Heading into any new college football season, teams must always deal with graduated seniors from the previous year while leaning heavily on returning starters who know how to get things done in games.
So while Georgia Southern isn’t quite sure what to expect in 2018 after a 2-10 showing last year that included a mid-season coaching change and more coaching hires in the offseason, one point of continuity is a roster that returns the vast majority of its starters for a chance to get the program moving back in the right direction.
Nowhere is the retention of talent and playing experience greater than on the Eagles’ defensive front. Of the 17 players listed on the official depth chart for the Eagles’ front seven in this Saturday’s opener against South Carolina State, 14 saw appreciable playing time last season.
Of course, for all of the returning talent, the offseason coaching shuffle means that the veterans will have to learn a new playbook. Specifically, they’ll have to learn new defensive coordinator Scot Sloan’s 3-4 scheme after years of the Eagles lining up in a four-man front.
“I think they’re coming along really well,” GS defensive line coach Vic Cabral said. “We want to play athletic and fast, and we’re starting to do that. The next step is picking up some of the nuance and the pre-snap reads that can help us make plays.”
The change in scheme isn’t immediately evident when looking at the roster. Many players are listed at familiar positions, but those positions carry different responsibilities than in last year’s 4-3 alignment.
Sophomore Raymond Johnson III is still a defensive end, but instead of lining up wide to rush quarterbacks, he will now set up on the interior and have many more reads and assignments.
“It’s different, but I’m comfortable with it,” Johnson said. “I played the same system in high school, so I think it’s been a little easier to learn the new things. I worked hard to get on the field last season and I worked hard to improve for this season, so now I’m just ready to see what we can do.”
The change in scheme also affects the next line of defense. In previous seasons, the Eagles utilized three linebackers when setting up against the run and two (in a nickel-type scheme) when looking out for the pass.
This year’s base setup will feature a pair of middle linebackers, as well as an ‘Anchor’ and a ‘Dog’ - linebacker positions that skew toward pass and run defense, respectively.
“This is a faster scheme,” middle linebacker Tomarcio Reese said. “If we’re doing everything right, there’s going to be room for everybody to fly around and make plays.”
Of course, the 3-4 scheme depends on the linebacking corps to do everything from stuffing the running game, to covering crossing routes, to pressuring the quarterback on the edge. It’s a job they’re up for, but one that requires constant discipline to execute throughout an entire game.
“You always have to think about things and be in the right spot,” Reese said. “I think we’re confident that everyone is on the same page and when we do that, we’re going to make big plays.”