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Hatcher reflects on first season as Eagle coach
Georgia Souther football coach Chris Hatcher demonstrates a passing technique in this file photo from earlier this year. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/file


Chris Hatcher talks about GSU's season.

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            Jayson Foster’s remarkable return to quarterback. Amazing road upsets at Appalachian State and Wofford. Painfully close losses to Chattanooga, Elon and Furman. An admirable senior class. Narrowly missing the Southern Conference title and an automatic playoff berth.

            Chris Hatcher’s first year as Georgia Southern’s head football coach will be remembered for a myriad of things, and perhaps most noteworthy was an extraordinary turnaround. After inheriting a shell-shocked team reeling from three coaches in 13 months and its worst season in modern history, Hatcher restored order to a program that had lacked it since former coach Mike Sewak’s final year in 2005.

            With its three-win 2006 season a distant memory, GSU put the pieces back together at an incredible speed, remaining in contention for a playoff spot until the final game of the regular season. Along with ordering the return of the traditional yellow school busses, one of the most popular moves Hatcher made was putting Foster back at the helm for his senior year after he was foolishly relegated to receiver last fall. Foster showed his gratefulness, breaking the NCAA Division I mark for single-season rushing yards by a quarterback and the single-season GSU record for total offense (3,047), while leading the Eagles to a 7-4 mark (4-3 SoCon, tied for third).

            This week Hatcher sat down with the Statesboro Herald to share his thoughts on his inaugural season at Georgia Southern:


            Q: You recently wrapped up your first season with the Eagles, and it was a noteworthy about-face. When you look back on the year, what stands out to you?

            A: I think the biggest thing was how the guys came together through so much adversity throughout the course of the year. We had a lot of suspensions, injuries, being the third coach in three years. It’s very difficult for everyone to build enough trust to be successful during the course of a football season.

I was real proud of the guys. I thought that they fought. They battled each and every week. They did the one thing that I promised when I took the job, and that was to play hard each and every Saturday. I have no doubt in my mind that after each game, no matter the outcome, I could always honestly say that our guys gave 100 percent of the time they were on the football field. In year one, I was very, very impressed with the way the guys handled themselves through all the adversity.

Q: What about the Eagle Nation? Do you feel like they’ve embraced your philosophy and this team?

A: I don’t know. You’d have to ask them, but we had great crowds. It was the largest average attendance we’ve had since 1991 at Georgia Southern. Over half of the student body came out to the ballgames, over 8,000 on average to each and every game. So I think they’re excited about the way we are headed.

We have a lot of work to do. Next season we’ve got a lot of our defensive players coming back, but we’ve kind of missed out on three recruiting classes over the past three years. So we’re kind of in a rebuilding mode, but we still have the same high expectations and standards that have been set forth by previous Georgia Southern teams.

Q: You are coming up on a year in Statesboro with your wife and two kids. How’s the family adjusting to and enjoying life here?

A: I think everybody is doing OK. I hadn’t seen them much since Jan. 19 (when I got hired). It’s been a whirlwind six or seven months – I don’t even know what year we are in right now. But it’s been fun. It’s been an interesting year. It’s probably been one of the more enjoyable seasons that I’ve had as a coach just trying to build. Trying to build the program where we want it to be, and this season I think we took some steps in the right direction. We are not nearly where I want us to be, but I think we are headed in the right direction. I think that’s very important in year one.

Q: This season was your first trip around the bases in the Southern Conference. What was your impression of the league?

A: The Southern Conference is (solid) from top to bottom. Each and every week you’ve got to be ready to play. Even the “lower-tier” teams in the conference have great players. You take (last-place) Western (Carolina) – they’ve got probably some of the best talent on offense as any team in the conference. Chattanooga had some of the best defensive players we faced, and they finished at the bottom of the conference.

That would be the biggest contributing factor to playing so many close games – the talent level in the Southern Conference, at least this season, was pretty even from top to bottom.

Q: You built this year’s offense around Foster, the SoCon offensive player of the year and a finalist for the Walter Payton Award. Now that his college career is over and you’ve had time to look back on it, how good was he?

A: Jayson is one of the best players I’ve ever coached, and that’s saying a lot. I’ve been able to work with some really good players. He’s the most dynamic player I’ve ever seen with the football in his hands, and we catered our offense to him.

You catch criticism that maybe you’re one dimensional or whatnot, but when you have a good player you’re supposed to ride him. And that’s what we did this season. We had a great offensive line, probably one, if not the best, starting five at this level of football and even some (FBS) programs. So we took what we had, and we catered our schemes and our coaching beliefs to those guys to give us what we thought was the best chance for us to win.

Q: A lot of people have talked about the possibility of Jayson playing at the next level? What are your thoughts, and have you heard anything from recruiters?

A: That’s up to the NFL. He’s going to definitely get the opportunity to play in the pro game. Whether he makes it or not, that’s up to him, but he’ll get that opportunity. He’s very well-deserving of it. Any honor that he gets he deserves it, and any honor he doesn’t get, he probably deserved that anyway because he is what made us go. Sure enough, he about led that team to a Southern Conference championship with some great, tremendous individual plays throughout the course of the season.

Q: Do you see the team moving back to more of a passing attack because Jayson won’t be here next year?

