The Georgia Southern swagger is back
By Russell V.
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“I’m just thrilled to have the opportunity to coach here at Georgia Southern,” said GSU head coach Jeff Monken. “This is an outstanding university."
It has been an amazing homecoming story for the Georgia Southern Eagles. Recently, they became a shadow of their former selves, of the team that gained national prominence with their six national titles and traditions and prestige that date back to the days of Erk Russell.
Gone was their trademark triple option and suffocating defense. Gone were the playoff berths and conference titles.
Then came the hiring of former Paul Johnson assistant Jeff Monken, and the glory days were back.
Since returning to Statesboro, Monken has gone 20-7, led the Eagles to the playoff semifinals and to their first conference title 2002. For Monken, it has been nothing short of a dream come true.
“I always hoped, after being an assistant here, that I’d have the opportunity to come back here one day and be the head coach,” he said. “There’s a lot of coaches that are much more qualified to be here than I and I am so grateful to the university for giving me this opportunity.
“I’m just thrilled to have the opportunity to coach here at Georgia Southern,” he added. “This is an outstanding university. All the history and tradition we have – we benefit from that. The great job that Erk Russell did when he started the program, nobody could’ve done what he did. Nobody. And because he had so much success so quickly, the program took off. The community loves this program and backs it … It’s just a thrill for me to back here and the chance to be a head coach is a thrill for me.”
One of the big reasons for success in the past few games has been the outstanding play of freshman back Dominique Swope, the SoCon’s co-Freshman of the Year. On the season, Swope has totaled 846 yards and six touchdowns – 573 yards and three touchdowns coming in his last three games and against Wofford, Alabama and Old Dominion nonetheless.
There might not be a hotter player in the FCS than the 6’0, 209 bulldozer from Buford, Ga.
“It’s the coaching points,” he said. “It’s watching film. It’s listening, being humble and staying disciplined. I don’t do much special. I just execute and listen. … (The coaches) do a great job getting us ready for games and we’re just trying to execute the way we did in practice.”
Swope is just one of a gigantic stable of running backs and athletes the Eagles throw at opponents week in and week out. In fact, Swope and teammate Robert Brown rank 49th and 48th in the nation in rushing yards per game and are a key cog in the Eagles’ second-ranked rushing attack. But often overlooked is the exceptional play of their offensive line.
Swope makes sure that the men who open holes for him and his teammates get their due.
“I give all the credit to my O-line,” he said. They do a great job opening holes for me and have done a great job knocking people down, giving us the right path to run. I mean, the whole offense is great.”
It has been that kind of mentality that has helped Monken transition so well to the head coaching position in Statesboro.
“The biggest key has been our players – their willingness to work, their commitment to succeed, their dedication to this team and each other and the unselfishness that they’d displayed in the two years that I’ve been here,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of guys ask to change positions, go to the other side of the ball … do what’s best for the team. That’s really the sign of the team and a group of guys who want to be a part of something bigger than yourself. And our great coaching staff – our assistants do a tremendous job with these guys.”
Coming into the 2011 season, all the pressure in the world has been placed on the Eagles’ shoulders from fans and media members alike. Georgia Southern came out of nowhere and advanced further in the playoffs than anyone expected and returned 21 of 22 starters from that team.
Many were predicting not just a conference title, but a national championship for the Eagles.
And, though it may come as a surprise to some, Monken says the players did not feel any extra pressure from that.
“Nobody had higher expectations for this team than I did,” he said. “There’s never going to be more pressure from outside than from the inside.
“We’ve done the same thing this year (as we did last year). For our kids to understand what the expectations are here and such standards that will meet such expectations, we hold the kids to those standards and that gives them the best opportunity to win.”
Those expectations, safe to say, have been met so far this season. The Eagles currently hold a 10-2 record, with the two losses coming on the road against the Appalachian State Mountaineers and the Alabama Crimson Tide, and a conference title that has meant the world to this team.
“It’s an absolute blessing to win that,” Swope said. “I mean, first year in the Southern Conference and we all worked hard for it. It was one of our goals and I’m glad we accomplished it.”
“It does mean a lot to this football team,” Monken added. “I’m happy for them – happy for our seniors. We got some fifth-year seniors here who have been through a couple staffs and some tough years. To accomplish that, to provide the positive leadership we needed to win the Southern Conference championship, what a tremendous job those kids have done.
“We got a really special group of kids. They love playing football together, they love being around each other. It’s a fun group of kids to be around. I couldn’t be more pleased with their efforts and winning the Southern Conference championship.”
Among that group of seniors is Derek Heyden, a former player who has not seen the field since a horrific neck injury earlier this season. Well, he hasn’t seen the field in full gear. Heyden has made an effort to be with his teammates throughout every step of their journey, neck brace and all, leading the team onto the field prior to every game while waving the black flag.
“He is a beloved teammate,” Monken said. “He’s one of us. He’s here at practice every day and joins us for every game. … When you have an injury like that, it’s very easy to feel sorry for yourself … and to separate yourself from the team and feel down about it. But he loves this team and he was right back out here the very next week. Just a great, great kid.
“We really miss him on the field. He’s a great player. He provided tremendous leadership on the field and confidence … I could talk a long time about him. He’s a terrific player. But he’s more than just that to our football team.”
Just like there is still more left for the Eagles to accomplish, starting with Maine on Saturday in front of what Coach Monken considers to be the best fans in all of college football. Eagle Nation is huge reason for Georgia Southern’s success at Paulson Stadium. Since 2008, they are 15-3 when playing in the friendly confines in Statesboro.
“This is a great university and terrific town that embraces this university, loves this football team and to be part of a football program that means so much to so many people – this isn’t just a hobby during the football season for people around here,” Monken said. “This is important 365 days a year in this town and at this school. We get unbelievable fan support. I think we have the best in America, at any level, anywhere. They are loud, they show up, they cheer, they love this team. And we don’t have a stadium that sits 100,000 people, but if we did, and we could take our 20,000 fans and (multiply) them by five, we’d have the loudest and rowdiest place in the entire nation. It’s just a special place and I can’t describe it.”
Monken knows better than to take anything for granted, though. After all, they are hosting the same Maine Black Bears that completely silenced Kidd Brewer Stadium, another of the loudest and most intimidating venues the FCS has to offer. This is a squad that has what Monken calls one of the best tight ends and best run-blocking offensive lines he has seen all year. They held the Mountaineers to just three yards rushing last week and controlled the game from start to finish.
“Everyone’s so prepared and everybody’s playing their best football right now,” Monken said. “I’m proud of how we came out of the win last week. We found a way to get it done, though it wasn’t pretty all the way through. … We feel very fortunate to be a part of the tournament and (we’re) just trying to play our best football right now – and you have to in this tournament.”