Unlike recent seasons, there wasn’t an NFL Hall-of-Famer like Terrell Owens or an accomplished journalist and personality from ESPN like Ryan McGhee to welcome the media, players and coaches to the outing held at the beautiful, new Hotel Hartness in Greenville, S.C. The man doing the talking this time around was newly appointed Southern Conference commissioner Michael Cross, who was impressive with what he had to say, both about the importance of football to the Southern Conference, as well as the league’s dedication to giving its ardent support to a sport, that as he said gave the league its best opportunity to win a national championship.
Cross, who has an impressive resume’ that includes a stint as a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which is designed to promote and lead transformational change with an emphasis on education, health, safety with a focus on the future success for the student-athletes when given real-world opportunities in the American workforce. He also has logged time on campus in the athletic departments at Bradley, Princeton, Michigan and Penn State.
His short speech focused on re-branding efforts to emphasize "THE" Southern Conference as an ode to the history of it being the nation’s fifth-oldest intercollegiate athletic conference, and arguably its most important having produced two of the most prominent power five conferences, as well as more football-centric topics, with the launch of "Saturdays in the SoCon" as a special emphasis on marketing SoCon football and its brand throughout the nation. Bringing Southern Conference football back to the forefront of national conversations was not lost on the 10th commissioner in league history.
With student-athletes and head coaches on hand from all nine football-playing members, it made for another great event to launch as highly-anticipated a gridiron season from a national perspective since 2012, which is the last season that both Appalachian State and Georgia Southern entered a campaign FCS playoff, and thus national championship eligible before their move to FBS.
With that said, the momentum of the league was established among four primary programs throughout the season, with Samford, Furman, Mercer and Chattanooga all dominating the headlines during the 2022 season.
One of the things that was striking for me about this league and why I think it’s earmarked for another successful campaign on the college football gridiron is the success of the head coaches and the coaching acumen overall in this conference. I would venture to say it's as good of a contingent as you’ll find in any league in the FCS, and that’s a testament to some pretty keen athletic leadership among the nine football-playing institutions in the SoCon.
"This is a hard league but it’s a great league," Mercer head coach Drew Cronic said of the SoCon last Thursday at Greenville's Hotel Hartness. "When you’re in a league that everybody plays everybody else and that makes it all the more tougher and the coaches are all really good in this league and we all know each other well and if the same coach is somewhere for a while…there’s not much you can pull over these guys that they don’t already know…Like if we’re playing Chattanooga and going against Rusty [Wright] what’s now going to be four of five times you can’t really hide anything and that makes it really hard," Cronic added.
A next step for Mercer as a program would just be to find its way into the postseason in program history, while for Chattanooga, after disappointing league campaigns that went from being picked to win the league overall in the preseason to not making the playoffs each of the past two, there is an emphasis on finding a way back to the success the Mocs were able to revisit under former head coach Russ Huesman from 2009-16.
Finally, for the team picked fifth—Western Carolina—it's a chance to do something it has never done in 47 years of membership, which is win a SoCon title for the first time, as well as getting back to the FCS postseason for the first time in four decades and just the second time in school history.
In part 1, I look at teams projected to finish 1-5 by the coaches and media, as they talked about all things Southern Conference football last Thursday at the league's annual preseason football media rouser.
Furman (10-3, 7-1 SoCon (2nd) / lost 41-38 at Incarnate Word in FCS 2nd Rd)
The consensus pick to claim the 2023 Southern Conference title is the Furman Paladins, as it was announced on the final and especially hot Thursday afternoon in July at Greenville’s Hartness Hotel.
The Paladins tied with Samford in the SoCon coaches' poll with 59 points, with Furman garnering one more first-place vote than the Bulldogs by a 5-4 count. The media poll, on the other hand, had Furman as the decisive favorite to claim the 2023 crown, with the Paladins getting 30 votes atop the media poll and 345 points, while Samford was second with eight first-place votes and 316 points.
