STATESBORO — Shai Werts came into the makeshift postgame press conference in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with his jersey rolled up, a Powerade towel draped over his shoulders and a cigar in his mouth.
He was smiling.
After the trials and tribulations that went beyond a typical four-year college football career, Werts was a short press conference away from a celebration in New Orleans following his 25th victory as the starting quarterback for Georgia Southern.
“Heck of a year,” the redshirt-senior quarterback said after the 38-3 domination of Louisiana Tech on Wednesday. “Heck of a year with the COVID situation, social injustice. It’s been a long year, but we stuck together and we finished the right way. That’s all that matters.”
The 2020 GS football season was one that saw the highs and lows of college football and humanity beginning in July, capped by head coach Chad Lunsford hoisting the New Orleans Bowl trophy and still continues as seniors make decisions on what is next for their personal and athletic careers.
Most games in college football
With less than a month until the college football season was scheduled to kick off, GS was forced to pause practices due to COVID-19 and contact tracing. The program got it under control and the season-opening game against Campbell on Sept. 12 was on.
The Eagles weren't close to full strength as 33 players were on the inactive list against the Camels for various reasons, including contact tracing, injuries and suspensions. GS was able to outlast CU for its first of eight victories this season.
From that game on, the Eagles had little to no problems with contact tracing or COVID and were one of just two teams to play 12 regular-season games. The other team was Texas State, which went 2-10 on the year.
Regardless of the record, the feat of playing 13 games during a pandemic and keeping the players and staff safe is to be commended.
“For these parents to send their guys back and trust us with them to make sure that we were going to keep them safe and also support them in things that are going on in the outside world that are tough and hard,” Lunsford said after the bowl win. “When you have a pandemic and then you have social injustice come to light the way it did, you really have to work hard to get your culture back and work hard to get the trust back. That’s nobody's fault at all. It is what it is.”
Werts seals legacy
Beginning with a comeback-victory performance against Campbell, Werts did his best all season to put his team in position to win.
He did it with his legs, his arm and his voice on the sidelines.
Sidelined by an shoulder injurty for the last two regular-season games, Werts was seen handing out waters and talking with the offense.
With two weeks to rest his shoulder, which Werts revealed had been injured since the season opener, on Wednesday the quarterback led his team out for warmups — to the welcomed surprise of the coaching staff.
“You’re only as good as your last game, so if this is my last game I feel good about it,” Werts said after his bowl-winning performance, accounting for 197 yards and four touchdowns. “It’s been a journey and I’m trying not to cry. It’s been a long journey, man, and I’m just happy it ended the way it did. I don’t really know what’s next. I’m trying to enjoy the moment. It definitely feels good to go out on top with my guys.”
It was a storybook night. Similar to his Camellia Bowl performance two years ago.
These heroic moments from the quarterback from South Carolina have defined his four-year career.
Werts holds records aplenty for GS and the Sun Belt and has been a Statesboro icon since that 2018 season.
“He’s been here through the ups and downs,” Lunsford said. “He’s battled adversity off the field and battled adversity on the field. Just for him to come in and step up for his brothers today and lead us to a bowl victory is just another thing to add to his legacy here at Georgia Southern.”
3 of the losses don’t look as bad
The cancellation of the Boise State game and restructuring of the schedule worked against the Eagles, who faced the two eventual Sun Belt co-champions on the road within the first five games of the schedule.
The two-point loss to Louisiana, which ended the year 10-1, and the fourth-quarter meltdown against Coastal Carolina, 11-1 after a Cure Bowl loss to Liberty, are excusable. Though the losses essentially took the Eagles out of the SBC title hunt, they came against two teams that should finish the season ranked in the top 15.
GS (then 6-2) headed to West Point, New York, where the Eagles led the Army Black Knights nearly the entire game. The home team regained the lead, and a time management debacle sent the Eagles home with their third loss of the season.
They followed that up by blowing a double-digit fourth quarter lead in Atlanta against Georgia State.
Those two losses toward the end of the regular season were harder to excuse.
