2023 Furman Football Preview

Furman football gears up for a promising 2023 season, boasting versatile players, strong defense, and high expectations. Predicted 10-1 record.

Furman QB Tyler Huff passing against ETSU
Source: Furman Athletics

Team Overview

Head Coach: Clay Hendrix (41-26, 7th year)

2022 Record: 10-3 overall, 7-1 SoCon/2nd

2022 FCS Playoffs: Furman hosted its first FCS playoff game since 2005, defeating CAA member Elon, 31-6. In the second round, the Paladins had their season end in heartbreaking fashion, with a 41-38 loss at Incarnate Word.

Returning Starters: 20

Offensive Starters: 8

Defensive Starters: 10

Special Teams: 2

Redshirts Sports Predicted Finish: 1st in the Southern Conference

Ranking in Redshirt Sports FCS Preseason Top 25: No. 4

Key Offensive Performers

  • QB Tyler Huff (199-of-292 passing, 2,199 yds, 15 TDs, 8 INTs)
  • RB Dominic Roberto (197 rush att, 1,120 yds, 11 TDs, 5.7 YPC)
  • WR Joshua Harris (48 rec, 667 yds, 5 TDs, 13.7 YPR)
  • WR Wayne Anderson Jr. (39 rec, 396 yds, 2 TDs, 10.2 YPR)
  • OL Pearson Toomey
  • OL Jacob Johanning
  • WR Kyndel Dean (44 rec 407 yds, 9.3 YPR)
  • TE Parks Gissinger (4 rec, 29 yds)
  • WR Ben Ferguson (3 rec, 28 yds, 9.3 YPR)
  • WR Ethan Harris (2 rec, 15 yds, 7.5 YPR)
  • WR Luke Shiflett (14 rec, 164 yds, 11.9 YPR/1 TD passing, 1 TD rushing)

Key Losses on Offense

  • TE Ryan Miller
  • OL Anderson Tomlin
  • RB Devin Abrams
  • OL Evan Jumper

Key Defensive Performers

  • LB Braden Gilby (94 tackles, 15.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 3 QBHs, 2 FFs)
  • LB Bryce McCormick (77 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 3 PBUs, 1 FR)
  • FS Hugh Ryan (69 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 8 PBUs, 4 INTs)
  • CB Travis Blackshear (46 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 2 FFs, 1 INT, 1 TD)
  • SS Kam Brinson (59 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 5 PBUs, 4 FRs, 1 INT)
  • DL Matt Sochovka (28 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 5 QBHs, 1 PBU, 3 blkd kicks)
  • DE Jack Barton (30 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 4 PBUs, 4 blkd kicks, 7 QBHs)
  • LB Jalen Miller (41 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2 INTs, 1 FR, 2 FFs)
  • CB Ivan Yates (35 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 INT, 7 PBUs, 1 FF)
  • LB Luke Clark (41 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 1 PBU)
  • SS Caleb Williams (8 tackles, 2 PBUs, 1 INT)
  • CB Cally Chizik (29 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 3 INTs, 2 TDs)
  • DL Xavier Stephens (26 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 5 FRs)
  • LB Nicky Kuzemka (5 tackles, 0.5 TFL)
  • LB Dan Scianna (35 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks)
  • LB Alex Maier (24 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FR)
  • LB Evan DiMaggio (44 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 QBH)
  • DE Jeremiah Jackson (5 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 QBHs)

Key Losses on Defense

  • NT Cameron Coleman
  • DB Dominic Morris
  • DB Dae’One Wilkins

Key Transfer Portal Additions

  • OL Fred Norman Jr (ETSU)
  • TE Mason Pline (Ferris State)
  • OL Tex Elliott (Colorado State)
  • NG Sirod Cook (Wingate)

