Identity is a blessing. It’s hard to win without one, barring a massive talent advantage. You need a system to recruit to, a way to say, “This is how we’re going to win.”
Identity can also be a curse. Once you’ve won, your boosters and fans become accustomed to winning that way. Your program and the people who pay for it can become resistant to change.
Nobody knows this better than Georgia Southern.
Identity also makes it difficult to write an original preview about a team. Let’s review what I always end up writing about the Eagles:
- Almost overnight, the Eagles became an FCS powerhouse in the 1980s because of option football and tough-nosed defense. That remained when program godfather, and three-time national champ, Erk Russell retired.
- Under the triple-option stylings of Paul Johnson, the Eagles won two more national titles.
- When a new head coach named Brian VanGorder (now Louisville’s defensive coordinator) changed that identity in 2006, he failed spectacularly. He attempted to modernize the offense and begin passing more. He went 3-8, offended the aesthetic sensibilities of everyone in town, and got sent away.
- Southern lurched back toward option football under Jeff Monken (now Army’s head coach), and he took GS to three consecutive FCS semifinals from 2010-12.
- The school made a long-awaited jump to FBS in 2014, led by Willie Fritz and his modernized option. In the Eagles’ first two years at this level, they led the country in rushing yards and went 17-7.
- Fritz left unexpectedly for Tulane.
The school brought in 35-year-old Tyson Summers, a George O’Leary disciple and former Southern assistant, to run the show in 2016. While he gave lip service to maintaining the option, he wasn’t an option guy, like Johnson, Monken, or Fritz. That made natives anxious even before the Eagles plummeted from 9-4 to 5-7 and from 47th to 101st in Off. S&P+ in 2016.
You never know for sure if a young coach is ready. Summers wasn’t. He brought in a Johnson assistant (Bryan Cook) as offensive coordinator in his second year, but it didn’t make a difference. After a 3-0 start in 2016, Summers lost 13 of his next 15 games.
With one of the youngest two-deeps in FBS, GS crumbled to 125th in Off. S&P+ last fall, and Summers was dismissed after an 0-6 start. A 35-point loss at UMass was evidently the last straw.
Interim coach Lunsford didn’t exactly light the world afire at the end of 2017, but he got GS back to basics. His tenure began with losses to Troy, Georgia State, and Appalachian State (bowl teams, all), but the Eagles unleashed two years’ worth of frustration in pummeling South Alabama, 52-0, then outlasted UL-Lafayette on the road. These two wins were enough for a cash-strapped athletic department to hand the full-time reins to Lunsford.
There were almost no impact seniors, which means there’s almost no one of great importance to replace. Lunsford kept much of Summers’ staff intact, hoping the problem was a matter of youth. He might be right, though Southern had another problem that experience alone might not address: big plays.
- On offense, GS managed 14 gains of 30-plus yards in 12 games, 114th in FBS.
- On defense, the Eagles allowed 38 gains of 30-plus yards, 116th in FBS.
The option is an efficiency offense, death by a thousand paper cuts. Schools like Army have proved you can win with relentless five-yard gains. But Army still managed nearly one more 30-yarder per game than GS and allowed far fewer. That adds up in a hurry.
It wouldn’t take much of a rebound to move the Eagles back up in the Sun Belt — while there was a clear upper tier of Arkansas State, Troy, and Appalachian State last year, little separated the rest of the conference. Shore up a couple of weaknesses, and you could end up in the top half of the standings. Lunsford kept most of the roster and is bringing in a top-half-of-SBC recruiting class.
Keeping the interim coach full-time is never a particularly inspiring move, but it’s not hard to see it working. It better. The school made the FBS jump, at least in part to make sure Georgia State and its start-up wasn’t able to cut ahead in the state pecking order, and while that worked in 2014-15, the last two years were a disaster. If Lunsford only balances out the recent stumble, it’s going to take quite a while for GS to truly get back on its feet.
The components were there. Georgia Southern wasn’t awful on standard downs and did put together 10-yard gains. The Eagles mostly avoided negative rushes, and on the rare occasion that they did complete a pass, it was of the “long play-action shot” variety that we’re used to from option offenses.
The facade was thin, though. Freshman Shai Werts was running the show, which added some instability, and the line was an unstable mess — only one player started all 12 games up front, and nine others started at least one.
Plus, thanks to graduation, the running back position didn’t have the depth you require for an option offense. Whereas nine backs rushed at least 10 times for Army, and eight did for Navy, that number was only four for Georgia Southern. And only two of the four averaged better than 4.7 yards per carry.
GS rushed for 745 yards and eight touchdowns in its two-week, late-year renaissance but otherwise averaged just 192 rushing yards per game. That put pressure on a passing game that was nowhere close to ready. Werts completed 56 percent of his passes but took sacks on basically one of every seven pass attempts.
While Cook attempted to introduce efficiency in quick passes to slot receivers, Myles Campbell and Wesley Kennedy II managed more yards in 17 carries (132) than in 33 pass targets (125).
