A Culture Change: 2017 Georgia Southern Eagles Season Preview

2016 Record: 5-7

Notable Wins: Troy, @USA, 

Notable Losses: @GaSt, App, @stAte, ULL

Last Bowl Game:  2015, GoDaddy Bowl

Departures:

  • Kevin Ellison-QB
  • Favian Upshaw-QB
  • Matt Breida-RB
  • BJ Johnson-WR
  • Mike Summers-WR
  • Montay Crockett-WR
  • Ukeme Eligwe-LB
  • Ironhead Gallon-LB/S
  • William Bussey-LB
  • Bernard Dawson-DE
  • Jay Ellison-DT
  • Jonathan Battle-DT
  • Younghoe Koo-K

Keys to 2017

There is nothing quite as cleansing as a Beautiful Eagle Creek baptism. It’s necessary if you intend to wipe off all of the bad mojo from last season. Eagle fans, players, and coaches hope that 2017 will be a bounce-back year for Georgia Southern. Following the surprise departure of Head Coach Willie Fritz to Tulane at the end of the 2015 season, a series of unfortunate events lead to a 5-7 season last year. It was a tough pill to swallow.

Despite inheriting a battle-tested, senior-laden squad, head coach Tyson Summers was unable to finish with a winning record in his first season at the helm. 2016 felt like a squandered opportunity for sure. The schedule was demanding; it included a month stretch in the middle of the season that included stops at Kalamazoo to play Western Michigan, Arkansas State, Georgia Tech, and Las Cruces, New Mexico to play NMSU. Oh and when they got back to Statesboro from the Mountain Time Zone, the Eagles had to play hated rivals Appalachian State that following Thursday night, with an additional road trip to Oxford, MS to play Ole Miss for good measure.

The schedule was challenging. It wasn’t the only reason this team struggled. But it was a factor. For a first-year head coach trying to figure it out, it was not ideal. According to reports, Summers had to make major changes to the coaching staff to survive.

Gone is the dysfunctional offensive coordinator duo of Rance Gillespie and David Dean. Gillespie and Dean are Chris Hatcher disciples, coaches known for employing spread/air raid attacks. Not ideal guys schematically to run a triple option offense.  Their experiment at creating some weird hybrid offense failed miserably last year, and both were let go at the end of the season. Now both coaches are currently suing the school for violation of the contract. They allege that AD Tom Kleinlein pressured both coaches into contract renegotiations before they were let go. Keep an eye on this story as the season progresses.

The firings of Dean and Gillespie paved the way for Bryan Cook to be hired from Georgia Tech as the new offensive coordinator. Cook was the quarterbacks and B-backs coach at Georgia Tech and offensive coordinator at Cal Poly from 2009 to 2012. He knows how to run the option inside and out. Veteran OL Coach Bob Bodine comes in from Jeff Monken’s staff at Army, also former OC at the Citadel and Juston Wood is the WR coach, the former OC at Cal-Poly.

All three new offensive coaches (Cook, Bodine, Wood) have previous offensive coordinator experience and come from the Paul Johnson/Triple Option coaching tree that has been so kind to the Eagles in the past. For whatever reason, that most of Eagle nation is still trying to figure out, Summers hired two in Dean and Gillespie to take over an offense that had led the FBS in rushing in 2015 and 2016. In short, the triple option is back in full force.

The new staff has a wealth of triple option experience. On top of this Dwayne Chandler takes over the Strength & Conditioning program that is vital to the triple option’s success. His resume includes stops at the Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys, Oklahoma Sooners, Minnesota Golden Gophers, and Memphis Tigers. A quality hire.

If you know anything about Georgia Southern football, the triple option is held in high regard, to say the least. The offense is seen as tied to the football program’s identity as much as yellow buses and numbers on the side of the helmet. “Option U” has been a term that has been tossed around by fans from time to time.

