It’s no secret that Georgia Southern’s defense is a big part of its 3-1 start in 2012. Especially the run defense.
Through four games, No. 8 GSU has allowed only 96.5 rushing yards per game.
"Everybody’s hungry and wants to get to the football, and that’s just a great quality to have," said senior defensive tackle Brent Russell, who is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss with four. "I think everybody on the defense has it. We all want to be able to watch film and say, ‘Oh, I beat you there. I beat you to the guy.’ It’s a great feeling and it’s a great way to play."
Maybe the only secret on the defense is Russell’s pass defense.
Saturday, when Samford went for a two-point conversion after a defensive touchdown left the Bulldogs trailing 21-16, Russell dropped back and showed off his vertical by climbing the ladder to deflect a pass.
Not bad for a 6-foot-2, 300-pound lineman.
"I can grab the rim, but I can’t dunk a basketball," said Russell.
The play is designed for both defensive tackles. The tackle engaged by the center drops back five yards to protect crossing routes, and the other tackle is left with one offensive lineman to beat. The Samford center engaged Russell, leaving tackle Blake Riley with a one-on-one matchup and allowing Russell to show off his pass defense.
Before the season started, GSU head coach Jeff Monken said sophomore Ezayi Youyoute and junior Jerick McKinnon would share time at quarterback.
While Youyoute got the nod for all four starts so far, McKinnon rushed for a team-high 163 yards and two touchdowns while playing the bulk of the final three quarters for the Eagles (3-1, 2-1 Southern Conference).
A starter for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game in Cullowhee, N.C., against Western Carolina, hasn’t been named yet.
"We’ve talked about it," Monken said after Monday’s practice. "We have a great deal of confidence in both guys."
Plenty of movement
In four games, Georgia Southern has had four different starting lineups on the offensive line.
"Musical chairs," Monken said. "We’re trying to get the best five out there and we’re trying to get the best center, in terms of center-quarterback exchange, and then being able to do what we ask the center to do after the snap. It’s a difficult position. We’ve moved a lot of guys around, and they’re getting better. We’re far less experienced at that position than we are any other position."
Manrey Saint-Amour missed a start at center with an injury Sept. 22, against Elon, and Dorian Byrd and Blake DeBartola also play the position. No offensive lineman played more than 35 snaps Saturday against Samford.
The Eagles are trying to find depth among the line, which will dress 13 players on the road at WCU.
"We’re trying to find the best five guys and go from there," offensive coordinator Brent Davis said. "Really, what we’re trying to do is find depth. In four games, we’ve had four different starting offensive lines. That’s a good thing, because we’ve got competition. We told them, ‘We’re going to grade you in practice. Whoever grades the best will start on Saturday.’"
The GSU kicking game had its best day against Samford, with Luke Cherry averaging 41.2 yards on eight punts, with a long of 54, although some of those took a few GSU bounces.
"It’s definitely luck, but I’m excited about it," said Cherry, who also averaged 57.5 yards on six kickoffs. "I’ll take a bounce any time I can get it. I’ll take a bounce any time I can get it, but especially if I don’t hit it the way I want to hit it."
"We got some rolls," Monken added. "We got some help. But he’s placing the kickoffs pretty good. If we’re going to put it in play, put it in play around the goal line."
Alex Hanks, who got his first start against Elon, is perfect on extra-point attempts and 2 of 3 on field goals.
Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 489-9408.