Southern Conference spring outlook
(STATS) - Mike Ayers was the last coach standing in the Southern Conference last season, leading Wofford to two FCS playoff wins and into the national quarterfinals.
It wasn't surprising considering all of his success guiding the Terriers.
The 68-year-old Ayers is entering his 30th season, just three wins shy of 200 at Wofford. He's guided seven playoff teams since 2003.
In contrast, the other eight coaches in the SoCon have combined on 16 seasons, with two set to debut this year, Tom Arth at Chattanooga and Clay Hendrix at Furman.
The SoCon put four teams in the playoffs for the first time last year and will challenge to do it again. If it happens, the grizzled veteran of the conference figures to be there.
Following is a look across the SoCon with spring practices underway in college football:
Head Coach: Tom Arth (first season; 40-8 overall)
2016 Records: 9-4, 6-2 Southern
Spring Practices: March 7-April 8
What to Know: Arth steps in as an intriguing, if not surprising, coaching hire as he comes from Division III John Carroll. He inherits a SoCon power, but one that returns only 10 starters (five on each side of the ball) and is more challenged within the conference than just a few years ago. It helps that senior quarterback Alejandro Bennifield returns off a breakout season, but the losses of three starting offensive linemen and running back Derrick Craine are significant. On defense, the secondary is outstanding with experienced senior Trae Davis set to grab a starting spot alongside returning starters Lucas Webb, C.J. Fritz and Trevor Wright. In the run-heavy SoCon, the Mocs will be more vulnerable than usual.
EAST TENNESSEE STATE=
Head Coach: Carl Torbush (7-15, two seasons; 27-42 overall)
2016 Records: 5-6, 2-6 Southern
Spring Practices: Feb. 28-April 8
What to Know: The Buccaneers took a big step in their second season since reviving their program, including a season-ending upset of playoff-bound Samford. They lost only four seniors, including only two starters on offense, from last year's 110-player roster. The Bucs are seeking more playmakers in key position battles at wide receiver and defensive back, but experience abounds at all positions. The young talent includes linebackers Dylan Weigel, who has led the team in tackles for two straight seasons, and offensive lineman Ben Blackmon and defensive linemen Jason Maduafokwa and Nasir Player, all coming off SoCon all-freshman honors.
Head Coach: Clay Hendrix (first season)
2016 Records: 3-8, 3-5 Southern
Spring Practices: Feb. 24-March 31 (spring game is March 25)
What to Know: Hendrix was an offensive lineman for Furman and then an assistant coach in the program for 19 years before spending the last 10 seasons on the Air Force staff. He and his new coaching staff are using spring practices to implement their offensive and defensive schemes, including a switch to a 3-4 defensive alignment. Only eight starters (five on offense) return from last year's disappointing season. Senior P.J. Blazejowski is back as the starting quarterback, having made 13 starts over his first three seasons. The Paladins seek to rebuild a struggling run game, and running back Darius Morehead, who suffered a season-ending concussion two games into his redshirt freshman campaign, is back. Nose guard Jaylan Reid, strong safety/outside linebacker Joe Farrar and free safety Aaquil Annoor are the returning starters on defense.
Head Coach: Bobby Lamb (27-19, four seasons; 94-59 overall)
2016 Records: 6-5, 4-4 Southern
Spring Practices: Feb. 6-March 2
What to Know: Mercer's growing program was among the first in the FCS to hold spring practices. It's felt differently in camp without quarterback John Russ, who had been the starter in all four seasons since the Bears returned to football. The Bears coaches have brought along possible replacements Tanner Brumby or Kaelan Riley slowly. At running back, C.J. Leggett, who spent time at Georgia Tech, has impressed while top returnee Alex Lakes has been rehabbing a high ankle sprain. The offense also has a superb wide receiver in junior Marquise Irvin. The defense, which features defensive end Isaiah Buehler, has room for improvement.
