Furman vs. Western Carolina: The Paladins' Future Is in Reese Hannon's Arm

John Hooper@soconjohn22Correspondent IISeptember 29, 2012

Furman True Freshman Signal-Caller Reese Hannon Leads Paladins Against Western Carolina On Saturday
Furman True Freshman Signal-Caller Reese Hannon Leads Paladins Against Western Carolina On Saturday

Furman has seen its share of great quarterbacks. When you think of some of those 12 Southern Conference-title seasons, it's easy to recall some of the greatest to ever don the Purple and White, as names like Lamb, DeBusk, Hill, Napier and Martin are among the pantheon of greats to come through the program.

Furman may now be fashioning its newest member of that Quarterback Mount Rushmore in true freshman Reese Hannon. Through two-and-a-half games, Hannon has caught the attention of Furman and SoCon football fans.

The 6'1", 192-pound product of Greer (S.C.) High School has completed 58-of-90 passes for 707 yards and five TDs, while being intercepted only once. Heading into Saturday's game against Western Carolina, Hannon has completed 64.4 percent of his throws through his first six quarters as a Division I quarterback.

It was probably hard for many fans to get a gauge on Hannon in his first game, as he took the field late in the second quarter of Furman's 47-45 triple overtime loss to Coastal Carolina, replacing injured senior starter Dakota Derrick.

Furman would score TDs on its last six possessions in the overtime loss, and a star was born in the disappointment of a stormy, rainy evening at Paladin Stadium.

Furman fans might have even looked to the heavens on that evening to know that something was different, as a picturesque rainbow appeared in an otherwise gray September sky just about the time Hannon was engineering 13 Paladin points in a little less than four minutes to nearly help the Paladins pull off a miracle comeback.

But while it may have been hard to know what to make of Hannon's 22-of-35, 255-yard and four-TD performance, it was clear that Hannon was a different breed of quarterback a week later, as the Paladins took on No. 11 Clemson on what was to be a coronation of Sammy Watkins upon his return  in front of 81,500.

Hannon led Furman 63 yards on 13 plays on the opening possession of the game,  a drive that included completions on his first five passing attempts. Though Furman's fake field goal resulted in a pass being intercepted in the end zone, it was clear the Paladins had found their quarterback in Hannon.

What true freshman comes into a game seemingly unfazed against the FBS' No. 11 team, and one that many believed was the best Clemson team in quite some time, but one that has been groomed for such a stage.

Hannon, who grew up a Clemson fan, did extremely well against the Tigers considering the Paladins were vastly overmatched. He connected on 19-of-29 throws for 235 yards, with a TD and an interception in the 41-7 loss.

Making just his second start this past Saturday against Presbyterian, Hannon led Furman to scores on four of its six possessions in the opening half, as the Paladins led 24-0 lead at the half and were able to hold on for a 31-21 win, the first of what many feel will be many for Hannon.

Hannon didn't throw a TD pass, but still put up solid numbers, completing 17-of-26 passes for 217 yards without an interception. Among Southern Conference quarterbacks, his 235.7 passing yards per game trails only Appalachian State's Jamal Jackson.

Hannon's poise, accuracy, pocket awareness and arm strength are all superior to what most would expect of a true freshman. Hannon comes from great stock, as his cousin, Justin Hill, was also a Greenville product, leading the Paladins to the 1999 Southern Conference title.

Hill had a similar path to success at Furman. He starred as a quarterback at Greer High School and was the Shrine Bowl MVP in 1996, completing 7-of-13 passes for 199 yards and two TDs in leading South Carolina to a 30-10 win over North Carolina.

Hannon, who was a finalist for "Mr. Football" in the state and also garnered All-State honors after leading Greer to a 9-2 record and a Region 3 Championship, passed for 2,200 yards and 18 TDs in his senior season, and rushed for 500 yards.

Hannon is the first first-year quarterback to pass for 200 or more yards in his first three games for Furman in recent memory. Even greats like Ingle Martin or 2011 First-Team All-SoCon quarterback Chris Forcier didn't accomplish such a feat.

With so much success through the early going, Hannon will experience another first on Saturday, as Furman faces Western Carolina in a crucial Southern Conference game at Paladin Stadium in Greenville.

It will mark Hannon's first start in a Southern Conference game.

Here is a preview of the game.

Western Carolina (1-3, 0-2 SoCon) at Furman (1-3, 0-1 SoCon)

When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m.

Where: Greenville, S.C., Paladin Stadium (16,000)

Overview: When Western Carolina heads to Greenville to face the Paladins, the Catamounts will be looking to claim their first win at Furman since 1994, when they won 35-24.

