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OK, now Coastal Carolina’s run in FBS can *actually* begin

Head coach Joe Moglia’s absence in 2017 made for an awkward debut that was still encouraging.

NCAA Football: Coastal Carolina at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Moglia’s “from football to Wall Street to football” story is unique in every way. He left coaching to become a millionaire, then returned, moving up the ladder from unpaid Nebraska assistant to Coastal Carolina head coach. And his outstanding success — 51 wins in five years — paved the way for what seemed like a well-timed jump to FBS. There has been no career like his.

“My story is 10 times better than the Rudy story,” Moglia says. “Rudy’s a tough kid in the city, Chicago kid that wanted to go to Notre Dame. That’s it.”

In July 2017, however, less than two months before CCU’s first sojourn in college football’s highest subdivision, Moglia got sick. He spent the fall fighting off a fungal infection in his lungs, handing the reins to offensive coordinator Jamey Chadwell for a few months. But he was cleared to return to his job in January.

So after a false start, now the Chanticleers’ FBS tenure can begin.

From a numbers standpoint, CCU’s 2017 basically played out as expected — the Chants were projected 114th in S&P+ and finished 111th. But while they were projected to win five or six games, a 1-5 record in one-possession finishes held them to three. The pass defense was woefully inefficient, and CCU’s own explosive passing game couldn’t make up the difference.

You could make the case that, aside from Moglia’s leave of absence (“Aside from the play, Mrs. Lincoln...”), Coastal’s FBS progress report is sturdy.

  • Moglia’s first full-on FBS recruiting class was a reasonable success, ranking sixth out of 10, ahead of Appalachian State, in the Sun Belt. There is now at least one former three-star recruit in every unit on the team, and there are three at quarterback, four at running back, five at receiver. (There are only three on defense, however.)
  • There’s reasonable balance among classes. CCU is bringing in 32 freshmen, which could create imbalance down the line, but if I were to project a two-deep for 2018, it would include about 21 juniors and seniors and 23 freshmen and sophomores. As the depth and caliber of athlete improves, the roster could stabilize.
  • Even with last fall’s adversity, the Chants managed a 2-6 record with three one-possession losses. And in between their two most discouraging conference losses — 27-7 to Texas State, 42-17 to Troy — they nearly beat Arkansas. They were certainly not overmatched athletically. (The less said about an ugly 52-10 loss to Western Illinois in September, the better.)

They were already better than nearly 20 FBS residents in year one, and now they get their coach back and bring a stronger depth chart, and a new defensive coordinator. I can’t say they will be ready to make a serious run at a bowl, but they weren’t that far away a year ago. And it would be a shame if Moglia’s unique story didn’t include a Camellia Bowl trip.


2017 Coastal Carolina offensive radar

Coastal’s offense wasn’t nearly consistent enough, but the Chants broke off their share of big plays. Leading receivers Malcolm Williams and Chris Jones combined to catch 69 balls for 1,332 yards (19.3 per catch) and 11 touchdowns, and the receiving corps’ marginal efficiency numbers were legitimately impressive — plus 13 percent for Williams, plus-six for Jones, plus-eight for slot man Jy’Jon Tyler, plus-12 for Omar Black.

This was despite inconsistency at QB. Tyler Keane battled injury in October, then missed the last three games, and the far less efficient Kilton Anderson replaced him. Anderson had begun the year behind both Keane and rising junior Chance Thrasher, but Thrasher got hurt, too.

Thrasher appears to have outstanding potential, but he hasn’t been able to stay on the field; he was lost for 2016 in fall camp with a shoulder injury.

Keane and Jones are gone, but the rest return. There should be solid competition — Thrasher (if healthy) vs. Anderson at QB and upperclassmen vs. youngsters at receiver.

Williams is a star in the making. His production was all over the map early in the season — nine catches for 266 yards against ULM but just 15 for 216 over the rest of the first eight games. But despite the switch to Anderson, he produced a steadier 19 catches for 311 yards and four scores in the final four games. Tyler showed some nice pop out of the slot.

It’s impossible not to be a little curious about the guys coming up. Sophomore Larry Collins Jr. was a mid-three-star recruit (he caught nine balls last year), and CCU inked three three-star freshmen as well: receivers Steven Peterson and Jaivon Heiligh, plus tight end Jerrod Clark. In Chadwell’s first year as merely the coordinator, he’s got an exciting passing game.

NCAA Football: Coastal Carolina at Arkansas
Alex James (22) and Brock Hoffman (76)
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, Chadwell wants to run. As Charleston Southern’s head coach in 2016, he presided over an offense that ran more than 70 percent of the time. But there was less upside here last fall. The trio of Osharmar Abercrombie, BC transfer Marcus Outlow, and Alex James combined for about 21 carries per game but only about 5 yards per carry — decent considering more than half of the line starts went to freshmen, but not great.