The final loss of 2020 came against Appalachian State, which was fired up after back-to-back losses to its rival the last two years. The Eagles were also forced to use their fourth string quarterback, Miller Mosley, for the entire second half.
Johnson the first of Cabral’s disciples
Shortly after the New Orleans Bowl went final, true senior defensive end Raymond Johnson III tweeted that he would forego his extra season of eligibility and enter the 2021 NFL draft.
Johnson is the first GS defensive lineman in a while who could find his way onto an NFL roster after a season with 38 tackles and five sacks to earn All-Sun Belt first-team honors.
The defensive lineman’s success is a positive sign for his position coach Victor Cabral, who just finished up his third season in the current role. Cabral should return the rest of his defensive line in 2021, led by nose tackle C.J. Wright and defensive ends Justin Ellis and Dillon Springer.
NCAA-best in turnovers, most contributors returningIn the season finale against Louisiana Tech, the GS defense came away with four turnovers, all interceptions. The Eagles finished with 18 interceptions on the season, the best in the country.
Add eight fumbles recovered, GS totaled an FBS-best 26 turnovers gained. This comes two years after the Eagles set the FBS record for best turnover margin (+22).
Of those who recorded 26 turnovers, the Eagles will return all but Rashad Byrd’s three, Johnson’s fumble recovery and Reynard Ellis’ interception.
“(Turnovers) are definitely one of the big things in our defensive identity,” said junior defensive back Justin Birdsong, who had two picks in the bowl game. “We always emphasize getting extra turnovers in practice, going for the ball, punching the ball out, going for picks and not being satisfied. We had a slow start. But coach (Scot) Sloan and the whole defense really honed in on looking to do the best that we could as a defense.”
Filling coaching duties
Firing offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse was Lunsford’s first public termination since he officially became head coach in December 2017. Under interim offensive coordinator Doug Ruse, the Eagles went 2-1, averaged 28 points and 385.3 total yards per game.
“I think Doug Ruse is definitely a worthy candidate,” Lunsford said in New Orleans on Wednesday evening. “I know what he’s about. I know what he did when he was an assistant coach here. I thought he did a really good job in a tough situation taking over in these last three games. He brought a new energy to the offense.”
Saturday, Ruse’s interim tag was removed. Ruse was offensive coordinator for GS in 2014 and 2015.
With the OC job filled and Carter Barfield now coaching the tight ends, the only staff opening is special teams coordinator. Prior to taking over as head coach, Lunsford filled this role.
Whomever Lunsford and the administration hire will have a lot to work with, but also includes pressure. Placekickers Alex Raynor and Dylan Lewis will be back for their sophomore campaigns with highly touted Britton Williams (Richmond Hill High Schoool graduate) coming in to compete for the starting kicker role.
Punter Anthony Beck II will be a junior and gunner Najee Thompson will be a senior. Punt returner Khaleb Hood was only a sophomore this season.
Early expectations for 2021
With running back J.D. King, offensive lineman Aaron Dowdell, defensive back Darrell Baker Jr. and linebacker Todd Bradley-Glenn all announcing this week they’ll be returning for the 2021 season, it’s easy to be excited about GS’ potential for next season.
Add in the underclassmen who now have a full season of college football under their belt, several recruits that should have immediate impact and the aforementioned players, the Eagles could be one of the deepest teams in the Sun Belt.
GS is scheduled to host BYU and Gardner-Webb and then travel to Arkansas and FAU for non-conference games. They’ll have Coastal Carolina, Georgia State and Louisiana at home, which is very favorable with GS having one of the best home-field advantages in a normal year.
By completing the 2020 campaign with a near-perfect outing from the Eagles, Lunsford is pumped.
“This was a great way to end 2020 and a great way to start 2021 because we started and finished the game,” Lunsford said. “There was no point tonight where I was like ‘these guys are relaxing.’ It was never good enough and they just wanted to keep going. You saw it right there at the end, making the tackle right before the guy gets into the end zone. We were able to get him down before he got in and saved a touchdown.”