In 2004, Furman was able to back up its preseason consensus billing by following through with a Southern Conference regular-season crown, claiming a share of the regular-season crown which resulted in a 10-3 campaign. The 2004 and ’05 campaigns saw Furman produce two of the school’s best offensive seasons in program history, with the ’05 campaign being one of the best in SoCon history.
The coaches and media took their stance on Furman likely because the Paladins return a total of 20 starters (9-offense, 9-defense, 2-special teams) off a team that went 10-3 last season before bowing out of the FCS playoffs with an FCS semifinal, 41-38, setback to Incarnate Word. The Paladins return 38 of 44 from their two-deep of a year ago, as well as 29 players with starting experience. All told, the Paladins have a combined 397 starts returning on both sides of the ball.
Expectations are at an all-time high for head coach Clay Hendrix’s team, but his team is handling it with poise and with hunger.
“I’ve been really pleased with how we’ve handled the off-season and the expectations,” head coach Clay Hendrix said at the SoCon’s 2023 Football Media Event.
“It’s funny, we haven’t won anything yet…Yeah we had a great season last year, but we didn’t win anything.” “The message from our players throughout the off-season and into the summer has been to stay humble and stay hungry,” Hendrix added. “I’ve even heard our players say, ‘coach we didn’t win anything last year’ and I think you always judge how they manage expectations and stuff like that on how they work, and man this group has worked really hard in the off-season to get ready for the season.”
Furman’s Matt Sochovka was the first to lend credibility to what his coach was saying. Taking a bit of a cue from the “rat poison” quote used by Alabama head coach Nick Saban when anyone in the media decides to wax poetic about the Crimson Tide.
“I remember when I saw we were picked No. 5 in the nation and I sent it in our captains group text to some of our players and I got four messages back ‘that’s rat poison Matt…rat poison’ and so those guys and we keep each other humble and that’s what kind of team we have you know…we have a number of guys that have been here a while and yeah we’re picked to win it, but every year in our minds we should be picked to win it” Sochovka said.
One of the things that helped buoy Furman early on in the 2022 season was a spirited effort at fourth-ranked Clemson—a game which saw the Paladins out-gain the Tigers 384-376—and it would see Furman only grow in confidence as the season progressed. That performance, though in a loss, was key to establishing confidence as the Paladins moved forward in 2022. A lot of that confidence was seeing quarterback Tyler Huff emerge right before their eyes against one of the best defensive units in college football.
“It was after North Greenville, right, so we really hadn’t seen Tyler [Huff] play and I think when you see him play against Clemson like that and on defense we couldn’t get a stop for him, which was really disappointing,” Sochovka added. “But we learned that No. 6..he’s our guy and that gave us confidence and in years past we had struggled with quarterback play you know…So when you got No. 6 back there, you got some belief in you.”
Huff, a graduate transfer from Presbyterian College, comes off his inaugural season as the Paladin signal-caller having put together one of the best single-seasons by a QB in program history. 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 Justin Hill in 1999. He completed 199-of-292 passes for 2,199 yards, with 15 TDs and was picked off eight times last season.
One of the unique aspects that Huff brings to the Paladin offense is his ability to improvise when the play breaks down. A unique talent he discovered when he was at PC, and was at times, literally running for his life before being snowed under by the opposing defense.
"I give a lot of credit to where I came from Presbyterian College…I love my guys there," Huff said as he chuckled. "I love those guys there, but I found myself running a little more than I expected playing college ball so I think I just kind of learned that skill and honestly when I got here coach [Justin] Roper told me last year in fall camp that I was running around a little too much and he was like 'you're on a team now that you don’t have to do everything yourself and you've got some guys around you' so it took me a little while to actually trust that, but now I am at the point where anytime I drop back I got like 10 seconds so I know I don’t have to do all that scrambling around as much," Huff added.
The Paladins led the league with 15 all-conference selections, including seven first-team selections. The Paladins had offensive linemen Pearson Toomey and Jacob Johanning selected to the first team, as was redshirt senior running back Dominic Roberto. On defense, Furman had three selections to the first team, with defensive backs Travis Blackshear and Hugh Ryan garnering recognition, while linebacker Braden Gilby also was selected to first team. Rounding out Furman’s first-team selections was long snapper Julian Ashby.
