In the second part of the Samford preview, I will taking a look at the defense, special teams and 2019 schedule
In the state of Alabama, football has always been associated with hard hits on the defensive side of the football, which has been true at both Alabama and Auburn over the years. That blue-collar, gritty mentality carries over to other programs in the state, with Bill D’Ottavio’s unit being no exception to the rule.
Samford’s defense comes into the 2019 season with six starters returning to a unit that finished the season ranking 48th in scoring defense (26.4 PPG) and tied for 52nd in total defense (375.0 YPG). Samford will utilize a 4–3/multiple defensive scheme.
Among the five starters that have moved on include all-conference linebacker Aaron Harris and 2017 SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Ahmad Gooden.
Harris led the Bulldogs with 94 tackles last season. Gooden spent most of his time in opponents’ backfield, racking up 15.0 tackles-for-loss and 5.5 sacks. His presence on the defensive line alone could disrupt an opposing offense.
Look no further than a key mid-season clash at Furman last fall, where the Bulldogs captured a 38–25 win over the Paladins. Gooden’s game-changing play came with Furman threatening to take control of the game.
Following an interception and 18-yard return by Furman’s Aaquil Annoor to get the ball to the Samford 37, it appeared the Paladins were ready to take control of the game already leading 19–10.
However, the game would turn on the second play of the possession of the second half for Furman, as Paladin signal-caller Darren Grainger was hit from behind on an option play and fumbled, and the ball was picked up by the Samford All-American Gooden and returned 58 yards for a score, making it a 19 — 17 game.
It would be the start of 28 unanswered points scored by the Bulldogs. The play by Gooden completely changed the direction of the game. It was part of a monster game for Gooden, who finished with nine tackles, four tackles-for-loss, two sacks, a fumble return for a touchdown and a pass breakup.
Gooden’s performance in Paladin Stadium against Furman was reminiscent of former Appalachian State standout defensive end K.T. Stovall against Furman in Paladin Stadium back in 2003.
That kind of game-changing threat will certainly be hard to replace, however the Bulldogs should again field one of the league’s top defensive lines.
Aside from Gooden, the other starter that must be replaced as a result of graduation is big nose tackle Horace Roberts. Returning to the fold for the Bulldog defensive front this fall will be both Jalen Nash and Justin Foster. Both should contend for all-league plaudits this fall, as Nash will line up at defensive end, while Foster will line up at defensive tackle once again.
Last season, Nash posted 23 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, and 1.5 sacks. With Gooden now on an NFL roster as a free agent with the Denver Broncos, Nash will now be charged with being the Bulldogs’ primary pass-rusher heading into the season.
Foster will occupy one of the interior positions on the defensive line, and he is coming off a solid 2018 season, which saw him post 28 tackles, four tackles-for-loss and a pair of sacks last fall.
The best of the bunch returning up front for Samford this fall might be sophomore defensive end Nelson Jordan (34 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks, 1 PBU, 5 QBHs), who was a SoCon All-Freshman selection last fall. Expect Jordan to fit nicely in his new starting role.
Also expected to contribute and compete for some significant playing time along the defensive front this fall are a pair of talented juniors, in Brett Granger and Armond Lloyd.
Lloyd, a 6–3, 302-lb native of Birmingham, spent most of his time backing up Foster at defensive tackle last fall. He finished the season with 17 tackles, a tackle-for-loss and a pass breakup.
Granger, a 6–4, 240-lb junior from Helena, AL, was a 2017 SoCon All-Freshman Team pick. He spent the 2018 campaign backing up Gooden at the ‘stud’ defensive end position. He finished the 2018 season with 12 tackles, two tackles-for-loss and a fumble recovery in eight games.
And if you’re looking for stars in the making and a potential freshman to watch should he not redshirt the entire season, keep an eye on defensive lineman Nick Jackson, who was one of the highest-rated defensive lineman recruits coming into the Southern Conference. The Orlando, FL, native posted 88 tackles, 22 tackles-for-loss and 14 sacks as a senior at Winter Park High School.
The Bulldogs graduated two of three starting linebackers, with the lone returning starter for the 2019 season being Tre’Shun Floyd. The 5–11, 215-lb, junior from Auburn, AL, finished the 2018 campaign as the Bulldogs’ third leading tackler, and is the leading returning tackler for the 2019 season.
