This season is the beginning of the post-Shai Werts era in Statesboro, as Chad Lunsford looks to enter the year with a brand new starting quarterback for the first time since taking over as Georgia Southern’s head coach in 2017.
The season has not even begun yet, but the Eagles are already off to a rocky start and will be without presumed starting quarterback Justin Tomlin for the first two games of the year against Gardner-Webb and Florida Atlantic.
This preview will go through the positives and negatives of the team as a whole with observations on each of these items, rather than a game-by-game breakdown. Obviously, things change quickly in the Sun Belt and this team could look entirely different once Tomlin returns from suspension.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first so we can end this article on a high note: This, by-and-large, is not expected to be a good team this season. The numbers tell a story.
The most recent Vegas win totals that have Georgia Southern’s over-under at 4.5 wins for the season, with most people betting the over on that amount. Athlon Sports in their conference preview has the Eagles slated as the worst team in the East behind Troy.
This season projects to be one of many unknowns for Georgia Southern, which is why so many have been down on the team’s outlook for the season versus the other teams in the conference. The quarterback camp battle and absence of Tomlin early in the season has given me pause on the team’s 2021 outlook after I had originally projected Southern to start the season 2-0 and blossom from there.
Digging into the first two games a little deeper, most sources I could find have freshmen Sam Kenerson and Cam Ransom battling it out to see who starts the first two games for the team. The Statesboro Herald even reported on August 7th that transfer running back Amare Jones was switching in for first-team snaps at the QB spot after not playing the position since high school.
Past the first two games, let’s get into Justin Tomlin’s prospects at the position: Last year was a tough one in the games he played, as the only real game he started was a dominant 20-3 win over FAU. Outside of that, he participated in losses to Georgia State and Army when Werts was forced to leave due to injury, and started the loss against Appalachian State before having to leave that game himself due to injury.
Outside of Werts, the Eagles must find a way to manufacture the big plays left behind by the departure of Wesley Kennedy III from the program. Kennedy averaged nearly seven yards per carry and 21 yards per reception in eight games last year, and the team needs someone to provide that similar spark this season.
Defensively, losing players like Raymond Johnson III, Rashad Byrd and Reynard Ellis will be rough to deal with. The team returns a great deal of talent in the secondary, even with the transfer of safety Kendrick Duncan, but will the front-seven have suitable replacements for the previously mentioned players when it comes to stopping the run and rushing the passer?
Now that the bad parts are behind us, let’s get into the reasons to be hopeful for the upcoming year. Number one with a bullet is the promotion of Doug Ruse back to offensive coordinator full-time.
Gone is the lethargic play calling of Bob DeBesse, and Ruse at least attempted to bring in a better variety in his offensive strategy in the games against FAU, App and the blowout bowl win over Louisiana Tech.
As mentioned above, Ruse is working with a mostly new offense devoid of some key pieces of past years, but the Eagles were a dominant rushing attack on a national scale in the coach’s first stint in Statesboro. Hopefully, he can bring that same mentality and offensive creativity to this young team that needs it.
Outside of the coaching, running backs J.D. King, Logan Wright, Gerald Green and Tulane transfer Amare Jones may give Ruse many pieces to mix and match on the offensive side of the ball, presuming Georgia Southern’s quarterback position is stabilized.
The Eagles also get an interesting chess piece in Georgia Tech transfer James Graham, who converted from quarterback to wide receiver in camp. Maybe Graham becomes that big play, slotback-style threat that GS lost in Kennedy.
As far as line play, the team returns four starters up front and if Ruse can get some of the team’s blocking issues from last season worked out, we should see an improved rushing attack.
Defensively, the secondary should be a real bright spot this season. Cornerbacks Derrick Canteen and Darrell Baker Jr. return a good bit of talent at the cornerback spots, while Justin Birdsong should be able to lead the Eagles from a safety position.
Up front, seniors C.J. Wright and Justin Ellis return a good bit of experience in the trenches. If this defense can get up to the level they were playing at last year despite the losses to graduation, and the offense takes a few steps forward, GS could be looking at a successful campaign this season.
Truthfully, the schedule is tough this year for the Eagles.
Assuming that Southern takes out Gardner-Webb in week one should be a fairly safe bet, but the FAU game brings a lot of uncertainty with the quarterback position being in a state of flux.
From there, things only get tougher as Georgia Southern faces off with Arkansas, Sun Belt West champion Louisiana, and high-flying Arkansas State over consecutive weeks. Not an ideal time for Tomlin to get comfortable coming off of suspension.
The one bright spot is, other than the game against the Razorbacks, the other two matchups will be played at Paulson Stadium.
The Eagles play very winnable games from then on until a tough four-game slate to end the year, highlighted with matchups against reigning East champion Coastal Carolina, BYU, and a road game against rival Appalachian State. By that point, the Eagles should be rounding into form and we will know whether this team is legitimate, or if this will be a building year.
Looking at the schedule on the surface, I didn’t believe GS would be able to hit the over on that 4.5 win total Vegas put out with such a challenging slate of games.
But it is very possible that Lunsford’s team win their first two games even without Tomlin, and I believe that anywhere from 5-7 wins could be in play for this year’s team.
Like it or not, this Southern team is still fairly young at a variety of key positions and has a tough schedule to both open and close the season. Some of the teams at the top of the conference (Coastal, App, Louisiana) are too loaded and experienced at the same positions Southern has question marks at to really compete with these teams, barring a revelation in key offensive spots.
I am going to split the difference and say this team finishes the year 6-6, which I think would be a solid record considering how many new faces will be taking snaps for the team this year. I think Southern looks to get into the Sun Belt East hunt with an improved and older squad in 2022.