The Paladins had eight selected to the second team, with quarterback Tyler Huff headlining those selections. Others selected to the second team included wideout Joshua Harris, defensive linemen Jack Barton, Matt Sochovka and Sirrod Cook, as well as defensive back Kam Brinson round out the selections to the second team offense and defense. Furman place-kicker Ian Williams and return specialist Wayne Anderson Jr. were also selected to the second team as a part of the special teams unit.
Furman will open its 2023 season on Thursday, Aug. 30, when the Paladins host Tennessee Tech at Paladin Stadium, with kickoff set for 7 p.m.
Samford (11-2, 8-0 SoCon (1st) / lost 27-9 at North Dakota State in FCS quarterfinals)
Samford, which is the reigning Southern Conference champion, had the SoCon’s preseason Offensive Player of the Year, in quarterback Michael Hiers.
All Hiers did last season was tie the single-season school-record with 36 TD passes, while helping lead the Bulldogs to an 11-2 overall record and an 8-0 mark in Southern Conference action. The 8-0 league mark ensured Samford its first-ever outright Southern Conference title. Hiers finished his first season as a Bulldog completing 109-of-163 passes for 3,544 yds, which ranked best in the SoCon and was sixth-best nationally.
Hiers also ranked in the top 10 nationally in the following categories: completion percentage (76.6%/1st), completions per game (27.15/3rd), passing efficiency (165.2/8th), passing touchdowns (36/4th), points responsible for (2,234 pts/6th), and points responsible for per game (18/7th) The Bulldogs were knocked out of the FCS postseason by North Dakota State in the quarterfinals, dropping a 27-9 contest to North Dakota State.
“’Last season we were really a wild card team going into the season in my mind,” Samford head coach Chris Hatcher said. “We had a lot of new faces…new defensive staff and you know I thought coming into it we had good talent and we had a good team but had never really been in a game with many of them…I thought getting a win over Kennesaw State to open the season was huge for us and then we played Georgia pretty decent, especially defensively and then we had the come-from-behind win over Tennessee Tech on the road and then kind of after that we had great belief in what we were doing…great belief in the team…and then we were an older team…While it was a lot of our guys first season with me, they had experience and that helped us be very mature and very business-like throughout the season, which was key,” Hatcher added.
Hiers is a quarterback that continues in a long line of Samford greats during and even before their membership as a SoCon member. But most of the record-breakers that have worn a Bulldog uniform have come in the 14-year membership in the SoCon. Players like Dustin Taliaferro, Andy Summerlin, Michael Eubanks, Devlin Hodges (2018 Walter Payton Award Winner), and Liam Welch have all left their unique footprint on Samford football, and nearly all of them hold a passing record or quarterback rushing record of some sort, whether it be single-season, single game, or setting a career mark.
Now it’s Hiers’ time to shine in Samford’s ‘Hatch Attack’. He helped the Samford offense look like a machine once again last season, with his 36 scoring tosses helping him tie the single season mark previously set by Devlin Hodges in 2016. Hiers hit the ground running last fall, leading the Bulldogs to a Top-10 win over Kennesaw State, 27-17, to open the season. Hiers raised more than a few eyebrows in that season-opening win over the Owls, silencing all the unknown questions about life after Liam, as he connected on 18-of-24 passes for 289 yards, with four TDs and no INTs in a big win for both Samford and the SoCon as a conference. Hiers garnered his first of five SoCon Offensive Player of the Week citations, igniting one of the best seasons in Samford’s gridiron history.
He and teammate—defensive lineman Joseph Mera—who was also on-hand to represent the Bulldogs in Greenville last week, reflected on the memories and the fun they had last season, while looking forward to making more memories in 2023. It was not lost upon Hiers how neat the experience of media day was.
“It’s been a blast getting to meet all the student-athletes from other programs and kind of talk to them and learn about them as people,” Hiers. It’s cool because during a game you don’t really get to do that because it’s all about competition or whatever, but here you get to see like they are really good guys and we’re all chasing the same goal at the end of the day.”