The offense is not what I’m worried about this season. The triple option is not that foreign to this roster, and there is enough talent returning on the offensive line and skill positions to help along the new QB. The defensive front 7 is the bigger question mark. Despite losing a ton of experience, at Georgia Southern has the infrastructure remaining to make it to a bowl game in 2017.

Image result for la ramsby
Courtesy of GS Athletics.

Offense Outlook

*-denotes redshirt

TR-denotes transfer

Projected Starters:
QB: Shai Werts-FR*, LaBaron Anthony-TR/JR*,
RB1: Wesley Fields-JR, Monteo Garrett-JR*,
RB2: LA Ramsby-SR, DeMarcus Godfrey-SR*,
Z: Malik Henry-JR, Darion Anderson-FR*, Quan Howard-SO
X: Obe Fortune-SO, Mark Michaud-SO, D’Ondre Glenn-SO
Y/SB: Myles Campbell-SR, John Wesley Kennedy-FR,
TE/HB: Ellis Richardson-TR/SR, Ross Alexander-SR,
LT: Tommy Boynton-JR, Lawrence Edwards-FR*
LG: Ryan Northrup-JR, Jakob Cooper-SO*
C: Curtis Rainey-JR, Alex Smith-FR*
RG: Jeremiah Culbreth-JR, Jake Edwards-TR/JR
RT: Drew Wilson-SO, Tristan Hill-JR

Shai (pronounced Shy) Werts is carrying the torch as the next option QB at GS. He has put in the work over the summer and fall and is the captain of the new accountability system the coaching staff has implemented. Success this season hinges on Werts staying healthy and at least being above-average as a redshirt freshman. He has the luxury of a veteran offensive line and depth at the skill positions to make things easier. There is not a lot of depth behind him at QB however. His primary backup is junior LaBaron Anthony. He has had a total of 30 snaps in an Eagle uniform.  But Anthony has had a good camp and has a good arm, he’s going to see playing time one way or another even if he is not the starter. There’s a clear separation between the top two, Werts and Anthony, and the newcomers JUCO transfer Kado Brown and freshman Jaalon Frazier. Brown is a lock for the 3rd string spot with Frazier slated to redshirt.

Fields is your ideal all-purpose back ready to take over as the primary ball carrier. Despite being the third or fourth option in the backfield during his freshman and sophomore seasons, Fields sometimes stole the show with his playmaking ability. He’s average a whooping 6.0 yards a carry and 1174 yards in his first two seasons. He will share the backfield with LA Ramsby is your prototypical physical, between-the-tackles runner. Ramsby is a superb short yardage and goal line back and compliments Fields’ style well. Monteo Garrett emerged in camp as a speed demon and could be the next Matt Breida. He broke off several long runs in camp. DeMarcus Godfrey sits behind LA Ramsby and has also had a good camp. Freshmen Matt LaRoche and Grant Walker could sneak into the discussion.

Myles Campbell is the playmaker of this group. Despite his short stature (5-6 160), he might be the most versatile player on offense. You will see Campbell line up in several different spots. Malik Henry should anchor the other receiver spot and be the deep threat this offense needs to stretch opposing defenses. Obe Fortune might be the MVP of camp so far with his highlight reel catches. He will start opposite of Henry with Darion “D1” Anderson, D’Ondre Glenn, Mark Michaud, and Hampton McConnell providing depth. Keep an eye on freshmen Dexter Carter and John Wesley Kennedy as well. They are super talented.

Under new OL Coach Bob Bodine and Strength & Conditioning Coach Dwayne Chandler, this group looks to play good ole’ fashioned Georgia Southern smash-mouth football. They want this group to go back to what they do best, which is blocking downhill needed for the triple option attack. Northrup, Culbreth, Rainey, and Wilson are returning starters, and Tommy Boynton is a returning starter from two seasons ago (injured last year). It is a veteran group that has benefitted greatly from Bodine and Chandler’s guidance in the offseason. Success on offense starts in the trenches and the Eagles look to have another nasty, experienced OL. Even the 2nd string group is relatively deep with UGA transfer Jake Edwards and highly-rated Lawrence Edwards providing depth.

