Furman 2023 Preview

Oh so Close, Yet so Far.  That statement most defines Furman Football in 2022.  A tie for the SoCon Championship with Samford, but a frustrating loss to the Bulldogs at home gave Samford the “Automatic Bid” to the FCS playoffs and a bye for the First Round.

In the meantime, the Paladins thumped Elon in the First Round of the FCS Playoffs, before coming up two yards short in the Round of 16 at Incarnate Word in San Antonio.  An Interception at the 2-yard line in the final minute, after a phantom “Holding Call” moved the Paladins backwards, and the season was over.  Oh, so Close!

“Unfinished Business” should be the mantra for this year’s Furman football team, and the Sixth Ranked Paladins have a returning roster to match.  QB Tyler Huff returns after an impressive 2022 season.  The PC transfer will have his choice of weapons to work with.  

Redshirt Senior RB Dominic Roberto (5’11”/230) is back, and his punishing running style gained over 1,100 yards rushing and 11 TD’s this past season.  The Paladins have depth at Running Back as well, with Redshirt Junior Kendall Thomas and Redshirt Sophomore Grant Robinson more than able to contribute.

I really look forward to watching the Furman Wide Receiver’s.  Despite losing Ryan Miller to the NFL, the ‘Dins have a rising star in Junior Wide Receiver Joshua Harris. This now “Dude” at 190 pounds showed up at Furman a mere 155 pounds.  Josh can play at most any Power 5 conference school but loves Furman University and his upcoming role as a leader.

Three other WR’s receivers return as well, with different talents and size.  Wayne Anderson Jr. (5-10, 200, R-Sr.), Kyndel Dean (6-1, 186, Gr.), and Luke Shiflett (6-2, 192, Gr.). Those receivers have combined for 48 starts, 203 receptions for 2,278 yards, and 10 touchdown catches as Paladins.

Defensively, Furman’s secondary returns starters at all four positions and is blessed with solid depth and young prospects at both Cornerback and Safety heading into the 2023 campaign.  A year ago, Furman’s defensive backfield delivered in impressive fashion in a 10-3 season, contributing 18 interceptions to the 29 turnovers gained — both FCS bests.

The D-Line will be led by Graduate Students Matt Sochovka and NG Sirad Cook.  Sr. Linebacker Bryce McCormick leads a talented group.

There is experience across the board on this Paladin Football team, and that includes Head Coach Clay Hendrix, now in his 7th year at his alma mater.

Furman is a team that won 7 straight games this past season, defeated four ranked opponents, won a playoff game 31-6 and finished in the Top 10.  Coach Hendrix now has 3 Playoff berths in what was a rebuild when he arrived from the Air Force Academy.

The September schedule is not so kind to the Paladins, who open at home Thursday night against Tennessee Tech, before hitting the road for back-to-back games at South Carolina and Kennesaw State.  The SoCon schedule begins with Mercer at home on September 23rd.

I expect BIG things from the Paladins.  The SoCon looks again to be a battle between Furman and Samford, with Mercer trailing just behind.  But those three Out of Conference games to open the season will determine how good of a fall it may be at Paladin Stadium.

Get onboard with Furman, it’s great football under the beautiful backdrop of Paris Mountain and the upcoming fall leaves.  To get out and see the Paladins play is not an all-day adventure, unless you want it to be.  You can see the game and be home well before the night games kickoff.

Get your tickets at FurmanPaladins.com, and we will see you at Paladin Stadium, celebrating 50 years of the “Diamond FU”.

CTE

To look at former South Carolina All-American and former NFL stalwart Rick Sanford today, you might not believe he is, in fact, 66 years old. Thanks to lifelong dedication to fitness, incorporating yoga and Pilates, the Lexington resident could pass for a fit 40- or 50-something, with flat belly, toned arms and legs.

Another part of his body, though – his brain – in recent years has begun to betray him.

Last Saturday, Sanford took part in an autograph session at Columbia’s Market on Main restaurant with fellow Gamecocks football legends George Rogers and Jeff Grantz, former USC punter Derwin Jeffcoat and former Atlanta Braves player Jeff Ridgeway. Each ex-player’s portion of proceeds from the event went to designated charities; Sanford’s were the Concussion Legacy Foundation and Alzheimer’s Association.

“My father suffered from Alzheimer’s, and my mom was probably headed that way before she died (earlier this year),” Sanford said. “I feel a passion to help.”

It’s even more personal than that for him, though. The past six years, he’s lived with knowledge that his football career may now be taking an unexpected toll. Sanford is convinced he has signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as CTE.