The media experience is different for everyone. For teams like Furman, Samford and Mercer, they also carry high expectations based on how things went a year ago and the preseason poll projections, but like Furman’s Matt Sochovka so eloquently put, he thinks Furman should be picked first every year no matter where the media and coaches actually place them, and I would venture to imagine that’s the feeling among all nine schools and its student-athletes attending. Unless you’re actually picked first, everyone else thinks they should be picked higher. That’s human nature.
So how have Hiers and Mera had fun and managed the media day expectations? Just as you might expect an 18–22-year-old would. By taking it all in and enjoying those moments.
“It’s been really cool meeting all the guys and players from different schools,” defensive lineman Joseph Mera said. “For once we don’t have to worry about competing against each other and you can get to know them…And with all the hype and expectations and stuff…we’re just so focused on being the ultimate team and last year’s wins and success doesn’t matter anymore and it’s a brand new season and a fresh start and it’s like that for everyone…We’re just trying to be the best team we can be and see what happens after that,” Mera added.
One of the unique things about the top two signal-callers according to the all-league teams, is that both Furman’s Huff and Samford’s Hiers were relative unknowns coming into last year. Now, both Huff and Hiers have a year of leadership notched on their respective belts. Hiers was candid about how he’s approaching this season and what he learned from last season about himself as a leader of his football team.
“I think one big thing is your more familiar with everyone…And so like last summer it was harder because you were more focused on trying to compete and win the job and the things you can do better to give you that chance and you just go out and play and now you’ve played a whole year and you’ve got more chemistry with guys, but really what it comes down to for me is just going out there now and doing your job everyday but now I’m not doing it to win the job, I am doing it more as like an example of leadership and most importantly try and build an even better culture each day,” Hiers added.
One date to circle on the calendar is Oct. 14. That’s when Furman and Samford square off in a game that very well could decide the Southern Conference champion in 2023. The Bulldogs handed Furman its only Southern Conference loss of the season last fall, as the Bulldogs opened the month of October with a 34-27 win over the Paladins. Kickoff for the Oct. 14 contest is set for 1 p.m EST at Seibert Stadium in Homewood, AL.
In addition to Hiers garnering All-SoCon honors for the Bulldogs, six other Bulldogs garnered all-league plaudits. Offensive lineman Jabari Brooks, wide receiver Chandler Smith, defensive lineman Joseph Mera, linebacker Noah Martin and defensive back Kourtlan Marsh to the first team. Running back Jay Stanton was the only representative from Samford on the second team.
Mercer (7-4, 5-3 in SoCon/T-3rd)
Selected to finish third in the Southern Conference for the 2023 season was the Mercer Bears. Mercer was knocking on the door of both a Southern Conference title and an FCS playoff bid once again last season, dropping its final two games of the season to Furman (L, 13-23) and Samford (L, 44-50 OT) to finish 7-4 overall and 6-2 in league action, just missing out on the postseason for a second-straight campaign. The Bears dropped a 38-35 contest at East Tennessee State in what was the de facto Southern Conference championship game a couple of years ago on the final day of the regular-season, finishing 7-3 overall and an identical 6-2 conference record.
The good news for Mercer and fifth-year head coach Drew Cronic (66-19) is that many of those players who have won some pretty big games over the past two seasons return to the fold, including 10 starters on the defensive side of the ball. It was a Mercer defense that figures to be among the best in the nation once again this season, as the Bears finished the season ranking 25th nationally in total defense (337.4 YPG), 27th in scoring defense (22.09 PPG), 37th in red zone defense (.786), and tied for third nationally in passes intercepted (17).
The two burning questions heading into the season for the Bears are both on the offensive side of the ball, and more specifically, at quarterback and running back. With Fred Payton having graduated, and Austin Douglas not playing this year due to health issues, the two burning questions are who replaces Payton and Douglas at running back, and what’s the overall depth at the running back spot heading into the 2023 season for the Bears.
