Expectations? What expectations? It's normalcy at GSU

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Expectations for the Georgia Southern football team will be enormous this season, even outside the demanding fan base in Statesboro.

This time last year the Eagles weren't even coming off a winning season, but don't consider it odd that many people are talking about them winning the Southern Conference and the FCS titles.

Georgia Southern seemingly skipped a couple steps when its program re-emerged in head coach Jeff Monken's first season last year. A mere 4-4 at one point, the Eagles won six straight games and reached the national semifinals before their season ended against Delaware.

"The expectations in Statesboro are always the same; they don't ever change," said Monken, who has been leading his team through spring practice, which wraps up with an intrasquad game on April 15. "That's not anything that our guys feel added pressure or we worry about. There's nobody outside of our organization that is gonna have higher expectations than we do as a football team. We're going to do the best we can."

It's not like Georgia Southern faced a wholesale rebuilding project last year, but the Eagles program desperately needed a Mr. Fix-It. The Eagles were nowhere near the level they played on during their big run from 1985-2000, when they won a record six FCS (then Division I-AA) titles.

Not only did Mr. Fix-It, er Monken, restore the vaunted triple option to their offense, but the Eagles developed one of the more feared defenses nationally.

QB Jaybo Shaw runs Georgia Southern's triple option.
Now they return all but one starter from a year ago.

Oh, yes, there's reason for people to be ready for the next step in Statesboro.

"We want to win, we want to win every game. And so do our opponents; everybody wants to," said Monken, who was an assistant on five GSU teams from 1997 to 2001, including the 1999 and 2000 national champions, before he followed head coach Paul Johnson to Navy and then Georgia Tech.

"It's just playing with the performance that it takes to be champions with the kind of effort and toughness it takes. And having things fall into place. There's been really, really great football teams that haven't won their conferences and haven't won the national championships. Things have to go your way, and you have to do the best you can as a football team."

Weakside outside linebacker E.J. Webb is the only full-time starter lost from a year ago. Cornerback Carson Hill made six starts and played extensively, but Lavelle Westbrooks made more starts at the position.

Monken has held five defensive starters out of spring practice to rest injuries. The Eagles have a new defensive coordinator in Jack Curtis, but the philosophies for their 4-3 defense won't change much, so the unit should remain dominant again.

Junior-to-be nose tackle Brent Russell, a future pro, and cornerback Laron Scott will lead the defense, while defensive tackle Roderick Tinsley and middle linebacker Josh Rowe, one of the hobbled players, are the other top returnees.

Offensively, all 11 starters will be back, led by senior quarterback Jaybo Shaw. He learned how to run the triple option under Johnson and Monken at Georgia Tech and enjoyed a smooth transition last year as a transfer to Georgia Southern. He rushed for 16 touchdowns and threw for five.

J.J. Wilcox was exceptional in the slot and fullback Robert Brown went over 1,000 yards despite injuries as a freshman. Right tackle Brett Moore came out of nowhere to anchor the offensive line as a junior.

If there is a potential problem with running the triple option, it's turnovers. Monken wants the Eagles to cut down on their 45 fumbles (22 lost) and dominate the game clock.

They still managed to be plus-two in turnover margin.

"It hurt us. Anytime you turn the ball over, it hurts you," Monken said, "but it probably kept us from having the opportunity to be in some football games that we may have had a chance to win. So we have to do a better job of taking care of the ball.

"Defensively, we have to play more consistently. There were times when we played really, really good defense. Even in the same game we'd have drives where we didn't play very well; we didn't play assignments well, we didn't tackle well. Those are areas where we have to improve. Try to do a better job with the turnover margin, really be on the plus side."

Not to be overlooked is the return of perhaps the best kicking combination in the FCS in place-kicker Adrian Mora and punter Charlie Edwards, who will both be seniors.

Georgia Southern improved considerably from start to finish last season. Its season turned with a rally and overtime upset of rival and then-No. 1 Appalachian State on Nov. 6, which pushed the Eagles to 5-4 and in Monken's eyes taught them they could play championship-level football.

Now people want actual championships out of Georgia Southern.

"You can't worry about that stuff, you have to try to win each week," Monken said. "And right now we're trying to get our team to play as good as they can in the spring. Certainly in fall camp, our focus is going to be to develop team unity and develop a team spirit and develop toughness. And then really as camp gets going and we get closer to the opener, focus completely on Samford (the season-opening opponent Sept. 3). And then focus on the next game and the next game, and not worry about the expectations."

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