Last year was the first year the Georgia State Panthers took the gridiron and fielded a football team. Head Coach Bill Curry was tasked with building the program from the ground up. Their first scholarship player reported to campus in January of 2009 and they played their first game last year when they beat the Shorter Hawks 41-7 in front of 30.237 fans inside the Georgia Dome. Georgia State’s first year in the FCS had it’s up and downs as they finished 6-5 (including a loss to SEC power Alabama). We had a chance to sit down with Ben from the Georgia State based website PantherTalk.com to get some insight on the 2010 season and to learn more about the 2011 Georgia State Panthers.
What are your favorite memories from last year’s debut season?
Most Panther fans young and old will remember Thursday, Sept. 2nd for as long as they can remember. For me, it was my favorite sports moment. Being involved in the initial club football effort in 2001 and our first season in 2002, we truly did dream of that day. Pulling up to the Dome and seeing my school’s colors plastered on the outside of the Dome, hundreds of people tailgating and crowds forming to get in was quite possibly the coolest thing I had ever been a part of. To enter the Dome and be a part of the most electric atmosphere imaginable for a product that had not previously existed was unreal. I was truly glad, and frankly amazed, that so many people cared about my team. Fast forward two and half months and we arrive at Bryant Denny stadium, home to the defending BCS Title holders and the defending Heisman Trophy winner and you’ve encapsulated some college football fans lifetime. For those who follow Georgia State, that was Year One.
For those that didn’t follow Georgia State last year in their first season tell us a little about the best players on this team.
It all starts and ends with the QB at nearly every level of football. QB Drew Little started all 11 games and threw for 2102 yards and 18 touchdowns through the air. Back up QB Kelton Hill was the team’s leading rusher lining up primarily in the WildCat formation in 2010 and accounted for 416 yards on only 60 carries (6.9 yards per rush average). Little violated team rules this offseason and will serve a 4 game suspension vaulting Hill into the role of starter. From all reports, he’s embraced it and put in a tremendous amount of work this offseason working with a throwing coach and will benefit greatly from the promotion of former All American and Heisman Trophy candidate Joe Hamilton to Asst. Coach on the staff. Offensive Coordinator John Bond also has a very good reputation of developing coordinators and implementing packages which accentuate his talent. The Running Backs are very strong led by Travis Evans who is a home run threat. The Wide Receiving Corps is deep and talented led by RS Soph. Danny Williams, RS Soph. Jordan Giles and former UCF transfer Sidney Haynes flanking Hill. WR/KR Albert Wilson has elite level speed, as Alabama witness on his 97 yard kickoff return accounting for the Panthers only score, and will be involved in reverses and screens.
On defense, it starts with Weakside Defensive End Christo Bilukidi. The 6’5, 295lbs beast from Canada was the Panthers best pass rusher in 2010 accounting for five sacks and 7 tackles for loss while facing constant double teams. At linebacker, the Panthers were led by Jake Muasau who led the team in tackles for loss with 8.5, racked up 39 tackles, 3 fumbles recovered, 3 passes broken up and 1 interception. In the secondary, emotional leader Brandon Jones was the second leading tackler from the Strong Safety position with 51.5 stops and 6 passes broken up.
It has been a weird off-season for Georgia State QBs. Star Jackson left the program and, as previously mentioned, Drew Little has been suspended for the first four games. Who do you see as the short and long term solutions for Georgia State at this position?
Weird. Perplexing. Strange. Any of those adjectives certainly apply. Star was a major disappointment and made many Panther fans wonder if highly touted transfers at the QB position are going to be dialed down under Coach Curry’s regime. For the first four games, it will be the Kelton Hill show. He’s worked hard this Spring and improved his accuracy this offseason while working with a throwing coach several times per week. He is in better shape and he will guide the Panthers in the front loaded schedule. I do not see him being removed unless something drastic happens. Drew Little has done everything he has needed to remain eligible but I believe if the team responds to KH4 then the coaching staff will only give Little back up duty. The Panthers coaching staff has already offered five scholarships to QBs for the 2012 cycle and I expect to sign two in February. This screams to me that we will likely have a QB leave in the offseason and the winner of 2011 job will likely keep it in 2012 and 2013. The coaching staff did sign one QB this offseason in Ben McClane out of Brookwood HS but many Panther fans are hoping he can take a RS to develop. He has the reputation of being very accurate and comes from a state championship program but he is not ready to play at this point.
Kelton Hill is arguably the most dynamic weapon the Panthers have. How do you think he will be used differently this year?