"Carter's [Peevy] our guy at quarterback going into the season," head coach Drew Cronic said. "If everyone will remember he was the SoCon Freshman of the Year during the COVID spring season," Cronic added.
Peevy will be at the helm of one of the most diverse offensive units in the Southern Conference this fall, and has completed 89-of-164 passes for 1,318 yards and eight touchdowns so far in his career for the Bears. Most of those stats came during that spring season of 2021.
“Running back was certainly an area coming into the season we wanted to address,” Cronic said. “We’ve got Al Wooten coming back and Al’s our bigger back and he’s a really physical player and losing Austin [Douglas]…you know Austin broke his leg midway through last season and he’s had so more health issues so he won’t be available this fall and so we had a true freshman come in in January and he’ll be a guy who will be a good player eventually, but certainly you don’t want to just count on a true freshman if you can help it and we brought in another young man named Micah Bell who was at UNC Charlotte last year and redshirted there and is originally a Georgia kid and he’s from Ola High School just up the road from us. He’s got really good speed but he’s a little bit of an unknown because we just haven’t seen him practice football in pads yet and he joined us in June and he’s had a great summer…There’s one other guy to keep an eye on named Mike McGowan, who’s a transfer and when we kind of figured out that Austin wasn’t going to be available for us this fall then we wanted to get one more guy in there and he’s a guy that’s a JUCO kid and was at West Alabama for a little while so he has ability…but those are some unknowns,” Cronic said.
As far as the running back position is concerned, it’s a little more complicated for the Bears. Austin Douglas suffered an injury at mid-season last fall and will not be returning to the program this season. The good news is at least one veteran returns at running back for the Bears entering the 2023 season, in Al Wooten II. Wooten saw action in all 11 games last season for the Bears, adding a team-leading 495 yards and four touchdowns on 130 carries, averaging 3.8 yards-per-carry.
Peevy will have two of the very best receivers to throw to in all of FCS football this season, with the return of a tandem of All-America wideouts to throw the football to, in Ty James (52 rec, 1,105 yds, 13 TDs, 13.0 YPR in 2022), as well as Devron Harper (78 rec, 987 yds, 10 TDs, 12.7 YPR/199 rush yds, 4 TDs in 2022). Both James and Harper easily give Mercer the top wide receiving duo in the SoCon in 2023.
James and Harper are joined in the first-team by offensive lineman John Thomas, defensive lineman Solomon Zubairu, and linebacker Isaac Dowling. Mercer’s presence on the SoCon’s second team was also noticeable, with offensive lineman Israel Mukwiza being the lone offensive selection to the second team, while defensive lineman Savio Frazier, linebacker Ken Standley, and defensive backs Richie Coffey, Myles Redding and Lance Wise were all selected to the second team defense.
For the second-straight season, Mercer will be the first of the nine SoCon teams to open the season when the Bears take part in the FCS Kickoff Classic in Montgomery, AL, facing off against North Alabama on Sat., Aug. 26. Kickoff for that contest is set for 3:30 p.m. EST.
Chattanooga (7-4, 5-3/T-3rd)
The team picked by both the coaches and media to finish in fourth position in the Southern Conference preseason poll is the team that has been picked to win the league each of the past couple of campaigns, in the Chattanooga Mocs. Like Mercer, Chattanooga is coming off a 7-4 finish to the 2022 campaign, which also saw the Mocs finish a disappointing 5-3 in league action. Rusty Wright will be going with a bit of a different look this fall, as the Mocs will be employing a two-quarterback system, with both UCLA transfer Chase Artopoeus and Luke Schomburg both expected to see time under center this fall.
“We’ve got two guys that are very capable,” Chattanooga head coach Rusty Wright said. “Chase Artopeus from UCLA and then Luke Schomburg and both of those guys do things well, but neither one has played very much football and so it’s going to be an experience with that, but I have full confidence with both of those guys doing what they need to do to put us in position to win…Chase is a really really smart football player and he’s going to give us some options that we didn’t have in the past as far as being able to read and see the whole field…Luke’s got a live arm and he’s a big guy…he’s almost 6-3, 215-225 lbs…They’ll both play,” Wright added.
