Derek Heyden has a unique perspective on just how far the Georgia Southern Eagles have come since his freshman year in 2008.
Sure, current defensive teammates like Brent Russell, Roderick Tinsley, Dion DuBose, K.R. Snipes and A.J. McCray were on the team back then, but only Heyden has played in all 37 games on defense since that year began.
Having such a big role as a starting safety for GSU has given Heyden even more appreciation for the 2010 playoff run under first-year coach Jeff Monken, as well as the preseason, No. 3 national ranking heading into 2011.
"The longer you’ve been here, the more it means to you," said Heyden, who has recorded 189-career tackles as an Eagle. "The traditions and everything that’s here, you can’t put it words. You’ve just got to be a part of it. The feelings we had and the community supporting us in the playoffs, it has made us strive this summer to get there again."
It didn’t really sink in for Heyden that this was going to be his last season until fall camp ended Saturday with a scrimmage in Paulson Stadium.
"When camp ended, well that was my last camp ever," he said. "I don’t think about it too often but it’s in the back of my mind once in a while. This is my last year with the team, so it pushes me every time I get tired, just to give that extra rep and help the team. I don’t want to let these guys down, and I know they don’t want to let me down."
Fighting through four years of spring and fall camps seemed like it would never end.
"At the time," Heyden added, "you go through the camps and you’re like, ‘Man, this is going to be a long four years.’ Looking back on it, it really has gone by pretty fast. You’ve just got to cherish every moment and keep working hard and playing for each other."
Heyden and the team’s 18 other seniors met recently to establish the team goals. He said they included winning the turnover margin, leading the Southern Conference in scoring defense and offense, beating Appalachian State, winning the SoCon title and, of course, a national title.
Heyden has been paired with a lot of safeties on the GSU defense throughout the last three seasons, and there looks to be a rotation of six players contributing to the two safety spots.
"We don’t have a whole lot of numbers there," said Monken, "but I think it’s a solid group."
Sophomore Lavelle Westbrooks, a cornerback during his freshman campaign in 2011, has impressed the coaches at safety and could potentially start alongside Heyden, and another freshman from 2010, Michael Butler, has been in the mix as well.
Butler suffered an ankle injury during fall camp but is expected to return to the mix.
McCray will continue to contribute at safety, as well as Boyd Sasser, a junior out of Jenkins County who started on all four phases of special teams in 2010.
"We played good special teams a year ago, and it’s because of kids like that," Monken said about Sasser.
True freshmen Nick Wright and Emmanuel Orange, who were both recruited as corners, have also gotten work at safety.
The Eagles returned to practice Tuesday after a two-day break, and will practice again today at 3:45 p.m. at Beautiful Eagle Creek.
Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9408.