Things to Watch for as Georgia Southern Starts Spring Practice

This week marks the start of spring practice for Georgia Southern. It’s the unofficial beginning of perhaps the most highly anticipated season of Chad Lunsford’s tenure as head coach. In the weeks after the final buzzer sounded in the 38-3 drubbing of Louisiana Tech in the New Orleans Bowl, Lunsford oversaw a complete overhaul of the offensive staff. In their place, Lunsford assembled a very experienced and talented team around new offensive coordinator Doug Ruse. This new staff will have to find the best man to replace four-year starter at QB Shai Werts. No small task.

In addition to Werts, long time staples in Eagle blue like Raymond Johnson III, Rashad Byrd, Drew Wilson, and Kenderick Duncan are also gone. There’s a lot of questions swirling around the 2021 team and spring practice is our first glimpse of what the future may hold. Spring practice culminates with the first-ever televised Blue-White game (ESPN+) on April 21. Here’s what to keep an eye on in the weeks to come.

The Quarterback Battle

For the first time since the 2016 season, Shai Werts is not the presumptive starter for Georgia Southern. After an incredible four years as a starter for the Eagles, where he peppered his name across the Eagle record books, Werts transferred to Louisville and switched from QB to WR in hopes of increasing his chances of making it to the NFL. Without question, the quarterback battle is the number one storyline of the spring. It’s been a long time since there’s been uncertainty at this position. But luckily, there’s a very talented group of men vying for the job.

For the first time since the 2016 season, Shai Werts is not the presumptive starter for Georgia Southern. After an incredible four years as a starter for the Eagles, where he peppered his name across the Eagle record books, Werts transferred to Louisville and switched from QB to WR in hopes of increasing his chances of making it to the NFL. Without question, the quarterback battle is the number one storyline of the spring. It’s been a long time since there’s been uncertainty at this position. But luckily, there’s a very talented group of men vying for the job.

The Incumbent

The candidate with the presumptive inside track on the starting job is the guy with the most experience playing in Doug Ruse’s system: Justin Tomlin. Shai Werts’ primary backup the past two seasons, Tomlin, has shown glimpses of brilliance when his number has been called. His poise and smooth running ability have endeared him to the Eagle faithful. In 2019, in his 2nd career start, he came within seconds of beating a Minnesota team that won 11 games that year. Last season, the week following the loss to Georgia State, was the most tumultuous week of the season. Offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse was fired, and Shai Werts was sidelined with a shoulder injury. Tomlin stepped right in and led the team to a resounding 20-3 victory over a tough FAU squad.

The next game against App State, Tomlin suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the 1st half. All indications are that he’s fully healed and is participating in spring practice.

The Transfer

While Tomlin might have the inside track, the betting man’s favorite to win the job is Georgia Tech transfer James Graham.

The 6-1 195 quarterback out of Fitzgerald, Ga (went to high school with J.D. King), Graham was the primary starter for the Yellow Jackets during Geoff Collins’ first season in 2019. It was a rocky year for Georgia Tech switching from Paul Johnson’s triple-option to Collins’ pro-style. Graham, a 4-star Paul Johnson recruit, did about as well as anyone could expect out of a redshirt freshman. He threw for 1,164 yards, 12 touchdowns, and seven picks. Though he performed admirably, Graham lost the starting job to Jeff Sims in 2020, which triggered his entry into the transfer portal.

After watching his highlights, Graham’s talent is evident. He has the arm strength to sling it into tight spots and great vision as a runner. As an Eagle fan, it’s hard not to get a little giddy imagining his skill set in an offense that fits him. The one major drawback about him is his accuracy as a passer or lack thereof. Graham had a completion percentage of only 45% in his one year as a starter. That will need to improve if he wants to win the starting job.

The Wild Card

There were rumblings last year among specific segments of Eagle Nation that Sam Kenerson was wreaking havoc as a member of the scout team in practice. When Kenerson took his first-ever carry for 12 yards against Georgia State, the rest of Eagle Nation sat up and noticed. Unfortunately, during his second carry, he suffered an undisclosed injury the effectively shut him down for the rest of the season.

