Furman exceeded expectations in 2017 under first year head coach Clay Hendrix. Despite being picked to finish near the bottom of their conference, the Paladins won eight games and made the second round of the FCS playoffs. Thanks to this, and fifteen returning starters, the Paladins enter the 2018 season as a top 25 FCS team.
Furman only returns five starters on offense, most notably losing last year’s starting quarterback P.J. Blazejowski. Blazejowski was an efficient passer and just good enough of a running threat to make the option work. Hendrix spent most of the past decade coaching Air Force’s offensive line, and like Air Force the Paladins run an option scheme based out of the flexbone.
This will be supplemented with called dives, speed options, counter options and other constraint plays.
Furman returns six of their top seven backs but loses the All-SOCON Antonio Wilcox, their leading rusher and scorer. Kealand Dirks will likely become the starting fullback, and at 6’0 244 lbs. he is a bruising runner between the tackles.
Darius Morehead and Triston Luke are the likely slotbacks, tasked with generating big plays and blocking on the perimeter. Neither is listed above 5’10” or 195 lbs. Morehead is the most explosive rusher Furman has, as well as their best pass catching running back. Last year was Morehead’s first full year of college football (winning the starting job in 2016 before being injured) and he could break out in 2018.
Clemson’s defensive tackles can hold up against double teams and cut blocks, taking away much of the advantage Furman gets from the option. The Tigers defensive ends are also more than athletic enough to “slow play” the option and recover to the football after giving the quarterback an unclear read.
Attempts to mitigate this with perimeter plays such as the rocket sweep, which barely asks for the defensive line to be blocked, have been hit or miss against FBS speed.
Unlike more purist versions of the offense, Furman also features a decent bit of shotgun triple option/zone read and jet sweep concepts.
The Paladins run a fair number of shifts and vary tempo when they feel they have an advantage.
While the Paladins did not throw particularly often (less than 20 attempts and 200 YPG), they were able to generate big plays. Like many option teams, play-action passes made up the majority of the passing game.
When these passes connect they’re deadly, but they’re inevitably slower to develop, and as a result ask a lot of the offensive line. The Paladins offensive line does return three starters and two key depth pieces, but lost their center and left guard to graduation.
In 2017 at least the Paladins were better at dropback passing than you might expect.
Blazejowski was able to capitalize on a handful of quick passes a game, particularly quick outs when safeties loaded the box. Last years’ offense heavily featured all-SOCON tight end Andy Schumpert, accounting for almost half of total touchdown receptions. Leading receiver Thomas Gordon does return, and averaged around 18 YPC last year. Gordon is the only returning receiver to catch more than ten passes last year. Sophomore Cam Burnette showed flashes in an all or nothing role last year, grabbing three receptions over 40 yards. The Paladins rarely had more than two receivers on the field outside of obvious passing situations, where they favored a four wide trips formation.
Combine a passing game you have to worry about with a formidable ground game and Furman was able to run all over FCS competition last year. With a high potential offense and an experienced defense Furman could be a fun FCS team to follow, particularly now that it doesn’t require rooting for Connor Shaw. As of writing Clemson is a 40-point favorite.