John Hooper is one of HERO Sports' FCS Campus Correspondents, and he resides in the Greenville-Spartanburg area of South Carolina. He's a longtime Southern Conference "expert" and tracks the league for HERO Sports. You can follow John on Twitter @SoConJohn. Read John's SoCon picks every week.
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If you’re a bird on Thanksgiving, the outlook is normally not good. However, if you’re a that’s an endangered species and is the mascot of a program that normally doesn’t lose, then you’re in good shape and probably enjoy this week as much as anyone. That’s because there are still games to play. I give you the Kennesaw State Owls. As much a part of the FCS playoffs as Turkey is to Thanksgiving dinner … at least so far in its five years of existence as a Division I football program. You truly never know how things are going to work out.
In keeping in the theme of the week, I am thankful for the opportunity to be able to cover FCS football for HERO Sports and the student-athletes and coaches I am able to meet, and in some cases, break bread with. Kennesaw State is thankful for its third-straight selection into the FCS playoff field, and star linebacker Bryson Armstrong echoed those sentiments. I had a chance to catch up with the 2017 Jerry Rice Award winner Tuesday after practice, and it wasn’t the first time our paths have crossed. Back in July, I was blessed and thankful to have the opportunity to attend Big South media day, as due to a scheduling, HERO Sports FCS Director Brian McLaughlin was attending the Southland Media Day the same week and offered me the opportunity to attend the Big South’s preseason media day.
With a name like SoCon John, you probably might have guessed by now that I cover the Southern Conference, but I always keep a keen eye on the Big South. At the time, I was honored to be able to be there and meet so many great student-athletes, head coaches, and media relations directors. Kennesaw State sports information director David Beall, who in my opinion, is one of the best in the business. I have known David since he was an SID at USC Upstate and had the pleasure of helping out in the video department at Upstate while he was the SID. That being said, this weekend, the Big South and SoCon will collide in a big FCS playoff game at Gibbs Stadium in Spartanburg. Armstrong was one of the athletes on hand at the Charlotte Renaissance Hotel this past July for media day.
Even though the emcee at the event failed to mention Armstrong’s name (by accident) when recognizing the preseason all-conference teams and players of the year, none of the other coaches or student-athletes in the room from the other Big South member institutions can forget his game and what they see on film when this young man demoralizes offenses each Saturday afternoon. The emcee realized his mistake of course, and pointed out that the SoCon had hacked the email accounts of the Big South because Kennesaw had knocked Wofford out the playoffs in 2018. It was a good recovery by the emcee, and it brought a hearty chuckle from those who cover the Big South in attendance. All kidding aside, Armstrong’s game is no joke at all, nor is Kennesaw State’s football team.
They mean business…Like 47-14 business. That’s the Owls record now in their fifth year as a program. What’s been amazing about the Owls this season is how a very young team has not missed a beat once again this season, despite heavy losses to graduation, especially on offense, the Owls have managed another outstanding season. The nature of start-up programs is there’s always that fifth or sixth year where the program has to recover from massive graduation losses depending how the staff redshirts its student athletes. Despite being faced with that dynamic prior to the season, the 10-2 Owls have not missed a beat, tying for the conference championship with Monmouth.
I came away from Big South media day this past July impressed by coach Bohannon, as well as the student-athletes Bryson Armstrong and Daniel David. It was easy to see why Kennesaw has been so successful in just a short time on the college football gridiron. They carried themselves like winners. It was an expectation. Expectations aside, Saturday was one of the few instances when confidence might have wavered for this group, that’s because their playoff fate was left in the hands of the FCS playoff committee as a result of a 45-21 mid-season loss the Owls suffered at the hands of the team picked second in the Big South–Monmouth. However, with its inclusion later into the draw Sunday afternoon, Armstrong and the Owls get another opportunity and for him personally, a chance to show himself on the national stage as one of the best defensive players in the nation at least one more time or perhaps more depending on how things go for the Owls in Spartanburg Saturday.
Armstrong was selected as one of 26 finalists for the prestigious Buck Buchanan Award, which is given to the nation’s top defensive player by STATS FCS, will have a chance to show the nation just how he and the Owls defense is with another opportunity to put on the pads. The Owls will come to Spartanburg ranking fourth nationally in total defense (277.8 YPG). Despite some massive losses due to graduation on offense, the defense is for the most part a veteran group, as the Owls returned 10 players with starting experience on that side of the ball coming into the 2019 campaign. On a side note of interest, the Owls entered last season’s contest against Wofford ranked second nationally in total defense.
Both Wofford and Kennesaw State run similar style, option-based offenses, although this season, the Terriers have thrown the ball more. “It’s awesome that we have the opportunity to make a run in the playoffs and we’re really looking forward to this Wofford opponent and we know they’re a good team and we have been preparing the past couple of days to put a game-plan together and try and get a win and hopefully make a run,” Armstrong said. “To be considered in the Buck Buchanan Award conversation is a true honor and obviously none of what I have been able to accomplish this season would be possible without my teammates, my great coaches and my family. I feel really blessed and very honored,” Armstrong added.
Armstrong is fashioning quite a junior campaign and is among 26 finalists for the Buchanan Award it was announced Tuesday afternoon. So far through 12 games, Armstrong has put up some impressive numbers once again, as he enters the matchup with the Terriers having recorded 73 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FR, 1 FF and one blocked kick. Armstrong was one of just 11 returning starters off a team that won 11 games last season, claimed a Big South crown and beat the very same Wofford team, 13-10, in a defensive battle in rainy conditions in a second-round clash last season in Atlanta. Leadership is something that Armstrong does, but it’s more in how he plays rather than being that vocal guy as a part of this stout Owls defense.
“To be honest I am not much of a vocal guy, but I try to lead when I can and we’ve got some experienced guys on defense so it helps to make sure some of those younger guys are doing what they need to be doing and I do speak every now and then, but I try to lead by example.” This Kennesaw State team is good at handling adversity. Some of it can be prepared for such as the graduation losses you know you will face, and the staff prepares accordingly. Other adverse situations you can’t prepare for, with the main one being injuries. Senior quarterback Daniel David went down with an injury against Campbell, but the Owls hung on to win under the direction of a new signal-caller, in Tommy Bryant. No situation phases this team it seems.
They always seem to have an answer for adversity. “It’s that next man up mentality. We are comfortable with it even though its not something you want to see. We had Isaac Young do down early in the season and Daniel David, but they have done great stepping up and when they have had to step up, they have and we trust everyone and I am really proud of our offense and they are playing really well and that only helps us as a defense to see them respond like they have.” If you like physical, smash-mouth football between a pair of defenses that get after it from a physical standpoint, then Gibbs Stadium and the game between Kennesaw and Wofford will tickle your football fancy Saturday after that Thursday meal has settled. It’s old-school. Kind of like the holiday itself. Be thankful for matchups like this one, and for players who give it their all like Armstrong.
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