Preseason All-SoCon selections

  • RB Dominic Roberto (1st Team)
  • OL Jacob Johanning (1st Team)
  • OL Pearson Toomey (1st Team)
  • LB Braden Gilby (1st Team)
  • DB Travis Blackshear (1st Team)
  • DB Hugh Ryan (1st Team)
  • LS Julian Ashby (2nd Team)
  • QB Tyler Huff (2nd Team)
  • WR Joshua Harris (2nd Team)
  • DL Jack Barton (2nd Team)
  • DL Sirod Cook (2nd Team)
  • Matt Sochovka (2nd Team)
  • DB Kam Brinson (2nd Team)
  • PK Ian Williams (2nd Team)
  • RS Wayne Anderson (2nd Team)

Preseason Outlook

Furman is a proud football program, and it has arguably the greatest football tradition of FCS private school programs that compete for a national title, and in after initially reaching the title game in 1985, the Paladins became the first program to ever claim an FCS title as a private school three years later, avenging its 44-42 loss to Georgia Southern in ‘85, as the Paladins claimed a 17-12 win over the Eagles in Pocatello, ID to become the first FCS (then referred as Division I-AA).

Furman, which sealed its championship season in fitting fashion, as one of the best defenses in school history put the final nail in the proverbial coffin when All-American linebacker Jeff Blankenship picked off a Raymond Gross pass in the waning moments, allowing the Paladins to become the first private school in FCS history to win a football national title.

All told, the Paladins have been to three national titles and have made 19 appearances in the FCS playoffs. Furman fell, 13-6, to the Montana Grizzlies in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Paladins sport a 21-19 all-time playoff record, which is tops among current SoCon programs.

Head coach Clay Hendrix was a member as a player or coach on all three staffs that made an appearance in the national title, including being an assistant on the ‘88 team that claimed the school’s only crown.

Since 2005, Furman has struggled to find its way back to the elite level of FCS football, however, this fall the Paladins believe they have all the ingredients to yet again be a serious contender to not only get back to a national title, but to win a second one.

Furman returns a combined 412 starts and 38 of 42 lettermen from the 2022 season that posted one of the best seasons in program history, finishing with a 10-3 overall record, including a 7-1 SoCon record. There’s no doubt the Paladins are the real deal.

Previewing Furman’s Offense

So why all the buzz about Furman heading into 2023? A lot of that buzz surrounding the Paladins can be attributed to an offense, which in one word, has the potential to be “prolific.”

A perusal of any of Furman’s football media guides will reveal a parallel between some of Furman’s greatest signal-callers coinciding with some of its most successful seasons.

Those seasons had always seen Furman’s leading man under center not only be an outstanding quarterback, highlighted by one particular attribute—a great improviser. Guys like Ingle Martin (2004-05), Billy Napier (1998-2002), Justin Hill (1996-2000), Frankie DeBusk (1987-90) and Bobby Lamb (1982-85) were just some of those quarterbacks that seemingly had that “it” factor at quarterback.

In quarterback Tyler Huff, it felt like a little of that moxie, improvisation and winning mentality returned to the position. Furman has had some outstanding talents at the position since the graduation of Martin in 2005--the last time Furman was considered truly an elite class of FCS football programs--and in Huff in 2022, the Paladins had a player that was a winner and a leader that commanded respect and one that had a leadership that resonated with players on both sides of the football.

With Huff back along with most of the offensive talent that made Furman such a versatile offense a year ago, as well as some key additions made to add depth along the offensive line this fall, the Paladins figure to be among the SoCon’s most versatile offenses this fall.

Furman also figures to be excellent on the defensive side of the football enter, with a total of 18 regulars returning on both sides of the football heading into the 2023 season. The Paladins fielded an offense that was among the league’s best last season, and finished the season ranking 29th overall nationally in total offense (421.9 YPG), while fielding the nation’s 15th-best ground attack (212.8 YPG).

Huff’s story is one that is unique and by the time he had finished out the 2022 campaign, he had already put himself in some rare company as a Paladin signal-caller.

The Presbyterian graduate transfer finished out his first season under center in Greenville by ranking sixth in pass attempts (292), fourth in completions (199), ninth in passing yards (2,199), third in completion percentage (68.2%), third in total offense attempts (397), third in total offense (2,893), and sixth in total touchdown responsibilities (23).

