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Eagles eager to kick off football season


MACON — It’s always college football season in the Southeast.

That’s why college football coaches, players and reporters from throughout the state gathered at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame on Tuesday morning for the 11th annual Peach State Pigskin Preview.

Coaches from Georgia Southern, the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Savannah State, Valdosta State, Fort Valley State, LaGrange, West Georgia, Albany State, Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, Shorter, Georgia Military College, Mercer and Georgia State attended.

The majority of the schools each brought two players, one offensive and one defensive, to participate in media interviews.

Georgia Southern head coach Jeff Monken, who is vacationing with his family in France, was unable to attend. GSU assistant head coach/quarterbacks coach Mitch Ware attended on Monken’s behalf.

GSU was unable to bring any of its players because "99 percent of our team is on campus right now and either going to summer school or working," Ware said. "Most of them are taking a class or two. They are with our strength and conditioning staff right now, with Coach (Tom) Melton and his staff. He’s got them lifting weights and doing some conditioning and so forth, trying to put weight on some guys that need weight on and take weight off of guys that need to lose a little bit."

Georgia head coach Mark Richt attended with quarterback Aaron Murray and safety Shawn Williams.

Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson, who guided Georgia Southern to national championship titles in 1999 and 2000, was accompanied by running back Orwin Smith and cornerback Rod Sweeting.

Ware said he toured the 43,000-square foot building, the largest state sports hall of fame in America, and particularly enjoyed the exhibit featuring former Georgia Southern quarterback Tracy Ham, who was inducted in February.

"We got here a little early and we got a chance to look around and spend some time, and went through just about every exhibit," said Ware, who attended with GSU sports information director Barrett Gilham. "We got to see Tracy’s display down there, which is really cool. We read everything about him, and saw his jersey, saw the game programs and so forth.

"I didn’t realize a lot of these folks (enshrined in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame) have a connection to (the state of) Georgia. I particularly enjoyed going around and seeing the golf (inductees), seeing the Bobby Jones display. It’s the first time I’ve been here. It’s really nice."

Ware said GSU football players will begin fall practices "right around Aug. 1."

"When you think about it, the school year finishes in May. Most (of the players) are going to summer school, and there’s really not that long until you start camp," Ware said. "So everybody, all the coaches I know, are excited to get going again.

GSU, which last season advanced to the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals for a second consecutive season, returns eight starters on offense and seven on defense.

"We just start from the beginning," Ware said. "And even when the veterans come in, we just start over and start installing, offensively, from ground zero on up. It’s a little faster because you hope there’s a lot of carry over with the older guys. But the younger guys, they’ve just got to hang on and try to learn it. We’re going to start right from the beginning with our under-center stuff and try to get all that in in five days, and hit it running."

Athlon magazine has GSU ranked No. 2 in its FCS preseason poll. Lindy’s magazine has the Eagles ranked No. 7, one spot behind Appalachian State. Ware said coaches barely pay attention to the polls, but he said players and fans enjoy talking about rankings.

"I’m sure they see it, with all the media opportunities now, but you really don’t put a whole lot of stock in it," Ware said. "It’s always nice to be mentioned. Somebody thinks, obviously, that Georgia Southern has a chance to be successful again, so it’s always good to be up there. But it’s a lot better to be up there at the end of the year.

"We’re excited. I know we weren’t picked in 2010. We weren’t even picked in the top five in the (Southern Conference) and we ended up having a good year, so you never really know."

Ware said the Eagles, who won the SoCon championship last season, embrace the pressure that comes with high expectations.

"That’s one of the cool things about coaching at Georgia Southern. You’ve got those kind of expectations," Ware said. "We’re excited to get started. Our fans are unbelievable in their support. We’ve got a tough schedule this year. Our opponents, there are people in the league that are getting mentioned in the top 20, in the top 25, plus you’ve got Georgia at the end of the year (Nov. 17 in Athens). App State is coming to Statesboro (Nov. 3). Always tough.

"But as far as expectations and the fans, that’s what gets them out there to watch the games and gives us the support that we have. Everybody in town and in the Eagle Nation, they take ownership in the program, and it’s not that way everywhere, so that’s what makes it a special place to coach."

Ware said he does not know where GSU is in its attempt to move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision. Three weeks ago, Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson reportedly said the Sun Belt Conference no longer is seeking new members after adding Georgia State, Texas State and Texas-Arlington (which does not play football). The Sun Belt Conference expanded to 12 schools, 10 of which have football programs at the FBS level.

"I know that we made ourselves available to move up," Ware said. "As far as where that’s at now, I really have no idea. Around town, we get asked about it all the time. To me, as long as we win, that’s the most important thing. I know Georgia Southern is going to be successful at whatever level just because of the rich tradition that we have. As long as we win, I’m happy."

GSU will play its season opener at 6 p.m. Sept. 1 against Jacksonville (Fla.) University at Paulson Stadium.


Noell Barnidge may be reached at (912) 489-9408.