Thursday, September 15, 2022

Furman's Huff unfazed by Death Valley's aura

Furman quarterback Tyler Huff had 256 yards on 31-of-40 passing in the
Paladins' 35-12 loss at Clemson Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

During Tyler Huff's three seasons at Presbyterian, the biggest crowd he played in front of was at North Alabama in 2019, where the official attendance was 8,573. So it was quite a different experience for Furman's new quarterback Saturday, when he took snaps before a crowd of 78,302 at Clemson.

Amidst the typical pomp and circumstance of a Tigers' home game, it was also their home opener and the debut of the eighth-largest scoreboard in college football. Huff was unfazed. Even though his start got off to about as intimidating one as could be scripted, Huff picked right up where he left off during his Paladin debut in Furman's 52-0, season opening win over North Greenville.

On the Paladins' first offensive play, Huff's helmet came flying off and rolled about 25 yards backwards before coming to a stop in the end zone. There was somehow no flag, which meant Huff had to leave for one play. When he came back in on third-and-eight, Huff calmly waited for four blitzing Tigers to get through before delivering a screen pass to Dominic Roberto for a 27-yard gain. On the next play, Huff rolled to his right, avoided another blitzer and hit Ryan Miller for 28 yards.

Unfortunately for Furman, that first drive seemingly set the tone for Saturday. The Paladins moved the ball well all day, but reached the end zone only as often as Huff's helmet did on that first play.

"After going back and looking at (game film), man we left a lot of plays out there. Obviously, credit Clemson and I knew we weren't going to make all of those, ... We outgained them, we were great on third down, but didn't score enough points," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said during his weekly press conference Monday. "It's certainly something to build upon and I think it gives our team a lot of confidence.

"We're certainly not in the moral victory business, but at the same time I think our football team can compliment each other really, really well. I think our defense feels like if they can get the ball back to our offense, we've got a good chance to score points and vice-versa. ... I think we're doing some really good things in the kicking game."

While they were disappointed to not make a better showing on the scoreboard, Hendrix and the team were happy about the showing on the field. After completing his last seven passes before checking out midway through the second quarter in the opener, Huff completed his first 12 passes on Saturday. Only a dropped pass by All-American tight end Ryan Miller - on a ball thrown a little behind him - stopped Huff from tying Chris Forcier's school record of 20 consecutive completions.

Huff ended up with 259 yards on 31-of-40 passing with a touchdown and an interception. He also ran nine times for 25 yards. His 31 completions are the second-most for a single game in school history. Cleve Hightower completed 32-of-67 passes against Wofford in 1969.

"Anybody that watches him play, the way he competes and makes plays, it kind of fires you up going forward," Hendrix said. 

The last time a visiting quarterback had at least 31 completions at Death Valley was South Carolina's Jake Bentley in 2018. That same 2018 season included Furman's last trip to Clemson. On that day, Paladin quarterbacks completed 4-of-9 passes for 46 yards. For more comparisons, Furman had 104 yards on 10-of-21 passing at N.C. State last season, and 68 yards on 9-of-16 passing at Virginia Tech in 2019.

So Saturday was a vastly different experience than the Paladins' previous games at ACC teams. After that wild sack on Furman's first snap, Clemson's vaunted defensive front got its only other one late in the fourth quarter.

"Being in this big of a stadium with this much noise, it's a lot of fun. We can learn from this experience because ultimately, we want to go to the playoffs where you might play a North Dakota State in a loud dome," Huff said Saturday. "I give a lot of props to our OC (offensive coordinator Justin Roper) today. He put us in a great position and just called perfect plays.

"Being a transfer, I just got here but this team has shown me a lot over the first two games. First, how we handled success when we got up very quickly in the opener. Then today against a big opponent, we got down pretty quick but nobody gave up or folded."

Huff not only received praise from his coach and teammates, but also the competition.

"I thought they did a really good job of executing their plan. Their quarterback is a heck of a little player. He's a baller, tough and gritty," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said in Saturday's postgame press conference. "They were 10-of-18 on third down. I don't remember the last time someone did that to us."

Dual-threat running backs

Of Huff's 30 completions Saturday, 13 were received by Miller. That tied the school record set by Byron Trotter in that Wofford game in 1969. While Miller made his typical share of big plays, the other big plays in the passing game were made by running backs.

On Roberto's 27-yard gain on the opening drive, he made a great catch as he pinned the ball with his right hand against his shoulder pad before securing it. Later, Roberto drew a pass interference penalty on the Tigers on a fairly deep pass down the sideline. Backup running back Devin Abrams caught a pair of screens for 20 and 19 yards, respectively, and delivered a couple of big hits to defenders making the tackle. He also ran for 29 yards on seven carries.

Former running back Wayne Anderson displayed such good hands out of the backfield in his career that he moved to receiver this offseason. He caught six passes for 44 yards Saturday.

"We always try to recruit those kind of guys. ... Both those guys (Roberto and Abrams) were big, athletic guys and really good players coming out of high school," Hendrix said. "We want guys that can break long ones, but also catch the football and protect with blocking. I think we've got a couple of more guys like that too. (Running backs coach) Antonio Wilcox has done a great job with that group."

Freshman Myion Hicks led the Paladins Saturday with 33 yards rushing on five carries, all of which made up Furman's final drive. Kendall Thomas, who Hendrix praised for his August practice effort before suffering an injury in the final week, made his season debut and had seven yards on two carries.

Miller still awaiting return

In an effort to get the ball to its one of its best players more, Furman slotted Miller in at kick returner alongside Anderson this season. Two games into the season, Miller hasn't gotten a chance to show what he can do there yet.

With North Greenville being shut out in the opener, only one kickoff to the Paladins was made and Anderson returned it 27 yards. On Saturday, all six Clemson kickoffs sailed through the end zone for a touchback.

While both quarterbacks shined last Saturday, the kickoff specialists may have had the most dominant performances as Ian Anderson booted every Furman kickoff through the back of the end zone as well. Of Williams 12 kickoffs this season, 10 have been touchbacks. The two returns went for only 31 yards combined.

"I'm glad Coach Hendrix has the confidence to put me back there. I just want to be able to make plays in any situation," Miller said. "Hopefully I'll get one and we'll see what happens."

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