 

“I have some cognitive issues, and in my speech,” he said. “I’d noticed my short-term memory … I was having trouble remembering names. It was starting to be where I couldn’t recall things. (Wife) Allison had noticed it, too.”

Talk about irony: after eight seasons with the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks, and 27 years as a chiropractor, Sanford spent 10 years sharing his football knowledge on sports radio talk shows. But about two years ago, co-hosting a nightly statewide show with broadcaster Phil Kornblut, he found himself struggling to recall names and games.

Soon after, he announced he was quitting the show – and why. “It wasn’t getting better, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself,” he said.

By then, Sanford had been evaluated by a neurologist in Charlotte, who determined his recall problems were likely related to concussions suffered in the NFL. He says, based on team records, he sustained six “minor” concussions and three “major” blows – though studies now suggest concussions aren’t necessary to inflict long-term damage.

The one Sanford remembers most – sort of – came in a 1983 Patriots game vs. Miami. “I had an interception and (Dolphins receiver) Mark Duper grabbed my jersey and slammed me to the Astroturf,” he said. “I hit the back of my head and was unconscious for a while.

“I came around on the sidelines and said, ‘Damn, I got to go back in, it’s only the third quarter.’ And one of my teammates said, ‘Dude, sit back down; it’s the fourth quarter.’” Sanford laughed, but added, “That was scary.”

After recovering, though, “I didn’t give it a second thought.” If only he knew then what football players and team doctors now know.

The notion that head injuries were not serious began unraveling in 2002, when Pittsburgh pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu performed an autopsy on Mike Webster, the Steelers’ Hall of Fame linebacker, who after retirement had suffered depression and homelessness. Examining Webster’s brain, Omalu discovered the player’s CTE.

Though the NFL tried to debunk Omalu’s diagnosis, further studies established that blows to the head – even “minor” ones – over time caused brain damage. The 2007 movie “Concussion,” with Will Smith as Omalu, and the book “League of Denial” eventually forced the NFL to take head injuries seriously.

Today, more than 345 deceased NFL players have been found to have had CTE. Many dealt with horrific mental issues during and after their careers. The case that stands out for Sanford was Columbia native Terry Long, who played at East Carolina and the Steelers. Long was charged with brandishing a gun in a locker room, later faced arson and fraud charges, went through bankruptcy and in 2005 committed suicide by drinking antifreeze.

It’s the sort of story to make even the toughest former player wonder about his future. Sanford does what he can: biannual visits to his neurologist, medications which he says seem to help. Still, football was a huge part of Sanford’s life; indeed, it defined who he was, and still is. He wonders about the future – not just his, but the game’s – when he hears parents question if their sons should even play.

“What I tell people is, it’s the hardest game to train for, there’s nothing harder,” he said. “It teaches teamwork, pride and discipline like no other sport. But the damage it can cause: knees, shoulders, body, your brain …”

Sanford and his wife have daughters. What if they had a son?

“If he wanted to play football, I’d sit him down and say, ‘This is the inherent danger. Do you understand this? Look at what I endured. Do you want to do that, too?”

Still, a son of Sanford’s, at that young-and-bulletproof age, reared in a football-crazy state and with a player/father he admired … Yes, fewer youngsters play the game today – but many still do. So, Rick Sanford: what would a teenaged you do today?

“I don’t know,” he said, as honestly as he could. After reflecting a moment, he added, “If (football) doesn’t accept changes in the game, to make it safer, I wouldn’t play.”

That sounds like the man he’s become. But what about the boy he was half a century ago?

By Bob Gillespie

Furman at South Carolina

The Paladins head down I-26 Saturday night to take on South Carolina at 7:30 PM on the SEC Network.  Furman was one of the few Palmetto state teams that enjoyed success in their opener, a 45-10 win over Tennessee Tech on Thursday night.

In the meantime, the Gamecocks opened in Charlotte against North Carolina and lost 31-17.  It was a game that saw both the Offensive and Defensive lines struggle.  South Carolina could only manage -2 yards rushing but while giving up nine sacks. 

Furman’s 45-10 win over Tennessee Tech was somewhat misleading.  The Paladins turned the ball over inside the 10-yard line late in the third quarter leading 24-10 and gave the Eagles a much-needed shot in the arm.  However, Furman slammed the door in the 4th quarter with their second Pick Six” of the game as well as a long Touchdown drive. 

Furman’s Domonic Roberto led the offense with 67 yards rushing and two Touchdowns.  Quarterback Tyler Huff completed 15 of 27 passes for 172 yards.  WR Kyndel Dean had 5 receptions, but Tennessee Tech was able to keep playmaking WR Joshua Harris in check with only one reception.

