Weekend Preview: Buccaneers hit the road to Gainesville to open 2018 season

Weekend Preview: Buccaneers hit the road to Gainesville to open 2018 season

CHARLESTON, S.C. - Another football season has arrived as the Charleston Southern football team travels to Gainesville, Fla. for a Saturday night showdown in primetime against the Florida Gators. The Bucs and Gators kickoff the 2018 season at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at 7:30 p.m. on the SEC Network.

The Charleston Southern Sports Network will also carry the game live via Stretch Internet with "Voice of the Bucs" Kevin O'Rourke on the call for CSU. The link to listen is available HERE.

All game day information available on the Game Day Central Page.

CSU Notes | UF Notes | Big South Notes

The season opener between the Bucs and Gators marks the second time the two teams have met in the first game of the season. The first came back in the 2009 season against the Tim Tebow-led Gators. It marks the third time the Bucs have lined up against an SEC team to open the season and fifth time opening against an FBS opponent.

Saturday's game marks the second time in as many seasons CSU Head Coach Mark Tucker and UF Head Coach Dan Mullen face off against each other to open the year. The Bucs traveled to Mississippi State to open 2017 last season in Starkville in Mullen's final season with the Bulldogs. MSU won the contest, 49-0.

Charleston Southern is still seeking its first win against a full FBS opponent, having beaten both Appalachian State (2013) and Coastal Carolina (2016) during their transitional years from FCS to FBS. The Bucs are 0-19 all-time against FBS opponents since CSU first lined up against South Florida back in the 2002 season.

CSU enters the season with a 0-20 record all-time against FBS opponents. Included in that is a 0-6 record against current Southeastern Conference members.

Year – Opponent, Score
2002 – USF, L, 56-6
2003 – USF, L, 55-7
2007 – Hawaii, L, 66-10
2008 – Miami, L, 52-7
2008 - Miami (Ohio), L, 38-27
2009 – Florida, L, 62-3
2010 – Hawaii, L, 66-7
2010 – Kentucky, L, 49-21
2011 - Florida State, L, 62-10
2011 – UCF, L, 62-0
2012 – Illinois, L, 44-0
2013 – Colorado, L, 43-10
2014 – Vanderbilt, L, 21-20
2014 – Georgia, L, 55-9
2015 – Troy, L, 44-16
2015 – Alabama, L, 56-6
2016 - Florida State, L, 52-8
2017 - Mississippi State, L, 49-0
2017 – Indiana, L, 27-0

Saturday's contest marks the beginning of the Dan Mullen era at the University of Florida as the head coach took over the reigns of the program this past December. Mullen has previous experience against the Bucs having led Mississippi State last season to a 49-0 win over the Bucs in both teams' respective 2017 season openers.

The Gators struggled last season finishing outside the top 100 in FBS in total offense, passing offense, and scoring offense. Part of the appeal of Mullen's hire came from his ability to take Mississippi State's offense to new heights and leading the Bulldogs to sit in the top 50 in the category over the last eight seasons.

The Bucs face a tall task against the Gators in the 2018 season opener. Florida has won 28 consecutive home openers - the longest active streak in the country. UF's last loss in their home opener came in 1989 against Ole Miss.

Florida returns 20 starters (10 offense, nine defense, and one specialist) from last year's team which is tied for the third-most returning starters among FBS ranks.

CSU and Florida last faced off in the 1999 season opener. The Gators topped the Bucs in front of 90,621, 62-3, in the win.

Returning redshirt sophomore Feleipe Franks is expected to reprise his role as the starting quarterback heading into the season. He started eight games at quarterback last season and recorded the longest rush from scrimmage by a UF quarterback in program history against Texas A&M (79 yards).

Lamical Perine (562 yards) and Malik Davis (526 yards) provide a sophomore 1-2 punch at the running back position for the Gators returning this season.

An All-SEC linebacker returning to lead the defense, David Reese built on a Freshman All-America campaign to pace the Gators in tackles last season.