Highlighting Huff’s outstanding 2022 season were a pair of pivotal performances down the stretch. In late-season SoCon wins over Chattanooga and Wofford, Huff ended up totaling up 335 yards in both, using his arm to complete 21-of-22 passes for 295 yards with a TD and INT in a 63-28 win over the Terriers, while utilizing his legs in the Paladins’ 24-20 win over sixth-ranked Chattanooga, rushing for 132 yards and a TD on 20 rush attempts.

Huff’s story is quite frankly remarkable. He was a preferred walk-on at Presbyterian before garnering Big South All-Freshman honors in 2019 before tearing his ACL, which forced him to sit out a year.

In fact, Huff’s 694 rushing yards in a single-season set a new school standard for the program for rushing yards by a quarterback, eclipsing the previous school standard of 640 rushing yards by the aforementioned Hill in 1999.

The Orange Park, FL, native transferred into Furman in the spring of 2022 after having played and then proceeded to win the starting quarterback job over former Paladin signal-caller Jace Wilson, who Huff beat out during preseason camp, and prior to a mid-season win at The Citadel, Wilson notified the coaching staff that he’d like to be redshirted the remainder of the 2022 campaign and has since transferred back closer to home, as he will play at Texas Southern this fall.

Huff’s skill-set and moxie perfectly fits the unique play-calling acumen of Roper, who trusts his quarterback completely to improvise if the initial call isn’t there, and last season, Huff was more than ready to call his own number or utilize the short screen to burn overly aggressive defensive ends that loved to bring pressure, as was the case against both Clemson early in the season, as well as Chattanooga in late October.

Huff’s totals when he finished out the 2022 campaign certainly put him in some rare company. The Presbyterian graduate transfer finished out his first season under center in Greenville by ranking sixth in pass attempts (292), fourth in completions (199), ninth in passing yards (2,199), third in completion percentage (68.2%), third in total offense attempts (397), third in total offense (2,893), and sixth in total touchdown responsibilities (23).

Highlighting Huff’s outstanding 2022 season were a pair of pivotal performances down the stretch. In late-season SoCon wins over Chattanooga and Wofford, Huff ended up totaling up 335 yards in both, using his arm to complete 21-of-22 passes for 295 yards with a TD and INT in a 63-28 win over the Terriers, while utilizing his legs in the Paladins’ 24-20 win over sixth-ranked Chattanooga, rushing for 132 yards and a TD on 20 rush attempts.

Furman doesn’t use the portal often, but when it does, at least in the past two seasons under Hendrix, the Paladins have done so with a calculated focus to adding guys that are high-level performers, and guys that can be plugged in and make an impact right away.

Two of the bigger losses on the offensive side of the football were three-time All-American tight end and record-setter Ryan Miller currently in camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The other major loss on the offensive side of the football is All-American offensive lineman Anderson Tomlin, as well as losing Evan Jumper at center. Jumper entered the transfer portal and will utlize his final season at Coastal Carolina.

The Paladins added transfers Fred Norman Jr. from East Tennessee State, and already had Gerrik Vollmer, who was going to add depth last season before a preseason injury forced him to take a medical redshirt. Vollmer, a native Munich, Germany, spent time getting some good experience at both Old Dominion and Virginia.

Fred Norman Jr. comes from an ETSU offensive front that was dominant during its 11-win seas\on of 2021, and the grad transfer that was a Freshman Team All-SoCon selection back in 2019 will be reunited with his former offensive line coach, Matt McCutcheon.

“I think that one of the things lost in the mix is that we had a couple of guys like Gerrik Vollmer and Luke Petit, who we lost in the preseason and I thought were two guys that were in line to start and we didn’t have them at all,” Furman head coach Clay Hendrix said.

“I will be really surprised if Fred Norman doesn’t play a lot of football for us this season he’s been a great fit and you know he’s familiar his coach having played for Matt [McCutcheon] at ETSU…we’re certainly in a better position at that position than we were a year ago,” Hendrix added.

