STATESBORO — The goal was to have fun for the Blue-White game that brings spring practice to a close for the Georgia Southern Eagles. Though lightning and rain truncated Saturday’s proceedings at Paulson Stadium, Chris Hatcher got just what he wanted.
“It was a time for our players to have a good time,” he said.
And he’s got his players thinking along the same lines.
“We have the most trust in our coaches,” said quarterback Kyle Collins. “We all respect them. They’re always fair with us. We’re definitely more comfortable with the coaches.”
Said safety Chris Rogers: “Everybody enjoys playing for them.”
In his first year as Georgia Southern coach, Hatcher led the Eagles to a 7-4, putting them on the brink of a Southern Conference championship and a NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoff appearance.
He also had to get the players to buy into what he and his staff were doing — they were the third staff in just over 24 months for the players — and smooth the troubled waters of Beautiful Eagle Creek after Brian VanGorder’s 3-8 mark in 2006 and his abrupt departure following the program’s worst record since football was reinstated.
“We’re a lot looser bunch, which is what I like,” Hatcher said. “The guys know what is expected out of them now. We have a little better understanding of what they do well. We’re not anywhere near where need to be to play a game. If we can improve off the improvements we made this spring, come fall practice, we have a chance to have a good football team.”
By design, Hatcher and his staff kept things “vanilla” in his terms, but the otherwise bland 14-0 game allowed the more than 5,000 fans to look at new starting quarterback Lee Chapple and top backup Kyle Collins. Hatcher named Chapple, a redshirt freshman, as the starter, and Collins, a sophomore, will be the No. 2 quarterback.
Billy Lowe, the returning quarterback back with the most experience, missed spring practice after back surgery.
Chapple has large cleats to fill — he inherits the position from Jayson Foster, who ended his GSU career as the Walter Payton Award winner, given to the best player in FCS.
“He’s very consistent,” Hatcher said of Chapple. “He does a great job of sitting in the pocket. He throws a nice ball and he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He runs very well. He’s no Jayson Foster. He doesn’t run like Georgia Southern quarterbacks of the past, but we’re not running that style of offense, either. When he gets out in the open field, he’s a really good runner. He knows when to run and when not to.”
In the abbreviated Blue-White game, Chapple was 7-of-13 for 118 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked six times, though defenders only had to put a finger on him to register a sack.
Collins did not run as much as Chapple, and he finished 12-of-20 for 94 yards. He was intercepted twice.
“I thought Chapple did a nice job leading the team. Collins made some good throws. In the spring game, some of those guys are working with groups they hadn’t worked with in order for us to split the squad up.”
With the roster divided, the defense held the two offenses to a combined 13 first downs and minus-8 yards rushing in two quarters. The 2007 defense gave up 31.6 points per game, nearly 21 first downs and 176 yards rushing per game.
“We’re still not satisfied right now,” said linebacker Quentin Taylor. “We still have a lot of work to do. But after spring, we’re moving in the right direction.”
Going against their own wide-open offense for the last month helps too, said senior safety Chris Covington.
“The pace that they move at is incredible,” he said. “It’s making us better, and I think they’re going to do a lot of good things this year.”
Hatcher, renowned for his offensive intellect, admittedly coached a style of offense he wasn’t used to last year in order to take advantage of the speed of the electrifying Foster. With Foster at quarterback, the Eagles — again — led the nation in rushing, averaging 326 yards per game. The Eagles are going to be throwing more this year, a lot more.
“We completely changed around the offense. We run the same plays — we’re just calling different plays,” Collins said.
“It’s what you want as a quarterback. As a quarterback, you want to throw the ball every time. It’s definitely a fun offense for a quarterback. I enjoy it.”
The Eagles bring back most of their defense and virtually their entire corps of receivers. But there are questions along the offensive line, where the five starters from the end of the season graduated. A lack of depth across the board haunted the Eagles a year ago, and the coaching staff signed 32 players in February.
“We don’t have any (depth),” Hatcher said. “We don’t. We signed 32 players, and that’s half our team is not even here. They’re in high school. They’re going to the prom right now. Our starters are good players, and we do have some backups we feel good about.”
Hatcher liked the progress his team made in his second spring, with the team getting better from the first day to the last full practice April 11.
“I was real pleased with the way our guys progressed,” he said. “We’ve got to get a lot better at every position, and we did that this spring. That was the thing I was most positive about is that we did improve each and every day.”
The Eagle coaches also wanted to get the team tougher, mentally and physically, this spring.
“That was a glaring weakness headed into the spring,” Hatcher said. “That was a glaring weakness in certain aspects last year. We weren’t very tough to make a run late in the season. We really harped on that during spring drills, and I think we got tougher.”
The pain of last year’s finish, losing to Furman at the last second in a game that would have secured a playoff berth and to Colorado State on the road, still burns at the players to a degree. They hope that heat will burnish more hardware at the end of 2008.
“I thought we were capable of playing for a national championship last year,” Collins said. “It comes down to executing and making the plays at the end of the game when we have to. I think we were right there last year, and we’re right there this year.”