WHO: Furman (0-0) at Gardner-Webb (0-0)
WHEN: Aug. 31, 2013, 6:00 p.m.
VENUE: Ernest Spangler Stadium (8,000)
TV COVERAGE: WMYA Channel 40/ESPN3
WHERE: Boiling Springs, N.C.
BOILING SPRINGS, S.C.–Furman will open the season on the road for a third-straight season, as the Paladins will head to Big South member Gardner-Webb to open the 2013 football season.
The Paladins have not won a season-opener in the Bruce Fowler era, losing last season at Samford (24-21) in a rare SoCon game to open the campaign, and in 2011, the Paladins dropped a 30-23 decision at Coastal Carolina in 2011.
Furman and Gardner-Webb square off on the gridiron for the first time since the 2005 season, when the Paladins posted a 48-31 win at Paladin Stadium.
In the only other meetings between the two, the Paladins claimed a 45-0 win at Paladin Stadium in 2003, and in the only other meeting at Spangler Stadium at Gardner-Webb, the Paladins posted a 38-6 win.
The Paladins have outscored the Bulldogs by a total of 131-40 in those previous three meetings, or have defeated the Bulldogs by an average score of 33-13.
The interesting aspect of the meeting will be the fact that the new head coach of the Gardner-Webb football program–Carroll McCray–was once the offensive line coach at Furman. In fact, McCray was a part of the last Furman staff to win a season opening game, as the Paladins claimed a 45-15 win over No. 25 Colgate to open the 2010 campaign.
McCray comes to Gardner-Webb after spending the 2012 season as the head coach at North Greenville College, leading the Crusaders to a 5-6 record in his only season as the head coach at the school.
The ties between the two programs, however, don’t stop with McCray, as Furman defensive coordinator and linebackers coach John Windham was the defensive coordinator at Gardner-Webb for four seasons, helping the Bulldogs field the Big South’s top defensive unit in 2007 and ’10.
McCray expects big things from his Bulldogs in his first season as the head coach, as Gardner-Webb is selected to finish third in the Big South preseason media and coaches’ polls behind Coastal Carolina and Liberty.
Gardner-Webb has plenty of veteran leadership returning to the fold for the 2013 season, with 17 starters returning (8-offense, 9-defense). However, the Bulldogs will have to make one pretty significant adjustment heading into the season, as McCray must replace offensive coordinator Dale Steele.
Steele appeared to be a great hire for Gardner-Webb and McCray, as his brother Kevin Steele has experience at the college and professional levels of football, as he is now the defensive coordinator at Tennessee. But Dale Steele left before the 2013 season could even commence, as he was lured away by East Carolina in late July, leaving Gardner-Webb scrambling to find a replacement.
It leaves the offense in a pretty tough situation, as Steele had begun to install the offense in the spring, and the returning veterans on the offensive side of the football were beginning to get comfortable in the new scheme, adjusting from the offense previously installed during the Ron Dickerson era.
Both Gardner-Webb and Furman have something in common as they enter the 2013 season, and that is both programs will be looking to wipe away the memories of 3-8 seasons last fall. The Paladins’ 3-8 mark was the worst finish to a campaign for Furman since the 1994 campaign, and have posted losing seasons in two of the past three campaigns.
Gardner-Webb is no stranger to playing against Southern Conference teams in the recent past either, having faced Wofford to open the 2012 season, and have faced a SoCon team in 11 of the past 12 seasons, with the lone season the Bulldogs did not face a SoCon foe being the 2008 season.
In the past 12 seasons, the Bulldogs have faced current or former SoCon members 25 times, posting a 6-19 mark. The Bulldogs have come up against ranked SoCon foes on 11 occasions, going 1-10 in those matchups against ranked SoCon foes. The lone win over a ranked team from the SoCon by the Bulldogs came in 2004, when the Bulldogs posted a 26-20 overtime victory over No. 25 Western Carolina.
Gardner-Webb enjoyed its most success against the Southern Conference in 2002, winning three of its six games against the conference since becoming a Division I football member in 2000 in that one season. The Bulldogs posted wins over East Tennessee State (13-10), Chattanooga (26-24) and Elon (38-24).