In addition to Vollmer and Norman being guys that can help in the immediate, the Paladins also return a trio of starters along what is widely considered one of the best offensive lines in all of FCS football, with two of the three returning regulars—Pearson Toomey and Jacob Johanning–both garnering preseason All-SoCon citations.

The other position the Paladins used the transfer portal was strategic precision is tight end. Throughout Hendrix’s head coaching tenure in Greenville, the Paladins have looked to create mis-matches at the tight end position, whether it be Andy Schumpert in Hendrix’s first season as the head coach coach in 2017, or last season, with Ryan Miller, who tied a school record with 13 catches at Clemson.

The Paladins have Parks Gissinger back at tight end. He transferred in from Michigan State prior to the 2022 season. He’s a big blocking presence along the offensive line, but also has a tremendous pair of hands.

Mason Pline, a 6-7 tight end who sports reputable experience as both a basketball player and a football player at two-time defending NCAA Division II national champion Ferris State, appears to be the latest in the line of tight ends the Paladins will utilize for matchup issues for opposing defensive coordinators to solve.

“Mason Pline I love being able to get a guy from that program that has won and he’s a guy with good character and demeanor and he came to us and said ‘coach, you know I wanna play in the NFL’ and he was real up front about that. Pline’s going to be a part of a receiving group that I think is going to be among the best we’ve ever had here.”

Pline will be one of two transfers the Paladins will feature at tight end this fall, with Michigan State transfer Parks Gissinger, who mostly served as a physical blocking presence in the run game last season and Ryan Miller’s primary understudy, also returns to the fold.

Joshua Harris, Wayne Anderson Jr and Kyndel Dean will compromise the primary options at wide receiver. Harris has a chance to be big time, and with Miller’s departure, now it will be the first time Harris will be asked to be the primary pass-catcher.

Harris was a preseason All-SoCon second-team pick, and has playmaking ability. He has already started to garner the notice of NFL scouts.

A player like Luke Shiflett is one of those swiss army knife receivers, as he does just about everything well. The former quarterback has managed to carve out a nice career as a receiving option in the Furman receiving corps, and perhaps what he does better than any receiver on Furman’s roster is what he does as a blocker on the perimeter, and it’s something he takes pride in doing.

Shiflett threw a 2-yard TD out of the ‘wildcat’ formation in Furman’s late-season, 63-28, win over Wofford. The 6-2, 210-lb graduate student from Dalton, GA., is one of Furman’s most-versatile players on the offensive side of the ball as a result of how he can affect the game as a threat in different capacities. In addition to his passing TD last season, Shiflett also registered a 2-yard scoring run out of the ‘Wildcat’ formation in Furman’s 41-3 win at VMI.

Shiflett saw action in all 13 games last season, starting four contests. His 64-yard reception in the season-opener against North Greenville was not only a career-high, but it was also the longest passing play of the season for the Paladins.

Others that figure to play roles as reserves within the Paladin receiving ranks this fall include Ben Ferguson and Ethan Harris. Ferguson is a redshirt freshman last season, showing glimpses of what could end up being a very bright future in a Paladin uniform.

The 5-11, 200-lb native of The Woodlands, TX, had an outstanding prep career in the Lone Star State at The Woodlands High School. As a senior in 2021, Ferguson served as team captain, garnering first-team all-district honors following a season, which saw him haul in 46 passes for 1,010 yards and 13 TDs. He finished out his outstanding prep career ranking fifth in program history in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdown receptions.

Furman has looked like a well-oiled machine each of the past two seasons when it comes to running the football. The centerpiece of that ground game has been Dominic Roberto, who is the latest in the line of Paladin greats in the backfield. Roberto is a preseason Walter Payton Award candidate and the centerpiece of what figures to be yet another physical ground attack.

