CHARLESTON, S.C. – Charleston Southern offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Gabe Giardina doesn't see a need to overcomplicate matters. CSU has thrived behind its identity of running the football and chewing clock each of the last three years and the Bucs are looking for more of the same as 2016 begins.
"We're gelling," said Giardina of a unit that returns five starters and plenty of experience from the 2015 Big South Conference championship squad. "I feel like we're kind of peaking at the right time and I'm encouraged. We've just gotta continue to do the things we've done over the last few years – play physical, play tough and make plays."
The Bucs did many of the same things last year that they did in 2013 and 2014. They ran the football, ranking 19th nationally with over 215 yards per game behind the trio of Darius Hammond, Mike Holloway and Ben Robinson. They controlled the football, ranking tenth nationally in time of possession after pacing the FCS the prior two years. They were also more explosive, scoring over 30 points eight times and hanging 40-plus twice thanks in part to an improved downfield passing game.
Graduation has impacted CSU with quarterback Austin Brown, wideouts Nathan Perera and Kevin Glears and a pair of starters on the offensive line the most notable losses. A three-headed monster at running back, however, along with a tested quarterback and many others who have been integral in the program's success, make the unit confident.
Copeland the starter
Kyle Copeland started two games in 2015 but it was in a relief role last October where he made his greatest contribution. Trailing Presbyterian 7-3 and with the offense sputtering, Copeland's number was called early in the fourth quarter. What followed was an eight-play, 75-yard game-winning touchdown drive spurred by Copeland's 40-yard quarterback keeper. It was CSU's closest call during an undefeated run through Big South play and served as further evidence of the Arp, Texas product's poise.
Improved confidence and ownership of the starting role have been evident throughout a strong fall camp to Giardina, head coach Jamey Chadwell and the rest of CSU's offensive staff.
"I think he's just been steady and more consistent than he's ever been in his whole career," Giardina said. "He's just made plays. It's been nice to see his confidence level. He's calm back there and he calms everybody else down which is a good thing. It's been impressive to see him mature. It's exciting. He's confident because we have a lot of confidence in him."
Copeland earned his first career start at Colorado as a true freshman and has played some of his best football on CSU's biggest stages. He helped spark the 2013 win over No. 3 and undefeated Coastal Carolina with a career-high 79 yards rushing and kept the Bucs in the game at Jacksonville State last December, running for 47 yards and a touchdown while completing 8-of-10 passes for 83 yards and two more scores.
Behind Copeland at quarterback are redshirt freshman Shane Bucenell and junior Robert Mitchell. Bucenell has been lauded for his attention to detail in the Bucs' somewhat intricate offense, earning the No. 2 job. Mitchell has showcased a strong throwing arm and has the potential to excel as he continues to master the offense.
Senior trio drives Bucs' ground game
Losing a back who piled up 2,200 yards in two seasons is not easy but CSU's running game did not miss a beat in 2015. Thanks to Hammond, Holloway and Robinson, the Bucs soldiered on following the graduation of Christian Reyes, the program's all-time leading rusher.
Hammond jumpstarted a breakout junior year with back-to-back 100-yard performances en route to tallying a team-high 856 yards rushing. Holloway was close behind with 731 yards and set a CSU single-season record with 12 rushing touchdowns, including five in two monster efforts against The Citadel. Robinson averaged 6.3 yards per carry on his way to 422 yards.
"Can they get better?," Giardina joked. "They're a great group and we know we can lean on them. Darius looks faster – I told him the other day 'Darius, you look quicker than you ever have' and he goes 'yeah, I worked really hard at it.' Mike is always explosive and he's a big play waiting to happen. Ben is the same way because he's made lots of big plays for us in his career."
"All those guys, I feel like, continue to improve," Giardina continued. "Probably the biggest area is just their leadership role on the team. Before, they didn't have to be quite as vocal. Now, everybody kind of looks to them to talk and set the tempo. Fortunately for them, they've played a ton of games so they have a lot of respect from their teammates."
Austell and Williamson lead up front
Jackson Williamson has started all 38 games of his college career at center. Erik Austell has started all but one of the games which he's been healthy for at tackle. The senior duo provides a strong foundation for CSU on the offensive line along with returning starter, guard, Frank Cirone.
Joe Gold, a transfer from Florida Atlantic who started six games at the FBS level as a true freshman, brings more talent to the unit. Brackin Smith, Stephen Haralambis, Gage Bostwick and Zack Evans are other young players that have kept making strides as well.
"We want to be physical and nasty up there and I think we've come along nicely," Giardina said. "You've got to get everybody on the same page so we're all covering up the right guys. You can't cut anybody loose and we're not doing that right now so that's good. Erik and Jackson and Frank have done a good job as the vets, I'm excited about the development of Joe Gold and we keep developing our younger guys."
Options at receiver
CSU will miss leading receiver Nathan Perera – team-high 39 catches, 595 yards and five touchdowns in 2015 – and reliable target Kevin Glears but Colton Korn and Kenny Dinkins are the leading returners in a group that will also rely on contributions from redshirt senior Larry Jones, III and talented underclassmen.
Korn's knack for getting open and delivering timely plays has been a staple for CSU since 2013. He posted 21 catches a year ago to up his career total to 74. Leadership is something the Bucs can also count on from Korn, the younger brother of wide receivers coach Willy Korn.
Dinkins emerged in a big way during the back half of 2015, notching 17 of his 18 catches over the season's final seven games. He made big catches in the wins over Gardner-Webb and Coastal Carolina and enjoyed a career day in the win over Liberty, finishing with six grabs for 114 yards and two touchdowns.
Jones, the runner-up for Big South Freshman of the Year honors in 2012, is a big-play threat that is returning to health after missing the final nine games of 2015 due to injury.
Saire Davis showed promise while logging game reps among an experienced cast in 2015. Copeland will have Davis and redshirt freshman Kameron Brown as big targets to throw to. Redshirt junior Jared Scotland is healthy and shined with an outstanding fall camp. Geoffrey Wall, a freshman who enrolled early and participated in spring practice, is a speedy wideout that's earned the chance to play.
"You've got steady Eddie, Colton Korn, just doing his thing being a leader of what's a really good group right now," Giardina said. "Kam Brown's had a great fall camp, Saire Davis is much improved and Jared has really, really gotten better. We feel like we have some options there and we're excited to see how it plays out."