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2021 Georgia State Panthers Season Preview

Shawn Elliott’s team is coming along at the start of year five

NCAA Football: LendingTree Bowl-Western Kentucky vs Georgia State Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

If there has ever been a season that alluded to future success, the Georgia State Panthers experienced it in 2020. Their 6-4 record (4-4 in Sun Belt games) was a touch above average at best but was capped off by a three-game win streak.

HC Shawn Elliot, entering his fifth year as lead man for the Panthers, will be gunning for some conference silverware to accompany his two Bowl wins and he has a strong team in place to do it.


Preseason Expectations

Georgia State is in a weird space. They are a strong team that deserves recognition as one of the better Sun Belt teams. But due to a fairly heavy power imbalance, it seems unlikely the Panthers will make a strong push for the Sun Belt title.

GSU has the fifth best odds to win the Sun Belt, but those odds equate to 5%.

While a conference, or even division, victory would be incredible, the realistic goal is a finish around 7-5; anything worse than 6-6 is a disappointment.

NCAA Football: UL Lafayette at Georgia State
Georgia State HC Shawn Elliott
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Schedule

vs Army 9/4
at North Carolina 9/11
vs Charlotte 9/18
at Auburn 9/25
vs Appalachian State 10/2
at Louisiana-Monroe 10/9
vs Texas State 10/23
at Georgia Southern 10/30
at Louisiana 11/4
at Coastal Carolina 11/13
vs Arkansas State 11/20
vs Troy 11/27


Offense Overview

Quarterback

The QB conversation at Georgia State starts and ends with Cornelious Brown IV. Brown IV, a redshirt sophomore, passed for 227 yards per game last season, was intercepted only ten times (ninth best in the NCAA), and was responsible for the second-most touchdowns among all Sun Belt players.

Quad, the name Brown IV is better known by, has also penciled his name into the Georgia State record books. Despite having played just thirteen games in his career, he already ranks sixth in career passing yards, sixth in career touchdown passes, and fourth in total touchdowns.

Should Brown IV take a significant step back or suffer an injury, Furman transfer Darren Grainger and redshirt freshman Mikele Colasurdo are the likely fill-ins. Grainger started 11 of 13 games for Furman in 2019; he passed for 1,222 yards and 13 touchdowns that season. Colasurdo backed up Brown IV last season, but only appeared four times.

Running Back

The Panther ground game has been and will continue to be dominated by senior Destin Coates. Despite playing nine of 10 games in 2020, Coates rushed for 769 yards as part of a junior campaign we now know is the second best in Georgia State’s history. His stat line was slightly blemished due to a lack of touchdowns (Coates had one more touchdown than Tucker Gregg and as many as Brown IV despite both having under 100 attempts) and was close to nonexistent in the air game (12 receptions for 65 yards and no scores). Regardless, Coates is a dominant force on the ground that gains yards with ease. 705 yards and five rushing touchdowns in his senior season would make him Georgia State’s all-time leader in both stats.

NCAA Football: UL Lafayette at Georgia State
Senior RB Destin Coates
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

While Coates receives the glamorous breakaway runs and a strong plurality of touches, senior Tucker Gregg does the short work. He did the brunt work on goal line or and-short downs. Three of his six touchdowns in 2020 were from inside the five. He will likely be used in a similar role this year.

In the rare instances Georgia State wants to use their backs in the passing game, they will look to Jamyest Williams. Williams transitioned from corner to running back last season and was used sparingly, but with intention. While Coates saw 13.8 rushing attempts per reception and Gregg 45, Williams ran the ball just 3.9 times per reception. When he touches the field, be prepared for backfield-centric passing.

Wide Receiver

It is hard to argue against a receiving duo that includes a top-five Sun Belt receiver and the Panther’s fourth leading receiver all-time. Redshirt junior Sam Pinckney and senior Cornelius McCoy respectively make up the X/Y combo. The two combined for 1,262 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2020.

Pinckney, the younger of the two, had a hit-or-miss season last year. He had four games with over 100 yards but also three games where he couldn’t break 25. Pinckney saw the end zone five times in the span of two games, but then scored just twice in the final seven games of the season.

As for McCoy, he was also streaky but not to the same degree. He had his share of booms— two 100+ yard games—but excluding those matchups averaged 43.8 yards per game.

Terrance Dixon returns for his second year starting in the slot for the Panthers. He does not have the flashy accolades of Pinckney or McCoy, but he is reliable for two catches per game and is a potential rushing threat when in motion.

While not playing wide receiver, senior tight end Roger Carter is a weapon in the passing game as well. Like Dixon he is by no means a high priority in the offense, but he is efficient and effective when used as a target.

Offensive Line

GSU ran for 194 yards per game last season. They had a four-game streak of 220+ ground yards and ranked thirteenth in FBS for fewest sacks allowed. Two offensive linemen made the 2020 All-Sun Belt team. If that isn’t dominance in the trenches, what is?