The native of Fayetteville, N.C., will once again be the centerpiece of the Paladin offense, and he enters his final season as the 12th-ranked running back in the history of Paladin football, having rushed for 2,114 yards and 21 scores in his previous four seasons, with his importance to the ground game increasing with each season. His biggest leap in terms of him being a focal point came between his redshirt sophomore and redshirt junior campaigns, respectively.

The redshirt senior’s 7.4 YPC during the 2023 season set a new school standard, eclipsing the previous school single season record of 7.3 YPC, which was established by Robbie Gardner back in 1984.

Roberto carried 96 times for 709 yards and six scores during the 2021 campaign before seeing his rushing load increase by 101 carries last season, thanks in large part to being able to help the Paladins into the FCS postseason for the first time since 2019, as he helped the Paladins extend their season by two full games by rushing for 1,120 yards and 11 TDs on 197 attempts in 2022. He averaged an impressive 5.7 YPG, and his final rushing total in the 2022 campaign ranked as the 10th-best rushing total for a campaign in program history.

All told, the Paladin offense has the potential to be as talented as any it has had in program history. Below is a look at where some of Furman’s best offenses in program history have ranked, and where last season’s unit ranked among the school’s all-time best contingents. Two of Hendrix’s offenses in his six years as a head coach have ranked in the top 10 in program history.

“If it was up to me, I wish we were under the radar and not hyped up much like last season,” quarterback Tyler Huff said. “I wish we were kind of middle of the pack and everybody forgets about us so we could sneak up, but now that we’ve got a little of that preseason hype…it’s time to prove everybody right,” Huff added.

Ranking Furman’s Total Offensive Averages (since 1973)

  1. 2005 (470.0 YPG)
    1. Final Record/How season ended: 11-3/Lost 29-23 to eventual national champion App St (FCS semifinals)
  2. 1985 (466.2 YPG)
    1. Final Record/How season ended: 2-3/Lost 44-42 to Georgia Southern in Division I-AA National Championship
  3. 1983 (462.2 YPG)
    1. Final Record/How season ended: 10-2-1/lost 14-7 to Western Carolina in Division I-AA Semifinals
  4. 2004 (454.9 YPG)
    1. Final Record/How season ended: 10-3/Lost 14-13 in FCS second round vs James Madison
  5. 1984 (452.9 YPG)
    1. Final Record/How season ended: 8-3/ Won its final three games by outscoring foes 139-27, but were a playoff snub
  6. 2000 (424.3 YPG)
    1. Final Record/How season ended: 9-3/Lost 31-24 in the opening round of the Division I-AA playoffs vs Hofstra
  7. 1999 (424.9 YPG)
    1. Final Record/How season ended: 9-3/Lost 30-23 to opening round of Division I-AA playoffs vs UMass
  8. 2017 (423.6 YPG)
    1. Final Record/How season ended: 8-5/Lost 28-10 in the second round of the FCS playoffs at Wofford
  9. 2022 (421.9 YPG)
    1. Final Record/How season ended: 10-3/Lost 41-38 at UIW in the second round of the FCS playoffs

Previewing Furman’s Defense

While the Paladins were certainly worthy of praise and plenty of words on a page for what they did offensively in 2022, it was the defense that quietly served as a steadying force that kept the Paladins among the FCS elite the entire season.

Despite the propensity for giving up the big play, the thing about the Paladin defense that became abundantly clear to most is that you better score on that big play, as the Paladins yielded little if anything beyond that point, sporting one the top red zone defenses in the FCS.

The Paladins are led up front by one the most experienced players in the history of the Paladin football program, as defensive tackle Matt Sochovka returns for a sixth season. He has seen action in 37 games, logging 28 starts in his career. Sochovka blocked three of Furman’s FCS-leading 10 kicks last season.

Sochovka is a primary example of perseverance through pain and injury paying off, and heading into the 2023 season, Sochovka was a big reason why the Paladins were so dominant on defense last fall, and it was primarily due fielding one of the best defensive lines in school history.

