A lot has changed since the Georgia Southern Eagles knocked off rival Furman 17-10 back on Nov. 15.
The top three wide receivers have graduated, a handful of contributors have left the team for personal reasons and the defense has a lot of question marks.
Still, the Eagles were glad to be back out on the practice field when the first session of spring drills took place on a cold Tuesday morning on the banks of Beautiful Eagle Creek.
“We had a good first day of practice,” said GSU coach Chris Hatcher. “Our guys flew around and I think that we were a little bit ahead for day one. The guys seemed to know what to do which is always a positive. More importantly we had a bunch of guys who were just eager to get out here and try to get better at the football skills.”
The question is no longer who will throw the ball, but who will catch it?
Georgia Southern is missing 86 percent of its receiving yards from the 2008 season. The Eagles’ top two returning receivers were running backs in 2008, with Leander Barney catching 22 passes for 209 yards and Zeke Rozier amassing 11 receptions for 57 yards.
Barney, a sophomore, has been moved to wide receiver and is emerging as one of the go-to guys for Lee Chapple.
“We have a pretty young group,” Barney said. “We have a lot of young kids. We have to step up into the role and learn quickly.”
The Eagles list four seniors in the receiving corps: Nick Kyles, Adam Rooks, Garryon Taylor and Chris Rogers. They have among them two catches for 39 yards for their careers, all courtesy of Taylor last season.
Of the 16 Eagles who caught passes last season, only four remain on the roster for spring practice.
Rogers came to GSU as a quarterback, played the last two seasons at safety and will now play his final year as an Eagle at receiver.
That’s the type of assortment receivers coach Ron Dugans is working with.
“They’re working hard, and they’re coachable,” Dugans said. “That’s what we want. You have to tell them one time, they’ll put forth the effort and go out and get it done. That’s the sign you want to see, that the guys are willing to go out and get better.”
On Wednesday, Barney lined up wide with the first-team offense alongside running backs Rozier and Adam Urbano and wideout Nico Hickey.
“The real big surprise, a guy I really like, is Nico Hickey,” said Chapple. “He’s playing real well.”
Chapple mentioned Barney, Kyles and Rogers as guys he’s already looking for. But having a favorite isn’t a must.
“I like a buncha guys I can throw it up to,” said the sophomore. “The quality guys that we got here are a dream come true. They’re all playing real well right now, I just gotta keep getting them the ball.”
For Rogers, it is a chance to try his hand at another new position.
“Anybody would like to contribute to help the team win,” said Rogers. “I do anything the coach asks me. If they want me to play wide out, I’ll play it. I bring a defensive mentality to the offensive side of the ball — play hard, play fast.”
He thinks his previous experience at safety gives him a leg up at the new position.
“It’s kind of cheating,” said Rogers. “You know what they’re doing, and you know what you have to do. It’s definitely an advantage going from one side to the other because you’ve seen it from both sides. It’s a good switch, I think.”
The GSU coaching staff is optimistic about the corps of receivers. Georgia Southern also signed seven receivers and a tight end in the 2009 recruiting class — many of whom may see the field in their first season.
“We’ve got some good candidates out there, and we also signed a lot of good players,” Hatcher said. “We’re going to be in a position this season, just like last year. Again, over half of our team is still in high school.
“Next year, the good thing is we’ll have a lot of sophomores that had a lot of experience last year. Maybe they can show these new freshmen when they come in the ropes.”
One thing’s for sure — whoever is on the field playing wide receiver will know who their quarterback will be. Chapple was named the No. 1 quarterback before the Furman game.
“It’s always good to have an identified leader,” Rogers said. “(Chapple) definitely steps up in off-season workouts. Everything he does, he’s a leader. All quarterbacks are leaders, but it’s good to have someone who really cares about the program and wants to get after it a little bit.”
The supporting cast views Chapple, a sophomore, as their guy.
“He was the undisputed guy going into Furman,” Hatcher said. “After Furman, we came out and practiced a couple of days and he was the undisputed guy then. He’s our quarterback, he was our quarterback after that game and going into that game, so as far as our guys are concerned, nothing’s really changed.”
Kyle Collins returns as a backup and Billy Lowe, who saw playing time in 2007 and was issued a medical redshirt in 2008 also returned to the mix.