Georgia Southern Coach Jeff Monken doesn’t put any stock in preseason rankings.
The third-year Eagle coach’s only concern is where his team stands at the end of the season.
Georgia Southern is the lone team to have reached the FCS semifinals each of the last two years, and that — along with a record six national championships not to mention nine Southern Conference championships — makes it easy for pollsters to pencil it in at or near the top of their ballots.
A four-year playoff-less stretch in which Georgia Southern went 21-23 and endured two losing seasons is a distant nightmare in the rear view mirror after two seasons under Monken.
The Eagles open the season Saturday at Paulson Stadium against Jacksonville University, and then begin defense of their SoCon championship the next week when they visit The Citadel.
Missing from a year ago are 23 seniors including all-Americans Brett Moore, Laron Scott, William Maxwell, Adrian Mora and Charlie Edwards. Quarterback Jaybo Shaw is also gone, and while he didn’t make any all-America teams, he was without question the Eagles’ most valuable player.
With three recruiting classes Monken and his staff have stockpiled a boatload of talent, and more than capable replacements are in the system.
All-America defensive tackle Brent Russell, the reigning SoCon Defensive Player of the Year, returns to anchor a defense that could be as good as any in the conference if a revamped secondary holds up.
However, Eagle fans buy tickets to watch the high-powered triple option offense turn the scoreboard into a pinball machine.
With GSU, it’s all about the quarterback, and if Georgia Southern is going to make it back to the FCS championship game for the first time since 2000 either redshirt sophomore Ezayi Youyoute or junior Jerick McKinnon is going to have to step up and fill Shaw’s shoes.
Youyoute served as Shaw’s backup last year, while McKinnon was the backup two years ago as a true freshman.
Both have exhibited flashes of brilliance, and have shown they have outstanding athletic ability. McKinnon, for example, has played slotback, wide receiver and in the playoffs last year played four games at defensive back, getting two interceptions.
“They’re both very talented and capable,” Monken said. “Whichever one is not starting (at quarterback) will be on the field somewhere. They’re both good athletes.”
A quick look at the Eagles by position shows why both the coaches and media picked them to repeat as SoCon champs. It’s the first time since 2005 Appalachian State is not the preseason favorite.
B-back Dominique Swope gained 1,023 yards as a true freshman including a jaw dropping 82-yard touchdown run against national champion Alabama. His backup coming out of camp is junior William Banks, and behind him is redshirt freshman Seon Jones. The slotbacks are all experienced and fast. Darreion Robinson and Jonathan Bryant are returning starters and their backups, Robert Brown and Tray Butler, are imposing. Brown, coming off back surgery, has 1,941 yards rushing in two years at fullback.
Six of the 10 on the two-deep chart are sophomores. Junior Dorian Byrd enters his third year as a starter at left tackle, and to his right will be versatile senior Blake DeBartola who can also play tackle and center. Sophomores Manrey Saint-Amour at center, Trevor McBurnett at right guard and Garrett Frye at right tackle are the starters. However, Raymond Klugey, Logan Davies, Austin Hagan, Zach Lonas and Chris Gray give the Eagles their best depth in Monken’s three years.
It all starts with Russell (6-foot-2, 300 pounds), but Blake Riley at nose tackle, and defensive ends Josh Gebhardt and Dion DuBose make this an imposing front four. Excellent depth in Rashad Williams, Jonathan Battle, Justice Enike and Javon Mention make this one of the strongest areas on the team.
Returning starters Darius Eubanks and Kyle Oehlbeck, and senior John Stevenson are going to have to stay healthy as sophomore Antwione Williams, freshman Patrick Flowe and senior Boyd Sasser have not seen that much action at the position.
This is an area of concern although talent is not a question mark. Sophomore Deion Stanley is a preseason all-conference pick, J.J. Wilcox is an excellent athlete making the transition from slotback, Lavelle Westbrooks has moved from safety to cornerback where he will be joined by Illinois transfer sophomore Valdon Cooper who had the benefit of spring practice. He saw action for the Illini on special teams.
Everything is wide open here as the Eagles lost their kicker, punter and long snapper. They got a boost with the addition of redshirt Ryan Nowicki of Peachtree City who transferred from Ole Miss. He or freshman Alex Hanks will be the placekicker while Luke Cherry takes on the punting duties, and Jake Banta will be the long snapper.