STATESBORO -- A week later the pain and disappointment still lingers, but Georgia Southern head coach Jeff Monken isn’t in panic mode.
For the second straight year, the Eagles came up a semifinal loser in the FCS playoffs as they lost to North Dakota State 35-7 at the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D.
Despite the loss, the back-to-back semifinal appearances represent a giant leap forward for a program that had gone five years without a playoff appearance while going 21-23.
In two years under Monken, the Eagles are 21-8. This year’s team won the first Southern Conference championship for the program since 2004 and its first outright title since 2002.
“We have had an opportunity to go to the Final Four two seasons in a row,” Monken said. “That says a lot about a great group of kids who were motivated and put forth the effort, time and commitment to be a championship team.
“We were the only team from last year’s Final Four to make it back (to the playoffs) this year. I’m just so disappointed for the kids we couldn’t get past that game last year and again this year.
“We were so close to playing for a championship; it’s a sense of disappointment. It’s extremely difficult to make it to the Final Four and the championship game. We’ve got to find a way to do that because those are the expectations at Georgia Southern.”
If the Eagles find their way to the championship game next year, they will do it without some of their top players from the past two seasons.
Notable among the missing next year will be quarterback Jaybo Shaw, cornerback Laron Scott, offensive linemen William Maxwell, Brett Moore and Brandavious Mann, defensive end John Douglas and A-back Nico Hickey, all of whom were among the team’s leaders. And, the Eagles also lose their entire kicking unit, as place-kicker Adrian Mora, punter Charlie Edwards, long snapper Carter Jones and kickoff specialist Billy Greer have used up their eligibility.
“Leadership is more difficult to replace than talent,” Monken said. “You can go out and recruit talent, but the leadership part, you don’t know what a guy will grow up to be as a junior or senior.”
Nose tackle Brent Russell and linebackers Darious Eubanks and Josh Rowe are defensive players Monken will be looking at to step up and assume leadership roles.
On the offensive side of the ball, slotback J.J. Wilcox, wide receiver Johnathan Bryant and offensive lineman Blake DeBartola are rising seniors who will be looking to make their mark.
Spring practice promises to be interesting as Ezayi Youyoute, Jerick McKinnon and Prince McJunkin, who was redshirted this year, will be battling to replace Shaw.
McKinnon began the season as the backup, but he wound up playing slotback and started the three playoff games at defensive back. McKinnon demonstrated his athleticism and versatility by throwing a touchdown, catching a touchdown pass and scoring on a running play.
True freshman Dominique Swope, who started the final five games of the season, ran for 1,023 yards and has the starting fullback position nailed down. He replaced Robert Brown, who gained 1,004 yards last year as a true freshman and had 937 yards this season.
Brown, a Westside product, was moved to A-back at the start of the playoffs and will remain there. Monken made a bold prediction concerning Brown’s future.
“I think he can be the best A-back to ever play the position,” Monken said. “He’s that talented.
“He’s got great hands and feet. He’s a natural for it. He was a great B-back, and he could go back and play it, but it’s hard to argue with what Swope did.
“Robert can be dynamite out there at slotback, running and catching the ball on the sweep. It’s not a position easy to learn in a short time. He had two weeks to learn it, but he couldn’t run all the plays. That’s not enough time to learn the schemes, blocking rules and nuances of the position. I’m excited for him.”
Brown gave a glimpse of his potential when he ran for 84 yards on four carries against Old Dominion, and he had two carries for 20 yards against Maine.
Brown was limited in the playoffs, Monken said, by a sprained back that never truly loosened up. He did not carry the ball at North Dakota State.
All but four players in last year’s recruiting class were redshirted this season, and that crop, along with the returnees and what the next recruit class brings in has the Eagles in excellent position to repeat the success of the past two seasons.
Georgia Southern opens the season Sept. 1 when it hosts Jacksonville. In addition to the conference schedule, the Eagles have a non-conference home game with Howard and ends the regular season Nov. 17 at Georgia.