The good news for the Mocs is there is plenty of talent surrounding both quarterbacks coming into the season, and in particular, at running back, where Ailym Ford (232 rush att, 1,199 yds, 12 TDs, 5.2 YPC) returns as does veteran Gino Appleberry, and that alone should provide some comfort to either quarterback. Ford is on the brink of breaking the school’s all-time rushing record. He heads into the 2023 season needing just 609 yards rushing and 12 rushing TDs to break former quarterback Jacob Huesman’s rushing records in both of those career categories.
Ford was one of eight Mocs selected to one of the preseason All-SoCon teams, including one of which was selected as the SoCon’s Defensive Player of the Year, in edge rusher/linebacker Jay Person (52 tackles, 17.5 TFL, 8.0 sacks, 9 QBHs). Person finished the 2022 season by completing the campaign tied for the league lead in quarterback takedowns, finishing the campaign with 8.0 tackles for loss to go with his impressive 17.5 tackles-for-loss.
Person, who ended the 2022 campaign as the SoCon’s Defensive Player of the Year, headlines a defensive unit that welcomes the return of seven starters and 14 lettermen that saw action as a part of the Mocs two-deep last season. Joining Person as Mocs who garnered preseason recognition on the SoCon’s preseason all-conference teams includes DL Ben Brewton (1st team), DL Marlon Taylor (2nd Team), DB Kam Brown (1st Team) and DB Reuben Lowery III (2nd Team).
The Mocs were again among the top defensive units in the nation last season, finishing out the 2022 campaign ranking 12th nationally in total defense (322.6 YPG), 14th in scoring defense (20.6 PPG), fifth in team sacks (35.0 sacks/3.18 SPG), ninth in rushing defense (108.0 YPG), and 49th in passing yards allowed (214.6 YPG).
Ford was one of three Mocs to end up one of the two preseason all-conference teams, with offensive linemen Reid Williams (1st Team) and Bryce Goodner (2nd Team) completing UTC’s representation on the SoCon’s preseason scrolls. Chattanooga will open the 2023 season on Sept. 2, traveling to face North Alabama with kickoff for that contest set for 7 p.m.
Western Carolina (6-5, 5-3/5th)
The team that very well could be a dark horse in this season’s Southern Conference football race, but one picked to finish fifth by both the coaches and media is the Western Carolina Catamounts. The Catamounts have by far been one of the most exciting teams in the Southern Conference in two seasons under the direction of head coach Kerwin Bell.
Western Carolina’s 486.2 YPG of total offense last season ranks it as one of the most prolific offenses in both school history and Southern Conference history.
In fact, WCU’s total offensive output last season ranks it eighth all-time in league history. The Catamounts finished the 2022 campaign ranking sixth nationally and first in the Southern Conference in total offense last season. The Purple and Gold also ranked seventh nationally in passing offense and second in the SoCon, averaging 301.1 YPG through the air last fall.
There’s enough talent on both sides of the football—should the Catamounts perform on both sides of the ball equal to that talent—to challenge for the Catamounts’ second FCS playoff appearance and first in four decades, as well as the program’s first-ever SoCon title since joining the SoCon some 47 years ago.
“As I’ve been able to build programs wherever I have been, the first thing you have to get is talent,” Western Carolina head coach Kerwin Bell said. “You don’t win without talent,” Bell added. “We’ve got the talent level here now; it’s just about learning how to develop championship level DNA and as a staff is we’ve got to nurture and cultivate that talent we have on our roster.”
Every team does it different in the SoCon, and for Bell’s Catamounts, he’s been able to successfully poach good talent from the portal and has turned over nearly two rosters during his time in Cullowhee, yet that hasn’t seemed to matter, as Bell has continued to replace talent with talent from the portal.
