Sunday, July 28, 2019

Paladins second in SoCon preseason polls

Furman left tackle Bo Layton, left, and linebacker Elijah McKoy represented
the Paladins at the Southern Conference's Football Media Day this year.
SPARTANBURG - For the second consecutive year, perhaps the biggest question for the Furman football team is who will be its starting quarterback. For the second consecutive year, that uncertainty hasn't fazed those predicting how the Paladins will fare this fall.

Coming off a share of its Southern Conference-best 14th championship, Furman has been picked to finish second this season by the league's media and coaches. The preseason polls were revealed at this year's SoCon Media Day. Prior to last season, Furman was predicted to finish second by the media and third by the coaches.

"We were sitting here (at Media Day) two years ago and were picked seventh, so it's nice to be (higher) in the discussion," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "We want to be regarded as one of the better teams. That won't do anything for us. It won't make us a first down or stop anybody, but that's where we want to be."

Things are a little different in this year's starting quarterback battle this year. Unlike last season, those battling to replace Harris Roberts this year have some meaningful in-game collegiate experience. Thanks to last year's new redshirt rule, Darren Grainger and Hamp Sisson were each able to redshirt as freshman while they played in four and two games, respectively.

A new face is in the quarterback mix this year in sophomore transfer Luke Shiflett. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Dalton, Ga. native played wide receiver and punter at Middle Tennessee State last season and participated in all 14 games. In two-plus seasons at Northwest Whitfield High (Class 4A), Shiflett threw for more than 5,000 yards and 52 touchdowns and rushed for more than 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns. As a senior in 2018, he was his region's player of the year in football and basketball.

"We've got a couple of guys who've been in our program now for a year and they can do everything we want them to do. We've added a guy in Shiflett and we will give him a chance to compete," Hendrix said. "I think they've had really good offseasons. It will be an interesting competition.
"We really kind of know what we have, from an ability standpoint. ... I think their supporting cast is considerably better than it has been."

Whoever emerges as the starting quarterback will have plenty of experienced protection up front. The Paladins return all five starting offensive linemen as well as four reserves. Among those returning starters is junior left tackle Bo Layton, who was Furman's lone offensive representative on the preseason All-SoCon first team.

Layton has started in 17 of the 18 games he's played in during his Furman career, including all 10 last season when he logged a unit-high 574 plays. After being just the second SoCon champion ever left out of the FCS playoff field despite a four-game winning streak to end last season, there's plenty of motivation for the Paladins this year. Another motivation is to get off on the right track after starting 0-3 each of the last two seasons.

"We kind of want to pick up where we left off," Layton said. "We've had a thing the past two years where we've gone on a (winning) streak. We just want to keep that one (from last season) alive."

A total of eight starters return on offense, while seven starters are back on defense for Furman. That doesn't include the lone defensive player on the All-SoCon preseason first team - sophomore bandit Adrian Hope. As a freshman in 2018, Hope earned second team AP All-American honors after leading the country with 15 sacks. For the season, he totaled 32 tackles, 16.5 for loss, and five forced fumbles - all after coming off the bench every Saturday.

"Having a guy who can go get you sacks consistently definitely helps the rest of the defense," said junior linebacker Elijah McKoy, who ranked second in the SoCon with 91 tackles last season. "It takes a lot of pressure off people like me when he's drawing double teams."

It will be interesting to see what Furman's defense looks like under the guidance of Duane Vaughn, who was promoted to defensive coordinator after Chad Staggs left for Coastal Carolina. The Paladins piled up 61 sacks over the last two seasons under Staggs.

Along with a new coordinator, there are new faces coaching on the defensive side of the ball as Rod Ojong (cornerbacks) and Corico Wright (safeties) were hired by Hendrix this offseason.

"I think they've made us better in a lot of ways," Hendrix said. "I see losing a good coach as an opportunity to hire a better coach. I've been really pleased with what they've done."

McKoy believes it was important for Vaughn, who's been a Furman assistant since 2011, to get the opportunity to lead the defense.

"With him, we didn't have to completely change defenses. It was important more so because of who Coach Vaughn is," McKoy said. "He's been a position coach at so many different positions, he knows how things need to work. He takes the confusion out of a lot of things and he's an emotional guy. He wants us to be able to play, have fun and let loose. He definitely understands how that affects our performance."

Joining Layton and Hope on the preseason All-SoCon first team was kicker Grayson Atkins. The junior from Boiling Springs already ranks No. 10 on Furman's all-time scoring chart with 144 career points. After missing his first two field goal attempts of the year at Elon, Atkins didn't miss another the rest of the way to take a streak of 11 consecutive makes into this season. Four of those 11 were from at least 50 yards out.

Senior right tackle Andy Godwin, senior wide receiver Thomas Gordon, junior running back Devin Wynn and McKoy earned preseason All-SoCon second team honors.

The Paladins will report to preseason camp on Aug. 1 and open the season 30 days later at home against Charleston Southern.

"I like this football team. I like how we work. We've had a phenomenal offseason and we're fairly healthy starting into the year," Hendrix said. "There's just still a lot of work to do now until we start playing."

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