Unfortunately for Sochovka, he won’t have his partner in crime Cameron Coleman around this year to help him cause havoc in opposing backfields, however, the Paladins added their most meaningful addition via the transfer portal on the defensive side of the ball by going out and recruiting the services of Sirod Cook–a graduate transfer from Wingate–who will enter the campaign as a All-SoCon Second Team pick without ever having played a down in the Southern Conference–and he will provide immediate help at nose tackle. He

The man slotted to replace Coleman came from the portal last year and provided an immediate impact by leading the team with 4.5 sacks, as Xavier Stephens made his debut season a big one for the Paladins at defensive tackle.

With Coleman’s departure, the former Lehigh Mountainhawk will find his new home at nose tackle as the starter this fall. He will likely split reps with Cook as a co-starter of sorts at nose guard, with the two alternating the position this fall.

Cook was instrumental in helping Wingate advance to the third round of the Division II playoffs, as the Bulldogs ended up finishing with an impressive 11-3 mark in 2022. Cook had 44 tackles this past season, with one-fourth of his total hits being quarterback sacks, completing the season with 11 sacks.

Cook’s career at Wingate was stellar, having completed his four seasons there with 126 tackles, 33.5 tackles-for-loss, and 18.5 sacks.

A third option at nose tackle could be Army prep transfer Marc Hernandez, as the 6-4, 310-lb gives Furman one of its biggest options in the trenches on either side of the football.

Furman’s is deep and talented at defensive end, returning both Jeremiah Jackson and Jack Barton, who blocked four kicks a year ago to lead all of FCS, was a preseason All-SoCon Second Team pick, and tag-teamed the defensive end spot last season, with both boasting starting experience.

Jackson won the job in the preseason last fall, but had his season cut short in Furman’s 24-19 win at Charleston Southern, suffering a season-ending injury against the Bucs. Following the injury to Jackson, it would be Barton that would start the remainder of the campaign.

Two adjectives that come to mind when describing Furman’s linebacking unit heading into the 2023 season are solid and complete.

However, there is no standout within the unit and that’s just how they would have it. The contingent of four linebackers that makes up the heart of the Furman defense is its meat and potatoes, and the foundation for everything it does collectively as a unit. The Paladins have had its fair share of talented standouts over the years, with the likes of Orlando Ruff (1994-98), Kota Suttle (1988-92), and Jeff Blankenship (1985-89) are a sampling of some of those standouts that have highlighted the Paladin linebacking units over the years.

This unit is more like the 1972 Miami Dolphins trio of Nick Buoniconti, Mike Kolen and Doug Swift, however, with no discernible great player, yet no discernible weakness either.

There is no drop-off at linebacker, with the Paladins slated to field one of the nation’s top front sevens. Like Sochovka along the defensive front, the Paladins will rely on the mature leadership of veteran inside linebacker Braden Gilby.

Gilby headlines a Furman linebacking corps that returns all four of its regulars from a year ago. The first-team all-league selection has tallied 263-career tackles in 47 career games for the ‘Dins, including 32-career logged starts. Gilby comes off a 2022 campaign which saw him lead the Paladins with 94 stops.

Bryce McCormick will partner with Gilby on the defensive interior at ILB, while capable veterans Dan Scianna and Nicky Kuzemka, who have both logged starting action in their respective careers for the Paladins, should again play significant roles at ILB for the Paladins this fall.

A third veteran option is Evan DiMaggio, who listed as one of the top recruits in FCS football by HERO Sports back in 2020, has seen action in 30 games in his career, which includes coming off his best season as a Paladin last fall, registering 44 tackles as a reserve at ILB.

Another player that could be an immediate impact player at ILB this fall is Amaah Achina (5 tackles in 2022), who had won the starting job out outside linebacker before suffering a season-ending injury in Furman’s 35-12 loss at Clemson, has the athleticism to play both positions.

Achina is one of the best athletes on the defensive side of the football for the Paladins and should be able to work his way back into a position on the depth chart, and maybe even for a starting position.

