For years the Georgia Southern Eagles first football practice included a walk across Eagle Creek. From having to hurdle the creek itself, to walking across the bridge, you knew practice was in session after this rite of passage.
Since installing the artificial turf at Paulson Stadium in 2016 the practices held on the banks of Beautiful Eagle Creek have become fewer and fewer with only two scheduled there this year.
With the installation of the new Tippens covered facility and the added hassle of driving the buses back and forth it would be easy for head coach Clay Helton to abandon heading to the old practice field. Prior to starting Tuesday’s practice at Eagle Creek, he told the team to take a knee and to grab the ground and then proceeded to explain to them the importance of being on that field.
“Coach Russell’s heart and soul are in this ground,” Helton said. “When you come here it is a reminder of who we are and what we represent. The work that went in to win six national championships was right here on this field. Blood, sweat and tears were shed on this field. It is a chance to honor coach Russell and what he did to help build this place to where we are today. I feel like there is not another place you can be for the first day of full pads in training camp. You come here to honor tradition and remember what we are about. It gives me goosebumps every time we come over here.”
As far as the practice that occurred on the field, Helton said he knows the importance of the few days the team gets in full pads between now and the start of the season and felt like it was a productive session.
“We are going to learn a lot from this practice with everyone going full speed,” Helton said. “It is one thing to work your fundamentals and technique in a controlled atmosphere, but playing live and having it on tape tells us so much more. You can see some young kids making mistakes and veterans playing well, and you see big time players make big time plays. Thank goodness it is only practice six and we still have 19 to go.”
One of the biggest differences Helton sees from last year to this season is the depth the Eagles have on both sides of the ball which he feels benefits the team in many ways.
“I can’t tell the difference in the first and the second team right now,” Helton said. “There is not a lack of production and that allows you to play a lot of players. By doing that you remain fresh and that in turn allows you to play fast. I didn’t see as many missed tackles even though there was some nice hard running by our backs. Credit to our defense and the strides they have made in year two.”
One area Helton is keeping his eye on during the preseason is the Eagle secondary. Georgia Southern lost all five starters from last year. Three left through the transfer portal and two others were lost to graduation. Helton has liked what he has seen so far from that unit so far.
“It is neat to see all the newcomers we have in the secondary,” Helton said. “We have talent and experience. T.J. Smith (Kansas St.), Cam Williams (Washington), Jalen Denton (Ole Miss) and Damel Hickman (East Carolina) have all been impressive. They have a lot of college football experience and you can see that on tape. I think we are a deeper unit back there and they are competing at a really high level.”