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It's time to bring it, Coach

August 01, 2017

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“Hey ladies, hey fellas, hey gentlemen, one more time for the greatest team in America.”


The immortal Erk Russell spoke those words after toppling Arkansas State 48-21 for the program’s second national championship just five years into its revival. It was this early success that helped feed a frenzied fan base long starved for football after sitting out the game nearly 40 years.


The phrase “one more time” has carried on to the present day. Fans who came to Paulson Stadium last season heard those immortal words spoken in Russell’s own voice during the pregame intro videos. It’s become a common tradition for the football program, which has enjoyed some of the highest highs a program can experience at any level of football.


But for head coach Tyson Summers, “one more time” might ring a little too close to home as a theme for 2017.


Summers took over the program in 2016 which is unlike any other in the country due to a unique combination of size and circumstances. Georgia Southern is by no means a “big” college football program. The money doesn’t funnel into the program like in Athens or Gainesville, and for the longest time the team competed at the FCS level of D-1 football.


However, because Russell set the bar so high in the 80s and his predecessor Tim Stowers carried on his tradition – the Georgia Southern community demands success and demands it a certain way. You compete for championships every year and you do it running the option attack on offense.


Nowhere in the country will you find a school this small with expectations so great. Perhaps it isn’t fair for the head coaches who come in wet behind the ears, but it’s not as if the literature and history isn’t out there for study.


Frank Ellwood and Brian VanGorder are two coaches who are maligned in the annals of GS football history for this very reason. Both followed up playoff seasons with losing records, and both were canned following their one year on the job. By that sequence of logic, Summers should have been out the door following 2016’s 5-7 campaign.


That’s not me interjecting my own personal opinion there. History would have told you the coach who comes to Georgia Southern and has a losing season in his first year following a playoff season gets fired. But Summers escaped such a fate, and gets one more time to prove he’s got what it takes to be a D-1 head football coach.


Summers went 5-7 while committing a heinous crime against the unwritten rules of GS football law. If you come to Georgia Southern, you run the option. The option offense is often looked down upon as a dinosaur in the college football world, but since it’s so rare it can be a problem for teams who aren’t used to defending it.


The option has defined Georgia Southern football as much as the colors navy and white. Throughout history it’s made the Eagles difficult to prepare for and a general pest to bigger schools who don’t see the option look every week. But being a coach of a defensive background, Summers was never married to an offensive scheme – rightfully worrying the Georgia Southern fan base.


"For those of you wanting to ask, we are going to look (offensively) the way we look now," he said in 2016. "It'll be the gun option ... the gun, triple-option. What we've got to do is be able to throw the ball."


That was the famous quote made by Summers when asked if he’d keep the option. He certainly paid it lip service, but his coordinator hires reflected a different offensive philosophy than the one he sold upon arrival in Statesboro.


David Dean and Rance Gillespie were hired as co-OC’s, but the hiring of Gillespie was the most questionable of the two. Gillespie was in charge of the Eagles offense under Chris Hatcher, who from 2007-09 was unsuccessful in trying to convert GS into a passing offense. Both were let go after a 5-6 season in 2009.


But Gillespie and Dean took the reins of the offense and morphed it from a true gun-option attack under Willie Fritz into some form of a hybrid-gun scheme. The results weren’t just bad, they were flat out catastrophic.


Georgia Southern’s offense was ranked 40th in the country in 2015, but under the Gillespie-Dean guise it fell to 101st. Even worse, the rushing offense – the staple of Georgia Southern football – dropped from ninth to 117th. All of this regression happened with two starting senior quarterbacks, an All-SBC center and an NFL-caliber running back. It was an inexcusable decline.


In fairness to Summers, the schedule didn’t help the Eagles cause. GS only played five home games and had to play Western Michigan, Arkansas State, Georgia Tech, Appalachian State and Ole Miss in order. But the losses to Georgia State and UL-Lafayette are what killed GS, forcing them into their first losing year in seven seasons.


Now, not only are some of the mainstay offensive weapons gone but the defense will have to replace seven of their top nine defensive lineman plus the entire linebacking corps. This is going to be a rebuild year for Southern with new players and now new coordinators with the departure of Dean and Gillespie as OC’s.


Bryan Cook comes in from Georgia Tech as the new OC, and to the delight of GS fans comes from a true option background. He was in charge of a prolific option attack at Cal Poly from 2009-12 and moved over to learn under Paul Johnson – a former National Championship-winning Georgia Southern coach – at Tech from 2012-16.


Cook does have some clay to work with despite the departure of some huge names. Three offensive linemen return, experienced running backs LA Ramsby and Wesley Fields are back and Seth Shuman did see some playing time at quarterback during 2016’s disaster. It’s not out of the question Cook could glue something together, but the leash for success is going to be skin tight.


As for the defense, the secondary looks to be the strong point with plenty of experience coming back. However, whatever production was gained back in the secondary will be lost in the front seven – which only returns two starters in Darius Sapp and Logan Hunt. Having Chris DeLaRosa back from injury will help, but a number of true freshmen will likely have to step up and play in key roles this season.  


The defense saw its own form of regression last season, but you could tie a majority of it to the offense being so inept. Because the offense saw itself go three-and-out so often and put the defense in bad field position, it took a serious toll on how the defense’s rank fell from 47th in 2015 to 76th in 2016.


Even with all of that been said, a bowl is still possible for this team in 2017. Auburn, Appalachian State and Indiana will most likely be losses, while Arkansas State and Troy will be tough outs as well. New Hampshire, New Mexico State, Coastal Carolina and Georgia State all seem like wins, leaving toss up games in UMass, UL-Lafayette and South Alabama.


If Southern can manage to win two of three against the latter three opponents, six wins isn’t out of the question. But 6-6 might be the best case scenario for this inexperienced team breaking in a new offense under an elephant's weight of scrutiny. If Summers can manage a bowl in his second season, it may be enough to keep him around until 2018 to build on the youth he has in stock.


But as far as the 37-year-old is concerned, he’s playing 2017 like a one-year contract. It would be one thing if he had capitalized on the talent he had last season. Then he could theoretically have an eight win season to fall back on when this group may not hit the six-win threshold, but that’s not the case.


Simply put, if 2016 went as planned there would be no pressure to succeed this season.


But now there is, with a roster that quite frankly isn’t built for it. So in the good words of Coach Russell, Summers has “one more time for the greatest team in America”… or else.  


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