In college football, there is no substitute for experience. With classes graduating out each spring and the naturally volatile life of a depth chart, anytime a team can field a unit with extensive experience is a reason to have high hopes.
Entering the 2019 season, the Georgia Southern defense couldn’t be more optimistic.
While a few contributors from last season have moved on, the Eagles have returning starters - many with more than a year of starting experience - at all levels of the defense, as well as many backups who have seen considerable game time already in their careers.
“The guys have had great carry-over,” GS defensive coordinator Scot Sloan said. “From what we did in our base last year and then what we accomplished in the spring, you can see that everyone has a good understanding of what we want to do and how to do it.”
Some of the most experience comes at a pair of positions that can provide the biggest swings in any given game. Two seasons ago, cornerback Monquavian Brinson emerged as one of the best coverage players in the Sun Belt. At the same time, Kindle Vildor was fighting his way up the depth chart and earning more playing time. With teams wary of throwing Brinson’s way last season, it was Brinson’s turn to shine as he led the Eagles with four interceptions while turning in an All-Sun Belt campaign of his own.
Now with a pair of established senior cornerbacks and more help behind them, the Eagles are feeling great about their ability to cover anything flying in their direction.
“You can really say we’ve got a third good corner with how Jesse Liptrot played and what we continue to see from him,” Sloan said. “Overall, it’s just exciting to see the older guys grow while we also watch some young guys trying to prove what they can do.”
Georgia Southern will be replacing both of its starting safeties from a year ago, but will do so with plenty of experience. Forced into action as a redshirt freshman in 2018, Kenderick Duncan responded, seeing action in all 13 games while tallying 39 tackles and grabbing a pair of interceptions. Joining him will be Darrell Baker Jr., who has played in 20 games over the last two seasons, and graduate transfer Donald Rutledge Jr., who starred for Savannah State in 2017 and 2018.
While the secondary covers the aerial attack, it’s the Eagles’ defensive front that might be the deepest and most versatile of any position group.
During last season’s fall camp, a defensive line full of raw talent was still adjusting from the Eagles’ shift from a 4-3 front to a 3-4 look. While many players retained their title as a defensive lineman, there were plenty of new alignments, schemes and responsibilities.
A quick look at the fall camp roster shows names like Raymond Johnson III (8 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries) and Ty Phillips (408 defensive snaps, 2.5 sacks, fumble recovery), as well as Syracuse transfer Justin Ellis and C.J. Wright, who commanded immediate playing time in his true freshman season before suffering an injury.
The opening of fall camp brought about the news that projected defensive end Quan Griffin is suspended from all football activities following an arrest and his future with the Eagles appears very uncertain, but it’s something that the rest of the squad is working through.
“We’re stressing high-energy,” GS defensive line coach Vic Cabral said. “We’re breaking guys’ legs down so we can build them back up. With what you see in the college game today, we have to have a lot of guys ready to contribute.
“It used to be that four guys would play 70 snaps and the rest didn’t have much to do. That’s not how it goes with the tempo teams run now. We need to have wave after wave of guys. But we can’t just be throwing fresh guys out there. They have to have earned the playing time they’re going to get.”
The defense will get a huge test right out of the gate as Georgia Southern opens up its 2019 regular season on Aug. 31 with a trip to Baton Rouge to take on what is expected to be a top-15 LSU team.
“We’re pumped,” Cabral said. “We’re ready for every challenge.”