P.J. Blazejowski had questions.
When Blazejowski learned last December that his new coach would be Clay Hendrix, the ramifications for Furman's senior quarterback were unclear. Hendrix, after all, was a former Paladins lineman who'd spent 10 years immersed as the offensive line coach in the Air Force Academy's version of the triple-option offense.
"I wasn't sure what it meant for me," said Blazejowski, who'd spent his first three seasons running a pro-style attack under former coach Bruce Fowler. "I mean, going back in my high school days I'd run a little triple-option. But going into my last year at Furman, I just wanted to make the most of it, put all my effort into learning how to do it and how to execute it."
Nine games into the season, the Paladins' move back to option football — the run-oriented attack that fueled Furman's glory days of the 1980s — is going just fine, thank you.
After losing its first three games under Hendrix, to top 10 FCS teams Wofford and Elon and ACC member North Carolina State, Furman has won six straight games heading into Saturday's showdown with rival The Citadel.
At 6-3 overall and 5-1 in the Southern Conference, the Paladins should lock up an FCS playoff berth with at least a split of its remaining games against The Citadel and Samford. Two wins would earn a share of the SoCon title along with Wofford, assuming the Terriers win at 0-10 VMI on Saturday.
It's been quite the turnaround for Furman, which went 10-24 in Fowler's last three seasons and was picked to finish seventh in the SoCon this season.
"It's been fun," said Hendrix, who served as a Furman assistant under Dick Sheridan and Jimmy Satterfield. "We're getting a little better each week, but we're certainly still a work in progress."
The Paladins have done it with a versatile option offense that doesn't pass a whole lot, but is deadly efficient when it does; and an improved defense under former Charleston Southern coordinator Chad Staggs.
Offensive coordinator Drew Cronic uses a variety of formations to employ the option. Sometimes Blazejowski is under center with a fullback and two slotbacks in a look similar to The Citadel's; sometimes he's in shotgun formation, flanked by one running back or two.
Fueled by fullbacks Antonio Wilcox (6-1, 230, sr.) and Kealand Dirks (6-0, 244, jr.), the Paladins rank second in the SoCon in scoring offense (34.4 points per game) and fourth in rushing offense (243 yards per game). Wilcox has 575 yards and 10 touchdowns, with Dirks at 549 yards and six touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Darius Morehead is the top slotback with 414 yards and four TDs.
"When we got here, we wondered if there was even a B-back (fullback) on the roster," Hendrix said. "Fortunately, we had a couple of guys who filled the bill."
Furman has attempted only 155 passes this season, more than only Wofford (114) and The Citadel (112) in the SoCon. But among the league's starting QBs, none are more efficient than Blazejowski, a a 6-0, 195-pounder. He's completed 61.2 percent of his throws for 1,595 yards, with 14 touchdowns against just three interceptions.
His top three receivers — Logan McCarter, Thomas Gordon and Andy Schumpert — average a remarkable 20.2, 18.9 and 20.1 yards per catch. Schumpert, a 6-5 senior tight end, has seven of the team's 14 TD catches.
"P.J. has done well," Hendrix said. "We get labled as a triple-option team, and we do run some in a couple of different ways. But for us, it's important to have a really good athlete who can make the throws we need to make.
"We don't want a running back playing quarterback. It's not our plan to run the quarterback 25 times a game. P.J. has above-average arm strength, so for him it was just getting him to play within our system, and I think he has. He's been really productive for us."
On defense, Staggs has installed a a more aggressive scheme that's produced 24 sacks, twice as many as last season. Furman is third in the SoCon in run defense, allowing 138 yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry. Safety Bryan Okeh, an imposing 6-4, 212-pound sophomore, has a team-best 60 tackles.
Bottom line — Furman football is fun again. Attendance at Paladin Stadium is up about 25 percent this year over last, from 5,771 to 7,192 per game.
"Just on campus, you can feel the difference," Blazejowski said. "Teachers are stopping me, and other students, asking questions about the game. I'm getting emails from people who are interested in football again. That's a really great feeling."