2022 G5 Preview: Georgia State Has Its Quarterback
Happy learned how to putt. Uh-oh.
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Shawn Elliott spent the first four years (and some change) of his tenure as Georgia State’s head coach fighting the same battle.
Arriving in 2017 after lengthy stints as an offensive line coach at South Carolina (2010-16) and Appalachian State (2001-09), Elliott was hired for his experience in successful, established southern programs. Georgia State wanted a stable, well-known name at the top of its still-very-new program to take over for Trent Miles – who had struggled to create a whole lot of traction.
Generally speaking, there are two ways of hiring to establish yourself as a young program. You can hire a schemer, hoping that he can draw attention with unique looks and win games despite a talent disadvantage while running the risk that he’ll struggle in recruiting (both players and coaches); or, you can hire a P5 assistant/retread whose name carries weight among recruits and coaches but who may have problems building out a strong scheme. Elliott was as much the latter as anyone you’ll find.
And in those first four seasons, he played the role as close to a T as he could. Georgia State attracted strong assistants, recruited in the top half of the Sun Belt in three of his first five classes, and failed to establish an especially attractive scheme. The Panthers have never been outright bad under his direction, but they’ve struggled to move beyond stable and into “good” territory. They went 7-5 in year one, 7-6 in year three, 6-4 in year four, and 8-5 in year five dipping to 2-10 in year two as the lone ding in a tenure with four bowl berths.
The limiting factor in each of those seasons was the same. In 2017, Georgia State fielded a legitimately solid defense but averaged only 20.3 points per game, suffering a trio of blowout losses and qualifying for the postseason at 6-5 on the strength of four one-score wins and another by 10 points. Quarterback Conner Manning was fine, but he couldn’t overcome a disastrously bad rushing attack.
Manning departed ahead of 2018 and passed the torch to Dan Ellington, who led a similarly bad offense – which, when paired with a depleted defense, collapsed to 2-10 as just about every one of those close games from 2017 went the other way in 2018.
Ellington took a serious step forward in 2019 and directed the best offense of the Elliott era alongside breakout halfback Tra Barnett, but the defense fell even further off the cliff and Georgia State dropped four of its last five after starting 6-2 with major wins over Arkansas State, Army, Tennessee, and Troy.
The offense kept up some of its momentum in 2020 even with Ellington’s departure, but replacement Cornelius Brown IV was a step back, as was a core of fine but not terribly impressive halfbacks. Defensive improvement made up for some of the lost ground on offense and the Panthers managed a 6-4 record with three one-score losses that would have been wins with just a little more on either side of the ball.
It seemed that 2021 would be the year for everything to finally come together. The core of halfbacks returned, as did three starting receivers to surround a second-year Brown, with most of an improving defense back for what would hopefully be another season of growth. The Sun Belt was wide open beyond the core trio atop the league and in most estimations – my own included – Georgia State was the very obvious pick for the previously unfilled No. 4 spot in the league.
Then it started the season 1-4, getting blown out by Army, North Carolina, and Appalachian State, while suffering a brutal loss to Auburn (in a game the Panthers absolutely should have won), surrounding an unconvincing win over Charlotte. The defense had again collapsed, allowing 38 points per game, and every critical member of the offense regressed to and then below the mean. Every Brown pass that could be intercepted was, halfback Destin Coates couldn’t get anything going, and the receivers struggled to create any separation.
Looking to jump-start the offense (and dealing with some injuries), Georgia State gave a try at quarterback to Darren Grainger and slotted former walk-on, Tucker Gregg, in at halfback. Grainger threw only 12 passes against Charlotte, while Gregg carried the ball 22 times (but gained just 76 yards), but the switch worked enough to earn a victory. A week later, with the same backfield pairing, Georgia State did enough to beat Auburn for 59 minutes and 14 seconds, only to surrender a touchdown and a field goal in the final 45 seconds to fall. The pair were again limited in their usage, but both looked good enough to stick in their roles.