Floyd finished the 2018 campaign with 47 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks, forced two fumbles, recovered a fumble and broke up a pass. Floyd brings experience and athleticism to the Samford defense, and returns to once again start at weakside linebacker.
Stepping in to fill the other two positions at linebacker are projected to be junior Jaleel Laguins in the middle, while sophomore Nathan East appears to be ready to step in at strong-side linebacker.
Laguins transferred in from the University of Georgia just prior to the start of the 2018 season, and he finished off his first season in the Magic City by posting 25 tackles and a tackle for loss. Laguins, a former four-star recruit out of Oconee High School in Watkinsville, GA, spent most of his first season in the Crimson and Navy backing up all-conference middle linebacker Aaron Harris.
East, a 6–2, 221-lb, sophomore from McCalla, AL, garnered SoCon All-Freshman Team honors last fall, and completed the campaign with 34 tackles, a pass breakup and two tackles behind the line of scrimmage serving as a reserve behind Christian Stark at strong-side linebacker.
The secondary is the strongest component of the Samford defense entering the 2019. With a tradition that has produced such NFL talents as Jaquiski Tartt, Courtland Finnegan, Corey White and James Bradbury, it isn’t a huge surprise.
The leader of the unit this fall will be senior free safety Nick Barton. Barton highlights a Bulldog secondary that returns three of four starters from a year ago.
Barton leads the way coming off a 2018 season which saw him post nine tackles and a pair of interceptions. The Brentwood, TN, native posted nine tackles, two pass breakups and two interceptions last season. He’ll be the starter at free safety once again this fall, and could contend for All-SoCon accolades.
Set to team with Barton at safety for the Bulldogs this fall will be William Bryant returning to the strong safety spot. Bryant is coming off a solid 2018 season, which saw him finish the season with 35 tackles and and six pass breakups.
Look for junior Koi Freeman to also see his fair share of time as a part of the Samford defense in the secondary this fall as well. Freeman was a SoCon All-Freshman team selection a couple of years ago, following a freshman season, which saw him intercept three passes.
Rounding out the starters in the Samford secondary this fall will be cornerbacks Joshua Carter and Coutrell Plair. Plair replaces the lone loss for the Bulldogs in the secondary, as he will fill the vacancy left by Jamond Glass.
Carter, a junior from Birmingham, comes off a 2018 campaign, which saw him total 19 tackles, three pass breakups and forced a fumble. Plair, a junior from Brentwood, TN, posted six tackles, four pass breakups and forced a fumble last fall.
The Samford defense will miss the presence of Gooden and Harris this fall, however, there is a nucleus of talent returning that should make the unit solid.
The Special Teams:
Since joining the Southern Conference in 2008, three positions have been consistently good over the past decade: Quarterback, wide receiver and special teams.
The 2019 season should the Samford special teams unit is once again be in excellent shape. The Bulldogs return one of the top place-kickers in the Southern Conference, if not all FCS football, in sophomore Mitchell Fineran.
A sophomore native of Fort Valley, GA, and Peach County High School — the same high school that produced former Furman Paladin running back and Walter Payton Award winner Louis Ivory — Fineran had a memorable rookie season honors for the Bulldogs, garnering SoCon All-Freshman team honors.
Fineran was 13-for-17 on field goals last fall, and converted all 50 of his PATs. Fineran was a pre-season First-Team All-SoCon selection as a place-kicker last month at the Southern Conference’s annual media day in Spartanburg. Fineran led the SoCon in kick-scoring last fall, averaging 8.1 PPG.
Fineran will also handle the kickoff duties for the Bulldogs this fall. He averaged 57.1 yards-per-kickoff on 69 attempts last fall, with 13 touchbacks.
Back to handle the punting responsibilities this fall will be sophomore Brad Porcellato. The native of Melbourne, Australia, finished his rookie season for the Bulldogs, averaging 36.4 yards-per-punt, with six punts landing inside the 20 and 15 being fair-caught.
The Bulldogs will have a new long-snapper, with the graduation of Tyler Queen, with Lewis Freeman expected to win the job in that role this fall. Freeman did see his first action as a Bulldog in three games last season. Back to handle the holding duties is junior backup signal-caller Cooper Cross.
