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VanGorder: 'We'll be better'

Coach stresses positives in evaluating 3-8 season

    Tumultuous. Frustrating. Disappointing. Difficult.
    There wasn’t anything easy about Georgia Southern’s 2006 football season.
    Winning has virtually been a birthright for the Eagles since the late Erk Russell resurrected the program 25 years ago and GSU quickly became a powerhouse by winning an unprecedented six Division I-AA national titles and making 16 playoff appearances.
    Football victories are a way of life in Statesboro, but that came to a surprising end this season during a transition more difficult than anyone originally anticipated. Under first-year coach Brian VanGorder, the Eagles endured a shaky season with a new offense and defense. They finished 3-8, just the second losing season since the Eagles brought back football in 1982.
    Deep down, VanGorder honestly believes his team is headed in the right direction, and the coming months and years will reveal whether or not he’s correct. In the meantime, he sat down with the Statesboro Herald on Monday morning:
    Q: In your wildest nightmare, did you ever imagine you’d end the season with only three wins?
    A: On the first day of spring ball, I would have thought it was a possibility.
    Q: Georgia Southern’s new offense really struggled at times this year. Do you think it would have been better to change the offense in stages rather than a complete overhaul?
    A: No. The degree of stages that you are talking about based on the difference between our offense and the previous offense really made it impossible to do that. That’s true with some offenses, you might be able to install and implement in that kind of fashion but not in this situation. You don’t take a double-slot triple option and graduate into a pro offense. It just doesn’t work (for) the whole scheme, schematically from an offense line standpoint (and) the make-up of running backs. Receiver-wise, you might be able to graduate into that, but you are still stealing a lot of valuable time that it takes for a receiver to learn a pro-style system like our guys. Our guys are still in a learning process in regards to that.
    Q: Did the defense make the strides that you expected it to?
    A: Well, no. I think we had a number of games that we were close to saying that we had a dramatic improvement in defense. There’s no doubt we did. We improved, I think tremendously really from a year ago in terms of defense. But we still couldn’t sustain for 65 plays in a game. We had those three or four plays that really dented some very good defensive games. And of course, as you’ve heard me say many times, you can’t be considered a good defense. If you let up explosive plays like that.
    Q: Do you anticipate any changes in the aftermath of this season?  
    A: I don’t think so. I will quality control our entire program. I’m going to turn it upside down and evaluate every player, every coach, every decision we made, our entire organization, our calendar year, our recruiting. Everything really needs to be examined and thoroughly evaluated and see where we can get.
    Q: Beginning in the spring, you talked about the need to get better and better every week, and the team did until after the Appalachian State game, the beginning of a season-ending five game losing streak. Is there anything you can put your finger on as to why that progression stopped or slowed down?
    A: I think our quarterback (Travis Clark) went through a tough time. He got out of rhythm at the end of the season. I think we all know that. Again, it’s not abnormal. You see it happen at every level of football. Unfortunately it happened to us. He was gritty, he kept competing. On Saturday, he came into the game emotionally a lot more confident. I liked his approach to the game. But I just think it shows on our third-down conversions the last half of the season. They were just deplorable, bad. And that really was the difference in our offense. I think that we lost a little bit of sting when we lost (fullback) Dusty (Reddick) in our run game. We lost our fullback that had done such a good job all year long. Combined with that, we had an offensive line that was wearing as the season went on. A couple of them were playing with some tough injuries and getting through it. We didn’t catch the ball particularly well and make plays on the perimeter. So my answer is kind of maybe I don’t have the exact reason. There are some stronger reasons, but there are still many reasons as to why it didn’t continue to improve.
    Q: Do you feel like the team is on the right track?
    A: There is no doubt in my mind about that. We are a team. We built a team.
    Q: You’ve talked about major personnel needs. Do you plan on addressing those with high school players or transfers, and do you have any idea of how many transfers you’ll bring in?
    A: I have an idea, but I’m not really going to discuss that number. Again, I think we have a situation with so many players coming back that we have a chance to be a much improved team as far as a win-loss record goes. I think we have to explore the possibilities of bringing in players that can impact us immediately. That’s a difficult thing for a freshman to do, although our philosophy will be that we are not dedicating ourselves to redshirting freshmen. If they are the best player in that position, they are coming here to play. That has to be their mentality and our mentality through the recruiting process, through the commitment process and though them preparing to come into college football.
