Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Furman's offensive depth chart has new look

Furman's Wayne Anderson Jr. has a new position (receiver) and a new number (9) this season. Coach
Clay Hendrix believes Anderson is the fastest player on the team. Photo courtesy of Furman

There have been quite a few times that three receivers took the field for the opening play of a Furman football game this century. If I recall correctly, there may have been at least one instance of four. But when the Paladins' season-opening depth chart was released this week, it was still an eye opener to see a starting lineup that included three receivers and only one running back.

Furman coach Clay Hendrix said there will still be plenty of two back sets this year, including Thursday at 7 p.m. when the Paladins open the 2022 season by hosting North Greenville. Hendrix is excited about all the playmakers that new offensive coordinator Jordan Roper is set to utilize at both positions.

Two of the starting receiver spots belong to 2021 Southern Conference All-Freshman team member Joshua Harris and former running back Wayne Anderson. The third spot will see either old Middle Tennessee State transfer Luke Shiflett or new James Madison grad transfer Kyndel Dean start.

"We moved Wayne out to slot and he's done really well out there. Some may argue but if you're asking me, I think Wayne's the fastest guy on our team," Hendrix said. "Shiflet and Dean are listed as 'or' as the starter on the depth chart, but it really doesn't matter who's out there first. They're both going to play a ton."

Starting at running back will be junior Dominic Roberto, who shined in the second half of last season. After only rushing for 56 yards in limited action over the first five games, Roberto finished with a team-high 709 yards rushing and six touchdowns - all of which were scored over the final five games. Roberto, who's lost 11 pounds since last season to add more speed to his bruising physique, averaged 8.26 yards per carry over those last five games. That helped him break the record for yards per carry in a season at 7.4, topping the previous mark of 7.3 set by Robbie Gardner in 1984.

Backing up Roberto will be senior captain Devin Abrams, who has 29 career starts under his belt. Abrams will join Roberto in the backfield at times, as will a plethora of younger backs.

"We're not doing a ton of two-back, but we will still do some because those are some of our better players," Hendrix said. "You've got those two (Roberto and Abrams) and (redshirt freshman) Myion Hicks and Grant Robinson, who was slowed most of August with an ankle injury. He's just gotten back in the last week.

"And (sophomore) Kendall Thomas had a great August. He was maybe the most improved guy and has big-play stuff. But he got rolled up last week and he's probably 80 percent right now. I don't know it he will be able to go this week or not."

The different offensive sets that Furman uses this season could also allow All-American tight end Ryan Miller to be a weapon in different spots.

Defensive depth chart runs deep

On the other side of the ball, a handful of Paladins should make their first collegiate starts Thursday. Those include sophomores Jeremiah Jackson and Luke Clark, who are slated to start at defensive end and bandit, respectively.

Redshirt freshman Amaah Achina is set to get his first start at the spur. Sophomore Evan DiMaggio, great nephew of Joltin' Joe, will either make his first start at middle linebacker or junior Dan Scianna will make his third.

"Achina's going to start ahead of Jalen Miller, who missed some time with an ankle injury but he's back now," Hendrix said.

The most experienced part of a deep defensive unit is Furman's secondary, where every member of the two-deep has made at least one career start. Starting at cornerback should be Travis Blackshear and Micah Robinson, while Kam Brinson and Hugh Ryan should man the starting safety spots. Dae'one Wilkins, who's made 13 career starts at the spur, is set to backup Brinson at strong safety.

There's going to be so much rotation on the defensive side of the ball, it may not be completely accurate to refer to anyone on the second string as a "backup" though.

"We play so many guys on defense I feel like we can play two-deep out there," Hendrix said. "It's almost a 1a and 1b situation in some spots."

Starting kicker job still up for grabs

One of the only starting battles still undecided as of Sunday was at place kicker. Sophomore Axel Lepvreau, who's handled kickoffs each of the last two seasons, and N.C. State transfer Ian Williams, who will handle kickoffs this season, are competing for it.

"We've tracked them all summer in team settings. One of them was 41-of-58 and one was 38-of-57," Hendrix said Sunday. "Williams ended today's practice by making a 58-yarder. He has the stronger leg, so I'm hoping he can be a weapon from a kickoff standpoint. He's got the ability to be a significant touchback guy."

