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.

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