It is important to note that Elon would not officially begin play in the Southern Conference until the 2003 season, as they were still members of the Big South Conference and a conference foe of GWU’s. Despite the struggles against the SoCon, the goal for McCray is to build the Red and Black into a consistent title contender in the Big South, and into a program on par with a Southern Conference program. To do that, the Bulldogs must get better by playing top tier talent at the FCS level.
The 12-game slate for the Bulldogs this fall is extremely difficult, as Gardner-Webb will also face Richmond (Sept. 14), Wofford (Sept. 21) and former FCS power and current Conference USA member Marshall (Sept. 7). The Bulldogs also face start-up program Charlotte (Oct. 5) this fall, as the 49ers eventually will make the move to FBS.
Furman returns an extremely young football team for the 2013 season, with 45 of its 87 players heading into the 2013 campaign being either true or redshirt freshmen. The Paladins will play their first two games away from Paladin Stadium, as the finishing touches are applied to the Pearce-Horton Football Complex at Paladin Stadium.
The first three opponents for the Paladins in 2013 will be Big South foes, including the team pinned to claim the Big South championship this fall, in Coastal Carolina on Sept. 7.
The Paladins will be playing their first 12-game slate since 2008, when they finished with a 7-5 record. The Bulldogs are a team that finished just 3-8 last season, but expectations are high this fall with 19 starters returning from last season’s club. Furman has been used to making relatively easy work of Big South foes in the past, save Coastal Carolina, and Saturday night’s matchup won’t be like previous seasons when Furman could just show up and win.
PREVIEWING THE MATCHUP:
The Furman Offense:
The strength of the Furman football team this season should be its offense, as nine starters return from a unit that was pretty effective last season, averaging 24.7 PPG and 368.5 YPG last season.
For the second-straight season, the Paladins produced a 1,000-yard rusher, and averaged 167.5 yards-per-game on the ground last fall.
Set to step under center to lead the Furman offense once again in 2013 is sophomore captain signal-caller Reese Hannon (160-of-260 passing, 1,896 yds, 7 TDs, 8 INTs), who is coming off one of the best freshman campaigns ever recorded by a Paladin signal-caller.
Hannon has a strong arm, is accurate, and is poised to build on what started last season in the second game, when he took over for injured senior Dakota Derrick just before halftime in the contest.
Hannon would capture the starting job and never looked back from that point in leading the Paladin offense the remainder of the season, showing uncanny poise for a true freshman quarterback.
The biggest shoes to fill on the offensive side of the football for the Paladins will be in the offensive backfield, with Hank McCloud (103 rush att, 521 yds, 6 TDs, 5.1 YPC), who will assume the starting responsibilities, as he will take over for Jerodis Williams.
Williams graduated this past spring after posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, and finished fifth all-time in program history in rushing yards (3,097 career yds).
McCloud is a similar type of running back as his predecessor, exhibiting a tough-nosed running approach, however, might be a bit more elusive and shifty than Williams. He comes into his junior season having rushed for 762 and seven TDs in two seasons of action playing behind Williams.
Look for Ernie Cain (19 rush att, 108 yds, 3 TDs) to also see some carries in the opener, as well as Tanner Skogen (7 att, 11 yds). The biggest problem for the Furman offense last season was the inability to get big plays out of the passing game this fall. The Paladins must replace All-American Colin Anderson at tight end, as well as Will King, who ended the season leading the Paladins in receiving yards.
Other than those two losses, the Paladins return pretty much all of their receiving options from a year ago. A receiver that might be ready for a breakout season in 2013 is Gary Robinson (15 rec, 195 yds, 13.0 YPR in 2012), who enters his junior season and is one of the fastest players on the Furman roster. Robinson could also factor in as a threat in the kick return game, with the graduation of Williams.
Robinson will start at flanker for the Paladins, but keep an eye is slot receiver Andrej Suttles, who will be seeing his first action in the Paladin offense this season after redshirting a year ago. Suttles has tremendous speed and possesses the ability to be the big-play target the Paladins lacked last season.