Image result for chris delarosa georgia southern
Courtesy of GS Athletics.

Defense Outlook

Projected Starters:
DE: Deshon Cooper-TR/JR*, JB Kouassi-SO
DT: Logan Hunt-JR,  Ian Bush-JR,
DT: Darrius Sapp-SR, Zack Copeland-JR
DE: Traver Vliem-FR*, Brian Miller-FR
SLB: Todd Bradley-SO, Chris Harris-FR
MLB: Chris DeLaRosa-SR, Jacory Belvin-JR
WLB: Rashad Byrd-FR, Tomarcio Reese-TR/JR
NB: RJ Murray-JR, Sean Freeman-TR/JR
CB: Jessie Liptrot-SO, Kindle Vildor-SO
SS: Jay Bowdry-SO, Martial Washington-FR*
FS: Joshua Moon-JR, Amari Thompson-FR*
CB: Monquavion Brinson-SO, Christian Matthew-SO

Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Costantini added DL Coach to his list of responsibilities this season. This is something he has experience doing at UCF, Southern Miss, UAB, and UTEP. He hopes to get more out of a unit that produced only 11 sacks all season in 2016. Traver Vliem and Deshon Cooper have had productive springs and falls. Savannah-based freshman Brian Miller has been the buzz of this position group in camp. Someone is going to have to emerge at DE bottom line. Logan Hunt and Darrius Sapp are the veteran anchors to the front four. Hunt has seen time on the interior and has the size to play DT. Sapp and Hunt will likely be the two DTs. Zack Copeland, Ian Bush, and Chris Washington will vie time in the rotation behind Hunt and Sapp.

Replacing Eligwe and Gallon won’t be easy. Chris DeLaRosa is the anchor in the middle of the linebackers. He’s been anointed the leader of the defense and accompanied Summers to Sun Belt Media Days. Joining DeLaRosa at Sam and Will will be Todd Bradley and Rashad Byrd. Because of the nature of college football and the spread offense, outside linebackers have to be fast enough to cover the entire field. By all accounts, Bradley and Byrd can do just that.

The strength of the secondary was a weakness going into last season. Several freshman were pressed into action. The trial by fire has produced quite a few gems going into this year. Bowdry and Moon have a growing reputation for being hard hitters. Talented redshirt freshmen Martial Washington and Amari Thompson, as well as Sean Freeman, provide good depth at the safety spots.  The group of Liptrot, Brinson, Vildor, and Matthew are as good as a young group of CBs in the conference. Christian Matthew, in particular, stands at 6-3 175 and can be deployed at CB, Nickel, or even Safety. Matthew, Freeman, and RJ Murray could vie with Matthew for the Nickelback spot that gets often used in this spread-happy conference.

Special Teams Outlook

Projected Starters:
K: Tyler Bass-SO, Luis Martinez-FR*
P: Matt Flynn-SR, Magill Buerle-FR*
KR: Malik Henry-JR, Myles Campbell-SR
PR: Myles Campbell-SR, Quan Howard-SO
LS: Colton Piatt-FR*, Logan Cox-FR

Special Teams lost Lou Groza finalist Young-Hoe Koo. Kickoff specialist Tyler Bass has big shoes to fill with Koo moving onto the NFL (Chargers). Luis Martinez could factor in if Bass struggles. Flynn returns as the punter. A combination of Malik Henry, Myles Campbell, and Quan Howard will most likely split returning duties. Freshmen JW Kennedy and Matt LaRouche are sleepers here.

How Will Georgia Southern Do This Season?

