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The Georgia Southern defense: Looking for traction in a much scarier place

Apparently that guy caught this.
Apparently that guy caught this.
Scott Cunningham

While Georgia Southern's offense presents some potentially frightening challenges for NC State, the Eagles' defense has problems that the Wolfpack should be able to exploit.  GSU has in recent seasons been vulnerable on that side of the ball, which may be why the Eagles were unable to get back into national title form at the tail end of their FCS run.

GSU Defense Opp. Yds/Play Opp. Yds/Rush Opp. Yds/Pass Attempt
2013 5.6 4.4 7.1
2012 5.5 4.0 7.2
2011 5.8 4.4 7.4
2010 4.8 3.6 6.7
2009 5.4 3.9 7.0

The Eagles have been average defensively over the last three seasons, unable for whatever reason to maintain the success they had in 2010, when they finished in the top 10 in total defense. Worse for GSU in 2013 was a general lack of the big disruptive plays that can alter the course of a game. They managed just 12 sacks--only a handful of FCS teams had fewer--and forced only seven fumbles. They recovered just two of those.

Given all that, it's a bit surprising that they only allowed 23.2 points per game in 2013, but the Eagles were good at getting off the field on third downs (opponents converted on 36.8% of third downs) and forcing teams into field goal tries once they got into the red zone (opponents scored TDs on just 48.4% of red zone opportunities).

Those things sustained them to a certain degree last season and may well again in 2014. Those things also obscure the real trouble, which is that Southern just wasn't very good down-to-down.

If that's going to change, it'll have to happen under the oversight of the man who's been running the defense since 2011--Willie Fritz opted to retain defensive coordinator Jack Curtis rather than bring in one of his own guys.

The leader on the field figures to be senior linebacker Edwin Jackson, who led GSU with 92 tackles last season. He also had 2.5 sacks and a team-high five quarterback hurries. Jackson will start alongside veteran Antwione Williams, who missed all of 2013 with injury but has 25 games' worth of experience.

The Eagles also have veterans at the back end, where senior corner Valdon Cooper and senior nickelback/safety Deion Stanley should be key contributors. Stanley already has 32 starts to his credit and led the SoCon with three picks last year. Returning junior safety Matt Dobson started every game last season.

Everything starts up front, though, and if there's reason for pessimism about this defense's ability to transition to FBS, it's there. Southern lost a trio of starters from the 2013 team, which will press younger players into larger roles. Nose tackle Bernard Dawson and defensive end Jay Ellison--both projected starters before camp started--saw time in 2013, but they're just true sophomores. Dawson's backup, Quaun Daniels, is a linebacker-turned-defensive end who missed all of 2013 because of injury.

Jamal Johnson will be in the rotation at defensive tackle but is listed at only 245 pounds. The man ahead of him in the starting lineup, Jonathan Battle, might be the most important member of the line. Battle is the team's leading returning tackler up front and the sort of proven contributor that GSU lacks in that spot.

Considering this defense's recent track record and that it lost half its starters from 2013, a strong transition to the FBS level is unlikely. Moving up is inviting disadvantage, and that's going to be felt by GSU's defense this year.

What this means for NC State is anybody's guess, but if State struggles all day to move the football, it, uh, well, this season might go ugly.