It could end up being a platoon situation with Lepvreau attempting shorter field goals and Williams trying them from around 40 yards out and beyond.

New duds for season opener

In addition to new looks on offense, there will be a new look for the entire team for Thursday's "FU After Dark" game theme. For the first time in more than 50 years, Furman will wear purple helmets. The matte helmets will feature the iconic "Diamond F" logo on one side and player numbers on the other.

Additionally, a new black uniform will debut Thursday featuring purple numbers outlined in white. It will be Furman's first ode to Johnny Cash since last wearing black in 2016. Fans of Furman's traditional purple-and-white and all-white uniforms, inarguably the best looking threads in sports, need not worry. Those uniforms will still be around.

"Might we wear the new ones again this year? I don't know. I just know we're wearing them Thursday," Hendrix said. "We had some generous benefactors that wanted to do it, so we came up with a plan and I'm really pleased how it turned out. I still think it's a pretty classic look when you see it all together.
"I told them it won't make one block or one tackle for us, but our kids are really fired up about it. Who knows? Maybe it will get us a recruit or two."

Monday, August 29, 2022

Huff wins starting quarterback job for Paladins

Furman's Tyler Huff, a grad transfer from Presbyterian, has earned the starting quarterback
job entering Thursday's home opener against North Greenville. Photo courtesy of Furman

When Furman kicks off the 2022 football season Thursday night against North Greenville, grad transfer Tyler Huff will be taking snaps as the starting quarterback. The Presbyterian transfer beat out sophomore Jace Wilson in preseason camp for the spot, but head coach Clay Hendrix has confidence in both moving forward.

"They've both have had solid Augusts. It certainly wasn't picking the lesser of two evils," Hendrix said. "Tyler's just been a little more consistent. That's probably the decision maker as much as anything.
"Going through a season nowadays with one guy is really hard to to, so we feel good about who all we've got there."

Huff made it to Furman, where he's reunited with former Blue Hose head coach Tommy Spangler, after three seasons at PC. Huff started 12 games over the 2019 and 2020 seasons under Spangler, who joined Hendrix's staff this offseason.

In the shortened seven-game 2020 season played in the spring of 2021, Huff led the Pioneer League in total offensive yards per game (278.5) and was second in passing (244.2). Huff threw for 1,465 yards and 10 touchdowns that season, while rushing for 206 yards and three scores. As a true freshman in 2019 at PC, Huff passed for 871 yards and seven touchdowns and ran for 326 yards and two scores.

Under a new regime last season, Huff completed 17-of-21 passes for 224 yards and four touchdowns in four games. He also ran for a touchdown and caught another. Huff has two years of playing eligibility left.

"He's just a really mature kid whose played in tough situations and been productive," Hendrix said. "He's really athletic, and has been accurate and a good decision maker. You can tell he's competitive as heck."

Furman went 4-2 in games that Wilson started as a true freshman last season. Wilson completed 63-of-122 passes for 1,020 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions. He also ran for 101 yards and two touchdowns.

Given that 2021 season-opening starter Hamp Sisson left football to focus on medical school, it would've been easy to assume that Wilson would be the starter this season. But this year marked Wilson's first spring practice at Furman and first working with the Paladins' new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Justin Roper.

While Huff wasn't officially on the roster yet and could not participate in spring practice, he was around the team. So entering August, everyone involved had a clean slate so to speak.

"Jace has made the progress we hoped he'd make, but he's also in a new system. So there's a little bit of a reset to that," Hendrix said. "And this was his first full offseason."

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Injuries dilute Furman's offensive line depth

Furman junior Evan Jumper (62), who's made 26 career starts at center,
 has seen time at left tackle this preseason. Photo courtesy of Furman

The preseason portion of Furman's August practice schedule wrapped up with a 40-minute scrimmage Saturday that capped the Paladins' annual Fan Day festivities. Coach Clay Hendrix said the team will begin its season practice routine on Monday, 10 days ahead of the Sept. 1 opener against North Greenville.

Preseason camp has seen plenty of reps for players throughout the roster, with quite a few seeing action at multiple positions. Nowhere has that been more evident than along the offensive line, which has likely been done out of design but also due to injuries. Most notable among the injuries up front are the losses of Gerrik Vollmer and Luke Petit for the season.

