SPARTANBURG — Furman coach Bruce Fowler hopes his team was paying attention last fall and get off to a better start this season.
The Paladins were mired in 2-4 start and on the verge of handing Fowler a second straight losing season when something clicked. Furman won five of its final six regular-season games to claim a share of the Southern Conference title and the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Fowler was part of eight previous SoCon titles at Furman as a defensive back and longtime assistant coach. He believes his players understood what it took to accomplish last year’s championship run and will show a similar work ethic to achieve even more.
“We’ve had some ups and downs and still searching for that consistency in our program,” Fowler said. “After the first year and going into the offseason, that was a point of emphasis and I think we’ve had some good strong work.”
The Paladins return most of their starters who turned things around, although they’ve lost versatile special teamer in Ray Early, who handled the place-kicking and punting duties.
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Furman doesn’t generally stray too far from its tried and true coaching tree and Fowler appears to have brought that similar style back to the Paladins. He was part of Furman’s first Southern Conference crown as a defensive back, then was part of the staff for Dick Sheridan, Jimmy Satterfield and Bobby Johnson, all who led Furman to championships. The only time Fowler left was to follow Johnson to Vanderbilt. It was from there he returned to the Paladins, who had gone seven seasons without a league title before last year.
There might not have been a more valuable member of the Paladins last year than Ray Early. He led the Southern Conference with 20 field goals and finished second in league punting at 43.5 yards a kick last season. Those hoping to fill Early’s spots include sophomores Hunter Townes and Andy McMillan and freshmen Caleb Hollis and Jon Croft Hollingsworth.
Furman senior Hank McCloud felt like he was just getting his feet wet last season, his first as a starter, and expects even bigger accomplishments this fall. McCloud finished second in the SoCon with 1,092 yards.
The Paladins’ defense should get a jolt from the return of 6-foot-2, 240-pound defensive end Shawn Boone, who missed all but the first two games due to a knee injury sustained as a mid-week practice. Boone’s replacement last fall, Ira McCune, stepped into the spot and finished with 47 tackles, eight of them for loss.
Things will change on Furman’s schedule with the loss of longtime SoCon members Appalachian State, Elon and Georgia Southern off to other leagues. The Paladins travel to the conference’s two new members this fall, Mercer and VMI. East Tennessee starts competing in league football in 2015.
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