At 5-9 175, Sam Kenerson was the highest-rated recruit according to 247Sports among the 2020 class. He can play multiple different positions but came to Georgia Southern for the opportunity to compete for the quarterback job. Kenerson has good arm strength for his size but it’s his elusive running ability that has drawn some comparisons with Eagle great, Jayson Foster. If he were to emerge as the starter ahead of Tomlin and Graham that would speak volumes about his ability. If he doesn’t, it’s essential to figure out how to get the ball in his hands.

The Rest

The quarterback competition does not stop at Tomlin, Graham, and Kenerson, and it will most likely extend into fall camp. That’s when Cam’Ron Ransom will arrive on campus. The 6-3 210, 3-star Tampa native possesses size and strength that is rare for an Eagle QB recruit. Traditionally Georgia Southern has taken undersized and fast quarterbacks recruited as wide receivers by the big schools but come to Statesboro for the chance to play QB (see Kenerson above). Ransom may or may not signal a change in recruiting philosophy.

Lunsford and company have targeted a QB like this before, however. In 2019, another 6-3 3-star quarterback signed his letter of intent with the Eagles. His name is Jaden Jenkins. Unfortunately, before the 2019 season, Jenkins had to retire from football due to a series of concussions. Miraculously, this offseason, he has reversed course and rejoined the football team. Where he will fit will be a fascinating subplot to follow. Conor Cigelske, Alex Bowen, and Will Lovett round out the position and provide quality depth.

New Offensive Staff

Whoever wins the starting QB job will be tasked with fixing an inconsistent Eagle offense. Offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse was canned after an embarrassing 30-24 loss to Georgia State last November. In his place, Chad Lunsford installed TE Coach Doug Ruse as the interim play-caller. That late in the season, it is damn-near impossible to make significant changes to an offensive scheme. But Ruse did what he could: utilized more pre-snap motion, went slightly more up-tempo, and simplified the play calls; and for the most part, this worked. The Eagles went 2-1 down the stretch, which could have easily been 3-0 if Justin Tomlin hadn’t been carted off the field early in the App State game. The turnaround was enough for Lunsford to remove the interim tag and promote Ruse full-time.

Of course, this isn’t Doug Ruse’s first rodeo in Statesboro. He’s become somewhat of a legend around these parts for the role he played under Willie Fritz during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Ruse crafted a deadly option attack out of the shotgun that led the nation in rushing both years. Lunsford knew that in order to recapture that magic, you have to let Ruse assemble a good staff around him. So OL Coach Ron Hudson and WR Coach Dimitri Donald were let go, and Geep Wade (UT-Martin) and Derrick Sherman (Samford) were hired as their replacements. Both Wade and Sherman have playcalling experience. Wade was the OC/OL Coach at UT Martin, with previous stops at Marshall, Middle Tennessee State, and East Carolina, among others. Sherman was the offensive coordinator under Chris Hatcher at Samford and was a graduate assistant under Doug Ruse in 2014.

In addition to the Hudson and Donald departures, long-time RB Coach Chris Foster left to take the same position at East Carolina. Interim TE Coach Carter Barfield was also shifted back to analyst. Originally Joe Graves (ULM) and Nick Jones (Colorado State) were tapped to be their replacements until Jones took a job with the LA Rams. Lunsford then hired former Georgia Southern QB Favian Upshaw to be the RB Coach and shifted Graves over to TEs and Special Teams.

Like an Etch-A-Sketch, the whole offensive staff (plus special teams) has an entirely new staff. Ruse is in complete control over the offensive revival. Once the QB battle gets sorted, the cupboard is full everywhere else on offense. At running back, you added grad-transfer Amare Jones, who compiled nearly 3,000 all-purpose yards during his time at Tulane to a stable of horses that includes Logan Wright, Gerald Green, Jalen White, and a J.D. King that is working hard to rehab from a torn ACL. At the offensive line, you have six (yes, six!) guys with significant starting experience returning (Brian Miller, Aaron Dowdell, Logan Langemeier, Khalil Crowder, Caleb Kelly, Lawrence Edwards). The receiver position is a little less settled. Still, you have early enrollees such as JJay McAfee and Derwin Burgess Jr. (no relation) joining a group that already includes Khaleb Hood, Beau Johnson, Dexter Carter Jr., and Najee Thompson. It’s hard to imagine how Ruse and his new brain trust of an offensive staff won’t be able to score points with this group next year; nonetheless, it’s worth keeping an eye on.

