Southern Conference Football 2012: Mirror Images Part II, Furman Paladins

John Hooper@soconjohn22Correspondent IIJuly 17, 2012

Furman Senior QB Dakota Derrick
Furman Senior QB Dakota Derrick

Furman (2012)

Furman heads into the 2012 season with plenty of question marks—needing to replace a bevy of talented veterans on both sides of the football—which makes it a little hard to find their “mirror image” heading into 2012. However, there are certainly some comparisons to be found in the past, that’s for sure.

One of the biggest obstacles head coach Bruce Fowler must address heading into the 2012 season is replacing quarterback Chris Forcier. Forcier turned in one of the greatest seasons in the history of Furman football last season by passing for 2,265 yards and a school-record 23 touchdowns.

Forcier also rushed for 250 yards and a pair of scores, and he was the nation’s most efficient passer at season’s end with a 172.4 passer rating.

The 2012 season, which will mark Bruce Fowler’s second season at the command of the Furman football program, sees the Paladins return 14 starters (eight on defense and six on offense). And while there are some questions surrounding the Paladins entering the campaign, there are also some answers.

Expected to start under center this fall for the Paladins is rising senior Dakota Derrick, who threw for 104 yards and one touchdown last season in 17 passing attempts. Derrick has seen only limited action as a signal-caller during his time as a Paladin, but he is 1-1 as a starter after having picked up a win against Western Carolina in his sophomore campaign of 2010.

To win the starting job this fall, however, Derrick must hold off talented redshirt freshman Travis Eman in preseason camp. Eman is a tremendous athlete with a big arm, and was recruited by plenty of BCS programs because of that athleticism, although most wanted to play him at a position other than quarterback.

Furman has other top players returning to the fold this year, including one of the nation’s top tight ends in Colin Anderson—40 rec, 696 yds, 7 TDs, 17.4 YPR in 2011. Anderson will enter the season as a First-Team All-American and he will team up with running back Jerodis Williams (1,055 yds, 8 TDs in 2011), who became Furman’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2003, to lead the Paladin offense.

On the defensive side of the football, Furman lost two of its very best players in All-American cornerback Ryan Steed, who was likely the best to ever play the position as a Paladin, and linebacker Kadarron Anderson, a First-Team All-SoCon performer each of the past two seasons.

Furman does return eight starters on the defensive side of the football for the 2012 season, led by linebacker Mitch McGrath (87 tackles, 13.5 TFLs, 4.0 sacks, 4 INTs), defensive end Josh Lynn and hard-hitting safety Nathan Wade (75 tackles, 5.0 TFL).

Furman (1997)

Like the 2012 group, the 1997 Furman team entered the season with plenty of question marks, but also plenty of budding stars. The Paladins, who were under the direction of fourth-year head coach Bobby Johnson, were looking to build off the successes of a season earlier that had seen the Paladins qualify for the FCS postseason for the first time since the 1990 season.

The Paladins returned 15 starters from that ‘96 team, which had finished 9-4 and claimed a dramatic come-from-behind, 42-31, victory over Northern Arizona in the opening round of the FCS playoffs before being soundly beaten by eventual national title winner Marshall.

The first order of business for the ‘97 Paladins was finding a quarterback to replace the talented Braniff Bonaventure, who went on to claim First-Team All-SoCon honors after finishing the campaign by completing 183-of-283 passes for 2,382 yards, 19 TDs and only four INTs. He also finished as the nation's most efficient passer.

The Paladins entered the ‘97 season with a senior set to lead Furman for the first time as a full-time starter, as Chris Jonas returned to take the reins of the Paladins offense. Jonas had seen only limited action throughout his career, playing behind both Bonaventure and former Furman quarterback Philly Jones for a majority of his career.

The Birmingham, AL native was ready to take command of the offense, and solidified his grip on the starting position with a strong performance in preseason camp, holding off talented redshirt freshman Justin Hill, as well as true freshman Brent Rickman, for the starting job.

Jonas took the reins in the season opener for the Paladins, and Furman boarded the Jeans buses for Birmingham, AL where they would play their Thursday night season opener at Samford. Jonas had little experience though, having attempted only two passes in his entire career heading into the ‘97 season.

Jonas wasn’t the only returner on the offensive side of the ball that folks were excited about heading into the 1997 season, as running back Ernest Crosby was set to return to the Furman backfield. Crosby, a junior, was impressive during his sophomore campaign running the football when he was healthy. He completed the ‘96 season by rushing for 850 yards and eight TDs, averaging an impressive 5.6 YPC.

Though the Paladins didn’t have Luther Broughton to throw to in the ‘97 season, they did have talented sophomore speedster Desmond Kitchings back to be the main deep threat, and returning split end/punter Jody Wade had proven to be a reliable asset down the stretch for the Paladins during the ‘96 season as well.

Wade was coming off a campaign which saw him haul in 24 passes for 396 yards and team-leading five TDs. Most Furman fans will remember Wade’s fine performance in the ‘96 first-round playoff win over Northern Arizona, as Wade hauled in a key TD late in the game to ultimately help the Paladins get an amazing come-from-behind win at Walkup Skydome.

The Paladins returned three of five starters along their offensive line, led by center Mark Foster, who would go on to garner All-League plaudits in ‘97. Also returning up front were Ben Hall at right guard and Ryan Kinard at left tackle.

But while the offense had some weapons, it was actually the defense—which returned eight starters—that had many buzzing about the Paladins heading into the 1997 season.

