2023 Samford Football Preview

Samford Bulldogs, under Coach Chris Hatcher, eye another successful season after 2022's SoCon win. QB Michael Hiers leads a potent offense for FCS dominance.

Samford QB Michael Hiers
Source: Samford Athletics

Team Overview

Head Coach: Chris Hatcher (51-38 at Samford/9th season)

2022 Record: 11-2, 8-0 SoCon (2022 SoCon Champions)

2022 FCS Playoffs: Entered the postseason as the No. 6 overall seed and had a bye in the FCS opening round as a result… The Bulldogs opened the 2022 FCS playoffs with a 48-42 overtime win over Southeastern Louisiana out of the Southland Conference…Season ended with a 27-9 quarterfinal loss at No. 2 North Dakota State in Fargo, North Dakota.

Returning Starters: 13

Offensive Starters: 6

Defensive Starters: 3

Special Teams: 2

Players To Watch Offense

  • QB Michael Hiers (353-of-461 passing, 3,544 yds, 36 TDs, 4 INTs/109 rush att, 163 yds, 3 TDs, 1.5 YPC)
  • RB Jay Stanton (176 rush att, 775 yds, 5 TDs, 4.4 YPC)
  • WR Chandler Smith (100 rec, 1,071 yds, 11 TDs, 10.7 YPR)
  • WR D.J. Rias (51 rec, 588 yds, 6 TDs, 11.5 YPR)
  • OL Jabari Brooks
  • OL Chris Noble
  • OL Luke Byrne
  • WR Ty King (20 rec, 249 yds, 1 TD, 12.4 YPR)

Key Losses on Offense

  • WR Kendall Watson
  • WR Judd Cockett
  • RB Jaylan Thomas
  • OL Gavin Orr
  • TE Dakota Chapman
  • OL Austin Guyse

Players to Watch Defense

  • DL Joseph Mera (25 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 5 QBHs, 2 PBUs)
  • DE Nick Jackson (27 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 QBH)
  • LB Noah Martin (92 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 PBUs, 3 QBHs, 1 INT)
  • LB Thomas Neville (36 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 3 PBUs, 1.0 sack, 1 QBH)

Key Losses on Defense

  • DB Ty Hardimon
  • LB Nathan East
  • DT Tay Berry
  • DB Emmanuel Flowers

Key additions from the Transfer Portal

  • RB Demonta Witherspoon (Murray State)
  • DB Devin Smith (Austin Peay)
  • DB Jonathan Seary (Bucknell)
  • DB Isaiah Watson (Eastern Michigan)
  • WR R.J. Starkey (Penn)
  • DB Kam Smith (Charleston Southern)
  • LB Kiylan Miller (Coastal Carolina)
  • DB Trustin Northington (Ole Miss)
  • LB Xavier Nurse (Maine)
  • DL Elijah Rawlins (Miss Valley St)
  • DB Tyrese Ross (South Carolina)
  • DB Dontae Pollard (Akron)
  • OL Brett Johnson (UAB)
  • RB Mychael Hamilton (South Florida)
  • DB Avery Hughes (Texas A&M)

Preseason All-SoCon Selections

  • QB Michael Hiers (1st Team/Preseason SoCon Player of the Year)
  • WR Chander Smith (1st Team)
  • Jabari Brooks (1st Team)
  • DL Joseph Mera (1st Team)
  • LB Noah Martin (1st Team)
  • DB Kourtlan Marsh (1st Team)
  • RB Jay Stanton (2nd Team)

Redshirt Sports Predicted Finish: 2nd in the SoCon

Ranking in Redshirt Sports FCS Preseason Top 25: No. 6

Preseason Outlook

Samford's barometer of success coming into 2022 was relatively unknown to most fans and media, which is primarily why Chris Hatcher’s club was projected to finish sixth at SoCon Media Day 2022, which was held at Grove Park Inn in beautiful Asheville, N.C.

With Liam Welch having departed under center, most of the questions surrounding the team and the degree of expectation had everything to do with who replaced Welch, as well as who would be shoring up a defense that ranked 123rd nationally out of 123 teams at the conclusion of the 2022 season.

There’s something that can be said for momentum, too, as the Bulldogs were able to capture it from the outset of the 2022 campaign and seemingly never loosened their grip on the title trophy.

After an 11-win 2022 season, the Bulldogs now look to conjure an even better encore with an even deeper run in the FCS postseason, only now Samford will have to do so without the element of surprise.

Everyone on Samford’s schedule this fall will be looking to deliver their best shot against the Bulldogs.

The momentum which propelled the Bulldogs such success in 2022 came in the season opener, facing Kennesaw State on a Thursday night in Homewood, when the Bulldogs hosted the No. 8 Owls at Seibert Stadium. The 27-17 win was a win that showed the Southern Conference was trending upward once again after a few seasons delivering subpar results in both the non-conference regular-season, as well as in the FCS playoffs.

It’s no accident than some of the SoCon’s most tradition-laden football programs like Samford (Alabama), Furman (South Carolina) and Mercer (Georgia) reside in states that have produced national titles at the FBS level in recent seasons. It is often true that what is true at an elite level in some of the football-crazed southern schools, is also true at the smaller schools within the same state.