Defense

While the offensive side of the ball has been a bit of mystery during the Lunsford era, the defensive side of the ball has been solid. The Eagle defense eats Conference USA offenses for breakfast; ask FAU and La. Tech. Scot Sloan has emerged as one of the best defensive coordinators at the G5 level, if not the entire country. Nowhere is that more evident than in the secondary. In 2020, Sloan broke in almost an entirely new secondary following the departures of Kindle Vildor, Monquavion Brinson, and Jesse Liptrot. While early in the season, the new guys struggled to get their footing by the end of the season Derrick Canteen, Darrell Baker, Anthony Wilson, and Justin Birdsong were freaking destroyers. The good news is they are all back.

With that said, there are significant holes to fill, especially on the Front-7. Raymond Johnson III and Rashad Byrd declared for the NFL Draft. Reynard Ellis famously quit the team following the travel fiasco that occurred after the Army game. Also, safety Kenderick Duncan joined Shai Werts in transferring to Louisville. Replacing the production these guys provided the past several years will not be easy. Johnson, in particular, was a four-year starter and was an anchor on the D-block throughout his time as an Eagle. Some combination of Justin Ellis, Dillon Springer, and A.J. Watkins will replace Johnson’s production. A pair of sophomores in Brandon Wilson and Jordan Mitchell is also expected to feature prominently.

Todd Bradley-Glenn returns for his sixth season at inside linebacker and should occupy the weakside starting spot once occupied by Rashad Byrd. The mike position is more of a question mark with some combination of Tre Allen, Jon Ferguson, Marques Watson-Trent, and Caree Collier vying for the job. Early enrollees such as Oregon transfer Andrew Johnson or freshman Isaac Walker could also be in the mix. With Johnson, it isn’t entirely clear if he will play on the outside or the inside.

Special Teams

Before Chad Lunsford took over as the head coach of Georgia Southern halfway through the 2017 season, he had spent the previous two seasons as the team’s special teams coordinator. And for the first two full seasons of his tenure that his expertise in that area was apparent. Kicking, punting, coverage, and the return game was all solid. It didn’t hurt that he had the best kicker in the country on his team in Tyler Bass for both seasons, but be that as it may, special teams were something Eagle fans could hang their hats on. Well…that was not the case last season. Much of the 2020 season was spent without a full-time special teams coordinator on the staff, and it showed.

Joe Graves from ULM was originally brought in to coach running backs until the abrupt Nick Jones departure; now he’s the team’s special teams coordinator and TE coach. It’s up to Graves to get this unit back on the right track in many different areas. Outside of punter Anthony Beck II, an All-Sun Belt third-team selection, the rest of the unit needs some work. Placekicker Alex Raynor had a solid but not spectacular first season as a starter, making 72% (18-25) with a long of 47 yards and two blocked kicks. Raynor may continue to improve and turn out just fine, but Lunsford did bring in two kickers this offseason, FAU transfer Jesse Williams and Britton Williams out of Richmond Hill, just in case. Keep an eye on the kicker position.

But as mediocre as placekicking was, it was not the most significant issue the Eagles had kicking the ball. Kickoff was flat-out abysmal last year. Primary kickoff man Dylan Lewis didn’t have enough leg for the job. He mustered only nine touchbacks all year, which might sound okay until you see that Texas led the country in 2020 with 61. To compound this problem, Georgia Southern ranked 75th in the country in opponent kickoff return average. Short kicks plus inadequate coverage meant opponents routinely started drives with decent field position. The Eagles weren’t that great at returning kicks either, 104th in the country in return yard average.

These issues must be addressed if Georgia Southern wants to compete for the Sun Belt crown in 2021. There’s more than enough talent for the Eagles to ascend to that next level. The Sun Belt had somewhat of a coming-out party nationally during the covid season. Coastal Carolina, App State, and Louisiana are household names now in college football circles. If certain things break the right way, perhaps it’s the Eagles’ turn to crash that party.

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