Just before 4 p.m. on March 8, alongside the banks of Beautiful Eagle Creek, the 2018 edition of the Georgia Southern Eagles strapped on helmets for the first time as they participated in the first of 15 scheduled spring practices.
Following Thursday’s practice, the Eagles will be in a holding pattern as the players celebrate their spring break. Practice resumed on Sunday, with a mostly Monday-Wednesday-Friday practice schedule leading up to the April 14 spring game at Paulson Stadium.
"We wanted to get out there early," GS coach Chad Lunsford said of the single practice before spring break. "By (holding the early practice) I think we can work out a lot of that excitement and energy that builds up. Then there’s a little break, and then we get to it."
Lunsford added that — weather permitting — he also put thought into limited on-field time during the weekends.
"You think about what we ask of these kids from August through December. Their weekends are pretty much shot. So we want to be able to give them a Saturday for themselves and then know that we go back to work during the week."
As is becoming a trend, stories about spring practice will revolve around how the Eagles are adapting to coaching changes. Lunsford - who took over for Tyson Summers midway through the 2017 season - is the Eagles’ fourth head coach in six years. In addition to myriad changes at the position coach ranks, Scot Sloan will be the third Georgia Southern defensive coordinator over the last three seasons while the senior players on the other side of the ball welcome in Bob DeBesse as their fourth offensive coordinator in as many seasons.
"I’m honestly not too worried about anything going into the season," Sloan said. "I’ve seen what we’ve done in the weight room and with those 6 a.m. workouts. We’re just going to continue to build on what we’ve got going and take it on to the field."
On the offensive side, the Eagles continue their search for the right scheme to return to the dominant rushing attack that the entire coaching staff says it wants to return to.
Sophomore Shai Werts enters the spring as the Eagles’ starting quarterback after having up-and-down results as a freshman starter last season. DeBesse comes to Statesboro after guiding New Mexico to several fruitful seasons running a shotgun-based triple option attack reminiscent of the offense run by Georgia Southern during the tenure of Willie Fritz.
"Right now, it’s about building everything from the ground up and doing the little things right," DeBesse said. "We want to protect the ball and eliminate pre-snap penalties. (In Thursday’s first practice) we want to get a play in and get a clean snap off.
"We’ve been discussing X’s and O’s. Our foundation will be the inside zone. The offensive line takes up the first two rows in our meetings because they’re our foundation and whatever we can do starts with them."
As for the head Eagle in charge, there was a clear message of excitement heading into a new season.
Lunsford preached a message of togetherness and getting the right mix of guys when building his staff in the offseason. The same factors were considered when recruiting the newest players that signed in December and February.
Now comes the task of making everything mesh on the field.
"The mindset right now is through the roof and they’re ready to hit the field," Lunsford said. "I’m not too worried about any lull in the spring season. Our guys are thinking about last season and want to improve on it."
Anthony is sports editor for the Statesboro Herald.