The 6-1, 207-lb native of Greensboro, N.C., garnered a starting position at the ‘spur’ position after putting together a preseason camp. Achina finished the 52-0 win over North Greenville to open the 2022 season with four tackles against the Crusaders, and in the second game against Clemson, posted one assisted tackle. During his redshirt freshman campaign of 2021, Achina finished with six tackles in four games

Up until the 2022 season, outside linebacker had been a position in which Furman had struggled, at least at times, to find the right mix of players. However, both maturity and opportunism are words that can best describe the two players returning to the ‘bandit’ and ‘spur’ linebacker roles as members of the Paladin linebacking unit this fall, with Luke Clark and Jalen Miller returning to occupy both the former and latter positions, respectively, for the 2023 season.

Miller will again serve as Furman’s starter at the ‘SPUR’ linebacker spot, while Clark will hold down the ‘BANDIT’ linebacker spot.

He turned in what was a breakthrough season as a part of the Paladin linebacking unit last fall. Miller saw action in all 13 games and made 10 starts in what was the first meaningful action of Miller’s Paladin career. The 5-11, 211-lb redshirt senior from Duncan, S.C., started the season serving as the backup at ‘spur’ linebacker prior to moving into the starting lineup against East Tennessee State following what was a season-ending injury to Amaah Achina.

Miller’s impact was almost instantaneous, as he had a first quarter INT at the 2-yard line to thwart a potential ETSU scoring drive. In Furman’s 24-19 win at Charleston Southern a week later, he was able to build off his big play in Johnson City by recording seven tackles, picked off a pass and forced a fumble, which helped set up the Paladin offense in great position to win the game late in the contest. With Furman trailing Charleston Southern 19-17 in the fourth quarter, Miller forced a Bucs fumble at the 50-yard line and it would be recovered by the Paladins and would ultimately lead to the game-winning score.

While Furman’s depth is pronounced everywhere on the defensive side of the ball, the talent and depth within its secondary rivals any elite secondary in the FCS. With that being said, and as talented as they were in the secondary a year ago, the Paladins had issues at times giving up the big play.

During Furman’s finest seasons, it rarely gave up the big play more than it did during the 2022 season.

The Paladins finished 115th nationally in pass defense, surrendering 272.1 YPG through the air last fall. That pass defense ranked as the second-worst in Paladin football history, ranking only behind Clay Hendrix’s first team in Greenville back in 2017, when the Paladins 277.7 YPG through the air, meaning two of the worst pass defenses in Furman history have come in his overall successful tenure as the head coach of the Paladins. Ironically, despite woeful pass defense in both of those seasons, the Paladins qualified for the postseason in both.

Prior to 2017, you’d have to go back to 2009 to find what was the previous worst pass defense in school history, as that unit, which was anchored by the likes of Ryan Steed and Max Lerner, finished the season having surrendered 257.7 YPG. Furman did do a lot of things right within its secondary last fall, however, posting a nation-leading 18 INTs, as well as recording a school-record 57 pass deflections.

Additionally, Furman also posted a league best (low) completion percentage (58.5%) among its opponents. In many ways, the good outweighed the bad in the secondary last season. The assertion that could be made is that Furman’s 2022 contingent in the secondary featured the type of athleticism which allowed the Paladins to be more aggressive than usual, which led to a nation-leading INTs and PBUs total, however, it also led to big plays the other way due to that over-aggression.

The unit will be anchored by two of the best FCS football has to offer, in graduate cornerback Travis Blackshear and redshirt senior Hugh Ryan. If you count Ryan’s teammate at safety–Kam Brinson–the Paladins had three preseason all-conference selections, with Ryan and Blackshear chosen to the first team, while Brinson, who is one of Furman’s biggest hitters on defense, was chosen to the SoCon’s preseason second team as selected by the league’s head coaches.

Rounding out the Paladin starters within its secondary heading into the will be Micah Robinson, while Ivan Yates will add depth at cornerback this fall. One of the more interesting positional moves is Caleb Williams, who was a SoCon All-Freshman performer last season as a reserve cornerback. The redshirt freshman now makes the move to safety due his playmaking abilities. He should see plenty of action behind Brinson at strong safety this fall because of those playmaking attributes.

