|Pete Yanity discusses the upcoming season with ETSU head coach Randy Sanders|
SoCon Media Day 2021
Click below for the live stream of Monday's media day interviews, as Pete Yanity interviews all nine head coaches and SoCon commissioner Jim Schaus
The 100th season of Southern Conference football kicked off at the Biltmore Estate Monday afternoon, highlighted by guest speaker and ESPN senior writer Ryan McGee, who detailed his humble beginnings helping out with Furman’s radio team during the late 1980s, which coincided with the Paladins’ hey-day as a football program, including working as a statistician with former Furman play-by-play broadcaster Doug Holliday, and even got a national championship ring as a result of his father, Dr. Jerry McGee, who worked at the school during that same time frame.
Now as a best-selling author and host of the SEC Network’s “Marty and McGee”and on a day when college football coverage has been dominated by news of Oklahoma and Texas leaving the Big 12 to presumably join the SEC, McGee recalled his roots and why he loved this level of football. In summation, it’s not a classification of football dominated by the off-the-field money grab that FBS college football has become. In fact, McGee credited his love for the sport as being nurtured on those Saturday afternoons with trips to fall destinations such as Johnson City, Tennessee and Cullowhee, N.C.
He went as far as to say that he was captivated this past spring when FCS football played its fall season in the spring, due to COVID-19, finding himself flipping back-and-forth between games that included Gardner-Webb and PC, as well as Furman and Samford. It caused McGee to continually pitch stories involving the FCS brand to his boss.
For media members, I am sure I speak for many of them when I say it is refreshing to hear that there are people out there— from major media outlets—that still care about this brand of football amid the ever-changing landscape of college football, due to the supreme court’s ruling on student athlete’s being able to receive compensation and sponsorship due to name, image and likeness. It has caused a power shift in big-time FBS football, which is primarily the reason conferences like the SEC are looking to make that cash cow even fatter.
As to how that will trickle down to FCS football, and in particular, a league like the Southern Conference, is for the time being unknown. It was business as usual in Asheville on Monday afternoon. SoCon Commissioner Jim Schaus addressed the media and coaches on-hand for media day, and he didn't have any surprises to deal with, such as exiting members. The commissioner focused on the importance of student-athletes being vaccinated, and continuing to navigate through the pandemic. Schaus also continued to look at the positives of how the league continues to build its strength, citing VMI’s valiant effort at James Madison in the FCS playoffs this spring.
VMI, who finished the limited spring season with a 6-2 record, which included a 6-1 league mark, was picked to finish second by the league’s media, and third in the coaches poll. VMI welcomes back 17 players with starting experience from a year ago, which includes 10 on the offensive side of the football, highlighted by quarterback and reigning SoCon Freshman of the Year Seth Morgan on offense, while Walter Payton Award candidate and first-team All-SoCon pick Jakob Herres at wide receiver.
On the defensive side of the football, the Keydets welcome the return of Stone Snyder at linebacker. Snyder was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award last season. Snyder was also selected as the league's preseason SoCon Defensive Player of the Year.
The Keydets finished receiving six first-place votes in the media poll, while receiving a pair of first-place votes in the coaches’ poll, finishing second and third in the two polls, respectively.
Chattanooga, which played only four games in the spring before having to cancel the remainder of its games due to opt outs and COVID-19, was the unanimous pick to win the league. The Mocs played one game last fall, losing a heartbreaking, 13-10, to Western Kentucky in a game that ended with some controversy, following an apparent kick return for the game-winning touchdown overturned.
The Mocs went 3-1 during the spring, with wins over No. 11 Wofford (24-13), at The Citadel (25-24), and at No. 13 Furman (20-18). The Mocs will have former Mercer quarterback Robert Riddle competing for the starting signal-calling duties, along with returning 2017 SoCon Freshman of the Year Cole Copeland. All-America running back Ailym Ford, who was the 2019 SoCon Freshman of the Year, also returns to the fold. Ford did not play in the spring.
The defensive side of the football has a litany of talent for the Mocs, which includes All-SoCon defensive lineman Devonsha Maxwell, as well as DB Brandon Dowdell. In all, the Mocs had 13 players selected first or second team all-conference, including eight selected to the first team. The Mocs received 18 out of a possible 30 first-place votes in the media poll, while getting four of a possible nine first-place votes in the coaches poll.
The Samford Bulldogs were selected to finish second in the coaches poll, while the media poll had reigning champion VMI in second spot behind the Mocs. Both Samford and VMI return arguably the two top signal-callers coming into the 2021 campaign. Samford signal-caller Liam Welch, who is coming off an outstanding spring and was the SoCon Offensive Player of the Year after passing for 2,242 yards and 12 TDs. Welch was also chosen as the preseason SoCon Offensive Player of the Year.