All five starters and multiple important backups are returning this season.

Among them is Shamarious Gilmore. Gilmore is a four-time All-Sun Belt nominee, the first in school history, and has a good shot to be the first five-timer. Gilmore, a left guard, has started 47 straight for the Panthers. He has not only blocked for Coates during his record-breaking career, but also for Tra Barnett. Barnett holds the records Coates will likely break. Gilmore became the first Panther to return a blocked field goal for a touchdown and the only offensive lineman in school history to score after scooping a loose ball against Charlotte in 2017.

To Gilmore’s right is center Malik Sumter. Sumter was the other All-Sun Belt nominee from 2020.

Travis Glover, Pat Bartlett, and Jonathan Bass round out the five-up front.

Again while not an offensive lineman, Roger Carter is often on the field for running plays and deserves recognition as part of the blocking team.


Defense Overview

Defensive Line

Much like the offensive line, the pass rush was elite not just among the Sun Belt, but throughout the NCAA. The Panthers’ 35 combined sacks was not only a school record but was seventh highest among FBS schools.

Of those 35, 13.5 came from the defensive line...pretty good for a team that runs a 3-4.

Nose guard Dontae Wilson and ends Hardrick Willis and Jefferey Clark maintained the front for the Panthers last season and will do so again. Willis and Clarke accounted for 3.5 and 6 sacks each.

Willis and Wilson are both two-time All-Sun Belt selections and both crack GSU’s top five in career sacks; Willis is number one, Wilson is number four.

While those three will see a heavy percentage of snaps, Akeem Smith will also see rotation time in the middle. Tre Moore and Javon Denis will take on the same role on the edges. The three combined for seven tackles for loss in 2020.

NCAA Football: Appalachian State at Georgia State
Senior NG Dontae Wilson
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Linebackers

GSU luckily avoided the loss of crucial players everywhere except at linebacker. ILB Trajan Stephens-McQueen has since graduated and OLB Jordan Strachan transferred to South Carolina. The two combined for 103 tackles and Strachan set school records in both single season sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (14) in 2020.

Blake Carroll returns as an ILB. Carroll led the team in tackles and was an All-Sun Belt selection in 2020.

Alongside Carroll on the interior will likely be redshirt freshman Justin Abraham. Abraham was named Top Defensive Newcomer after spring practice this year. He made four appearances and three tackles as a true freshman.

Jontrey Hunter, a redshirt junior, posted a sack, a pick, and interception off the edge as a starter last season. He will be one of the returning OLBs.

The only starting position up for grabs is the OLB opposite Hunter. Jhi’Shawn Taylor made 12 starts in 2019 but played a rotational backup role in 2020. He, alongside senior Jacorey Crawford, are the two frontrunners for the job. Crawford made a sack and broke up a few passes last season.

Defensive backs

All four starters in the secondary are returning from 2020. The group was objectively the weakest aspect of the team last season. The 2020 Panthers allowed 273.6 passing yards per game, the worst in program history. They also conceded 21 passing touchdowns including, eight against Arkansas State.

The group caught momentum at the end of the season. During Georgia State’s season-concluding three-game win streak the Panthers gave up just 155 yards per game, did not allow a score through the air, and picked opposing QBs off three times.

Jaylon Jones and Quavian White make up the corners with Antavious Lane and Chris Moore patrolling the middle as safeties.

White, a senior, ranks second in career interceptions for the Panthers. Lane added four picks of his own last season, most by a freshman in school history.

Tyler Gore, Bryquice Brown, and Cameron Sims will also see snaps at corner. Keon Carter and Chris Bacon, both redshirt seniors, saw spot starts in 2020 and will fill in at safety when needed.


Specialists

The specialists are a point of highlight for the Panthers.

Kicker Noel Ruiz hit 13 of 16 field goals, the second highest tally in school history, and converted 33 of 35 PATs in 2020. He handed kickoffs as well last season. Ruiz ranks third among active FBS kickers in career points.

Michael Hayes earned the starting punting job in 2020 and averaged 39.6 net yards per go. Just one of his 50 punts went for a touchback; nine were downed inside the 20.

Charlie Flint returns as the FG/PAT long snapper and Seth Glausier returns as the snapper on punts.

NCAA Football: LendingTree Bowl-Western Kentucky vs Georgia State
Senior WR Cornelius McCoy
Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Important Games

at Auburn 9/25
A near impossible win, but a strong showing in the last non-conference game can mean a ton of momentum before hosting App State.

vs Georgia Southern 10/30
A Halloween Eve win over an in-state rival would be monumental going into the hardest part of the schedule.


Keys to Success

Maintaining trench superiority
Apply pressure to opposing quarterbacks, and keep your own safe.

Less passing yards allowed
The interception numbers were flashy, but approaching 300 air yards per game is not sustainable.

Utilizing all weapons available
The Panthers are blessed with an incredible variety of offensive skill players. Getting caught bottlenecking the offense through just one would spell disaster.