Team photo day and media day all wrapped into one morning tends to bring out the smiles with any college football team.
But, on Saturday morning, there were perhaps larger and brighter smiles than usual among the coaches and players for South Carolina State at their annual preseason time for pictures and interviews.
Sure, it’s the lead-in to a new season, without a loss on the record. However, the schedule itself is so much more palatable for the Bulldogs heading into the 2017 campaign.
Last year, for those who dare look back, started off with blowout losses at BCS programs Central Florida, Louisiana Tech and eventual national champion Clemson.
There will be no such insurmountable opponents on the field with the Bulldogs this season. However, it will be key to get off to a strong start in the month of September.
"We've got a chance to be better, schedule-wise, this year," S.C. State head coach Buddy Pough said, in his 16th season at the Bulldogs' helm. "But, at the same time, these guys can beat us up.
"The best part of the whole deal is we won't deal with the physicality we dealt with early last year or the travel. We played hard teams a long ways away (and got there) by bus. The schedule is such that we get a fair shake."
S.C. State opens this season flying to Baton Rouge, La. for a Sept. 3 MEAC/SWAC Challenge game against Southern, in front of a national TV audience on ESPN. From there, it will be home non-conference games against Charleston Southern (Sept. 9) and Johnson C. Smith (Sept. 16), before facing the MEAC preseason favorites (N.C Central on the road and N.C. A&T at home) in back-to-back weeks.
"The confidence factor is what you can build on, if we have success in those early non-conference games," Pough said. "But, if you don't play well early, what's to say that you will as the year goes on?"
As always, success should come if the Bulldogs can limit opponents from scoring. S.C. State defensive coordinator, Tommy Restivo — who spent a one-year hiatus from the Bulldogs' DC post as DC at McNeese State in Louisiana — feels that he has picked up right where he left off with the current version of a defense in Orangeburg that he had nationally-ranked in 2015.
“It’s a great challenge for these guys, and I know Baton Rouge will be a great place for us to start out with Southern,” Restivo said. “Those first few games will be tough for us, but right now we just have to get better as a football team.
“We haven’t talked about Southern, instead focusing on what we have to do as a football team to improve. We have a young team, but we have some seniors all across the defense who give us good leadership. It’s still a challenge, since I wasn’t here this spring and have been trying to get some things installed to have our guys ready. We’re going to do our best to put the best product on the field.”
Of course, the product the Bulldogs’ program has been known for in decades of tradition is a strong defensive unit. That should again be the strength, with redshirt senior All-American Darius Leonard and redshirt senior All-MEAC player Dayshawn Taylor at linebacker, graduate student All-MEAC free safety Jason Baxter, and a deep defensive line that includes Ty Cravens, Paul McKeiver, Greg Newell and Shaquille Crouch.
However, a major factor for S.C. State this season could be the unheralded offense. Danny Lewis, in his 10th season on the Bulldogs’ staff, is in his first season as offensive coordinator. He believes what opposing teams don’t know about this unit could be an advantage for S.C. State.
“With a lot of good football teams on our schedule, especially early, we will be challenged all of September and right on through,” Lewis said. “We need to make sure, coming out of camp, that as coaches we are putting our players in the best position possible to be successful.
“Attitudes, effort and work ethic have all been great. Bouncing back from last year, we have to be coaching better and playing better. We have a nice mix of older guys with experience and younger guys who have been on a college field in a game. In years past, we haven’t been the best practicing team. This preseason we are practicing better.”
According to Lewis, redshirt senior All-MEAC right tackle Justin Evans (6-5, 310 pounds) has stepped up early as a leader on the offense, as has redshirt junior Austin Ruger and redshirt sophomore wide receiver Quan Caldwell.
"It's a different vibe and atmosphere on the team this year; it's a good vibe," Evans said. "2016, and what happened then, is up on the board now.
"But, 2017 is what we are working on. There are good teams with great athletes ready to face us in a couple weeks. We've got to be focused. I believe we can put points up on anyone."
Such talk from a fifth-year player is what Lewis and his fellow coaches are glad to hear.
“That type of leadership in practice is what we’ve been missing,” Lewis said. “As coaches, at some point we need the guys in the locker room to expect accountability and to show leadership.
“The good news is we are tested every day against a really good defense. The bad news is we face a really good defense every day. But that’s only going to make us better. This is a very proud football program and university. 16-time MEAC champs is something we don’t take very lightly. There are expectations every time this team steps on the field. (The early schedule), it is a daunting task. But we are ready to get back; it’s time. I’m excited about getting the best out of this offense, so we can get on the plane at the end of the month and go see who we are.”
With the offense having gone stagnant for stretches last season, Lewis sees emphasis on different areas of the offense adjusting this year to avoid such slowdowns. Sophomore tailback LeBron Morris and redshirt freshman tailback Datron James look primed to lead the running game. But other options will be employed to move the offense.
“This is the most talented wide receiving corps we’ve had in a while,” Lewis said. “We’ve got some playmakers, so our challenge is to be able to get them the football.
“We will continue to run the football. But, we’ve got a nice mix of receivers, and we need to get the ball to them, have some home run threats.”
Pough went as far as to say "that's the big elephant in our room, trying to figure out how to get some consistent offense going here; we just need players to make plays."
Home run plays, or any scoring plays for that matter, will be key to set up wins in September. And early victories could set this Bulldogs team up for a special season.
Perhaps vocal and on-field leader Leonard put it best on Saturday.
"We've got to hit the ground running," he said. "It's a challenge and an opportunity to set the tone early."
"We feel like we really have a chance to go out and dominate early," he said. "We aren't playing these big, huge schools; we are playing schools that we feel we can compete against.
"Outwork everybody; we've got to leave it all on the field every day."