CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Like any college football team, Charleston Southern has a core group of fans who are regulars at games. Often they’re vocal, often they’re visible. Usually, coaches and players learn to recognize them by sight and the sound of their voices.
One game last season, coach Jamey Chadwell was headed off the field at halftime when he spotted a particularly vocal regular. Chadwell isn’t proud to admit this, but he wanted to avoid the woman.
But a player asked him a question, he turned to answer it, and when he spun to head back off the field, he ran smack into the fan.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Chadwell said. “No offense, ma’am.”
“You’re dang right,” she retorted. “No defense, either.”
It was a watershed moment for Chadwell.
“I knew then that our expectations were changing,” Chadwell recalled Tuesday at Big South football media day.
Four years ago, the Buccaneers were 5-6 overall. But since Chadwell took over the squad in 2013, the team has a .737 winning percentage.
And last season — despite the criticism of the fan — Charleston Southern had perhaps its best seasons. The Buccaneers finished 10-3 and a perfect 6-0 in the Big South. They made their first appearance in the FCS playoffs, and the No. 8 seed toppled The Citadel before losing in the quarterfinals.
This season, Charleston Southern is the preseason Big South favorite — another first — and running back Darius Hammond is the league’s preseason Offensive Player of the Year while defensive lineman Anthony Ellis is the preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
“What’s unique is this is the first time people outside have ever expected a lot,” Chadwell said. “You don’t want your team to feel like there’s this extra burden on them to do this or that. So, my job is to remind them that what we’ve done to get here will be good enough moving forward.
“But I also believe when you get to a mountain, you can do two things: You can look back down or you can keep climbing. If you look back down, people catch you. So, we’re going to keep climbing.”
The climb will be a steep incline from Week 1 when Charleston Southern takes on North Dakota State, five-time FCS champion, in the FCS Kickoff.
“They’re the Alabama of our level,” Chadwell said. “To have the chance to be on national television, and have the chance to showcase our program and our university, and see how far we’ve come — again that’s the best of the best — will give us a good barometer of where we need to go.”
It helps that the Buccaneers are feeling pretty confident about their squad this season, with seven returning defensive starters. Ellis led the Bucs with 7.5 sacks, followed closely by linebacker and Big South Freshman of the Year Solomon Brown’s six sacks.
And another part that Chadwell finds encouraging is something that can’t be measured statistically.
“The kids really believe in each other and play hard for each other,” he said. “I believe when you do that, you can overcome some of your lack of talent because you’re playing for something bigger than yourself.”
Still, everything about this season will take some adjustment.
“We never had this kind of expectation,” Ellis said. “Last year we were voted third (in the preseason). Third, that’s really kind of nothing. This year we’re expected to be first. That kind of flips the script a little bit, keeps the scope on our back. But we used to have the sniper, too. We’re still going to hunt.”