For Samford in the state of Alabama, football season revolves around both sides of the Iron Bowl rivalry, and that’s okay for Samford, which has seen its football program elevate its overall status as a Division I FCS football program since entering the league back in 2008.

The Bulldogs have one of the best QBs in the nation leading the way, in Michael Hiers, and with a good quarterback at this level, you can go a long way.

Preview of Samford’s Offense

Samford is once again set to have one of the top offenses in all of FCS football and should once again offer a prolific passing attack under Chris Hatcher, as All-American quarterback Michael Hiers heads into his second season as the leader of the “Hatch Attack” offense for Samford. Hiers led a Samford offense that finished the 2023 season ranking sixth nationally and tops overall in the SoCon in passing offense (304.4), while also leading a offensive unit that 20th nationally in total offense (434.7 YPG), and 27th nationally in scoring offense (32.8 PPG).

No matter where Chris Hatcher has been a head coach at the FCS level, whether it be Georgia Southern, Murray State or Samford, it’s been pretty solid given that his offense will produce yards and points. Hatcher, who himself was a highly decorated quarterback

The Bulldogs found they have a really good situation behind Hiers at quarterback, with dual-threat Quincy Crittendon returning to the fold. All Crittendon did was come into rescue the Bulldogs and lead them to a thrilling, 50-44, overtime win over Mercer in the regular-season finale, while appearing in a total of five games, making two starts in the FCS playoffs. He would lead the Bulldogs to a second-round win by throwing for 314 yards on 26-of-40 passes, while also tossing four TDs, and had 94 rushing yards, including the game-winning score in what was a thrilling

So it’s not really a stretch to expect another elite output on the offensive side of the football this fall. Hiers will have his top ground option returning, in Jay Stanton, who has put together a nice career in a Bulldogs uniform, as he has rushed for 2,516 yards and 24 touchdowns in his career for the Bulldogs.

Stanton could be the x-factor for the pass-happy Bulldogs, however, last season, there was seemingly a dedicated effort to be more balanced offensively and that’s a trend that I look to continue this fall. In fact, Stanton’s 775-yard rushing effort was his best output in his Samford career. He is also a major threat in the passing game, having hauled in 83 passes for 499 yards and five TDs in his career. Stanton finished the season with 13 catches for 177 yards and one TD. He had his most productive game as a receiving threat out of the backfield against Furman, hauling in three passes for 66 yards in what was a key 34-27 road win.

A player brought into supplement Stanton’s reps at running back comes from one of head coach Chris Hatcher’s old coaching posts, as the Bulldogs welcome Damonta Witherspoon from Murray State. He was an All-OVC pick back in the COVID compromised 2020 season, which was played in the spring of 2021. He finished that spring by rushing for 912 yards and eight TDs.

The Bulldogs should again have among the top receiving units in the Southern Conference this fall, returning one of the league’s top wideout tandems, with both Chandler Smith and D.J. Rias back this fall, and Ty King adds a solid deep threat for good measure. Samford should also once again have one of the SoCon’s top tight ends, with the return of Michael Vice to the fold for his final year of eligibility after spending the past couple of seasons as a tight end for the Troy Trojans. The Bulldogs also added a potential immediate contributor at wideout via the transfer portal, in RJ Starkey from Penn. A second-team All-Ivy League selection a year ago, Starkey hauled in 56 passes for 515 yards, with four TD receptions.

As far as the offensive line is concerned, the Bulldogs also appear to be set up for big success again in 2023, with three starters returning along the offensive line Luke Byrne, Chris Noble, and Jabari Brooks returning to anchor the unit. The Bulldogs will have one of the larger offensive fronts in the SoCon this fall, with Luke Byrne coming in at 6-2, 305 lbs and Jabari Brooks arriving at 6-4, 335 lbs. Brooks was an All-SoCon pick a year ago and will enter the 2023 campaign as a first-team all-league selection.

Preview of Samford’s Defense

Defensively, Samford was better last year, but this season is another unknown with just three starters back. The good news is one of the best players on that side of the ball returns to anchor the unit, in Joseph Mera. Mera was outstanding last season and will enter the 2023 season as one of the top defensive lineman in the SoCon. Mera was a player that caused havoc up front last season for the Bulldogs, leading the team with four sacks in 2022.

Like Furman, the Bulldogs were obviously susceptible to the big play last season, and in the regular-season finale against Mercer, Bears All-American wide receiver Ty James made the Bears pay, setting a Southern Conference record with 13 catches for 351 yards and a pair of scores. With that said, the Bears do have one of the top defensive backs returning in all of the SoCon, in Kourtlan Marsh—a preseason First-Team All-SoCon selection—and it’s a position which the Bulldogs have had success turning out talent before. Marsh is the biggest hitter in a secondary that is stocked with talent, however, much of that talent has never played together on the same field, which is important.