Kameron Brown is bolstered by a veteran receiving group this season with seniors Kenny Dinkins and Saire Davis both returning to reprise their roles in CSU's passing game in 2018. Dinkins led the Bucs with four touchdown receptions and averaged 21.2 yards per catch on the year, while Saire Davis had a pair of touchdowns and averaged 19.2 yards per reception through the air. Added depth for the receiving corps includes the return of Geoffrey Wall and Taz Lindsey in the slot positions with the duo expected to take the pressure off the CSU quarterbacks through the early season.

Charleston Southern has been among the nation's best at holding onto the ball thanks to its offensive line play up front. The Bucs have been in the top 50 in time of possession in each of the last five seasons including leading the nation in 2014 with 34:05 per game. The play in the trenches has been an anchor for the team to rely upon with All-Americans Erik Austell and Frank Cirone leading the way.

CSU's resurgence over the last five seasons has been highlighted by superlative offensive line play that has seen multiple players receive postseason accolades and All-American mentions. Erik Austell (Class of 2016) was a priority free agent signing by the Denver Broncos in 2017, while Frank Cirone was an All-American selection at guard as a part of a deep unit. The team also graduated the player who finished his career with the most starts in CSU history in center Jackson Williamson. Returners Brackin Smith (above), Joe Gold, Stephen Haralambis, and company have a chance to build on the legacy and will look to keep the offensive unit humming in 2018 as the Bucs look for their next All-American offensive lineman.

A conversation with friend and Clemson star receiver Hunter Renfrow helped London Johnson's maturation process entering 2018 as CSU's undisputed starting quarterback. Tucker has lauded Johnson's maturity throughout fall camp. Pairing a level head with some of the best athletic ability CSU has had at QB gives Johnson a chance to be one of the Big South's premier playmakers. Johnson's speed and elusiveness make him an ideal quarterback for CSU's spread option offense. Johnson was the Bucs' third-leading rusher last season, tallying 366 yards on 4.6 yards per carry.

CSU entered 2017 looking to replace the production of three of the program's top-six all-time leading rushers. The Bucs averaged 193 rushing yards per game to finish 26th in that department nationally but lacked the type of consistent production Mike Holloway, Darius Hammond, and Ben Robinson provided the two years prior. Noah Shuler, who finished his eligibility and will serve as a student assistant coach this year, led the team with 583 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Ronnie Harris, Terrence Wilson, Chanin Hamilton, and Adam Allen also gained experience that running backs coach Malcolm Dixon believes will pay dividends this fall.

Terrence Wilson averaged a team-best six yards per carry last season. He opened eyes and earned Big South Freshman of the Week honors with a 106-yard performance, on just two carries, in CSU's blowout of Mississippi Valley State. Wilson took both of his touches into the end zone with long scoring runs of 62 and 44 yards. The Batesburg-Leesville High School product came to CSU as the South Carolina 2-A Player of the Year.

Nine of the ten offensive linemen on CSU's preseason two-deep are in their fourth or fifth seasons in the program. The lone exception is backup left guard JT Melton, a redshirt freshman who headlines a promising group of underclassmen. Offensive line coach Matt White likes the makeup of his group, especially the return of senior interior lineman Joe Gold. Gold is a versatile interior lineman who returns after missing all of 2017 due to an injury suffered during the final week of fall camp. Gold, who started eight games for the Bucs' 2016 Big South championship team, has experience at center and guard. He transferred to CSU in 2015 after starting six games as a true freshman at Florida Atlantic in 2014.

Qua-Von Scott and Travay Hatten are in their fourth season in the program and have earned a majority of the snaps at tight end the last two seasons. Scott took on an increased role last season, catching five passes, including a touchdown in the win over Savannah State. Hatten had key touchdown receptions in 2016 wins over Coastal Carolina and Liberty and continued to earn plenty of playing time last season.

In Kameron Brown, Saire Davis, and Kenny Dinkins, CSU has three wideouts that look the part of Division I athletes. The trio's length and strength come in handy, as their perimeter blocking is key to springing CSU's option-based running game. CSU ranked ninth nationally in yards per completion last season, and third in 2016. The Bucs want to combine a physical, ball-control running game with a passing attack that can make opponents pay for keying too heavily on the run. Kameron Brown has been at the forefront of the latter, with 19 of his 47 career catches going for 20 yards or more. Robbins has challenged Brown to pair his significant athletic gifts with mastery of receiving ins and outs.