VMI returns the reigning SoCon Freshman of the Year, in Seth Morgan, who took over for an injured Reece Udinski to lead head coach Scott Wachenheim’s Keydets to the league crown.
Samford’s offensive talent only begins with Welch, and like VMI, the Bulldogs return some of the top skill position players in the SoCon. Welch’s favorite target in the passing game last spring were A.J. Toney and Ty King. Toney hauled in 41 passes for 437 yards and a TD, while King caught 33 passes for 609 yards and three scores, averaging an impressive 18.5 yards-per-catch. They were part of an offense that averaged a league-best 513.9 YPG last fall.
In all, Samford had nine players register preseason All-SoCon honors, including Buck Buchanan Award candidate Chris Edmonds, who led the SoCon in interceptions last season. He recorded four picks, including one of which he returned for a score. The Bulldogs were red-hot by the end of the spring, having won three out of their final four games in dramatic fashion and finished the spring on the cusp of a playoff appearance, finishing as one of two SoCon teams among the last four out in the FCS field of 16.
Samford ended up receiving two first place votes in both the media and coaches polls, respectively, finishing second in the coaches and locked in a three-way tie for third in the media poll.
Also tied for third in the media poll were Furman and East Tennessee State. The Paladins were the preseason pick to win the SoCon in the spring, and after a 3-4 spring, which included losing their final three games of the shortened season, the Paladins return 19 starters looking to right the wrongs from what was a disappointing spring for Clay Hendrix’s Paladins.
The Paladins return talent on both sides of the ball, including tight end Ryan Miller, who is a preseason All-American according to numerous outlets, including STATS FCS, yet failed to make either of the first or second of the preseason All-SoCon teams. Miller ended the spring by hauling in 15 passes for 254 yards, with six scoring catches.
Furman also welcomes the return of All-SoCon running back Devin Wynn, and he was one of five Paladins to receive all-conference honors, and the only one selected to the first team. The Paladins received one first-place vote in the media poll and amassed 181 points in tying with East Tennessee State and Samford. The Paladins were voted fifth in the SoCon coaches poll.
East Tennessee State enters the season as the No. 4 pick in the SoCon coaches poll, while being in a tie for third in the media poll. Along with Samford, the Bucs joined the Bulldogs with six first-team all-league picks, and had 10 all-conference picks on first and second team. Randy Sanders enters his fourth season at the helm of the Bucs football program with maybe his best team since he arrived in Johnson City to become the head coach of the Bucs following the 2017 season.
Highlighting the returnees on the offensive side of the football for ETSU is running back Quay Holmes, who rushed for 640 yards and eight scores during the spring season, leading the SoCon in rushing yards-per-game (106.7 YPG), and his 2,711-career rushing yards entering the 2021 campaign currently ranks third in program history.
Tight end Nate Adkins garnered first-team All-SoCon honors for the second-straight season. Adkins, who has three-career touchdown receptions, did not suit up in the spring for the Bucs, but was a preseason All-SoCon selection prior to the 2019 campaign.
ETSU’s calling card during the spring of 2021 once again was its outstanding defense. The Bucs finished the spring season ranking 18th nationally and second in the SoCon in total defense (287.8 YPG). Leading that unit is linebacker Jared Folks, who returns for his eighth year of eligibility and he will also enter the season as a first-team All-SoCon pick. Last spring, Folks was the SoCon Defensive Player of the Year, marking the first time an ETSU player has earned that honor since Mario Hankerson in 1997.
Outstanding defensive back Tyree Robinson also accorded first-team All-SoCon preseason honors following up a solid spring, which saw him finish with 37 tackles, 4.5 TFL and a fumble recovery returned for a score.
The Bucs received three first-place votes in the media poll to finish tied for third with Furman and Samford with 181 points in that poll, while the Bucs, who were fifth in the coaches poll, received one first-place vote.
Following ETSU in both the coaches and media poll, and finishing sixth in both of those polls was Mercer. Like Samford, first-year head coach Drew Cronic’s Bears were one of the hottest teams to close out the spring season. The Bears finished the 2020-21 season with a 5-6 overall mark, which included a 5-3 mark in the spring, marking its highest win total as a Southern Conference member since joining the league as an official member in 2014.
Cronic’s Bears will be led on the offensive side of the football by returning starter Carter Peevy under center. Peevy had an outstanding rookie season for Mercer, as he passed for 1,318 yards, with eight touchdowns and four INTs.
The most improvement for Cronic’s Bears was shown on the defensive side of the ball, and that showed up on the preseason all-conference squads, with four of five of the Bears’ all-league picks coming on that side of the football. Both defensive lineman Solomon Zubairu and linebacker Isaac Dowling were part of a defense that ended up leading the SoCon with 29 sacks during the spring.
