ATLANTA--Preparations for Georgia State's third season of football officially get underway Wednesday as the Panthers begin preseason practice.
A total of 105 players, including 45 returning letterwinners, reported to campus today and will practice for the first time Wednesday at 10 a.m. at the GSU Practice Complex, 29 days before the Panthers' Aug. 30 season opener against South Carolina State at the Georgia Dome.
Per NCAA guidelines, the Panthers will practice once a day for the mandatory five-day acclimatization period. The first practice in full pads is Sunday, and the first two-a-day practices will take place on Tuesday, Aug. 7.
Season three of Georgia State football is another important milestone as the Panthers play their first and only season in the Colonial Athletic Association while beginning their transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). GSU will become a member of the Sun Belt Conference on July 1, 2013. But first, head coach Bill Curry and the Panthers look to put the memory of last year's disappointing 3-8 season in their rear view mirror.
"At the conclusion of last season I questioned everything, searched myself, questioned myself and determined to step up and improve every aspect of our program. We did that this summer," said Curry as he addressed the media Tuesday.
"This is a very exciting time of the year for the obvious reasons. It has been a year of deep reflection for all of us and especially for yours truly. I think more than ever those of us that have been in this business for a while and those that are sincere, regardless of the stage, have found it clear what an amazing and remarkable responsibility we have when we put this whistle on.
"It is not just a game; you are dealing with young lives," continued Curry, entering his 20th season as a collegiate head coach. "It hit me that what we have here is a chance to make a huge difference in this culture and we're going to one way or another. Whether it is a brand new program like Georgia State or one that has been around for 120 years, we have a responsibility the likes of which our culture has never given us before."
Last season, the Panthers suffered four losses by 10 points or fewer, and in each one, they either led or were tied in the fourth quarter. Making the key play in the fourth quarter to turn those close losses into victories has been an emphasis for the Panthers since last season ended.
"Our theme for the season is to, 'Man Up and Finish,'" said Curry. "Football is the ultimate team game, but it comes down to if I'm going to knock you off the ball in the fourth quarter. The fourth quarter is where you make your living in our business, and you either get embarrassed or you excel. Our first year we did reasonably well and last year we did not. We are going to finish every play this season or you won't play."
After starting three different quarterbacks in their first 22 games of existence, the Panthers enter season three with a fourth signal caller, redshirt freshman Ben McLane, under center. McLane earned the nod with a strong spring, but he will be pushed by junior Kelton Hill, who started the final five games of last season but struggled with inconsistency and turnovers, as well as transfer Ronnie Bell from Ohio University and possibly true freshmen Mark Weidenaar, Nathan Schuster and Garrett Schrepfer.
"You have to be able to throw the ball with accuracy," said Curry. "The strongest unit on our team is our wide receivers. We have eight wide receivers that can play and three in particular that are outstanding in Danny Williams, Albert Wilson and Jordan Giles. So our quarterback has to get them the ball with accuracy.
"Because Ben has won a state championship, in the Georgia Dome, at the highest level of high school football in the state of Georgia and because he came out in the spring and threw the ball well, we think he has a chance," continued Curry. "But now he has to come to training camp, get into two-a-days, get tired, go through some rough stuff and show us that he can do that and win the job again. Then he has to go into the game and do it again. We believe he can do it, but he has to show it."
McLane, who led Brookwood High School to the Class AAAAA state title in 2010, is up for the competition.
"It motivates me because I know our team has plenty of talented quarterbacks who can do the job," he said. "We will all compete this summer and see who earns the starting spot on August 30. Because I am slated to be number one at the first practice doesn't mean I will be at the first game. I have to re-affirm this summer what I had done in the spring."
The GSU quarterbacks will line up behind an offensive line that graduated four starters but might be more athletic, led by junior tackles Ulrick John and Grant King. In addition to protecting the quarterback, that unit will block for senior running back Donald Russell, who led the Panthers in 2011 with 665 yards rushing and nine touchdowns after transferring from Kentucky.
On defense, the top returning tacklers are safety Demazio Skelton (61 tackles, 2 interceptions) and linebacker mark Hogan (56 tackles, 5 TFL), but Hogan is the only returning starter among the front seven.
"The defensive line has to grow up in hurry because we graduated some good, experience players (including Oakland Raiders draft pick Christo Bilukidi)," said Curry.