When the pressure is on, Brown has brought his game up to the next level. The Central, S.C. native dominated in CSU's first postseason game against The Citadel in 2015 with a team-high 15 tackles, including a sack and tackle for loss. He followed up the next season with nine tackles, a sack, and three tackles for loss against Florida State in the Bucs' FBS game in 2016. Brown is one the Bucs turn to in pressure situations and will be counted on in the season opener against the Gators.

Cousin to CSU great and current National Arena League star Anthony Ellis, Johnny Robinson has some big shoes to step into heading into the 2018 season. Robinson, a 6-1 senior interior defensive lineman burst onto the scene last season with new career highs in sacks and tackles for loss on his way to receiving his first postseason All-Conference recognition. The only way it seemed like opponents could stop Robinson last season was to literally tear the jersey off the Apopka, Fla. native's back. Robinson wore No. 18, 98, 94, and 90 at various times last season, but regardless of the number, his production remained the same as he posted two of the top six individual tackle for loss games last season for the Bucs.

Robinson got off to a slow start last season with 4.5 tackles for loss through the first seven games of the year as defenses keyed on the play by Solomon Brown and Anthony Ellis. However, the final month is where the Apopka, Fla. native was at his best. Robinson posted 7.5 tackles for loss for a combined 28 yards over the final four games of the year, second only to Ellis in the Big South Conference over the stretch. In fact, Robinson was dominant overall in conference competition sitting in the top three in sacks and tackles for loss, as well as top 10 in tackles by a defensive lineman in conference play.

Solomon Brown and Johnny Robinson return for their senior seasons at the front of the Buccaneers defense and the two are considered to be among the top players at their respective positions in FCS. Recently, Brown was recognized as the top player in FCS to wear No. 34 and boasts an impressive resume to date. The Central, S.C. native is a three-time First Team All-Conference selection at linebacker and defensive end and is coming off a season where he finished second in the conference in tackles among linemen, as well as finishing in the top 10 in sacks and tackles for loss. Robinson burst onto the scene this past year in a big way as the rising senior defensive tackle set career-highs in sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (12.0). He was at his best in the biggest games with a career-high eight tackles and three tackles for loss against Monmouth, as well as five tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks in the win over Gardner-Webb. The two will be counted on to carry the load up front for the Bucs as CSU looks to replace a majority of known players on the defensive side.

One thing that will not change about the Charleston Southern defensive line – the Bucs will get after the quarterback and disrupt the line of scrimmage. Charleston Southern finished 10th overall in the FCS in team sacks with 3.09 per game, and 17th in FCS in team tackles per loss with 7.5 per game. Three different players were ranked among the top 10 in the conference in both individual categories, and Ellis and Robinson were both in the top 50 individually in tackles for loss per game. It continues a trend started in 2016 when the Bucs were in the top 25 in each of the team categories. Throughout spring practice, defensive line coach Josh Cooper had the group primed and ready as the team dominated the line of scrimmage in both spring scrimmage sessions. Facing run-heavy offenses in Kennesaw State and The Citadel this season, the Bucs are expected to hold their own on the line in 2018.

J.D. Sosebee returns for his redshirt junior year with the linebacker corps and is the lone holdover from the starting lineup in the 2018 season. The Gainesville, Ga. native burst onto the scene in his sophomore year on his way to finishing fifth in the Big South with a team-high 81 tackles, as well as eighth in the Big South with 8.0 tackles for loss. Among his highlights this past season includes three games with 10 or more tackles, as well as a 60-yard scoop and score on a fumble against Point. Sosebee returns as a veteran presence on the field for the Bucs and will be counted on by Coach Vance to build off a season that saw the 6-1 athlete earn Second Team All-Conference recognition in 2017.

