It all started with an off-handed comment by Georgia Southern coach Chris Hatcher on national signing day, and it brought with it a mountain of hype — hype about incoming freshman Leander Barney.
Hatcher had mentioned that there were some things about Barney that reminded him of Jayson Foster, who played a multitude of positions for the Eagles and took home the 2007 Walter Payton Award as a senior quarterback while breaking records and leading his team to road wins over Appalachian State and Wofford.
How did Barney feel about the comparison?
“When he said that and I read it, I thought, ‘Oh man, he’s tryin’ to kill me,’” said the 5-foot-8, 185-pound freshman.
“I know I’ve got to come out here and do the best of my ability and if (I can’t) be Jayson Foster, then try and get better, try and match up to him. They’re big shoes to fill, so it’s going to be hard work.”
With a heated, three-way quarterback battle going on between redshirt freshman Lee Chapple, who was named the team’s starter in the spring, sophomore Kyle Collins and Ohio State transfer Antonio Henton, Barney figured his best chance to get on the field in 2008 was in another role.
“He came to me this summer and asked if he could move,” Hatcher said. “(He) saw how good Chapple and Collins were throwing the ball, and then Henton got here. He just came in and said, ‘Coach, I want to play this year, and I don’t see myself playing quarterback this year.’ So we went ahead and moved him.
“When we recruited him, we talked about, ‘Hey, you have the possibility that if it doesn’t work out at QB, you’re a good enough athlete to play other positions.’ He made that decision and we respected it and gave him a chance so he could play this season.”
Barney’s transition to running back could add some much-needed firepower in the backfield. Lamar Lewis and Mike Hamilton handled a bulk of the work in 2007, and with them out of the picture, the only ball-carrier with any experience is Zeke Rozier, who started last season with 16 carries for 101 yards and two touchdowns, but was sidelined with a year-ending injury after just two games.
It turns out Barney could get used to the position.
“I kind of like running the ball a little between the tackles now,” he said. “I didn’t do that a lot when I was a quarterback or a DB. Running the ball in between the tackles is kind of fun, you know, dodging, getting hit. I like it better than quarterback.”
Watching the quarterback battle from the outside has Barney confident that the Eagles will be in good hands no matter who gets the nod on Aug. 30 at the season-opener in Athens.
“We’ve got some rifles out there,” Barney said. “Henton throws a 90-mile-per-hour slant route. We have some great quarterbacks and they go through their progressions, their footwork’s good and coach Hatcher’s never really screaming at them. I think we have great quarterbacks — all three of them.”
Chapple likes what he has seen from Barney, too. In fact, the speedy freshman does bring to mind his former teammate.
“(Barney is) quick. Who knows what he can be,” Chapple said. “He’s got great potential, he’s fast, quick and agile, and he does remind a lot of us of Jayson. I’m looking forward to (seeing him) making plays this year, definitely.”
Growing up in the trenches
Without a single offensive lineman who has started a full season at Georgia Southern, one of the biggest question marks as gameday approaches is: Who will be the five guys starting on the offensive line?
Out of the 16 players currently listed as O-linemen, 10 are underclassmen, and precious few have any real game-time experience as an Eagle.
All the GSU coaching staff can do is sit back, watch, and see who emerges.
“They’re coming along,” Hatcher said. ‘We’re just trying to find the right combination right now. Of course there’s Dio Herrera — he’s got the most experience — along with Cole Fountain, and that’s not very much. That’s about three games (worth of experience) last year. But (redshirt freshman) William Maxwell’s looked really good and (junior transfer) Trey Dunmon was really a center or guard when he came from Georgia Tech. We moved him to left tackle, and he’s progressed well.”