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Georgia Southern ready for another shot at FCS title game
About two years ago, then-Furman coach Bobby Lamb not only proclaimed Georgia Southern was back to dominating the division, but the first team of coach Jeff Monken would be his worst team.
You think Lamb was on to something?
After Southern’s wild 32-28 win over Furman to earn an at-large bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, the Eagles rattled off three straight postseason victories to advance to the semifinals.
The next season, GSU shot to
No. 1 in the nation in the third week of the season, eventually won its first Southern Conference title since 2004 and again marched to the FCS semifinals.
This is Year 3 in the Monken era, and if Lamb’s prognostication holds true, the Eagles should be soaring even higher.
“(Getting to the semifinals) just makes us want to work a little harder,” senior linebacker Darius Eubanks said. “We know if we buy in to what the coaches are telling us, we can compete with anyone. Hopefully, this year we’ll get over the hump.”
The Sports Network and the FCS Coaches top 25 preseason polls ranked Georgia Southern third. Media, and coaches in the Southern Conference picked the Eagles as preseason favorites to win the league.
Monken says high expectations from the outside shouldn’t shake up his players.
“We expected to compete the first day I took the job,” Monken said. “There’s no external pressure greater than the internal pressure we have for our own program. We expect to be the best football program we can possibly be and compete with anybody at this level. I don’t think (our players) feel pressure from anywhere else (other) than right here in our own football program.
“That’s the way it’s supposed to be. We have high expectations, and we’ll set standards that give us a chance to meet those expectations.”
It’s been a busy, eventful time in the ’Boro. The Eagles announced plans for a $36.6 million fundraising campaign to enhance the athletics program, starting with a $10 million Football Operations Center at Paulson Stadium.
A few months later, school president Dr. Brooks Keel said the Eagles would move up to play at the Football Bowl Subdivision level (85 scholarships).
Now it’s football season, and GSU’s focus shifts to adding a seventh national championship flag at Paulson Stadium.
It won’t be easy. The Eagles seemingly need to restock half the lineup when the season kicks off Saturday night in Paulson Stadium against Jacksonville University.
But if there’s concern over an unproven starting quarterback, the bad back of a top running back, inexperienced pieces in the offensive line, a retooled secondary, a missing middle linebacker or a completely new kicking unit, well, no one’s showing it.
“We approach the season like last year,” GSU defensive tackle Brent Russell said. “One game at a time is everyone’s mentality. I truly believe that’s how everyone is approaching it, and we’ll see how far we go. Treat every game like a playoff game.”
Izzy or isn’t he? Youyoute, that is. The starting quarterback. Ezayi “Izzy” Youyoute was the backup to starter Jaybo Shaw last season. Shaw finished his eligibility, but Youyoute, who showed big-play ability while rushing for 11.9 yards a carry, didn’t automatically ascend to the throne. He’s waging a battle for playing time with Jerick McKinnon, the 2010 backup to Shaw.
“We’ll play both of them,” said Monken, as if secretly ready to spring two cards for 21 in a game of blackjack.
Both Youyoute and McKinnon are electric open-field runners, the qualification most helpful in the triple-option offense, which GSU used to accumulate 323.5 rushing yards and 35.1 points a game last season. Both are limited passers.
Their first option is to hand off to Dominique Swope, who finished with 1,023 yards after wrestling the fullback job from Robert Brown, who needed back surgery in the summer.
Brown ran for 937 yards last season after running for more than 1,000 as a freshman, but the Eagles now see him as a slotback to help supplement a stable that includes big-play performers Darreion Robinson and Jonathan Bryant. McKinnon will be in that mix if he isn’t the starting quarterback.
The offensive line has kept offensive coordinator/line coach Brent Davis busy. All-America right tackle Brett Moore and versatile guard/center William Maxwell, who received a free-agent invitation to the Carolina Panthers camp, will be replaced by Manrey Saint-Amour and Garrett Frye. Neither started a game last season.
Junior tackle Dorian Byrd, an All-Southern Conference second team pick last season, has been a two-year starter.
Seniors Patrick Barker and Mitch Williford start at wide receiver. Backups Kentrellis Showers, who led the team with 15 catches for 258 yards and three touchdowns, and Zach Walker have big-play potential.
Dependable Tyler Sumner, a former Savannah Christian star, will be called on when the Eagles look to use a tight end.
The defense allowed 18.1 points a game during the first 10 games, but ended up looking like a broken dam during the final four games when it surrendered 37.8 points a game.
Much of the defensive woes could be attributed to playing higher competition — Alabama and three FCS playoff teams, Old Dominion Maine and North Dakota State.
Slowing the late downward spiral could begin with the line. Russell will be the focal point of GSU’s four-man front. The senior tackle earned All-America honors from The Sports Network, Phil Steele, College Sporting News and Walter Camp last season after fighting through double teams to register 67 tackles, 16.5 tackles for losses and 6.5 sacks.
Senior Dion DuBose returns to defensive end after missing 2011 with a left knee injury. Depth is also a strength of the line with Josh Gebhardt, Blake Riley and Javon Mention returning after getting considerable playing time in 2011.
Another strong point of the defense is Eubanks, one of the hardest hitters on the team, at bandit — a hybrid linebacker/strong safety position.
Middle linebacker Josh Rowe, the team’s second-leading tackler in 2011, has academic eligibility issues the Eagles are appealing and may not play this season. Junior Kyle Oehlbeck, who has started three games at linebacker, is the projected starter.
In the secondary, the addition of Illinois transfer Valdon Cooper should lessen the loss of Laron Scott, who set the school’s career mark of 36 pass breakups despite playing just three years at cornerback. Scott also holds most of the school’s kickoff return marks after averaging more than 30 yards a return last season.
Free safety Deion Stanley, who led GSU with 86 tackles last season, returns. J.J. Wilcox, a converted slotback, is taking over at strong safety, replacing Lavelle Westbrooks, who will shift back to corner, a position he played in 2010.
GSU’s special teams get a complete overhaul this season after placekicker Adrian Mora, punter Charlie Edwards and long snapper Carter Jones finishing their eligibility. Mora set an FCS record by successfully hitting 151 straight extra-point kicks.
Ole Miss transfer Ryan Nowicki will handle the placekicking chores. Luke Cherry takes over at punter, and Jake Banta at long snapper.
“It’ll take a few football games under our belts to make a fair assessment about this football team and how it compares to the other two (2010 and 2011 teams),” Monken said. “I hope we play with passion and effort and toughness to give us a chance every week.”
GEORGIA SOUTHERN SCHEDULE
Sept. 1 Jacksonville 6 p.m.
Sept. 8 at The Citadel 6 p.m.
Sept. 22 Elon 6 p.m.
Sept. 29 Samford 6 p.m.
Oct. 6 at Western Carolina 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 13 Wofford 6 p.m.
Oct. 20 at Furman 1:30 p.m.
Oct. 27 at Chattanooga 6 p.m.
Nov. 3 Appalachian State 2 p.m.
Nov. 10 Howard 2 p.m.
Nov. 17 at Georgia TBA
By Donald Heath, Savannah Morning News