By Hunter Reid, Sports Information
GREENVILLE, S.C. -- When Clay Hendrix took over the reins of Furman's football program in December of 2016, he set as a goal the return of an effective ground game. By all measures, he and position coach Pete Lusk proved successful in their task.
After averaging only 133.3 rushing yards per game and tallying just 16 rushing TDs in 2016, the Paladins upped their ground production to 225.8 yards per game and rushed for 36 TDs a year ago, fueling Furman's surge from a three-win campaign to eight wins, an FCS playoff berth, and Top 20 final ranking.
The impressive rebound of Furman's offensive line in 2017 was underscored by a pair of All-Southern Conference running backs — the graduated Antonio Wilcox (814 yds., 14 TDs) and current redshirt senior Kealand Dirks (720 yds., 9 TDs). In addition, the improvement sent Furman from the middle of the pack in Southern Conference third down conversion percentage in 2016 (.385) to the top a year ago (.486) and also paid dividends for the passing game as the Paladins surrendered a FCS low seven sacks in 13 games.
"We believe if you can run the football it opens up other things for you — things we want to do in the option game, the play action pass, in addtion to what it does for your defense," said Hendrix on Monday. "We want to be more athletic up front and also more physical. We'll continue to address those areas through recruiting and with coach (Andre) Bernardi in the weight room, but we think we've come a long way. We still have a way to go, but we're getting better, have a lot of guys back, and have a little more depth than we did a year ago."
Two key pieces who helped comprise last year's unit, All-America and Jacobs Blocking Award winning center Matthew Schmidt, and All-SoCon guard Terrell Bush, will be a challenge to replace after collecting their diplomas in the spring, but nine lettermen, among whom are five players with starting experience, return.
The projected heir-apparent to Schmidt at center is Reed Kroeber (6-4, 284, R-So.), who fashioned an excellent first season of action, registering 756 plays and earning SoCon All-Freshman Team and Freshman All-America honors after posting starts in all 13 games, including the first three at left tackle and last 10 at right guard.
"Reed started a tackle, but we felt like we needed to get better at guard and at the same time get our best five guys on the field, so we moved him inside," said Hendrix. "He had a solid year for us in a new system and a good spring. He's smart and takes a lot of pride in what he does, and also works hard in the weight room."
At left tackle Bo Layton (6-7, 287, R-So.) is expected to contend for the starting job after getting the nod at right tackle and totaling 386 plays in the Paladins' first six games a year ago before injuries forced him to the sideline.
Jacob Conrad (6-4, 286, Jr.) heads into the preseason as a solid candidate to take over at left guard for Bush. He owns seven starts — all at tackle — in his career, which encompasses 617 snaps.
Right tackle features a pair of players with experience — Andy Godwin (6-4, 281, R-Jr.) and Caleb Auer (6-3, 262, R-So.). Godwin started at left tackle in the Paladins' final 10 games a year ago, and Auer saw quality action in his first season of action, totaling 253 play participations.
Jordan Harris (6-4, 288, R-So.), a member of the defensive line last year, appears to be the frontrunner to start at right guard following a switch to offense and impressive work in spring practice.
"Moving Jordan Harris to guard has been a really good for us," said Hendrix. "He's a solid athlete who gives us some real physicality in there and had a background playing offensive line (in high school), so the learning curve for him has actually been quicker that we thought it would be. He also really enjoys playing."
Building depth along the front has been a priority for Hendrix, especially at center, which boasts four candidates behind Kroeber, including Auer, Cole Neely (6-3, 273, So.), Chris Breedlove (6-2, 282, R-Jr.), and Jonathan Bockhorst (6-3, 284, R-Jr.).
"I learned a couple of years ago that you better have a third guy at center ready to go, so Caleb Auer will continue to cross-train at both tackle and center, where he spent most of the spring. He's a guy who came here as a tight end but moved to offensive line last year in the preseason before going up to N.C. State weighing 238 pounds never having played offensive line. I'd be shocked if he's not a different guy this year, as well as Cole Neely, who has made some good strides after playing for us in spots a year ago."
Breedlove logged three starts at guard in 2017 while Bockhorst is coming off a redshirt season following a knee injury sustained in the preseason.
Cody Wyatt (6-2, 268, R-So.) will provide depth at guard.
Two players who will look to see their first action include guard Bo McKinney (6-7, 307, R-Fr.) and tackle Ross Detamore (6-4, 263, R-Fr.).
Furman's lone offensive line signee in this year's class is tackle Anderson Tomlin (6-5, 275, Fr.), a product of highly successful Mountain Brook (7A) High School in Birmingham, Ala. Given the NCAA's new redshirt rule raising the cap to four games, Tomlin could potentially see some game action, according to Hendrix.