(Author’s note: The brand-new Furman University football staff welcomed me into all components of the program and Saturday’s spring game. While I typically write mostly about the SEC/Tennessee, I hope you’ll find this a compelling glimpse into life at the FCS level & the quality people looking to rebuild the Paladins’ program.)
GREENVILLE, S.C. — The target is the last one to know; surrounded by his first entirely new set of colleagues and players since the mid-1990s, George Quarles is clueless of the impending playful humiliation at the conclusion of Furman’s practice Friday on the eve of its spring game.
Especially as the Paladins’ defensive staff members begin to address the first squad in the inaugural year of the Clay Hendrix era, a box filled with a gag gift — diapers, prunes, Ensure and on it goes — from every member of the Furman crew.
“Yeah, they’re definitely tightly knit, and it’s kind of funny because (Friday) was Coach Quarles’ (50th) birthday,” said senior quarterback and offensive anchor P.J. Blazejowski. “Coach (Chad) Staggs, our defensive coordinator who came from Charleston Southern, brought a box out and all the defensive coaches brought out some necessities that you need once you turn 50. It was all fun and games.
“We didn’t really see that in the past. You can definitely see (the camaraderie) and we love it.”
So what does that do for Blazejowski and the other eight Paladins’ seniors, who are seeking to restore prominence to a program that for decades became a fixture of Southern Conference aristocracy and postseason presence, when they witness such an immediate bond from a staff that’s been together intact less than two months?
“As tightly knit as they are, and you see it, it carries on down and trickles down to us in the locker room,” Blazejowski, who has nearly 2,500 career passing yards and garnered Southern Conference All-Rookie honors in 2014, says. “I’m close with most of the guys on the team and getting closer. It’s the same relationship as the coaches have, so it’s awesome to see.”
THE HENDRIX WAY
What the players are seeing is the very fabric of Furman football; an almost unparalleled alumni base at the Football Championship Subdivision level in the region — with former players now the likes of Chick-Fil-A executives, a judge, some NFL veterans and countless other ventures.
The ‘Furman Family,’ as it most often is termed here on this overcast afternoon which features more than 100 juniors from across the Southeast attending the Paladins’ junior day festivities as well as Hendrix & Co.’s hastily assembled ‘17 signing class members, is likewise out in full force. Throughout the week leading into the spring game current NFL players and former Paladins stars routinely drop by practice.
“Really, I don’t know if we addressed it per se as much as we tried to do it in the hiring process,” says Hendrix, a former three-time SoCon champ and national runner-up in the 1980s at his alma mater. “You know you hire guys who are really good at what they do, really good people and I knew the kids would know they care about them. Ultimately, that’s all you can ask.
“I told a friend the other day, ‘You know, it’s been 12 practices and we haven’t really had one of those offensive-defensive (coaches’) battles. I’ve been in enough of those staff rooms. It’s been pretty neat, and this is year 32 for me doing this and I’ve been fortunate to be at some pretty special places, but our staff character is pretty unique. I just think everybody has a common goal and believes in the same things.”
Here on this day as well, even posing for photos, is former Maryville High School Under Armour All-American and recent national champion offensive lineman Jay Guillermo from Clemson, who says, “Coach Quarles has just done so much for me, I wanted to be here to show my support” even as Guillermo prepares for the upcoming NFL Draft next month and already owns multiple workout for league teams.
Players who help fund Furman’s pristine Pearce Horton Football Complex, a state-of-the-art, nearly $15 million venture complete largely thanks to former Paladins players raising an astonishing 80-plus percent of the paid-for building’s funds, might go away but never seem to leave Furman. Brian Bratton, a Furman legend who played professionally in both the NFL and CFL, turns down FBS offers this offseason to remain with his alma mater, though industry consensus is Bratton soon is going to be a prized, Power-5 assistant coach.
“I said this, and I told a group of recruits this, I don’t know if there’s a better group of ex-players at any level, any where,” Hendrix emphasizes. “Can you imagine some of these Power-5 schools depending on their ex-players to pay for a lot of their operations, football-wise? It just tells me two things, they had a great experience and want to give back, and they have the means to give back. That’s what this place will do for you. From living your life, to get a degree from here, it means so much and then I think their football experience was such that they want to come back and give back. I really don’t know if there’s a better one anywhere.”
Adds sixth-year staffer Duane Vaughn, the Paladins’ button-downed recruiting coordinator as well outside linebackers coach with a Vanderbilt career in his rearview and seemingly limitless future ahead of him, “This staff is just a family. You’ve got Coach (Drew) Cronic (offensive coordinator), who coached with Coach Hendrix before, and Coach Hendrix, Coach (Brian) Bratton and Coach Quarles who all played here. There are just a bunch of strong ties.”
That another college coach, who wishes to remain nameless for obvious recruiting reasons but occasionally finds himself squaring off on the recruiting trail with Paladins coaches, gushes “It’s like a mini-Clemson. I mean, dude, it’s ridiculous!” perhaps most succinctly describes the facility.