    Q: Georgia Southern’s kickers made 9 of 18 field goal attempts and 20 of 25 extra-point tries this year. How high is finding a kicker on your list of priorities, and would you use a scholarship for that position?
    A: It’s a high priority, and I think so. I think it’s obvious that is an area that we just failed in this year. I’ve never seen anything like it in any level of football that I’ve coached. But we witnessed it, we watched it and now we have to do something about it.
    Q: Was this year more difficult than you anticipated?
    A: Not coaching the players, but I think all of the surroundings of football here was a surprise.
    Q: What do you mean by surroundings? Like for instance…
    A: Where Georgia Southern was as a football program was a surprise for me.
    Q: Where was GSU as a football program?
    A: You can start with facilities. You can look at academics. And you can look at a lot of things that I’m not going to discuss. That’s what you guys do as good reporters. You investigate and know those things. I’m not going to openly discuss them, but there was a lot of work here, and even in some of those obvious upgrades (there was) resistance to it, which in my world of football is hard to understand.
    Q: Do you think the criticism for not using junior player-maker Jayson Foster enough on offense was warranted?
    A: I can understand that. I think that’s real, and I think that’s valid
    Q: You didn’t come to Statesboro until January 2006 when the Jaguars’ season was over. Did that hurt recruiting?
    A: You would have to say it hurt, not arriving until Jan. 9. But we improved the personnel tremendously here since we arrived, so I don’t see that as a really issue. The personnel here today is so much better than it was Jan. 9. And we used the transfer situation to help that a little bit. But even the freshmen that we took in, one in particular (cornerback Carson Hill), was an outstanding football player for us. So I think we are alright.
    Q: Georgia Southern will lose 13 seniors, including four starters on defense and three on offense. What are your most pressing recruiting needs?
    A: There’s not a position right now that isn’t a position of need for us. I think the obvious is the kicker, just because that was such a big part of so many games and we fell short. We’ve got to continue to build our defense. We lose a couple of d-linemen (ends Charrod Taylor and Shaheen Solomon) that contributed greatly and a linebacker (John Mohring) that was our most productive guy. I think the biggest issue right now is not a starter issue as much as a let’s-build-some-depth issue. We had just so many guys this year that were playing the entire game. It’s hard to play great defense like that, not the way we want to play and not at the speed we want to play it at. It’s difficult to do. We’ve got to continue to build a defense, and that’ll be the emphasis probably in terms of numbers. Having said that, because we created so many different positions offensively that did not exist in the past, we have great receiver needs, we have tight end needs, we have offensive line needs. Running back we have some depth there, but we still need depth at the fullback position, for instance. So there is a tremendous amount of need with a limited number of scholarships (13).
    Q: Did the performance of any of your players really stand out to you this season?
    A: Probably not anybody in particular. We just had a team where the development of all of our guys was significant and that includes seniors. They just became better football players in a year. I was pleased with that. We had some guys that we talked about, (such as) Travis, who went through a tough time at the end. The kickers went through a tough time, but for the majority of our team, I thought the improvement was really obvious. We had two senior linebackers (Jason Earwood and Mohring) that were playing probably the best ball they’ve ever played and a freshman corner (Hill) that is obviously going to be very, very good. I think there’s just too many guys just to be real specific in that area. I’m anxious to have an offseason with all of those guys and really see where we can get them in the power/strength area and conditioning area. All of that has to do with their mental state as they go into next season.
    Q: Quarterback Chris Griffin won the starting job in spring ball but was academically ineligible after the spring semester. How much did losing him set the team back?
    A: Well, it was going to be a rough year for Chris if he were here and the quarterback. He’s just very young and the transition would be very difficult on him or any other freshman in that position. I think Travis gave us a stability there, at least based on the fact that he’d been in the college game (and was) a little bit older. He helped us, but anytime you bring a quarterback in for the first time, which is such a major leadership role, and he walks in in August, from a chemistry standpoint, it’s difficult. I thought Travis did a good job, but again, not having been here in the spring, I think it makes it an uphill battle.
    Q: Do you see Clark, a rising junior, as the quarterback here the next two years?
