So far in his head coaching career, Willie Fritz has taken over three programs and turned them into national contenders within their division.
Tuesday, when spring camp opened for Georgia Southern at Beautiful Eagle Creek, it’s a brand new challenge. The Eagles and their first-year coach will be preparing for GSU’s first season as a Football Bowl Subdivision program.
“It’s a challenge for all of us. We’ve got I-AA players and a I-AA coach getting ready to play (FBS) football,” Fritz said. “That’s the challenge for us, and it’s a different challenge than what I’ve faced.”
The Eagles (7-4, 4-4 Southern Conference in 2013) will be learning new concepts in the spread-option run game, a much more complex passing attack, and a few new concepts on defense and special teams.
For how though, the biggest challenge is learning a new way of practicing.
Fritz expects it to be disorganized at first. Very disorganized. And because spring camp is open to the public, he expects it to be obvious.
“I told everybody who’s coming out, ‘Wait until next week,’” Fritz laughed, “but nobody’s listening to me.”
The Eagles will have 15 practice sessions, including the annual Blue/White game on April 12, at Paulson Stadium, and Fritz will limit the contact. A rash of injuries took over the 2013 GSU team and six players — Logan Daves, Rafael Hardee, Lennie Richardson, Deion Stanley, Loy Waters and Ezayi Youyoute — will sit out of spring camp while they recover from lingering injuries.
“You want to leave spring football as healthy as possible,” Fritz said. “Part of it is learning how to practice and stay on your feet. It’s what I’m used to and it’s probably going to be quite a bit different for these guys.”
The Eagles are accustomed to frequent full-contact drills and scrimmages throughout camps and during the season.
“There are a lot of different ways to skin a cat, and we do things a little differently,” Fritz said. “A majority of football injuries occur with body-to-ground contact. We’re going to try to take the ground out of the equation in 12 out of the 15 practices.”
Fritz said most of the players will play the same positions as last season with a few exceptions.
Linebacker Quaun Daniels, moves to defensive end, and 6-foot-2, 244-pound back Nardo Govan will move to tight end.
Two transfers — wide receiver Derek Keaton and running back Ken Thomas — and early enrolee offensive lineman Ryan Northrup enrolled in January and will participate in spring camp.
All eyes, as usual, will be on the quarterback position, where rising sophomore Kevin Ellison, who split starts with Jerick McKinnon in 2013, will remain at the top of the depth chart. All four quarterbacks — Ellison and sophomores Vegas Harley, Alfred Ramsby and Favian Upshaw — will get plenty of time to show what they are capable of doing.
“We’ll kind of go in the same pecking order they were in last year. We’re going to give those guys as many reps as we can to evaluate them,” Fritz said. “I think we’ve got some good athletes there, and if one of those guys becomes the number four quarterback and we feel like he can help us someplace else, we’ll probably move him.”
Fritz hopes to have “70 or 80 percent of our packages” in by the end of spring camp.
The most important goal, Fritz said, is making sure the team understands how much more challenging the 2014 schedule will be for the upstart FBS program.
“When you look at the grand scheme of things, Georgia Southern went 4-4 last year in the Southern Conference,” Fritz said. “We’re going to have to play a lot better than that on a consistent basis. That’s what I’ve challenged the guys with. What team are we going to be? The team that beat Florida or the team that was 4-4 in the Southern Conference?”