Vollmer, a 6-foot-5, 306-pound graduate transfer who's played at Virginia and Old Dominion, suffered a broken ankle in practice early in camp and has already had surgery to repair it. Petit, a 6-3, 285-pound redshirt freshman, wasn't hurt in practice but it was discovered that he had a meniscus issue in his knee that required surgery.

"Those two guys would've played a lot of football for us (this year). We still have a lot of core guys there and it's an opportunity for some other guys to step up," Hendrix said Saturday. "The good thing is some of it happened early enough in preseason that we've been able to rep a bunch of guys."

Furman's offensive line depth also took a hit with three departures this offseason. Sophomore Dylan Davis transferred to Illinois in April. December signees Maddox Epperson and Caleb Lyons, who each participated in summer drills at Furman, left the team before preseason camp opened.  

Five different Paladins have taken snaps at center this month, including four during Saturday's scrimmage. None of those four were junior Evan Jumper, who has 26 career starts at center. Instead, Jumper played exclusively left tackle on Saturday.

Redshirt freshman Ryan Lamb and sophomore Blake Hundley took most of Saturday's snaps at center. Hundley has played center, guard and tackle this preseason.

"One thing I'm impressed by with (new offensive line coach) Matt (McCuchan) is having a bunch of guys playing a lot of spots," Hendrix said. "You do that against our defense, it's a challenge because they give you a lot of different looks."

Senior offensive tackle Anderson Tomlin was held out of Saturday's scrimmage, but should be full go on Monday according to Hendrix.

Starting quarterback battle

Hendrix said the competition for the starting quarterback spot between sophomore Jace Wilson and Presbyterian graduate transfer Tyler Huff has been a good one.

It got off to a bumpy start on Saturday though. The first possession of the scrimmage ended on Hugh Ryan's interception of Huff's pass. The next possession ended when Wilson's deep throw into double coverage was picked off by Dae'one Wilkins. 

"There were a couple of bad throws," Hendrix said. "They've been pretty good in that regard most of the preseason, but also the defense gets a little credit on those too. We're a lot better at rushing the passer."

Later on in the scrimmage, Huff displayed good running ability including a 40-yard scramble for a touchdown.

"Watching tape before he got here, I knew he was a good athlete. He's probably a little faster than I thought he was though," Hendrix said. "He's just a confident, poised guy who's been a great fit.

"Both of those guys have really had some moments thus far. ... I've been really pleased with (freshman) Carson Jones too. He's got a bright future. (New offensive coordinator) Justin Roper's done a really good job of throwing those guys in there in the heat of the battle. That will be good for them."

New faces on special teams

You probably wouldn't expect to see an All-American tight end returning kickoffs, but you also don't see many tight ends with Ryan Miller's kind of speed. The fifth-year senior fielded kickoffs Saturday and given his proven ability at North-South running, he could be a boost to a unit that sorely needs it. Furman's finished last in the Southern Conference in kickoff return average each of the past three seasons.

"Just finding another way for him to touch the ball because he's pretty good with the ball in his hands," Hendrix said. "We want home run hitters back there."

Hendrix said two of the three kicking positions have been decided. Sophomore Ryan Leavy will be the starting punter, while N.C. State transfer Ian Williams will handle kickoffs. The 6-3, 225-pound Williams boomed several kickoffs into the back of the end zone on Saturday. The placekicker battle between Williams and sophomore Axel Lepvreau is still too close to call.

"I've looked at the numbers for the whole camp and it's crazy how similar they are," Hendrix said. "They've both got strong legs. We've tried to put them in tough situations and they've both responded pretty good."

Smith makes a splash

There weren't a ton of offensive fireworks in Saturday's scrimmage, but freshman running back Jayquan Smith had a few highlights. Smith accounted for the second-longest play of the day with a 30-yard touchdown run.

"Every time (Smith) touches it, he seems to have a pretty good run," Hendrix said. "Obviously, we feel really good about Dom(inic Roberto) - who's down to 231 (pounds) - and Devin Abrams. We also really like Smith and (redshirt freshmen) Myion Hicks and Grant Robinson. Hopefully we get Robinson back this week. He's missed a good bit of time with an ankle injury. Kendall Thomas has made a bunch of big plays too, which has been great. That's a pretty good group."