By: Reno Del Toro | May 20, 2019
At rank 115, we have the Georgia State Panthers.
In 2017, Georgia State won seven game and went to a bowl game in which they won. Then in 2018, they took a step backwards and boy they did not look good. GSU was expected to take a step backward in 2018. Instead, the Panthers took about three. They won only two games last year, and both sides of the bad struggled very bad.
GSU was 75th in defense in 2017 and returned a number of playmakers. But while the Panthers rendered opposing run games inefficient at times, the secondary got nuked. The three key returnees missed a combined 13 games, five true and redshirt freshmen got significant playing time, and GSU ended up 126th in passing and 127th overall on defense.
The Panthers ended up finding more offensive answers than expected and now return more of last year’s defensive production than I anticipated. And after signing the No. 3 class in the Sun Belt in 2018, the Panthers landed the fifth in 2019 despite the awful season.
Of the 19 defenders with at least 10 tackles in 2018, 15 return, as do last year’s starting quarterback, top three rushers, all but one receiver, and five offensive linemen with starting experience. The Panthers might start as few as seven seniors this year, and there are three-star freshmen and sophomores in every unit.
Now they do have to play teams that will give them trouble. GSU has to play at Tennessee and Western Michigan in non-conference play, and four of six home games (Army in non-con, plus App State, Troy, and Arkansas State) will be tall tasks. They still have a lot of potential even though they struggled last season in a shocker.
Dan Ellington will be the starting quarterback for the Panthers. He finished with 2,119 passing yards and 764 non-sack rushing yards (5.6 per carry), and for all of its other issues, GSU could run the damn ball: the Panthers finished 107th in Passing S&P but 43rd in Rushing S&P+ with Ellington leading the team on the ground.
This team needs to run the football and they have proven that they are really good at it. First 4 games — Yards per play: 4.9 | Points per game: 17 | Average percentile performance: 15 percent. Next 6 games — Yards per play: 6.1 | Points per game: 33 | Average percentile performance: 56 percent. Last 2 games — Yards per play: 4.9 | Points per game: 16 | Average percentile performance: 36 percent. They fell apart the last two games, but they were exciting running the football last season.
The running back group will be very explosive, and this team should be excited. Sophomore running back Seth Paige was instrumental in GSU’s midseason eruption — he had 42 carries for 270 yards (6.4 per carry) during the six good games — and he’s joined not only by others from last year’s rotation (senior Tra Barnett and sophomore Destin Coates) but also by a few youngsters who could threaten for more playing time. Sophomore Tucker Gregg, redshirt freshman Dawson Hill, and former three-star junior Darius Stubbs averaged 6.7 yards per carry in limited opportunities. The sky is the limit for this group of running backs.
On top of all of it, the offensive line will return from last season. Left tackle Hunter Atkinson and left guard Shamarious Gilmore have combined for 60 career starts, and both earned all-conference votes last year. Three returning sophomores also combined for 19 more starts in 2018. The group of receivers will remain the same as well. Things should be good for this offense coming into the 2019 season and hopefully they can find the mojo that worked out in 2017.
Georgia State basically did one thing well defensively last year: they hemmed in your run game most of the time. The Panthers ranked 30th in rushing marginal efficiency and 49th in opportunity rate (percentage of non-sack carries gaining at least four yards). That resulted in pretty good red zone defense, too — they were 36th in success rate between their 11 and 20, 21st inside the 10, and 38th on first-and-goal.
So, then what is the problem with this defense? Well it is everything else.
GSU was 129th in rushing marginal explosiveness, which measures the magnitude of your successful plays. The Panthers had maybe the most all-or-nothing run defense in FBS. They were also 129th in passing marginal efficiency and 130th in completion rate allowed. (Here’s your reminder that there are only 130 FBS teams.) Your quarterback was going to have a nice, clean pocket, too: they were 116th in sack rate and 130th in blitz downs sack rate. These stats are a defensive coordinators worse nightmare.
But, if you look at the defense last season, you can see the youth movement happening all over this defense in every section of this team. The team ended up starting three freshmen in the secondary, after all, and in all, eight freshmen and seven sophomores ended up with at least 5.5 tackles. That’s a recipe for struggle.
Most of the reasons for the efficient run defense are back, though. That includes the foursome of end Terry Thomas, nose tackle Dontae Wilson, and inside linebackers Ed Curney and Trajan Stephens-McQueen. No one stood out from a disruption standpoint, but they pursued the ball pretty well. And not having freshman safeties will help from a big-play perspective.
Experience is the good part that happened for this team last season. GSU’s secondary will be infinitely more experienced. Senior safety Remy Lazarus is back and full-strength, and as far as I can tell, so is cornerback Cedric Stone. He played a pivotal role in the win over Kennesaw State but missed the last nine games of the year.
Add those two to the legion of sophomores — corners Jaylon Jones, Quavian White, and Tyler Gore; safeties Chris Bacon and Jacorey Crawford — and maybe you get somewhere. These are all great signs for a defense that struggled and I’m excited to see how great this team plays next season.
Were last year’s struggles in pass defense the product of growing pains or a lack of talent? In my opinion, I see all of these problems getting resolved this season. The run defense should be efficient again, and the offense should be exciting, but if you can’t defend the pass, even a little bit, nothing else really matters.
As I mentioned earlier, the schedule will be pretty hard for this team. GSU has to go on the road to face three of its more beatable Sun Belt opponents (Texas State, Coastal Carolina, ULM) and hosts three of its less beatable ones.
This team will improve a lot both in the talent category and win column. Plus, quite a few of the best players on the team will be sophomores, and, QB aside, almost everyone will return in 2020. With better recruiting after this season and with the same players returning, I see a very bright future for the Georgia State Panthers.
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