A strong presence up the middle has made the vaunted Blue Swarm defense one of FCS' best over the last five seasons. The Bucs will be looking for someone to step up and lead the change again this season with the loss of All-Conference performer Zane Cruz. Edward King will be given the first chance to take over the role after coming back from a season-ending injury early in the 2017 fall campaign. The redshirt sophomore has impressed with his speed and play-making ability in the middle of the field and shined in his action last season with eight tackles and a half tackle for loss in the season opener at Mississippi State. He looks to make strides this year and lead the point of attack for the Bucs in Vance's system.

One thing that cannot be said enough about Brandon Rowland is his ability to make plays all over the field. The redshirt senior safety made the most of his playing time last season finishing third on the team and 11th in the Big South with 64 tackles. Rowland rose to the occasion against the top opponents last season. The Irmo, S.C. native opened the season with eight tackles against Mississippi State. He followed up with five tackles, a tackle for loss, and a forced fumble against Indiana. In his final performance of the season, Rowland posted six tackles and blocked an extra point in CSU's 20-19 win over Liberty in the series finale. Returning for his fifth and final season with the Bucs, Rowland's speed and big-play ability will be a key asset to CSU's defensive efforts in 2018.

Rowland welcomes a veteran counterpart to the defensive backline this season as Shadarius Hopkins makes the transition to safety after three seasons of standout cornerback play with the Bucs. The Winnsboro, S.C. native has made his name in passing situations after sitting among the Big South and national leaders in each of the last two seasons in passes defended. He also started all 11 games last season and finished second in the lead with 14 pass breakups. He also shined in big games with a career-high 11 tackles against Mississippi State, while posting seven stops and a forced fumble at Indiana. He posted arguably the best game of his career in the season finale against Liberty with an interception, five pass breakups, and three tackles against the Flames. Hopkins has impressed the coaching staff with his approach to the game and looks to make a similar impact from the safety position this season.

Tekac was one of four Buccaneers' specialists to be recognized on the preseason All-Conference team as the rising senior leads the group heading into the 2018 season. Noted among the Buccaneers' returners include First Team All-Conference punter Kyle Reighard, as well as long snapper Ethan Ray and return specialist Taz Lindsey.

Bucs' Preseason All-Conference Selections
Kyle Reighard, Punter
Taz Lindsey, Punt Returner

Honorable Mention
Tyler Tekac, Placekicker
Ethan Ray, Long Snapper

Tyler Tekac joins a legacy of successful Charleston Southern kickers as the rising senior enters his final season of competition with the Bucs. The Goose Creek, S.C. native currently ranks fourth all-time in career field goals made and could become the fourth kicker in program history to reach 20 career made field goals this season. Tekac also could make his mark in career extra points made as he currently ranks second all-time in the category trailing only Nick Ellis (2003-07) in the mark. Tekac set the CSU extra points mark last season connecting on 43 consecutive PATs prior to a miss against Mississippi Valley State last September.

All Kyle Reighard does is boom the ball down the field. The rising redshirt junior lit a spark under the Buccaneers' special teams efforts last season as the Salem, Va. native led the Big South Conference by a wide margin of 1.4 yards per attempt. A welcome element to CSU's punting game, Reighard paced the conference in punts over 50 yards (11) and inside the 20 (20) last season. The Salem, Va. native helmed a unit that finished sixth in the Big South in net punting (39.1) in 2017 and will once again be counted on to pace CSU in the field position battles this year.

With the loss of David Kennedy to graduation, a key battle blossoming in fall camp is the role of kickoff specialist. Rising redshirt freshmen Alex Usry has the early lead and will be battling with Miller Braddock, Tekac and Reighard in helping the Buccaneers win the field position battle in the 2018 season. Reighard is the in-house favorite to handle the primary holding responsibilities held by Kennedy last season.

One position not in question is long snapper as All-Conference and All-American candidate Ethan Ray returns to reprise his role this season. The redshirt sophomore was accurate all 2017 and his snap in the final second of regulation against Gardner-Webb directly led to the Bucs' game-winning kick over the Runnin' Bulldogs.

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