The story of the night was defense.  Thursday night was “Furman After Dark”, and both the student section and Paladin defense rose to the occasion.  The entire student body was decked out in black, and that was also the way Furman played.  Travis Blackshear delivered a “Pick Six” on the game’s opening possession. Later, Dan Scianna returned an Interception 67 yards in the 4th Quarter for a Touchdown.  In all, Furman picked off four passes on the night that gives the Paladins 22 in their past 14 games.  The Eagles only gained 79 yards rushing on 32 attempts.

 At times, it felt like Head Coach Clay Hendrix kept things close to the vest as Furman now has back-to-back road games at South Carolina and Kennesaw State the next two weeks.

Does Furman have a chance to win in Williams Brice Stadium on Saturday night.  Yes, the Paladins do.  Some of the Gamecocks weaknesses match up well with some of Furman’s strength.  Secondly, South Carolina saw some injuries at key positions against UNC.  If South Carolina can’t run the ball with any consistency, then that will play into Furman’s strength in the secondary.

Most importantly, the Gamecock football team had better not do what some of the fanbase is doing, looking over the Paladins to next weekend’s matchup with Georgia in Athens.  Furman has a history of going on the road and knocking off teams from major conferences.  The Paladins have won at NC State, North Carolina, and Georgia Tech.  It’s been a couple of decades since, but it has happened.

Furman continues to hold steady at #6 in the FCs polls, but a win Saturday night would send this season to another level.

The jury is out on the South Carolina offense.

 

Saturday, Shane Beamer’s crew will find out a lot.

That Gamecocks travel to Athens, Ga. to take on the back-to-back national champion and current number one ranked Georgia Bulldogs.

Following a subpar performance against North Carolina that continued for more than a quarter in a home encounter against Furman, the offense started to come to life.

With quarterback Spencer Rattler running the show, the Gamecocks finished with a 47-21 win over the Paladins.

Rattler has been as impressive as virtually any quarterback in the country in his initial two games this season, completing 55 of 66 passes for 698 yards and three touchdowns.

That, combined with his performances in upsets against then national top 10 ranked Tennessee and Clemson last season, National Football League scouts and college football experts taking notice.

To say first year USC offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains is pleased with his quarterback’s performance is an understatement. He has also caught the attention of Bulldog head coach Kirby Smart.

“He’s got elite arm talent (with) the throws he’s made,” said Smart. “He can make the touch throws, deep, vertical (and) back shoulder throws. He’ll throw a couple of out (routes to the) field [side].

“He’s very elusive. He’s very accurate with the ball, (and) he’s hard to (tackle). “There’s a lot of people that miss tackles on him when they have an opportunity to try to take him down, He sees the whole field, and some of his best plays come off schedule, meaning if somebody misses somebody or he scrambles, he can hit you on a shot. He’s very dangerous.”

Rattler has put up those numbers despite his top receiver Antwane (Juice) Wells, the team’s leading receiver who has played sparingly in the Gamecocks initial two games due to a foot injury.

Loggains is hopeful Wells will be ready to go, Saturday.

“I actually said something to him today,” he said. “”I haven’t heard (from) you all week,’” said Loggains,  “’Locked in. I need to be able to be locked in and know what to do, before I start running my mouth,’” he said Wells replied.

“It’s been a process. He’s overcoming an injury that 99 percent of the world wouldn’t be back from. He’s doing a great job. He’s ready to get out there. He’s hungry. He’s really focused this week. ”The more he can handle and execute, we’ll continue to progress him that way. But make no mistake about it, the last two weeks, we have missed the presence of a really good player that’s work back hard, to get back into it.

Senior Xavier Legette has stepped up during Wells injury, catching 15 passes for 296 yards (both topping the Southeastern Conference) with one touchdown.

Loggains and the Gamecocks understand defeating Georgia in Athens will be a Herculean task.

“When you play teams like this, it really is about you, he said. “We all know that this team is really talented. They’re the No. 1 team in the country, they’ve won two national titles. But you have to make them earn everything and you can’t give them things. And if you do, then it gets lopsided real fast because they’re a talented, well-coached team, and they deserve  everything they’ve gotten, They’ve earned it.”

With a running game that has been virtually nonexistent, Wells return couldn’t come at a better time.

“I know he is excited and he’s hungry to get back out there and start playing more,” said Loggains. “The more he can handle and execute, we’ll continue to progress him that way. But make no mistake about it, the last two weeks, we have missed the presence of a really good player that’s worked hard to get back into it. (Legette), that’s been the talk right now, but never forget about resumes and never forget about what people have done. He’s impacted this program when they needed it the most last year. We need that competitive spirit from here on out.”

By Willie T. Smith III