The veteran leader of the receiving corps coming into Saturday night’s season opener at Spangler Stadium against the Bulldogs is Ryan Culbreath (34 rec, 415 yds, 2 TDs in 2012). Culbreath is a big target, much akin to Gardner-Webb’s Kenny Cook, and the 6-4, 220-pound split end is a player that creates matchup problems for any secondary with his NFL size.
He has tremendous hands and is a good route-runner, but one thing that goes most overlooked about his game is his ability to get out and be a physical presence on the edge as a blocker. Culbreath will get some attention from NFL scouts this season. Culbreath comes into his senior season with 54 catches for 696 yards and five TDs in his Paladin career.
Jordan Snellings (19 rec, 210 yds, 3 TDs in 2012), who was a bit banged up at the end of camp, might be the most-talented receiver in the Paladins’ arsenal, but he should see some significant time against the Bulldogs on Saturday night. The 6-2, 191-pound sophomore has speed, athleticism, and is a very cerebral receiver.
He was a SoCon All-Freshman honoree last season and many feel Snellings will end his career putting his name alongside some of the greats, such as Donald Lipscomb and Isaac West, to come through the Furman program. Tight end is the biggest question mark for the Paladins, regarding the receiving options coming into the season.
Senior Cameron Mason (5 rec, 47 yds in 2012) certainly has some big shoes to fill replacing All-American Colin Anderson, but Mason has made big plays before, with many Paladin fans remembering his 49-yard catch in a 20-10 win over No. 3 Appalachian State at Paladin Stadium a couple of years ago, bailing the Paladins out of jail in their own end.
Perhaps the best news offensively is the Paladins return all five starters along the offensive line heading into the 2013 season, with left tackle Dakota Dozier a preseason All-America selection, and has been called one of the top draft prospects from the FCS level heading into the 2013 season.
Dozier has started 30 of the 31 games he has seen action in during his career. Dozier will team with Charles Emert at tackle, as Emert enters his third season as a starter along the Paladin offensive front. The two guard positions will be manned by Joe Turner–a SoCon All-Freshman pick in 2012– and Tank Phillips, who enters his second season as a starter along the offensive front for the Paladins. Eric Thoni rounds out the starting five along the offensive front, as he heads into his second season as the starter at center.
The Gardner-Webb Defense:
Many around the Gardner-Webb football program are excited about the defensive side of the football entering the 2013 season. The Bulldogs will be making some changes, including going away from the base 4-3 defense of 2012.
The Bulldogs will be under the direction of Randall McCray, who served as the defensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Panthers last season, before joining his father to be a part of the Gardner-Webb staff this fall.
The Bulldogs will utilize a 3-4 defensive alignment, much like the Paladins will see when they take on both Appalachian State and Wofford later in the campaign. Last season, Gardner-Webb fielded a defensive unit that yielded 430.2 YPG and 35.5 PPG last fall.
The Bulldogs utilized a 4-3 base defense last fall. One of the players to keep an eye on in that 3-4 defense on Saturday night at Spangler Stadium will be defensive end Preston Pemasa (30 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR in 2012).
Pemasa is one of nine starters returning on the defensive side of the football for the Bulldogs, to GWU will be loaded with experience on the defensive side of the ball coming into 2013.
Pemasa is one a number of award watch lists for defensive players entering the 2013 campaign. Lining up along with Pemasa on the GWU defensive line on Saturday night will be both O.J. Le’iatua Mau (12 tackles, 1.5 TFL in 2012) at nose guard, while Shaquille Riddick (25 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks in 2012) will man the other defensive end position for the Bulldogs on Saturday night.
Riddick and Pemasa tandem to give the Bulldogs a solid pass-rush, and both players head into the season as All-Big South caliber performers. Linebacker will be another position of strength for the Bulldogs heading into 2013, as Brad Taylor (40 tackles, 3.5 TFL in 2012) and Azziz Higgins (22 tackles, 1.0 TFL in 2012) will be the starters at the two inside linebacker spots entering the 2013 season opener, while the outside linebacker spots will be occupied by Chad Geter (23 tackles, 3.0 TFL in 2012) and Arlando Griffin.
Tanner Burch also returns at linebacker after leading the Bulldogs’ defense last season with 82 tackles, 7.0 TFL and a pair of sacks, and heads into the campaign as an All-Big South performer, as well as being named a preseason All-American by some publications.
