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New era for Samford
Ask Alvin Hines II. The future, for Samford, is now.
“I don’t know what the message is that’s being sent,” the Samford safety said after the Bulldogs were picked to finish sixth in the Southern Conference, “except that they are going on last year. This is a new Samford era.”
After going 6-5 a year ago and putting a scare into Auburn in the finale, the 2012 Bulldogs enter with perhaps the best collection of talent in Pat Sullivan’s tenure as head coach.
The offensive line returns four starters, including center Ryan Dudchock. It’s a big but mobile unit that put in the work in the weight room during the offseason.
“We added a new strength coach in the offseason,” Dudchock said, referring to Ryan Davis, who came to Samford from Alabama, where he served as assistant strength and conditioning coach. “He really pushed us.”
Behind the veterans up front are playmakers. Fabian Truss from Shades Valley flirted with 1,000 rushing yards and led the SoCon in all-purpose yards, with 177.4 a game. Backup Jeremiaha Gates made the spot start against Auburn, after Truss was injured, and gashed the Tigers for a career-high 119 yards on the ground.
Two veteran receivers have made splashes in preseason camp: Junior Kelsey Pope ranked second in the conference in receptions a year ago, with 86, and senior Riley Hawkins has big-play potential. The same holds true for sophomore Kelvin Clay.
The problem for the Samford offense? Inexperience in key positions.
Four-year starter Dustin Taliaferro graduated, leaving senior transfer from Memphis Andy Summerlin and junior Ben Neill to fill the void quickly.
“Normally, I’d be worried,” Sullivan said. “I’ve always been a one-quarterback guy. But with Ben Neill and Andy Summerlin, we may play two. And (redshirt freshman) Carson Barnett has potential. He’s just a little behind.”
The inexperience isn’t limited to the field. Rhett Ashlee, Samford’s offensive coordinator last season, left to run mentor Gus Malzahn’s offense at Arkansas State. Brandon Herring and Travis Trickett will serve as co-coordinators this season.
Defensive coordinator Bill D’Ottavio must quickly rebuild a defensive front four after losing defensive ends Alex Davis and Austin Hayes to graduation. Tackle Nicholas Williams is the only returning starter, but nose guard Jerry Mathis played 11 games as a backup. Senior Jeremy Towns, who is also vying for the starting job, missed the season with an injury.
University of South Florida transfer Brandon Wilkinson and senior Aaron Bethune are the projected heirs to replace Davis and Hayes on the edge.
Experience is better at linebacker. Will linebacker Darion Sutton recorded 56 tackles as a junior and middle linebacker Keith Shoulders recorded 61. Another senior, Durrell Hill had 49 stops in a part-time role.
Another player to keep an eye on: linebacker Justin Shade, the son of Samford secondary coach Sam Shade. The younger Shade ranked second on the team with 63 tackles.
Hines heads a playmaking secondary at strong safety. He is Samford’s leading returning tackler with 66 tackles. He also had three interceptions.
Hoover High product Justin Sly is slated to be one starting cornerback.
Samford boasts one of the SoCon’s best kicking tandems. Place-kicker Cameron Yow nailed 23 of 28 field goals as a junior and was 32 of 33 on extra points. Punter Greg Peranisch averaged 41.1 yards a kick. Fifteen of his 47 punts landed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
“I don’t know when I’ve been more excited,” Sullivan said. “Now it’s time for us to take the next step.”
SAMFORD BULLDOGS QUICK LOOK
2011 record – 6-5 overall, 4-4 in the Southern Conference.
Number of returning starters – Eight on offense, six on defense and two on special teams.
Top returning players – RB Fabian Truss, C Ryan Dudchock, SS Alvin Hines II.
Samford will challenge for the SoCon title if – the Bulldogs open fast and find a big-play passing game to complement the ground attack. The defense is young, but athletic enough to keep Samford in the biggest games.
Samford will struggle to get to .500 if – the Bulldogs get too dinged up early. The schedule gets dicey at the end of September. In a six-week span, Samford will face the league’s top four teams, beginning with a trip to Georgia Southern. Frankly, there’s not a lot of room for error.
What they’re selling – That Samford can compete with the best of the Southern Conference. Yes, the Southern Conference is the biggest, baddest Division I-AA football league around. Just ask Alabama, which struggled to slow Georgia Southern’s option attack last November. Or Florida, which saw Furman jump to a big early lead. And Auburn, which struggled for three quarters when the Bulldogs came to town. Three SoCon teams – Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and Wofford - are preseason Top 10 picks. But Samford coaches and players say they’ve recruited well enough and done enough work in the weight room. They’re selling that they’re ready to establish themselves as a SoCon powerhouse like those others.
By Doug Segrest, The Birmingham News