Monday, November 07, 2022

How Dustin Noller, Limestone Flipped The Narrative In Mike Furrey's Return


Limestone football is enjoying a historic season, building bonds and writing its own story through the experiences of its entire team.

Nov 4, 2022 by Kyle Kensing

Limestone football adopted a motto during its 2022 season that quarterback Dustin Noller described as, "At the end of the week, know somebody else's story." 

"That’s the special thing about football," Noller said. "There are 150 guys in our locker room, so there’s all kind of backgrounds. It’s unique [compared] to any setting in the world. It’s awesome."

Football translates to art so effectively in part because of this element. Sure, the action of the game is cinematic, but dozens of personalities from a variety of backgrounds coming together and succeeding only when everyone involved finds common ground. 

And thus far, the 2022 season has been a movie at Limestone. 

Noller noted that in his two previous seasons as a Saint, Limestone won one game. The 2021 Saints finished winless at 0-9, the second 0-for campaign in the upstart program's brief history that began in 2014

But as November arrives, this year's Saints are 6-3 coming off a landmark win, boast one of the most prolific offenses in the nation, and are very much alive in the hunt for an NCAA Div. II playoff berth

A 42-37 win over reigning South Atlantic Conference champion Newberry in Week 9 combined much of what's made this a memorable season at Limestone. Running back Tre Stewart rushed for 161 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown. Noller passed for 296 yards and four touchdowns, the last of which was the game-winning connection to Jelani Barker with 50 seconds on the clock. 

This is an example of Limestone "flipping the narrative," as Mike Furrey describes it. Furrey is in the first year of his second stint as Saints head coach, and he's overseeing a team with a story arc not unlike his own. 

Furrey's story is among the more fascinating in the 21st Century NFL. After breaking into the rotation as a walk-on at Ohio State in 1995, the same year that Eddie George brought the Heisman Trophy to Columbus, Furrey transferred to Northern Iowa. 

His time as a Panther came a few years after the graduation of another UNI product who matriculated to the NFL, Kurt Warner — whose own football story quite literally became a film — but Furrey and Warner were eventually on the same roster with the St. Louis Rams. 

Furrey broke into the NFL as a game-day contributor in 2003, four years after he concluded a record-setting career at Northern Iowa, navigating off the beaten path through seasons in the Arena League and first iteration of the XFL. Furrey was a Las Vegas Outlaws teammate of Rod Smart, a key contributor to the NFC champion Carolina Panthers in 2003, whose infamous jersey reading "He Hate Me" became an enduring image from the lone season of the spring league. 

Though Furrey downplays his experiences as a pro — "Just because you played doesn’t mean you’ll be a great coach. It has to be about the players, and how you can help them attain their goals," he said — there's undeniable symmetry in his unconventional journey to success when compared to Limestone's emergence. 

And, indeed, Furrey gained a spot in the NFL with a willingness to fill any role a team needed. He played receiver, the same spot at which he made history at Northern Iowa, but he moved to the secondary as a safety when called upon. Furrey also excelled on special teams, giving him intimate familiarity with all aspects of the game. 

"I always felt I was pretty knowledgeable in all three phases and could coach all three phases," Furrey said. "That’s always given me the itch to be a head football coach."

His first head-coaching opportunity at NAIA Kentucky Christian produced the only .500 tenure in program history, with Furrey finishing 11-11 in two seasons before joining the staff at Marshall. He had similar, unprecedented success in his first two years at Limestone, going 9-12 in 2016 and 2017 — just the third and fourth seasons in Limestone football history — before becoming wide-receivers coach of the Chicago Bears. 

"I felt like the program at that time had a chance to take off," Furrey said of Limestone's potential in his first tenure. "I didn’t think at the time all the resources we have now were there because we just started the program."

Crediting support from the administrative system, Furrey said the university has "allow[ed] us to have the resources to be successful."

"The players come into work every day, and get to be encouraged by some of the best coaches out there," he added.

Limestone's coaching staff includes defensive coordinator Joe Staab, an assistant on the Michigan Wolverines' Big Ten championship-winning squad a season ago. Offensive line coach Nate Garner is a former New York Jet and Miami Dolphin, defensive line coach Anthony Hargrove won a Super Bowl playing for a different bunch of Saints, and wide receivers coach Jerricho Cotchery is a longtime NFL star-turned-pro assistant before joining Limestone. 

Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jake Kostner spent time with celebrated offensive minds like Jim McElwain, Tom Herman and Steve Sarkisian. The Saints offense is putting up 35.4 points per game, a top-20 national average and an increase of more than 22 points per game from the 2021 season. 

Stewart is having a standout season at running back, accruing 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns in nine games. 

Noller has been both efficient and productive at quarterback, throwing for 1,613 yards and 14 touchdowns, with half of his scoring passes coming against ranked opponents (Lenoir-Rhyne and Newberry). His big-yardage passes led to the game-winning field goal that elevated Limestone past Mars Hill on Sept. 29, a win that bolsters the Saints' growing playoff resume with Mars Hill leading the SAC Mountain and its lone conference loss coming in that contest. 

"It’s our quarterback," Furrey credited as the driving force behind Limestone's offensive success. "The growth of what Dustin has done over the last four or five weeks has allowed us to be a very effective offense...And what he’s done has not only allowed our offense to really develop, but I think our team has gained an unbelievable confidence in our potential and I think our guys are having a lot of fun doing it."

Noller — who himself aspires to move into coaching once his playing career wraps — functions as an extension of the staff onto the field. 

"Our offensive coordinator actually gives me the role to go to players one-on-one and coach them, teach them, and I feel like I have the respect of every single player on the offense where, when I’m speaking, they’re going to listen to me," Noller said. "Not only that, they’re going to trust what I’m saying, on the field where I’m starting to get a little bit of freedom."

In this role, Noller's gained firsthand experience managing the "special" dynamic that shapes a football program, learning the stories and backgrounds of teammates to build bonds with fellow Saints who come from as far away as Arizona; graduate transfer Drew Dixon, a Tucson native, joined the program after previously playing at the Power Five-conference University of Arizona. 

And while Furrey emphasized the importance of a coaching staff making its priority the players, growth through learning from the experiences has trickled down from the coaches to the players, Noller explained. 

"The whole season’s been fun, starting from spring ball when they first came in, growing with the staff, learning from them and what they’ve been through," he said. "It’s been fun building the relationships you never really thought you could do."


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