Because I’m a hoarder — not an A&E-type hoarder, that show creeps me out — but one that keeps a few, select things, I was looking at the AJC’s college football preview section on Sunday while listening to Acoustic Sunrise on a local radio station.
Now that we are at the midpoint of the season, or as close as possible with an 11-game schedule, I thought I’d take a look back at some of the preseason assumptions and see how the team is performing in those areas.
Here’s what I wrote:
1. They get the QB situation straightened out
The Panthers have an interesting situation: The quarterbacks who are arguably Nos. 1 and 2 on the depth chart won’t play in at least the season opener because of suspensions.
Drew Little, last year’s starter, was suspended for the first four games for breaking a team rule. Coach Bill Curry may reduce that suspension. Kelton Hill, who won the starting job in the spring while Little served part of his punishment, was suspended for the first game following an offseason incident.
Bo Schlechter will be under center for the season opener. Freshman Ben McLane has impressed the coaches. Curry wants to redshirt him, but faces the distressing possibility of having to use him if Schlechter is injured before Hill or Little are back in good graces.
Here’s what’s happened: This position is still in flux. Schlechter started the first three games, didn’t play in the next one, and played sparingly in Saturday’s loss to Murray State. Little has had flashes but isn’t showing the consistency of last year. Hill has looked really good in the few snaps he has taken, but that may be why he’s looked good. The team is completing 48 percent of its passes, not good for a pro-style offense, with four touchdowns against five interceptions. Too many wide open receivers are being missed, especially when they are running wide open down the field. Short passes sail into the sidelines. Decisions could be improved.
2. They improve at stopping the run
Opponents averaged 187.4 rushing yards last season, which again would have placed the Panthers in the bottom third of FCS (formerly Division I-AA) teams.
“We had serious issues stopping the run, ” Curry said. “That’s what we have to do this year, stop the run. We have to. There’s no choice.”
The team has moved personnel around on the line to try to find better fits for the multi-faceted schemes. Christo Bilukidi, who led the team in sacks last season, has moved from inside to defensive end. Kalan Jenkins, who had 30 tackles last season, has moved from end to nose tackle. He’s undersized at 270 pounds, but said he’s going to try to make up for that by staying lower than the offensive linemen and using proper techniques and quickness. The front three should benefit from the addition of transfer A.J. Portee, a defensive end who already has worked his way into the first-team unit.
Here’s what’s happened: The team has actually gotten worse, which can be penned partly on the opponents are much better so far. The team is giving up 209.8 yards per game. Whether it’s a lack of discipline, size, speed, or the scheme, the Panthers can’t consistently stop any style of running game right now.
3. They get off to a good start, minimize mental lapses
Curry said he wants his team to defeat the teams that it’s not supposed to beat this season. Last year, the Panthers earned the expected wins and took the expected losses.
“This season we have to finish the job, ” he said.
The Panthers will get two early chances when they face Old Dominion on Sept. 10 and Jacksonville State on Sept. 17. Houston lurks on Sept. 24, but perhaps only the Panthers believe they have a chance on the road against the Cougars. The schedule doesn’t get easier with games against a solid Murray State team that is picked to finish second in the Ohio Valley Conference this season, and South Carolina State, which made the FCS playoffs last year, on tap.
To have a chance to win, Curry said his team can’t have the mental lapses that lasted as long as a quarter in its inaugural season.
“We can’t be a team that just plays hard in the fourth quarter, ” he said. “We have to be able to be a team that plays hard and well in the fourth quarter. I want us to be a fourth-quarter football team that is dominant when it counts in the fourth quarter, meaning execution as well as guts.”
Here’s what’s happened: If you need to ask, you haven’t been watching. The team hasn’t had too many chances to win games in the fourth quarters. The team has given up a minimum of 30 points cumulative in each quarter this year. They fall behind quickly (a high of 48 points allowed in the first quarter), which alters game plans on both sides of the ball.
4. They improve their running game
The Panthers averaged 123.3 yards per game last season and lost 12 fumbles. That inability to run consistently put a lot of pressure on the inexperienced offensive line and quarterbacks.
Curry said the line, which returns all five starters and has spent a lot of time in the weight room, should be more efficient this season after another year together.
“We have a year under our belt, ” Curry said. “We’ve worked together. We should have the calls down. We’ve got a chance to become a really cohesive offensive unit.”
Curry said the most important job of the running backs, and one he has stressed to first-year position coach Joe Hamilton, is no fumbles.
The team also features a group of fast, big wide receivers. If the Panthers can complete long passes, they will force safeties to stay back, opening running lanes.
“Deep ball will be part of our package, ” Curry said.
Here’s what’s happened: When they get chances to run, the Panthers look good. Donald Russell has been a revelation and Travis Evans is running very hard. However, because the team falls behind so quickly, it loses opportunities to hand off to either one of the players. Still, the Panthers are averaging 113.8 yards per game.
5. They stay disciplined
Quarterbacks haven’t been the only bad boys on the team. Numerous players have run afoul of team rules during the offseason. Some suspensions were brief. Others, like Little’s, were longer.
However, the team has had a clean preseason practice and with a tougher schedule can do without the distractions that come with players who can’t follow rules. When asked what advice he hopes Little provides to the rest of the team about his experience, Curry said, “Keep your nose clean.”
Here’s what’s happened: Again, if you need to ask, you haven’t been watching. Curry is seemingly at his wits’ end trying to figure out why his team lacks the mental toughness to avoid penalties or remember assignments.
So, what do you think about each of these areas?
Doug Roberson, AJC. Please follow me on twitter @ajcgsu