The Georgia Southern football team will hit the banks of Beautiful Eagle Creek Friday morning for the first day of pre-season camp. Finding a replacement for four-year starting quarterback Shai Werts is tops on head coach Chad Lunsford’s list, and that becomes even more of a question mark after Monday’s announcement that leading candidate Justin Tomlin will miss the first two games of the season.
Lunsford announced at a pre-season press conference Wednesday afternoon that Tomlin would be sitting out the Eagle’s first two games against Gardner Webb and Florida Atlantic due to academic issues he had as a freshman which put him behind.
“We knew after the end of fall semester that he would be ineligible for the first few games of the year because of academic reasons,” said Lunsford. “He did a really good job during the spring semester and during the summer, so he didn’t lose any more eligibility.”
“When you look at Justin Tomlin’s academic career, like a lot of other young guys, you don’t always start out great in the classroom,” said Lunsford. “I feel it’s important to clarify it’s not something he just recently did. It is more that he was in a hole early on which he eventually pulled himself out of. He will miss the first two games, but I don’t feel like we will have any more academic issues from Justin Tomlin because he has learned what he needs to do to succeed.”
Tomlin was the preseason favorite to succeed Shai Werts at quarterback which puts the Eagles in a bind for the first two games of the year as they will have to go with redshirt freshman Sam Kenerson who has only taken two collegiate snaps at quarterback, or true freshman Cam Ransom who would potentially be the first ever true freshman to start the first game of his freshman year at Georgia Southern.
“I heard we never have had a true freshman start the first game,” said Lunsford. “I’m not sure why that is the case. My initial impression is that Cam could probably handle it, but I don’t want to overstep on that yet because I feel like it’s important, he goes up against our defense and get a good feel of our offense with pads on. He has been very impressive as far as learning our offense and what he’s picked up in the workout settings.”
Kenerson took only two snaps at quarterback last year as injuries prevented finding out what he could do on the collegiate level. Kenerson is one of the fastest players on the team and his skill set reminds Lunsford of a former Eagle who happened to win the Walter Payton award.
“I think it’s important that Sam Kenerson gets a chance,” said Lunsford. “I feel like he can be magic with the ball in his hands. I wouldn't put this on him, but he has those Jayson Foster type moves and skills. We have a lot of confidence overall in our quarterback room.”
When Tomlin regains his eligibility prior to the Eagles game at Arkansas it doesn’t necessarily mean he will be handed the reigns according to Lunsford.
“I don’t want to tell the other guys you are just the starters for the first two games,” said Lunsford. “I think it’s very important that we get J.T. out there with Sam and Cam and let them continue to battle. Whoever ends up being the quarterbacks in games one and two doesn’t mean they don’t have a chance to remain at quarterback.”
Knowing that Tomlin would miss the first two games of the season begs the question could James Graham experience playing quarterback on the collegiate level have possibly given the Eagles a better chance to succeed in the first two games before he was moved to receiver.
“Possibly, but I think there has already been invested reps that me have to make sure we do right by the guys who have worked hard at that position and put the time into it,” said Lunsford. “I’m telling you we have a really talented quarterback room, and we have a really good problem to be honest.”
The loss of a four-year starting quarterback seems to have played into the hands of those voting on preseason polls as well as despite returning eight starters on offense and eight on defense. The Eagles were picked fourth in the Eastern Division of the Sun Belt Conference by both the media and the coaches.
“I was a little surprised, but you never know with the media, most have never played football,” said Eagle senior defensive end Justin Ellis . “It just adds a little fuel to the fire.”
“Inside the locker room we believe in ourselves and know what we have,” said Eagle safety Anthony Wilson. “We really don’t pay attention to the polls. It does add a chip to our shoulders, but we know what we can do.”
“We see it, but I honestly don’t think we pay too much attention to it because it’s preseason,” said Eagle punter Anthony Beck. “All the preseason rankings and accolades don’t mean much. I honestly expected us to be three, four or five but I’m glad they think that because we get to surprise them.”
Lunsford has already said he likes being in the role of perceived underdog and feels despite the polls the Eagles are poised for a great season.
“I believe in our team and feel we have good enough players and the right culture and mindset to be better than what are predicted to be,” said Lunsford. “If you wonder why we may be picked where we are I’d point to where we finished last year and where the other teams ahead of us finished. We lost some games last year that we feel we should have won, but when it comes down to it it’s a loss. Everybody outside of us can think what they want to think my main concern is that everyone surrounding our program believes in us and I feel we have a strong backing behind us.”
The Eagles begin practice Friday morning and kick off the season Sept. 4 at 6:00 at Paulson Stadium against Gardner Webb.