#5 GSU (9-3) at #4 Old Dominion (11-1)
Last year when Georgia Southern beat Old Dominion, 55-48, in a wild back-and-forth game, two of the Eagles’ best defenders this season were not on the field.
Actually, J.J. Wilcox was on the field, but he was on the offensive side of the ball.
John Stevenson was sitting in the stands with his friends.
Wilcox spent three years on offense, the last two at slotback, before moving to strong safety in the preseason. Stevenson played on special teams last year, and did not dress out for the playoffs when rosters are capped.
Thus, neither got a crack at Monarch quarterback Taylor Heinicke who threw for 349 yards and five touchdowns and ran 20-yards for another score in the game.
Both, however, have spent this entire week studying Heinicke and every nuance of the prolific ODU offense which they will face at noon on Saturday in Norfolk, Va., in a game which will be televised nationally on ESPN.
“He’s one of the top quarterbacks in football, not just FCS,” Wilcox said. “He’s really smart. He makes his checks, his audibles. He’s got their system down now. It’s definitely going to be a challenge. Whoever makes the fewest mistakes will be the team to come out on top.”
It’s been a season of accomplishment for both Wilcox and Stevenson, who entered the season as a pair of unknowns.
Wilcox, now a senior, was a known quantity, but as an offensive player.
As an offensive player, the Cairo native had 964 yards rushing with 13 touchdowns for his career, and had a starting job locked up.
However, with an abundance of running backs and looking to get his best 22 players on the field, coach Jeff Monken made the decision to move Wilcox to strong safety.
It has paid dividends beyond expectations.
One of the Eagles’ most physical players, the 6-foot, 215-pound Wilcox was one of four Georgia Southern defensive players named All-Southern Conference, and this week he was invited to play in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
He is only the second Georgia Southern player to get invited to the Senior Bowl. Adrian Peterson (2002) was the other.
“That came as a shock,” Wilcox said. “Coach Monken told me before practice. He congratulated me and thanked me for the season I’ve had.”
Wilcox is second on the team with 79 tackles, and he has emerged as a presence in the secondary, and as a team leader.
The player Wilcox is second to in tackles is Stevenson, a 4.3 second, 40-yard dash speedster who plays bigger than his 5-11, 202 pounds.
Stevenson, who somehow was left off the All-SoCon team as either a first or second team pick, has 98 tackles. He needs 11 more to tie Arkie Thompson (1998) for 10th most in a single season at Georgia Southern.
“He’s a great kid,” Monken said of Stevenson, who came to Georgia Southern as a walkon and had to come back a second time to get a shot at making the team. “He has a lot of perseverance. He’s really blossomed as a leader, too. He’s earned a lot of respect from his teammates.”
Stevenson and the Eagles did not look like a Southern Conference champion or playoff team the night they lost to The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., in September, but both have managed to put it behind them.
“I compare my personal progress to this team,” Stevenson said. ”We had the early loss to The Citadel, but we kept pushing, pressing on thru adversity. Then we lost to Appalachian State, but our primary goal is still intact,. That’s to win a national championship.”
Stevenson, too, remembers Heinicke last year and knows full well what the Eagles are facing.
“I watched that game from the stands,” Stevenson said. “They have an explosive offensive, and the quarterback is a good player. People have tried a lot of different things against him this year. He’s good at checking and recognizing. We’ve got to do some things to make him uncertain, and when we get the chance — if we get a chance — to hit him we have to really hit him.”
As for Wilcox, he is thrilled beyond words he made the switch to defense.
“I was going to do it regardless because the goal is to win and help the team,” Wilcox said. “It’s been a challenge, but the coaches put me in the right places to make plays. Coach (Jack) Curtis has done a great job on teaching me how to breakdown film on opponents. When I came to the defensive side I had to learn technique, route recognition, to run backwards. I’m glad I made the switch.”
In a season of challenges, the two Eagle stars now face their biggest of the season in the Monarchs.
“For me the highlight of the season has been playing with my teammates,” Wilcox said. “As a senior this has been a season to cherish.”