De’Angelo Henderson was playfully trying to pull off his best Marshawn Lynch impression during the Big South Conference’s football media day Thursday, mimicking the stonewall facade and rehearsed lines the standoffish Seattle Seahawks running back famously gives reporters and television cameras.
But it didn’t take long for this running back – the one nicknamed ‘Hop,’ with the big smile and the ever-growing stature in Coastal Carolina football lore – to break character and start laughing.
And once he got going, Henderson indeed had plenty he wanted to say about this upcoming season.
The Chanticleers were tabbed as the Big South’s preseason favorite for the third straight year as the coaches and media poll was unveiled during the conference’s annual summer gathering – held this year at the Atlanta Marriott Northwest at Galleria hotel – and in a quieter moment outside the media room, Henderson spoke of what that mounting respect means to the players and, more so, how the escalating expectations only drive them more.
“This is something that we all worked for since we got here,” Henderson said. “We came into a program that was kind of overlooked in the Big South and now we’re on top. This is what we wanted. This is what we worked for. So it’s great to see that we’re appreciated and respected, but we also know we have to go out and prove it this year.”
Coming off back-to-back 12-win seasons that saw Coastal Carolina reach the third round of the NCAA FCS playoffs both years before losing to eventual national champion North Dakota State, the Chants received 15 of 21 first-place votes and tallied 139 points in the preseason poll to claim the top spot over rival Liberty, which garnered the other six first-place votes and finished second with 129 points.
Additionally, senior quarterback Alex Ross was voted the Big South’s Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, which came as no surprise after he claimed the regular season award last fall. And along with Ross, Henderson, senior wide receiver John Israel, junior receiver Bruce Mapp, junior offensive lineman Voghens Larrieux, senior defensive ends Calvin Hollenhorst and Roderick Holder and junior kick returner Devin Brown were named to the preseason all-conference team from Coastal Carolina.
Henderson reiterated, though, that the only thing that matters to the players is the ultimate goal – the one they’re still chasing.
“We haven’t proven anything,” Henderson said. “The only thing we’ve proven is that we can play football. We haven’t proven that we can win a championship. … We can win a conference. OK, there’s plenty of other teams that can win a conference. Who can win a national championship? Only one team. So that’s our drive.”
For his part, Coastal Carolina head coach Joe Moglia has the media day routine down pat.
Entering his fourth season with a 32-10 overall record and four FCS playoff wins over the last three years, Moglia has mostly only known success – and the expectations that follow – so while he too said it’s good for the program to receive this preseason respect year after year, it was business as usual Thursday.
“What everybody recognizes within the program – certainly me, but I think everybody recognizes this – when they pick us first in the preseason all-conference picks, it’s flattering, but it’s really based on what we did a year ago,” he said, reverting back to his oft-recited lines. “And we appreciate that, but what happened last year has nothing to do with what’s going to happen this year.”
That said, a lot of the same cast of characters will have plenty to do in trying to keep the program climbing.
Ross returns as Coastal Carolina’s all-time leader in pass completions (529), passing yards (6,909), passing efficiency (150.2), passing yards per game (197.4), total offensive yards (8,264), total touchdowns responsible for (67) and total offensive yards per game (236.1).
He spent the offseason recovering from shoulder surgery after playing through a separated shoulder for most of the Chants’ third-round playoff loss at North Dakota State last December, but he said he is fully recovered.
“It feels great. I feel like I’m 100 percent right now. I feel like my shoulder is stronger than it was last year at this point, so I’m really feeling well,” Ross said. “I’m ready to get out there and start camp and maybe make some throws this year that I didn’t last year.”
And if that is one concern or question alleviated for the Chants, well, there aren’t too many others.
Ross will have his familiar assortment of weapons back with Mapp (71 catches for 959 yards and six touchdowns last year), Israel (46-798-6) and senior Tyrell Blanks (52-646-4) again leading the receiving corps and Henderson returning to the backfield after rushing for 1,534 yards and 20 touchdowns as a sophomore.
The only uncertainty for the unit is up front where the Chants replace three veteran starting offensive linemen, but Ross expressed confidence in the players vying for those spots.
Defensively, after seeing significant improvement a year ago, Coastal Carolina must replace three-time Big South Defensive Player of the Year Quinn Backus at linebacker and top cornerback Denzel Rice, who will be competing in Philadelphia Eagles training camp next month.
But the Chants project to have a stout defensive front with four returning starters, and with senior safety Richie Sampson hopefully returning healthy after a season-ending shoulder injury, the revamped secondary will have a proven veteran leader to lean on this fall.
On special teams, meanwhile, the Chants return a standout kick returner in Brown, but they’ll be introducing new starters at kicker, punter and long snapper.
Moglia wants to see what he has in camp before he assesses all those preseason questions.
“You should ask me this question in the middle of August,” he said.
Really, though, there should be no surprises for these Chants.
The program has established itself as not only the team to beat in the Big South but as one of the top programs at the entire FCS level after finishing with a consensus No. 5 national ranking last year.
The preseason conference poll, the typical media day questions Moglia and the players answered from all different directions Thursday, those are just part of the routine now.
“We expect that to happen. We like being on the top. We like having the target on our back,” Ross said. “We feel like we thrive and play better when the target is on our back because we know that we have to come ready to play or somebody is going to take that from us. And certainly every team in this conference is capable of that – we have a lot of good teams in this conference – so we’re going to have to come play every week in order to be in a position at the end of the regular season where we want to be.”
And that, too, is no secret.
There’s not much left for these Chants to accomplish outside of an FCS national championship, and that’s a goal the players say they believe is in reach this season.
“We had it last year, we just shot ourselves in the foot,” Henderson said. “So we’ve got to go in this year, not make as [many] mistakes, with more will, more determination and we’re going to get it done.”
Big South Preseason Football Poll
*as voted by league’s coaches and media
1. Coastal Carolina
3. Charleston Southern
7. Kennesaw State