Weapon is a great word. He was the leading rusher out of the Wildcat and averaged nearly 7 yards per touch in 2010. I expect his scripted runs will drop significantly in 2011 as he’s improved the accuracy of his throws. He threw only 15 times in 2010 but completed 19 passes for 132 yards and a TD in the Spring game throwing primarily to back up Wide Receivers. OC John Bond has a reputation of utilizing his talent in the best possible way. I expect some option, designed rollouts, reverses and multiple levels of short and intermediate screens behind a veteran offensive line that have combined for 86 career starts.
Who are some under the radar guys who were on last year’s team that we should keep an eye on this year?
That is a great question. I’d take a look at a guy like RB Parris Lee. He scored the first touchdown in Georgia State history but, by his own standards and admissions, had a subpar first year. He carried the ball 40 times for 160 yards in 2010 but nearly half of those yards came in the opener vs. Shorter. He has put major work in the weight room and is stronger and quicker from all accounts. He is a more powerful runner and has very good hands. I expect him to be involved heavily in some option and screen packages. One defense, I look at a guy like OLB Akeen Felder. He had a tremendous spring, gained nearly 20lbs from the close of 2010 and took advantage of some injuries within our veteran linebackers. Akeen was primarily a back up in a heavy rotation in 2010 and accounted for 23 tackles and I expect his role to increase significantly this Fall.
Who are some newcomers that you think can have an immediate impact this year?
I’ll start with the JUCO guys first as I project three former teammates at Georgia Military College to start on the defensive side of the ball. Cornerback D’Mario Gunn is long and everything you want in a corner. Great hands, very good hips and play making ability. He was dominant in the Spring Scrimmage and Coach Curry smiles every time “Phatt” is mentioned. Joining him in the defensive secondary will be Free Safety Demazio Skelton out of Myrtle Beach, SC. He is already an upgrade in size, strength and football IQ to 2010 leading tackler Fred Barnes, who left the team due to violation of team rules. Skeleton is highly productive and will fit the Free Safety/Rover position well. Last but not least, inside linebacker Qwontez Mallory is a sure tackler with very good speed. He is a big hitter and is always around the football. Gunn called him “an animal” when I spoke to him early this spring.
I’m interested to see RS Freshman Alex Findura and C.J. Stephens to get in the rotation at defensive end and both should provide quality depth. As far as true freshman, I expect the six out of the eight who came out of high school to redshirt with only Kicker Christian Benevenuto and Safety Nick Henderson to be big time contributors on special teams.
What do you see as the most important games on the schedule this year?
Important is an interesting word, specifically because we are an FCS Independent and ineligible for the FCS Playoffs until 2012. Many Panther fans believe that the game vs. Old Dominion is a huge one. Clark Atlanta should be a romp and another fun opener in the Georgia Dome. The 2010 Old Dominion game was basically spoiled because of a terribly sloppy 2nd quarter to ruin a 400 yard passing day by Drew Little in a 34-20 loss. This is also the first crack at a future conference opponent which will used a measuring stick and potential launching point for CAA play in 2012. Jacksonville State will be a great trip as they were the Panthers first OT loss in 2010. Houston is on the schedule as the Panthers lone FBS opponent and will be a great test as the Coogs were Top 10 offensive team and prepare the Panthers for another high octane offense two weeks later in Murray State.
What is your gut feeling on the final record and what makes this season a success in your eyes?
I believe the schedule is very front loaded this year and many Panther fans are hoping to escape 1-3 or 2-2 in the season’s first 4 games. I believe the next seven are tougher but manageable. The general consensus among Panther fans is another 6-5 or 7-4 year. The key will be is beating the teams that we are not supposed to beat. Murray State will likely be a popular preseason pick to win the OVC, South Carolina State is expected again to dominate the MEAC and Jacksonville State is coming off its best recruiting class in many years. If the Panthers could find a way to get wins vs. those three opponents, it could be a special year. With the circumstances this offseason, upgrades to strength of schedule and veterans returning at every position except kicker, I believe the team will continue to get stronger in 2011. The team began to wear down in 2010 after playing 10 straight weeks. Another offseason stronger and the defensive additions will truly have the Panthers playing their best in late October and November. For many, just having Georgia State football is a success but I believe 6-7 wins, based on the totality of the year, would be a success.
Thanks to Ben and the gang over at PantherTalk.com for answering our questions and catching us up on Georgia State football. Make sure you give their website a visit. You can also follow them on Twitter @gsupanthertalk and you can follow Ben @gstateben.