One of my favorite parts of the summer is when the season preview magazines start coming out. Athlon, Lindy’s, Street & Smith, Phil Steele; when I was younger, I would buy as many as I can and read them cover-to-cover. I was a weird kid that liked to create hypothetical depth charts of my favorite teams. Not much has changed about that. What has changed is my spending habits. I might buy one magazine a year these days. It’s usually the magazine that picks Georgia Southern to finish the highest, or Phil Steele, who unquestionably does the best job out of all of them.
This year there is a mixed bag of opinions on what Georgia Southern might be in 2020. App State is the consensus favorite to win the Sun Belt East but after that? The Eagles have been picked to finish anywhere between 2nd and 4th in the East. Las Vegas has the over/under win total pegged at 5.5. No one knows quite what this team will look like when/if football gets played this Fall. Here is the money quote from RotoWorld’s preview:
Our question — can Georgia Southern really truly hit another gear? Is there another gear to this thing? Because for as fun as the upset potential might be, as experienced as the offense might be, this is a team that almost lost to Coastal Carolina last season, that was blown out by Troy. Playing in the same division as Appalachian makes things that much more difficult.
When you look at Georgia Southern on paper, there’s plenty of reasons to believe this team can win ten or more games in 2020. There’s talent, experience, a coach who won 10 games in 2018, no Arkansas State on the schedule. But the game is not played on paper, can the Eagles take the next step into the top tier of the Sun Belt? That’s what this season is all about.
Shifting gears, it’s time to look at the defense, starting with the Front 7. Who by the way, Phil Steele loves:
The D-Block, as DL Coach Vic Cabral dubs them, is arguably the strongest position group on the team. There’s talent, depth, and experience upfront. Headlined All-Sun Belt 1st teamer Raymond Johnson, the defensive line looks to improve a defense that finished 27th in 3rd down conversion rate and 38th in opponents’ yards per rush.
Johnson is the early front-runner to be the next Eagle drafted by the NFL, following in the footsteps of Kindle Vildor and Tyler Bass, who were drafted in April. Recently Johnson took advantage of a recent NCAA rule change that now allows players to wear number zero. I’m here for it.
Here is the depth chart the coaching staff released after spring ball.
DE: 92, Raymond Johnson III 6-3, 270, Sr.
59, Elijah Campbell Jr. 6-3, 255, r-So.
NT: 94, C.J. Wright 6-0, 290, Jr.
57, Gavin Adcock 5-11, 275, r-Jr.
DE: 98, Dillon Springer 6-1, 250, r-Jr.
49, Traver Vliem 6-4, 260, r-Sr. -or-
93, AJ Watkins 6-2. 265. So.
DE: Justin Ellis 6-2, 250, r-Jr., Jordan Mitchell 6-3, 250, Fr., Brandon Wilson 6-1, 250, Fr., Jeremy Smith 6-4, 275, R-Jr., Kaylen Wright 6-4, 250, R-So.
NT: Parker Devine 6-3, 265, R-So., Robb Bozeman 6-4, 265, R-Sr., Kierron Smith 6-0, 325, R-Fr., Amaru Herring 6-1, 285, R-Fr., Cauldric Isles 5-11, 290, R-Fr., Trevon Locke 6-2, 285, Fr.
Losses: Ty Phillips
The defensive line did lose nose tackle Ty Phillips to graduation but in steps the athletic C.J. Wright. C.J., as you might remember, has been known to tote the rock from time to time. Wright was named to Phil Steele’s all-SBC 3rd team and had 5 TFLs and 34 tackles splitting time with Phillips last season.
At the other defensive end spot, expect Dillon Springer and Traver Vliem to split snaps. Springer came on strong towards the end of 2019 and ended up tying for the team lead in sacks. The coaching staff was super impressed with how he progressed in the weight room and as a leader among the group. Springer is a dark horse for a breakout season in 2020. Vliem is no slouch in his own right. He started all 13 games in 2019, tallying 5.5 TFLs.
Beyond the starters, there is still a lot of talent on the defensive line. Justin Ellis transferred in from Syracuse during the summer of 2018 but suffered a left knee injury in fall camp that forced him to miss all of 2019. Elijah Campbell, A.J. Watkins, Parker Devine, Jordan Mitchell, Trevon Locke, and Brandon Wilson are all 3-star talents according to 247 Sports. It’ll be interesting to see who emerges from that talented group and who gets stashed (redshirted) away. It’s a hard group to crack.
MLB: 36, Reynard Ellis 6-1, 230, r-Jr.
32, Chris Harris Jr. 6-1, 235, Sr.
WLB: 45, Rashad Byrd 6-0, 230, r-Sr.
11, Todd Bradley 6-0, 225, r-Sr.
Others: Tre Allen, 6-1 225, r-Jr., Jon Ferguson, 6-1 225, r-So., Caree Collier, 6-0 200, r-Fr., Logan Powell, 6-2 230, R-So., Connor Lawson, 6-1 210, R-Jr., Will McCarty, 6-1 225, R-Fr.
This position group is as reliable as Travis Cunningham’s mustache. Reynard Ellis and Rashad Byrd finished 1st and 2nd on the team in total tackles and 2nd and 3rd in TFLs. Both of their names are littered across preseason all-Sun Belt lists. You could argue that the two best inside linebackers in the conference are on the same team.
Backing Byrd and Ellis up are probably the two most experienced backup linebackers in the conference. A pair of seniors, Todd Bradley and Chris Harris Jr., have a combined 14 starts as Eagles. Todd Bradley overcame a string of severe knee injuries and a long rehab to return to the field last year.
Beyond the two-deep, Tre Allen, Jon Ferguson, and Caree Collier look to be the future at inside linebacker.
Anchor: 21, Zyon McGee 6-1, 215, r-So.
54, Benz Josue 6-0, 210, r-Jr.
Dog: 47, Randy Wade Jr. 6-2, 275, r-Sr.
33, Quin Williams 6-3, 260, r-So.
Losses: Jay Bowdry, Alvin Ward Jr., Lane Ecton,
Others: Marques Watson-Trent, 5-11 190, Fr., Jalen Jackson, 6-0 225, Fr., Thomas Cook, 6-5 230, R-So.
Outside linebacker is the biggest unknown on the front 7. Jay Bowdry, Alvin Ward Jr., and Lane Ecton are significant losses. Although there’s quality on the two-deep, there are not many bodies. Pressing freshmen into duty or position changes might be in order if there are any significant injuries here.
One player you can count on to contribute is Randy Wade Jr. Wade led the team in tackles for loss (12), sacks (4), and was 4th on the team in tackles. With his speed at 6-2 275, Wade could conceivably play himself onto an NFL roster in 2021.
Backing him up is Quin Williams, one of the highest-rated recruits Georgia Southern has ever signed. With the transfer of Alvin Ward Jr., it allows Williams to earn more playing time. Eagles fans saw flashes of what he could do against Minnesota when he tallied two sacks. We want to see more of it.
At the Anchor position, the starting spot is more up for grabs. Zyon McGee and Benz Josue will compete for the starting job. If neither impress, don’t rule out the possibility of safety Kenderick Duncan sliding up to anchor. He’s got the size and speed that’s perfect for the position.