 57th in scoring defense (26.0 PPG) and 20th in turnover margin (+0.82).
While eight starters return on the defensive side of the ball for the Paladins, there's no dancing around the fact that the Paladins must replace its two top defensive players from last fall, with the graduation of All-American cornerback Ryan Steed and All-SoCon LB Kadarron Anderson.
Many feel the strength of this Furman defense this fall will be its defensive line, and the Paladins may very well have one of the top defensive end tandems in the Southern Conference returning for the 2012 season in senior all-league performer Josh Lynn (49 tackles, 10.5 TFLs, 5.0 sacks) and talented junior bookend Shawn Boone (27 tackles, 4.0 TFLs, 3.0 sacks, 1 PBU).
Lynn, a 6'4", 264-pound native of Fort Lawn, S.C., completed the 2011 season garnering second team All-Southern Conference honors, and he was instrumental in his role of helping the Paladins improve its pass-rush last fall. Lynn had one of his best performances of the 2011 season against Western Carolina, posting five stops, including two sacks in the 47-21 road win by the Paladins.
While Lynn gets most of the hype, it might be Shawn Boone that actually ends up having the bigger season, with Lynn drawing so much attention. The 6'2", 233-pound native of Lithia, FL, is one of the best athletes on the defensive side of the football for the Paladins. He started all 11 games for the Paladins last fall, recording his top performance in the season opener, as he registered six tackles, two tackles-for-loss and a sack in the 30-23 road loss.
Lining up to start on the defensive interior for the Paladins this fall will be Neal Rodgers (21 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 0.5 sack) and Colton Keig (32 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1 FR). Rodgers and Keig are two veterans that are poised to be difference-makers on the defensive interior for the Paladins this fall.
Both are a bit undersized, but both provide veteran leadership along the defensive front for Furman.
The Paladins must fill an enormous hole at middle linebacker, with the graduation of Kadarron Anderson, and also must replace a solid, talented weakside linebacker, Chris Wiley.
However, there is plenty of optimism for what returns to the unit this fall, as All-SoCon strongside linebacker Mitch McGrath (87 tackles, 13.5 TFLs, 4.0 sacks, 4 INTs, 3 FFs, 1 FR) returns as one of the key pillars of the Furman defense this fall. McGrath was arguably Furman's defensive MVP last season, despite playing somewhat in the shadows of his more heralded teammates, Steed and Anderson.
McGrath's athleticism and physicality on the defensive side of the football last season was part of the defensive attitude that Furman exhibited throughout the Bobby Johnson era and in the first few seasons of the Bobby Lamb era.
His bone-jarring hits were a constant reminder of the attempt at regaining respect. McGrath will no doubt enter the campaign as an all-conference selection and potential All-America candidate.
It was McGrath's performance in a 14-7 win at Chattanooga that nearly single-handedly won the tough road contest and earned him Sports Network National Player of the Week plaudits. All McGrath did was tally nine tackles, four sacks, an INT, force a fumble and recover a fumble in the seven point road win.
Matt Solomon (22 tackles, 1.5 TFLs) has been strong during the spring and preseason, and has had maybe the best preseason camp of any Paladin defender. A solid reserve for three seasons behind Anderson and former Paladin standout middle linebacker Andrew Jones, Solomon will finally get his chance to make a name for himself in the middle of the Furman defense.
In his only start last season against Florida in the regular-season finale, Solomon had a career afternoon, registering a career-best 10 tackles , 2.0 TFL, and forcing a fumble in the outstanding performance.
Talented sophomore Gary Wilkins (46 tackles, 0.5 TFLs, 1 BLK), will round out the front seven for the Paladins, replacing Chris Wiley at the weakside LB position. Many think Wilkins is one of the best athletes on the defensive side of the ball for the Paladins.
Wilkins saw significant action in his redshirt freshman campaign for the Paladins, and was a significant role player on special teams as well, using his leaping ability to affect punts, and even recording a partially blocked punt in the season-opener against Coastal Carolina. His 46 tackles were good enough to rank Wilkins sixth on the tackles ledger last season.
No doubt the secondary was a strength for the Paladins last season, but they must replace the headliner of that unit from a year ago, having to fill the enormous void left by the graduation of one of the top corners in school history, Ryan Steed.
While the Paladins lose Steed, they welcome back a pair of all-conference safeties, which might also be one of the top tandems in all of FCS football heading into the 2012 season. Free safety Nathan Wade (75 tackles, 5.0 TFLs, 1 FR, 3 PBUs) and strong safety Greg Worthy (80 tackles, 2.0 TFLs, 3 INTs, 3 PBUs) made life scary for Samford wide receivers last fall, as Samford fans know all-too-well.
Few will forget the vicious blows dished out by Wade and Worthy in that game, with Worthy's hit on Jauan Davis and Wade's nasty hit on Hawkins, which ended his afternoon prematurely.
Rounding out the starters on the Furman defense heading into the season opener will be senior speedster Cortez Johnson (11 tackles, 1 FR) at one cornerback position, while Derrick Murray (23 tackles, 1 INT) will start at the other CB position.
Johnson replaces Steed at CB, and while he might not come into the season with the overall talent of his predecessor, he will have one thing on Steed—speed.
Johnson can flat out fly. He is possibly the fastest player on the roster, and a player that has recorded a 4.30 time in the 40-yard dash.
A Potential Key
If this game comes down to a field goal, which it very well might, the advantage would have to go to Samford, who brings back the best place-kicker in the SoCon, and one of the best in the country, in senior Cameron Yaw (23-of-28 on FGs, 32-of-33 PAT). While Yaw is a great kicker, Fabian Truss was oftentimes able to put the Bulldogs in outstanding position with his league-leading 29.3 yards per kick return last season.
Furman counters with place-kicker Ray Early (2-of-6 FGs, 14-of-19 PATs), who after an outstanding true freshman campaign in 2010, which included a career-long 52-yard field goal in Furman's 27-10 win in its last trip to Samford, struggled to maintain his starting job last season due to lack of consistency. However, strong spring and preseason camps have the junior focused on reclaiming his All-SoCon status this fall, as he is now firmly established as the FU starter.
Furman O-Line vs. Samford D-Line (Advantage Samford)
Samford O-Line vs. Furman D-Line (Advantage Furman)
Samford WRs vs. Furman DBs (Slight Advantage Samford)
Furman WRs vs. Samford DBs (Slight Advantage Furman)
Furman LBs or Samford LBs (Push)
RB Jerodis Williams or RB Fabian Truss (Slight Advantage Williams)
QB Andy Summerlin or QB Dakota Derrick (Push)
PK Cameron Yaw or PK Ray Early (Slight Advantage Yaw)
On paper, this one shapes up to be a great game. Three of the last four games between the two have been decided by five points or less. After Saturday's game, it will be four of the past five. This game will come down to who makes less mistakes, plain and simple. The reason Furman wins this one is it proved it could make those jarring hits and key INTs when it needed to last season, on most occasions. Furman wins a close one, and look for part of that opportunistic safety tandem of Worthy and Wade to have something to say about forcing that key turnover at a critical moment on Saturday.