A healthy Brown returned to the quarterback spot against Appalachian State and was promptly rocked, thusly ending the Cornelius Brown experience and paving the way for Grainger to start the final eight games of the season (bowl game included). Gregg was launched into a similar role at halfback, teaming up with South Carolina transfer Jamyest Williams as Coates left the team.
In those eight games, Grainger solved the problem that Elliott had faced in his previous 52 games at Georgia State. He completed 112 of 182 passes (61.5 percent) for 1,362 yards, 14 touchdowns, and one interception, rushing for another 478 yards on 91 carries.
He won seven games (finishing the season with an 8-2 mark as a starter), damn near upset Louisiana on the road, and then did upset Coastal Carolina on the road a week later. Grainger didn’t just flip the close results of years past – he erased them. Georgia State won four of those seven by double digits and had an average margin of 30.3-20.1 in the seven final wins.
It came up short of Louisiana by just four points in the lone loss. Georgia State took some time getting there and did it in about the weirdest way possible, but it was absolutely the fourth-best team in the Sun Belt with Grainger at the helm and found a head-to-head result over Coastal Carolina that it could use to make a compelling case for being No. 3. The defense clicking into place certainly helped the cause, but Georgia State had looked to be a piece away from contention for just about the entire Elliott era, and Grainger looked a whole lot like that piece.
He’s returning this season. Gregg is back too, as is Williams, who was actually the better of the two but worked more as a change of pace back. He’s stocky and tough to tackle at 5-9, but he’s only 185 pounds and has a ton of speed. He led all ball carriers (with more than five attempts) in yards after contact per attempt (3.52) by nearly half of a yard (Grainger was at 3.23, the next qualifier is Gregg at 2.97), and dusted the same qualifying group for designed runs of at least 15 yards with 17, nabbing an astonishing 48.4 percent of his yardage on breakaways, 24 points better than Gregg’s 24.3 percent. Using them both is perfectly reasonable, especially because Gregg is an excellent pass blocker, but the more Williams the better this season. He’s a monster.
Starting wideout Sam Pinckney is transferring to Coastal Carolina but the rest of the room returns, and he wasn’t all that special here to begin with. His production came largely on intermediate routes, and Georgia State has Ja'Cyais Credle and Robert Lewis back to fill that void.
The former, a UCF transfer ahead of 2021, was the top reserve on the outside last season and can step right into a starting role after hauling in 21 receptions, 279 yards, and three scores. The latter was a backup slot last year and can do so again this season with Terrance Dixon back to start in the slot – he had 20 receptions, 194 yards, and a score last year. The offense was a bit screen-heavy last year and could afford to cut down on that with a new (internally promoted) offensive coordinator, but the screens the Panthers do run will go through the pairing in the slot.
Jamari Thrash, who led the team with 32 receptions, 452 yards, and three scores last year is back as well to fill out the starting lineup on the outside. Aubry Payne, a Sun Belt honorable mention at tight end and a touchdown machine (seven in 2021) is back as well.
Thrash is a big part of my hopes of a move away from the screens, but the primary guiding force there is Grainger. He’s going to have four returning starters on the line, four pass-catchers that he already has a connection with, and two capable halfbacks. He also has a full offseason as the unquestioned starter, which is great news both for his development and for adjusting the offense around his strengths. Plus, Trent McKnight is taking over for the departing Brad Glenn in coordinating the offense and shouldn’t have the same strict adherence to a scheme as his predecessor did.
On top of all that, expanding the offense isn’t just a standard (“second-year quarterback” move here either. Grainger wasn’t all that good on screens. He’s a lanky guy and those throws seem to be really hard on him. On the flip side, he flashed a brilliant deep ball last season and was extremely comfortable pushing the ball 10-20 yards down the field without being risky at all.
He notched, in PFF’s estimation, seven “turnover-worthy throws” all season, and only four of them came after he was named the full-time starter. In that same time, he made 15 “big-time throws,” which is “a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window” again per PFF. This is not a guy who racked up numbers in a super structured, restricted system. He made big throws and he did it consistently.
