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OAYP Sun Belt Preview: Georgia Southern

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Jim Johnson breaks down the 2019 Georgia Southern Eagles using his OAYP advanced metric.

It’s August and college football is just around the corner. To get ready for the Sun Belt season, I’ll be previewing each of the league’s teams through the prism of my OAYP advanced metric. In short, the formula takes each program’s opponent adjusted performance from 2018 and combines that score with the individual player scores that we have released throughout the offseason, in order to make it predictive.

These will be released in alphabetical order, so it’s Georgia Southern’s turn.

Below you’ll find the team’s projected starting lineup, plus some key contributors, with each qualifying returnee’s marginal OAYP score, and Sun Belt position ranking. The players with OAYP scores and rankings listed are full qualifiers. Players with OAYP scores but not rankings listed were second tier qualifiers, but not meet the full qualifying threshold. Players with neither listed did not meet any qualifying threshold.

However, whereas the prior marginal OAYP rankings reflected each player’s number only relative to the Sun Belt, these scores are relative to Southern Pigskin’s entire coverage area -- so the ACC and SEC, as well. This should more accurately reflect a given player’s efficiency and value since the sample size now includes over 600 players, so especially strong or weak groups in any particular league won’t skew the rankings anymore.

Fresh off of one of the most remarkable single season turnarounds in college football history, going from double digit losses in 2017 to double digit wins in 2018, the expectation is championship-or-bust in Statesboro once more, just as it has been for so long. However, with a handful of brutal road trips on the conference slate, recapturing the magic of last year may be easier said than done.

OFFENSE

2018 Offensive OAYP (Rank): -0.02 (3)
2019 Projected Offensive OAYP (Rank): 0.02 (3)
QB Ranking: 2
RB Ranking: 3
WR/TE Ranking: 7
OL Ranking: 8

Normally it’s hard to know what to expect from an offense with so many unknowns ahead of the season, as Georgia Southern has, but that’s not really the case here. They’re going to run the heck out of the ball. They’re going to stay ahead of the sticks. And they’re going to avoid turnovers. These are easy assumptions to make because, despite some turnover in the offensive skill positions, quarterback Shai Werts is back.

Now fully clear of the charges that came about last week, stemming from a bizarre series of events in Saluda County, South Carolina, the Eagles’ have one of the two best quarterbacks in the league ready to pick up right where he left off. Underrated by some because of the offense Georgia Southern runs, make no mistake, the job of a quarterback is not to throw for a bunch of yards and touchdowns, but, first and foremost, to lead an effective offense and put his team in a position to succeed. Werts checks those boxes. Last year, Georgia Southern went as their signal caller did and his improvement from year one to year two was a big reason why. In 2017, when they went 2-10, Werts averaged 3.49 yards per carry and 6.1 yards per pass attempt with three rushing touchdowns, seven passing touchdowns and five picks. In 2018, those numbers jumped to 4.98 yards per carry and 8.5 yards per pass attempt, with 15 rushing scores, another 10 through the air, and no interceptions.

With Werts leading the way, there’s no real reason to worry about the skill positions, either, even if OAYP can’t say much about them. Gone are leading rusher Wesley Fields and his primary backup Monteo Garrett, but the backfield is still plenty talented. Wesley Kennedy was one of the league’s scariest playmakers in the open field, and only good things can come from more touches for him. He finished second in the league in yards per carry, gained at least five yards on 65.6% of those runs, at least 10 yards on over a quarter of them, and was a nightmare at the second level, tacking on an average of 6.68 extra yards per opportunity. He’s the lone returning skill player to even meet the formula’s secondary qualifying threshold, but the rest of the group isn’t a total blank slate.

Running backs Logan Wright and Matt LaRoche offer two unique, disparate skill sets. Wright isn’t as threatening in the open field as Kennedy, but was just as reliable, averaging over 6.5 yards per carry and gaining at least five yards 66% of the time. LaRoche, however, needs to show a little more in 2019. At his size, he should at least be more of a home run threat than Wright is, but that wasn’t the case. He didn’t get a ton of carries last year, though, so the sample size is less than telling.

