There were many reasons Georgia State’s football team slumped to a 1-10 record in 2012, according to Bill Curry, who retired from coaching after last week’s loss at Maine.
• Injuries wiped out the defensive line.
• Inexperienced quarterbacks.
• A spiritual disconnect.
All three combined to take what could have been a happy send-off for Curry and from the Colonial Athletic Association, instead turning it into a “what are we in for” dread with the team next year moving to the Sun Belt Conference, where the competition will be tougher.
Curry took the blame for the failures.
“Each of us can share responsibility but the head coach is primary,” he said.
The good news is just 12 players used up their eligibility, meaning the next coach, whom athletic director Cheryl Levick hopes to hire sooner rather than later, will inherit a roster that has gained a lot of experience. The bad news is the team’s record has gotten progressively worse, leading to questions of how much good will that experience be and how can it be applied within the next coach’s system?
As the season continued its downward spiral, the problems became a chicken-or-the-egg thing: was the offense’s lack of punch in the first half (outscored by 160 points) of most games putting the defense in bad situations, which caused the team to consistently fall behind? Or was the defense constantly getting blitzed early, forcing the offense to abandon its game plan? Either way, it turned into a cycle that fed on itself in most games, resulting in the team losing by an average of more than 20 points per game.
After going 3-8 in 2011, the team needed to replace its defensive coordinator and quarterback, which was a carousel. Anthony Midget was promoted to lead the defense and redshirt freshman Ben McLane beat Kelton Hill for the starting quarterback position. Hill was the presumed starter after playing well in the final few games of the 2011 season. But McLane looked polished in the drills, completing pass after pass.
Curry and offensive coordinator John Bond expected that McLane, accurate in practice, would complete 65 percent of his passes in the games and that running back Donald Russell would surpass 1,000 rushing yards. The defense changed systems, adopting a 4-2-5 that would take advantage of the players’ speed, which should have resulted in more big plays.
None of those things happened.
McLane, who struggled with accuracy and turnovers (remember the fumbles at Tennessee) was replaced by Ronnie Bell, another redshirt freshman, and then won the job back when Bell proved inconsistent. In between, Hill was moved to defensive back/safety for a week before eventually moving to wide receiver.
McLane, who settled down in the last half of the season, and Bell each completed 50.7 percent of their passes (odd, I know). They combined to throw 21 interceptions.
Russell, a senior, had a chance to crack 1,000 yards before suffering a season- ending injury in the loss to Villanova. He finished with 747 yards. Travis Evans replaced him after the injury and finished 323 yards. He has one year of eligibility remaining.
Both quarterbacks showed promise when the wide receivers weren’t hurting them by dropping numerous catchable balls. McLane hit Albert Wilson for several big plays, including a 93-yard touchdown pass against the Monarchs. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see Hill moved back to quarterback by the next coaching staff. But much will depend upon the type of offense that is used. All three may be pushed by Oshay Carter, a long-time commitment to the Panthers.
“We needed consistency in the quarterback play,” Curry said. “We got it at times, but we needed it all the time. I’m not blaming the quarterbacks, I’m blaming us.”
Fans were critical of Bond all year, who seemed to prefer using the pass to set up the run, which looked like the strength of the team in preseason, rather than the run to set up the pass. At the time, Bond faced a tough choice: Russell seemed like the best weapon on offense, but the wide receivers, when healthy, were talented and deep.
The wide receivers were also hurt by injuries. Danny Williams missed several games because of an injured ankle. Jordan Giles suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in week 2 against the Vols. The group is supposed to return intact.
The line was also suspect, allowing 28 sacks and creating holes that led to an average of 3.4 rushing yards per game. All five starters return.
While the offense had its share of injuries, the defense was decimated, particularly the line, which started with so much hope. The group was strengthened by the offseason transfers Theo Agnew (Massachusetts) and Nermin Delic (Kentucky) until the NCAA ruled that Delic couldn’t play.
Agnew was moved from tackle, his natural position, to defensive end, where the squad was thin. Injuries then wiped out most of the line. First, tackle David Huey suffered a season-ending injury. Tackle Joe Lockley didn’t play in the last few games because of an injury. Terrance Woodard played the last half of the season with one healthy ankle, which affected his ability, but he was still considered the unit’s best player. Agnew was moved back to defensive tackle for the final few games, forcing the coaching staff to make all sorts of changes to cover, including moving a tight end to defensive end. The line won’t lose anyone and should benefit from the addition of Delic as well as the experience that several freshmen (Melvin King, Lockley) earned.
“We couldn’t afford to lose those people in droves,” Curry said, nothing the team doesn’t use injuries as an excuse before saying that “we ran out of guys, literally.”
The linebackers, a group composed of mostly undersized players, had trouble at the point of attack because of the injuries to line, leaving them to try to take on blockers. Partially as a result, the defense gave up an average of 235.5 rushing yards per game. The linebackers lose just two players.
The secondary, expected to be the strength of the defense, was also affected by the injuries. They struggled at the beginning of the year, starting with cornerback Isaiah Howard getting burned for a 72-yard touchdown on South Carolina State’s first series. Howard was later kicked off the team for a “violation of team rules,” shortly after he sent out a series of tweets criticizing Georgia State’s athletic administration. Because the defense couldn’t generate a consistent pass rush (10 sacks), which left the secondary exposed (10 interceptions; 234.6 passing yards per game). The unit will lose two starters in the secondary.
The special teams showed improvement, with punter Matt Hubbard taking over that role and having a year that could result in national awards. He averaged 42 yards per punt with a 37.4 net-punt average. Wil Lutz took over the placekicking duties and hit four of his seven field-goal attempts. Both players should return.
Lastly, Curry rued his inability to connect with the team, saying that he could never make the players understand the urgency they needed to play with.
“The kind of thing where you suck it up no matter what, and keep on going and play lights out no matter how discouraging it seems,” Curry said. “We never developed that and that’s my responsibility.”
There’s one more thing that may have contributed to the results of this season: the strength and conditioning program in 2010 and 2011.
Before Ben Pollard was hired to take over that area in July 2011, the voluntary offseason workout program was focused more on improving endurance than improving speed, quick-bursts and power, the actions that define football plays.
The NCAA mandates that offseason workout programs are voluntary. No attendance can be taken. No coaches, other than the S&C coach, can attend.
But coaches didn’t need to attend those sessions to see the results on the practice field. Curry said that Pollard wouldn’t have been hired had he been satisfied with what was going on. It was more evident when earlier this year Lockley, a freshman, was already the strongest player on a team that had 12 seniors and more than 25 juniors who had been in the program for at least three years.
Curry acknowledged earlier this week that the lack of the cumulative effect of three years in a program like Pollard’s may have been a factor in this year’s results. But he hoped that the “tremendous work” done by Pollard and the players earlier this year would lead to improved results.
“This offseason was so terrific that we felt like we made up a lot of ground,” he said.
Curry believes that next year’s team has the potential to turn around the program’s direction, as long as the next coach “keeps the hammer down” and does things the way he wants them done.
“They don’t practice like a losing team,” he said. “They will come out and work hard. Continue to build on that and continue to emphasize that the next step for this program is to take the practice performance into games.”