Darius Eubanks had options.
The former Thomson three-sport letterman could have heeded the siren song of the Southeastern Conference and be resting comfortably right now during another long off-season of football at Kentucky.
He could have pursued two sports in college, running himself ragged in the awkward overlap between football and basketball seasons.
Eubanks, however, chose to stick only with football and to do it at a place that values tradition and championships – Georgia Southern.
“One of the best decisions I ever made in my life,” Eubanks said of accepting a scholarship offer in 2009.
A starter at linebacker in 36 of 39 games since arriving in Statesboro, Ga., Eubanks and his Eagles teammates are once again on the brink of another milestone. For the second consecutive season, Georgia Southern has reached the semifinals in the highest level of collegiate football’s only true playoff system. A victory on Saturday at North Dakota State would give the Eagles a shot at the school’s record seventh Division I-AA title.
“It feels good to be back in the semis,” said Eubanks, a junior. “Not too many people can make it that far in their whole careers and for us to make it two years back to back is a blessing. Hopefully we can take it a step further this year.”
Eubanks had scholarship offers from Kentucky and Appalachian State as an all-area selection defensive back for the Bulldogs, but it was a high school game his senior season at Statesboro that changed the course of his future. In the bleachers that night was former Georgia Southern defensive coordinator Ashley Anders, whose son was a ballboy for Statesboro. Eubanks caught the eye of Anders, and the Eagles started recruiting him heavily and promising immediate playing opportunities.
“I love the program and the tradition, but I also love that my parents are able to come see me play every Saturday,” Eubanks said.
His mother and stepfather, Stephanie and Shawn Walker, have made it to every game except his first road trip at South Dakota State in 2009. His father and stepmom, Daniel and Jennifer Eubanks, make it to every home game.
Eubanks hasn’t missed many himself. He missed just one game due to injury his sophomore season and started in all but three in three seasons. He’s one of four defensive players to start all 13 games this year and ranks third among current Eagles in tackles both this season (62) and career (176).
He also has three career interceptions, including one against Maine last week on the final possession that sealed Georgia Southern’s 35-23 quarterfinal victory.
“I just try to be a leader by my actions,” Eubanks said. “It’s not about how many tackles I have or how many interceptions I have, it’s just going out there having fun with my teammates and competing to win.”
One of Eubanks’ closest friends on the team is defensive end John Douglas, a former Aquinas star who transferred to Georgia Southern last year from Auburn. When Douglas first arrived in Statesboro, he and Eubanks shared a summer job working at Howard Lumber & Hardware.
“Toting wood four to five hours a day in the 100-degree summer heat after going to classes in the morning, me and John developed a good relationship and are pretty good friends to this day,” Eubanks said of the end who ranks second on the Eagles in sacks.
A year ago, the Eagles were a surprise entry in the semifinals, running off six consecutive wins after a 4-4 start to the season.
This year has followed a more traditional and expected path as Southern Conference champs.
“Even though last year to a lot of other people we were a surprise, we knew we had the capabilities of winning,” Eubanks said. “This year people are expecting us to win. Our goals haven’t changed. Last year we wanted to win a national championship and we didn’t. This year we want to win a national championship and hopefully we can. It doesn’t surprise us at all we’re here.”
One of the two losses Georgia Southern experienced this year was ironically one of the biggest confidence boosts.
After wrapping up the conference title, the Eagles traveled to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to take on one of the teams that will be playing for the BCS title.
Georgia Southern put a scare into Alabama, trailing 31-21 deep into the third quarter before the Crimson Tide iced the game with a couple of late scores.
The Eagles compiled 101 more yards against Alabama’s top-ranked defense than No. 1 Louisiana State University did in the same stadium two weeks earlier.
“To be honest, we really felt like we had the chance of going in there and winning the game,” said Eubanks, who posted seven tackles including one for a loss in the game. “We weren’t just going there to show up. They are a great team and we went out there and showed them all we had. We came up short, but it was a great game.”
That performance only enhanced the Eagles’ motivation entering the playoffs.
“We almost beat the best team in the nation and we feel like we can compete with anyone now,” Eubanks said. “We already knew it, but that confirmed it. Now we just have to work hard each week and get better.”