Saturday, September 23, 2023

Paladins' O-line gets a boost for SoCon opener

Furman's offensive line should get a boost Saturday by the return
of All-American Jacob Johanning. Photo courtesy of Furman

When eighth-ranked Furman opens Southern Conference play by hosting No. 21 Mercer Saturday, the Paladins will welcome back a familiar face along the offensive front. All-American right guard Jacob Johanning is set to return to the field for the first time in 2023 after suffering a non-football related neck injury prior to preseason camp. Saturday would be the 31st career start for the redshirt senior, who's Furman's most experienced offensive lineman.

It will be a welcomed addition back to an offensive line that has dealt with other injured players as well this season.

"We started practice August 2. (Sunday) was the first day we had all of our (offensive linemen) available, so I'm excited about that. I know what (Johanning) brings to our football team," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said during his weekly press conference Monday. "At the same time, I think the experience we've had guys get these last three games in some tough situations has been great for us."

In last Saturday's win at Kennesaw State, the Paladins (2-1) had a slow start offensively before Tyler Huff's passing seemed to open up things for the running game. In turn, running back Dominic Roberto and the offensive front looked more like what's been seen in the past. Still, there are issues that a healthy Johanning and others should help fix.

Kennesaw State had three sacks last week giving Furman opponents eight sacks this season. Over the final eight games last year, the Paladins allowed only seven sacks.

When Furman tried to run the clock after taking a 28-14 lead in the fourth quarter last Saturday, those running lanes shut down again like they did in the first quarter. After the Owls rallied to tie, the Paladins' offense suddenly came back to life driving down the field for Ian Williams' game-winning field goal.

"Offensive line is a real comfort thing. Just want to be comfortable where your at and with who you're playing next to. You want to be able to build up a level of trust with one another," said center Wyatt Hughes. "Having Jake back is huge for that reason especially because he's someone everyone trusts. He's one of the toughest, most physical guys I've ever seen on a football field. Having that physicality back up front is really going to be a lot of help against a really good defensive front in Mercer."

Defense seeks repeat performance against Bears

Furman's key 23-13 win at Mercer last year was highlighted by perhaps the finest defensive performance for the Paladins all season. Linebacker Braden Gilby won SoCon Defensive Player of the Week honors the following week after he had 12 tackles, including three tackles for loss.

Gilby had one of Furman's five sacks as Mercer allowed as many sacks that day as it had all season to that point - Mercer's 10th game. The Paladins allowed the Bears just 50 yards rushing on 30 attempts. While many of the same players will take the field Saturday, Gilby said none of what happened last year will matter.

"We're pretty confident as a defense in fixing stuff from last week. ... Last year, we did bring it to them and we plan on doing the same this year, but that's our week in, week out kind of mindset," Gilby said. "As a defense, we have to have that confidence in ourselves."

Back home in the sun

Saturday's game is set for a 1 p.m. kickoff at Paladin Stadium. It will be streamed on ESPN+ and carried locally on CW Ch. 62. It will be Furman's first home game since the season opener on the last day of August and the first day game of the season.

"You guys know me. You know I'm happy to be kicking off in the daylight and at home. ... It seems like it's been a while since we've played at home, which it has been," Hendrix said. "I think we've been in three really tough ballgames. ... I think that's going to help us (moving forward).

"We didn't play our best football all the time (at Kennesaw), but we're showing we can be pretty good in all areas. ... I think our best game's clearly still ahead of us. We could certainly need it this week if we want to get a win."

Huff honored

Huff was named SoCon Offensive Player of the Week following his four-touchdown performance at Kennesaw. He ran 19 times for 79 yards and those four scores tied a single-game school record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. Huff also completed 24-of-32 passes for 237 yards with no interceptions.

The only other Furman quarterback to run for four touchdowns in a single game was Frankie DeBusk, who did so in a 44-20 win over East Tennessee State in 1989.

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