One potential flaw with Georgia Southern’s offensive OAYP is the receiver scoring. Because of the way the predictive aspect of the formula is structured, for an option team, the lack of qualifiers among the pass catchers could have a disproportionate impact on the ratings. The only one last year who would have qualified is tight end Ellis Richardson, who’s gone. In reality, these guys just aren’t asked to do a lot, at least not in the way that wideouts traditionally are. For what it’s worth, on tiny sample sizes, Colby Ransom and Mark Michaud would have scored really highly had they qualified, and Darion Anderson’s number is out of this world. OAYP aside, in practicum, these guys do what they’re asked to do and they do it well.

That’s why, even though there are more known quantities along the offensive line, it’s the blocking that is more of a concern than the guys they’re blocking for. Two all-conference players in center Curtis Rainey and tackle Jeremiah Culbreath will not be easily replaced. Even with those guys, the run blocking was closer to the middle of the pack in the Sun Belt than the top, and, while obviously there is less of an emphasis on it, the pass protection was among the worst in the nation. Brian Miller, a converted defensive lineman, was one of the unsung heroes of the 2018 team. He projects to be the best part of that group, but he still has plenty of room to improve, though that’s understandable for someone so relatively new to the position. Drew Wilson should handle the other tackle spot, after missing all of last season with an injury. He was a starter on the 2017 unit, and at least offers some experience and veteran leadership to help fill the void left behind by Culbreath and Rainey. The interior offensive line has more questions to answer than the tackle spots.

Ultimately, this offense will be more effective than not in 2019. The skill positions are dripping with talent. Wesley Kennedy, in particular, is poised to take the SBC by storm, and Shai Werts is too good to let the unit be bad. Ultimately, though, while the offense went as Werts did in 2018, this year it will go as the O-Line goes.

DEFENSE

2018 Defensive OAYP: 0.15 (3)
2019 Projected Defensive OAYP: 0.09 (5)
EDGE Ranking: 8
DL Ranking: 3
LB Ranking: 4
CB Ranking: 2
S Ranking: 4

Frankly, Georgia Southern’s defensive projections surprised me more than anything in these previews, yet. There are some obvious holes that beg questions that only time can answer, but the sheer star power on that side of the ball would suggest the potential for this to be the best defense in the Sun Belt.

Up front, with the departure of Logan Hunt, Raymond Johnson will now step into a leadership role for a front seven that returns a ton of talent and promises to be among the league’s best. Classified as an edge defender by PFF, his 35 pressures last year are more than any other returning EDGE or interior lineman. Tack on more than 20 defensive stops, 12 run stuffs, the second most tackles for loss among interior returnees, and it’s clear that there aren’t really any weaknesses to his game. Johnson does everything well and is one of the biggest reasons Georgia Southern was able to play as bend-don’t break as they did with so much success. The recent loss of Quan Griffin hurts, but nose tackle Ty Phillips offers a perfectly serviceable complement and CJ Wright screams potential breakout star.

Of course, the two biggest stars on the team are the cornerback tandem of Kindle Vildor and Monquavion Brinson, the best duo, regardless of position, in the Sun Belt, and one of the top CB pairings in all of college football. The former returns as Pro Football Focus’ second highest graded cornerback in the nation after recording four interceptions, tops among conference returnees, a league leading 15 total passes defended, allowing 0.87 yards per coverage snap, a 56.9% catch rate, and a 52.5 passer rating on throws into his coverage, which was also good for second among returning SBC corners. The latter racked up 11 passes defended, forcing an incompletion on over 15% of the throws into his coverage, allowed an 81.9 passer rating, and proved himself as one of the best run defenders in the country, grading out at 90.4 against such plays, with a top tier 89.3 tackling grade, while leading Georgia Southern in solo stops. The loss of Joshua Moon at safety would hurt a lot of teams, but these guys don’t need much of a safety net. The only reason they didn’t rank first in the league at CB is the lack of depth relative to Texas State. Regardless, these are the two of the top five players in the league.

