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Eagles look to soar
Georgia Southern football coach Jeff Monken has high expectations in 2011 as the Eagles come off a 10-5 campaign in 2010 that included a run to the FCS semifinals. - photo by Phgoto by Patty Leon

Lofty expectations are nothing new for the Georgia Southern Eagles. But after four seasons without a playoff appearance — and three head coaches since that loss to Texas State in 2005 — the Eagles’ return to the Football Championship Subdivision postseason has some thinking big things in Jeff Monken’s second year.
Athlon’s preseason magazine has tabbed the Eagles as No. 1 in FCS, on the heels of the Eagles’ national semifinals finish in 2010. Lindy’s has put the Eagles at No. 3 in the preseason, and Sporting News has Southern at No. 6 in the preseason. The Eagles, absent from the polls for nearly two seasons after falling out of the rankings midway through 2008, reached the semis for the first time in eight years before falling to Delaware.
Yet second-year head coach Jeff Monken also recalls how the same preseason publications made the Eagles an afterthought at best a year ago.
“I don’t think the expectations from the coaching staff were any different last year than they will be this year,” Monken said. ‘The same publications that have us ranked really high this year had us ranked eighth in the conference last year. We didn’t win anything last year — we didn’t win a championship. We don’t have any championship rings from our conference or from the playoffs.”
Georgia Southern finished 10-5 in 2010, the first season with at least 10 wins for the Eagles since 2002. Monken doesn’t want his players to rest on June laurels.
“There’s still a lot for this team to accomplish,” he said. “It’s where you’re ranked at the end that’s the most important. I hope our guys won’t read into that and feel like they’ve already accomplished what they need to do.”
It may not be just how the Eagles finished last season that has the prospect of a return to its heyday looming. Georgia Southern was 4-4 and trailing then top-ranked Appalachian State, 14-0, early in the first quarter before pulling out a 21-14 overtime win, the first of six straight victories.
The Eagles return all 11 offensive starters and nine starters on defense, including All-American defensive tackle Brent Russell, lovingly and respectfully referred to among the fanbase as “Manbearpig,” thanks to the “South Park” cartoon.
“I don’t know what that means for our football team,” Monken said of the number of returning starters. “I don’t know if that means we’re going to have a team that can win 10 games again. But we certainly feel like that as a staff we have a nucleus of players that will give us an opportunity to at least be in the hunt for a conference championship. You just never know.”
Quarterback Jaybo Shaw accounted for 1,747 yards of offense and 21 touchdowns, and J.J. Wilcox ran for 484 yards and six scores and had 551 yards and three TDs receiving. True freshman Robert Brown led the Eagles with 1,004 yards rushing and speedster Jonathan Bryant, who was injured in the season opener and missed the remainder of the 2010 campaign, is back at full strength.
The defense, anchored by Russell — who had 18.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks — held opponents to 127 yards rushing per game. Defensive end Josh Gebhardt, linebacker Josh Rowe, cornerback Laron Scott and defensive tackle Roderick Tinsley also earned All-Southern Conference honors a year ago. And like Russell, they’re all back, too.
“I’m going to be anxious to see how our guys do when we start practice in the fall,” Monken said. “I think we have a hard-working team. We don’t have the fastest or the most talented team, for sure. But we have a team that plays hard and plays together. If they do that, we’ll have a chance to have a decent football team.”
The Eagles open the season Sept. 3 at Samford and host Tusculum on Sept. 10 in the home opener. Preseason practices will commence Aug. 4.

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