No. 6 Furman vs Tennessee Tech

No. 6 Furman takes on Tennessee Tech. Both teams gear up for a thrilling clash at Paladin Stadium on Aug. 31, 7 p.m. EST.

Photos captured during to 2021 game between Furman and Tennessee Tech
Source: Furman Athletics and TTU Athletics

Historically Speaking

For the second-straight season, the Furman Paladin football team will be opening up the college football season on a Thursday night under the lights, and this season, the challenge will come from another FCS football program, in Tennessee Tech. The Paladins and Golden Eagles will be squaring off on the college football gridiron for the fourth time in series history, with the Paladins holding the 2-1 all-time series edge. The Paladins and Golden Eagles met on the gridiron just a couple of years ago in Cookeville, Tenn, with the Paladins able to come up with what was a 26-0 win.

The Golden Eagles and Paladins first faced off against each other during the 1975 season, which was Art Baker’s third season at the helm of the Paladin football program. That first meeting between the two saw the Golden Eagles claim what was a 17-5 win in Greenville.

During that 1975 season, the Paladins would go on to finish with a 5-5-1 overall record, while the Golden Eagles would go on to claim the 1975 Ohio Valley Conference regular-season title. The Golden Eagles would go on to complete that ’75 season with an 8-3 overall record, which included an impressive 6-1 mark in OVC action. It would be another 26 years before the Golden Eagles would lift an OVC crown again.

The Paladins would get some revenge a year later, with the Paladins coming away with a 17-7 win in Cookeville. The Paladins will look to reverse the trend of the away team having won every game in the series.

A new tradition and a nod to the past

For the second-straight season, Furman will open the season on a Thursday night inside the friendly confines of Paladin Stadium. Last season’s 52-0 win over North Greenville marked the first-ever Thursday night home opener for Furman at Paladin Stadium. On that particular night, the Paladins donned purple helmets with a black diamond F logo, marking the first time in over 50 years the Paladins had worn something other than white helmets.

In the 52-0 win, the Paladins wore black jerseys, with purple helmets and black pants. In this season’s opener against Tennessee Tech, the Paladins will also give a nod to its tradition-rich history as a football program, as the Paladins will wear silver helmets, black jerseys and black pants.

It will mark first time since 1977 Furman has donned a silver lid, and this season the team will wear these helmets in select games to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the Diamond F logo on the helmet, which started at Furman in 1973 under the direction of South Carolina Football Hall-of-Fame coach Art Baker.

The design of the Diamond F logo is actually attributed to another of Furman’s Hall-of-Fame coaches from the past, in the late Dick Sheridan, who passed away this past off-season, as he is responsible for designing the logo during his time as an assistant. Sheridan passed away on July 6, 2023.

He is Furman’s lone member of the College Football Hall-of-Fame, and was inducted into the South Carolina Football Hall-of-Fame in 2017. Sheridan is also a member of the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame.’

Under Baker, Sheridan helped build Furman into what would become a Division I-AA (Now FCS) power during the decade of the 1980s. Sheridan would help the Paladins win their first six of what is now a league standard 14 Southern Conference titles, starting in 1978.

Sheridan went on to finish his career as the all-time winningest coach at Furman in terms of overall winning percentage (.745) after finishing his Paladin coaching career with an impressive 69-23-2 record.

Sheridan would lead the Paladins to their first of three national title game appearances in 1985, as well as the first of a league standard 14 SoCon titles in 1978. All told, Sheridan helped the Paladins win their first six Southern Conference crowns.

Along with those shiny, new silver helmets, which will celebrate the iconic logo designed by Sheridan, the initials “DS” on the back of the helmet will pay tribute to the late head coach, who was such a trailblazer for Furman football in his eight seasons at the helm.

During Sheridan’s tenure, the Paladins also registered four FBS wins over North Carolina State (1984 and ’85), South Carolina (1982) and Georgia Tech (1983). He took over the NC State program in 1986, turning a 3-8 record the previous season into an 8-3 record in ‘86, charting one of the most remarkable turnaround stories in Wolfpack football history.

About the Golden Eagles

The Golden Eagles were one of the more improved teams in the FCS last fall, and eventual 2022 Southern Conference champion Samford can certainly attest to that, as the Golden Eagles were able to give the Bulldogs all they could handle before eventually dropping what was a 33-28 decision to Samford at Tucker Stadium.

The Golden Eagles enter the 2023 season under the direction of sixth-year head coach DeWayne Alexander, who has helped transform Tennessee Tech into a league title contender entering its first season in a new conference. Alexander also has some experience in the Southern Conference, having served for one season as the offensive line coach at East Tennessee State back in 2017 in what was Carl Torbush’s final season as the head coach of the Bucs before retirement.

Tennessee Tech comes into the 2023 season with a 45-51-5 all-time record in season openers, with the last time the Golden Eagles were able to get a victory to open a season coming during the spring season of 2021, as the Golden Eagles were able to get a 27-21 win over Austin Peay.

