By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Annapolis, MD (Sports Network) - Hardly anyone is spared when Georgia Southern football players try to imitate the idiosyncrasies of members of the coaching staff.
Defensive line coach Victor Cabral's intensity makes him an easy target and All-America nose tackle Brent Russell prides himself on doing one of the better impressions.
"'It's a great day today,' the way (wrestler) Ric Flair yells. (Cabral) gets everybody worked up," Russell said.
The many smiles surrounding the team will beam ever brighter if and when the Eagles start to emulate the many great teams in their program's history. The return of former assistant coach Jeff Monken as their new head coach is a link to great Georgia Southern teams, and he's reinstalled the once-vaunted triple option as their offense
While moral victories aren't the goal for the Eagles, the way they hung with Navy before falling 13-7 on Saturday in the two programs' first-ever meeting at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium provided a jolt of confidence that could serve them well this season.
"As much as the coaches want it to get fixed right now, it doesn't get fixed right now," Monken said after Georgia Southern fell to 1-1. "It's a process and we're still in the process.
"We gotta get our guys to a point where they think they're supposed to win every time they take the field, have that kind of confidence and play with that kind of confidence, be devastated when they don't win."
Teams from the Football Championship Subdivision usually don't beat the bigger programs of the Football Bowl Subdivision - although there were some more surprises Saturday - so the Eagles could hold their heads high after the tight loss to the Midshipmen on 9/11.
Monken is a disciple of former Navy coach Paul Johnson, having coached under him at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech. Both teams run similar options, so it was hard for either team to surprise the other with trickery. In an ugly affair, there were 17 first downs and 302 yards - combined.
Navy (1-1) survived by salting away the final 6:08, using a 44-yard Hail Mary pass from quarterback Ricky Dobbs to Greg Jones on 3rd- and-18 from the Midshipmen 19 to ignite the drive.
"It's kind of like a good and bad thing," senior cornerback Carson Hill said, "because we know we had 'em where we wanted them. We could have won.
"The good thing about football is you can come back the next week and prepare for another game."
The next one for the Eagles is a visit to Coastal Carolina. It's their final non-conference game before they play eight Southern Conference games, including a difficult home schedule at Paulson Stadium: Elon, Wofford, Samford and Appalachian State.
But the conference spotlight, let alone the national spotlight, no longer shines on Georgia Southern, so the Eagles hope to sneak up on some teams during the retooling process.
It's not a wholesale rebuilding project, but the Eagles are nowhere near the level they were during a big run which included an FCS-record six national titles from 1985 to 2000. Monken served under Johnson at Georgia Southern from 1997-2001, and the Eagles went a combined 62-10 and won back-to-back national titles for the third time in 1999 and 2000.
Eventually, new head coaches brought new offensive systems to Statesboro, including Chris Hatcher's spread offense the last three seasons, and the rabid fan base was eager to see the triple option restored. In the season opener, 20,430 strong came out for a 48-3 rout of Savannah State, when the Eagles rushed for 431 yards to lead all FCS teams during the opening week of games.
Monken believes it takes a year or two before the offensive system becomes natural to the players. So their 73 yards on 39 carries against Navy, and Jekyll-and-Hyde play during a dreadful first half and inspired second half, underscored the fact the Eagles will have highs and lows throughout the learning process.
"The second half was just a great effort by our team," Monken said. "I thought our guys really fought. I really thought our guys were going to win the football game there at the end."
Trailing 13-0 at halftime with only 23 yards of offense, Georgia Southern made it an interesting game again by scoring on the opening drive of the third quarter.
The Eagles did it with (Ric) flair, too, by going for a first down on 4th- and-8 at the Navy 17. Sophomore slot back J.J. Wilcox raced out of the backfield to beat a linebacker on an out pattern, collecting a pass from quarterback Jaybo Shaw just before the pylon to score easily with 9:08 left.
"It felt great to know all the hard work we did this week in practice was finally coming all together," Wilcox said. "We started getting the momentum our way."
What's particularly encouraging is the Eagles have allowed only one touchdown through two games. Last season, they ranked last in the SoCon in total defense.
It helps to have a wrecking ball up front like Russell, a 6-foot-2, 287-pound sophomore who will be an NFL prospect in 2013. The defense doesn't have great size, but Laron Scott and Hill form a solid pair of cornerbacks, defensive end Dion Dubouse eats up what Russell doesn't on the line and middle linebacker Josh Rowe is coming on strong as a sophomore, making a game-high 10 tackles against Navy.
The offense features Shaw, a junior who followed Monken from Georgia Tech to Georgia Southern. Freshman fullback Robert Brown and sophomore slot back Darreion Robinson also are building blocks.
"I keep saying the sky's the limit," Russell said.
After the game, Monken joined the brigade along the sideline and made like a Midshipmen, singing the "Blue & Gold" alma mater and yelling "Beat Army!"
Now if his Eagles can only start to make like some of the great Georgia Southern teams.