Five Things to Watch in Georgia Southern’s Opener vs. SC State

It’s finally here. The Eagles will kick off their 2018 season at 6 p.m. Saturday vs. South Carolina State.
Anticipation is high. Eagles’ fans are eager to see their team return to their winning ways. It’s been an entertaining offseason, to say the least, Chad Lunsford has done his best to win over the fanbase. But nothing wins people over quite like winning actual football games.
Winning SHOULD be an easy task Saturday. The Eagles are expected to dominate this game. SC State won only three games last season. Odds Shark has a projected point spread of 31.5 for this game. Georgia Southern leads the all-time series 7-0 over the Bulldogs. The last time these two schools faced the Eagles defeated the Bulldogs 41-16 in the opening round of the 2010 FCS playoffs.
Here are the five story lines to keep an eye on.

1. Shai Werts

It all starts with the QB. The redshirt sophomore enters his 2nd season as the full-time starter. Last year Werts was thrown into the fire and performed admirably, given the circumstances. He set school records for freshman Georgia Southern quarterbacks. Werts threw for more yards (929) than Tracy Ham did his freshman year and gained more total yards (1,651) than Kevin Ellison did during his. There’s no question that he’s very talented.
That being said, Werts was inconsistent at times last season, often relying on his athleticism to get himself out of jams. But he got better as the season progressed, especially after Lunsford took over. Now he has an option guru with over thirty years of experience guiding him, Bob DeBesse.
On top of having the learn a new offense, Werts has had to deal with an unspeakable tragedy off-the-field when his grandmother’s house burned down. Please don’t forget to donate.
In order for Georgia Southern to rejoin the ranks of the upper echelon of the Sun Belt Conference, the Eagles need solid, consistent play from their QB. How he performs Saturday will offer us a glimpse into his mastery of DeBesse’s system.

2. The Offensive Line

Bob DeBesse’s system is supposed to be a return to a system closer to what the Eagles ran under Willie Fritz and Doug Ruse in 2014 and 2015. After all, DeBesse created this shotgun/pistol-based option offense during his time as Fritz’s offensive coordinator at Sam Houston State. One of the trademarks of those Fritz/Ruse offenses was the exceptional play from the hogs up-front. Their zone blocking scheme created massive running lanes for Matt Breida, Kevin Ellison, LA Ramsby, and company during their short stint in Statesboro.
But offensive line play basically fell off a shelf under Summers. Going from 363 yards rushing per game in ’15 to 222 in ’17. DeBesse and OL Coach Ron Hudson have worked hard during the fall and the spring to coach these guys up. Despite returning a lot of experience, several notable changes were made to the two-deep that was released Monday:

LT: Jeremiah Culbreth / Jawaski Webb
LG: Jakob Cooper / Aaron Dowdell
C: Curtis Rainey / Drake Grall
RG: Lawrence Edwards / Ryan Northrup
RT: Brian Miller / Jake Edwards

Culbreth and Rainey are the only non-surprises on there. Cooper, Edwards, and Miller are brand new starters with little experience. They’ve been pressed into action partly due to injuries to the more experienced Ryan Northrup and Drew Wilson, partly due to how well they’ve played in practice. Juco transfers Jawaski Webb and Aaron Dowdell, as well as former UGA Bulldog Jake Edwards, provide quality depth.
The continuity is more important on the offensive line than any other personnel group. There isn’t much time for this group to develop that with a tough matchup against UMass in week two looming. The SC State game will provide them valuable reps that will help them gel.

3. Explosive Plays

Tyson Summers’ first game as head coach in 2016, he beat Savannah State in what can only be described as the least impressive 54-0 victory in football history. Sounds ridiculous right? Well, the scoreline does not tell the entire story.
While the Eagles methodically dismantled the Tigers that day, something was off. The offense, despite returning Ellison, Upshaw, Breida, and Ramsby could not produce any explosive plays. Of their nine drives that ended in touchdowns, six of them took six plays or more. They had only two runs over 30 yards all game. They also committed two turnovers. This was mostly the same offense that destroyed MAC champions Bowling Green in the GoDaddy Bowl nine months prior.
To put that into perspective, three years prior, while Georgia Southern was still members of FCS, the Eagles had beaten Savannah State 77-9. Deterioration under Summers was already evident if you looked closely enough.
Whether the Georgia Southern offense can produce home-runs will be an exciting subplot Saturday night.

4. 3-4 Defense

The offense steals most of the headlines at Georgia Southern. Understandably, we are all guilty of having the option on the brain. But the defense is making a pretty significant change as well. It’s transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4. By all accounts, the defense has looked impressive in fall and spring.
The defensive line is deep. The secondary is deep. The linebackers, lead by Tomarcio Reese and Jay Bowdry, aren’t bad either. Expectations are high for this side of the ball. Eagle Nation is hoping that Scot Sloan can mold this defense into what he and Nate Woody had in Boone the last few years.
How much pressure this scheme can create on SC State’s backfield will be something to watch out for.

5. True Freshmen

The NCAA made a change to its redshirt rule, it now allows players to participate in up to four games and keep their redshirt eligibility. Expect programs across the country to take full advantage of this rule. Georgia Southern is no different. Coach Lunsford recently named a few true freshmen that have been impressive in practice.

Q: Who are some true freshmen who impressed during camp and are sure-fire locks to see significant action this season?
CL: I’ll start off with C.J. Wright. He’s a guy who’s really shown a lot at the nose tackle spot and shown he’s ready to play. Davarius Bargnare is a guy who came in and did a really good job at receiver. He’s still learning how to play at college football speed, but he’s catching on. Marcus Rogers is another receiver who came into camp with a great work ethic. He’s earned his time to be able to play in these games. Another one would be NaJee Thompson. I don’t know how much we’ll see of him early, but he’s a guy who started out at defensive back who we moved to receiver and is really starting to show some things there. Justin Birdsong at corner is another guy who has shown he can do some good things for us if he gets into a game. I’m sure there will be others, but those are the ones who stand out to me right now.

Wright, Thompson, Rogers, Birdsong, and Cross all appeared on this first depth chart. Guys like Davarius Bargnare, Parker Devine, and even QB Justin Tomlin could get playing time Saturday as well.

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