If the numbers at Meet the Eagles day are any indication, Georgia Southern University football fans are eager to get the Chris Hatcher era going.
GSU athletic marketing reps handed out more than 2,000 schedule posters for fans to get signed by Eagles coaches and players, and 165 youngsters took to the field with the players and coaches for a camp Saturday. For a team coming off its worst season since restarting the program, such enthusiasm is welcome.
“We had a good crowd,” Hatcher said after the crowd trickled out of the Bishop Field House. “Everybody seemed to be very positive, which is big to our success in bringing this program back to where it once was.”
Following Brian VanGorder’s sudden and ultimately acrimonious departure to be linebackers coach for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, Georgia Southern officials wasted no time in reaching out to Hatcher. As head coach at Division II Valdosta State, Hatcher led the Blazers to a 76-12 record in seven seasons, one national championship and one runner-up finish.
The Macon native and former Division II player of the year while a Valdosta State quarterback inherits a program that has the most I-AA national championships but has not won a playoff game since 2002.
“We’ve had two disappointing playoff losses since I’ve been here,” said senior do-everything Jayson Foster. “We’re trying to get that corrected and get to the national championship game.”
Three years ago, the Eagles suffered their first opening-round loss in the playoffs, falling 27-23 to New Hampshire.
The following year, they blew a 35-18 second-half lead and lost 50-35 to Texas State. Out went Mike Sewak and in came VanGorder, a highly regarded defensive assistant.
But the Eagles stumbled to a 3-8 record in 2006, going 2-5 at Paulson Stadium where the program twice set national home game winning streaks. The Eagles lost two games by seven points and four by four points or fewer.
“We had a lot of opportunities to win games, and we didn’t make the plays when we had to,” Foster said. “Nobody wants to leave their senior year with a bitter taste in their mouth.”
Foster has played quarterback, wide receiver and kick returner in his Eagles career. He has two rushes of more than 80 yards, an 85-yard reception, an 83-yard kick return and a 94-yard punt return. He had 368 yards receiving and 360 more rushing last year, along with eight touchdowns, and didn’t start in nine games.
How much he has the ball in his hands matters little to the senior speedster. It’s all about winning for him.
“If we had had 10 wins, with me playing so little, it wouldn’t have made a difference,” Foster said. “But this year, play a little or play a lot, I just want to get wins out there.
“They know last year was a bad showing,” he said, “and they know we’ve got something in store for them this year.”
When Hatcher took the job, he already knew of Southern’s championship history and of the expectations placed on a program with six national titles.
“Our big thing is to win one game a week,” he said. “That’s our goal. That’s what we expect.”
What has surprised him is how much the team has improved from the end of spring practice. The Eagles started fall practice a week later, since they don’t open the season until Sept. 8 against West Georgia.
“We got a lot better from spring practice to the beginning of fall practice,” Hatcher said, “moreso than I anticipated.”
With Foster on the field, three returning offensive line starters and running backs Lamar Lewis and Mike Hamilton, whoever is pulling the trigger on the “Hatch Attack” should have plenty of weapons. GSU’s line led the nation in fewest sacks allowed last year, though the Eagles averaged nearly 17 points per game under their 2005 average and averaged less than 400 yards of offense per game for the first time in 10 seasons.
Travis Clark is the incumbent starter at quarterback, though Foster may slip back into that role. Northern Illinois transfer Billy Lowe and freshmen Lee Chapple and Kyle Collins could push Clark.
“The offense is a little easier,” Foster said. “The plays are a little simpler. We’ll go out there and play ball and not have to concentrate as much.”
The change in offense isn’t the only thing the Eagles are getting used to — so is a third coaching staff in three seasons and another offensive and defensive philosophy.
“To be a good football team, you’ve got to be able to adapt to change on and off the field,” Foster said. “Last year kind of took us by surprise. With Coach Hatcher coming in this year, we’re more prepared for it, guys are more in tune and ready for it.”