As this unit gains more experience down in the latter portions of the season, it could be one of the best in the FCS, however, there has the potential to be some blown coverages and missed assignments against the run early on in the season. Moral of the story is get yards while you can against this green unit before they figure it out.

The 2022 season would see the Bulldogs finish 45th nationally in scoring defense (25.4 PPG), 101st in total defense (435.2 YPG), 111th in passing yards allowed (261.5 YPG), and 80th in rushing defense (173.6 YPG). The rankings and numbers don’t necessarily do the improvement on that side of the ball justice, as the Bulldogs were aggressive, getting after opposing quarterbacks more regularly than the previous year, as well as turning over the opposition with much more frequency. The Bulldogs finished the 2022 season ranking in the FCS 13th in turnover margin (+.69) and 85th in team sacks (22.0/1.69 SPG).

Though they did give up big plays with some regularity, the improvement was notable in terms of physicality, and that showed up well in the FCS playoffs when the Bulldogs made the trip to FargoDome to face FCS juggernaut North Dakota State. While Samford’s offense struggled in the first half, the Bulldog defense did well enough to keep Samford in the game. Red zone defense was a strength for the Bulldogs last season, finishing the season ranking tied for 44th in FCS in that defensive category (.800).

While there aren’t a slew of starters returning on the defensive side of the ball, there is a lot of experience returning, with many of those returning having been seen as a part of the two-deep last season for the Bulldogs.

Like Mera and Marsh, the Bulldogs have one of the top performers at his position in the SoCon, as linebacker Noah Martin le the Bulldogs in total tackles last season and he joined his two teammates as a member of the preseason First-Team All-SoCon squad, according to the league’s eight coaches eligible to vote.

Thomas Neville also returns to give the Bulldogs some reputable experience in the middle of the defense. Head coach Chris Hatcher went out and added some more depth at linebacker, bringing in Penn linebacker Garrett Morris, who garnered First-Team All-Ivy league honors with the Quakers last season after posting 71 tackles, 9.5 TFL, two sacks and an INT.

The good news for the Bulldogs is Kameron Smith—a transfer cornerback from Charleston Southern—will have a chance to come in and make an immediate impact this fall.

Smith was an All-Big South selection last season after posting 37 total tackles, with 13 pass breakups and a forced fumble at defensive back. While most think of Samford being “QBU”, it’s more “DBU” in terms of the talent the program has produced since the early 2000s beginning with Courtland Finnegan in 2004.

Since entering the SoCon, guys like James Bradberry, Corey White and Jaquiski Tartt have all gone on to represent the Bulldogs in the NFL in recent seasons. The good news for the Bulldogs is Kameron Smith—a transfer cornerback from Charleston Southern—will have a chance to come in and make an immediate impact this fall. Smith was an All-Big South selection last season after posting 37 total tackles, with 13 pass breakups and a forced fumble in 2022.

All told, most of the transfers on the defensive side of the ball are in the defensive backfield, including five from the FBS ranks. The ones that figure to compete to come in and start right away are safety Jonathan Searcy (Bucknell) andcornerback Devin Smith (Austin Peay) will join the aforementioned Brown to bolster the depth of the unit. Other than maybe Western Carolina, no one hit the transfer portal harder than the Bulldogs during the last recruiting cycle, bringing in a total of 14, including eight from FBS programs.

During his time at Bucknell, Searcy was a significant piece on the Bison defense, having posted 111 tackles (76 solo hits), five tackles-for-loss, three PBUs, and a pair of INTs over the course of three seasons in Union County, PA.

Special Teams

An area of concern for Samford might be the kicking game, with the loss of both place-kicker Zach Williams (8-of-12 on FGs/51-of-53 on PATs) and punter Brad Porcellato (42.6 YPP).

The good news is the transfer portal yielded talent, with UAB transfer Wilson Beaverstock and Forrest Taylor out of Coffeyville Community College are expected to battle for the place-kicking and kickoff duties this fall. Freshman Will Thorley from Torquay, Australia could be a potential replacement for Porcellato at punter.

Overall Synopsis

Samford is going to be a team that is again a threat to not only win a SoCon title, but is an outside contender to win the national title. The Bulldogs’ only SoCon loss will either come at the hands of Furman or a late-season trip to Macon to face Mercer. Other than that, the only other blemish looks like the early-season trip to SEC country to face the Auburn Tigers.

2023 Schedule Prediction

  • Aug. 31 vs. Shorter (W, 65-7)
  • Sept. 9 at Western Carolina (W, 41-38)
  • Sept. 16 at Auburn (L, 21-42)
  • Sept. 23 vs. Chattanooga (W, 31-24)
  • Sept. 30 vs. ETSU (W, 55-42)
  • Oct. 7 at Wofford (W, 28-20)
  • Oct. 14 vs. Furman (L, 35-38)
  • Oct. 21 at VMI (W, 45-21)
  • Oct. 28 vs. The Citadel (W, 35-17)
  • Nov. 11 at Mercer (W, 31-28)
  • Nov. 18 vs UT Martin (W, 45-38)

Projected Final Regular Season Record: 9-2 overall, 7-1 SoCon