While Tennessee Tech will open by facing the sixth-ranked Paladins Thursday night, the highest ranked foe the Golden Eagles have ever defeated was No. 4 Jacksonville State in the final game of the 2010 campaign. The Golden Eagles have lost 16-straight season openers on the road, dating back to a 1977 win at Western Carolina.

2022 Recap: (4-7, 2-3 OVC)

Alexander helped lead the Golden Eagles to what was a 4-7 record last season, which included a 2-3 mark in the Golden Eagles’ final season in the Ohio Valley Conference and that was good enough for a tie for third in the six-team league in the final standings. Since taking over the Tennessee Tech football program in 2018, the four wins totaled by the Golden Eagles during the 2022 season were the second highest win total in his five seasons as the head coach, bested only by the 2019 Golden Eagles, which posted a 6-6 record.

There’s so much momentum surrounding the TTU football program entering the 2023 season, as well as entering a new conference, which will feature both some of the old Ohio Valley Conference members, as well as the members from the Big South Conference.

The Golden Eagles enter the 2023 season projected to finish fourth in the newly-formed 10-team conference heading into the 2023 season. The Golden Eagles did get one first-place vote.

The 2022 season would see the Golden Eagles face four ranked opponents, going 0-4 against all four of those foes, including having faced three of those ranked foes in successive weeks. The trio of consecutive ranked foes started with the SoCon’s own Samford Bulldogs, as the Golden Eagles would drop what was a heartbreaking 33-28 decision on the home turf to No. 24 Samford.

The loss to Samford would be the closest the Golden Eagles would come to forging the upset of a ranked opponent last season, as the two teams traded the lead for most of the evening, with the final lead, of course, seized by Michael Hiers and the Bulldogs, as Samford would score what would prove to be the game-winning points, when Hiers found All-SoCon wide receiver Chandler Smith open for a 26-yard touchdown, giving the Bulldogs the 33-28 lead after the two-point conversion failed. The game-winning score would come with just 25 seconds remaining.

The win would come despite rolling up 458 yards of total offense in the contest, however, the Tennessee Tech defense would surrender over 500 yards to the visitors from Birmingham, as the Bulldogs ended the night with 512 yards of total output, including 327 through the air. The Golden Eagles would get the first of several big nights on the season from Austin Peay graduate transfer Jeremiah Oatsvall, who connected on 19-of-34 passes for 255 yards, with a pair of TDs and an INT.

Following the loss to Samford, the Golden Eagles would go on to drop games to No. 15 UT Martin (L, 28-45) and No. 21 Southeast Missouri (L, 20-34) over the next two weeks, and the Golden Eagles would fall to 1-4 to start the 2022 season, with the lone win coming over non-Division I foe Texas A&M Commerce. Losses would follow against Tennessee State (L, 14-30) and in overtime at Kennesaw State (L, 30-33) before the Golden Eagles would surge to close the 2022 season, winning three out of four to close the campaign.

Tennessee Tech would post wins at Eastern Illinois (W, 20-17), vs. Lindenwood (W, 35-34) and at North Alabama (W, 35-27) to head into the final week of the season against yet another ranked foe, as the Golden Eagles would host No. 25 North Carolina Central to close the season. What would result would be another heartbreaker, as the Golden Eagles dropped a 22-20 contest to the Eagles on a last second field goal. The Golden Eagles have not defeated a ranked foe since 2014.

Previewing the 2023 Golden Eagles

The bad news for the Golden Eagles is that they will have to replace quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall under center this fall, with a battle having ensued for the starting quarterback job all during spring camp, as well as during fall camp. Oatsvall made the Tennessee Tech offense somewhat potent last season after the Paladins saw a rather dull offensive attack when they faced the Golden Eagles back during the 2021 season.

The Golden Eagles fielded an offense that ranked 44th in the nation (393.7 YPG) last season, and ended up averaging 24.2 PPG to finish tied for 70th nationally in scoring offense last season. The primary mode of moving the football for the Golden Eagles last season was through the air, as Tennessee Tech completed the 2022 season ranking 58th in the FCS in passing offense (219.8 YPG).

The competition at quarterback will be between Maddux Richey and Iowa State transfer Hayes Gibson who appear to be the frontrunners for the starting signal-caller job heading into the 2023 season. Gibson might have the slight edge heading into game week, however, both could see action Thursday night at Paladin Stadium.

On of the strengths for Tennessee Tech offensively heading into Thursday night’s season-opener figures to be its offensive line, as the unit is especially physical along its front five. The Golden Eagles welcome the return of three starters along the offensive front heading into the 2023 season, anchored by center Nate Hodnett and left tackle Trevor Stephens return to anchor the offensive line. Stephens and Hodnett were part of a Tennessee Tech offense that finished the 2022 campaign by amassing 4,331 yards and scored 34 touchdowns, while the Golden Eagles allowed only 14 sacks last fall. Stephens has started 39 games in his TTU career heading into the 2023 season. During his career with the Golden Eagles, Tennessee Tech has averaged 348 PPG and 2.9 TDs-per-game.

