War Eagle, everybody! Time now for another 2009 Auburn Football opponent preview. November 7th is Homecoming at Auburn, and the Tigers are scheduled to host the Furman Paladins. Furman is a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) team, and they play in the Southern Conference, along with such teams as UT Chattanooga, Samford, Western Carolina, The Citadel, and Georgia Southern. Furman is the school that produced current Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson. Furman has not had a losing record since Johnson’s 1998 squad went 5-6. Current head coach Bobby Lamb replaced Johnson in 2002. The Paladins were fixtures in the FCS playoffs during Lamb’s first five seasons, but have failed to make the cut the past two seasons, finishing 7-5 last season, 4-4 in the Southern Conference. The Paladins return 11 starters, 7 on offense.
Last season, much like at Auburn, the Furman coaches decided to implement a spread offense. It was an attempt at a balanced offense, producing slightly more running plays than passes. Overall, the decision produced middle-of-the-pack Southern Conference numbers, but the results were uneven. Furman blasted some of the lesser teams on their schedule, such as Mars Hill, Colgate, and Chattanooga. Against better teams, the offense floundered; scoring only 7 against Virginia Tech, 10 against Elon, 14 against Appy State, and 10 in season-ending losses to Georgia Southern and Wofford. Furman returns an experienced backfield and receiving corps, and is bolstered at quarterback by the well-publicized addition of transfer quarterback Chris Forcier, from UCLA. Forcier will have his hands full trying to win the starting job, though. Senior starter Jordan Sorrells returns, and he’s the son of offensive coordinator Tim Sorrells. A capable possession receiving corps also got a boost, with the acquisition of Tennessee transfer wide receiver, Tyler Maples. Maples has the speed to stretch the field, something Furman needed badly. The Paladins are excited about the talent they have on the offensive line, but the reality is that they lost 3 starters to graduation, including All-American tackle Joel Bell.
On defense, Furman was decimated by departures after last season. Only 4 starters return. Last season, Furman changed from a traditional 4-3 defense, to a 4-2-5 look, putting an extra defensive back on the field. The decision helped the defense shave about 10 points off their defensive average, and about 50 yards per game. The Paladins will try to regroup around senior tackle, All-Southern Conference performer Justin Brown. Also returning with experience is junior All-Southern Conference rover Max Lerner. For those of you who watched MTV’s show a couple of years ago, “Two A Days,” yes, that’s the same “Max,” from the Hoover Bucs. Lots of young players will have to step up on defense, and depth will likely be an issue, this season.
Furman returns capable kickers and punters, as well as good coverage units. The Paladins had success returning punts last year, but kick returns were poor. Short kickoffs plagued Furman, but good coverage limited opponent field position, for the most part.
Auburn defensive line vs. Furman offensive line: This is a tough matchup for Furman. Though the Paladins have some talent, they are going up against the strength of the Auburn defense. Auburn’s line should have some depth, and a very strong set of starters led by preseason All-SEC end Antonio Coleman. Furman returns two senior guards, 281-pound Heath Cockburn, and 268-pound Tyler Haynes. The other 3 starters will be new. The Furman line averages only 278 pounds, and that will be one of the lighter lines Auburn plays all season. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Furman runners: Auburn will rely on veterans Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens, along with JUCO transfer Eltoro Freeman, and some very young backups. The centerpiece of the Paladin backfield is junior running back Mike Brown, a 5′ 8″, 190 pound fireplug. Brown managed 823 rushing yards last season, despite facing a lot of blitzing defenses attacking the Furman spread. Brown also caught 33 passes. There is depth behind Brown, too. At fullback, sophomore Tersoo Uhaa turned heads a year ago, with surprising blocking ability. Uhaa had 420 yards, and 8 touchdowns as a freshman in 2008. A defense can’t ignore Furman fullbacks. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. Furman receivers: Against the better teams last season, Furman receivers struggled. Injuries early in the season hurt, and the Paladins used a lot of young players. Overall, a lack of a deep threat kept lots of defenders packed near the line of scrimmage. Auburn has the speed to stay with Furman, here. Walter McFadden and Neiko Thorpe should be in good shape against this crew. Furman returns their entire starting lineup from a year ago. These include junior Adam Mims (58 catches), sophomore David Hendrix (46 catches), and Sederrik Cunningham (33 catches). In addition, senior R. J. Webb returns after missing a year for injury. Tyler Maples, a sophomore transfer from Tennessee, will be eligible to play immediately, as well. Slight Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Furman secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s Zach Etheridge, Michael McNeal, and Mike Slade all have experience, and talent. They’ll be facing a variety of slot receivers, tight ends, and fullbacks from Furman. The most formidable of this group will be senior tight end Chris Truss. At 262 pounds, Truss can block like a lineman. He’s got 32 career catches, and six touchdowns. There is almost no experience behind Truss, though. I’d bet on senior Jordan Sorrells to retain the starting quarterback job over transfer Chris Forcier, although Forcier and his 4.4 speed might be a good option for some Wildcat packages. Sorrells hit 60.9 percent of his passes last season, for a 6.9 yards per pass average, with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Sorrells isn’t much of a running threat, tallying negative 27 rushing yards last season. Advantage: Even.
