Three Things to Watch as the Buccaneers open 2018 against the Gators

Three Things to Watch as the Buccaneers open 2018 against the Gators

CHARLESTON, S.C. - Charleston Southern opens up the 2018 season this weekend on the road as the Buccaneers make the trek to Gainesville, Fla. to take on the Florida Gators on Saturday night. Kickoff between the Bucs and the Gators is set for 7:30 p.m. on the SEC Network. In preparation for the contest, here are three things to watch for in Saturday's game.

All game day information available on the Game Day Central Page.

CSU Notes | UF Notes | Big South Notes

One year ago, the Charleston Southern offense was preparing to take on another Todd Grantham-coached defensive unit as the Buccaneers make the trip to Starkville, Miss. to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs. At the end of the day, the Bucs struggled offensively against the Bulldogs' defensive unit as CSU picked up 33 yards in total offense in the loss.

This year, the Buccaneers enter the season with a number of familiar faces in the lineup that is looking to make progress and put last year's opener behind them. Rising junior quarterback London Johnson takes the reins of the program heading into Saturday's matchup and is the clear-cut starter against the Gators after splitting duties last season.

Johnson finished 2017 third in the Big South in total offensive yards per play last season (6.0) and finished eighth in the conference in total offensive yards. The Clio, S.C. native boasted season-highs of 219 passing yards and 117 rushing yards in a win over Savannah State last season and possesses the speed to make plays in the open field.

The Bucs also return a veteran pass-catching unit led by redshirt junior Kameron Brown. Brown finished in the top 10 in the FCS in yards per catch for the second consecutive season and posted a career-high four 100-plus yard receiving games in 2017. Seniors Kenny Dinkins and Saire Davis also return to provide veteran leadership and big-play ability on the outside, while Taz Lindsey and Geoffrey Wall have impressed in camp in the slot position. Tight end Qua-Von Scott also provides a steady outlet for the Bucs after finishing fifth on the team in receptions last year.

The battle in the trenches will be key this weekend. Gone are mainstays Jackson Williamson and Frank Cirone. However, the Bucs return All-American candidate Brackin Smith, as well as seniors Stephen Haralambis and Joe Gold to the starting offensive line. Overall, nine of the ten offensive linemen on CSU's preseason two-deep are in their fourth or fifth seasons in the program. The lone exception is backup left guard JT Melton, a redshirt freshman who headlines a promising group of underclassmen.

Defensively, Florida has a lot of depth and talent returning up front on the defensive line. T.J. Slaton, Elijah Conliffe, Khairi Clark and West Virginia grad transfer Adam Shuler are listed as first and second team tackles, while Jabari Zuniga, Jacahi Polite, Cece Jefferson, Zachary Carter and Jeremiah Moon are listed on the outside of the defensive front.

Florida also returns four linebackers with playing and playing experience with David Reese, Vosean Joseph, Kylan Johnson and Rayshad Jackson. Marco Wilson, C.J. Henderson, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Jeawon Taylor are veterans in the secondary.

The Buccaneers averaged 319.7 yards of total offense in 2017, while the Gators finished 31st in total defense last season.

Redshirt sophomore Feleipe Franks was named Florida's starting quarterback heading into the 2018 season after a strong camp. Franks won a closely contested competition over redshirt sophomore Kyle Trask and true freshman Emory Jones.

The Crawfordville, Fla. native played in all 11 games and made eight starts last season. Franks posted a 3-5 record as a starter and threw for 1,438 yards with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions on the season. A season ago, he became the first redshirt freshman to start a season opener at quarterback for the Gators since Kyle Morris in 1988 and notched his best game of the year against Tennessee when he threw for 212 yards passing (19-for-28) with two touchdowns and one interception.

Mullen and company will look to utilize the talents of Franks similar to another quarterback the Buccaneers faced last season in Nick Fitzgerald. Franks (6-6, 240) has a similar build to Fitzgerald (6-5, 230) and presents similar issues the Bucs faced last season at MSU.

Fitzgerald went 16-of-29 through the air for 239 yards and a pair of first-half touchdowns. He also added a two-yard touchdown run among his seven carries on the day. Franks will look for similar production against a CSU defensive unit that features a few new faces in 2018.

Gone is Anthony Ellis. So is Noah Oliver, Bobby Ruff, and Zane Cruz. However, the Buccaneers return a pair of All-American candidates up front in Solomon Brown and Johnny Robinson, as well as a playmaking linebacker in J.D. Sosebee to combat the UF offense on Saturday.

When the pressure is on, Brown has brought his game up to the next level. The Central, S.C. native dominated in CSU's first postseason game against The Citadel in 2015 with a team-high 15 tackles, including a sack and tackle for loss. He followed up the next season with nine tackles, a sack, and three tackles for loss against Florida State in the Bucs' FBS game in 2016. Brown is one the Bucs turn to in pressure situations and will be counted on in the season opener against the Gators.

Similar with Johnny Robinson. The Apopka, Fla. native got off to a slow start last season with 4.5 tackles for loss through the first seven games of the year as defenses keyed on the play by Brown and Ellis. However, the final month is where Robinson was at his best. He posted 7.5 tackles for loss for a combined 28 yards over the final four games of the year, second only to Ellis in the Big South Conference over the stretch. In fact, Robinson was dominant overall in conference competition sitting in the top three in sacks and tackles for loss, as well as top 10 in tackles by a defensive lineman in conference play.

Sosebee adds veteran leadership which will be counted on at the next level when he takes the field with projected starters Edward King and Craig Johnson. The Gainesville, Ga. native burst onto the scene in his sophomore year on his way to finishing fifth in the Big South with a team-high 81 tackles, as well as eighth in the Big South with 8.0 tackles for loss. Among his highlights last season includes three games with 10 or more tackles, as well as a 60-yard scoop and score on a fumble against Point.

Charleston Southern has lined up against an FBS opponent annually since 2007 and first took on the FBS back in 2002 when they scheduled against the University of South Florida. The Bucs enter this weekend's contest having fallen in all 19 contests by an average score of 50.4-7.7.

The Bucs have been shutout four times against FBS opponents including in both contests last season against Mississippi State (Sept. 2) and Indiana (Oct. 7). Also among those scoreless appearances was a 62-0 loss to UCF in 2011, as well as a 44-0 showing against Illinois in 2012.

CSU is also 0-6 all-time against current members of the Southeastern Conference. The closest the Buccaneers have come to the upset came back in the 2014 season when CSU came within one drive from topping Vanderbilt.

CSU outgained the Vanderbilt Commodores of the Southeastern Conference by nearly 100 yards and put itself in position for the program's first-ever win over an FBS program before falling 21-20. The Bucs shut out Vanderbilt in the second half and held the Commodores without a first down after halftime until their final drive of the night.

A 30-yard field goal by kicker David Kennedy brought CSU within 21-20 with 10:19 remaining, and the Bucs had the football with a chance to take the lead following a Davion Anderson interception. Vanderbilt forced a three-and-out, though, and ran out the final six minutes of game clock to hold on for the victory.

CSU's last trip to the stadium affectionately called "The Swamp" came against the defending BCS National Champions (A Look Back at CSU's First Contest Against Florida). The Gators returned all 11 defensive starters from that team with 26 players on the roster eventually going on to play in the NFL. The Bucs were able to put up 323 yards of total offense in the contest in the eventual 62-3 loss.

This weekend's contest is one of 111 total FCS vs. FBS games that will play throughout the 2018 season. It is also one of three games featuring Big South opponents against the FBS with Kennesaw State taking on Georgia State and Monmouth traveling to Eastern Michigan.

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