College Football Preview: Georgia State

Breaking down an important year for a program hoping to continue its rise

Georgia State lines up during a preseason scrimmage as the Panthers prepare for the program’s seventh season and fourth in Football Bowl Subdivision. Photo courtesy of GSU Sports Communications

Georgia State University is entering its seventh season of college football with a lot of momentum. The Panthers started the year 2–6 in 2015 after winning just one game in coach Trent Miles’ first two seasons. But something clicked for Georgia State down the stretch as the Panthers rattled off four consecutive victories, culminating with a 34–7 dismantling of the Georgia Southern Eagles in Statesboro.

Chris Hillyard sits down for a podcast with Georgia State football coach Trent Miles during preseason camp.

That victory made Georgia State bowl eligible for the first time in school history in just its third season of Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) play. Though the Panthers fell to San Jose State in the Cure Bowl in Orlando on Dec. 19, they will be looking to continue the progress they made in the month of November on into the 2016 season.

Here’s how the Panthers are shaping up as they prepare for the opener against Ball State on Friday at 7 p.m.

Offense

The primary task facing the Georgia State offense is replacing starting quarterback Nick Arbuckle, who rewrote the Georgia State and Sun Belt Conference record books in 2015 while throwing for 4,368 yards and 28 touchdowns. Connor Manning, a redshirt junior graduate transfer from Utah, is the leader in the clubhouse to take over the starting role, but has been battling throughout fall camp with redshirt sophomore Emiere Scaife and redshirt freshman Aaron Winchester.

Aaron Winchester (11) and Connor Manning (7) have been battling for the starting quarterback position throughout the spring and fall camps. Georgia State must replace Nick Arbuckle, who broke the Sun Belt Conference record with 4,368 yards in 2015. Photo courtesy of GSU Sports Communications.

Manning threw for over 9,000 yards at El Toro High School in southern Calif., second in state history only to former Southern Cal signal caller Matt Barkley, but played in just two games in a reserve role in three years at Utah. Winchester also has received significant reps with the first team offenses. The local product from Mt. Pisgah Christian School was discovered at a Trent Miles Football Camp and was an under-the-radar recruit, with Georgia State being his only offer despite being a first team all-state selection his senior year.

One thing the Panthers will not lack is plenty of weapons for either quarterback to throw to. Sophomore Penny Hart—another local product from Kings Ridge Christian School who had only one offer coming out of high school — burst onto the scene in 2015 with 71 receptions for 1,099 yards and eight touchdowns. He earned Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors and was named a first team freshman all-american by the Football Writers Association of America and 247sports.com.

Playing opposite Hart is senior Robert Davis, who has a chance to break several Georgia State records this season. He needs just 21 receptions and 768 yards to break the career marks in each of those categories, numbers which he easily surpassed in 2015 as he reeled in 61 catches for 980 yards.

Georgia State wide receiver Robert Davis could end the year as one of the Panthers’ most productive players in the program’s short history. Photo courtesy of GSU Sports Communications.

The Panthers third option at receiver this season is junior Todd Boyd, who caught 25 passes for 296 yards last season. Georgia State also signed one of its deepest and most talented wide receiver classes in its history in February as Bryson Duckworth, Eric Elder, Devin Gentry, Jonathan Ifedi and Jawan Nobles all look to contribute right away. Nobles was a track star at Campbell High School in Smyrna and could be a threat in the return game immediately, while Duckworth and Elder are each from metro schools as well in Drew (Riverdale) and Stephenson (Stone Mountain) High Schools, respectively.

The Panthers have a very talented tight end returning as well in senior Keith Rucker, who caught 39 passes for 522 yards and six touchdowns in 2015 on his way to a second team all-conference selection. Rucker missed the San Jose State game due to injury and was replaced by sophomore Ari Werts, who caught five passes for 84 yards and looks to play a much more prominent role in 2016.

Georgia State has never had a running back run for more than 750 yards in a season and that trend will likely look to continue in 2016. Either through injury or lack of production, four different tailbacks started games in 2015 for the Panthers. Junior Kyler Neal and Glenn Smith and redshirt sophomore Demarcus Kirk combined to run for 1,040 yards and 8 touchdowns, with no back eclipsing 400 yards on his own.

That trio will be joined by juniors Taz Bateman and Kendrick Dorn, who each sustained a significant injury in 2015, and freshmen Tra Barnett and Darius Stubbs. It will likely again be running back by committee as the Panthers look to feed the hot hand.

Up front the Panthers will likely be as strong as they have been in their short history. Redshirt freshman Hunter Atkinson, a converted tight end who originally enrolled at Georgia before transferring to Georgia State, has won the job at left tackle, allowing the behemoth Mike Ivory (6–5, 350 pounds) to slide into left guard and replace the graduated Taylor Evans. Sophomore Gabe Mobley started all 13 games at center for the Panthers in 2015, as did junior right guard Alex Stoehr. The Panthers will look to junior Sebastian Willer at right tackle, who started four games at left tackle in 2015.

Providing depth will be redshirt junior Davis Moore who has several starts to his credit, as well as seniors Dom Roldan and Tyler Simonsen and freshmen Shamarious Gillmore and Nick Meyer.