Abercrombie’s gone, but the other two return, and James appears to have some home run potential if he gets a little more consistent (or gets more consistent blocking). Chadwell’s ability to lean on the run game might require more bodies, though. Sophomore Jacqez Hairston is the only other returnee with any experience, and Moglia had to bring in three freshmen — including British rugby wunderkind in Tyrese Johnson-Fisher, your new favorite Sun Belt player — and JUCO transfer Torrance Marable to flesh out the depth a bit.

Those accounting for 51 of Coastal’s 60 line starts last year are back. That includes a potential star in right guard Trey Carter, who garnered honorable mention all-conference honors as a freshman. Outlow and left guard Adam Lawhorn are seniors; otherwise, there should be nice continuity for the run game in 2019.


2017 Coastal Carolina defensive radar

Defense was a bigger issue in 2017. In three of those six one-possession losses, the Chants scored at least 29 points; they scored 43 against ULM but still lost by eight. They finished 107th in Def. S&P+. They were decent in terms of big-play prevention but not nearly disruptive enough — 120th in Adj. Sack Rate, 91st in havoc rate.

For a defense bereft of disruptive options, it isn’t encouraging that only two of last year’s top six havoc guys (corners Anthony Chesley and Preston Carey, who combined for four tackles for loss and 20 passes defensed) return. The front seven returns all but three key contributors, but those three — end Marcus Williamson and linebackers Shane Johnson and Kerron Johnson — accounted nearly a quarter of the team’s havoc plays. That’s a lot to replace, and it’s up to Marvin Sanders to figure out how to replace them. Former coordinator Mickey Matthews retired.

Sanders and Moglia go way back. Sanders was Nebraska’s secondary coach when Moglia showed up as a volunteer coach at Nebraska, and Moglia brought him onto his staff for his lone season as Omaha Nighthawks coach. He has since worked everywhere from UNC to FAU to USC to Los Angeles Loyola High School.

With such a diverse background, it’s near impossible to figure out overriding trends, but in his random stints as a coordinator, his linebackers have tended to disrupt. That could mean good things for sophomore weakside backer Silas Kelly, but there’s not a ton of experience at linebacker overall.

Most of Coastal’s successful recruiting has come on offense. More worrisome: most of Coastal’s experience is on offense, too. Sanders will have upperclassmen in the back — Chesley and safety Fitz Wattley are seniors, while Carey, corner Chandler Kryst, and safety Jave Brown are juniors — but he will have to call on quite a few members of the sophomore class.

There might be some upside, at least.

  • Kelly had 5.5 tackles for loss in 2017.
  • At end, Tarron Jackson had 4.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks in eight games, while Jeffrey Gunter had 3.5 in a backup role.
  • At tackle, C.J. Brewer was Coastal’s leading tackler at DT and managed a couple of sacks and pass breakups, and Jalin Walker recorded three TFLs as a backup.
  • Safety Amir Howard held his own as a freshman and made a lot of plays near the line of scrimmage despite suboptimal size (5’9, 180).

Coastal will be starting three or four seniors at most, so whatever it becomes in 2018, it should take a step forward in 2019 and 2020. But it’s hard to envision a ton of improvement here unless this crop of sophomores takes a couple of steps forward.

Special Teams

Coastal special teams were mediocre but does return one true weapon: Evan Rabon averaged 43.3 yards per punt and helped CCU rank 27th in punt efficiency. He wasn’t as effective in kickoffs (111th in kickoff efficiency) or place-kicking (95th in FG value), but he’s got one sure strength, and between Ky’Jon Tyler and Malcolm Williams, there are some solid return man options.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent 2017 S&P+ Rk
1-Sep at South Carolina 60
8-Sep UAB 76
15-Sep Campbell NR
20-Oct at Massachusetts 83
TBD Arkansas State 24
TBD Appalachian State 18
TBD Georgia Southern 98
TBD UL-Monroe 121
TBD at Georgia State 96
TBD at UL-Lafayette 113
TBD at South Alabama 98
TBD at Troy 31
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -7 / -3.9
2017 TO Luck/Game -1.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 66% (63%, 69%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 4.0 (-1.0)

If there’s a breakthrough this fall, it will be because of the offense. There is both experience and upside, and while the running game still has some questions, Williams is one of the best receivers in the conference, and the rest of the corps is deep and exciting. And Thrasher does appear to have a nice set of tools if he can stay healthy.

Without their head coach or a full allotment of scholarships, the Chants were still only a few plays away from a .500 season. That says something. Coastal Carolina should continue holding its own in the Sun Belt.

There could be quite a logjam in this conference, though. For every team I’ve previewed this week (Georgia Southern, Texas State, and UL-Lafayette), improvement is between conceivable and likely. CCU might have to improve just to keep up.

That’s still a pretty good place to be, though.

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