Thursday, August 31, 2023

Furman to honor Sheridan, 1973 team in opener

Furman will pay homage to the 1973 team with silver helmets in Thursday's season opener. It will
honor the memory of Dick Sheridan with a helmet decal all season. Photo courtesy of Furman

On an opening night in which Furman will honor legendary coach Dick Sheridan, it will also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the iconic Diamond F logo that he's credited with conceptualizing. Prior to Thursday's season opener against Tennessee Tech, the school will also honor the first team to display the iconic logo and the helmets they wore.

Members of the 1973 team will be at Paladin Stadium to serve as honorary captains. After going 2-9 in 1972, new head coach Art Baker guided the 1973 Paladins to a 7-3 record. They were named the most improved team in the country by Sports Illustrated and planted the seeds for what Sheridan later cultivated into the premier football program of the Southern Conference.

Sheridan's coaching career at Furman began in 1973 as an assistant to Baker. Along with his coaching duties that season, Sheridan help spearhead the introduction of new silver helmets emblazoned with the new logo. With the assistance of - and a $25 payment to - then Furman art major Dennis Zeiger, Sheridan's vision came to life. Those helmets were worn from 1973-77. When Sheridan took over as head coach in 1978, the change was made to the white helmets with purple Diamond F that Furman still primarily wears to this day.

"That Diamond F means an awful lot to football here and to me," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "I just think it's an iconic logo. Everybody that sees it knows who it is."

On Thursday night, though, it will be a nod to the past as the sixth-ranked Paladins will wear silvery chrome helmets with the Diamond F on one side and the school initials on the other. Furman will also don their all-black uniforms for the only night game of the season.

Honoring Sheridan, who passed away on July 6, will go on well beyond Thursday. All of the Paladins' helmets this season will have a decal on the back with "DS" in the Diamond logo, framed by 1978 and 1985 on either side representing the eight years in which he was head coach. During those eight seasons, Furman went 69-23-2, won six SoCon championships and played for the 1985 Division I-AA (now FCS) national championship.

"He meant everything to this program and he certainly meant a lot to me. I just think what he did here was pretty remarkable," said Hendrix, who played for Sheridan from 1982-85 before joining his coaching staff at N.C. State. "If you look at the history of this place prior to him coming here. They joined the league (SoCon) in 1936 and through 1977 had never won a conference championship. Then to win six of eight.

"He was just a really unique guy. At the end of the day, he had the ability to get people to play better than they were. He just showed excellence in everything he ever did. I certainly still try to do a lot of things like he did them."

As part of celebrating his legacy, 5,000 replica Dick Sheridan decals will be given away to fans upon entering the stadium for Thursday's 7 p.m. kickoff.

Replacing Miller

While Furman has one of the most experienced teams in the FCS this season, there's one loss from last season that should make for a decidedly different look this season. There's really no replacing a three-time All-American like Ryan Miller, who's now a receiver on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice squad.

However, Hendrix has confidence in the Paladins' tight end group. They're probably going to have a more traditional look than the numerous Miller's talents were utilized. When it comes to traditional tight end looks, Furman has a pretty good track record. The Paladins have had 32 All-SoCon tight ends since 1977.

"You're not going to ask them to do some of the things Ryan was asked to do, but you're also going to ask them to do some things you wouldn't ask Ryan to do," Hendrix said. "We're going to use two tight end (sets) a good bit."

The tight ends won't be hard to miss as they're huge. Parks Gissinger, a Michigan State transfer who played in every game and made three starts last season for the Paladins, is 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds. Mason Pline, a transfer grad who helped Ferris State win each of the last two Division II national championships, is 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds. Gissinger and Pline are listed with the "or" designation as the starting tight end on the depth chart.

The emphasis on size at the tight end spot also showed up in recruiting as Furman's two incoming freshmen at the position are Brock Chappell (6-5, 240) and Brennan Tormey (6-7, 221).

Harris ready to step up

Despite the loss of Miller, Furman has plenty of offensive weapons returning. One who's poised to step up is junior receiver Joshua Harris. Harris, who had 48 receptions for 667 yards and five touchdowns last season, says his first full offseason working with quarterback Tyler Huff has paid off.