Western Carolina wasn’t all that far away last season, dropping games on the road at nationally ranked Mercer (L, 6-49), Furman (L, 40-47) and Samford (L, 12-35) before eventually defeating No.15/17 Chattanooga (W, 32-29). The win over Chattanooga marked the first time the Catamounts had knocked off a ranked FCS team since the 2017 season, when the Catamounts knocked off No. 17 Samford, 38-34, in 2017. The win over the Mocs was part of what was a strong finish to the campaign for the Catamounts, who finished out the regular season with wins in their final three games over East Tennessee State (W, 20-17), at Wofford (W, 36-29).
Western Carolina had its share of departures from both sides of the ball last season, including losing three of its best weapons on offense, in quarterback Carlos Davis, running back TJ Jones and wideout Raphael Williams. On defense, Western Carolina lost defensive lineman KJ Milner and EJ Porter as the most significant departures on that side of the ball. The Catamounts made strides down the stretch on the defensive side of the football last season, mostly in terms of being a physical, run-stopping unit that was able to hold its last three opponents less than 30 points after having allowed seven of its first eight opponents to score 30 or more to begin the 2022 campaign.
With Davis’ departure, it does leave an opening at quarterback, where Cole Gonzales (102-of-161 passing, 1,336 yds, 11 TDs, 7 INTs) remains the leader in the clubhouse heading into camp, according to Bell. However, junior transfer Charlie Dean, who comes to Western Carolina from Harvard, is an experienced signal-caller with a good understanding of the Catamounts’ scheme and could play a sizable role at the position this season.
He has excellent receiving options to throw to, with speed merchants like David White Jr (20 rec, 384 yds, 5 TDs, 19.2 YPR), Censere Lee (36 rec, 634 yds, 6 TDs, 17.6 YPR) and Terrance Horne Jr. (12 rec, 211 yds, 4 TDs, 17.6 YPR) all returning to the fold.
Eight different Catamounts represented on one of the two All-SoCon teams, with offensive lineman Tyler Smith and tight end Ajay Belanger highlighting the first-team selections for the Catamounts. On the defensive side of the ball, first-team selections included junior defensive lineman Micah Nelson and defensive back Andreas Keaton, while place-kicker Richard McCollum rounded out the first team picks for the Purple and Gold.
A trio of Catamounts garnered second-team honors, with the offensive side of the ball being highlighted by Desmond Reid (119 rush att, 826 yds, 4 TDs, 6.9 YPC/21 rec, 212 yds, 1 TD, 10.1 YPR/1,038 all-purpose yds) and senior offensive lineman Christian Coulter. To me, Reid is the SoCon’s version of Marshall Faulk in terms of how he can hurt teams as both a running threat as well as being an aerial threat with his 4.3 speed. With that kind of speed, he can stress a defense in multiple different ways, which is while coach Bell was adamant about getting him the ball in space and in a variety of different ways this coming fall.
“I told my son Cade…our offensive coordinator…I want you to make sure he touches it 20 times a game…last year because of a high ankle sprain he got banged up a little bit and he’s a real physical runner, but he’s also a 4.3 speed guy and so he can create a lot of dynamic plays for us and we’ve got to find a way for him to touch it either through the throw game or just handing him the football and I think he needs to touch it 15-20 times a game at least,” Bell said.
Western Carolina’s lone representative on the second team defensive side of the ball, much like Furman transfer defensive lineman Sirrod Cook, has never played a down in the Southern Conference, as Antoine Williams figures to give immediate support to the interior linebacker spot, where EJ Porter has departed post. Williams started his career at Austin Peay, playing for the Governors from 2020-22. He is credited with making 100 tackles over three seasons in Clarksville, including having made 47 solo stops, with 12.5 tackles-for-loss in his Catamount career.
Western Carolina will kick off its 2023 season on Sept. 2 when the Catamounts travel to face SEC member Arkansas in Fayetteville, with kickoff set for 4 p.m. EST.
Check back in the next few days for the second part of the 2023 media day recap, as I take a look at teams projected to finish 6-9 by the coaches and media in the preseason. Below I have listed the order of finish, as well as the all-conference teams and preseason superlative awards.