While veteran leadership resides along the offensive front for the 2023 season, there will be some new blood at running back this fall for the Golden Eagles. The Golden Eagles must replace their top two rushers from a year, with David Gist and quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall having both moved on.

Jayvian Allen (73 rush att, 314 yds, 1 TD, 4.3 YPC) returns in the backfield for the Golden Eagles this fall, and the Golden Eagles will also welcome in a transfer running back into the fold, in Marcus Knight , who transferred into the Tennessee Tech program from Montana during the off-season. The graduate transfer rushed for 292 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 4.0 yards-per-carry in his final season in Missoula. Paladin fans should expect to see Knight to get a majority of the touches for the Golden Eagles Thursday night in Greenville.

Knight was special during his sophomore season with the Grizzlies, as he set single-season records for rushing touchdowns (23), total touchdowns (25) and points in a season (150) back during the 2019 season. Knight was the only player in Division I football to score more touchdowns than Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, who was a second-round NFL Draft pick. He finished the season rushing for 1,030 yards, becoming the 13th player in Grizzlies football history to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season.

As far as wide receiver is concerned for the Golden Eagles heading into the 2023 season, it will be a strength. The Golden Eagles’ top five pass-catchers last season were seniors. The good news is four of those seniors are back this season as graduate students, with Willie Miller (25 rec, 282 yds, ), Quinton Cross (20 rec, 178 yds, 1 TD, 8.8 YPR), Metrius Fleming (31 rec, 404 yds, 1 TD, 13.0 YPR), and Bradley Clark (27 rec, 287 yds, 3 TDs, 10.6 YPR) all having returned to the fold for the 2023 season. Fleming, Clark and Miller are all capable big-play options in the passing game for Tennessee Tech. Cross was Tennessee Tech’s leading receiver a couple of years ago.

Miller logged action in 10 games last season, which included three starts. He ended up being the third-leading receiver on the team, as he hauled in 25 passes for 282 yards and three TDs, averaging an impressive 11.3 yards-per-reception. Another key receiving option that could prove could be sophomore Quavel Thornton (15 rec, 180 yds, 12.0 YPR), who turned in a solid rookie season in Cookeville.

Another strength for the Golden Eagles on offense will be the tight end position, as junior Hunter Barnhart (11 rec, 243 yds, 1 TD, 17.5 YPR) returns to give the Golden Eagles a big target in the passing game this fall. The 6-4, 246-lb Barnhart gives Golden Eagle quarterbacks a big option downfield, and he should compete for all-league honors this fall.

While the offense has some big play options and should be physical along the offensive front, the defense should also be much-improved this fall. Like the offensive front, coach Alexander has mentioned numerous times how pleased he has been with the physicality which his defensive line has displayed during preseason camp. The Golden Eagles will look to improve on the 32.4 PPG they gave up last season.

The Golden Eagles also surrendered 433.5 YPG to the opposition last fall, and it goes without saying that that number will need to come down this season for Tennessee Tech to achieve the goals they hope to achieve by the end of the 2023 season. The Golden Eagles had the most trouble limiting the big chunk plays through the air last season, surrendering 241.2 YPG.

The defensive line will be one of the strengths of the team this year, and it was an area that the Golden Eagles seemingly improved as the season progressed. Leading the way along the defensive front this season will be Kail Dava (24 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks, 2 QBHs, 1 FR), who enters the season All-Big South/OVC preseason watch lister and has also been listed as a preseason Top 20 draft prospect by the Canadian football League.

Dava isn’t the lone returning starter up front for the Golden Eagles. Daniel Rickert (15 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 3 QBHs), Jacorrian Wrenn (24 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 QBHs) and Hudson Tucker (31 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 7 QBHs, 1 PBU) are set to join Dava up front for the Golden Eagles this fall, and it’s a unit that should be a strength of the defense.

Evidence of just how strong the Tennessee Tech defensive front was last season comes from the fact that 14 of the team’s 25 total sacks came from the defensive front. Hudson Tucker led the front and the team with three sacks last season.

The second level of the Tennessee Tech defense sees the return of Jacquez McGowan (59 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 0.5 sack, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 3 QBHs), who comes off of what was an outstanding rookie campaign for the Golden Eagles, and was named to the OVC’s All-Newcomer Team last season, and his 59 total tackles at the end of the season ranked him third on the squad last fall.

The secondary for the Golden Eagles will have a good mix of experience and talent. Both of the Golden Eagles’ top cornerback options return to the fold, in Cameron Hudson (31 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2 INTs, 7 PBUs) and Nyquan Washington (20 tackles, 1 INT) return at the two respective cornerback positions, while the Golden Eagles added Oka Emmanwori from Wofford, and he could see some action at corner Thursday night against the Paladins.

