GREENVILLE, S.C.–In 2008, media members met in late July to decide where teams would finish at the league’s annual media day. It was Samford’s inaugural year in the Southern Conference after spending some six years as a member of the Ohio Valley Conference.
The Bulldogs got the treatment many newcomers to the SoCon in their first year, and the Bulldogs were predicted last.
The Bulldogs took that as motivation, finishing off the 2008 season by completing the campaign with a 6-5 record and with a 4-4 record in the league, finished fourth in the league’s final standings.
Last season would be the culmination of the Bulldogs’ and head coach Pat Sullivan’s project, as Samford won its first Division I conference title in school history, finishing with an 8-5 overall record and a 6-2 conference mark.
So many times in previous seasons since joining the league in 2008, the Bulldogs have seen heartbreaks go against them. The Appalachian State game in 2012, the Furman games in 2008 and ’09 were all memories that stick in the memory banks of Samford football fans.
But breakthroughs would begin to go in favor of the Bulldogs, and it would start following a pair of losing campaigns for the Bulldogs in 2009 and ’10, as the Bulldogs finished those seasons 4-7 and 5-6. The past three seasons have seen the Bulldogs post three-straight winning seasons, going 6-5, 7-4 and of course last season, 8-5.
Football is taken seriously in the state of Alabama, and at Southern Conference media day, speaking with Bulldog defensive coordinator Bill D’Ottavio, it was evident how excited and how passionate he was about Samford has built and continues to build. But while games have seemingly fallen in the favor of the Bulldogs, making plays late to get wins against Wofford in overtime in 2012 and Chattanooga and Elon in 2013, Ottavio doesn’t point to just one moment in which he saw this team and this program begin to believe in itself.
“I don’t think there’s one moment in which we kind of just got over the hump or one game so to speak, but I think a lot of it has to do with gaining experience and what we have learned in some of those tough moments, but I’d be hard-pressed to pick just one moment over the past couple of years in which I would say that we just kind of got over the hump and starting winning some of those games late, instead of being on the other end of it,” Ottavio said.
The Bulldogs, who received one first-place vote and tied for second with Furman in the media and coaches voting for No. 2 in the Southern Conference polls, will have to rely on Ottavio’s defense early, as it’s a bit of the unconventional. In most seasons, the Bulldogs enter the campaign with one of the league’s top quarterbacks–think Dustin Taliaferro and Andy Summerlin–and the Bulldogs have yearly turned out some outstanding running backs and receivers–think Chris Evans and Fabian Truss in the backfield and wide receivers like Kelsey Pope, Riley Hawkins and Jonathan Lowery over the past few seasons.
Evans set the state of Alabama rushing record and remains Samford’s all-time leading rusher (4,575 yards) during his career from , while Truss finished out his career third on the school’s all-time rushing list (3,088 yards). That’s quite astonishing to have two of the school’s No. 1 and No. 3 running backs in the last over the past six seasons.
And it doesn’t stop with running backs, as Kelsey Pope, who finished out his career last season in a Samford offense, setting the school all-time mark for receiving yards (2,385 yds), while Taliaferro and Summerlin finished their careers over the past six years as the No. 1 and No. 4 passers in school history, as Summerlin finished with 7,165 yards for his career and Summerlin, who completed his career just last season, passed for 5,909 yards over his two years in Birmingham.
But in 2014, there’s no big name. There’s no Taliaferro or Summerlin, Truss or Evans and Pope or Hawkins. In past seasons, the Bulldogs have had some of the league’s top offensive coordinators, too.
Remember Rhett Lashlee back in 2011? He’s now the offensive coordinator at Auburn, under Gus Malzahn. On a side note, the national title game saw Lashlee’s offense face off against Jimbo Fisher–a former quarterback at Samford in the late 1980′s.
“Coach Sullivan really has to be given the credit for making some of those great hires at offensive coordinator, he has a good eye for talent and knows what to look for when he’s looking for a play-caller,” Ottavio said.
The Bulldogs did add a transfer that raised some eyebrows around the league, with the addition of Arizona State transfer Michael Eubank, who has NFL size, at 6-6, 246-lbs.
“On offense, we’ll need to guys like Jeremiaha Gates, Denzel Williams, and Stanley Robinson give some pretty good options in the running game, so it’s going to be more of a running-back-by-committee than it has been in past seasons,” Ottavio said.
The best news for the offense is four starters return on the offensive line, anchored by veterans such as Gunnar Bromelow and Kyle Champion.
With being said, the onus will be on Ottavio’s defense to lead this Samford team and help the Bulldogs defend their 2013 Southern Conference title. Seven starters return on that side of the ball, and plenty of leaders.
“We have a good feeling about the leadership the defense will provide us. Jaquiski Tartt, Bobby Wilson, Trey Wesley and Jerry Mathis are gonna be guys we look to this season to hopefully help usher those younger guys along, especially if we are struggling to find our footing on offense, we will need those guys to pick us up with their leadership,” Ottavio said.
Tartt has NFL talent, and he teams with James Bradberry to make up one of the top secondaries in the Southern Conference heading into the 2014 season.
Tartt provided some leadership in an early-season win for the Bulldogs last season, when he returned a pick for a 34-yard TD in the third quarter against Georgia State, changing the momentum of the game and allowing the Bulldogs to go on to a 31-21 win in the season-opener. Tartt enters his final season with 215 tackles, 19 PBUs and five INTs.
Finally, the special teams have been consistent for the Bulldogs in recent years, and many wondered how the Bulldogs might replace a player like Cameron Yaw, who finished his career as the school’s all-time leading scorer (302 pts), but that question was answered emphatically by Warren Handrahan last season, who converted an impressive 19-of-24 field goals in his inaugural season in Birmingham–good enough to earn the sophomore preseason First Team All-SoCon honors.
Greg Peranich, who averaged 42.9 yards-per-punt last season, joined Handrahan on the preseason first team. The Bulldogs also led the league in return yards each of the past three seasons, but that was mainly due to Truss.
“We have had good success recruiting special teams over the years here, and it’s an aspect of the game coach Sullivan is very serious about, and we have been fortunate to recruit this area very well over the years,” added Ottavio.
The Bulldogs might well stand atop the Southern Conference mountain this fall, but the way they do it might look drastically different. However, make no mistake about it, Samford is one of the most talented teams in the SoCon, and perhaps the FCS. Something good is definitely brewing in the Magic City, and Samford is building on a tradition that already includes the Bobby and Terry Bowden, as well as a Heisman Trophy winner.
But Samford wants something to call its own, and another championship would help the program become more than a stepping stone of up-and-coming great coaches and forner great players past and present.