His best deep threat is back in Thrash, and he has a stable of capable receivers outside of him. Georgia State has been waiting for years to find its elite quarterback, and Grainger has given it every reason to think he’s that guy. The Sun Belt is open, even in a very tough East division, for a new champion. There’s never been a better time to go all-in and let your quarterback fire the ball around than this season. He’ll have to overcome the same second-year slump that Brown succumbed to last season, but this kid is damn good. I believe in his ability to make this happen.
I believe in the defense, too. Nate Fuqua is back as defensive coordinator for his fifth season, and he returns perhaps the most “Nate Fuqua” defensive personnel grouping of all time.
He’s built this defense around two core position groups. First, the edge rusher. Fuqua loves a converted linebacker to serve as an edge rusher, who he can use to hunt matchups on the outside shoulder of offensive tackles, usually lining them up opposite an in-line tight end to create one-on-one matchups for those tackles against pure speed rushers.
He has two good ones returning this year. Jhi'Shawn Taylor, last year’s edge, is leaving but wasn’t the best edge rusher by the end of the season, and he finished with only two sacks. That distinction falls instead to Jamil Muhammad, a converted quarterback in 2020 whose ceiling is just about limitless. He played a huge role at the end of the season, generating five sacks in last four games and six in last six, with nine pressures. Wake Forest transfer (after 2020) Shamar McCollum is a perfectly suitable backup for him, while utility vet Jeffery Clark is an easy replacement for Hardrick Willis at the other end spot, which lines up right on top of the other tackle and works more in the ground game.
The second group is a trio of safeties, which I’ve grouped very loosely as the free safety, box safety, and slot safety, but all three will play everywhere. Georgia State likes to have two-deep on every play, but it isn’t super particular with who the two are and will move them around at will.
He has a ton of experience there, too. De facto box safety Chris Moore is gone but converted linebacker Jacorey Crawford played a ton last year and started in the slot. He can step seamlessly into Moore’s role, just like another converted LB, Jontrey Hunter can take over for Crawford in the slot. This is the kind of cohesion that Fuqua really wants at safety. The best of the bunch, Antavious Lane – already one of the best defenders in school history – returns in the free safety role for his third season as a starter. He was a first-team All-Sun Belt player last year with five interceptions and 81 tackles. This is easily the best safety group Fuqua has had in Atlanta.
The rest of the defense is comprised almost entirely of returning starters. Nose tackle Dontae Wilson is departing, but Thomas Gore was full-on better last season and really burst onto the scene late. I do not want to just throw this kind of praise around, but I’ll do so here – there’s not a better nose tackle in the Sun Belt. Gore is fucking fantastic and will be a nightmare to deal with as the A-gap tackle.
The B-gap tackle is a bit of a question because there’s no defined B-gap tackle on the team, but my pick here is Javon Denis. He was more of an end last year but did some work in the B-gap and has the size for it.
Linebackers Blake Carroll and Jordan Veneziale aren’t first-teamers or anything, but both are more than suitable for their roles. The latter handles coverage assignments well and can stuff the run, the former handles most blitz assignments and is borderline unstoppable when doing so, especially into those A gaps behind big Gore.
Lastly, all three members of a solid cornerback rotation return in Bryquice Brown, Jaylon Jones, and Quavian White. None of them are outstanding, but like at safety, they will swap out pretty much interchangeably and can do a little bit of everything, be it as outside coverage guys and as box players whenever needed. The defense is not going to be the best part of this team, but it looks primed to be the best bunch that Elliott has had in town.
Maybe I’m too optimistic about this team. They were 8-5 last season, and betting on a quarterback who got hot is always a little bit risky, but I just love this roster. I love it. I think the Panthers can absolutely take three games against Army, Charlotte, North Carolina, and South Carolina in the non-con, just like I think they can take all four league home games against Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Old Dominion, and ULM and three of the four road trips to Appalachian State, James Madison, Marshall, and Southern Miss. That’s 10-2 and 7-1 in league play. If Grainger is the guy in the way I think he can be, nothing about that prediction is unreasonable. Coastal Carolina has a ton to replace, and Georgia State will be favored in every other league game outside of App State and maybe Marshall.
It feels, finally, like everything is coming together at the same time for Elliott.