When the Georgia Southern University football team concluded its spring practice a couple of weeks ago, the Eagles also marked the end of long dry spell.
The Eagles, 11-3 in 2011 and 7-1 in the Southern Conference, received their SoCon championship rings, celebrating their ninth conference championship and the first since 2004.
"It was a fun season," said head coach Jeff Monken. "It was a huge accomplishment for our guys to win the conference championship. It was about time to where we got back to playing championship football.
"I was really proud of our team, and I’m excited about this fall," he said.
Monken, a former Georgia Southern assistant who took over the program in 2010, has guided the Eagles to consecutive Football Championship Subdivision semifinal appearances. It had been nine years since the Eagles, who own a record six national titles, had advanced that far in the playoffs.
Even with the loss to end the 2011 campaign, Monken was glad to have a recognition for the season in hand.
"As excited as we were about our first season, we really didn’t have a lot to show for it," he said, "other than a trip to the semifinals. You don’t get a ring for that; they don’t put a flag on the flagpole for that."
The Eagles will enter 2012, a season that includes a road game at Georgia, having graduated 23 seniors, including two-year starting quarterback Jaybo Shaw.
"He’s a winner," Monken said of Shaw, who followed the coach’s path from Georgia Tech. "I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a kid that I like more and that I trusted more than Jaybo."
Jerick McKinnon, who played slotback and defensive back as well, and speedster Ezayi Youyoute, are competing to replace Shaw as the starter.
"We’ve got two really good young quarterbacks," Monken said. "We don’t have a clear-cut starter at this point."
Graduation will have a bigger impact in other areas — three offensive linemen were seniors, and the end of the year also depleted the Eagles’ secondary and special teams. GSU is losing three starters in the defensive backfield and five specialists — kicker Adrian Mora, punter Charlie Edwards, kickoff specialist Billy Greer, long snapper Carter Jones and cornerback/kick returner Laron Scott.
"We lost three starters off the offensive line, and that is a big concern for us," Monken said. "We’ve got some work to do there."
Along with Scott, cornerback Hudson Presume and safety Michael Butler, the Eagles also lost safety Derek Heyden to a career-ending neck injury last season.
"We lost a lot of our defense when he went down," Monken said.
Yet the Eagles return the bulk of the front seven on defense, led by Buck Buchanan Award candidate Brent Russell, and every other skill player on offense also is back.
"We’re excited about this year," Monken said. "We do have a lot of guys coming back."
The third-year coach also hopes the fans come back in even bigger numbers in 2012. Georgia Southern averaged 19,248 fans per home game during the 2011 regular season, its biggest average attendance ever. The Eagles have six regular-season home dates in 2012, highlighted by the Nov. 3 game with Appalachian State.
The Eagles were 8-0 at home in 2011, winning all six regular-season games and both FCS playoff encounters. Monken called the crowds, two of which topped 20,000 in attendance, "great."
"There should be a home-field advantage," he said. "When you play at home and there’s not many people there, it’s not much of an advantage."
With 21 wins in the Monken era already, the coach and GSU athletics director Sam Baker also point to a number that’s as meaningful — the Eagles’ success in the classroom.
Forty-two players had grade point averages of 3.0 or better for the fall semester, and last spring, the Eagles had the single-best semester team GPA in program history.
"Last fall, we had the highest GPA in the history of the program, and that’s a tribute to Coach Monken," Baker said.
Before Monken’s arrival, the football team’s problems off the field resulted in a low NCAA academic progress rate, and as a result, the Eagles lost scholarships from the 63 FCS teams are allowed to offer.
"We were struggling a little bit, to say it nicely," Monken said. "So we put the screws to our guys, and we’ve got a great academic support team. My goal is to have a championship program not only on the field but in everything we do."
Every single Eagle also will be on campus during the summer, which Monken eagerly anticipates in preparation for the Sept. 1 opener at home against Jacksonville.
"Things have changed so much in college football," he said. "Every one of our players will be back for the entire summer. It’s a busy time for them, but it’s critical we have them here."