    A: I’m hopeful that it’ll be a competitive situation, and if he’s the best guy, then he’ll be the quarterback. But every one of our players and every one of our positions can expect spring ball to be wide open, competitive and who ever wins the job will be our starter. I’m not going to walk into spring ball with anybody guaranteed a position, they are going to have to go out and earn it.
    Q: This team endured two major tragedies this year in the deaths of senior receiver Teddy Craft and program architect Erk Russell. What kind of effect did that have on the team?
    A: I think Teddy’s tragedy was devastating for our kids. It was a very, very difficult recovery that many of our guys struggled with, and certainly it was a part of their emotions through the season. That was just hard in the middle of the summer. The timing and all of that was just about as bad as it could be for our kids. Then Erk’s death was really so emotional in respects to our seniors, who had really (just) met Erk for the first time and heard him speak. They knew that he was the father of Eagle football and a legendary coach. For the first time they really got to meet him and hear him, then the next morning (to) have him pass, which was the day before their first game, was a difficult thing. Probably from an emotional standpoint, it affected me probably more than the players in respects to losing him.
    Q: In hindsight, do you wish you made it mandatory for the team to attend Erk’s funeral service, just out of respect?
    A: I really haven’t put a thought into that to answer that. I think that I found out way late. I don’t think that anybody that would say anything negative in terms of my respect for Erk is dealing with what’s real. They’ve got to get in the real world. I love Erk Russell. I think their family is totally comfortable in my relationship and my respect for their husband and father. Anybody that would drag anything else into it is really questioning the integrity and the dignity of such a thing, so that’s how I’ll leave it.
    Q: Do you take the blame for this season – three wins and eight losses?
    A: If you just want to talk about the win-loss record, then absolutely. Everything about this program comes back to me. I can handle that. I’m ready for that. We have way too many good things going on here. Way too many good things. We’ve got a football program, and these kids know it. I think the people that are really into ball and understand football know it, and there’s a lot of support for what’s taking place here. And the fruits of that labor, in a win-loss standpoint, it will take place in the future. We had to live through a tough time this year, and we did it despite you guys as the media, despite some people in the public that cast a lot of negative thoughts and ideas upon these kids and these coaches. They stayed a program, they stayed a team, they stayed committed to the cause. None of them flinched, therefore our program is a good, solid program with a great foundation laid in the first year. From a win-loss standpoint, we were a failure. But if it’s any indication based on how close we are at this time and where I see this program going, I’ve got to believe that some great things lie ahead.
    Q: What are some of the tangible things you are encouraged by?
    A: Well just on the surface of what we’ve done with facilities here, I think is going to enable us to recruit differently, which of course we are going to recruit differently anyway. I think we’ve set a tone of academics and standards of excellence in the classroom that will pay dividends in the long run. I think the order of organization, the order of discipline and the idea of a football team that involves a dependability, an accountability factor and all of those things that we’ve put in place. And these kids believe in it. Those are all big-time positives and things that the program needed.
    Q: Do you see yourself here in five years?
    A: My mission is to build this program into what I had envisioned as I took the job coming out of the NFL year ago. We are right on course, and so I want to see that through. But I have other people in my life that are important, and I’m going to take care of them too. I’m going to take care of them first, so they’ve got to be happy in my situation. So we’ll see. I’m not going to make any predictions. I know better than to do that, I’ve been in this too long.
    Q: Was the Southern Conference a tougher league than you imagined?
    A: I don’t know that I’d say that. I guess in my mind, I didn’t know what to expect being in I-AA football again. It’d been a long time so I really didn’t in my mind have any kind of notion so to speak or a definitely idea of how the league was, how it was coached and all of those things. I let the study of film kind of decide that and you’ve heard me say it, but until you really get out there and you see the personnel and you feel the coaching of these other teams, you really don’t know. You really need to experience that. I thought it was a very balanced league from a personnel standpoint. I thought the only program that really had a personnel advantage was App State. I thought everybody else was pretty even, and I think the scores of the league kind of indicate that. I think the coaching is good. It’s solid, it’s sound. It’s a good league, a league I respect. I respect the coaches in it. It’s good ball.
    Q: If you could go back, would you change anything you’ve done this year?
    A: As far as what we’ve done with this program internally, I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s a darn good program. If you asked or players, they know they are in a first-class operation. They know what’s ahead.

    Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.

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