The elder statesmen: Furman's graduate players unlocking new dimension of Paladins football
GREENVILLE, S.C. – Furman University has never been an easy school to get into.
With an average GPA requirement of nearly 3.70 and the expectation of a 1,350 SAT score (well above the national average of 1,050), the pool of undergraduate candidates it can select from is limited. The same great expectations are looked for when considering its graduate programs, which it offers only five of.
The chemistry school is highly renowned and selective in its admittance. The education program has many yearly applicants and a slew of prerequisites that must be met to get yourself above the competition.
That trickle-down effect is felt with the football team, which because of its school’s rigorous acceptance process and coursework, has an even smaller pool of players to pick from. Prospective athletes must not just be capable of playing Division I football at the top of the Southern Conference, but they must also meet Furman’s academic standards, the school must offer something they want to pursue, and they must want to be in Greenville.
“We’re never going to be the most talented group because that’s just the nature of our school and our restrictions from an admissions standpoint,” said Paladins’ head coach Clay Hendrix. “We play a group this week that there ain’t no way we’re similar to them talent wise, Chattanooga. I think they have 14 Power 5 transfers and there’s a reason why kids were Power 5 and it’s largely because of talent.”
But times are shifting as the Paladins have defied all of the above “restrictions” of the past.
They may still lack the Power 5 talent that other schools with lesser academic standards are able to reel in, but the Paladins are finally starting to break through in the graduate players department which gives them different advantages. For the first time ever, the football program rosters over 10 graduate players (14), almost all of which receive substantial playing time.
These older players bring experience, leadership, focus and mentorship for an otherwise young team built through high school recruiting. And this is a trend that will only grow as Furman has already approved a couple of new graduate programs to begin in the Fall of 2024, offering more to prospective athletes.
The Paladins aren’t necessarily setting themselves apart from the competition in this development more than they are catching up, but pair it with their other requirements, and the graduates they are getting or in new cases, keeping, aren’t your run of the mill people. They are high-achievers, brainiacs and high-character additions to a growing program.
“We find kids who truly value being here, wants the degree and understands what it will do for them,” Hendrix said. “It’s fun to coach a bunch of guys like that. Off the field, they are high achievers. They understand the big picture, they know it (football) is going to end eventually and they have to prepare for the next phase of life.”
Not your average joes
For example, tight end Mason Pline.
He’s exceptional in many facets, aside from transferring in this season and earning the starting job from game one. He’s already got his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Division II Ferris State University, where he played both basketball and football, winning two national championships on the gridiron.
He continues to challenge himself in Furman’s Master of Arts in Strategic Design program.
The embodiment of a true Paladin, he’s just one of many graduate players this season with similar stories. Offensive lineman Sirod Cook, another DII transfer, joined the team this spring already holding his master’s in accounting. Or Tyler Huff, a fan favorite and one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, who graduated from Presbyterian in short order and is now a commissioned 2nd Lt. in the U.S. Army Reserves.
“The way he (Huff) came here – graduated in three years, in the Army National Guard and didn’t assume anything or have any entitlement attitude whatsoever,” Hendrix said. “He just wanted to work, and he earned immediate respect in how he handles himself and carries himself.”
These are the types of graduates Furman attracts, and their important intangibles have paved the path for this year’s Paladins.
Of the 14 graduate players on the roster, five have earned a start this season on offense while four have been out there to begin a game on defense. The others fill in reserve spots on the two-deep but earn regular playing time due to Furman’s inclination to play many bodies.
In any case, each knows their role and has accepted it. Nobody thinks they are a world beater; nobody expects more on their plate than they have. Whatever is asked of them, they do, showing that elder grasp on the idea that every role, no matter how big or small, feeds into a team’s caliber of strength.
“Several of those guys have come in a just provided some depth for us and that’s one of the things of our success,” Hendrix said. “They’ve bought into that role, and we feel like even when we have a guy down, we can plug in a guy who’s had a lot of experience and can play.”
