As was the case last year, this upcoming football season will no doubt be the most anticipated in program history for Coastal Carolina.
Back-to-back 12-win seasons will do that, continually vaulting expectations and further legitimizing thoughts of competing for an FCS national championship.
That’s the end goal, though, and Monday was only day one for the Chanticleers as they opened preseason practice, so senior defensive tackle Leroy Cummings made it clear where the team’s focus is at this point.
“People are going to make their opinions, but for us we just take everything step by step, game by game, practice by practice and just focus on what we have to focus on,” he said. “We really [block] out all the social media and all the comments, focus on ourselves and prepare like we [know how].”
Chants head coach Joe Moglia would be proud of that response and he too kept his thoughts measured and process-oriented as his team began its first preseason workout on the new teal turf inside Brooks Stadium.
He talked about using camp to get the newcomers and young players to understand the program’s “BAM” (Be A Man) mantra and mission statement. And he spoke of his staff’s preparation the last few weeks getting ready for this official start, and of the Chants’ overall readiness to replace a number of key cogs lost from 2014.
While Cummings and the rest of his fellow starters along the defensive line all return for the Chants, the rest of the defense is very much a work in progress.
Along with three starting spots up for grabs on the offensive line, the biggest questions for Coastal Carolina at this point are at linebacker – where three-time Big South defensive player of the year Quinn Backus and productive starter Brett Johnson must both be replaced – and throughout a secondary that loses top cornerback Denzel Rice, two starting safeties and another in senior Richie Sampson who is not yet ready to return from shoulder surgery.
But, again, that’s all part of the process, Moglia said.
“I’d like to think that every year we have some good players and you don’t want to see those players leave, but it’s a fact of life,” he said. “But we knew last year that we were going to lose our linebackers. We knew Quinn wasn’t going to be here. We knew those things. So it was our job from the very, very beginning to make sure those guys are getting prepared a year ago ... so they’re much better prepared to help us this year.”
Exactly how those spots will be filled is still to be decided.
The coaching staff has an idea of a depth chart based on the results of spring practice, but a lot can still happen between now and the first game.
Moglia said he’d like to have decisions at most of those positions by about August 20 and a finalized depth chart by Aug. 25 in advance of the team’s Sept. 5 season opener at Furman.
“While we have a reasonable idea of what might happen from spring practice, there’s a lot of time from spring practice to now. So over the span of the last two-plus months, there’s a lot of ways for guys to develop,” he said. “... So we’ll get the chance to see that over the span of the next couple weeks.”
Cummings, fellow senior defensive tackle Marcus Crowder, senior defensive ends Calvin Hollenhorst and Roderick Holder and junior reserve tackle Jabarai Bothwell all return as significant playmakers to a Chants’ defensive front that should be especially stout this year.
Senior Rayshaud Shields, who was named the Big South’s Defensive Player of the Week in his lone start in place of Backus last season, projects to fill one of those linebacker spots.
And junior Kamron Summers takes over as the leader in the secondary after making three interceptions and tying for the team lead with 10 pass break-ups last season.
As for the rest, Moglia says the Chants have a plan for that.
“I think Clayton Carlin, our defensive coordinator, and the entire defensive staff spend a lot of time in the offseason in terms of trying to streamline our defense so we can do a better job of adapting and adjusting our schemes to the skills of our players,” he said. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if we have a big step forward again this year defensively.”
Said Cummings: “We accept the challenge. That’s one thing we do at Coastal – we accept the challenge and we’re going to work hard and do the best we can to prepare.”
The Chants’ special teams unit has its own significant turnover, meanwhile, while needing to identify new starters at kicker, punter and long snapper.
On offense, though, the story is a little different.
Aside from the competition for those three open jobs on the line, the Chants will merely be looking to fine-tune a unit that returns the reigning Big South Offensive Player of the Year in senior quarterback Alex Ross (4,080 total offensive yards and 29 total touchdowns last year), star running back De’Angelo Henderson (1,534 yards and 20 touchdowns rushing in 2014) and all of its starting receivers in junior Bruce Mapp (71 catches for 959 yards and six touchdowns) and seniors John Israel (46-798-6) and Tyrell Blanks (52-646-4).
Among other playmakers.
“[The potential is to] just do better than we did last year, go the extra mile,” Mapp said. “Our goal is a national championship so this offense is going to do whatever it takes to get there.”
There’s only so much that can be said on the first day of practice.
After back-to-back seasons advancing to the third round of the FCS playoffs, the players know what the expectations are, they know the task in front of them over the next month, and in a few weeks they should know even better what this 2015 version of the Chants will look like.
“Right now we know we have a lot of talent,” Mapp said. “We know we have a lot of guys who step in on defense and have to play bigger roles this year, but one thing we do know is we have a lot of talented guys. This camp is going to be real competitive.”