The Bulldogs will need to find a new punt return threat this fall, with the graduation of McKnight. Moise Satine, who averaged 20.5 yards-per-return, will be the primary kick return threat this fall.
The Bulldogs will be one of the first teams to play a football game in 2019, as Samford kicks off its season as a part of the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff Classic in Montgomery, AL, against Missouri Valley Football Conference foe Youngstown State.
The Bulldogs and Penguins will be meeting for the fifth time in program history, with Youngstown State having won all four previous meetings between the two programs, with the most recent of which being a 38–24 loss to the Penguins in the opening round of the 2016 FCS playoffs at Stambaugh Stadium in Youngstown, OH.
The 2019 season opener will mark the first time the game has not been played at Youngstown State. The very first meeting between the Bulldogs and Penguins, which took place way back in 1991, was also in the FCS playoffs, with the Bulldogs losing a 10–0 contest to Youngstown in the semifinals of the FCS playoffs. The Penguins went on to win one of their four national titles that particular campaign.
For Samford, this game is monumental. Starting off the season with a non-conference win over Youngstown State would not only help a young team build confidence going forward the remainder of the season, in would also help the Southern Conference as whole against a conference that is arguably the best in FCS football, in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
The Penguins were picked to finish seventh in the 10-team MVFC at its annual media day back in July, and are coming off a 4–7 finish last fall. Bo Pelini heads into his sixth season as the head coach at Youngstown State.
After being much maligned for having non-Division I Shorter on the schedule last season, along with Florida State and Top 10 FCS foe Kennesaw State last season, the Bulldogs will have an all Division I, 12-game slate this fall.
The Bulldogs will be on the road at Tennessee Tech on Aug. 31. The Golden Eagles have been one of the worst programs in FCS football over the past few seasons. Samford and Tennessee Tech used to be old conference rivals as members of the Ohio Valley Conference. The two haven’t met since that time, with Samford holding a narrow 12–10 series edge. The Bulldogs won a wild 59–52 decision over the Golden Eagles the last time they met in 2007.
The final FCS foe on the Bulldogs’ non-conference slate is Alabama A&M on Sept. 21 at Seibert Stadium in Birmingham. The Southwest Athletic Conference foe could prove to be a tricky opponent, as the other Bulldogs in the state are also coming off a 6–5 campaign and have high expectations in 2019.
Auburn rounds out the non-conference foes for the Bulldogs in 2019, with Samford closing its regular-season with a Nov. 23 battle against SEC West member Auburn. The Bulldogs and Tigers will be meeting for the 29th time in series history, with the Auburn holding a 27–1 series edge.
The Southern Conference slate will be tough as usual. The Bulldogs will play road games at Wofford (Sept. 14) at VMI (October 12), at Mercer (Nov. 2) and at Western Carolina (Nov. 16). The Bulldogs will host three of the top five teams projected to finish ahead of them this fall, with home dates vs. The Citadel (Sept. 28), Furman (Oct. 5), East Tennessee State (Oct. 26) and Chattanooga (Nov. 9).
The good news for Samford fans is they own winning streaks over both of the two top projected finishers in the Southern Conference, in Wofford and Furman. The Bulldogs have won four-straight over the Terriers, and have posted three-straight wins over the Paladins. The Sept. 14 game at Wofford could be the most crucial conference game for the Bulldogs.
There is a real potential for both teams meeting in that contest unbeaten. In fact, Wofford has an off-date before facing the Bulldogs in its SoCon and home opener at Gibbs Stadium, showing the emphasis put on this game.
I really think for Samford to exceed expectations in 2019, it needs to go 3–1 in its non-conference games. The Bulldogs need to start off with momentum-building wins over Youngstown State and Tennessee Tech heading into conference play.
Time will tell, but I expect only a slight drop-off this season as in years past, however, it won’t shock me if Samford exceeds my lowered expectations for them this season than in the past and posts a ninth-consecutive winning season. Samford is a program that will be young this fall, but has a really bright future ahead of it, starting with the 2020 season. I expect the Bulldogs back to competing for SoCon titles in 2020.