STATESBORO, Ga. -- Nobody will be more ready to step onto the Paulson Stadium turf Sept. 4 than senior defensive lineman Voncellies Allen.
After graduating from Coffee High in the spring of 1995, Allen entertained offers from several small colleges before picking Georgia Southern.
Allen said he believed the Eagles had the best chance of winning a national championship last season, when they strung together 14 straight victories to get to the Division I-AA title game. The Eagles self-destructed with six turnovers and an inept defense that couldn't stop Massachusetts, falling 55-43 to dampen one of the best seasons in school history.
There were a lot of unanswered questions that cold, December afternoon in Chattanooga, Tenn. How could a team that averaged fewer than two turnovers per game turn over the ball seven times in the most important game of the season? And how could a defense that allowed just two running backs all season to rush for more than 100 yards give up 244 yards and three touchdowns to Massachusetts running back Marcel Shipp?
"I can't explain it," said sophomore free safety Arkee Thompson, who led Southern in tackles last season with 152. "I guess it just wasn't meant to be. So we're here again, taking the same steps we took last year to hopefully get back there."
The Eagles had just 15 fumbles entering the national championship game, but they amassed almost half that total against UMass. All-American quarterback Greg Hill took that game personally.
"The thing that we're told to do by the coaches is to take care of the ball, and it's a quarterback-fullback offense," Hill said. "Those are the positions that happened to turn the ball over. I put a lot of the blame and the pressure on myself.
"But then again, when I look at things, we put points on the board and were still scoring touchdowns. I realize it was a team game and I didn't lose the game myself and nobody else did. It took a long time for all that to sink in; I guess it took maybe up to spring practice."
Hill will get a chance to redeem himself, again engineering possibly the most explosive offense in Division I-AA. Last year, the Eagles ranked second nationally in total offense (492.6 yards per game), second in rushing offense (378.7) and second in scoring offense (42.5 points per game).
Most of the offense, including freshman sensation Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 1,936 yards last season, is back. Peterson will be joined by returning slotbacks Bennie Cunningham and former Lincoln County standout Cherard Freeman in the backfield.
The offensive line will be anchored by a pair of All-Americans in Mark Williams and Rich McGrath.
However, the defense will sport a new look when the Eagles meet Fayetteville State in its opener. Gone is the old 4-3 look; in is a more multiple defensive scheme, something the Eagles will adjust from week to week depending on the type of offense the opponent utilizes. That's good news to a unit that ranked 37th nationally in total defense last year.
"The new scheme will help us get a better look at what other teams do," said former Burke County standout Michael Youngblood, a sophomore expected to contend for the starting job at inside linebacker."It's going to be something new and something to challenge the defense even more."
That's music to the ears of die-hard Southern fans, who constantly criticized the Eagle defense last year for giving up the big play. But with six starters returning, including three in a secondary that ranked eighth in pass defense (182.7 yards allowed passing per game) in the Southern Conference last year, the revamped defense may be the backbone of the team.
"I think they will (be the backbone of our team)," Hill said. "I think those guys have a heckuva lot of talent in the secondary, and a lot of the guys up front that can run and are very quick. I thing good things are going to happen over there (on the defense)."
Despite the team's second consecutive Southern Conference title and a 24-4 record over the past two seasons, Allen says the team has a long way to go before he's totally satisfied.
"Nobody is ever totally satisfied, even if we'd went 15-0, we'd still found something wrong," he said. "I felt many times we could have played better defensively. We bent a lot in the red zone, but I believe that if we get better in the red zone and give up less points maybe, I think our offense is tops in the country and nobody will stop us.
"We (defense) just have to hold up our end of the bargain."
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