The most important question of the offseason for the Georgia Southern Eagles is how to improve the offense. In 2019, the Eagle offense was not very good. Georgia Southern ranked 70th nationally in points per game, 118th in yards per game, 109th in yards per play, and a predictable 130th in passing yards per game. Even though they ranked 8th in the country in rushing yards per game at 252.8, by program standards that ranks 28th in the modern era. There were a staggering nine 3-and-outs on opening drives. It simply wasn’t fun to watch.
Eagle nation’s frustration with the offense was palpable all season long, with offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse bearing the brunt of criticism from fans. It all boiled over after Georgia Southern’s 23-16 loss in the Cure Bowl to Liberty. The Eagles managed only 154 yards rushing, and a measly 3.3 yards per carry against a Liberty run defense that finished the season ranked 96th in FBS. The frustration with DeBesse among Eagle fans got to the point where the athletic department had to issue a press release to confirm that he was indeed coming back.
To be fair, not all of the struggles were Bob DeBesse’s fault. The offensive line was battered with injuries. The two biggest playmakers on offense, Shai Werts and Wesley Kennedy III, misses several games early in the season. The Eagles played a tremendously tough schedule that included trips to play three ranked teams LSU, Minnesota, and App State. The weather was crappy all season. All things considered, 2019 was just a weird season in general.
Be that as it may, for a fanbase that is used to explosive Georgia Southern offenses, the lack of production is unacceptable. It appears that Chad Lunsford is committed to finding a way for the Eagles’ unique gun-option offense to work. There isn’t a man in North America with more experience running that offense than DeBesse, with the possible exception of Doug Ruse.
Return of the Ruse
No position groups have undergone more change this offseason than the receivers and tight ends. Both position groups will have a different coach in 2020. The biggest football related news of the offseason was the return of former Georgia Southern offensive coordinator Doug Ruse to coach tight ends. When it was announced that Doug Ruse was coming back, Eagle Nation did a proverbial back-flip.
When Ruse was the offensive coordinator from 2014-15, Georgia Southern’s offense was prolific. The offense averaged 381 rushing yards per game in ’14 and 363 in ’15. Those seasons rank 2nd (’14) and 5th (’15) all-time in terms of yards per rush in Eagle history. Ruse remains a fan favorite among Eagle fans to this day. Kevin Ellison has called Ruse was the best coach he ever played for. Very high praise.
As for wide receivers, Dimitri Donald, who filled in as interim during the Cure Bowl after Lamar Owens left, was promoted to full-time. He’s a young guy that brings a lot of energy. Perimeter blocking at WR was not ideal last season. Perhaps Donald can fix that.
During the spring ball press conference, Bob DeBesse hinted at several changes to the offense, particularly with regards to the passing game.
DeBesse mentions that they have to get better in the passing game. He says he “threw everything out as far as the passing game is concerned” and that “some things that we’ll do this spring are brand new to me.” Additionally, he wants the offense to be more diverse and rely less on two-back sets. If you read between the lines, you can almost see Doug Ruse’s influence shine through on some of those comments. What are these new offensive concepts? No-huddle? RPO? More passing? Time will tell.
Before spring practice was canceled and the world turned to crap, this was THE story-line. People wanted to see a more explosive Eagle offense, whatever that means. Eyes will be on DeBesse, Ruse, and company to get that done. There is some real talent at receiver and tight end, maximizing that talent is a must. Speaking of which, lets take a look at what we have.
WR (Z): Emil Smith 6-1 170 R-Fr., Justin Harris 5-10 180 Fr. -or- Dexter Carter Jr. 6-0 195 R-Sr.
WR (X): Darion Anderson 6-0 195 R-Sr., Najee Thompson 5-11 195 Jr.
Others: Jallah Zeze Jr. 6-0 220 Jr., Mills Ridings 6-2 195 R-So., Jordan Bennett 5-11 195 Fr.. Quincy Darnell 6-2 200 R-Fr., Drew Rutledge 6-0 185 R-Fr.
Slot (H): Khaleb Hood 5-10 170 So., Malik Murray 6-0 180 R-Sr.
