Georgia Southern football coach Chris Hatcher doesn’t want to have such a large signing class again in the near future — if ever again.
Hatcher signed 25 players to the Eagles program in February. He had 30 players ink letters-of-intent a year ago — and by NCAA rules, he only has 63 scholarships to give.
Last year, 22 freshmen started at least one game for the Eagles.
“We signed 25 players again this year. I hope this is the last time I tell you that,” Hatcher said at Thursday’s Effingham Eagle Club meeting.
Of the nearly 90 players on the roster at the end of spring practice — not including the more than two dozen signees who will report this summer or any preferred walk-ons — only 31 are juniors or seniors.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Hatcher said. “We’ve got a steady climb ahead of us. We feel like we’re making tremendous progress. We feel the program is headed in the right direction.”
Hatcher, about to start his third season at the helm of the Eagles, took over following the worst mark since the football program was restarted in 1981. The Eagles went 7-4 in his first season and 6-5 in 2008. Georgia Southern was 3-1 in overtime games in 2008 and 0-2 in extra sessions in 2007.
“We had a bunch of ups and downs,” Hatcher said. “We had a lot of exciting wins and had some great performances.”
It was how the Eagles ended the 2008 campaign that buoyed Hatcher going into the offseason. The Eagles capped the year with a 17-10 victory on the road over archrival Furman, and the team’s attitude from right before kickoff signaled to Hatcher that the tide was turning.
“That was the first time our team went out and expected to win,” he said. “They were excited about playing and we had a feeling we had not had since I became head coach. That was the first time we went out and played a complete game. We hope that will propel us into next season.”
While the Eagles know Lee Chapple will be the No. 1 quarterback going into the 2009 schedule — following the departure of Ohio State transfer Antonio Henton after one season — who will catch the sophomore’s passes is another matter. Only one of the Eagles’ top 10 receivers from last year is back for the upcoming season.
“We need some receivers,” Hatcher said. “We signed six good ones and we hope those guys can come in and help us get where we
want to be.”
Of the incoming receiving corps, Hatcher is very high on Jamere Valentine of Myrtle Beach, S.C. Valentine, with 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash, was listed as one of the top 35 signees in South Carolina and led his team to the Palmetto State’s Class 2A state championship.
Southern also landed Josh Barker out of Nease High in Jacksonville, Fla., another top prospect, and Hatcher called Drexel Copeland, from Mt. Zion-Jonesboro, a big prospect.
“When they throw it up there, he can go get it,” Hatcher said of the 6-foot Copeland.
Tyler Sumner, the star of the spring game, has opened the Eagles’ coaches eyes and is expected to be a major force. The 6-2, 210-pound former Savannah Christian star had nine receptions in the Blue-White game, including two one-handed grabs for touchdowns.
“He makes them every day,” Hatcher noted of Sumner’s highlight-reel catches. “When we signed him, we weren’t sure where he’d play. We’re glad we’ve got him.”
The Eagles also hope to have their lack of depth and experience on the offensive line addressed. When Georgia Southern opened the 2008 season against Georgia, the Eagles had four freshmen among the two-deep on the line.
Daniel Few (6-4, 270) — who redshirted last year — is now the starter at left tackle. Massive Jared Flowers (6-5, 341) is at left guard while center Trey Dunmon (6-3, 300), a transfer from Georgia Tech in his second year, former defensive lineman Jonathan Loving (6-1, 270) and left tackle Cole Fountain (6-3, 300) return at their spots from a year ago.
Hatcher is also high on signees Bryant Meeks (6-3, 280) and Hunter Poole (6-5, 315).
The incoming class boasts Josh Rowe, a playmaking linebacker out of Opelika, Ala., and LaRon Scott, a highly-touted cornerback out of Butler (Kan.) Community College.
“We feel he can be a big-time, lockdown corner,” Hatcher said.
With so few upperclassmen — and only 17 of the 29 Eagles from the 2008 signing class who made it to camp that year are still in the program — Hatcher is looking for the newest crop of recruits to make an impact sooner if not later.
“We feel like the freshmen we’ve got coming in can really, really help us,” he said.