Furman’s greatest luxury in its secondary is definitely its versatility, and in a player like Cally Chizik, who returned two of his three picks for scores, can serve multiple roles as an extra safety in the nickel, as well as backup at cornerback. Chizik, who is the son of current North Carolina defensive coordinator and former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik has embraced his role and is one of the units leading playmakers because of his football IQ.

Special Teams Preview:

The special teams unit returns both its place-kicker and punter for the 2023 season, as Axel Lepvreau and Ian Williams will handle the place-kicking duties, while Ryan Leavy returns to handle the punting duties for the Paladins this fall. Lepvreau finished the 2022 season by pacing Furman in scoring, with 75 points and finished the season going 51-of-53 on PATs, while splitting the field goal duties with Williams last season, connecting on 8-of-9 field goals last season.

Williams successfully converted his first six field goals last season, which included a pair of tries against sixth-ranked Clemson. Lepvreau also connected on both of his field goal attempts in the 34-27 home loss to Samford last season. He finished the campaign going a perfect 5-for-5 on field goal attempts on 30-39 yards. Lepvreau converted his season-long 34-yard field goal against Samford last season.

Williams, who transferred in from North Carolina State last spring, was a huge benefit to the Furman special teams unit during the 2022 campaign. Williams was a preseason second-team all-league selection.

Leavy, a redshirt junior, took over the Furman punting duties just last season and ended up averaging 39.6 yards-per-punt on 59 punt attempts, ranking seventh overall in the Southern Conference.

He averaged 44.7 yards-per-punt on seven punts, which included a season-long 55-yard punt in Furman’s 41-3 win at VMI. Leavy posted 50-yard punts in seven contests last fall for the Paladins. With the graduation of Luke Bynum, it will likely be Leavy who handles the holding duties for the Paladins this fall.

Good news also comes for the Paladins at long-snapper, as Julian Ashby is set to return for the 2023 season. Ashby would perform outstandingly in his third season handling the long-snapping duties for the Paladins. He handled the snapping duties for the Paladins on all PATs, field goals, and punts for Furman in 2022, as he was part of a unit that converted 18-of-21 field goals, 52-of-54 PATs and snapped it 55 times on punts without a block. Ashby will be one of Furman’s most-experienced returnees in its special teams unit heading into the 2023 season. His efforts have not gone unnoticed, as he was a preseason first-team All-SoCon pick by the league’s head coaches.

Expected to handle the kick return and punt return duties will be Kendall Thomas and Wayne Anderson Jr. on kickoff returns, while Cally Chizik and Joshua Harris are the candidates to handle the punt return responsibilities. Anderson ended up garnering All-SoCon honors last season after averaging 24.1 yards-per-return on 22 kickoff returns last season, including a 97-yard kickoff return for a score against Western Carolina last season.

Overall Synopsis

Furman hasn’t had such high expectations coming into a season since the 2005 season. If the Paladins can stay healthy on the offensive line and at quarterback, this is a team that could legitimately challenge to make it all the way to Frisco and the national title game in early January.

Final Reg Season Record:

10-1, 8-0 SoCon/outright SoCon champion

2023 Schedule Prediction

  • Aug. 31 vs. Tennessee Tech (W, 28-17)
  • Sept. 9 at South Carolina (L, 35-24)
  • Sept. 16 at Kennesaw State (W, 42-41 OT/FU blks PAT)
  • Sept. 23 vs. Mercer (W, 27-19)
  • Oct. 7 vs. The Citadel (W, 35-24)
  • Oct. 14 at Samford (W, 38-35)
  • Oct. 21 at Western Carolina (W, 40-30)
  • Oct. 28 vs. East Tennessee State (W, 34-14)
  • Nov. 4 at Chattanooga (W, 21-10)
  • Nov. 11 vs. VMI (W, 42-17)
  • Nov. 18 at Wofford (W, 45-17)

Final Regular Season Record: 10-1, 8-0 SoCon/outright SoCon Champion