Folks keep asking me why Georgia Southern is “changing” its offense. It would appear, they say, that GSU is no longer running the “triple option,” and instead is running the “spread,” because it wants to get ready for the move to the Sun Belt.
It’s a fair question, but when you think about it, Georgia Southern isn’t changing its offense, just tweaking it.
In the season opener against Savannah State, nine different players scored rushing touchdowns from the first string all the way down to the third string. Of the nine, four were fullbacks, two were slotbacks and three were quarterbacks. Now that’s depth.
On Saturday, in a 28-21 win over The Citadel, quarterback Kevin Ellison and QB-slash-running-back Jerick McKinnon were basically the only two players involved in the running game. In fact, they combined for 333 of the Eagles’ 360 rushing yards.
Well, the most obvious reasons for this “huge change” in offensive approach are injuries and disciplinary issues.
The four fullbacks who scored against SSU were Dominique Swope (out for the season), James Dean (out for the season), William Banks (missed Saturday with injury) and Chris Jordan (dismissed from team).
The slotbacks were Torrance Hunt (suspended indefinitely) and Tray Butler, who actually played on Saturday.
The quarterbacks were McKinnon, Ellison and Vegas Harley, and Harley’s lack of snaps indicate that he’s not ready for prime time.
It’s clear that Ellison is a better passer than McKinnon, and certainly is no slouch running the football. It’s also clear that McKinnon is the best running back on the team.
So, if you’re GSU coach Jeff Monken, you have three choices:
1 — Run the under-center option stuff with Ellison at quarterback, McKinnon at fullback and the trio of Butler, Johnathan Bryant and Devin Scott at slotback, or
2 — Get into shotgun with Ellison at QB, McKinnon playing running back, and use your talented group of receivers including B.J. Johnson, Zach Walker, Kentrellis Showers, Montay Crockett and the slotbacks, or finally
3 — Combine the two and run your base offense sparingly, without getting Ellison or McKinnon killed, and mix in plenty of shotgun stuff.
The Eagles went with choice three, and it was good enough to get the win.
“Option purists” remember the good old days of GSU staying under center with a pair of slotbacks and a fullback, and racking up points and yards like it was easy.
On the flip side of the coin, option coaches are always saying that the offense is not a “magic wand.”
And, they’re all right.
Georgia Southern’s system, like every single other offense at every level of football, works when there’s good players who play fundamentally sound football.
When Adrian Peterson is your fullback, and he rushes for a minimum of 100 yards regardless of who you’re playing, you’re going to be successful. The Eagles built the offense around him from 1998-2001.
When Tracy Ham is your quarterback and can make a defense’s head spin on the ground and, yep, through the air, you’re going to be successful. The offense was built around him when the Eagles started playing Division I-AA football.
Those are just two examples. We’ve seen GSU build offenses around Jermaine Austin, Jayson Foster, Raymond Gross and others with varying levels of success, too.
Now, GSU is in a situation where it doesn’t have enough running backs to run the offense it wants to run.
The pieced-together offensive line has struggled at times. The best player on the team is Jerick McKinnon, who is a much better running back than he is a quarterback. Fortunately, Ellison is proving a more than capable quarterback.
So, GSU is doing what it’s always done — building its offense around its best player.
This “shotgun stuff” has been happening in GSU’s option offense since 2011. It’s here to stay, regardless of how many healthy running backs the Eagles have on the sidelines.
Heck, even Paul Johnson has learned that when you don’t have Adrian Peterson (or Jonathan Dwyer) as the first option in the triple option, it’s time for some new tweaks.
And it’s good to know that when injuries plague the GSU running backs and the offensive line, and they don’t have an Adrian Peterson (or a Dominique Swope), the Eagles have more than one bullet in their chamber.