When the Georgia Southern Eagles take the field on Saturday to start their 2010 season, it will be with an offense that is both new and old at the same time.
GSU fans will be treated to the return of the once-vaunted triple-option offense, the offense that led them to six FCS National Championships in the first twenty years of the program’s existence but one that has not been seen by any current Georgia Southern students who grimaced through the last four seasons of Brian VanGorder and Chris Hatcher’s pro-style and spread offenses.
The Eagles are going back to their roots, and former Georgia Southern assistant and Paul Johnson disciple Jeff Monken was hired away from his post as slotbacks coach at Georgia Tech to man the helm. Monken served under Johnson and helped engineer the triple-option attacks at Georgia Southern and Navy before helping lead the Yellow Jackets to the 2009 ACC Championship. Georgia Southern is hoping for the same kind of quick turnaround with their program as was seen when Johnson arrived at Tech in 2008.
Running the triple-option from 1984-2005 under five different head coaches, the Eagles claimed six FCS national titles, and were two times the runner-up. Two separate GSU coaches have been named the FCS National Coach of the Year.
One player from this span, Tracy Ham, has already been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, with another sure to follow in Adrian N. Peterson, who finished in the top three in the Walter Payton award voting in each of his four collegiate seasons, winning the award in 1999.
But those glory days seem like a distant memory for Eagle fans. Brian VanGorder went 3-8 in one season in Statesboro with his pro-style offense, and his successor Chris Hatcher went 18-15 in three seasons using a spread attack. Winning percentages like that just won’t cut it in a town where people have gotten used their football team winning very, very often.
So the triple-option is back, but how long will it take to fully implement? After all, this is a team full of players recruited to run a spread, passing offense. While some players were not so receptive to the change in system (the top two quarterbacks from last season, as well the leading rusher, left the program), others are making the most of their opportunity to shine in a new system.
Senior Lee Banks has moved over from the defensive side of the ball to play fullback, the primary ball carrier in the triple-option offense and receiver Nico Hickey has moved inside to play the slotback position.
But as with any time that a program undergoes such a colossal change in philosophy, freshmen and transfers brought in by the new coaching staff will be forced to contribute immediately.
All of the players who manned the quarterback position in spring practice have since switched to other positions or left the team, because the starting job is in the firm and capable grasp of junior transfer Jaybo Shaw. Shaw arrived this summer after playing for Monken at Georgia Tech and is the only Eagle with experience running this offense. He will be backed up by exciting true freshman Jerick McKinnon.
Freshmen Robert Brown, a fullback, and Tray Butler, a wide receiver, have also been contributing big plays in practice and expect to see a lot of time on the field in their first season on campus.
Georgia Southern hopefully will allow Monken enough time to turn the program around with his own recruits, but anything less than the kind of immediate success seen at Georgia Tech under Paul Johnson will likely not be enough for a starved Eagle fan base. GSU opens its season this Saturday in Statesboro against Savannah State.