Burch is still working his way back from an injury, but should see significant action at inside linebacker on Saturday night. Burch’s 113 stops in 11 games last season equated to 12.6 tackles per game, which led the Big South in 2012.
Another strength for the Bulldogs on the defensive side of the ball entering the 2013 season will be at cornerback, where sophomore Ivan Toomer and senior Keon Williams (12 tackles in 2012) are set to start at the respective positions entering the 2013 season.
Toomer posted a 4.38 time in the 40-yard dash during spring testing, while Williams adds the experience of a veteran and will be the Bulldogs’ lockdown corner.
Rounding out the starters defensively for the Bulldogs heading into the season will be safeties Lonnie Johnson (33 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks in 2012) and Brandon Swayze (23 tackles, 1.0 TFL in 2012). Johnson will serve as the free safety for the Bulldogs on Saturday night, while Swayze will play the strong safety spot.
The Furman Defense:
Furman comes into Saturday night’s contest against Gardner-Webb with one of its youngest defenses in recent memory, as the Paladins return just six starters on the defensive side of the football for the 2013 season.
The Paladins lost some big names off the defensive side of the football from a year ago, including All-SoCon performers Mitch McGrath (LB), Josh Lynn (DE) and Nathan Wade (DB).
However, despite being young this fall, the Paladins’ defense might actually be more athletic.
Last season, the Paladins posted a unit that gave up 399.9 YPG and 30.7 PPG last fall.
The most interesting move during the off-season involves Furman best player on the defensive side of the football, as Gary Wilkins (92 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR), who led Furman in tackles last season at outside linebacker, moves to the defensive line as a defensive end, will add to the Furman pass-rush.
Wilkins was effective in putting his hand down in the Elon game last season, which was a game that saw Furman produce a season-high seven sacks.
Wilkins will team with senior Shawn Boone (26 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks in 2012), as the Lithia Springs, FL native will man the other defensive end post for the Paladins on Saturday night. Boone is an All-SoCon caliber defensive end, and the Paladins’ pass-rush will prove to be one of the strengths of this Paladin defense by season’s end.
The two defensive tackle posts will be occupied a pair of new starters, in Ira McCune (26 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sack in 2012) and John Mackey (15 tackles, 2.5 TFL in 2012), who take over for Neal Rodgers and Colton Keig, who have both exercised their eligibility.
McCune and Mackey will give the Paladins an upgrade in athleticism and quickness on the defensive interior, but are a bit undersized. The one position to really watch on Saturday evening on the defensive side for the Paladins is linebacker, where the Purple and White will have three new performers on the field this season, and will look vastly different than the past couple of years.
Carl Rider (18 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 FR, 1 TD), Cory Magwood (10 tackles, 1.0 TFL in 2012) and Brad Minter. Rider and Magwood saw some action towards the latter part of the 2012 season for the Paladins, with Rider returning a fumble for a TD in the Paladins’ 33-28 loss at Appalachian State. Rider will start at the middle linebacker spot, while Magwood will start at weakside linebacker and Minter will occupy the strong-side position.
Minter, a true freshman from Hueytown High School in Hueytown, AL, was rated a two-star recruit by rivals.com. As a senior prep in 2012, he posted 109 tackles, 13.0 TFL, five sacks and a pair of INTs. Minter possesses tremendous athleticism and quickness. It will be interesting to see what Minter does with the spotlight on him as the only true freshman starter in the lineup for the Paladins on Saturday night.
The strength of this Paladin defense coming into the season is its secondary, which returns a trio of All-Southern Conference candidates, in safeties Greg Worthy (77 tackles, 2.0 TFL in 2012) and Marcus McMorris (30 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FR, 2 TDs in 2012), while Reggie Thomas (23 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 INTs in 2012) will post up at one of the cornerback positions.
Worthy and McMorris are two of the most physical players on the defensive side of the football for the Paladins, while Thomas is a big-hitter at corner. Worthy has started 26-straight games at safety for the Paladins and along with Boone at defensive end, are the veteran-most players on the defensive side of the football for the Paladins.
