CONWAY — Coastal Carolina football coach Joe Moglia had a couple events to attend early last week – one in North Myrtle Beach and another on campus – as the offseason formally began for the Chanticleers following their run to the second round of the NCAA FCS playoffs.
And perhaps nothing spoke more to what the Chants’ first-year coach and his team had accomplished this fall than the response he received at those functions.
“More people came up to me that I didn’t know to just tell me congratulations [and that] they thought we did a great job, and they truly went out of their way to welcome me to the community,” Moglia said. “That’s really the first time that happened where large groups of people that I didn’t know did that. That really made me feel good.”
Coastal finished Moglia’s debut season 8-5 – its most wins since 2006 – while earning a share of the Big South Conference championship, reaching the FCS playoffs for the third time in the program’s 10 seasons and securing its first postseason victory.
It was, by any metric, a resounding success for a university that had spent the previous offseason creating contention and debate among its fan base as to the direction it was taking the football program after an overall successful nine-year run under popular former coach David Bennett.
The Chants’ five losses this fall came against four ranked FCS teams – including three who finished the regular season in the top-10 – and an FBS Toledo squad that went 9-3 and will play in a bowl game. According to rankings posted this week by the NCAA, Coastal played the 15th toughest schedule among FCS-level teams, and in the end, the program prevailed with a growing sentiment that maybe, just maybe, this new era of Coastal football is going somewhere positive.
“When you take a look at the toughness of the schedule, when you take a look at probably not great expectations on the part of the overall community from the beginning and you see what we were really able to accomplish, I feel pretty good about that,” Moglia said. “I really take a lot of pride in that. I think our coaches feel good, I think our players feel good and I want to believe that the school is really starting to embrace us and believe in what we do and take pride in what we do. I’m hoping over time our community starts to embrace us and take pride in what we do.
“I think we’ve worked very, very hard, but I’ve said all along we’ve got to be able to earn that. Hopefully we’re doing that.”
As Moglia also said, though, it’s not about putting together one season – it’s about building a program. So on that note, here’s an early peek ahead to 2013.
With the FCS playoffs still ongoing, the Chants currently rank 17th nationally in total offense (437.8 yards per game) and 15th in scoring offense (34.3 points per game) – a significant leap from last season when they ranked 90th and 67th in those categories, respectively.
New offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude’s work implementing a new system and maximizing the talents of the players he inherited was an overwhelming success and a driving force in what Coastal accomplished this fall.
And there’s no reason that should change next year.
“Our kids are comfortable with what we’re doing,” Patenaude said. “We kind of settled into a nice rhythm with the plays we’re running. I think the guys have a nice feel for that. I think they have a better understanding of how to prepare, how to practice, how to game plan. So I’m happy with what we did. We still have a lot of work to do and we’ll have to make up for the loss of some of the guys, but I’m very happy with what we established.”
The Chants should be able to build on that foundation with four of five starting offensive linemen set to return next season along with the team’s top four receivers and two proven running backs.
The big change will come at quarterback as rising sophomore Alex Ross will take over for two-year starter Aramis Hillary. Hillary was excellent this fall as a senior, passing for 2,665 yards, 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions and rushing for 567 yards and four scores while finishing as the runner-up for Big South Offensive Player of the Year honors.
Ross, meanwhile, has only one career start on his resume, but it was a mighty impressive one as he threw for 342 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 62 yards in a 55-33 win over Gardner-Webb.
“I think Alex is going to be excellent,” Patenaude said. “... As good of numbers as Aramis put up this year, Alex is a much better pure thrower so that’s exciting from a passing perspective. I don’t know if he’s as slippery or elusive as Aramis was moving around and breaking plays, but he certainly has the ability to run the zone read and option game.”
Top running backs Jeremy Height (921 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns) and Marcus Whitener (424 yards and seven touchdowns) are gone, but the hope is that rising seniors Travis Small (team-high 432 rushing yards in 2011) and Lorenzo Taliaferro (357 yards this year) can step into those spots seamlessly.
“I think we have enough depth there to be really successful and I think the two guys at the top of the roster there are as good as anybody that we’ll play against,” Patenaude said.
Senior center Pat Williams is a key loss on the offensive line, but with plenty of experience back and plans to prioritize that position in this upcoming recruiting class – be it incoming freshmen or junior college transfers – Patenaude is confident in what the Chants return up front. And then there’s the receiving corps where Matt Hazel (61 catches for 799 yards and eight touchdowns), DeMario Bennett (43-599-7) and Niccolo Mastromatteo (47-571-3) all had career-years as juniors.
“I think we’ll have a good nucleus of guys coming back, and I think we can be even better than we were this year,” Patenaude said.
The defense was a different story this fall – depending on the game, that is.
Coastal submitted the two most porous defensive showings in program history as nationally-ranked foes Appalachian State (684 yards in a 55-14 Chants loss) and Old Dominion (672 yards in a 63-35 game to knock CCU from the playoffs) tallied the most and second-most offensive yards ever recorded against the Chants in 10 years of football.
Yet during the six-game winning streak that carried through the first round of the playoffs, Coastal held its opponents to an average of 15.5 points and 350.3 yards per game and turned in some genuinely impressive performances on the defensive side.
That unit also produced the Big South’s Defensive Player of the Year in sophomore linebacker Quinn Backus, who set a program record with 139 total tackles to go with 8 tackles for loss, two interceptions, three forced fumbles and two recoveries in his first season as a starter.
“There’s no question the ultimate goal is to win a national championship here and when you face a team like Old Dominion who is one of the best – if not the best – offenses in the country, it shows you where you have to get to defensively in order to try to slow those guys down a little bit,” defensive coordinator Clayton Carlin said. “So yeah, it definitely shows you that there’s still a ton of room for improvement. But you know, it’s amazing how quickly things change. Every week’s a season, and the week before you faced a pretty good offensive team on the road and you held them to 14 points.”
Looking ahead to 2013, the bulk of that defense remains intact, so the Chants should be able to move forward on that side of the field.
Backus and rising senior Mike McClure (92 tackles with 8.5 for loss) form the best linebacking duo in the Big South. So that is where the foundation for next season begins on the defensive side.
Up front, the Chants will need to establish a new rotation at defensive end with senior starters Quinton Davis (team-high 4.5 sacks) and Jamel Davis gone, and they’ll have perhaps an even bigger void left by senior defensive tackle Johnny Hartsfield, who was a force all season setting the stage for Backus and McClure to do their thing.
Carlin is high on tackle Marcus Crowder and end Roderick Holder, who both played as true freshmen this season. Starting tackle Jeffery Salley also returns, and Coastal is optimistic that senior end Dominique Whiteside will be granted an extra year of eligibility, Carlin said.
At safety, Johnnie Houston had a solid junior season with 5.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and three forced fumbles, and true freshman Richie Sampson was coming on before sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury.
The other big question, meanwhile, is at cornerback where senior Dontavais Johnson moves on after a solid season in which he led the team with four interceptions and six pass break-ups. Rising senior LaDarius Hawthorne (three interceptions and six pass break-ups) played well on the other side at times and will compete with rising sophomore Datarius Allen and rookies Kamron Summers, Samson Baldwin and Devin Brown – who all redshirted this fall – heading into next season.
Like the rest of the coaching staff, Carlin believes the groundwork is in place for a big 2013 campaign.
“I think the foundation we laid moving forward is definitely a positive thing, and we’re certainly without question in my mind heading in the right direction,” he said. “The seniors that we’re losing really have left a good legacy, defensively speaking.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.