Things didn’t quite come out the way the Georgia Southern defense had planned last year. In spite of a commendable 7-4 finish — especially considering the Eagles won just three games the year before — the defense still refers to the 2007 season as a “disappointment.”
The Eagles, ranked No. 17 in The Sports Network preseason poll, yielded 404.6 yards per game last year, third worst in the Southern Conference. Since then, second-year coach Chris Hatcher has implemented a new defense that he hopes will show marked improvement from last season.
“We need to play better defense, those guys know that,” Hatcher said. “That’s one reason we’ve switched schemes a little bit to get more speed on the football field, get our best players out there and hopefully they’ll play well. You’d better have a good defense if you want to win a lot of ball games.”
The defense will be given a tough test in the season opener on Saturday in Athens against the No. 1-ranked team in the nation in the BCS. They’ll be attempting to stop one of the nation’s best running backs, sophomore Knowshon Moreno. Moreno, a likely Heisman contender, rushed for 1,334 yards and 14 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2007.
Pass defense, in particular, was an area where Georgia Southern struggled, giving up 228.5 yards on an average, better only than Furman’s 263.7 yards per game in the league last year.
However, the secondary was relatively young last season. Starters Chris Rogers and Chris Covington had little experience on the defensive side of the ball between them. Both played on offense in 2006, Rogers at quarterback and Covington at running back.
Covington led the team in tackles (67), interceptions (four) and forced fumbles (two). Cornerback Carson Hill was injured for much of his sophomore season after playing in all 11 games in 2006. As a true freshman in 2006, Hill played in 11 games and started in five.
This season, the Eagles return all but Brandon Jackson from last season’s starting secondry. Jackson accounted for 34 tackles and 11 pass breakups last season. The defense returns eight starters total this season, not including Damon Suggs, who was one of eight players suspended for the opener on Saturday against Georgia, but is expected to return to field following the fulfillment of his suspension.
“We need to step up and be a bigger part of the team than we were last year,” Covington said of the defense. “I feel like we fell a little bit short on our end last year and it’s been a real motivating thing here in the offseason and in spring ball and now into camp to just go out and work a little bit harder and be a lot more sound so we can contribute more this year.”
The three veteran members of the secondary are joined by juniors Darrel Pasco and Brandon Echols.
Last season as a sophomore, Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford threw for 2,523 yards with 19 touchdown throws and 10 interceptions. Mohamed Massaquoi had 32 catches for 491 yards and four touchdowns, and highly-touted freshman A.J. Green is expected to play.
Eight Eagles out
Five players are being suspended for the season-opener at Georgia and three others will miss the first two games of the 2008 season due to a violation of institutional rules.
Senior wide receiver Raja Andrews, junior defensive end Charwel Brown, freshman offensive lineman Brandavious Mann, junior linebacker Terrione Benefield and senior defensive end Damon Suggs will miss the season-opener at Georgia. Freshman running back Zeke Rozier, junior wide receiver Garryon Taylor and junior defensive back Ronnie Wiggins are suspended for the first two games of the season.
Eight Bulldogs out
Georgia will be without several of their projected starters and reserves against Georgia Southern. Two Bulldogs — left tackle Trinton Sturdivant and linebacker Charles White — are out for the year with injuries. Also sidelined with injuries for Saturday’s game will be fullback Brannan Southerland, strong safety Quentin Banks and split end Walter Hill.
Right guard Clint Boling has been suspended for one game, and linebacker Darius Dewberry and fullback Fred Munzenmaier were suspended for two games each.
Georgia leads the series 3-0.