After stepping in for Steve Spurrier at South Carolina following his retirement, Shawn Elliott will get a chance to mold the Georgia State program. The Panthers went just 3-9 last season and will be adjusting to a new offense. Elliott inherits 15 returning starters and his best offensive weapon could be a player who missed last season because of injury. However, he will likely lean on a defense that should be solid in the secondary and serviceable up front in hopes of improving upon last season’s win total while making a little noise in the Sun Belt.
Previewing Georgia State Football’s Offense for 2017
Though Georgia State is committed to running a one-back spread system under new coach Shawn Elliott, the longtime offensive line coach knows that winning up front will be the biggest key to whether he can succeed in the Sun Belt over the long haul. “With our location, we think we can go recruit skill positions in this area and get talent fairly easily,” Elliott says. “But we’re going to have to build it from the center out.”
Elliott inherits four starters returning on the offensive line, leading rusher Kyler Neal and receiver Penny Hart, who was one of the league’s most dynamic playmakers as a freshman in 2015 (71 catches, 1,099 yards) but redshirted last season due to a broken foot. Still, the Panthers averaged just 19.9 points last season and were 10th in the Sun Belt in total offense, so Elliott is looking to establish a primary running back, likely Neal, and get better play at quarterback. That could come from senior Conner Manning, who returns off a year when he threw for 2,684 yards and 16 touchdowns, or someone with more mobility like sophomore Aaron Winchester, who ran for 139 yards in his two starts last season.
“We want to make teams defend all 11 players,” Elliott says.
Previewing Georgia State Football’s Defense for 2017
Despite the Panthers taking a major step back to 3–9 last year, the defense was solid enough to keep them in a lot of games. That should continue, as the previous staff left Elliott with experience in the secondary and a few potential difference makers up front. “We’re going to be a three-man front and have the ability to mix it up a little bit with some pressure packages,” Elliott says. “We feel like we have good personnel. If we can get some pressure on the quarterback, I think we’ll be OK.”
In a league with so many wide-open offenses, it’s a huge advantage to have a cornerback tandem of Chandon Sullivan and Jerome Smith, who were crucial in Georgia State’s not allowing a single play of more than 50 yards last season. Sixth-year senior Bryan Williams has also been good at safety when healthy, enhancing a defensive core that gives the Panthers a lot of comfort as they build depth through better recruiting.
Though the Panthers lose two-time All-Sun Belt defensive end Shawanye Lawrence, three-year starter Mackendy Cheridor should anchor the pass rush (7.5 career sacks), and there’s decent linebacker speed with Michael Shaw, who had 12 tackles for a loss last season.
Previewing Georgia State’s Specialists for 2017
Kicking is a significant area of concern, as the Panthers will choose between two placekickers coming off redshirt years or else have punter Brandon Wright handle both duties. Georgia State also struggled in coverage and got very few big plays from returns last year, so Elliott will be heavily involved in revamping the special teams “from top to bottom,” a process that will continue through fall camp.
Elliott is the third head coach since Georgia State started its program in 2010, but he’s in the best position to enjoy some success. Not only are the Panthers moving into their own stadium, a renovation of the Atlanta Braves’ former home, but other facilities have also been upgraded to Sun Belt level. Plus, Elliott has experience recruiting in the area, having spent the last seven years at South Carolina, and he knows the importance of connecting the program to local high schools.
Though the talent level should improve quickly, his first team should be good enough defensively to crack the top half of the conference if he can find an upgrade at quarterback. If not, every week will be a struggle to put points on the board.
National Ranking: 121
Sun Belt Prediction: 9
(Penny Hart photo courtesy of Georgia State Athletics)