Others: Darius Lewis 5-10 170 R-Fr., Tony Dinkins-McCall 5-8 165 Fr., Bo White 5-10 170
The coaching staff was kind enough to put out a preliminary depth chart at each position before spring practice was called off. Granted, this is only based off of winter workouts and a week of practice, but I’m in no position to argue with them. Dimitri Donald’s remarks about the wide receiver group were among the most interesting. The four big takeaways were:
- Emil Smith emerging as a starter.
- Dimitri Donald gushed about true freshman Justin Harris
- Khaleb Hood leap-frogged senior Malik Murray as the starter at slot.
- Najee Thompson listed at X rather than slot.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but I feel better about this position than I did in December when Mark Michaud and Colby Ransom exhausted their eligibility. Michaud, in particular, made some really clutch catches for the Eagles last season. Between Emil Smith, Dexter Carter Jr., and Justin Harris, someone will have to emerge as the big-bodied, security blanket target receiver that Michaud was in 2019. Donald spoke very highly of freshmen Emil Smith and Justin Harris, both three-stars coming out of high school. Carter Jr. is the veteran of the group who has played on special teams for much of his Eagle career, it’ll be exciting to see if he can contribute more on offense. Jallah Zeze and true freshman Jordan Bennett will also be interesting to watch.
Darion “D1” Anderson is the only receiver returning that has seen extensive action on the offensive side of the ball. Anderson is as close to a homerun threat as Georgia Southern has on offense. The threat of the deep ball over the top has always been a component of the triple-option offense. Perhaps the new offensive concepts will help D1 become more involved in the offense.
Another potential deep threat at receiver might be Najee Thompson. Thompson has earned a ‘special’ place in the hearts of Eagle fans by being an absolute devil on special teams the last two years. The former South Carolina track star has the speed necessary to become a dangerous offensive weapon, it’s been a little disappointing not to see him touch the ball more. He’s still listed as a slot on the roster but was listed as an X here, he could play at either spot. Maybe this year is the year for Najee to emerge on offense.
As far as slot receiver goes, Khaleb Hood and Malik Murray have a solid stranglehold on the position. Hood, in particular, came into spring with a “different demeanor,” according to Donald. Hood didn’t touch the ball much his freshman year, but when he did, he made big plays, averaging 12.3 yards per touch. Malik Murray led the Eagles in receptions last year with 20. A cool aspect of the slot position in this offense is its versatility. Expect to see Hood and Murray not only catch passes but also line up in the backfield and take handoffs/pitches.
Beyond those two, redshirt freshman Darius Lewis and early enrollee Tony Dinkins-McCall appear to be the future at that position.
TE: Cam Brown 6-2 235 r-Sr., Beau Johnson 6-1 225 r-Fr., Chase Hancock 6-0 245 So., D.J. Butler 6-2 230 R-Jr.
Others: Sean Pelkisson 6-2 222 Fr., Javian Boykin 6-0 230 R-Fr., Drayton Barnard 6-2 225 R-Fr.
Despite all the high hopes that Doug Ruse would ride into town on a white horse and save the day, he’s technically only coming back to coach tight ends. Which in itself is an excellent thing. You need some absolute cruisers to come around the edge and knock some defenders blocks off if you really want this offense to work. Luckily we got an outstanding group of them for Ruse to work with.
It starts with the senior Cam Brown, the returning starter at the position. He has the blue-collar mentality that Chad Lunsford tries to instill in the team. Brown is the vocal leader of this position group.
Behind Brown, you have Beau Johnson and Chase Hancock. Both Johnson and Hancock started a pair of games towards the end of the season, and both played very well. Johnson was a three-star recruit coming out of high school and was still able to retain his redshirt. Hancock got extended playing time against ULM, Arkansas St., Georgia St., and Liberty and is described by Ruse as a “grinder.”
The wild card of the group is D.J. Butler. Butler played in all 13 games in 2018 and was penciled in as the starter at the beginning of 2019 before a knee injury forced him to miss the entire season. He is a devastating blocker, if he’s healthy, he will be right there in the mix.
The next generation of Eagle tight ends appears to be in good hands with 2020 recruit Sean Pelkission. Out of Downingtown, Pennsylvania, Pelkisson earned 1st team offense and 1st team defense honors, as well as 2nd team all-decade in southeast Pennsylvania for his play at TE and DE in high school. Looking at his highlights, he reminds me a lot of Eagle great James Dean.
Stay tuned for next week as I look at the hogs on the offensive line, thanks for reading!