Friday, September 17, 2021

Depth a key to Furman's stingy defense

Defensive tackle London Lewis helped Furman hold Tennessee Tech to 23 yards
rushing in the Paladins' 26-0 win last Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

When the Furman football team reported to fall camp in August, it did so with more than 110 players taking the practice field. Coach Clay Hendrix said it was the biggest group of players he could recall since his playing days back in the mid-1980s. In addition to creating needed competition, Hendrix said it also created much-needed depth.

"Our sport is one of attrition," Hendrix said following a preseason practice. "We've recruited really hard to try to get our numbers up. It's nice having more bodies to work."

Hendrix believed that with some fall games being quite a bit warmer than the spring, depth would pay off especially in the fourth quarters this season. That proved to be the case in the season-opening win over North Carolina A&T as Furman finally found some running room in the final quarter to help seal the win.

Depth paid off in last Saturday's win at Tennessee Tech in a different way, although the Paladins did run out the clock over the final five-plus minutes of the game to seal their first shutout in 17 years. The depth along the defensive line proved to be a factor all day. After losing starting defensive tackle Matt Sochovka for the season due to a torn knee suffered in the opener, Hendrix said others would have to step up and they did.

All three of Furman's sacks last Saturday were made by non-starters. Backup bandit and co-captain Elijah McKoy made his first sack since 2018 on a third-down play in the first quarter, while backup tackle Parker Stokes' sack came on a third-down play in the fourth.

The other sack was made by freshman bandit Luke Clark, who doesn't appear on the two-deep depth chart. His went for a 13-yard loss and a forced fumble that freshman Seth Johnson, a backup noseguard, just missed picking up for a possible scoop and score.

"He tried to pick it up, but you've just got to get that ball," Hendrix said. "But we've got more and more of those guys stepping up and that's good to see. ... We're playing a lot of guys over there who are playing really well and flying to the ball.

"We will be challenged more and more going forward. Certainly (N.C. State) is going to be a totally different animal ... but this is a good one to build on."

Furman's defense held Tennessee Tech to 121 totals yards and six first downs, including 18 yards and one first down in the second half.

Getting off the field

Of Tennessee Tech's 13 offensive drives last Saturday, 10 lasted no more than three plays including each of its final eight drives. The Golden Eagles converted just 2-of-13 third downs, one week after North Carolina A&T made just 3-of-12. That 20 percent third-down conversion rate by Furman's defense ranks third-best in the FCS.

The defense has found other ways to get off the field as well. After making eight interceptions in seven spring games earlier this year, the Paladins are halfway there two games into the fall. All three on Saturday turned out to be key.

Cornerback Travis Blackshear's first on Saturday came two plays after Devin Wynn's 42-yard touchdown run on Furman's opening possession. It led to the first of Southern Conference special teams player of the week Timmy Bleekrode's four field goals that pushed the Paladins' lead to 10-0.

DiMarcus Clay's interception came on the very next play after Tech's lone first down of the second half. Three plays later, Wynn scored Furman's other touchdown to seal the win. The Eagles' only trip into Furman territory after halftime came after a long punt return to the Paladins' 39. Three plays and zero yards later, Blackshear made his third pick of the season on Tech's final offensive play with 5:21 left.

Those kind of plays were similar to the season opener when Furman seemingly had an answer every time North Carolina A&T threatened to make things very interesting. After two turnovers in their own territory by Furman's offense, the defense limited the Aggies to field goal attempts each time. When it appeared A&T's quarterback was about to run for a score, Blackshear forced a fumble before he reached the goal line.

"It's called sudden changes and you've got to know how to respond," Blackshear said. "That's what we key on in the secondary. You're going to get beat sometimes, but how are you going to respond. ... We had a good week of preparation (for Tennessee Tech), but you've got to translate that to the field and we did that."

Harris making an immediate impact

One week after taking a slant pass 41 yards for a touchdown the first time he touched the ball in a college football game, true freshman receiver Joshua Harris made his first collegiate start at Tennessee Tech. He made the most of it on Furman's opening drive. Harris converted both of Furman's third downs on the drive, making catches of 15 and 12 yards respectively.

In the third quarter, Harris made a beautiful two-handed grab over the middle for a gain of 16. He finished as Furman's leading receiver with 54 yards on five receptions.

"A couple of those weren't easy catches by any means. The first third down, he went down to the ground to catch it and reached back on another," Hendrix said. "He came from a great program, so he was pretty good when he got here. ... I just love his demeanor. He's a great kid who just goes out there and works. He's already well liked."

Injury update

Hendrix said wide receiver Noah Henderson could make his season debut this Saturday at N.C. State. Running back Wayne Anderson is questionable. Anderson missed last week's game after getting banged up in the opener.

"You might even see Noah Henderson back up (All-American tight end) Ryan Miller a little bit," Hendrix said. "I sometimes worry about Ryan playing too many plays."

Freshman Dominic Morris, who's listed as Blackshear's backup on this week's depth chart, should make his collegiate debut Saturday. Morris, who enrolled at Furman in January after spending last fall at Air Force Prep, has been out with an injured finger.

"He was going to be playing until his finger deal," Hendrix said. "So that should help us a little bit, especially on special teams."