A: Yes, we’ll go back to doing what I do. That doesn’t make it the right thing, it’s just what I like to do and what I’ve been successful (with) and what’s fun for me to coach. This year was kind of fun because we did something outside the box. When you take over a program and maybe you don’t have the depth or the players that you are used to having at every position, you have to think outside the box.

We went for it 24 times on fourth down, made 20 of them, and I don’t think I’ve gone for it 24 times in seven years as a head coach. So we tried each and every week to win the ballgame, we just came up short four times and that’s four too many.

Q: Back to the quarterback position, we saw good things from redshirt freshman Billy Lowe, and we’ve heard about true freshman Lee Chapple, who redshirted this season. How do you see that race playing out next year?

A: It’s too early to tell. You guys always start looking forward to next year. Right now recruiting is No. 1, and we’ll see how that battle plays out during spring practice. We are going to play the best players, and whoever comes out of spring and fall camp as the best, that’s who we’ll play on Saturday.

Q: Speaking of recruiting, you have quite a few scholarships to give. How many will you have when you get out on the trail?

A: We’ve got to sign us a bunch of players. I think there are roughly seven guys (remaining from) Coach (Mike) Sewak’s last (class), and Coach (Brian) VanGorder didn’t have a full recruiting season. We didn’t have a full one last year, so we are going to sign between 25 and 30 guys this year. Unfortunately, that still won’t get us back to the full compliment of 63 because of NCAA rules on initial signees you can have. But it’s going to be a slow process, and these guys we sign this year, unfortunately for some they are going to have to play right away. And fortunately for others, they are going to get the opportunity to suit up for Georgia Southern come the opening game versus Georgia.

Q: Does it help when you’re able to tell a recruit he may be playing or starting next year?

A: Every coach plays that game out in recruiting. Every coach says, “Hey if you come in, you’ve got a chance to play right away.” And they’re telling the truth. If a guy’s ready to play, and I tell all of our recruits, “You’ll know whether you’re ready to play when you get there.” But when we go out and tell them that this year, we really mean it. The guys we sign, they’re going to have to come in and provide us with some depth for next season.

            Q: Talking about specific positions, what do you feel are your biggest needs?

            A: All of them. We probably lose the most players at the offensive line position, but very few freshmen are ready to play when they come out of high school at that position. So unfortunately, you may not get as much help there as you would like. We’ve got some young guys that are going to have to play, and hopefully they’ll be ready. But the one positive is that our offense isn’t where you’ve just got to have a dominating o-line with the type of schemes that we run. It helps to have the dominating offense line, but we’ll get by. We’ll find a way to put a good team on the field next year, and hopefully the ball will bounce a little bit better for us than it did this season.

            Q: Is the offensive line an area where you may have to go to the junior college or transfer route?

            A: We may a little bit, but the good junior college players are going to go to the BCS programs. And because we all play under the same recruiting rules…we’ll just have to wait and see. We are going to go sign the best players we can sign, and then when they get here, we’ll find them a place to play.

            Q: You had to dismiss a couple of guys this year, will any of them have a shot at fighting their way back onto the team or were those decisions final?

            A: (Junior defensive end) Dakota Walker and (junior running back) Mike Hamilton will be back, and those will be the only two that were suspended from the team that’ll rejoin us in the spring.

            Q: You also had a lot of season-ending injuries – running back Zeke Rozier, defensive lineman Matt Wise, cornerback Carson Hill. How are those guys doing, and do you think they’ll be full-go next year?

            A: Yes, but they probably won’t be able to go through spring practice. They should be ready by fall, and hopefully they’ll recover well. That’s the unfortunate thing – in our two-deep, due to suspension and injuries, if you added them all up we missed 114 games with all those players. And in the end, we had a lot of unselfish players. Chris Teal, the freshman, played both ways the last two games of the season. So we battled each and every game, and it would be nice if we didn’t have those injuries. But it’s part of it, and maybe we got that bug out of the way and next year we’ll be a little luckier than we were this season.

            Q: Speaking of Teal, he was probably the most versatile athlete you had this season. Where do you expect to use him next year?

            A: We’ll have to wait and see how the guys do in spring ball and what kind of freshmen that we sign. Maybe if we sign a bunch of running backs he may be a receiver. We’ll just play that by ear.

            Q: Georgia Southern was penalized six scholarships this year for failing to meet academic standards set by the NCAA. Any idea what those numbers will look like for next year?

            A: We’ll be back up to full-strength next season, it’s just the most initial signees you can have is 30 and that still won’t get us back to the full compliment of 63. So there’ll still be roughly five scholarships that we’ll still be down. Over the course of the next two or three years, we’ll be able to build that back up and get back to our full compliment.

            Q: Defensively, the Eagles gave up a lot points and yards, but the unit also made big plays that kept you in games. Almost everyone will return on that side of the ball. What kind of things do you think the defense needs to work on or will be a focus point heading into next year?

            A: We need to be able to stop folks. That’s a double-edged sword – yeah, you’ve got them all coming back but they also gave up a lot of points. So you look at that whatever which way you want to look at it. But they will have a year under their belts in our system. We finished the season with four former offensive players (defensive backs Chris Covington, Chris Rogers, Ronnie Wiggins and Teal) starting in the secondary. So we’ve got some work to do right there, but hopefully we’ll be better in that area come next September.