2017 Georgia Southern Eagles Football Schedule:

Saturday, Sep. 2 at Auburn Tigers, Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, AL 7:30pm ET SECN
Saturday, Sep. 9 New Hampshire Wildcats, Paulson Stadium, Statesboro, GA 6:00pm ET ESPN3
Saturday, Sep. 23 at Indiana Hoosiers, Memorial Stadium, Bloomington, IN Time TBA FoxSportsGo
Wednesday, Oct. 4 Arkansas State Red Wolves, Paulson Stadium, Statesboro, GA 8:00pm ET ESPN2
Saturday, Oct. 14 New Mexico State Aggies (HC), Paulson Stadium, Statesboro, GA 6:00pm ET ESPN3
Saturday, Oct. 21 at UMass Minutemen, McGuirk Stadium, Amherst, MA ESPN3
Saturday, Oct. 28 at Troy Trojans, Veterans Memorial Stadium, Troy, AL ESPN3
Saturday, Nov. 4 Georgia State Panthers, Paulson Stadium, Statesboro, GA 3:00pm ET ESPN3
Thursday, Nov. 9 at Appalachian State Mountaineers, Kidd Brewer Stadium, Boone, NC 7:30pm ET ESPNU
Saturday, Nov. 18 South Alabama Jaguars, Paulson Stadium, Statesboro, GA 3:00pm ET TV ESPN3
Saturday, Nov. 25 at UL Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns, Cajun Field, Lafayette, LA Time TBA TV ESPN3
Saturday, Dec. 2 at Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, Brooks Stadium, Conway, SC Time TBA TV ESPN3

After watching the first three weeks of training camp at Beautiful Eagle Creek, you can’t help but notice a new energy in the air. Tyson Summers learned a lot this offseason from the mistakes he made last year. It takes a ton of maturity to admit you’ve made mistakes, dig in, and try to fix said mistakes. This team has a different attitude than it did last year. The right coaches are in place. The schedule is easier than it was last year. If the offense is clicking after the New Hampshire game, keep an eye on the game against Indiana on September 23. Eagles have a bye week to prepare for an Indiana team that is ripe for an upset there after a controversial coaching change there after last season.

Ultimately the turning point of the season comes October 4 vs. Arkansas St. The game is on a Wednesday (#FunBelt) at Paulson. It is the Sun Belt Conference opener and ultimately the first conference measuring stick for the Eagles. Win that game, and they have the momentum to tear through the rest of the schedule. Lose that game, and it’s time to temper expectations.

Troy, App State, and Louisiana are the tough road conference games. The Georgia State game is on November 4 at Paulson, after losing to the Panthers two straight years (completely unacceptable) that is a must-win game. South Alabama is always a tough out. The year finishes out with daiquiris on Myrtle Beach as the Eagles visit their avian brethren the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. If we don’t make a bowl game, this date in early December will be our de facto bowl game.

My prediction? I refuse to be pessimistic. I think the offense will score points. There’s too much talent on the OL and at the skill positions.  The defensive secondary is good enough to create turnovers as DeLaRosa, Hunt, and Sapp brings along the youngsters in the front 7. The Eagles will be better than people expect.

8-4 is obtainable with losses @Auburn, @App State, @Troy, and @Louisiana. I’ll go out on a limb and say Indiana will be the Eagles next P5 upset victim. Eagles win the SBC opener vs. Arkansas St after ten days to prepare. With a freshman QB, the bigger moments might be too much for Shai Werts, which is why I believe he will struggle on the road this season.

While the Auburn game might be trial by fire, the following week vs. New Hampshire is an opportunity for him to get settled in. With two early bye weeks before the Indiana and Arkansas St games before easier games vs. NMSU and UMass. The Eagles are well positioned for an early season run before the schedule gets harder late in the season.

Werts is a tremendous talent and by all accounts mature. While the Auburn game might be trial by fire, the following week vs. New Hampshire is an opportunity for him to get settled in really. With two early bye weeks before the Indiana and Arkansas St games before easier games vs. NMSU and UMass. The Eagles are poised for a bounce-back year and a trip to a bowl game.


	

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