In the FCS Huddle: Big South spring football primer

Philadelphia, PA ( - Every Big South Conference team began November with at least a .500 record last season - an amazing fact - and before the month was over, its co-champions, Coastal Carolina and Liberty, had spots in the FCS playoffs.

The big season only built on the conference's breakout success in 2013 - its 23 non-conference wins were a Big South record a year ago - so the question this year is, can it go higher?

Kennesaw State comes aboard as a first-year program and brings the Big South back to its all-time high of seven teams. The Owls didn't pick an easy year for entering the conference because Coastal Carolina, Liberty and Charleston Southern are all Top 25 material. The conference is full of excellent coaches, too.

Here's a look across the Big South with spring practices getting underway around the nation:


Presbyterian was part of the Big South's success last season with wins over Furman and Western Carolina from the Southern Conference. Now coach Harold Nicholls' program will try to build on its first winning season (6-5) on the FCS level.

Coastal Carolina has enjoyed back-to-back 12-win seasons and national quarterfinal appearances under coach Joe Moglia. The Chanticleers' offense will continue to sizzle with the return of quarterback Alex Ross, running back De'Angelo Henderson and top receivers Bruce Mapp, John Israel and Tyrell Blanks.

After posting 10-3 and 8-4 records in coach Jamey Chadwell's first two seasons, the next step for Charleston Southern is either a Big South title or an FCS playoff appearance, if not both.

Gardner-Webb suffered few losses among its starters, but they are significant - quarterback Lucas Beatty, leading rusher Juanne Blount and All-American wide receiver Kenny Cook.

Another share of the Big South title was not new to Liberty last season, but it secured the first FCS playoff bid - and then win - in program history. Despite the loss of seven starters on defense, coach Turner Gill has the talent to build on the 2014 accomplishments. Josh Woodrum will be in his fourth year as the starting quarterback.

Getting linemen bulked up is usually one of the toughest jobs within a start- up program. It's a job Kennesaw State coach Brian Bohannon continues to address in leading up to the Owls' inaugural season. They open at East Tennessee State, a program that is returning to football for the first time since 2003.

Kennesaw State figures to run into what Monmouth did last season when the Hawks had a 1-4 conference record in their first season in the Big South. But Monmouth was fairly competitive and still had a winning season with a 5-1 non- conference mark. This season, the Hawks will face an FBS program (Central Michigan) for the first time.


Wide receivers Larry Jones III and Kevin Glears will return to Charleston Southern's lineup after missing last season with ACL injuries.

Although their work in spring practices is limited, Gardner-Webb gladly welcomes the return of linebackers Tanner Burch and Chad Geter from injuries. They rejoin junior Aaron Cook in a dynamite trio.

When you last saw Liberty defensive tackle Chima Uzowihe, it might have been when he stuck up his big hand to block a regular season-ending field goal attempt by Coastal Carolina and gave the Flames a share of the Big South title and sent them to the playoffs for the first time. As a junior, he wound up leading the conference in tackles for loss (14) and finishing second in sacks (eight).

Presbyterian has one of the better 1-2 punches on defense with All-Big South linebacker Donelle Williams and safety Ed Britt.


Charleston Southern must replace its all-time leading rusher, Christian Reyes, but there are talented candidates in juniors Mike Holloway, Ben Robinson and Darius Hammond as well as speedy transfer Alan Barnwell.

It's not like Liberty is hurting to find a running back. Desmond Rice, who sat out last season with an ACL tear after rushing for 967 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013, is hoping to gain some carries back from D.J. Abnar, who racked up 1,289 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground last season.

Chandler Burks, the first signee in Kennesaw State history, is coming off an ACL tear, which further opens up the starting quarterback's job among him and Jacquez Parks and Jake McKenzie.

Quarterback also is up for grabs at Monmouth as the Hawks replace two-year starter Brandon Hill. Sophomore Cody Williams is probably a slight favorite for the top job over Rutgers transfer Devin Ray and Ben Onett, who is returning from Achilles surgery.


South Carolina transfer Gerald Turner, a defensive end/outside linebacker, was a big get for Charleston Southern considering its Big South-leading defense was hit hard by senior losses.

Coastal Carolina linebacker Rayshaud Shields registered 32 tackles as a backup a year ago, but in the one game he started in place of an injured Quinn Backus, the three-time Big South defensive player of the year, he earned conference player of the week honors.

As Gardner-Webb tries to rebound to its 2013 level of play, quarterback Tyrell Maxwell is a potential difference maker. He has good size (6-foot-2, 201 pounds) and a strong arm and is an elusive runner. But he was only 11-for-33 with four interceptions as a true freshman last season.

Monmouth hopes to have its secondary break out after the Hawks finished last in the conference in passing yardage allowed per game (223.5). Veteran coach Kevin Callahan started two true freshmen, a sophomore and a junior, so there should be growth.

Liberty's Nick Newman made the move from safety to linebacker last season, but the Flames had three senior leaders at the position. Newman still managed 79 tackles, three fumble recoveries and three pass breakups. This season, he will be called on for leadership of a reworked defense.


Liberty is seeking improvement in the return game, but no team has a kicking weapon quite like Liberty All-American John Lunsford. He had the three longest field goals in the FCS last season (60, 57 and 56 yards).

Gardner-Webb surrendered, ahem, 55 sacks, more than twice as many as the second-worst team in the Big South and second-worst in the FCS.

Presbyterian's breakout season had a lot to do with its defense because the Blue Hose ranked last in the Big South in scoring offense (15.9 points per game).

Coastal Carolina moved the chains with 47.9 percent efficiency (91-for-190) on third down conversions and a national-high 80 percent success rate (12-for-15) on fourth downs.

Monmouth's average home attendance of 1,832 (five dates) was dwarfed by the rest of its new conference, especially Liberty (17,016 average was fifth-best in the FCS).


With 2014 records in parentheses

Charleston Southern (8-4, 3-2): Completed

Coastal Carolina (12-2, 4-1): March 17-April 11

Gardner-Webb (4-8, 0-5): Feb. 27-March 28

Kennesaw State (first-year program): March 2-28

Liberty (9-5, 4-1): March 17-April 16

Monmouth (6-5, 1-4): March 26-April 26

Presbyterian (6-5, 3-2): March 12-April 11