The exhibition is not the end of spring camp, as Hendrix designs camp to feature three final practices on the heels of the showcase event. Defense scores first on a pick-six, and coaches Ken Lammendola and Addison Williams celebrate jubilantly in the coaches’ box, temporarily oblivious to the agony of Quarles and running backs coach David Sims.
Moments later, in a play seemingly straight from Quarles’ legendary Maryville (Tenn.) High School playbook, the seam is barren secondary and the offense strikes back. Quarles and Sims celebrate; awkwardly, mildly.
“I guess we’re supposed to hug,” Quarles half-jokes.
Blazejowski owns a big-league arm and a 6-foot frame; he fires into tight spaces and the units see-saw back-and-forth. Aside from the nearly 80-yard score in the seam, the offensive highlight likely is a 20-play drive that showcases solid execution and, just as a field goal try seems inevitable, a crushing defensive holding penalty that results in goal-to-go for the offense and leaves Williams yanking off his headset.
The spring setup is a teaching tool Hendrix finally employs after years of wanting to test the method; rival Chattanooga, likewise, is approaching similarly under first-year coach Tom Arth; SEC resident Vanderbilt, for example, also features such occurrences in fairly recent spring camps.
The benefit, Hendrix believes, rests in plain sight.
“Sometimes I’ve had my input, but this is the first time I’m the boss,” says Hendrix, a tinge of self-deprecation in finally getting to test the approach. “I just thought, ‘Why in the world would you go out there (and play the game) the last day of spring?’ And really where we are limited numbers, we’d still go at it pretty good. We went at it pretty good, and it’s just that fine line between getting your work in and staying as healthy as you can. We play a tough game, and injuries are part of it.
“Take those three days next week, and we probably can start to focus on a couple of unique opponents and looking at some stuff offensively that we want to install. I was really happy to get through today and being able to tackle and play real football.”
FAMILY AND HOME
When the final whistle blows, roughly 75 plays and hours after the afternoon’s initiation with the junior day horde, all families are invited onto the field to see their sons and meet each member of the new coaching staff.
“This certainly is home, and at the end of the day, you’re only going to get so many opportunities, if you even get one,” Hendrix explains. “I’d passed on a couple of opportunities to potentially be one. Everything just felt right. And the other thing is, I had a chance to hire George Quarles and some good guys I really wanted to work with, and I always thought I could put a good staff together if given the opportunity.
“Certainly, I’m trying as we have a proud tradition, and it’s slipped a little bit, and I think the challenge here of being able to flip it back. We have some challenges because of our admissions in school, but I kind of see that as a positive here. We can get really quality kids and really quality players. And I sold that to our coaches, you get a chance to coach a really quality kid and your quality life will be pretty good. This is a phenomenal area to live.”
Soon, however, the parents assemble in the stadium’s chair-back seats to hear a final spring message from Hendrix.
He doesn’t stand at the bottom, nor does he use any type of megaphone or microphone. Hendrix wades a few rows into the parents, completely ensconced by many moms and dads listening to Hendrix’s message in person for the first time.
Really, though, the message is everywhere on the postcard-picturesque campus tucked amidst pristine golf courses and paces from Greenville’s rapidly reemerging downtown scene in this Upstate Region.
In fact, Hendrix’s message is more or less already on the gray-and-purple Nike T-shirts given to each coach and player:
Some key on-field players are emerging, from Blazejowski to offensive linemen Reed Kroeber and Matthew Schmidt and tailbacks Antonio Wilcox, Ridge Gibson and redshirt-freshman Darius Moorehead, as well as wideouts Bailey Rogers and Logan McCarter as well as the versatile A’lencio Graham.
Defensively, Jaylan Reid anchors the line in the 3-4 system of Staggs’ unit, which enters with a track record of stingy, aggressive, top-25 FCS residency from Charleston Southern. There’s promise at linebacker from Alex Burch and Jordan Willis as well as fourth-year junior Joe Farrar. Jonah Tibbs and Chinedu Okonya. The secondary might be the most athletic group on the team, with rangy corner Quandarius Weems and safety Aaquil Annoor.
As Quarles’ box of gag gifts shows, the Furman rebuild is in its diaper stages.
Walking through the concourse, listening to coaches, parents and players, however, there’s an undeniable aura that the ‘Furman Family’ is united again.
It’s the first step in rebuilding a winning program. It’s hash-tagged on the dry erase board in the coaches’ locker room: #WinWhenNow.
“It’s awesome; I only have a year left, and hopefully in that year we can make the playoffs, win the SoCon and just continue on,” Blazejowski says. “As a senior, you don’t really want to hear, ‘In two or three years, we’re going to be good.’ Because you’re not going to be here. Obviously in two or three years, we’ll be rooting for the guys who are but we all want to win now.
“We’re tired of losing and coming in in the back-half of the conference standings.”
Who’s to say a family united cannot do just that?