When the season ended, Lunsford attempted a different strain of option. He dismissed Cook and brought in Southern’s fourth offensive coordinator in four years. Bob DeBesse ran an exciting attack for Bob Davie at New Mexico from 2012-17, producing three top-50 Off. S&P+ performances in four years between 2013-16. Things fell apart for the Lobos last fall, but it wasn’t specifically the fault of the offensive scheme.
There has been no continuity at OC, but there’s plenty on the two-deep.
- Werts is back, as is backup Kado Brown, who produced better passing numbers in limited opportunities.
- Leading running back Wesley Fields returns, as does senior Monteo Garrett, easily GS’ most explosive back (if by default) in 2017. There’s not a lot of meat in the backfield — Fields is the only of last year’s returnees to hit even 200 pounds — but perhaps three-star redshirt freshman Grant Walker or 230-pounder Logan Wright can do something about that.
- Leading wideouts Malik Henry and Obe Fortune are back, and while their output wasn’t incredible, big juniors Mark Michaud (6’4, 220) and D’Ondre Glenn (6’5, 220) averaged 19.3 yards per catch between them and could be ready for larger roles.
- Of those 10 linemen who started at least one game, eight are back, and they’ve combined for 102 career starts. Three (including honorable mention all-conference center Curtis Rainey) have started at least 20 games each.
DeBesse’s 2016 New Mexico offense featured plenty of the dam-busting big plays GS lacked. It’s easy to see the draw of this hire.
Georgia Southern fell to 94th in Def. S&P+ last fall, down from 47th in 2015 and 76th in 2016. Granted, defense wasn’t the Eagles’ biggest problem, but it wasn’t a surprise to see Lunsford making a change here, too.
Scot Sloan spent the last nine seasons at Appalachian State, coaching a consistently solid secondary and moving up to co-coordinator in 2017. The Mountaineers have ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 40 for each of the last three years, and Sloan and Lunsford worked together at GS and Griffin (Ga.) High School long ago. And if any of the App State defensive DNA rubs off, that can only be a good thing.
Assuming Sloan attempts a move to the type of 3-4 that worked so well at App State, it could test GS’ linebacker depth. The Eagles return four linebackers who made double-digit tackles, and recent three-star recruits like sophomore Chris Harris Jr. and redshirt freshman Tre Allen could be ready for starring roles, but the list of names isn’t long.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see a defensive end like sophomore Raymond Johnson (6.5 TFLs in 2017) moving to OLB for both play-making and depth purposes.
GS doesn’t have the girth on the interior that you usually need for a functional 3-4 — of the seven returning linemen who made at least one tackle last year, only one (6’3, 290-pound Ty Phillips) is listed higher than 270. But size wasn’t a function of App State’s defense, either; the Mountaineers have flustered opponents with speed and precision.
Southern might have enough speed. And 270-pound Logan Hunt, easily GS’ TFLs and sacks leader last fall, could be a unique weapon at either end or tackle.
If Southern can find some disruptive options in the front seven, the secondary could thrive. While GS ranked a woeful 124th in Rushing S&P+, the Eagles ranked 61st in Passing S&P+ and return everybody in the back. That includes senior safeties RJ Murray, Joshua Moon, and Sean Freeman (combined: 9.5 TFLs, nine passes defensed) and junior corners Monquavion Brinson and Kindle Vildor (eight picks, 19 breakups).
Continuity in the secondary is one of the primary keys to defensive improvement, and Southern has a ton of it. This could be one of the most exciting secondaries in the Sun Belt, especially if a young three-star corner like redshirt Jaden Garrett or freshman Brandon Cross is ready.
Hell, the secondary might thrive regardless.
Just imagine where GS would have been without a strong special teams unit. Tyler Bass was one of the nation’s better kickers, ranking 14th in field goal efficiency and third in kickoff efficiency. He was a touchback machine and made nine of 11 field goals over 40 yards.
While leading return man Myles Campbell is gone, Wesley Kennedy II and Dexter Carter Jr. were both explosive in limited opportunities. The Eagles were 21st in Special Teams S&P+, and I’d be surprised if they weren’t in the top 25 again.
2018 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||2017 S&P+ Rk|
|20-Oct||at New Mexico State||72|
|TBD||at Coastal Carolina||114|
|TBD||at Georgia State||111|
|TBD||at Texas State||117|
|2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||0 / -6.2|
|2017 TO Luck/Game||+2.6|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||90% (85%, 95%)|
|2017 Second-order wins (difference)||2.3 (-0.3)|
Lunsford made logical coordinator hires and has to replace almost none of last year’s two-deep. He has an exciting core of sophomores and juniors and, potentially, actual senior leadership, especially in the secondary and on the offensive line, two especially good places to have a bunch of seniors.
All three of last year’s Sun Belt Big Three (App State, Arkansas State, Troy) come to Statesboro, which could be good or bad. It offers some statement opportunities, but if they can’t score an upset or two, that means they’ll have to score some road wins to make a run at bowl eligibility.
Still, rock bottom was last year. It’s not going to get worse, and if Lunsford can offer a steadier hand for a more experienced depth chart, the upside we were getting used to back in 2014-15 could present itself once more.