The Golden Eagles also have a proven performer at nickel safety slated to be a significant part of the Tennessee Tech defense once again this fall, in Jyron Gilmore (33 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 8 PBUs). Gilmore ended up finishing the season as the team’s leader in pass breakups last fall, with eight. Gilmore has also put up some impressive career numbers with 74 career stops to go along with 12 pass breakups in his career in Cookeville.

There will be some new blood at safety for the Golden Eagles this fall, as the Tennessee Tech defense will feature a pair of transfers at both respective safety spots, with Tim Coutras coming from Liberty, while Jackson Price comes over from Colgate. Price saw action in all 11 games for the Raiders last season, posting 30 tackles and three interceptions, while also forcing a fumble. Coutras saw action in all 11 games for the Golden Eagles last season, posting one tackle.

The defense will be looking to fill the void left at defensive back with the departures of Josh Reliford and linebacker Seth Carlisle, who ended up leading the Golden Eagles in tackles last season.

As far as the special teams are concerned for Tennessee Tech heading into Thursday night’s season opener at Paladin Stadium, the Golden Eagles should be pretty solid, with the return of place-kicker Hayden Olsen, who will enter Thursday night’s contest against Furman with the longest active string of made PATs in school history, with a current streak of 66-consecutive made PATs.

Olsen has yet to miss a PAT in his career for the Golden Eagles, which dates back to the spring of 2021 season. He also boasts a success rate of 72% on made field goals in his career with the Purple and Gold, having converted 23 out of 32 career attempts.

Rounding out the veterans returning for the Golden Eagles heading into the 2023 season is punter Nick Bigelow, who is coming off a 2022 season, which saw him average 39.5 yards-per-punt. He posted a career-long punt of 53 yards last season for the Golden Eagles, and on 14 occasions last fall, pinned the opposition inside their own 20. He also sported good hang time on his punts, with 21 of his boots having been fair-caught and had one touchback.

Final Synopsis of Tennessee Tech: (C+)

This isn’t the same Tennessee Tech team that Furman slapped around a couple of years ago in Cookeville. In fact, this game won’t be as easy as some of the projections have it being. Tennessee Tech is much improved offensively, and they have some weapons. However, the problem for Alexander’s team coming to Greenville is having to break in a new quarterback, and doing that against a preseason Top 10 foe, which returns 10 of 11 starters on its defense usually isn’t a recipe for success.

The Skinny on the Paladins

Furman is coming off its best season on the college football gridiron since the 2005 season, as the Paladins ended the 2022 season with 10 wins, which included winning seven Southern Conference games in a single-season for the first time since the 2001 season. Despite the solid 2022 campaign, it’s important to note that Furman didn’t win a Southern Conference regular-season title nor did they get a trophy for trouncing Elon, 31-6, in the opening round of the FCS Playoffs, nor did the Paladins get one for making it to the second round of the playoffs only to lose a heartbreaking, 41-38, decision to eventual FCS semifinalist Incarnate Word.

With that said, the Paladins enter the season with 38 of 44 returning lettermen from a year ago, including 20 starters. The Paladins have eight back on the offensive side of the ball, while 10 return on the defensive side of the football. The Paladins return quarterback Tyler Huff to lead an offense that was outstanding a year ago, and among the most versatile in the Southern Conference, as well as in the FCS.

Furman finished out the 2022 season averaging 421.9 YPG, which was good enough to rank 29th bin all of the FCS in total offense. Additionally, the Paladins also ranked 67th nationally in passing offense (209.1 YPG), 15th in rushing offense (212.8 YPG), 25th in scoring offense (33.1 PPG), 29th in third down percentage (.434), 11th in red zone offense (.889), and 12th in sacks allowed (1.15 SPG).

While Huff, who enters the season as a second-team All-SoCon selection and set a school-record for rushing yards for a Paladin quarterback (694 yards in 2022) is known commodity, backup Carson Jones might be a player Paladin fans want to keep an eye on for the future.

Despite the overall struggles offensively during the fan fest scrimmage, Jones was one of the bright spots. The former standout quarterback from Maryville High School and Mr. Football semifinalist in the state of Tennessee, as well as being named the 2-6A Region Player of the Year in 2021. He will be the guy called upon now if Huff should go down with an injury like he did last season in Furman’s narrow 24-19 road win at Charleston Southern.

The Paladins were able to call on Jace Wilson to help the Paladins pull out that key win in Ladson, however, a week later Wilson announced he want to redshirt the rest of the season, and that put Jones in position as Furman’s No. 2 midway through the 2022 campaign. Wilson would eventually end up transferring back closer to home, as he is now at Texas Southern.

Though Huff was fortunate enough to stay healthy, it’s almost always the case that any successful football program almost always needs a contribution at some point or another during the season from its backup. For that, the Paladins seem to be in good shape with Jones as Huff’s understudy in 2023.