Defense

Georgia State has never been as experienced on the defensive side of the ball as they will be in 2016 as 19 of 22 players from last season’s two-deep depth chart return. The Panthers took a monumental leap forward in 2015 on the defensive side of the ball, going from allowing 43.3 points per game in 2014 to 28.3 points per game a year ago. The turnaround was even more pronounced during the four game win streak to end the season as GSU held its opponents to just 14.25 points per game.

Georgia State defensive coordinator Jesse Minter led a dramatic turnaround for the Panthers in 2015. The Panthers were the most improved defense against the run in all of FBS against the run from 2014 to 2015. Photo courtesy of GSU Sports Communications.

The Panthers allowed 303 yards per game on the ground in 2014, then cut that number to 181 yards per game a year ago, which was the largest positive difference from one season to the next in all of FBS.

Among the plethora of experienced players back along the defensive line are three returning starters in junior defensive end Mackendy Cheridory, senior defensive tackle Shawayne Lawrence and senior nose guard Jalen Lawrence. Junior nose guard Julien Laurent and senior defensive end Tevin Jones have also started games for the Panthers.

Being added to the mix in 2016 is senior rush end/outside linebacker Andrew Everett, who started 26 games at Old Dominion before transferring to GSU last fall.

One of the few holes the Panthers must fill is that of the program’s career leading tackler, Joseph Peterson, who started more than 40 games for the Panthers in his four seasons and made 381 career tackles. Former UAB transfer Alonzo McGee started at outside linebacker for the Panthers in 2015 and the senior will slide into Peterson’s spot this year.

Linebacker Joseph Peterson’s name will be in the Georgia State record books for a very long time. The Panthers will look to replace the program’s career leading tackler in 2016. Photo courtesy of GSU Sports Communications.

The Panthers also return three other linebackers who have started games at GSU in former Michigan signee Kaleb Ringer, sophomores Chase Middleton and Michael Shaw. Junior Trey Payne is a fourth that has starting experience, but is suspended indefinitely.

In the secondary Georgia State returns three more starters including both cornerbacks, junior Chandon Sullivan and redshirt sophomore Jerome Smith. Former UAB transfer Bobby Baker was named to the All-Sun Belt Newcomer team a year ago and is back at strong safety, while seniors Cloves Campbell and Bobby Baker will split time at free safety.

Two freshmen that will look to contribute right away on defense are defensive back Cedric Stone, who became Georgia State’s first early enrollee in January, and linebacker Charlie Patrick.

Special Teams

The Panthers have a very large void in the kicking department left by the departure of Will Lutz, who handled both the kicking and punting duties in 2015. Rogier ten Lohuis is a former soccer star originally from Amsterdam and Barry Brown is a freshman from Dublin (the Georgia one). Those two will continue to compete for the place kicking duties into the season, while redshirt freshman Brandon Wright will handle the punting duties.

Dorn, Hart and Smith are listed as the team’s return specialists, while Nobles is expected to get a shot there as well.

The schedule

The Panthers quest to earning a second consecutive bowl bid breaks down into three pretty distinct sections. The first three games will be a gauntlet as the Panthers open against Ball State, but then head on the road to face Air Force and Wisconsin in consecutive weeks. After a bye, the Panthers then go on the road again to face Appalachian State, which has beaten Georgia State by a combined score of 81–3 in the programs’ first two meetings.

Georgia State head coach Trent Miles talks to longtime Atlanta sports caster Sam Crenshaw as the Panthers head into halftime. The Panthers will play their final season in the dome in 2016 before moving into the newly acquired Turner Field property in 2017. Photo courtesy of GSU Sports Communications.

From there the schedule gets significantly more manageable. The Panthers will play in the Georgia Dome for the first time since Friday’s opener when they host Texas State on Oct. 8. A road game at Troy is followed by homecoming against FCS opponent UT-Martin. The Panthers end October in Mobile against South Alabama. All four teams had a losing record in 2015 and the Panthers will likely be favored in each game.

The final four games feature a few more tough games, but three of them will be at home. Georgia State will host Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe and Georgia Southern in consecutive weeks before ending the season with a very long trek out to Idaho.

Keys to success

  1. Take the next step

Georgia State recently released a hype video with the theme “Take the next step”. This statement could not be more indicative of where the program currently stands. The Panthers ended the year with a ton of momentum, but have they truly turned a corner under fourth-year head coach Trent Miles, or did they catch lightning in a bottle in November?

2. Find balance on offense

The one thing that has repeatedly plagued Georgia State more than anything throughout its short existence is the lack of a productive rushing attack. Georgia State doesn’t have a true bell cow running back that it will hand the ball to 20 times a game, but they need to be able to find success on the ground to take pressure off of a first-year starter (whoever that may be) and prevent defenses from flooding the passing lanes with extra bodies.

3. Make more impact plays on defense

The Panthers improved greatly in 2015 in terms of limiting opposing teams’ production, but continued to rank in the bottom half of the conference in sacks and turnover margin. Georgia State’s record for sacks in a season remains the five Christo Bilukidi recorded in the Panthers’ first season of existence. Tarris Batiste set the school record for interceptions in a season with four in 2014. Georgia State needs to have players eclipse those marks to truly take the next step as a defense.

Thanks for checking out our Georgia State Panthers football preview. Keep coming back throughout the season for analysis of Atlanta’s youngest FBS football program.