There are dozens of new faces — incoming freshmen and transfers alike — giving a new look to the Georgia Southern Eagles in 2008, but that’s not the only difference fans will see when the team kicks off a new season on August 30.
With schools like Appalachian State, Elon and Furman adopting spread offenses, GSU has added a new wrinkle to the defense.
The 3-3-5 scheme puts five men in the secondary. Three safeties — a rover, a bandit and a free safety — join two cornerbacks and three linebackers in backing up three down linemen. The idea is to match up speed against speed. The Eagles will add the package to their 3-4 and 4-3 schemes.
“We’re very multiple in what we do depending on what we see,” said GSU defensive coordinator Ashley Anders. “With the Southern Conference being a spread conference, we elected to try to get more speed on the field, and (the 3-3-5) is one avenue to take to do that. The players that we have returning fit that style.”
While the 3-3-5 could be effective against the spread teams, the smashmouth running games of teams such as Wofford and, of course, Georgia, will probably require some more size up front.
“We’ve got a personnel package right now to bring some more defensive linemen in the game when it comes to trying to play smashmouth,” Anders said. “That’s something that we’re still picking around for as a coaching staff, to find that right chemistry, that right personnel. We’re going to match with what people do. If somebody’s going to try to load up and go heavy, we’re going to go heavy with them, and if they want to spread it out and run a drag race, we’ll do that too.”
While the defense lost only two starters, the defensive line is one more spot where the Eagles are trying to fill some gaps. The lack of experience on offense will put added pressure on the d-line.
“Last year the offense carried us for the most part of the season,” said head coach Chris Hatcher. “Again, we’re just very thin on the defensive line, and that’s where you win games. So we’ve got to be very creative — move those guys around and hopefully be able to trick some folks there — and be able to do a little better than we did last season.”
Four-year starter Larry Beard adds experience to the revamped three-man front, while last year’s leading tackler Chris Covington returns to roam the secondary.
“(Covington)’s a staple,” Anders said about the senior safety. “He’s the kind of guy you can hang your hat on … at every practice and on every Saturday.”
With so many question marks on the offensive side of the ball, the seniors have no problem picking up some of the slack while the youth develops.
“That’s every senior’s job at every school,” Covington said. “We’ve got some young guys with a lot of talent, and it’s going to be exciting to watch them play this year.”
The coaching staff believes the defense is in good hands.
“(Covington and Beard) do a good job, they lead by example, they lead vocally and they lead because they’re just good football players,” Hatcher said. “They’re going to have to really step up until we kind of know what we’re going to be able to do on offense.”
Beard has no problems with stepping up to the challenge.
“As a team, we’ve got to overcome adversity,” Beard said. “It feels good that we have a lot of returning defensive players, so we can be really good on defense. If we stay together, keep the chemistry going and keep progressing like we are, we’ll be good.
“We have to keep (the underclassmens’) heads up and in the game, and let them know that their time could come at any time. We have to step in and let them know that.”
Anders has been pleased with the play of junior Terrione Benefield and senior Quentin Taylor, who have shown positive signs throughout fall camp at linebacker, and freshman J.B. Shippy has impressed the coaching staff as a quick learner.
Senior Dakota Walker has made a smooth transition from linebacker to defensive end.
“(Walker) plays with passion and he loves the game of football,” Anders said. “He plays like you played when you were a little kid out on the playground. When something’s important to you like that, you tend to play a little harder. I’ve been really pleased with his leadership out on the field. He’s a wildman out there.”
Filling in the depth chart
With opening kickoff quickly approaching, the GSU depth chart is beginning to take shape. Starters are feeling pressure from those fighting for a spot, and the starting lineup against Georgia is becoming clearer.
“We saw some good things (in Monday’s practice),” Hatcher said, “and some battles are getting closer to being decided. This is a very important week as we finish up our camp.”
The Eagles hope to have a depth chart by the end of the week, but nothing will be in stone until kickoff.
“By Friday we hope to know who’s going to be suiting up versus Georgia, but of course, that may change,” Hatcher said. “We’ve got a lot of tough decisions to make, but right now, expect to see a lot of freshmen playing for us.”
While it’s still Lee Chapple’s job to lose, the quarterback battle is getting more intense.
Ohio State transfer Antonio Henton has moved from getting exclusive work with the third team to taking reps with the first and second teams.
“We worked up Henton a little bit more with the ones (on Monday) and we’ll probably change that up some,” Hatcher said after Monday’s 11-on-11 contact drills. “By Friday we hope to have a rotation, and if we go into the first game playing two, that’s the way it’s going to be. We’ve still got some work to do all the way across the board.”
Losing so much experience, many Eagles will be playing their first college football game in front of 90,000 fans in Sanford Stadium against the No. 1 team in the country.
How much pressure does that put on the first-time starters?
“That just adds to it,” said Hatcher. “I’d be concerned if we were playing in front of 1,000 people just not knowing what they’ll do when the pressure’s on, so we’ve got to get those guys conditioned as best we can. But we’re going to (have) a young lineup. I’m excited about it — probably because it’s just the unknown.”