Of note was Jones’ accuracy on the deep ball, as well as throwing the ball with noticeable zip on intermediate routes during the scrimmage.

“Carson’s had a really good August and I told someone just the other day and I know if you look at any of those guys at quarterback…and I’m not going to use the word surprised but maybe even elevated himself more because you know he’s got to play and get reps and we’ve been able to put him in there with some of the older guys on offense…He’s kind of a low-burn kind of guy in terms of personality which is good in a lot of ways with a quarterback…He’s really smart and he’s worked really hard in the off-season and it’s shown and he’s clearly taken the No. 2 spot and he’s really even pushing Tyler [Huff] a little bit and I really just thought he’s a guy that’s stood out all camp,” head coach Clay Hendrix said of Jones at Furman’s fan fest on Aug. 19.

One note of interest is that Jones has a connection to Thursday night’s opposition, as his father, Michael Jones a was a first-team All-Ohio Valley Conference quarterback at Tennessee Tech back in the mid-1990s.

Accentuating Huff’s talents under center will be the weapons in which he has at his disposal, especially at running back and wide receiver, where the Paladins return one of the top running backs in FCS football, with Dominic Roberto (197 rush att, 1,120 yds, 11 TDs, 5.7 YPC) returning to the fold for the 2023 season.

Roberto is a bruiser, and a couple of years ago was just about the time Roberto was starting to come into his own as an accomplished running back for the Paladins, as well as earning the respect of the entire Southern Conference.

Against the Golden Eagles a couple of years ago, Roberto only had three rush attempts for nine yards. It wouldn’t be until an injury to Devin Wynn three weeks later against Wofford that would really see the Roberto era get going the following week against The Citadel.

In the passing game, the Paladins have as much depth and talent as they have ever had during the Clay Hendrix era, and it’s probably the most talented unit collectively since the Paladins featured the likes of Patrick Sprague, Justin Stepp, Brian Bratton and Isaac West back from 2004-08.

The Paladins do lose their top pass-catcher and only three-time FCS All-American in program history, in tight end/slot receiver Ryan Miller. Both Joshua Harris and Wayne Anderson Jr. return to the fold as the top receiving options, while Furman added Mason Pline from the transfer portal from two-time defending Division II national champion Ferris State, and he should provide an immediate, rangy and athletic option at tight end. Pline was also a standout member of the Bulldogs’ basketball team.

Like Gissinger at tight end last season, Furman had another significant contributor offensively as a receiving option last fall, in James Madison graduate transfer Kyndel Dean (44 rec, 407 yds, 9.3 YPR), who finished the 2022 season as Furman’s third-leading receiving option.

Pline isn’t blessed with the overall speed that Miller had, however, he is a superb athlete and at 6-7, 260 lbs, he will give quite a reliable downfield target. Pline also has great leaping ability and while his speed might not be that of Miller, he’s not exactly slow either, possessing the ability to make plays after the catch. Pline will split time with returning tight end Parks Gissinger, who saw plenty of action at the position last fall after transferring in from Michigan State. He was used mostly as a blocking tight end, however, has the ability to be a down field option in the passing game.

The offensive line was the biggest reason for such offensive improvement last season, and it was a unit that was solid in both run blocking and pass blocking last season, and it was also a unit that rallied around its leader under center, in quarterback Tyler Huff.

I caught up with Furman’s preseason All-SoCon left tackle Pearson Toomey following Furman’s Fan Day scrimmage back on Aug. 19. While it wasn’t a particularly good day for the Paladins offensively, Toomey noted that the Paladins were excited about the season and while the showcase scrimmage to the fans wasn’t where it needed to be offensively, that the team had been pretty locked in and focused for the larger part of preseason camp.

“Obviously that wasn’t our best day and we probably came out here a little distracted by the fan fest and everything,” Toomey said. “Gamedays are lively and we shouldn’t be using that as an excuse and we have to be prepared to come together offensively at all times and be able to pick each other up…and we’ve got to do a better job of communicating as a unit than we did today,” Toomey said of the fan fest scrimmage.

“This is a communication game and you can’t communicate for someone else. It takes the entire unit communicate their job and responsibility to the guys around them for all of this to work, and that’s job No. 1 for the offensive line…To assume your responsibility blocking-wise as well as being able to effectively communicate with the teammates around you…Because without effective communication, everything breaks down,” Toomey added.

One of the things he noted was to positivity he has seen from how the unit is versatile, and what some of those newcomers from the transfer portal, like Tex Elliott (Colorado State) and Fred Norman Jr. (East Tennessee State), who have both only added to the talent pool and made the Paladins even deeper along the offensive front heading into the 2023 season.