Austin Williams (24 tackles, 2 PBUs) will round out the starters in the secondary, marking the third and final senior starter on Saturday night. Williams will likely split time with the ultra-talented Jamarri Miliken, who will see his first action this fall for the Paladins at the other cornerback position.
Like its defense, the Gardner-Webb offense enters Saturday night’s matchup with Furman with several playmakers that have the potential to be game-changers this season.
Leading the charge on offense will be a veteran offense, which will include a talented and experienced quarterback, Lucas Beatty (215-of-334 passing, 2,483 yards, 12 TDs and 13 INTs).
Beatty will head into Saturday night’s season opener leading a Gardner-Webb offense which comes off a 2013 season that saw it average 20.5 PPG and 336.2 YPG last fall.
Beatty is seasoned and experienced, and will have plenty of weapons, both to throw to and as well as to hand the ball off to.
The top weapon in the passing game heading into the 2013 season will be NFL prospect Kenny Cook (48 rec, 666 yds, 7 TDs, 13.6 YPR in 2012). Cook will be joined as a big option in the passing game for the veteran tight end Seth Cranfill (37 rec, 366 yards, 2 TD IN 2012).
Both Cook and Cranfill enter the 2013 season as All-Big South picks. Cook has NFL size, as he enters the 2013 season, at 6-4, 210 pounds. He will certainly give the Paladins all they can handle on the perimeter on Saturday night.
Deonte Swinton (41 rec, 467 yards), a redshirt junior who possesses good speed, returns as another receiver that can get behind opposing defensive backs. Richard Jules (6 rec, 73 yds, 12.2 YPR IN 2012) rounds out the receiving options in the starting lineup heading into the season opener.
The running game will be led by a pair of talented, shifty running backs that will likely share the carries this season for the Red and Black, with Juanne Blount (38 carries, 489 yds, 6 TDs, 3.7 YPC in 2012) and J.J. Hubbard (32 rush att, 109 yds, 2 TDs, 3.4 YPC) expected to both see plenty of action as the two main running backs for the Bulldogs this fall.
The duo will have to make up for the graduation of Kenny Little, who led the Bulldogs with 762 yards and seven TDs last season. Hubbard and Blount should be ready to excel in the new spread offense this fall, as both also have exhibited the ability to be effective receiving options out of the backfield.
The offensive line is perhaps the biggest concern for the Gardner-Webb offense heading into the 2013 season, with the unit returning just two starters from a year ago: left tackle David McConnell and right guard Dylan Hopper.
Furman Special Teams:
One of the areas Furman will be most comfortable with this fall is the kicking game, although one huge loss most be addressed in the special teams, with the departure of the nation’s leading kick return threat, in All-American Jerodis Williams.
Look for players like Hollman, Milliken and Robinson to compete for the right to replace Williams this spring. The element that went mostly unnoticed by most last season was the improvement of Ray Early (10-for-16 on FGs/32-of-33 on PATs), which unfortunately, is often the life for a place-kicker in college football.
Kickers are often only under the spotlight for long periods of time when they are struggling, which was the case for Early in 2011. To Early’s credit, however, he dedicated himself to overcoming the struggles that plagued him as a sophomore, and quietly reverted to the form he enjoyed as a freshman, which was acquitting himself as one of the best kickers in the Southern Conference.
Early will also handle the punting duties this on Saturday night, where he turned in a superb 2012 season in that department. Early averaged 42.1 yards-per-punt and had seven punts that were 50 yards or more in distance.
Gardner-Webb Special Teams: Gardner-Webb will head into the season with a new kicker, as Jordan Day takes over the place-kicking duties for Taylor Austin, who has graduated. Dustin Holder, a redshirt freshman, will handle the punting duties, while Matt Freixa completes a trio of new starters in the kicking game.
The Bulldogs do have a dangerous threat in the return game, with J.J. Hubbard expected to once again handle the kick and punt return duties for the Bulldogs in 2013. Hubbard averaged 22.1 yards-per-kick-return last season, posting that impressive average on 37 returns.
His longest kick return of the 2013 season was 73 yards. Hubbard will also likely handle the punt return duties, averaging 15.2 YPR on nine returns last fall.
Saturday Blitz Final Prediction: Furman 38, Gardner-Webb 17