The Palmetto State of South Carolina occupied the No. 7 and No. 8 eight positions in both respective polls, with Wofford being seventh in the media poll and eighth in the coaches poll, while The Citadel was selected seventh in the coaches poll and eighth by the media.
The Terriers were the 2019 SoCon champions, and couldn’t complete the spring season due to attrition, which was most profound along the offensive and defensive lines. The Terriers’ placement of eighth by the league’s coaches, and its 21 points accrued in that poll, marked the lowest ranking and points total for a Wofford team in a preseason poll since 1999.
Wofford will be under the direction of fourth-year head coach Josh Conklin, and the first order of business for Conklin this summer was hiring an offensive coordinator, following the retirement of longtime offensive coordinator Wade Lang, who served the Terrier football program for three decades. Tyler Carlton was hired to assist Dane Romero in the play-calling duties for Wofford last month. Wofford finished the spring with just a 1-4 record in the conference games it was able to play.
The Terriers return 18 starters, and had four players selected to the preseason all-conference teams. Highlighting those selections on offense was running back Nathan Walker, who was a second-team selection, while defensive lineman Michael Mason found himself as a preseason first-team pick.
The Citadel was mired in a program-record 11-game losing streak, which dated back to the end of the 2019 campaign, before eventually ending that skid in the spring with a win over Wofford (28-24), which was followed up with a 26-7 win by the Bulldogs over arch-rival Furman. The Bulldogs eventually closed the spring with a 31-17 loss to eventual SoCon champion VMI to finish up with a 2-10 mark.
Head coach Brent Thompson will be looking to lead his Bulldogs to their first Southern Conference title since 2016. Like Wofford, the Bulldogs had four players selected to the preseason All-SoCon scroll, with senior offensive lineman Haden Haas garnering second-team All-SoCon honors on offense, while linebacker Willie Eubanks III was a first-team selection on the defensive side of the ball. Punter Matt Campbell joined Eubanks on the league’s preseason first-team, while linebacker Anthony Britton Jr. joined Haas as a second-team selection.
Western Carolina rounded out both polls, ranking ninth in both the media and coaches polls, respectively. The Catamounts will be embarking on a new era as a football program this fall under the direction of first-year head coach Kerwin Bell. Bell comes to Cullowhee from South Florida, where he served as the Bulls’ offensive coordinator under Charlie Strong in 2019.
Prior to that, Bell was the head coach at Division II power Valdosta State from 2016-18, his most extensive time spent as a head coach was nine seasons at the helm of Jacksonville from 2007-15. Western Carolina will be looking to rebound from a 1-8, 1-5 SoCon record during the spring. The Catamounts had one player selected to the preseason all-conference squads, with offensive lineman Tyler Smith garnering first-team accolades.
As usual, it was a treat for me to be a part of the SoCon preseason event at the Biltmore Estate, and like McGee detailed in his short speech during the luncheon, football in the Southern Conference to me is the purest form of college football, separated from the chaos of big-money college football. The SoCon, and the FCS at-large, is now even more in-focus in that realm of purity with the introduction of NIL and the looming conference re-alignment of big-time college football—all motivated by the mighty dollar.
The SoCon season will kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 2, highlighted by preseason favorite Chattanooga hosting Austin Peay. Included below are the preseason polls and all-conference teams, including how I voted in the poll, as well as my preseason all-league teams.
2021 Preseason Southern Conference Coaches Poll
Team (1st-place votes) Total
1. Chattanooga (4) 59
2. Samford (2) 52
3. VMI (2) 50
4. ETSU (1) 49
5. Furman 34
6. Mercer 29
7. The Citadel 22
8. Wofford 21
