College Football

2019 Southern Conference spring outlook

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - Southern Conference football was particularly competitive while it had one of the better FCS title races last season.

As close games ruled, one of the tri-champs, ETSU, earned each of its six conference wins by three points or less. Wofford and Furman also shared the title and the top seven teams finished within two games of each other in the standings.

A 2019 encore would thrill fans.

Following is a look across the SoCon with spring practices underway in college football:

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CHATTANOOGA

HEAD COACH: Rusty Wright (first season)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 4-4 SoCon (Tie/4th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 19-April 15

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (9 offense/6 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: An adjustment period always follows the hiring of a new coach, but Wright was a part of Russ Huesman's staff in 2016, so he knew a lot of the upperclassmen previously. The defensive line must replace Isaiah Mack, the SoCon defensive player of the year, and Derek Mahaffey.

NOTABLE: The Mocs will need cohesion from the start because the season-opening nonconference opponents are Eastern Illinois, Jacksonville State, Tennessee and James Madison. Junior Bryce Nunnelly's 1,237 receiving yards were just 47 shy of the school's single-season record, and he'll team again with quarterback Nick Tiano.

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EAST TENNESSEE STATE

HEAD COACH: Randy Sanders (8-4, one season)

2018 RECORDS: 8-4 overall, 6-2 SoCon (Tie/1st)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 19-April 13

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Coming off a breakthrough season that included an FCS playoff appearance, the Buccaneers have to replace quarterback Austin Herin, and junior Logan Marchi, last year's season-opening starter, will not return. Also, leading receiver Kobe Kelley graduated.

NOTABLE: Running back Jacob Saylors' freshman statistics (615 rushing yards on a 7.2-yard average; 23 receptions) didn't get their due considering backfield mate Quay Holmes was the SoCon freshman of the year. The defense returns two of the conference's top defensive players in defensive end Nasir Player and free safety Tyree Robinson.

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FURMAN

HEAD COACH: Clay Hendrix (14-9, two seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 6-4 overall, 6-2 SoCon (Tie/1st)

SPRING PRACTICES: Completed

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Furman was the first team in Division I to hold spring practice. The big offseason priority is replacing quarterback Harris Roberts, most likely with a redshirt freshmen, Darren Grainger, who started the program's limited spring scrimmage, or Hamp Sisson.

NOTABLE: All five starters on the offensive line return, which is welcome news to running backs Devin Wynn, Corey Watkins and Darius Morehead. Linebacker Adrian Hope managed an FCS-high 15 sacks as a freshman while coming off the bench.

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MERCER

HEAD COACH: Bobby Lamb (37-31, six seasons; 104-71 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 4-4 SoCon (Tie/5th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 20-April 13

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: After ranking seventh in the SoCon defensively, the Bears are shoring up some the issues under new defensive coordinator Mike Adams, hired from Charleston Southern.

NOTABLE: The Bears failed to have what was viewed as a potential breakthrough season in the SoCon. Quarterback Robert Riddle wrestled the starting job away from the conference's 2017 freshman of the year Kaelan Riley, but he was lost to a broken collarbone in the fourth game. The Bears relied heavily on running back Tyray Devezin down the stretch, when he had 107 touches in the final four games.

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SAMFORD

HEAD COACH: Chris Hatcher (27-19, four seasons; 148-76 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 5-3 SoCon (4th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 25-April 19

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: Replacing the production of quarterback Devlin Hodges, the 2018 STATS FCS Walter Payton Award recipient, wide receiver Kelvin McKnight and defensive end Ahmad Gooden is a daunting task. The depth in the program must shine this year.

NOTABLE: The Bulldogs gained momentum for the offseason by winning five of their final six games. They will have an early jump on the 2019 season when they face Youngstown State in the FCS Kickoff on Aug. 24. Not to be lost in McKnight's dominant career is the fact senior Chris Shelling has caught 136 passes and 16 touchdowns over the last two seasons.

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THE CITADEL

HEAD COACH: Brent Thompson (20-14, three seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 4-4 SoCon (Tie/5th)

SPRING PRACTICES: Feb. 7-March 7 (spring game on March 2)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (10 offense/7 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Three new defensive coaches, including coordinator Tony Grantham, are implementing a new scheme. They'll like linebacker Willie Eubanks III, who had a breakout season as a sophomore.

NOTABLE: The insertion of quarterback Brandon Rainey as the starter sparked a 3-1 finish last season. With four returning starters on the offensive line and a deep stable of running backs, the triple option should continue to be strong. A difficult opening stretch of games will test the Bulldogs.

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VMI

HEAD COACH: Scott Wachenheim (6-38, four seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 1-10 overall, 0-8 SoCon (9th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 26-May 3

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 19 (10 offense/9 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Better days have to be coming after the 2018 roster included 56 combined freshmen (28 true frosh) and sophomores, but the Keydets have to improve their depth and execution. Special teams are a focal point this offseason.

NOTABLE: The Keydets have lost 22 straight conference games since 2016. Although quarterback Reece Udinski has to decrease his interceptions, he passed for 3,082 yards and 20 touchdowns. Udinski is joined in the junior class by All-SoCon second-team media selections Kris Thornton (wide receiver) and A.J. Smith (defensive back).

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WESTERN CAROLINA

HEAD COACH: Mark Speir (29-51, seven seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 3-8 overall, 1-7 SoCon (8th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 19-April 16 (tentative)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: The defense was beat up last season, allowing 41 points and 490 yards per game, and lost three of its top five tacklers. The offensive line was even more ravaged by graduation, losing four starters and a fifth senior reserve.

NOTABLE: After a disappointing season, the Catamounts hope to bounce back behind senior dual-threat quarterback Tyrie Adams. A solid group of skills players will surround him. Some players returning from injuries will help the Catamounts, who face North Carolina State and Alabama in FBS matchups.

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WOFFORD

HEAD COACH: Josh Conklin (9-4, one season)

2018 RECORDS: 9-4 overall, 6-2 SoCon (Tie/1st)

SPRING PRACTICES: Feb. 7-March 1

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (9 offense/5 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: The Terriers are working on having even more efficiency in Conklin's second season. He's implemented more passing into a triple option offense that lost its two top rushers. The defense lost six starters.

NOTABLE: Coming off two straight SoCon titles, the Terriers will be the team to beat again. The return of Mikel Horton from an early season injury is vital for the defense. The offense effectively used two quarterbacks, Joe Newman and Miller Mosley.

Updated February 27, 2019

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