STATESBORO—The option has returned to Paulson Stadium. So too has the 4-3 defense.
The next question is — how soon before the Georgia Southern Eagles return to their prominence in the Football Championship Subdivision?
Georgia Southern completed its first spring practice under new coach Jeff Monken on Saturday with the annual Blue-White game, and the longtime assistant is bringing back the triple option offense the Eagles rode to six national championships.
But the Eagles, who won a half-dozen national titles in a span from 1985-2000, haven’t been in the FCS playoffs since 2005.
“We’ve got to learn what the tradition really means first,” said Dion DuBose, a sophomore defensive end who moved from linebacker.
Monken was the slotbacks coach under Paul Johnson from 1997-2001, when the Eagles won or shared five Southern Conference titles and played for three national championships. Monken went with Johnson to Navy for six years and spent the past two seasons on Johnson’s staff at Georgia Tech.
Since the option was scrapped following a loss to Texas State in the first round of the 2005 playoffs, the Eagles are 21-23. The program that averaged 50 points per game in 1999 scored just 205 a year ago.
Out went a spread passing attack. In came the return to the spread option offense. And a very steep and accelerated learning curve.
“In the beginning, it was tough,” said Jawaun Luckey, a junior quarterback. “But our coaches stayed with us and we just worked hard on our techniques. We’ve studied hard.”
Luckey led the White team to a 24-0 win over the Blue team, running for two touchdowns and completing 4-of-5 passes for 56 yards. Brent Osborn was 2-of-4 for 90 yards, including a 51-yard hookup with Patrick Barker. Blue team quarterback A.J. McCray led all rushers with 46 yards.
Monken, in his first head coaching position, ended the three weeks of spring practice encouraged.
“Our goals were to be tougher and play with better effort,” he said. “I think we’re better at those two than we were on March 23. I think we got better. I think our defense improved. I was excited about our defense through the spring. And we really improved on offense.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys who have never run the option before,” he said. “I think we’re a lot better at it now than when we started spring.”
Luckey, a transfer from Tuskegee who has not played since 2007, emerged as the top quarterback for the Eagles. Luckey, who played at Butler High in Augusta, played wide receiver and quarterback at Tuskegee.
“I haven’t played football in a while,” he said, “and I’m glad Coach Monken gave me the opportunity.”
Yet Luckey’s chance may not be at quarterback. Jaybo Shaw, who is transferring from Georgia Tech to Georgia Southern, was a spectator on the sidelines for the spring game. Luckey may wind up playing defensive back, slotback or receiver, if he’s not among the mix from the starting quarterback spot.
“He’s athletic enough to do some other things for us,” Monken said. “He’s an athlete we’d like to see on the field somewhere.”
Shaw will be a member of the Eagles when they resume practice in August, and he likely will assume the starter’s role. In two seasons at Tech, Shaw was 16-of-26 passing for 339 yards and two touchdowns.
Shaw missed most of last season with a broken collarbone but started for the Jackets in a 27-0 win over Duke.
“It’s encouraging to know he’s coming,” Monken said. “If one of the guys we have can beat him out, then we’ll have two really good quarterbacks. He’s the only quarterback we’ll have in the fall who has game experience running this offense.”
Monken said he’s upfront with the other quarterbacks about Shaw’s advantages, namely his familiarity with the offense from two years playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“To be able to go under center and get you in the right play and make the right read gives you a better chance,” he said. “If one of these guys can beat him out, we’ll be in a better situation.”
But the spring practices have been valuable for the other quarterbacks, Monken noted, as they got repetitions running the offense and going up against various defenses.
“I think it helps them get better,” he said. “We’ll be better because they’ve had the opportunity to be under center.”
The option’s return gets its first test Sept. 4 when the Eagles host Savannah State. Monken said this spring was similar to the first spring practice two years ago at Georgia Tech, when the Jackets veered from a pro-style set to the spread option.
“We came out of that first spring not feeling real excited or confident,” he said. “We didn’t know if we could get back to the line of scrimmage with the ball.
“But I’m encouraged. There were a lot of good things. It at least looks like the option when we’re out there.”