9. Western Carolina 8
2021 Preseason All-Southern Conference Football Teams
Offensive Player of the Year: Liam Welch, QB, Gr., Samford
Defensive Player of the Year: Stone Snyder, LB, Jr., VMI
FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QB Liam Welch, Gr., Samford
RB Quay Holmes, R-Jr., ETSU
RB Devin Wynn, 5th, Furman
RB Ailym Ford, So., Chattanooga
OL Tre'mond Shorts, R-Jr., ETSU
OL Gavin Orr, Jr., Samford
OL Cole Strange, Sr., Chattanooga
OL Marshall Gill, Sr., VMI
OL Tyler Smith, R-So., Western Carolina
OL Zak Kurz, Sr., Wofford
TE Nate Adkins, Jr., ETSU
WR Ty King, R-So., Samford
WR Jakob Herres, Sr., VMI
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
DL Solomon Zubairu, So., Mercer
DL Armond Lloyd, R-Sr., Samford
DL Devonnsha Maxwell, Jr., Chattanooga
DL Michael Mason, Jr., Wofford
LB Willie Eubanks III, Sr., The Citadel
LB Jared Folks, Gr., ETSU
LB Stone Snyder, Jr., VMI
DB Tyree Robinson, Sr., ETSU
DB Chris Edmonds, So., Samford
DB Brandon Dowdell, Sr., Chattanooga
DB Ethan Caselberry, Sr., VMI
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
PK Tyler Keltner, So., ETSU
P Matthew Campbell, Jr., The Citadel
RS Montrell Washington, Sr., Samford
SECOND TEAM OFFENSE
QB Seth Morgan, R-So., VMI
RB Brandon Marshall, Fr., Mercer
RB Nathan Walker, Sr., Wofford
OL Haden Haas, R-Sr., The Citadel
OL Tavon Matthews, So., ETSU
OL Anderson Tomlin, R-Jr., Furman
OL McClendon Curtis, Jr., Chattanooga
OL Harrison Moon, Sr., Chattanooga
OL Al Hogan, Jr., Wofford
TE Michael Vice, So., Samford
WR AJ Toney, So., Samford
WR Reggie Henderson, Sr., Chattanooga
SECOND TEAM DEFENSE
DL Parker Stokes, 5th, Furman
DL Chris Hill, Fr., Mercer
DL Jay Person, So., Chattanooga
DL Warren Dabney, Sr., VMI
LB Anthony Britton Jr., So., The Citadel
LB Donovan Manuel, R-So., ETSU
LB Isaac Dowling, Fr., Mercer
LB Trimarcus Cheeks, So., Samford
DB Alijah Huzzie, R-Fr., ETSU
DB Travis Blackshear, R-Jr., Furman
DB Lance Wise, So., Mercer
DB Jerrell Lawson, Sr., Chattanooga
SECOND TEAM SPECIALISTS
PK Timmy Bleekrode, R-So., Furman
P Timmy Bleekrode, R-So., Furman
RS Quay Holmes, R-Jr., ETSU
NOTE: Coaches were not permitted to vote for their own players or team.
2021 Preseason Southern Conference Media Poll
Team (1st-place votes) Total
1. Chattanooga (18) 248
2. VMI (6) 217
t3. ETSU (3) 181
t3. FURMAN (1) 181
t3. Samford (2) 181
6. Mercer 123
7. Wofford 108
8. The Citadel 79
9. Western Carolina 32
My Predicted Order of Finish:
5. East Tennessee State
8. The Citadel
9. Western Carolina
My Preseason All-SoCon Teams (1st Team Offense)
QB--Liam Welch (Samford)
RB--Quay Holmes (East Tennessee State)
RB--Devin Wynn (Furman)
RB-Ailym Ford (Chattanooga)
OL--Tre'Mond Shorts (East Tennessee State)
OL--Marshall Gill (VMI)
OL—Cole Strange (Chattanooga)
OL—Gavin Orr (Samford)
OL--Anderson Tomlin (Furman)
TE--Ryan Miller (Furman)
WR--Ty King (Samford)
WR--Jakob Heres (VMI))
First Team Defense:
DL--Devonsha Maxwell (Chattanooga)
DL--Solomon Zubairu (Mercer)
DL--Michael Mason (Wofford)
DL—Armond Lloyd (Samford)
LB--Stone Snyder (VMI)
LB--Willie Eubanks (The Citadel)
DB--Chris Edmonds (Samford)
DB--Travis Blackshear (Furman)
DB—Tyree Robinson (ETSU)
DB—Lance Wise (Mercer)
PK—Tyler Keltner (ETSU)
P--Timmy Bleekrode (Furman)
RS--Quay Holmes (ETSU)
Second Team Offense:
QB--Seth Morgan (VMI)
RB—Brandon Marshall (Mercer)
RB--Jay Stanton (Samford)
OL--Tyler Smith (Western Carolina)
OL--McClendon Curtis (Chattanooga)
OL—Haden Haas (The Citadel)
OL--Evan Jumper (Furman)
OL—Tavon Matthews. (ETSU)
TE--Michael Vice (Samford)
WR --AJ Toney (Samford)
WR--Reginald Henderson (Chattanooga)
Second Team Defense
DL--Cameron Coleman (Furman)
DL—Chris Hill (Mercer)
DL--Jay Person (Chattanooga)
DL—Adrian Hope (Furman)
LB—Donovan Manuel (ETSU)
LB—Isaac Dowling (Mercer)
LB—Ty Boeck (Chattanooga)
DB—Brandon Dowdell (Chattanooga)
DB—Tahir Annoor (Wofford)
DB—Ethan Castleberry (VMI)
DB—Jerrell Lawson (Chattanooga)
Second Team Special Teams:
PK—Tyler Keltner (ETSU)
P—Matt Campbell (The Citadel)
RS—Chance Knox (VMI)
Offensive Player of the Year: QB- Liam Welch (Samford)
Defensive Player of the Year: LB-Stone Snyder (VMI)
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