Plus, they could actually be pretty good at safety, anyways. Backup Kenderick Duncan actually earned enough snaps last season to meet the full qualifying threshold. He was, for the most part, a key reserve and special teams contributor for Georgia Southern last year, playing behind Sean Freeman. However, he did start four games, three for Freeman and one for Joshua Moon, with great efficacy. It’s a limited sample size, but in those four starts against Clemson, New Mexico State, App State, and ULM, he racked up 30 tackles, two interceptions, and a forced fumble. Thick, long, and strong, Duncan looks like the sort of safety you would create on NCAA Football, if that still existed. And if those four games were any indication, he’ll play like that, too.

And while the inside linebackers won’t bring too many flashy or splashy plays, Chris Harris and Rashad Byrd are both reliable, consistent contributors.

The major concern with this team, on paper, is the group of edge defenders. Lane Ecton and Jay Bowdry are really more hybrid DB/LB’s, while Randy Wade is more of a traditional edge rusher. The point is, though, that the group, no matter how you slice it, lacks a bonafide playmaker. Ecton and Bowdry have some useful utility, and Wade would be serviceable as the Robin to someone’s Batman, but there’s no Batman. The pass rush wasn’t bad last year, but it wasn’t good either. It didn’t hurt the pass defense as a whole because the secondary was so good, and that probably won’t change either. However, just as the OAYP projections indicate, if anything is going to keep this from being arguably the best defense in the Sun Belt, it’s this position group.

POSITION GROUP RANKINGS

1. Quarterback
2. Cornerbacks
3. Defensive Line
4. Running Backs
5. Linebackers
6. Safeties
7. Offensive Line
8. Pass Catchers
9. Edge Defenders

TOP 100 PLAYERS

These are the athletes listed in my annual preseason ranking of the 100 best players in the Sun Belt, which combines my personal opinion and the eye test with the OAYP metric.

1. CB Kindle Vildor
5. CB Monquavion Brinson
10. DL Raymond Johnson
21. QB Shai Werts
47. RB Wesley Kennedy
52. K Tyler Bass
61. S Kenderick Duncan
69. LB Rashad Byrd
80. OT Brian Miller
85. DL Ty Phillips
88. LB Chris Harris

CONFERENCE SCHEDULE

How much is home field advantage worth? Last year, it meant a lot to the Eagles. In Paulson Stadium, Georgia Southern went 5-1, the lone loss coming at the hands of Troy, including monster victories over the likes of App State and Arkansas State. However, because those three teams, pretty much the rest of the Sun Belt ruling class, had to go to Statesboro in 2018, they all get Chad Lunsford’s team at home this year. Now, OAYP would still favor App State by double digits on a neutral field, but if that game was in Paulson it would be a one score line. Since it’s in Boone, that swings them to 12 point dogs, using The Action Network’s adjustments. Troy, too, would be a tiny favorite on a neutral site, but home field advantage pushes that one to 2.5. The biggest, though, is at Arkansas State. In Jonesboro, the Red Wolves are favored by a field goal, but Georgia Southern would actually be favored on a neutral site, and it’s the Eagles who would be field goal favorites if it was in Paulson.

After the turnaround last year, Sun Belt title is the expectation at Georgia Southern in 2019. The talent is there. The coaching staff is there. The experience is there. More so than anything else, the schedule might be Georgia Southern’s biggest obstacle to achieving that goal. Including a tough opener against Louisiana, basically half of the conference slate could be considered a swing game. Fortune favored Georgia Southern in many of those contests a season ago. Only time will tell if the magic is still there.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP