Kickoff for Georgia Southern’s 2017 football season is still five months down the road, but Saturday’s annual Blue-White game at Paulson Stadium did plenty to get Eagle fans excited about the future.
The main objective that most coaches would agree to - that the team made it through the two hours of live action without injuries - was met, and there were enough highlights from both sides of the ball to leave everyone encouraged about what is to come this season.
The main talking point for Georgia Southern fans throughout the postseason and into spring practice has been the offense. A rough 2016 for the Eagles’ normally intimidating option attack led to wholesale coaching changes on that side of the ball.
Adding to the speculation on offense is the fact that multi-year starting quarterbacks Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw, along with leading rusher Matt Breida, have all departed and have left the team in the hands of a much younger group of skill position players.
For the time being, the results are positive.
On the second series of the day, LaBaron Anthony stopped short on an option sprint, cut back to the middle of the field, and raced 27 yards for a touchdown. Two series later, redshirt freshman quarterback Shai Werts completed a pair of passes and showcased his running ability as he drove his offense down the field, capping things off with an inside give to Wesley Fields for a touchdown.
“I felt like we came out today playing well and having funs,” Werts said. “There is still plenty of work to do, but I think we showed where we can be a good offense.”
Werts, Anthony and Seth Shuman saw roughly equal time at quarterback on Saturday. Werts started the game and took the majority of his snaps with what is presumed to be the top of the depth chart, but the issue of who will begin the season behind center is far from settled.
Luckily for the Eagles, the new trio of quarterbacks seems to share the same team-first attitude that spanned Ellison and Upshaw’s three seasons worth of dual duty.
“We’re all competing hard and want to do our best,” Werts said, “But that doesn’t mean worrying about what another guy is doing. We’re all pushing each other to be the best we can at running the offense.”
A few snaps and pitches hit the ground and more than one promising pass was dropped by an open receiver, but the overall performance from both sides of the ball got a passing grade from the team’s biggest critic.
“I really liked what I saw for most of the day,” GS coach Tyson Summers said. “We didn’t have any significant injuries, which is always good. The only thing I saw was that - for the last 10 or so minutes of the first half - I didn’t think we had the right focus and intensity.
“That was a concern in some games last year. That’s not a spot where I ever want us to be at again. I thought we picked it up in the second half and had a very productive day.”
The second half saw an evenly matched battle.
A GS secondary that is much more experienced than last season managed to help defend option plays while never getting burned on designed play-action and deep throws. The trenches were the site of the real back-and-forth as an injury-riddled defensive line held its own while the offensive front showed a better push and the ability to create running lanes up the middle that was lacking at times in 2016.
“One thing today showed was our level of conditioning,” Summers said. “It’s one thing to execute, but on a day like today, guys had to show that they could keep making plays even after they got tired. That’s what we look for and what can separate guys.”
Running back Demarcus Godfrey had one of the best individual efforts of the day when he spun through the line before running out of a pair of arm tackles for a 14-yard touchdown. Werts was commended by Summers on his ability to turn potentially busted plays into positives, but it was a textbook option keeper that saw him knife into the end zone from 16 yards out for a late score.
Quarterback-turned-tight end Ellis Richardson nearly made a great grab in the back of the end zone and the offense made good on its aerial threat on the final play of the afternoon when fellow converted quarterback Hampton McConnell - who made the switch to receiver last season - hauled in a short strike by Werts.
While most eyes were on the offense, the defense had plenty of things to be happy about.
An opportunistic group of Eagle defenders pounced on three fumbles and came within inches of a pair of interceptions. The secondary also played well in goal line situations, batting away several potential scoring strikes.
“It was a challenge for us,” linebacker Chris DeLaRosa said. “This offense is definitely tougher to defend than last season. We’re a young defense, but I think we have a lot of talent and confidence.
“Days like today are great for everyone. Everybody on both sides competed. It’s what we do every day to push each other to get better. We had a team kickball game yesterday and it was just as intense since everyone out here wants to win all the time.”
The Blue-White game has often marked the end of spring practice, but is only the midway point this season Six more practices are scheduled before spring camp breaks just before Easter. Summer workouts will follow, with fall camp commencing in August and leading up to the Eagles’ Sept. 2 season opener at Auburn.