“So from an offensive line perspective, we’ve got a lot of guys playing right guard, right tackle, and different positions and they have that versatility…I am a little bit of an exception because I have been playing just both tackles but being able to work at any position just helps your coach out because he can rely on you…Say some guy goes down or some guy needs a blow, he can call on you to play a different position without hesitation and that’s a very important thing for us because we gotta get guys rotating in as fresh bodies.”

“Our freshmen guys like Brody [Balliew] and [Chris] Luna have really come in here wanting to learn and contribute which is refreshing for sure and both of those guys came in with good foundation as well and they’ve taken what coach [Matt] McCutcheon [Furman Offensive Line Coach] said right to heart and they’ve really shined through and Brody’s getting reps with the twos and threes and Luna’s getting some reps with the ones and so those freshmen I can see a bright future for them but they probably won’t be getting too much playing time this year because we want to reserve them for later and as for the transfers and guys like big Fred [Norman] and I just came back from a little bit of an injury and we put him at guard, and he’s playing well at guard, too and him being able to move around so well is really important, too.”

Norman’s versatility will come in handy as well, with Furman being without Jacob Johanning for an indefinite amount of time due to an injury suffered away from the field during the off-season, and without Johanning’s services for the opener, it will mean EJ Wilson and Ryan Lamb will tag-team the right guard position, while Wyatt Hughes is penciled in as the starter at center. Redshirt sophomore Luke Petit is slated to start at left guard.

Rounding out the starters along the offensive front for the Paladins Thursday night will be Pearson Toomey at left tackle, while Fred Norman Jr. is slated to start at right tackle.

Defensively, the Paladins return 10 of 11 starters to the fold, with nine of those slated to see action Thursday night against Tennessee Tech.

Only linebacker Bryce McCormick (77 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 2 FFs, 1 FR, 3 PBUs) , who like Johanning is out for an indefinite amount of time, will miss the contest. The Paladins, which will be multiple on defense again this fall, will utilize primarily a three-man defensive front. The only loss due to graduation for the Paladins is big all-conference nose tackle Cameron Coleman.

Anchoring the defensive front will be preseason All-SoCon selection and team captain Matt Sochovka (28 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 blkd kicks), who is back at defensive tackle, while both Xavier Stephens (26 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks) and Division II All-American at Wingate and preseason All-SoCon pick Sirrod Cook are slated to tag-team the nose guard duties in the opener.

Defensive end is one of the deepest positions on the defensive side of the football. With both Jack Barton (30 tackles, 7.0 tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks, 4 PBUs, 4 blkd kicks) and Jeremiah Jackson (5 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack) both back, as both boast starting experience along the defensive front for the Paladins, having logged that action at different points in the season last fall. Barton was also tremendous on special teams last season, as he led the team and the nation with four blocked kicks last season.

Sochovka is the unquestioned leader of the defensive side of the football, and went through a bit of a career renaissance last season after seeing his 2021 season end before it had really started, as he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 2021 season opener against North Carolina A&T. Sochovka has the type of personality that can win pretty much anyone over, and as other media members that cover the SoCon can attest to, is a joy to have in any press conference, whether it be previewing an opponent, and detailing on the Paladins have just faced.

As likable as Sochovka might be off the field, on the field with his jovial personality, he is a menace to opposition and I would imagine one of the least like players on the Furman defense, especially among opposing offensive linemen. He’s seen action in exactly 40 games over the course of his Paladin football career, having posted totals of 67 tackles, 10.5 tackles-for-loss, 3.0 sacks, forced one fumble, intercepted one pass and blocked four kicks.

Furman’s linebacking unit is one of the more blue-collar units in all of FCS football, and while the group doesn’t get all that much individual praise in the way of preseason accolades or recognition, what the unit does provide is a group that swarms to the football and isn’t really all that concerned with who gets the credit for making the play.

I have made the comparison to the unit once fielded by the 1972 Miami Dolphins, which as many already know, was a key cog of the Dolphins’ no-name defense, remaining the only team in NFL history to go wire-to-wire undefeated.

While the Paladins won’t have McCormick at inside linebacker alongside Braden Gilby (94 tackles, 15.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 2 FFs). Gilby is a bonafide All-SoCon caliber linebacker, as he comes off a 2022 campaign which saw him mentioned as one of the top inside linebackers in FCS football heading into the season, ranking No. 23 according to HERO Sports FCS beat writer Sam Herder. Gilby has been a member of the Paladin linebacking unit for each of the previous five seasons, playing a starring role in each of the past four. Gilby was a Second-Team All-SoCon selection by the media last season.

Gilby ended up bursting onto the scene as a major player on the Paladin defense back in 2019, as he posted a season-high 12 tackles, one tackle-for-loss and forced a fumble in the Paladins’ 24-17 setback to the Hokies in Blacksburg. His forced fumble against the Hokies in the Paladin loss helped set up a Furman touchdown in the seven-point loss. He would garner SoCon Defensive Player of the Week honors for the first time in his Furman career, and it would be the start of a strong rookie season for the Furman linebacker, and it would conclude by seeing Gilby named to the SoCon All-Freshman Team at the conclusion of the 2019 season.

