Could Georgia Southern Be Opening Up Their Passing Game?

Running The Option

It’s no secret Georgia Southern loves to run the option. Whether it’s out of the flexbone or the pistol, the program, the university, and the fans love the option.

Even considering scrapping the option is enough to lose your job in Statesboro. It’s no mystery as to why Brian VanGorder is a curse word in the homes of Georgia Southern fans.

However, relying solely on the option can get you in trouble. While it’s always tricky and requires a ton of discipline to stop, if teams get a good lead on option teams like Georgia Southern, they’re normally able to keep them down.

The Pass Game

Football in 2016 requires you to have some kind of passing game to rely on when you need to move the ball in a hurry. That is exactly where Georgia Southern lost the Sun Belt Conference in 2015.

Starting quarterback Kevin Ellison threw 89 passes all season long and only completed 40 of them, for 597 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions. Backup Favian Upshaw, who started the first two games of the year, was even less effective. He completed only 19 of his 48 passes for 227 yards, zero touchdowns to five interceptions.

Combined, the Eagles only had 824 passing yards all year with four touchdowns and ten interceptions. It’s no wonder Georgia Southern couldn’t build a comeback against Appalachian State and Georgia State last year. When the Eagles needed a passing game, Ellison and Upshaw were unable to produce.

Changing the Game

But change is coming to Statesboro. Willie Fritz left Georgia Southern last December to become head coach at Tulane and he took offensive coordinator Doug Ruse along with him. In their places, are new head coach Tyson Summers, and co-offensive coordinators Rance Gillespie (quarterbacks coach) and David Dean (wide receivers coach).

Gillespie in particular is no stranger to Georgia Southern, he was offensive coordinator there from 2007-2009. The Eagles led the Southern Conference in passing his last two seasons. But he did so without completely abandoning the option.

In those years, they ran the spread option much like they do now and quarterback Jayson Foster won the Walter Payton Award in 2007. That season he completed 109 of his 170 attempts, for 1,203 yards six touchdowns and four interceptions. He also rushed for 1,844 yards with 24 touchdowns.

Obviously Foster didn’t blow anyone away with his passing numbers, and this year neither will Ellison or Upshaw. But they don’t need to. All they need to do is become reliable, which is why Gillespie was probably the best hire for one of the offensive coordinator positions.

Moving on to Dean, the other offensive coordinator. Dean was a successful Division II head coach at Valdosta State winning two National Championships and compiling a 79-27 record.

Last year, Blazers starting quarterback E.J. Hilliard  passed for 2,425 yards with 22 touchdowns, while running back Cedric O’Neal rushed for 1,069 with 17 touchdowns. Stats like that were the norm at Valdosta State under Dean.

The combination of Gillespie and Dean shows that Summers and Georgia Southern are serious about improving the Eagles passing game. But they aren’t doing so at the expense of the option. Ellison’s first job will still be to create plays on the ground. The offense will continue to revolve around Matt Breida and L.A. Ramsby.

But the Eagles needs to be able to rely on their passing game if they want to be a consistent threat in the Sun Belt. Look no further than the Eagles biggest rival, Appalachian State.

The Mountaineers also run the spread option, but they have the ability to pass the ball. Their starting quarterback Taylor Lamb completed 170 of 283 pass attempts for 2,387 yards and 31 touchdowns with just nine interceptions. Lamb also had 436 rushing yards with five touchdowns.

With a strong running game and a reliable passing game, Appalachian State went 11-2 and 14-point loss to Arkansas State denied the Mountaineers of the conference title.

Meanwhile the Eagles were kept from winning the conference title by a 31-13 loss to the Mountaineers and a 34-7 loss to Georgia State. A reliable passing game could have kept them competitive into the fourth quarter.

But the Eagles aren’t striving for that kind of balance yet, they tore through the rest of their conference schedule with ease and should do so again in 2016. But they have to deal with Arkansas State, Appalachian State, Georgia State and Louisiana-Lafayette this year.

If Ellison makes the necessary strides under Gillespie’s tutelage, the Eagles will be nearly impossible to stop. It’s bad enough to deal with a team that can surpass 4,000 yards on the ground, but if they can effectively pass the ball that will add a dimension their offense lacked previously.

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