Head Coach: Chris Hatcher (13-10, two seasons; 134-67 overall)
2016 Records: 7-5, 5-3 Southern
Spring Practices: March 27-April 14
What to Know: The 2016 season was successful, but the Bulldogs slumped at the end, including a first-round loss to Youngstown State in the FCS playoffs. The return of junior quarterback Devlin Hodges, the SoCon's offensive player of the year, creates hope for an even better campaign. He's one of six returning starters on that side of the ball, and there's seven on defense. The Bulldogs relied on the pass but often struggled running the ball. Although some of the top running backs, including leader rusher K'rondis Larry, return, junior college transfer Treyvon Paulk will try to climb the depth chart. The defensive line will be strong, and behind it linebacker Shaheed Salmon and cornerback Omari Williams will help fuel an improved defense.
Head Coach: Brent Thompson (10-2, one season)
2016 Records: 10-2, 8-0 Southern
Spring Practices: Feb. 21-March 23 (spring game is March 17)
What to Know: The early departure of some key players, including two All-Americans - cornerback Dee Delaney to a graduate transfer and left tackle Isaiah Pinson to the pursuit of a pro career - has likely shed The Citadel of the favorite's role. On offense, the Bulldogs return only three starters. Senior quarterback Dominique Allen will again run the triple-option offense, which led the FCS in rushing, but the Bulldogs desperately need to develop on the offensive line, which lost four starters. It might sound odd considering their offensive approach, but the Bulldogs also seek to improve their passing, which would keep their opponents at least somewhat honest on defense. The Bulldogs return six starters on defense, including standout safety Kailik Williams. But Thompson no longer has as strong a team for his second season.
Head Coach: Scott Wachenheim (5-17, two seasons)
2016 Records: 3-8, 1-7 Southern
Spring Practices: April 6-29
What to Know: Quarterback Al Cobb is not returning for his final year of eligibility, a crushing blow to the offense, which returns only four starters. Austin Couling, who started two games last season, is the favorite to win the job, but the position won't be settled until fall camp. The Keydets surrendered 27.7 points per game last season, over seven points fewer than in 2015 and the second-lowest average since 1988. With seven returning starters, the defense hopes to improve even more. In the third spring under Wachenheim, special teams are a focal point. Last season, their three kickers combined to miss 14 field-goal and five extra-point attempts, while nine kicks and punts were blocked.
Head Coach: Mark Speir (19-38, five seasons)
2016 Records: 2-9, 1-7 Southern
Spring Practices: Feb. 14-March 24 (spring game is March 18)
What to Know: The Catamounts believe their 2014 (7-5) and 2015 (7-4) records reflect their program more than last year's struggle. They have the chance to be much improved behind 16 returning starters. The nine on offense include rising sophomore quarterback Tyrie Adams and senior running back/returner Detrez Newsome, who led the FCS in all-purpose yards per game. The defense, though, was the worst in the SoCon last season and will switch to a 3-4 base alignment under new coordinator John Wiley. The Catamounts will play a season-opening game at Hawaii as part of a 12-game schedule - one more than most FCS teams.
Head Coach: Mike Ayers (197-136-1, 29 seasons; 208-157-2 overall)
2016 Records: 10-4, 6-2 Southern
Spring Practices: Feb. 15-March 11
What to Know: Enough key players return that the Terriers believe they can build on last year's run to the FCS quarterfinals. Along the way, they eliminated Charleston Southern and The Citadel in South Carolina playoff matchups. Ayers promoted safeties coach Shiel Wood to defensive coordinator, but the system won't change with the return of eight starters. Linebacker Datavious Wilson, the team's leading tackler, is sitting out spring practices because of an injury. Both lines will be excellent, which is welcome news to returning quarterbacks Brandon Goodson and Joseph Newman. The bigger losses include SoCon rushing champ Lorenzo Long and All-America place-kicker David Marvin, who left as a graduate transfer to Georgia. In fall camp, redshirt sophomore Luke Carter will compete with freshman Dawson Henis to become the kicker.