In his Paladin career-to-date, Gilby has posted a total of 263 tackles, 21.5 tackles-for-loss, six forced fumbles, four sacks, two fumble recoveries and has intercepted one pass. He has seen action in 47-career games, which includes 32-career starts.

With McCormick being sidelined indefinitely due an injury suffered in the spring, the Paladins will have the luxury of looking to yet another veteran to help Gilby lead the unit on the interior, as Dan Scinanna (35 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 QBHs, 1 PBU) will draw the start in Thursday night’s opener. Scianna is no stranger to serving in big roles during his Paladin career, and was one of the key reserves on the defensive side of the ball last season.

Scianna made a couple of starts just last season, as he logged starts against Charleston Southern and Samford just last season. He played well in his start against Charleston Southern last season, recording nine tackles, while he posted a career-high 12 stops in Furman’s home win over The Citadel a couple of years ago.

Outside linebacker might even prove to be a stronger position for the Paladins this fall, and for the first time since Duane Vaughn took the reins as the defensive coordinator back in the spring of 2019, will sport excellent depth, especially at the ‘bandit’ position, which could end up being the most overlooked position on defense, however, one that has quietly been cultivating as much talent, depth and athleticism on the defensive side of the ball as any of the 11 positions.

Emmanuel Adebayo (7 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack) and Luke Clark (41 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 7 QBHs) are two players to keep an eye on Thursday night for the Paladins. Clark will start the contest, however, Adebayo is also expected to see a lot of action at the position in the opener. Look for increased playing time for Adebayo this season, and with that, will likely find himself being one of Furman’s top edge rushers this fall. Clark’s four sacks were behind only Stephens and Alex Maier, who each contributed 4.5 quarterback takedowns last fall.

Set to be factors at the spur linebacker position for the Paladins this fall are both Jalen Miller (41 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1 QBH, 2 INTs, 2 FFs, 1 FR) and Cally Chizik (29 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 6 PBUs, 3 INTs, 2 QBHs). Both Chizik and Miller were equally important to Furman’s successes in several key games last season, with Chizik providing timely pass-breakups to seal the win over No. 6 Chattanooga, while Miller came up big in back-to-back weeks against Charleston Southern and East Tennessee State, recovering a key fumble against Charleston Southern, while picking off a pass against defending SoCon champion ETSU in a key Paladin road win.

Miller is one of Furman’s experienced leaders on the defensive side of the football. The Duncan, S.C., native has posted significant duty at both inside linebacker and spur during his Furman career, which includes having logged action in a total of 43 games, which includes 13 starts.

Chizik, the son of current North Carolina defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, has played like a defensive coordinator on the field during his career, having anticipated a pair of passes perfectly, which he returned for scores against both North Greenville and Incarnate Word last season, bookending the 2022 campaign. Chizik has logged action as a reserve outside linebacker and cornerback during his Paladin career, having logged action in a total of 31 games in his Furman career.

Rounding out the Furman defense is a secondary that expects to be one of the very best in the nation this fall, with three players having enjoyed preseason all-conference recognition, while one has been tabbed as a preseason All-America selection. Furman’s secondary was a major reason the Paladin defense led all of FCS football in interceptions (18) and total pass breakups (57) last season. The 57 passes broken up also represent a school record.

Furman’s most-experienced player on either side of the football is two-time All-SoCon honoree and cornerback Travis Blackshear (46 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FFs, 2 TDs, 4 PBUs). He’s Furman’s risk-taker on the defensive side of the football, along with being its best lockdown corner. His instincts and playmaking ability were on display in 2022, returning an INT 46 yards for a score against VMI in a 41-3 road win, while blowing up an attempted fake field goal by Elon in the opening round of the FCS Playoffs, de-cleating the Phoenix kicker for a 15-yard loss and caused a fumble in the process. Blackshear also returned a blocked field goal 65 yards for a score in Furman’s 63-28 win over Wofford in the regular-season finale at Paladin Stadium.

For his career, Blackshear boasts 40-career starts, with nine INTs and has logged a total of 24 passes defended in his standout Paladin career. He was recently named as the No. 15 ranked cornerback in the nation by HERO Sports beat writer Sam Herder.

Set to team with Blackshear as the other starting corner heading into Thursday night’s contest will be either Micah Robinson (35 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 3 INTs, 7 PBUs) or Ivan Yates (35 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 INT, 6 PBUs, 1 FF).

Like Blackshear, both came up to make some big plays in defending the pass a year ago, with Yates doing so against Samford in a game in which the play he made could have been pivotal for the Paladin defense, and it would have yielded a 19th INT for the Paladins on the season. However, that play wasn’t to be, as the Samford wideout was controversially awarded a catch and forward progress, thus nullifying what could have been a huge play between the SoCon’s two best teams in 2022.