"We worked tremendously hard over the offseason, trying to get timing down. (working on) deep routes, underneath routes," Harris said. "That's the same with all the other receivers though. We were all out here after a lift or on a Saturday or Sunday just getting extra work in to build that team chemistry.

"I'd say the difference between this preseason and last preseason is that Tyler's confidence and leadership has grown a lot. ... He's a very easy guy to get along and he connects with guys because he's the same person on and off the field."

Harris said Miller was more than a great player. He was also a great mentor and that's another role Harris has tried to step up in.

"Ryan was a heck of a player, who I looked up to when I first came in," Harris said. "The leadership role and the stuff he brought to us, I learned from him and I try to incorporate it into other people on the team."

Freshmen to watch

Furman is a team loaded with veteran experience, but that doesn't mean that younger guys can't contribute. Hendrix revealed that there are a few true freshmen who his staff simply won't be able to keep off the field this year, including safety AK Burrell, wide receiver Colton Hinton and one of the new tight ends.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

As season nears, two key Paladins out indefinitely

Furman will open the 2023 season Thursday without injured
All-American Jake Johanning. Photo courtesy of Furman

There were plenty of familiar names listed when Furman's first two-deep depth chart of the 2023 football season was released Monday. Going into Thursday's season opener against Tennessee Tech, the Paladins have one of the most experienced rosters in the FCS. Players returning this year have combined to make 397 career starts.

However, two key contributors that helped Furman go 10-3 and finish 10th in both national polls last season aren't listed. Offensive lineman Jacob Johanning and inside linebacker Bryce McCormick are out indefinitely due to injuries.

Johanning, a second-team All-American last season, suffered a non-football related injury and spent part of preseason camp in a neck brace. McCormick, who was second on the team with 77 tackles last season, hasn't taken part in any football-related activity since suffering a head injury on a routine play during the spring game.

"They just haven't been able to get (McCormick) completely cleared. Right now we're just focused on getting him healthy from what looked like not much of anything. He tackled a guy in the spring game and his head hit the turf," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said Monday. "I don't think it's so much a concussion, but some kind of balance issue. It's almost like a vertigo type of deal. I just hope he can get healthy."

While there's no timetable for Johanning's return, there's more optimism about his status.

"Jake's not going out there and having contact, but he's doing about everything else at practice," Hendrix said. "We feel really good about getting him back soon, but we just have to wait for someone to sign off on it given the patient guidelines. ... If it was an arm (injury), he'd probably already be going.

"He's doing really well and we certainly expect to get him back sooner rather than later. I just can't tell when that's exactly going to be."

While both are obviously key players, Furman's has plenty of proven depth to rely on. That includes many more healthy, experienced offensive linemen than at this time last year. With Evan Jumper moving on as a grad transfer to Coastal Carolina, Johanning was looking to slide from left guard to center. With his injury, it looks like Wyatt Hughes will shift from right guard to center.

"Wyatt Hughes has been one of the more dependable guys we've had, so we will just slide him over to that center spot after Jake had worked there in the spring," Hendrix said. "(Offensive line coach) Matt McCutchan does such a good job of cross training those guys. ... You always feel like you can plug in the next best guy, regardless of position."

E.J. Wilson or Ryan Lamb are set to start at right guard, while Luke Petit will start at left guard. All-Southern Conference selection Pearson Toomey will start at left tackle, while ETSU transfer Fred Norman Jr. is slated to go at right tackle.

Petit missed all of last season due to injury, as did Virginia and Old Dominion transfer Gerrik Vollmer. Hendrix said both would've played last year and both should see plenty of time this season. At 6-foot-7 and 342 pounds, Norman may be the biggest player in program history and he's reunited with McCutchan who was his line coach at ETSU.

"Fred's been a really good addition to our team. He's been a good fit. He's a really bright kid with a great personality," Hendrix said. "He's one of those guys that likes to practice. Having played for Matt, that transition has been much easier for him.

"We're certainly in a lot better position depth-wise (at offensive line). It was about a five-man game last year."

