STATESBORO, Ga. — It’s been the strangest spring for Georgia Southern football.
Six national championship banners were missing from the Paulson Stadium flag pole Saturday as a production company tried to recreate the look of the 1980s for scenes in an upcoming movie on former Eagle legendary head coach Erk Russell.
A number of Georgia Southern starters were missing as well for reasons ranging from rehabbing injuries to concentrating on academics, so the Eagles didn’t give the most accurate portrayal of their 2013 team.
But Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken looked much deeper when finding meaning for Saturday’s spring Blue-White intrasquad football game.
“You can assess the spirit of competition (players) come to the stadium with,” said Monken after the defense claimed a 14-12 victory over the offense.
“Do they have a game-type mentality? I think some of our guys did. Some of our guys didn’t. (Being ready to play) is what we’re trying to simulate. … We have a ways to go to coach our football team to play with that mentality.”
It hasn’t been easy with the bulk of the starters, who should emerge as leaders, watching from the sidelines.
Gaining motivation will be important because GSU won’t be eligible for a Southern Conference title or any FCS playoff appearance after announcing a move to the Sun Belt Conference, an FBS conference, in 2014.
Monken can’t do anything about the latter, but shuffled the traditional split-squad Blue-White game to feature the offense against the defense.
On the final play of the afternoon, quarterback Vegas Harley threw an incomplete pass to provide the defense with its margin of victory — a two-point turnover on downs.
What did it all mean when starting quarterback and 1,832-yard rusher Jerick McKinnon wasn’t playing? Nor 1,295-yard fullback Dominique Swope.
The duo was instrumental in Southern capturing a share of a Southern Conference title – its 10th and final – en route to a 10-4 record and the FCS semifinals.
Georgia Southern players received their Southern Conference championship rings Saturday — the seniors who finished their eligibility before the game and the remaining players after the game.
It provided a small taste of the standard the Eagles continually will be asked to meet.
They’re not there yet.
“We learned we have a lot to learn,” said fullback William Banks, who scored the only touchdown on a 5-yard run during the 63-play workout.
With many former Georgia Southern stars in attendance — quarterbacks Raymond Gross and Greg Hill, fullback Jermaine Austin and offensive guard Mark Williams, to name just a few — the Eagles defense held the offense to 256 yards.
Freshman quarterback Kevin Ellison had a team-high 76 yards, including explosive plays of 33 and 22 yards, on eight carries.
Banks added 44 yards with the touchdown and a two-point conversion.
Backup fullback Irving Huggins had 36 yards and Harley gained 25.
“I think I was a little up and down, but I think we got a lot out of the game,” Harley said. “The defense played a great game and gave us a lot of competition.”
The pristine 73-degree day was a thing of beauty for the defense most of the afternoon. Safety Matt Dobson and the interior of the line stopped Ellison on fourth-and-goal midway through the third quarter, then forced a punt when the offense took over going in the opposite direction and failed to pick up a first down.
But a shanked punt traveled only to the 27 and the offense finally converted for its lone score.
“You’re going to have times when you’re put in bad situations, but overall I thought (the defense) did a good job,” defensive coordinator Jack Curtis. “The spring has been good because we have a lot of young guys and we had a chance to (let) a lot of guys play.”
Sophomore linebacker Edwin Jackson was one of the many bright spots for the defense. Jackson, who had 16 tackles in 13 games last season, had 10 on Saturday.
Outside linebacker Kyle Oehlbeck, who played in the middle last season, had eight tackles.
“I think this is the most constructive spring since I’ve been here,” Oehlbeck said.
Georgia Southern added offensive plays out of a shotgun formation, giving the defense many looks it will see from opponents.
Monken said that wasn’t an attempt to take the offense to a mainstream philosophy, but more a product of not having many of the offensive regulars.
Georgia Southern will still have two more workouts before it finishes its 15 practices in a 28-day span in accordance with the NCAA.
“I’m really glad we have a couple of more practices because there are a lot of things we do need to correct and I’d hate to see those mistakes today and have to wait until August to correct them,” Monken said. “We can get them corrected and go back through some things this week and I think that will benefit us going into the summer.”