Since losing to Western in 1994, Furman has won 16 of the last 18 meetings in the series and lead the all-time series 27-10-2. One of the more memorable meetings for Catamount fans was the 1983 clash in the Division I-AA semifinals, which saw the Catamounts pick up a hard-fought 14-7 win in Greenville. Furman managed to post a 47-21 in Cullowhee last fall.

The Catamounts are coming off a heartbreaking, 25-21 loss at Samford, while Furman posted its first win of the season last Saturday, topping Presbyterian 31-21.

The Catamounts will looking to put an end to a couple of streaks. They have lost six straight to the Paladins, dating back to a 41-21 win over a No. 2-ranked Furman team in Cullowhee in 2005. The Catamounts will also be looking to snap a streak of 16-straight Southern Conference losses, dating back to a win at The Citadel in October 2010.

The teams feature two of the league's newest head coaches. Both Western Carolina's Mark Speir and Furman's Bruce Fowler were once assistant coaches at the schools where they now coach.

Speir, who served as the running backs coach, recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach during an eight-year stint at Appalachian State (2003-2011), coached at Western Carolina back in the early to mid 1990s, serving as an assistant under Steve Hodgin.

Fowler, who is in his second year as the Paladins' head coach, served for 18 years as a running backs coach and defensive coordinator (1983-2001) at Furman before moving on to Vanderbilt, where he coached for eight years (2002-10) under former Furman head coach Bobby Johnson and former Furman offensive line coach and current Clemson offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell.

Both coaches have been charged with reviving once tradition-rich programs. Fowler's Paladins haven't made the FCS postseason since 2006, and Speir's Catamounts haven't been to the postseason since finishing as the national runner-up in 1983.

Speir was a member of the last WCU staff that won in Greenville back in 1994.

Game Preview: Having already dropped its Southern Conference opener at Samford, 24-21, Furman will be looking to avoid only its third 0-2 start in Southern Conference play in the past 32 years. Only in 1987, 1994 and 2007 have the Paladins dropped their first two Southern Conference games.

Furman enters the game ranked 38th nationally in total offense (400.7 YPG), 54th in scoring offense (24.0 PPG), 33rd in passing offense (239.0 YPG) and 50th in rushing offense (165.7 YPG). Furman's 239.0 YPG ranks the Paladins second in the Southern Conference in passing offense.

True freshman Reese Hannon (58-of-90 passing, 707 yards, 5 TDs, 1 interception) continues to be at the controls of what is quickly becoming one of the most versatile attacks in the SoCon. Hannon has now passed for at least 200 yards in all three games he has played in as a Division I quarterback.

Hannon has plenty of solid options in the passing attack, and one of those, of course, is tight end Colin Anderson, a preseason first-team All-America selection (The Sports Network). He has 11 receptions for 197 yards.

Anderson is coming off his best game. He had three catches for 83 yards, including a season-long 50-yard reception in last week's 31-21 win over Presbyterian. Anderson enters Saturday's matchup ranking first among tight ends in school history in all-time TD catches (11), second in receiving yards (1,240 yds) and third in all-time receptions (71). In the 47-21 win over the Catamounts last season, Anderson had five receptions for 87 yards and a couple of scores.

Teaming with Anderson are split end Ryan Culbreath, flanker Gary Robinson and slot receiver Will King, who is second in the conference in receiving yards with 264 on 16 receptions. Freshman Jordan Snellings could also be pivotal. He has six receptions for 96 and two touchdowns.

The Paladins have again shown the ability to get yards on the ground, and that comes with having maybe the best tandem of running backs in the SoCon. Jerodis Williams has rushed for 406 yards and three touchdowns on 77 carries, while Hank McCloud has 173 yards and four touchdowns on 38 carries.

Both Williams and McCloud had big outings against the Catamounts last season, with Williams posting a career-high 175 yards and a TD on 25 carries. McCloud had 61 yards on 12 carries, which stood as his career high until this past Saturday's performance at PC, which saw the sophomore rush for 78 yards and three first-half scores.

Williams also eclipsed the century mark in rushing this season for the first time in last week's win, rushing for 136 yards and a TD on 23 carries in the 10-point win.

Surprisingly to some, Furman has gotten excellent play out of its offensive line. The unit has helped the Paladins establish the run. The unit continues to be anchored by preseason all-league selection Dakota Dozier at left tackle, and two new starters,center Eric Thoni and left guard Tank Phillips.

