Georgia Southern University football players wanted to put the memory of a dreadful 2006 campaign behind them last year. This year, what could have been in 2007 is driving them in 2008.
The Eagles went 7-4 in coach Chris Hatcher’s first year and were inches away from a Southern Conference championship and an automatic berth in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. An offsides penalty against Elon gave the Phoenix another chance for a game-winning field goal and a potential game-winning field goal against Furman in the home finale tumbled just wide of the uprights.
So how often do the Eagles talk about how close they were last year?
“Just about every day so far,” senior safety Chris Covington said. “What we’re working on now is that those couple of extra inches don’t beat us. We need to solidify things so we’re putting the game away instead of depending on three inches on the kick.”
But the Eagles go into this season without all five starting offensive linemen and Jayson Foster, the record-setting quarterback who was the Walton Payton Award winner last season.
Optimism abounds, however, on the banks of Beautiful Eagle Creek as the Eagles begin their preseason practices Friday. Hatcher signed 30 players and that was before former Peach County star Antonio Henton opted to leave Ohio State to join his former prep coach Rance Gillespie, now the Eagles offensive coordinator.
Redshirt freshman Lee Chapple beat out sophomore Kyle Collins for the No. 1 quarterback spot in spring. Hatcher didn’t anoint Henton, the state 2005 player of the year as a senior at Peach County, as the starter once he arrived in Statesboro this summer.
His players already on the roster appreciated how Hatcher approached the situation. They’re glad to have a player of Henton’s caliber on the roster, but they’re also glad to know nothing is being handed to him.
“I love the way he handles it,” said Covington, who led the team in rushing in 2006 before moving to defense last season. “Once you’re at Georgia Southern, you’re at the same level as everyone else. You have to earn your keep.”
Said senior defensive end Larry Beard: “It really shows his character. A lot of coaches might say one thing and not really stick to it.”
Hatcher wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’re excited that he’s with us, and he’s excited to be there,” he said of Henton. “We got players on our team that could play for Ohio State. We have good players here. Just because a guy plays at a big school doesn’t mean he can play here.”
The Eagles will find out about players at big schools soon enough. They open the campaign at Georgia, and the Bulldogs likely will be a top-5 team when the preseason polls are released.
Georgia Southern is 0-3 in its first three ventures between the hedges at Sanford Stadium and the Eagles have been picked to finish fourth in the nine-team SoCon. Georgia finished the season ranked No. 2 by the AP and No. 3 by USA Today.
“It’s really a showcase game for us,” said Beard, who played his high school at Sandy Creek in Fairburn, just outside of Atlanta. “Just because we’re in (FCS), it’s not a step down.”
Covington, from Gwinnett County powerhouse Brookwood, and Beard have tried to stay from talking about the game with the Georgia players they know. But it’s not easy to do so.
“It starts to pop up,” Beard said. “Sparks start to fly a little bit.”
Said Covington: “You can kind of avoid it a little bit, but it’s in the back of everybody’s minds.”
Though his team will be decided underdogs against the Bulldogs, Hatcher isn’t conceding anything, even against a team that expects to return seven starters on offense and seven on defense.
“We’re going to play to win,” he said. “That’s the reason we suit up to play. We’re going to play the best we can and hopefully our best is better than theirs on that particular Saturday.”
Meanwhile, the players point to a strong showing of players during summer workouts and the so close they could smell it finish last season.
“It was definitely a big step forward,” Covington said. “Going 3-8, you feel worthless. But we realize we’ve got a long way to go after last season. It’s been a positive and a motivator at the same time.”
Beard said there was no rebuilding last year, that the Eagles simply realized what they had. Though they haven’t been past the first round of the playoff since 2002, their sights are set well beyond 7-4 — even with a schedule that includes Georgia and three-time defending national champ Appalachian State.
“We can be national champions,” Beard said.
Notes: Hatcher announced that redshirt-freshman Jared Flowers will miss the 2008 season after failing to meet academic requirements.
Junior Ricky Ponton is no longer a member of the Georgia Southern team due to medical reasons. Ponton underwent surgery on his knee following spring practice and would not be ready for the 2008 season.
Hatcher also stated that senior defensive end Dakota Walker and junior defensive back Brandon Echols have been reinstated to the team.
Hatcher announced that sophomore quarterback Billy Lowe, senior defensive lineman Matt Wise and junior defensive lineman Jerome Pelham (junior) will be medical non-counters, which means they will remain on financial aid but not count against the 63 maximum scholarships allowed.