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May 5, 2014

First look: Georgia Southern



NC State's spring football wrapped up with the annual spring game on April 12. With football season quickly approaching, The Wolfpacker takes an in-depth look at the team's upcoming opponents in 2014.

Georgia Southern has won six FCS National Championships, more than any other team in the nation, and they have traditionally enjoyed the most success when utilizing its triple-option offense. 2014 will be a season of change as the Eagles move up to the FBS ranks, joining the Sun Belt Conference, and switch to a spread option attack under first-year head coach Willie Fritz.

Fritz' offense, based on his previous stops, is still expected to feature quarterback runs and option plays, but it is not the triple option the players on the roster are used to. Expect to see a lot motion before the snap and unique formations, as well as an increase from last year's 102 pass attempts.

Georgia Southern left the FCS ranks with a bang last year, defeating Florida 26-20 on the road in their season finale, despite the fact that they didn't complete a pass. After the team's first victory over an FBS program in 21 attempts, fourth-year coach Jeff Monken left to take the head post at Army.

Fritz, who has previously served as the head coach at Blinn Junior College, Division II Central Missouri and FCS competitor Sam Houston State, was hired to lead the school in its move up the ranks. He has an impressive record of 176-67-1 as the head man and was named the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year for the FCS level in 2012.

He has never coached above the FCS ranks, but has experience turning programs around quickly. He inherited a team at Blinn, his first stop as the head man, that went 5-24-1 in its three seasons before he was hired, and led them to a 39-5-1 mark and two National Junior College titles.

At Central Missouri, which had enjoyed just three campaigns where they won more than half of their games in the eight years before Fritz was hired, the Mules experienced just 2 seasons where they lost more contests than they won under the coach, including a 5-6 mark in his debut campaign. He went 92-41 from that point and also led them to their first postseason trip in more than 30 years.

Fritz' time with Sam Houston was probably his most successful. He took over for Todd Whitten, who posted a 25-28 ledger in five seasons at the helm, and went 6-5 in his first year. In his final three campaigns, the team went 34-10 and appeared in the 2011 and 2012 FCS national title games.

Monken did not leave the cupboard bare for Fritz, who will try to lead another turnaround, although it won't to be as drastic as some of his previous rebuild jobs. Monken went 31-12 in his first three years at the helm, but the team is coming off of a 7-4 campaign while going 4-4 in the FCS' Southern Conference. Even with Monken's trio of double-digit win campaigns, the program has a mark of just 59-40 over the last eight seasons.

Sophomore quarterback Kevin Ellison is a dual-threat who split time last year with two-time team MVP Jerrick McKinnon while he served as the primary passer. Ellison passed for 756 yards and completed 51.9 percent of his 79 attempts, while he ranked second on the team, to McKinnon, with 886 rushing yards and eight scores on the ground.

The signal caller will be protected by a trio of two-year starters up front; the group of big men combine for 92 career starts, but boast only a handful of players who tip the scales at more than 300 pounds.

In addition to Ellison, three other players who rushed for at least 200 yards return, but the team is not expected to have the services of former All-American running back Dominique Swope, who rushed for more than 1,200 yards in 2011 but played in just two games last year. He was arrested in February, which led to him being removed from the roster.

Despite the losses of their best linebacker, Kyle Oehlbeck (10 tackles for loss), and two starting cornerbacks, the defense is expected to still be solid on the back line, and they also boast a group of 2014 newcomers that has been billed as the Sun Belt's best recruiting class.

Fourth-year defensive coordinator Jack Curtis is one of two holdovers on the staff, and that side of the ball is expected to utilize multiple formations although they have been most recently a 4-3 scheme. The depth chart released in the spring showed a 4-2-5 alignment.

The Eagles did not get to opposing passers much last year, but junior nose tackle Johnathan Battle is back after he posted 24 tackles, which ranked second among all defensive linemen, and three sacks, which paced the squad.

At linebacker, leading tackler Edwin Jackson, a senior, returns after he posted 72 stops, including 3.5 for loss, and two sacks last year, but he is the only returning player that saw significant action at the position last year. Junior College All-American Ken Butler could make an immediate impact after his transfer from Blinn.

The secondary boasts a ton of returning players with experience, and they are led by junior free safety Matt Dobson, who posted 36 tackles and two interceptions a year ago, and senior safety Deion Stanley, who led the way with three picks. Six other players who logged at least 15 tackles return to the defensive backfield, and few junior college cornerbacks have been added to the mix.

Georgia Southern may be on track for success in its new Sun Belt home eventually, but the simple fact of the matter is that this is a team undergoing several different transitions at the same time, and one that went just 4-4 in the FCS' Southern Conference last year. Coming close to duplicating that .500 mark in league play would be impressive, but it's not likely.

Offensive starters returning/lost: 8/3

Defensive starters returning/lost: 8/3

Returning award winners:
- Soph. QB Kevin Ellison - Southern Conference All-Freshman team
- Sr. LT Garrett Frye - AP second-team All-America, College Sports Madness first-team All-America, All-Southern Conference second-team (media and coaches)
- Soph. K Younghoe Koo - Southern Conference All-Freshman team
- Sr. RG Trevor McBurnett - College Sports Madness All-Southern Conference third-team
- Sr. C Manrey Saint-Armour - All-Southern Conference second-team (coaches and media), SouthernPigskin.com All-Southern Conference second-team, College Sorts Madness All-Southern Conference third-team
- Sr. S Deion Stanley - All-Southern Conference second-team (media), SouthernPigskin.com All-Southern Conference second-team, College Sports Madness All-Southern Conference third-team
- Sr. RB Brandan Thomas - College Sports Madness All-Southern conference third-team (punt returner)

One Key Thing: The Eagles' average of 360.4 rushing yards per game last year not only paced the FCS ranks, it also would've ranked No. 1 in the FBS. They rolled up 429 rushing yards in the win over Florida, which was the fourth-highest total ever recorded against the Gators.

Wolfpack Connection: First-year wide receivers coach Matt Barrett graduated from NC State in 1999.



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