Bucs open camp with target on backs

Provided Charleston Southern's Kyle Copeland is the only returning Bucs quarterback to have taken a snap last season.

No longer will Charleston Southern’s football team be able to sneak up on unsuspecting opponents. No longer will they be able to play the underdog role as often as before.

Thanks to the success of the last three seasons, the Buccaneers have clearly reversed roles when it comes to Big South Conference football.

The Buccaneers open fall camp on Monday night as the clear favorite to win the Big South Conference championship for a second straight year. CSU went undefeated through the league a year ago and finished as a top-10 ranked team in FCS football.

With 16 returning starters and 44 returning lettermen, expectations are higher than they have ever been. Fourth-year head coach Jamey Chadwell has won 28 games in his first three seasons, and CSU will begin this season ranked among the nation’s top 10.

But, there will be some questions to answer moving forward. Here are the top five questions for the Buccaneers as the season begins.

Never before has this program been where it is this season. Even after winning the Big South title in 2005, and returning most of their talent in 2006, the Bucs were not picked to win the conference title.

Having again reached the top of the Big South mountain, CSU must deal with the pressure of expectations, just as perennial league power — and now departed — Coastal Carolina did in recent years. Chadwell and his coaching staff are master motivators and played the “disrespect” card very well in their first three years. Lack of respect is no longer an issue.

“We’ll still play with a chip on our shoulder because a lot of people think last year was a fluke,” said Anthony Ellis, the Big South preseason defensive player of the year.

The spotlight includes a season opener at five-time defending FCS national champion North Dakota State on ESPN, followed by a Week 3 game at Florida State. Those will likely be the only two games CSU is not favored in, a far cry from past seasons.

Former Stratford placekicker Tyler Tekac brought some stability to the kicking game last fall, making 7 of 11 field goal attempts. However, his longest kick was a 40-yarder and two of his misses were inside 30 yards. CSU also missed five extra points.

The return game, led by Darius Hammond, was very good, but CSU allowed three punt returns for touchdowns. Punter Truett Burns averaged only 34.9 yards per punt last season, and Chadwell would like to see more consistency in every phase of special teams.

Redshirt junior Kyle Copeland enters camp as the No. 1 guy under center and is the only signal-caller on the roster who has taken a game snap at CSU. Copeland played in nine games last season, with two starts. Copeland runs the offense very well but is a marginal passer.

Copeland’s backups are redshirt freshman London Johnson and junior college transfer Robert Mitchell. If history is any indication, CSU will need backups to be ready. The Buccaneers have had injuries to starting quarterbacks in each of the last three seasons.

CSU’s defense is loaded along the front and very experienced in the back. The second line of defenders, however, are relatively inexperienced overall. Junior Zane Cruz started all 13 games last season and was third on the team with 64 tackles. No other linebacker on the current two-deep has started a game.

“Linebacker is probably our biggest overall concern, just because we don’t have a lot of guys who have played for us,” Chadwell said.

Now that CSU has become a consistent winner, scheduling games with similar FCS opponents has become very difficult. Crosstown rival The Citadel has no interest in playing the Buccaneers anymore, especially at CSU. Other in-state Southern Conference teams like Furman and Wofford wouldn’t mind hosting the Buccaneers but have balked at coming to North Charleston in return games.

CSU has big-time road games early on, and a game at Coastal Carolina, but their non-conference home schedule includes games against Kentucky State, Albany State and Bucknell. Not exactly a slate that will fire up the home base.