The Paladins had arguably the top corps of linebackers returning in the Southern Conference entering the ‘97 season led by All-American MLB Orlando Ruff and flanked by the talented Bernard Scott and Jay Thier.

Ruff, a junior, had been instrumental in leading the Paladins’ resurgence on the defensive side of the football in ‘96, as he helped the Paladins field the SoCon’s second-best defense (359.9 YPG) in ‘96. Ruff finished the ‘96 season with a team-leading 162 tackles, garnering Second-Team All-SoCon honors as a sophomore. Thier, a senior, wasn’t all that far behind his teammate Ruff, completing the 13 game season with 142 stops in nine starts, and he also ranked second on the club with 150 stops in ‘96.

Furman’s three starting returners at linebacker had combined to tally 456 tackles, 37 tackles-for-loss, five fumble recoveries, five sacks, five INTs and an INT return for a score in the ‘96 season. This collection of talent at LB was among the best in the history of the Furman football program.

The defensive line returned three starters for the ‘97 season, led by one of the league’s premier defensive ends in senior Bryan Dailer. Dailer would lead what would be a vaunted Furman pass-rush in 1997, a line that finished the season leading the Southern Conference in sacks with 32.

Furman’s secondary would be young, but talented. Senior free safety Jeremy Osborne and a young John Keith gave the Paladins a strong tandem at the safety positions. Osborne was coming off an All-SoCon campaign, which saw him finish with 87 tackles and four PBUs

With the defense expected to lead the way, all Jonas had to do was maintain consistency and many figured the Paladins would be making a second-straight appearance in the FCS postseason.

After all, Jonas may not have had experience, but he was a senior and his leadership and maturity—buoyed by a talented pair of running backs behind him in Crosby and Marq Cerqua—should have been enough to ensure the Paladins an 8-3 record. This expectation was even furthered considering the fact that he had a star-studded and experienced defense backing him up.

All went according to plan when Furman boarded the Jeans buses for Birmingham, AL to open up the 1997 season. The Paladins posted a 29-10 season opening win over the Bulldogs, and Jonas was efficient.

However, the season would take a major turn a week later on the road at South Carolina State, as Jonas went down with a knee injury. With Justin Hill nursing a shoulder injury himself, Brent Rickman was inserted into the lineup. The Paladins were ineffective on offense for much of the afternoon, as Furman dropped a 17-6 decision.

Furman would be inconsistent for the remainder of the season, but managed to finish 7-4, including a 5-3 record in the league which landed them a third-place finish, and they just missed the postseason. The Paladins were unable to hold a 28-13 lead against East Tennessee State on homecoming, dropping a 58-28 decision in the rain.

On the road in Cullowhee against Western Carolina, the Paladins lost by the narrowest of margins, with a 17-16 setback to Western Carolina, as Jason Wells’ potential game-winning kick went awry in the waning moments.

With nothing but pride to play for in the regular-season finale at Chattanooga, at the Mocs’ new facility and new home of the FCS National Title Game, Max Finley Stadium, the Paladins would put together maybe their best game of the season.

UTC entered the matchup with a 7-3 record and the Mocs were hungry to make their first postseason appearance in 13 years. However, the Paladins would get a record-breaking performance from Dailer, who sacked UTC quarterback Brian Hampton seven times, as the Paladins romped to a 43-21 win.

Mirror Image

So how does the 2012 Furman team compare to the 1997 squad. While no comparison is perfect, both teams had and have question marks under center. The Paladins had a senior with few reps expected to lead the ‘97 team (Chris Jonas) and that same scenario presents itself in 2012 with Dakota Derrick.

Jonas was asked to replace a signal-caller that had earned First-Team All-SoCon honors the previous season, and the same goes for Derrick who will be asked to replace Chris Forcier.

Furman returns a seasoned running back this fall in Jerodis Williams, just as it did in ‘97 with Ernest Crosby. One of the few differences was that Furman returns an All-American tight end (Colin Anderson) in 2012, while having had to replace one in ‘97 with the departure of Luther Broughton.

Ryan Culbreath sported nearly the exact receiving statistics that Wade did in 1997, with both boasting the same attributes as reliable possession receivers. Wade’s numbers were a bit better, but you get the idea.

The speedster receiver waiting to explode for Furman in 1997 was Desmond Kitchings, and this season it could be either Gary Robinson, Jordan Snellings or Daniel McFadden.

The defense sees some easy comparisons, as Josh Lynn might be Furman’s best defensive end since Bryan Dailer, or at least Roy Ravenell. While Furman has no one returning with the talent of Orlando Ruff in the middle, don’t be surprised to see Gary Wilkins surprise some people this fall.

Mitch McGrath might be the top OLB in the SoCon entering the ‘12 season, much like Bernard Scott was in ‘97. While John Keith was just a sophomore in ‘97, there is no mistaking his comparison on the 2012 Furman team, vicious hitting safety Nathan Wade, who might just earn the nickname “The Missile II” this fall.

The final odd similarity was that both teams were scheduled to open the season on the road at Samford, with one main differences being that Samford was not yet a SoCon member in ‘97.

There are many similarities, and a 7-4 record would likely get the Paladins into the newly expanded postseason field of 20 if they were able to accomplish that this fall. However, I think Furman might still be a year away from the postseason and two years away from seriously contending for a SoCon title, making the comparison more true to form.

It will certainly be interesting to see if there are any more similarities between the two teams at the conclusion of the 2012 season.


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