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Weve come a long way
Eagle defense overcomes obstacles, continues to progress
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Georgia Southern’s defense has steadily improved this season and has come up with some big plays to help the Eagles to a 6-2 start. Above, defensive coordinator Ashley Anders addresses his unit during The Citadel game. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff
    Ashley Anders has always been pleased with his unit’s effort.
    And these days he’s starting to sense something else he likes.
    “I don’t see them being satisfied,” Georgia Southern’s defensive coordinator said this week. “You can see that they’re still hungry because we are having really good practices.”
    That’s an encouraging sign for an Eagle team heading into the home stretch of its regular-season schedule. Though the Jayson Foster-led offense commands loads of attention, GSU’s defense has played a pivotal role in the team’s 6-2 start (3-2 Southern Conference). The unit’s steadily improved as players buy into and grow more comfortable with the new system and their coaches’ expectations.
    Statistics don’t tell the entire story. Though the Eagles rank fifth in the league in scoring and total defense, allowing more than 30 points and 382 yards a game, the defense has come through with it’s share of game-altering plays.
    Two weeks ago, cornerback Carson Hill returned an interception for an early touchdown against Appalachian State, effectively putting the Mountaineers on their heels from the get-go. Safety Chris Covington later picked off a pass to set up the eventual deciding touchdown. Against South Dakota State, Jesse Hartley was able to boot the game-winner thanks to another Hill interception that came with 31 seconds to go.    
    Last weekend, the defense turned in their best performance of the year and kept the Eagles in the game by holding The Citadel’s high-scoring offense to 17 points, just three in the second half. Those successes, along with the team’s accomplishments, have helped the unit build confidence.
    “Winning cures a lot of wounds,” Anders said. “Anytime you have success at something, it’s just going to make you better for the next challenge.”
    The defense has held it together and continued to improve despite losing players seemingly every week. Cornerback Henry Chubb and defensive end Matt Wise both suffered season-ending injuries, while two key defensive backs have been dismissed for disciplinary reasons. Several others have missed time here and there with injuries, most recently Hill, who hasn’t played since Appalachian State and will be out of this weekend’s game at Wofford. The Eagles have dealt with the adversity in part by turning to a phrase popularized by the program’s late founder, Erk Russell.
    “It’s FIDO — forget it and drive on,” said Covington, who leads the team with 47 tackles (33 solo). “We come out, we are going to play hard and we are going to do our jobs no matter who’s in what position. If somebody goes down, somebody else has to step up and take their place.”    

‘Hard work is
in our heart’
    Like the rest of the team, Georgia Southern’s defensive players haven’t had the luxury of stability the last few years. Along with three head coaches, the group’s had three different defensive coordinators the last three seasons and four in the last five. They’ve battled through it by putting forth tons of effort.
    “Hard work is in our heart,” sophomore linebacker David Lewis said. “We all came to Georgia Southern knowing this is a good program, knowing that you have to work hard to be in and maintain this program. When you hit hard times it’s motivation to continue the hard work.”
    The current coaching staff has eased the transition by keeping their system very basic.
    “That’s allowed us to come in and really develop around it and grasp it quickly,” Lewis said.
    Since the spring, coaches have hammered home the importance of basic fundamentals, which the players work on daily at practice.
    “You can’t stress those enough,” Anders said. “It all comes down to running to the football, playing your technique and tackling. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve stressed (fundamentals) even more, and I think that has made us a better football team.”
    With no set starting lineup and ongoing battles for every starting job, there’s been plenty of competition at practice, and losses of players have given others an opportunity to shine.
    “We’ve come a long way,” Covington said. “We’ve had a lot of young guys, but at this point in the season, nobody’s a rookie anymore. Everybody’s seasoned, and we’ve gotten used to the plans we’ve been using and gotten comfortable with our schemes. I think it’s really starting to show.”
    The defense has spent the week gearing up for first-place Wofford’s prolific triple-option attack, which differs greatly from anything they’ve seen this year. As always, GSU’s first priority will be containing the run. The Terriers have the second-best rushing offense in the country behind Georgia Southern.
    “It’s a great challenge,” Lewis said. “It’s a challenge we’ve learned and grown to accept. We really look forward to playing them. We respect them as a team, they have a great offense and we look forward to the challenge.”
    Said Anders: “I know they are looking forward to showing that last week wasn’t just something that just happened for us, that the guys are getting that much better.”

    Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.