This week's Greenville News stories

Recapping Furman's 26-0 win at Tennessee Tech:

Clay Hendrix on fond memories of games at N.C. State and hoping to make another on Saturday:

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Catching up on Greenville News stories

Happy football season everyone. As we get back into the swing of things with the fall, I hope to post here on the Furman Sports Report on a more regular basis. In the meantime, here's some recent stories I've written for The Greenville News. If you can't access them, I encourage you to take advantage of sales on subscriptions they regularly have. I recently subscribed to online access for $1 for six months for example. 

On how Devin Wynn's versatility paid off in Furman's season-opening win over North Carolina A&T:

Four things we learned in the Paladins' win over North Carolina A&T:

On Hamp Sisson's leadership on and off the field:

Friday, September 3, 2021

At long last, Paladins' McKoy ready to roll

After missing last season with an injury, Furman captain Elijah McKoy
is healthy and raring to go this season. Photo courtesy of Furman

When Furman opens the season Saturday by hosting No. 25 North Carolina A&T it will be a battle of one team that will have last played 147 days ago against a team that will have last played 623 days ago. While the Paladins went 3-4 in the Southern Conference's spring season that was postponed from the fall, the Aggies opted out of the 2020 season entirely.

There are a few Furman players who will be back for the first time since 2019 as well. Co-captain Elijah McKoy, sophomore right tackle Pearson Toomey and wide receiver turned quarterback Luke Shiflett each missed the spring season.

"It's been two years since I've had a real camp, so it's really exciting to back," McKoy said following an early fall practice. "I worked all summer and training-wise, I was doing stuff better than I was before I hurt my knee. So I knew it was going to come back right, it was just the mental thing of overcoming that hurdle of being out on the field."

McKoy said it was an honor to be elected a team captain for the second consecutive season. After only being able to lead with his words last season, he's ready to go make a physical difference this season.

"We were really close to being a really good team in the spring. We just had a few plays here and there that we missed. It was especially frustrating knowing that I couldn't get out there and help," McKoy said. "Hopefully we can recover from the spring and have a really good season this year because we have all the tools."

McKoy, who has 236 career tackles, is the backup to Adrian Hope at the bandit position in this week's depth chart. He should see plenty of action through the defensive rotations though.

Furman coach Clay Hendrix said Toomey has a tremendous preseason. He's slated to start at right tackle.

"Based on August practice, our best lineman may be Pearson Toomey," Hendrix said. "We thought he'd be a starter in the spring, but he hurt his labrum in fall practice and never got back."

Shiflett, who transferred in from Middle Tennessee State in 2019, shifted from receiver to quarterback this preseason. He'd been getting some reps at each position in practice, but stuck at quarterback after Colt Minson left school for personal reasons. Minson had transferred in this summer from Charlotte. Shiflett is third on the depth chart behind starter Hamp Sisson and freshman Jace Wilson. Wilson and Shiflett each missed about a week of fall camp.

New starters
Toomey will be lining up alongside some relative newcomers when it comes to starting up front. Right guard Clark Daniel will be making his third career start at Furman after two in the spring. Daniel was Hendrix's final recruit at Air Force, where he transferred from in 2019.

At center, freshman Wyatt Hughes is slated to make his first career start after appearing in two games in the spring. Sophomore Evan Jumper, who's made 16 career starts, will see action on Saturday. He was limited in fall practice as he was out with an illness for 10 days and just returned to the team on Tuesday.

Sophomore left guard Jacob Johanning looks to make his eighth career start on Saturday, and it will be the sixth career start for junior left tackle Anderson Tomlin. 

"Wyatt Hughes has had a great camp ... and the plan is to play two guys there anyway. We moved (freshman center) Ryan Lamb to guard last week, just to get him some more reps," Hendrix said. "Anderson Tomlin's had a really good camp and I thought he had a really good year (in the spring). We lost him in the Chattanooga game for the rest of the season. So we really didn't have either of those tackles down the stretch.
"We will play about eight offensive linemen. I really like that group we've got. Their mindset's a little bit different."

Dominic Roberto is set to make his first career start at the running back position, with Devin Abrams - who has 19 career starts - backing him up. Hendrix said both will see plenty of action though, as should tailbacks Devin Wynn, Wayne Anderson and Kendall Thomas.

The lone new starter on defense looks to be freshman Ivan Yates, who will take over at a cornerback spot in place of graduated Darius Kearse.

Payton Award hopefuls square off
Saturday's first game between Furman and North Carolina A&T will feature two of the 13 running backs among 35 total players on the Walter Payton Award watchlist. The Payton Award is annually presented to the top offensive player in the FCS.

Wynn enters this season ranked ninth in school history in rushing yards (2,468) and 10th in touchdowns (25). He’s averaged 5.9 yards per carry in his career.

In 2019, the Aggies' Jah-Maine Martin was a Payton Award finalist after he broke single season school records for rushing touchdowns (23) and yards per carry (7.7). Martin piled up 1,446 yards rushing in A&T's 12 games and had nine touchdown runs of more than 50 yards.

"I think Devin's down about 10 pounds maybe from the spring. ... I think he's in the best shape of his life and we expect him to have a big year," Hendrix said. "Their kid has been highly productive in his career, so you've got two really good backs going at it. ... This is good group we're playing against. They're talented, big and athletic."