CHARLESTON, S.C. – When Charleston Southern votes on its team captains this summer, Frank Cirone figures to be in the mix. The senior offensive lineman, a 2016 All-Big South Conference pick, is seriously taking on a leadership role as he enters his fifth season with the program.
"The people, the players here when I got here, they set a standard," said Cirone, who has started 27 games and played in 29 since redshirting in 2013. "Those guys were hungry. They didn't have a Big South Conference championship and they were pretty much looked down upon. When I got here and saw their effort and work ethic, it just kind of allowed me to develop what they had. Now I think it's my time to help the kids that are here now to develop that same work ethic so what we have worked for doesn't fade away or slip away from us."
The process of maintaining the standard has begun in earnest in the weight room this summer with strength and conditioning coach Chad Scott. Cirone and other veterans from the Bucs' back-to-back conference championship clubs are balancing building tradition with forward-thinking as CSU begins a new chapter under head coach Mark Tucker and a largely new staff.
"A lot of us are putting in work and we know what it takes," Cirone said. "It's definitely come up (going for a third straight league title) in conversation but I wouldn't say we've talked about it a lot because we've really decided we need to look forward. The older guys, our clocks are ticking so we want to just spend as much time as we can looking forward."
Cirone will get to play alongside another older guy on the offensive line in 2017. Jackson Williamson, who has started all 40 games of his collegiate career, also returns for a fifth campaign. Williamson suffered a season-ending injury last September and earned a medical redshirt, making him and Cirone two of the elder statesmen on this year's squad.
"He was my first roommate," Cirone said of Williamson. "He was the second guy – maybe the first guy – I met when I came here. It was weird thinking about it last season, like 'wow, there's gonna be nobody left from my class' and then obviously he unfortunately came upon an injury. I think it'll be very positive to have another older head back. It's awesome because there's like an unconditional love you have for somebody who's been there and gone through the worst times with you and also gone through the great times."
"I would have liked to see him play last year as well but him not playing allowed the younger guys to step up," Cirone continued. "It gave everybody, including myself and the other upperclassmen and the coaching staff, that feeling that they're trustable."
In addition to logging hours in the weight room, the offensive line is also building trust with new position coach Ron Hudson. The elimination of two-a-day practices means the NCAA allows contact between position coaches and players for up to two hours per week prior to fall camp. Hudson, with over 25 years of experience at the FCS and FBS levels, has used that time to impart knowledge.
"We do a lot of fundamentals," said Cirone of the half-hour Monday-Tuesday-Thursday-Friday sessions. "Just from us meeting him and getting to know him every day, getting to know his style and how he does things, I think he's a really good guy and is teaching us a lot. Being conditioned to what I've learned over the last four and a half years, it's almost like teaching an old dog new tricks."
Here's a sample of what else Cirone had to say with kickoff of the 2017 season 72 days away.
On Chad Scott's influence in offseason training: "He's a huge part of what we do. We have talked about that (maintaining a standard) with Coach Scott. The communication between him and us allows him to bring that to the table during this training, which I believe will be crucial to maintaining that standard or creating it within the younger guys that have arrived."
On former teammate Erik Austell's quest to make an NFL roster: "I'm proud of him. I haven't talked to him in a little bit. I was just gonna kind of let him settle in and then shoot him a text – 'hey man, how's everything going?' It is awesome. It's very self-motivating, seeing someone get that chance, especially knowing his story. Got no shot, got half a shot coming to walk on and then (Jamey) Chadwell giving him an opportunity to earn a scholarship playing the offensive side of the ball and now he's playing at the highest achievable level you can. Obviously, it motivates me to try to be up to his standard now. I'm going to worry about that hopefully after January 6th (date of FCS Championship game)."
On chances to play in NFL: "I guess everybody wants to say yeah. I think my chances are a little smaller (than Austell's). I'm not as tall. His weight – he's a little different build than I am. My wheels are not as good as his (laughing). I've kinda struggled with some injuries. But I believe that if someone would look past that and give me an opportunity, the sky is the limit. It just really depends on if I'm gonna show up every day and give it my all."
On how CSU can improve in 2017: "I think where we could improve and where we are improving is definitely in our attention to detail and our effort. We're really harping on the little things. Touching the line, getting the last rep, emptying the tank before the day is over. Emptying the tank before the lift is over and before the run is over – not just to maintain and hold back until your last rep in the weight room and then you get out of there."