2023 Preseason Southern Conference Coaches Poll
Team (1st-place votes) — Total
T1. Furman (5) — 59
T1. Samford (4) — 59
3. Mercer — 49
4. Chattanooga — 47
5. Western Carolina — 35
6. ETSU — 29
7. Wofford — 22
8. The Citadel — 14
9. VMI — 10
2023 Preseason All-Southern Conference Football Teams
Offensive Player of the Year
- Michael Hiers, Sr., QB, Samford
Defensive Player of the Year
- Jay Person, Sr., DL, Chattanooga
First Team Offense
QB Michael Hiers, Sr., Samford
RB Dominic Roberto, R-Sr., Furman
RB Ailym Ford, Sr., Chattanooga
OL Jacob Johanning, R-Sr., Furman
OL Pearson Toomey, R-Sr., Furman
OL John Thomas, Sr., Mercer
OL Jabari Brooks, Jr., Samford
OL Reid Williams, Jr., Chattanooga
OL Tyler Smith, R-Sr., Western Carolina
TE Ajay Belanger, Sr., Western Carolina
WR Devron Harper, Sr., Mercer
WR Ty James, R-Jr., Mercer
WR Chandler Smith, Sr., Samford
First Team Defense
DL Solomon Zubairu, Sr., Mercer
DL Joseph Mera, Sr., Samford
DL Ben Brewton, Sr., Chattanooga
DL Jay Person, Sr., Chattanooga
DL Micah Nelson, Jr., Western Carolina
LB Braden Gilby, Gr., Furman
LB Isaac Dowling, Jr., Mercer
LB Noah Martin, Jr., Samford
DB Travis Blackshear, Gr., Furman
DB Hugh Ryan, R-Sr., Furman
DB Kourtlan Marsh, Jr., Samford
DB Kameron Brown, Sr., Chattanooga
DB Alex Oliver, Sr., VMI
DB Andreas Keaton, Jr., Western Carolina
First Team Specialists
PK Richard McCollum, R-Sr., Western Carolina
P Jack Culbreath, Sr., VMI
LS Julian Ashby, R-Jr., Furman
RS Devron Harper, Sr., Mercer
Second Team Offense
QB Tyler Huff, Gr., Furman
RB Jay Stanton, Sr., Samford
RB Desmond Reid, So., Western Carolina
OL Israel Mukwiza, R-Jr., Mercer
OL Bryce Goodner, R-So., Chattanooga
OL Tyriq Poindexter, R-So., VMI
OL Christian Coulter, Sr., Western Carolina
OL Jason Swann, Sr., Wofford
TE Noah West, R-Jr., ETSU
WR Will Huzzie, R-Sr., ETSU
WR Joshua Harris, Jr., Furman
Second Team Defense
DL Max Evans, R-Jr., ETSU
DL Jack Barton, R-Sr., Furman
DL Sirod Cook, Gr., Furman
DL Matt Sochovka, Gr., Furman
DL Savio Frazier, Jr., Mercer
DL Marlon Taylor, R-Jr., Chattanooga
DL Chuck Smith, Sr., Wofford
LB Ken Standley, R-Jr., Mercer
LB Evan Eller, Sr., VMI
LB Antoine Williams, R-Jr., Western Carolina
DB Sheldon Arnold II, Jr., ETSU
DB Kam Brinson, R-Sr., Furman
DB Richie Coffey, Sr., Mercer
DB Myles Redding, Jr., Mercer
DB Lance Wise, Sr., Mercer
DB Reuben Lowery III, Jr., Chattanooga
Second Team Specialists
PK Ian Williams, R-Jr., Furman
P Trace Kelley, R-So., ETSU
LS Ryan Phillips, So., ETSU
RS Wayne Anderson Jr., R-Sr., Furman
NOTE: Coaches were not permitted to vote for their own players or team.
2023 Preseason Southern Conference Media Poll
Team (1st-place votes) — Total
1. Furman (30) — 345
2. Samford (8) — 316
3. Mercer (2) — 263
4. Chattanooga — 250
5. Western Carolina — 218
6. ETSU — 143
7. The Citadel — 103
8. Wofford — 102
9. VMI — 60