Friday, August 30, 2019

Paladins try to reverse opening trend

Furman junior captain Bo Layton leads an offensive line that returns all
five starters and four reserves this season. Photo courtesy of Furman
Furman begins the 2019 football season Saturday with a rare home opener, seeking something else that's been rare - a 1-0 start to the season. The Paladins, who are ranked No. 17 in the preseason FCS Coaches poll and No. 19 in the STATS media poll, host Charleston Southern looking for their first season opening win since 2014. Furman, which has turned things around after 0-3 starts each of the past two seasons, has won just one opener since 2010.

Saturday will mark Furman's first opening game at Paladin Stadium since 2015 against an opponent it's never faced before. Charleston Southern, which started football in 1991, is the lone Division I in-state opponent the Paladins had never played. In addition to being an unfamiliar foe, the Buccaneers also have a new head coach in Notre Dame's all-time leading rusher Autry Denson. So for Furman, there's plenty of unknown going into this matchup.

"With openers there's always a level of uncertainty and in this case, even more so," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "Everything we've seen says there's going to an air raid style offense. They have an experienced quarterback who's a mobile guy.
"They're only two years removed from winning a couple of conference championships. Historically, they've been really good defensively. It will certainly be a challenge for us, but we're excited to finally get to play."

There will be new faces on the Furman sideline as well Saturday, and they will be trying to shut down CSU's air attack. It will be the first game for new cornersbacks coach Rod Ojong and new safeties coach Corico Wright. They're part of a defensive staff led by new coordinator Duane Vaughn. Senior spur Jordan Willis, one of four captains, said Vaughn's new position has changed nothing about his enthusiastic coaching style.

"Coach Vaughn's been a great leader for us. He hasn't changed one bit. He's probably the most energized guy if you see him out on the practice field. ... That's how he's been all four years I've been here," Willis said. "I think some of the leadership we have on defense helps him as well.
"It's a lot easier when you have players pushing other players. ... We try to correct the little things before the coaches can even get to it."

While opportunities against a pair of FBS opponents loom the first two Saturdays in September, the Paladins are well aware of the importance of this August non-conference game. Missing the chance to earn a win against a Colgate team that went undefeated in the regular season last year because of the weather may have very well cost Furman a bid to the FCS playoffs.

Last year's playoff snub, when the Paladins became just the second Southern Conference champion to not receive a postseason invite, gives the team plenty of motivation headed into this season. That combined with the slow starts of the past give even more cause for Furman to take care of business Saturday.

"We've been saying, 'let's leave no doubt and don't leave it (a playoff bid) in somebody else's hands.' The only way to do that is to win the conference and get the automatic bid," Hendrix said. "The other thing is we'd like to start (the season) a little faster than we have. Obviously, we haven't started very well for various reasons the past couple of years."

Hope for a better start could be found in the overall confidence level of the team entering this season. When preseason camp ended, Hendrix described the difference between this year's camp and his first two as "night and day." In addition to experience, he noted the biggest cause for improvement this preseason was the tremendous shape the team showed up in following offseason workouts.

Confidence is especially high in deep experienced positions, such as the offensive line. All five starters return for the Paladins along the line, as well as the top four reserves.

"This is the first year where I feel like we (the offensive line) have the ability to take over," junior left tackle Bo Layton, a captain, said. "We can be that unit that provides leadership on offense. I think on every team, it starts up front.
"I feel great about our receiving corps, our backfield and quarterback situation. We have a lot talented, smart guys that work hard. I think that's going to equate to a lot of success."

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