CHARLESTON, S.C. – Charleston Southern kicks off its spring practice schedule Monday at 3:30 p.m. The session will be the first of 15 as CSU ramps up for the 2017 season under first-year head coach Mark Tucker.
Tucker, who took the helm in January following four seasons as quarterbacks coach, is ready to get back on the field after rounding out his staff earlier this month. He does not see a need to re-invent the wheel with an experienced – yet still relatively young – group coming off back-to-back Big South Conference championships.
"We don't have to establish anything," Tucker said. "We need to lock ourselves back into what already exists. Our guys know. They know how the daily process works, what it takes to win a championship. Obviously, our goals are to continue those ways, to vie and compete for a conference championship. That's the process that will lead to things beyond that, hopefully."
Along with the man in charge, the timing of spring ball is also different. CSU held some of the earliest spring practices in the country each of the last two years, starting shortly after National Signing Day and concluding in early March. Tucker is eager to see how the personality of this club will emerge over the next three weeks.
"The leadership, for the most part, usually identifies itself," Tucker said. "We have young men in our program that know how. It's up to them to maintain a standard and it's up to us as a coaching staff to govern it all. It's a player's game. It always has been; it always will be. Our players have bought in."
New coaches and a somewhat new look defensively
While CSU returns the bulk of its offensive staff, the Bucs will work with an entirely new defensive one. Zane Vance, a college teammate of Tucker's at ETSU, takes over as defensive coordinator/assistant head coach. He will work with defensive line coach Josh Cooper, safeties coach Mike Adams and cornerbacks coach Bryant Foster to tinker with the 3-4 base CSU has employed over the past four seasons. The Bucs will switch to a base four-man front, one that is not all that foreign to the Blue Swarm.
"Our structural base, where everything stems from, is going to change but we spent an awful lot of time in what we're going to base in now, last year," Tucker said. "Close to 50 percent of our snaps last year (were with a four-man front)."
"Relationally, we've got a lot of learning to do as a coaching staff," continued Tucker of the new faces leading the defense. "Learning young men and then our young men that have been here and been very successful, they have to develop relationships with new people who are their teachers and mentors. We'll nurture that and pace ourselves through that."
CSU has the luxury of going through that process with a stout front seven. Defensive end Anthony Ellis, the 2016 Big South Defensive Player of the Year, and linebacker Solomon Brown lead a unit that has been one of the FCS's best. The Bucs finished seventh nationally in total defense last year, and capped the campaign with dominant efforts against Liberty, Kennesaw State and Wofford. Zane Cruz and Bobby Ruff, along with a host of defensive linemen, give Vance and company an excellent nucleus to tutor.
One of the more interesting positions to watch during the spring should be the secondary. CSU graduated, effectively, three four-year starters in cornerback Troy McGowens – a two-time All-Big South pick – and safeties DJ Curl and Corbin Jackson. Corner Shadarius Hopkins is the Bucs' lone returning starter in the back end, meaning younger players should have plenty of opportunities to compete for spots on the two-deep.
Plenty of production to replace at running back
Five thousand, six hundred and ten, and 53. That number represents the total yards and touchdowns CSU graduated at running back off last year's club. The most compelling aspect of spring offensively figures to be who will step up with Mike Holloway, the program's all-time leading rusher, Darius Hammond and Ben Robinson gone.
Ronnie Harris and Chanin Hamilton got their feet wet as redshirt players in 2015, and gained game experience in 2016. Freshmen Terrance Wilson and Elijah Henry, both of whom are already enrolled, are also primed to have a chance to make an impact.
"Guys that have been here since we've been here, very special players to us, very special players in terms of just productivity (have graduated), so obviously we're anxious to see young guys who we recruited get an opportunity to compete and play and mature and take on the attitude of 'all right, it's our time,'" Tucker said.
Bucenell the starter; Johnson and Mitchell growing in offense
In 2016, CSU overcame injuries at quarterback to enjoy great success for the fourth consecutive year. Starter Kyle Copeland was lost to a season-ending injury in game two, and redshirt freshman Shane Bucenell stepped up in a big way. Bucenell, a former walk-on, went 6-2 as the starter and led the Big South with 15 touchdown passes to pilot CSU to a second straight playoff berth.
London Johnson and Robert Mitchell also gained valuable game repetitions as they look to match their athletic ability with mastery of the Bucs' spread option system.
"You have to establish Shane as the starter," Tucker said. "He's earned that right. It's up to our other guys to compete. I'm excited about London from a standpoint of his growth and maturity. He needed to and he knows he needed to and he has. Robert's skill level is ridiculously high. Mentally, he needs to fine tune everything. Jack Chambers (grayshirted in 2016), we're excited about, in regards to an incredibly hard working young man that has some ability."
2017 CSU Football Spring Practice Schedule
*Most practices will be held from 3:30-5:45, unless otherwise noted. Practices are open to the media and general public.
March 20 – Practice #1 – Helmets Only
March 22 – Practice #2 – Helmets Only
March 24 – Practice #3 – Shells
March 25 – Practice #4 – Full Pads – 10 a.m.
March 27 – Practice #5 – Full Pads
March 29 – Practice #6 – Scrimmage
March 31 – Practice #7 – Shells
April 1 – Practice #8 – Full Pads – 10 a.m.
April 3 – Practice #9 – Full Pads
April 5 – Practice #10 – Scrimmage
April 7 – Practice #11 – Shells
April 8 – Practice #12 – Shells – 10 a.m.
April 10 – Practice #13 – Shells
April 11 – Practice #14 – Shells
April 13 – Practice #15 - Helmets Only