The Eagles yielded 404.6 yards per game last year, third worst in the Southern Conference. Since then, second-year coach Chris Hatcher has implemented a new defense that he hopes will show marked improvement from last season.
“We need to play better defense, those guys know that,” Hatcher said. “That’s one reason we’ve switched schemes a little bit to get more speed on the football field, get our best players out there and hopefully they’ll play well. You’d better have a good defense if you want to win a lot of ball games.”
The defense will be given a tough test in the season opener on Saturday in Athens against the No. 1-ranked team in the nation in the BCS. They’ll be attempting to stop one of the nation’s best running backs, sophomore Knowshon Moreno. Moreno, a probable Heisman contender who rushed for 1,334 yards and 14 touchdowns in his redshirt freshman campaign in 2007.
But pass defense, in particular, was an area where Georgia Southern struggled, giving up 228.5 yards on an average Saturday, better only than Furman’s 263.7 yards per game.
But keep in mind, the secondary was relatively young last season. Starters Chris Rogers and Chris Covington had little experience on the defensive side of the ball between them. Both played on offense the year before (2006).
Still, Covington led the team in tackles (67), interceptions (four) and forced fumbles (two). Carson Hill as a sophomore was anything but sophomoric compared to the likes of Rogers and Covington. As a true freshman in 2006, Hill played in 11 games and started in five.
This season, the Eagles return all three defensive backs, having lost only Brandon Jackson from last season. Jackson accounted for 34 tackles and 11 pass breakups last season. The defensive side of the ball returns eight starters total this season, not including Damon Suggs, who was one of eight players suspended for the opener on Saturday against Georgia, but is expected to return to field following the fulfillment of his suspension.
“We need to step up and be a bigger part of the team than we were last year,” Covington said of the defense. “I feel like we fell a little bit short on our end last year and it’s been a real motivating thing here in the offseason and in spring ball and now into camp to just go out and work a little bit harder and be a lot more sound so we can contribute more this year.”
The three veteran members of the secondary are joined by juniors Darrel Pasco and Brandon Echols.
Aside from being the last line of defense to stop Georgia’s running game, Bulldogs’ quarterback Matthew Stafford can challenge the Eagles through the air. Last season as a sophomore, Stafford passed for 2,523 yards with 19 touchdown throws and 10 interceptions. Mohamed Massaquoi is the team’s best returning receiver. As a junior, Massaquoi amassed 491 yards on 32 receptions with four touchdowns.
Quarterback battle unchanged
Hatcher still had not made a decision as of Monday who the starting quarterback for Saturday’s game at Georgia would be, nor did he have a time frame as to when he expected to make that decision. Redshirt freshman Lee Chapple and sophomore transfer Antonio Henton remain locked in a battle for the position. Hatcher maintains that both are likely to play in the first half regardless of who takes the first snap of the game.
Natalie Sayewich can be reached at (912) 489-9413.