At his introductory press conference, new Georgia Southern Eagles football coach Tyson Summers stood up and proudly answered the question on everyone’s minds.
Georgia Southern was going to run the option, he said. The gun option at that, the one installed by predecessor Willie Fritz that led to instant FBS success in 2014 and 2015.
What has followed in the 11 months since seems to be the exact opposite.
Eagle fans know the rest of the story, and others have stumbled upon it while watching the program in confusion.
Summers hired the head coaches of Valdosta High and Valdosta State as co-offensive coordinators. One, Rance Gillespie, was Southern’s offensive coordinator during the “Hatch Attack” years of 2007-09, when the team pitched the ball forward and did not win many games. That stint ended with the option — and winning football — returning to Statesboro.
The other was David Dean, who outlines his offensive philosophy in this YouTube clip:
“What we try to do from an offensive standpoint is, we try to get the ball out of our hands as quickly as we possibly can. And get the ball into our receivers’ hands to give them an opportunity to make plays.”
That does not describe the option.
The hires were interesting to say the least, but you never know what will happen until the season starts. If the Eagles were undefeated right now we’d all be praising the innovations.
That hasn’t been the case. Instead, a team averaging 363 rushing yards per game last season now averages 223. Georgia Southern scored 54 rushing touchdowns last year. With two games left this season the number is 19.
That’s with basically every skill position player returning. Yards per rush fell from 6.5 to 4.3. Matt Breida, an uber-talented running back, has fallen from 7.9 yards per carry to 3.7. In the most recent loss to Louisiana-Lafayette, Georgia Southern averaged just 1.9 yards per rush.
The passing game was supposed to become an added wrinkle, but is increasingly the primary offensive engine, and not a successful one either.
The quarterbacks, seniors Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw, along with newcomer Seth Shuman, boast 11 touchdowns against 9 interceptions. Their combined completion percentage is 54 percent.
After a tenuous 3-0 start, the team has lost six of its last seven. At 4-6 a bowl game probably won’t happen.
I’m far from an X’s and O’s guy. I’d rather write about traditions, tailgates, road trips, student sections, betting lines and other fan stuff than offensive philosophy. But it’s hard to focus on those when the team can’t win.
Georgia Southern played some of its worst-ever football from 2006 to 2009. Summers’ lone previous year on the Eagles’ staff was 2006, when the team posted the worst record in school history at 3-8. As head coach, Summers re-hired the offensive coordinator from 2007 to 2009, AKA the other three down years.
In hindsight, that doesn’t make much sense.
Ironically, those seasons are why Summers had to make the “we’re running the option” statement in the first place.
Coaches don’t always announce what offense they’re running at their opening press conference. But because Southern had such a bad time with non-option coaches at the end of the last decade, the statement was needed to calm fears of a repeat. This makes it even more unbelievable that Georgia Southern appears to be doing exactly that.
My guess is Summers wanted to blend Dean and Gillespie’s passing philosophy with the option and create a deadly two-dimensional attack. Even though last year’s team went 9-4 it was not a pretty picture when the run didn’t work.
But the option isn’t something you can pick up in a short period of time. We often hear how that’s one of its key advantages — defenses and opposing coaches aren’t used to it. Erk Russell installed the option in large part because he hated facing it as a defensive coordinator.
Exhibit A: Georgia Southern scored more points on Alabama than anyone else during the Tide’s 2011 national championship season. After the game, Nick Saban said he wished the Eagles would’ve started passing more when they got behind, because he’s more used to it.
“They kept on running the option, and it was successful for them,” he said.
Saban also touched on how his scout team ran the option in practice, but it’s such a different experience against a team that lives by it.
Exhibit B: This season, Georgia Southern ran 82 percent of the time in the week 1 win over Savannah State. Against Western Michigan three weeks later, the Eagles ran 75 percent of the time. Against Georgia Tech on Oct. 15, it was 60 percent rushes. Against Appalachian State the weekend before Halloween, the number was 47 percent. And last week, against Louisiana-Lafayette, the Eagles ran on just 43 percent of offensive snaps.
It was probably too optimistic to think non-option coaches could come in, learn the offense in a single offseason, then mix in elements of the pass-first schemes they’ve run for years. When the run stopped working, the temptation would always be to go back to your instincts, which in this case meant more passing.
Is it time to fire Tyson Summers? I don’t think so. But it’s time to decide whether to go through two or three more recruiting cycles and bring in a roster of players suited to this scheme.
That kind of drastic shift wasn’t supposed to be in the cards.
The option is Georgia Southern’s identity. Virtually all of the school’s tremendous success happened under the option. It’s why high-major programs don’t like scheduling the Eagles. It provides a key advantage in recruiting with smaller, faster players.
You know where this is going. With all due respect, it seems the best offseason move would be bringing in an offensive coordinator who trades in the triple option, and does it well.