Hendrix pointed to Pline yet again as an example of embracing a role change, stepping up rather than stepping down. Furman had major shoes that needed filling this season and he’s embraced it for his team to the best of his ability.
“We had Ryan Miller a year ago, who had such a great career,” Hendrix said. “And we were looking for a specific guy to kind of fill that tight end role … and look at him (Pline). He was at Ferris State, a great, great program that just gets guys used to winning and I think his role has changed a little bit here, especially how we use him.”
Through two seasons at Ferris State, he had four catches that resulted in two receiving touchdowns, spending a large chunk of his time blocking. With the Paladins, they brought him in to replace Miller, whose 72 catches for 12 scores a year ago would be hard to replicate, but with three games left to go, the 6-foot-7 replacement has 14 grabs for 159 yards and two scores – producing at the highest clip of his career.
In smaller-scale acts of selflessness, Huff reemerges as a standout, or so the rumors say.
“In the world of NIL, which we don’t really live in very much, but what I think some of our guys might have gotten and I really don’t even know, but they get some meals here and there?,” Hendrix said. “And I’ve heard that if it ever comes up with him, all he’s interested in doing is seeing where he can take his linemen to eat.”
It’s that building of mutual respect and camaraderie through doing everything in the name of your teammates that the graduate players have excelled this year.
Going on the road in college football is never easy, but this year the Paladins have been rolling away from home.
They beat FBS-transitioning program Kennesaw State by a field goal, edged out conference foe Samford by one score and then thoroughly picked apart nationally ranked No. 8 Western Carolina. Their lone road loss came at SEC South Carolina, where they still found a way to reach the end zone three times.
It’s been a combination of leadership through experience, focus and maturity from the graduate players that has propelled them in these signature victories.
“Their whole focus is a little different in my opinion,” Hendrix said. “They are on the last legs of their careers, are enjoying their time playing and want to finish strong.”
This week, though, they have their toughest battle yet in a trip to Tennessee to take on Chattanooga, with the winner claiming the 2023 SoCon throne. But a team with the Paladins foundation of battle-tested players and wisdom couldn’t be more ready.
“We’ve been in some really big games … heck, this is our third one in four weeks, kind of the way I saw it,” Hendrix said. “We had a tough draw going to Samford, to Western in back-to-back weeks before going to Chattanooga but we’ve been a really good road team and being an older team has a lot to do with that … their focus is just a little bit different, and they are bought into whatever their role might be … I think that balances out some of the talent gaps sometimes that you might go against.”
Pretty good at football, too
Don’t let all of this distract you from the fact that these “old guys” are pretty good at the game too – that’s a nice added bonus in addition to the nonphysical gifts they bring to the team.
Running back Dominic Roberto has 613 yards on the ground this season with seven scores, not far ahead of Huff’s 487 yards and four scores. The latter does his work in dual-threat capacity, also passing for 1,452 yards and nine touchdowns.
“He’s (Huff) the guy that has the ball in his hand and he doesn’t think people can tackle him,” Hendrix said. “He has a lot of confidence as a runner and a passer and is a true dual-threat guy. I think sometimes people don’t realize he’s as twitchy as he is … he has a knack for making people miss and he’s 215 pounds so he can break tackles.”
On the receiving end of that big-play ability are other graduate students and wide receivers Luke Shiflett and Kyndel Dean with 185 yards (2 TDs) and 216 yards, respectively. Of course there’s Pline too, with his aforementioned numbers widely inflated from his days with the Bulldogs.
Defensively, linebacker Braden Gilby has 44 tackles while also accumulating two pass breakups and three quarterback hurries. Matt Sochovka spends lots of time in the backfield also, garnering four tackles for loss. On the outside, Travis Blackshear has put wide receivers on an island, batting away seven passes and securing two for turnovers.
Needless to say, their leadership comes in all forms, from the things you see on the stat sheet to the things you can’t, and getting some of these high-value guys has unlocked a whole new dimension for the Paladins.