The Paladins are 36th in the FCS and sixth in the SoCon in sacks allowed (1.50) per gamel.

Defensively, Western Carolina is 106th in the FCS in total defense (472.5 YPG), 93rd in scoring defense (35.0 YPG), 43rd in pass defense (183.5 YPG) and 119th in rush defense (289.0 YPG).

The Catamounts, who have looked better in some spots than they did in 2011, operate out of a 4-2-5 formation. Anchoring the WCU defensive line has been defensive end Brian Johnson (17 tackles, 1.0 tackle for loss).

Johnson will team with talented freshman Caleb Hawkins (15 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks), who might be the best athlete along the defensive front.  The Catamounts, like Furman, are a little undersized at the two defensive tackle positions, but are athletic. Set to start aree Bevans Robbs (5 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 5 QBHs) and Eric Banford (6 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 FR).

The starters at linebacker are Rock Williams (34 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 0.5 sack, 2 FFs) and Courtland Carson (37 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 PBU). They have been among the most solid linebacking tandems in the SoCon this season. Williams is coming off a 2011 season which saw him rank third in the SoCon in total tackles, while Carson posted a career-high 14 tackles in a 52-21 loss at Marshall a couple of weeks ago. Both are athletic and run well from sideline-to-sideline.

If there has been a strength to the WCU defense over the past couple of seasons, it has been the secondary. And despite the overall defensive struggles, WCU has managed to defend the pass well.

Veterans Elijer Martinez (19 tackles, 2 passes broken up) and Ace Clark (29 tackles, 3 PBUs, 2 INTs.) highlight what is an athletic unit that is one of the better units in the SoCon. Martinez will start at the boundary cornerback position, while Clark will start as a hybrid safety in the middle of the secondary. The hard-hitting Clark is having an All-SoCon-caliber season.

Joining Martinez at cornerback will be talented true freshman Jaleel Lorquet (16 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 PBU).

Clark will be joined at safety by TrevorTaylor (12 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 FF, 1 FR), who will start at free safety, and Sertonuse Harris (29 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 FFs), who will start at the boundary safety position. Both are first-year starters.

Furman has been shaky at times defense through the first four games, but has looked pretty good against the run, especially last week against PC, as the Paladins yielded just 43 yards of rushing offense.

Furman is ranked 76th nationally in total defense (395.2 YPG), 89th in scoring defense (33.2 YPG), 31st in rushing defense (122.3 YPG) and 107th in passing defense (273.0 YPG).

The strength of the Furman defense has been its defensive line, particularly its defensive end tandem of Josh Lynn (17 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 PBU, 1 FF) and Shawn Boone (9 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR), who have combined to notch 3.5 of Furman's eight sacks.

Lynn and Boone were also huge in Furman's 47-21 win at Western Carolina last season, with the bookend tandem posting three of the team's four sacks. Lynn had two sacks. Boone one.

Neal Rodgers (13 tackles, 0.5 sack) and Colton Keig (17 tackles, 1.0 TFL) will start at defensive tackle,. Though a bit undersized, the duo has stood tall through the first four games, making running the ball in the middle difficult.

The Paladins had to replace two of three starters at linebacker, but new starters Matt Solomon (39 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 3 PBUs) and Gary Wilkins (37 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 PBU) have picked up right where Kadarron Anderson and Chris Wiley left off.

Solomon, a senior, will be making his sixth start at middle linebacker and ranks fourth in the SoCon in total tackles per game (9.8 TPG). Wilkins has been one of the better young linebackers in the league this season. He will start at the weakside linebacker spot on Saturday.

The top player on defense might be preseason All-SoCon linebacker Mitch McGrath (25 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 INTs, 3 PBUs), who is off to a strong start at strongside linebacker. He has intercepted two passes in the first four weeks. He had a solid performance against the Catamounts last season, with six tackles, a tackle-for-loss and an interception.

The secondary has had its struggles, especially at cornerback. However, the Paladins are improving each week at the cornerback position. One of the real bright spots has been true freshman cornerback Reggie Thomas (8 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 INT). Cortez Johnson (12 tackles, 2 PBUs), who is one of the fastest players on Furman's roster, is in his first season as an established starter at the other cornerback position.

The Paladins have two of the conference's best safeties. Strong safety Greg Worthy (25 tackles, 1 PBU) was a preseason first-team All-SoCon selection, while starting strong safety Nathan Wade (33 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2 PBUs) was a preseason second-team All-SoCon pick. Both are solid, big hitters in the middle of the defense who cause receivers to think twice before crossing the middle.

Prediction: Furman 31, Western Carolina 24


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