By Hunter Reid, Sports Information
GREENVILLE, S.C. -- With all three starters and eight lettermen returning along the defensive line, prospects for Furman's defense in 2018 appear very bright.
The seeds for optimism surrounding the Paladin defensive front were planted a year ago by the coaching staff's decision from day one to secure meaningful playing time for as many players as possible.
"Defensive line involves very demanding positions, and you need bodies and depth there, so we tried to play a number of guys last year," said Furman head coach Clay Hendrix earlier this week. "A lot of them were young bodies, but I thought they were a productive group, though, like our team, there were times we got exposed a bit from a maturity standpoint. That said, size-wise we made some real progress in the off-season, and I'm optimistic we can continue to improve and build more depth."
A year ago opponents ran for 149.3 yards per game against the Paladins, considerably less than the 193.2 yards per game surrendered in 2016. The defensive line was also was integral in the unit's leap from 12 sacks two years ago to a SoCon best 34 takedowns in 2017.
The improvement against the run, in particular, resonates with Hendrix.
"When you play in a run-heavy league like the Southern Conference, you better be good at defending it (the run), and I felt like we made some strides in that area. Coach (Josh) Miller has done a great job with that group. They take a lot of pride in how they practice and how they play."
Expected to anchor Furman's front is nose guard Jaylan Reid (5-11, 278, R-Sr.), a consensus second team All-SoCon pick in 2017 who totaled 45 tackles, including 8.5 for-loss, and two sacks. An unquestioned squad leader who had the rare distinction of serving as team captain as a junior, he owns 25 consecutive starts (30 in his career). The Marietta, Ga., product has also posted first and second place finishes, respectively, in SoCon Championship shot put competition the last two years.
Commenting on his senior nose guard, Hendrix said, "I looked at our league preseason all-conference teams, and there are a lot of really good defensive linemen in the SoCon right now. Jaylan's one of those guys. He's a leader and a captain, and is really productive for us."
One of the centerpieces of Furman's plan to get a number of newcomers on the field a year ago was nose guard Parker Stokes (6-1, 270, So.), who served as Reid's backup, totaling 25 tackles, including four for-loss, and two sacks. Compact and strong, he gives the Paladins quality depth.
"Parker had a really good off-season. He lost some weight and gained more strength. He's a guy with some skills. We feel pretty good about our situation at nose guard."
Behind Stokes are Justin Taylor (6-1, 257, R-So.) and Cameron Coleman (6-3, 285, Fr.)
The return of Jonah Tibbs (6-3, 274, Jr.) at tackle is good news following a 2017 campaign that saw him tally 55 tackles (tops among the interior linemen), six stops for-loss, and 3.5 sacks.
"We nominated Jonah for All-SoCon last year. He's a really bright player and probably developed as much as anybody on our squad a year ago. He certainly came a long way."
Hendrix sees two players, Matt Sochovka (6-4, 265, R-Fr.) and Taylor Hodge (5-9, 255, Fr.), battling for the second spot behind Tibbs.
"Matt's a guy we were able to redshirt, a player who needed the weight room. He had a good offseason and will have a chance to play. Taylor is guy who I'd really be surprised if he doesn't play for us this year, knowing the nature of that position and his skill set."
Furman boasts its best depth on the line at the end position, where four experienced performers return in Chinedu Okonya (6-2, 245, R-Sr.), Alec Hanff (6-4, 243, R-Jr.), Dru Seabrook (6-3, 242, R-So.), and Landon Lawrence (6-3, 255, So.).
Okonya registered 11 starts in 2017 and tallied 33 tackles, including a team leading 4.5 sacks, and Hanff earned a pair of starts while contributing 20 tackles along with 3.5 sacks.
Seabrook saw action in 10 games and collected sacks in back-to-back wins over East Tennessee State and Chattanooga — part of a seven-game winning streak that carried the Paladins to the playoffs. Lawrence, meanwhile, brought quality versatility to the defensive line, seeing notable action at nose guard and tackle on the way to 19 stops (1.5 sacks).
"We have some flexibility at end with four guys who have played quite a bit," said Hendrix. "Chinedu has been an every down guy, and Alec started a couple of games for us. Dru, who played a lot more as a third down guy a year ago, has already impressed me with some things he has done out there in our first two practices.
"You don't see many guys the size of Landon Lawrence playing inside, which he did last year. We feel like end is his more natural position."
Furman Preseason Preview: Defensive Line
By Hunter Reid, Sports Information