Punting: Clinton Durst brings his 42.1 yard average back for another season on the Plains. Furman’s senior punter Trent Hawk averaged 40.9 yards. Junior return man Adam Mims handles punt returns for the Paladins, and he averaged 10 yards per return. Punters avoided Mims, for the most part. Out of 51 opponent punts, Furman only had 15 returns, and one of those was a block. Auburn is still unsettled at punt returner, although summer workout observations seem to indicate that Mario Fannin is the front runner. Furman gave up 7.7 yards per punt return to opponents, Auburn gave up 7.0. Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Auburn’s Wes Byrum averaged about 67 yards per kickoff during the spring, and appeared very consistent during the A-Day game. Sophomore Chas Short handled kickoffs for Furman last season, averaging 58.6 yards per kick. Auburn’s coverage gave up 21.5 yards per return, Furman’s gave up 19.2. Last year for the Paladins, Mike Brown and Adam Mims returned most kicks, on a unit that managed only 17.0 yards per return. Auburn junior Mario Fannin is the most experienced kick return man, averaging 22.5 yards per return. Advantage: Auburn.
Placekicking: Wes Byrum returns for his third year for Auburn, having hit 27 of his 42 career attempts. Senior Mathew Cesari returns for Furman, having hit 9 of 12 field goal attempts last season, his first year as the starting placekicker. Advantage: Furman.
Auburn offensive line vs. Furman defensive line: Auburn will field a large, veteran SEC line led by junior tackle Lee Ziemba. Furman is small up front, by SEC standards, and will face a tough task getting by Auburn’s big men. Senior tackle Justin Brown is a 3 year starter, and was All-Southern Conference last season. Sophomore Bryan Poole will likely be the other tackle. At end, Furman promotes two senior backups to starting positions, Kyle McKinney, and Shaun Van Rensburg. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Furman linebackers: Auburn should have some weapons in the backfield, led by senior running back Ben Tate and junior H-back Mario Fannin. Furman lost both of their starting linebackers to graduation, and the new starters will be thrown into the fire with minimal backup experience. Projected to start are sophomores Kadarron Anderson, and Bryan Boykin. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Furman corners: Auburn leaders going into fall camp appear to be Tim Hawthorne, Montez Billings, and Darvin Adams. Signee DeAngelo Benton is reportedly turning heads in summer workouts. The Furman defense takes some hits in the secondary, with the loss of both starting corners. Particularly missed with be William Middleton, an FCS All-American who could literally take away half the field from most passers. A pair of All-Southern Conference Freshman Team corners are projected to start as sophomores, this year, Jordan Griffin and Ryan Steed. Advantage: Even.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Furman safeties: Senior tight end Tommy Trott should be solid, and junior Mario Fannin showed flashes in the slot. Hopefully, Auburn will have an established quarterback in place by game ten. Furman plays 3 safeties in the 4-2-5 defense. The returning star of the secondary is junior All-Southern Conference rover Max Lerner, who hits like a linebacker. The bandit position, essentially a nickel corner role, will be filled by veteran senior Julian Hicks. Furman appears ready to tap a redshirt freshman, Nathan Wade, as the free safety. Wade reportedly had a great spring. Auburn has a talent advantage in the receiver/defender matchup, and the freshman free safety should somewhat offset Auburn’s quarterback woes. Advantage: Auburn.
As one would expect, Auburn appears to be ahead in many of the matchups, and as a FBS/SEC team, should be in better shape to weather the nicks and bruises of a long season, than a FCS team. Auburn enjoys particular advantages along both lines of scrimmage. Auburn will be coming off a tough slate of SEC games, though, and may be a bit down for this game. I think we all remember the team’s struggles to put away Tennessee Martin, last fall! While Auburn may have issues at quarterback and receiver, as well as a lack of depth on the offensive line, Furman has a young defense. Auburn’s defense should be fine against a Furman team that struggled to make big plays a year ago.
Prediction: Auburn hasn’t lost a homecoming game since 1991, and it won’t happen in 2009, either. Auburn cruises past Furman, 37-13.