Photo credit: James Ragan Photography

After making their first playoff appearance in program history in 2016, expectations were high as the Florida Tech Panthers went into 2017. Unfortunately, they had an up-and-down season and finished with a 5-6 record overall, including a 3-5 mark in the Gulf South Conference.

As coach Steve Englehart looks forward to the 2018 season and this Saturday’s season opener at Benedict College in Columbia South Carolina, the expectation level has not changed much from where it was last year and in years past.

“We expect to play well, compete at the top of the conference and go to the playoffs,” said Englehart. “I think we have a good team, we have a team that is very motivated and a little bitter with the results last year, losing so many close games. We felt like we were a couple plays away from being in the playoffs last year.”

Englehart pointed out that there were challenges and growing pains last year, considering they lost a lot of guys the year before and fielded a young team in 2017. This year he says, “it is time to dust ourselves off, and try again.”

Dusting themselves off will be easier with guys like senior Antwuan Haynes returning at running back. “I know what he can do and I know what he’s capable of,” said Englehart of his workhorse back that rushed for 1,035 yards, ranking him second in the conference. He scored seven touchdowns and ranked fourth in the league with 110.5 all-purpose yards per game. “He’s gonna work his butt off and give us everything he has every day,” said Englehart.

Sophomore Corey Lane will spell Haynes in the backfield. He saw action in all 11 games last season, rushing for 66 yards and a touchdown, and catching three passes. He was also big in the return game, running back eight kickoffs for 185 yards and earned a spot on the Gulf South Conference Honor Roll.

Returning wide receivers Romell Guerrier (senior), Terrence Bynum (senior) and Brian Spurgeon, Jr. (junior), will be counted on heavily. “Brian is a guy that I think can do really well, he started coming on at the end of last year,” Englehart said.

Four of the five offensive linemen return from last season and Englehart says they will lean heavily on those guys with junior Trent Chmelik now taking over under center for Mark Cato, who graduated.

“He puts a lot of pressure on himself,” said Englehart of Chmelik. “Sometimes we just need to get him to relax. I think sometimes he feels a weight on his shoulders a little bit and he prepares really hard and wants to be good.”

“Englehart continued, “He’s going to lead the team the best that he knows how, and that’s with great work ethic and charisma. I think the guys really like him, really care for him. Trent obviously can’t do it by himself, but he has, I think, a great supporting cast. there’s no doubt he settling in, he just needs more game time experience.”

There will be some new faces to watch for on offense as well, including wide receiver Damien McGhee, a junior who is expected to miss the first three games of the season, recovering from a dislocated elbow. Tight end Max Linder, who came over from Middle Tennessee State and will play his final season with the Panthers.

“He’s not like the tight ends we’ve had in the past in regards to tall, long skinny guys that can run down the field,” said Englehart. “But he’s a solid tight end that we need to work in as much as we can.”

David Bryant is a grad transfer from Towson who will see time at running back and Miles Kelly is a junior wideout from Jacksonville, who Englehart said they need to get going early and get him caught up. “I think he’s got a lot of potential to be really good.”

True freshman Lorenzo Hardy is a wide receiver from Melbourne Catholic Central High School that coach said they have to get him on the field in some capacity as well.

Defensively, the Panthers have many familiar faces, led by senior All-American Adonis Davis. Davis racked up all sorts of accolades for his play in 2017, including D2Football.com Honorable Mention All-America, Don Hansen First Team All-Super Region 2, D2CCA First Team All-Super Region 2, and First Team All-GSC, to go along with his Street & Smith and AP First Team All-American honors.

Davis appeared in 10 games in 2017, recording 40 solo tackles, assisting on 19. He set single-season school records with 19 tackles for loss and set program single-season record with 7.5 sacks. “He needs to play like that this year,” Englehart said of Davis.

Seniors J.T. Hassell and Jimmy Hinel will help anchor the defense, along with sophomore Evan Thompson and junior Marquise Lewis, both linebackers. In the secondary, familiar faces such as junior safety Daniel Welch, to go along with juniors Karenz Stephens, and Tyrone Cromwell at cornerback.

“I feel really good about what we’ve got going on on both sides of the ball,” Englehart said. “Really, the big thing is going to be the kicking game and how the kicking game can bring us along as well.”

Graduate student Zachary Leatherman and senior Kyle Gullikson will handle the kicking duties for one more season.

No interview would be complete without asking coach Englehart about the third installment of the Coastal Classic against West Florida, who made it all the way to the NCAA Division II title game. Without their win in Melbourne last season on a fluke play that led to a long game-winning field goal, there is a good chance the Argonauts wouldn’t have even made the playoffs.

As it was, West Florida pulled out a 23-21 come-from-behind win last season to go along with a 42-39 barn burner in 2016. The game returns to Blue Wahoos Stadium on October 20, for round three and while it is a game that the fans know Florida Tech needs to win, for coach Englehart, as you would expect, the urgency isn’t there just yet.

“Certainly there is added value to playing and beating West Florida,” he said. “Obviously, from a recruiting standpoint and being an in-state rival, certainly it is something the players will have high attention to, but we are a long way from that game. Benedict is the focus right now, obviously.”

Benedict finished 7-2 last season with both losses coming in overtime. The Tigers finished undefeated at home in 2017 (5-0) and are picked to finish second in the East Division of the SIAC this season.

“They’re a very talented group, very big up front,” said Englehart. “Their quarterback, (Dominique Harris – 6’4” 265 LBS) is huge, we might be able to get to him, but can we tackle him? Their running backs are big. They present a lot of challenges.”

“You have to admire what coach White has done there,” Englehart continued. “He went 0-10, then 5-6 and last year 7-2, so they’ve really stepped up. We have our work cut out for us for the first game of the year, there’s no doubt.”

The Panthers schedule includes all Division II games this year, something that will certainly help when it comes to playoff seeding down the road.

“It was hard for us to schedule Division II games in the past, we always ended up with about nine,” Englehart said. “Even the year we went to the playoffs, we only had eight. It is difficult to get in the playoffs only playing that many, so that was our focus to get as many as we could and hopefully that gives us a better chance when it gets to November.”

Florida Tech opens their home schedule on September 8, against Newberry College, at 1:00 p.m.

Some statistical information used in this story was obtained from floridatechsports.com.

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