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Seniors not ready to go home just yet
Senior running back Lamar Lewis (6) darts through a hole opened by senior offensive lineman Brad Williams (75) and Jesse Suarez (68) against Furman. GSU’s seniors need a win Saturday at Colorado State to keep their careers alive. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff
    It was impossible to forecast, and the ride’s been wild for Georgia Southern’s senior class.
    The group successfully weathered the most turbulent period in Eagle football history, battling through three coaches in three seasons and the deaths of teammate Teddy Craft and program founder Erk Russell last year. And all the while, they’ve kept smiles on their faces while displaying an upbeat attitude and a positive outlook.
    “It’s been amazing,” senior quarterback Jayson Foster said of his five years at Georgia Southern. “We’ve had a lot of great moments, a lot of low points, an up-and-down rollercoaster, but I don’t think anyone of us would trade it for anything.”
    Along with first-year coach Chris Hatcher, the seniors have played a major role in helping the Eagles rebound so quickly from last year’s school-worst 3-8 campaign to this season’s 7-3 start.
    Along with Foster, the team’s leaned heavily on a veteran offensive line anchored by seniors Marcelo Estrada, Jesse Suarez, Russell Orr, Pierce Giboney, Dane Jensen, Jamarcus Johnson and Brad Williams all season, and those guys are the reason the Eagles continue to lead the nation in rushing with 324 yards a game.
    “That group of guys has been spectacular,” junior receiver Raja Andrews said of the seniors. “Coming from a down season last year to what we’ve done this year has been really great. Those guys have believed the whole entire time. They’ve done tremendous things to build a foundation for this team, and it’s going to be hard to let them go.”
    But more noteworthy than great plays, blocks and tackles has been their admirable leadership.
    “They’ve instilled a great work ethic in this team, and I think that’s more important than the individual plays they’ve made,” junior safety Chris Covington said. “Last year when we weren’t having a great season they came out every week and worked hard. They’ve done the same thing when we’ve had success. They are a great group of guys.”
    “They’ve been heavy leaders and a huge morale boost,” junior defensive end Beard said. “Those guys are a motivation for us to do better for them.”
    After last season’s disaster under one-and-done coach Brian VanGorder, this year’s senior class has been determined to help the Eagles regroup at a remarkable pace.
    “You never want to be the senior class that puts the team on the wrong track,” Foster said. “Hopefully we got it back on the right track. I think we are because everyone is dedicated to what we are doing.”

What they’ve learned
    The tribulations, the players said, have provided valuable lessons for life after football.
    “Never give up, people come, people go, you are going to have to make the best of situations,” said Foster, summing up what he’s learned. “There are people moving into your life and moving out of your life, you’ve just got to learn from whatever they offer to give you. We’ve had Coach (Mike) Sewak, Coach VanGorder and now Coach Hatcher, and they all bring different life lessons to you.”
    And despite the unexpected rollercoaster, Orr feels coming to Georgia Southern was definitely the right decision for him.
    “It’s been fun,” he said. “All of the things that have happened — three different coaches and the deaths — that’s going to be life. I feel like that’s going to prepare me later on down the road for things that are going to happen in life. Hopefully I’ll be a stronger person for it.”
    For senior defensive lineman T.J. Watkins, being a part of the Eagles taught him a lot about being a man.
    “It’s been hard,” he said. “We came in with some 23 or 24 (players), and there’s probably only eight or nine of us (left). But the group that’s here, we’ve bonded. After football we’re still going to keep in touch with each other. We’ve learned good time management, leadership and how to communicate with different people. Georgia Southern University is a great place to be, and it’s going to be a sad day when we have to go.”
    The Eagles said strong team leaders in the past and a solid team bond have helped them overcome everything that’s been thrown their way.
    “We just push on,” Orr said. “The sun’s going to come up another day. I’ve always had that approach. You can’t just sit around and mope about it. After that (Furman) loss, I’m sure all of Statesboro was sitting around moping, but we woke up Sunday morning, and we’ve got another game week ahead of us.”

What this season’s meant
    Hatcher, who became GSU’s third coach in 13 months when he took over in January, said everything the team’s done this year has been geared toward sending the seniors out winners. For Hatcher, that including scrapping his pass-happy offense to cater to Foster’s strengths as a running quarterback. Hatcher said he’s had a lot of fun coaching these seniors, who haven’t given the coaching staff any problems.
    “They are the backbone of the team,” he said. “It’s very difficult when you have three coaches in your four or five years in school. We tried to make the transition easy for them. They were very coachable, and we were all after the same goal and that was to win as many games as we could.”
    Speaking of winning, that’s what GSU has to do Saturday at Colorado State (1-9) to impress the FCS playoff selection committee. If the Eagles can beat the Rams, they’ll finish the regular season 8-3 with a strong resume for an at-large playoff bid. GSU owns a record six national titles but hasn’t won a playoff game since 2002. The Eagles lost in the first round in 2004 and ‘05.
    “Our goal is to send them out as the team that kind of turned the tide of Georgia Southern football,” Hatcher said. “No matter what happens Saturday, I think they put our program headed in the right direction. It could have been better, it could have been a little worse, but if we can take care of business on Saturday, they will have made the complete turnaround. It’s been a privilege to be able to come in and work with these guys.”
    The Eagles fell to rival Furman 24-22 last weekend, barely missing their first Southern Conference championship since 2002 and the league’s automatic playoff berth. The seniors have worked to help the team’s overcome the emotional setback and prepare for their final shot at extending their season this weekend.
    “We’ve still got life,” Orr said. “I’d rather trade a national championship ring for a Southern Conference ring any day of the week. We are still in the hunt.”
    Said Watkins: “I just want to thank Coach Hatcher and the coaching staff for coming here. They are the best people in the world to me, and this season taught us that anything is possible. It’s still a long road ahead for us. We’re not giving up. Now matter what, we are going to Colorado State, and we are going to beat them. This year taught us that we were part of a senior class that brought Georgia Southern back to the top. I feel that with the players that are here and returning next year, the program has a bright future.”