That said, it gives you an idea of that type of physicality the Paladins have at both cornerback spots.

Robinson was a player that really emerged and established himself as a key member of the Furman secondary with each passing week. The 6-0, 184-lb redshirt junior has seen action in 32-career games for the Paladins, having made 16-career starts. He easily turned in his best season in the Furman secondary last season, posting 10 pass deflections and posted the first three interceptions of his Furman career.

The Paladins have the best tandem of safeties in the Southern Conference, returning both starting strong safety Kam Brinson (59 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 6 pass deflections, 4 FRs, 1 INT) and starting free safety Hugh Ryan (69 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 12 PBUs, 4 INTs, 1 FF). Brinson will be a prime candidate for All-SoCon accolades heading into the 2023 season, and the 5-11, 186-lb earned starts in all 13 games last season.

He was a big reason why the Paladins were able to lead the nation in turnovers gained (29) last season, as his four fumbles recovered last season led the nation. The 2023 season was Brinson’s first as a full-time starter in the Paladin defense, and he made the most of that opportunity. He originally came to Furman as a cornerback, however, has found his natural fit on the defensive side of the ball for the Paladins at safety. He’s a big-hitting, physical type of player that has good instincts and often is able to anticipate plays before they occur, both against the run as well as the pass. It’s a big reason why Brinson played a major disruptive role in the secondary, as well as posting a nation-leading four fumbles recovered last season.

He had one of the most memorable performances of his career in the 35-12 loss to No. 6 Clemson, as he posted five pass breakups and his first-career INT.

A week later against defending Southern Conference champion East Tennessee State, Brinson provided one of the tide-turning plays in what ended up being a 27-14 road win against the 18th-ranked Bucs.

He recovered a second quarter fumble, which would eventually lead to a field goal and enabled the Paladins to snatch momentum early in the second frame and that would eventually lead to the Paladins taking a 13-7 lead into the half. He then helped recover a key fumble in the fourth quarter of Furman’s next game at Charleston Southern, with Furman trailing 19-17. Brinson’s fumble recovery allowed the Paladins to take over at midfield. It would eventually lead to what was the game-winning touchdown.

Ryan was a 2022 consensus first-team All-SoCon selection and was ranked as the No. 15 safety in all of FCS football by HERO Sports in the preseason. Ryan should find himself apart of several All-America teams entering the 2023 season, and will no doubt enter the season as a candidate to garner SoCon Defensive Player of the Year this fall. He has a string of 30-straight starts coming into Thursday night’s season opener.

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.

He 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. The 6-3, 225-lb, native of Charlotte, N.C., garnered the SoCon Special Teams Player of the Week honor following his performance in Furman’s 27-14 road win over No. 18 and defending Southern Conference champion East Tennessee State. He connected on field goals of 44 and 43 yards, respectively, against the Bucs in what was a key, tone-setting early season win for the Paladins. All told, Williams finished the campaign 10-of-12 on field goal attempts, which included going 4-for-4 from 30-39 yards, and he was also 6-for-6 on kicks from 40-49 yards. Williams went 0-for-2 on attempts from 50+yards last season. In combination with Lepvreau last season, the duo connected on 18-of-21 field goals for the Paladins last season. That converted to an 85.7% conversion rate on field goals, which was second-best in the SoCon last season.

Williams drilled a season-long 49-yard field goal in Furman’s 41-38 loss to Incarnate Word, which ended the season. In addition to his place-kicking duties, Williams also handled the kickoff duties in his first season with the Furman football program. He ended up averaging 63.2 yards-per-kickoff on a total of 84 kickoffs last season, which included recording a SoCon-leading 50 touchbacks.

Leavy 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.

Furman head coach Clay Hendrix is cautiously optimistic about the season, and among the priorities that goes with improving as a football team also involves walking the fine line of keeping guys healthy to the first game. For the most part, the Paladins have been able to do that. The real hitting will get underway under the lights tonight in Paladin Stadium.

“When you don’t tackle, it’s sometimes hard to judge success and progress,” head coach Clay Hendrix said of his team after Furman’s 2023 fan fest scrimmage on Aug. 19. “We’re a football team that needs to hit…push piles and last Saturday our offense got after our defense pretty good and today I was disappointed as a whole offensively….We didn’t throw and catch very well and we’re still repping everybody, which also makes it tough…Today is the last day we’ll do that before going into game week.”

Final Synopsis

Unlike last year’s Thursday night opener against Division II North Greenville, the 2023 season opener is a little more tricky. Especially when you consider the Golden Eagles saw three of their seven games decided by a touchdown or less, including a meager and respectable five-point loss to eventual SoCon champion Samford. While I think this game will be competitive for three quarters, look for Furman to put the decisive score on the board in the fourth quarter and the defense to do enough for the Paladins to post a double-digit win.

Final Score Prediction: Furman 28, Tennessee Tech 17