Stepping in for McCormick at the weakside linebacker spot looks to be senior Dan Scianna, who's set to be backed up by senior Nicky Kuzemka. A start Thursday would be the sixth for Scianna, who had 35 tackles last season. Kuzemka has made 17 career starts.

Kickoff Thursday at Paladin Stadium is set for 7 p.m. The game is set to be broadcast on CW Ch. 62 and ESPN+.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Sixth-ranked Paladins embrace high expectations

Furman quarterback Tyler Huff

When you've got more Southern Conference football championships in your trophy case than any other school, expectations are always going to be high. But for Furman, this preseason is different. While the roster is the most veteran Clay Hendrix has led in his seven years as head coach, many of them were still in diapers the last time prognostications were this high.

The Paladins are the consensus favorite to win their 15th SoCon title this season and ranked sixth nationally in both FCS polls. The last time they were picked to be SoCon champions by the league's coaches and media was 2005. The last time Furman was picked as high as sixth nationally was when it opened the 2006 season ranked fourth. 

In talking with Hendrix and his players this preseason, they are taking the attention in stride and are excited about the chance to have a special season. As Hendrix astutely pointed out at SoCon Media Day, he'd always like for his team to be picked to finish first as it beats every other alternative. You can read more about that in a story I wrote for The Greenville News here:

While Hendrix fielded questions about being the SoCon favorite for the first time in his tenure, there was one he's being asked at many a media day but not this year. That's the question of who the starting quarterback will be. That answer is clearly graduate senior Tyler Huff, who led the Paladins to an 10-3 record, a 7-1 second-place finish in the SoCon, and a second-round appearance in the FCS playoffs last season.

Hendrix said Huff - and the team - should benefit from having a full offseason of work with the team and in second-year offensive coordinator Justin Roper’s system. Huff missed spring practice in 2022 as he wasn’t fully enrolled and was also still recovering from a torn ACL that he suffered when he played at Presbyterian in October of 2021.

That ACL tear led to Huff wearing a knee brace much of last season. Despite that, Huff proved to be an explosive two-way threat and a real difference maker in Furman’s offense. Huff threw for 2,199 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2022, and rushed for 694 yards and eight scores.

“The way we’ve evolved offensively, we’re doing things we weren’t doing and weren’t sure we could,” Hendrix said. “It’s been a fun offseason just to watch that part. We like to win the offseason and I think we’ve done that.”

With no brace this year and more experience in the offense, Huff is excited to build off last season.

“That whole rehabilitation process helped my game tremendously,” Huff said. “I wasn’t nearly the runner I am now before the ACL surgery. … I feel better mentally as well, because that’s a tough battle to go through.”

When it comes to providing senior leadership on a team loaded with it, nobody has more than seventh-year defensive lineman Matt Sochovka. Sochovka is the heart and soul of Furman’s “no-name” defense, which features 21 of the 22 players on the two-deep depth chart with starting experience. The total combined starts of the entire team is 397. Of the Paladins’ league-high 15 players on the All-SoCon preseason teams, seven are on defense but none really stand out above the rest. That suits Sochovka just fine.

“The biggest key to success on the defensive side of the ball for us is selflessness. We’re a collective unit, that’s good together,” Sochovka said. “In this day and age, if you’re not getting accolades, it’s like ‘well, I just go in the (transfer) portal and play somewhere else.’ You didn’t see that here and it just speaks to the guys we have.”

More preseason accolades

Offensive lineman Jake Johanning and safety Hugh Ryan have each made the STATS Perform All-America team as third team selections, while running back Dominic Roberto is among 35 FCS players on the Walter Payton Award preseason watch list.

Johanning, a Simpsonville native, logged 907 snaps last season and was named to the AFCA All-America second team. Ryan was part of a defense that led the FCS in takeaways with 29 (16 interceptions, 13 fumble recoveries). The Irmo native had 88 tackles, four interceptions and 12 passes defensed last season.

The Payton Award is given to the top offensive player in the FCS each season. Roberto rushed for 1,149 yards and 11 touchdowns last year.