The biggest question mark on offense is at quarterback, where Quad Brown earned the starting job. The redshirt freshman played in four games last season and has the benefit of being surrounded by some gifted weapons. Brown has the unenviable job of replacing Dan Ellington, who set records and was the focal point of the team.
The starting group of receivers at Brown’s disposal is deep and talented. Cornelius McCoy caught 70 passes last year and is No. 6 on the school’s all-time list. Sam Pinckney (36 catches) is back from an injury that limited him to nine games. Terrance Dixon is healthy again after tearing his ACL in the second game.
The tight end tandem of Roger Carter and Aubry Payne may be the best in the Sun Belt. They combined for 41 catches and nine touchdowns in 2019.
Destin Coates will start at running back and has the difficult task of replacing Trae Barnett, the school’s all-time rushing leader (1,480 yards, 12 TDs in 2019). Coates ran for 560 yards and seven touchdowns last season and will helped by Tucker Gregg and true freshman Marcus Carroll. The Panthers will get Seth Paige (405 yards, four TDs) back from an injury some time this fall.
“It’s going to be an exciting year to see (Coates) run,” Elliott said. “He’s a bigger guy (than Barnett) and he has the speed to take it the distance. He knows how to get positive yards.”
They’ll all benefit from the experienced offensive line that features first-team All-Sun Belt pick and Outland Trophy nominee Shamarious Gilmore at left guard. Three other starters also are back: left tackle Travis Glover, center Malik Sumter and right guard Pat Bartlett. The only uncertainty is right tackle, where Johnathan Bass and Despelado Alexandre are vying for the final starting spot.
The defense is expected to a more tenacious bent with the development of defensive end Jeffery Clark, who joins returning end Hardrick Willis, last season’s top pass rusher with 4.5 sacks. Reliable nose guard Dontae Wilson (49 tackles) completes a solid front.
“Those guys have played a lot of football,” Elliott said. “The guy who is emerging is Clark with his explosive plays. He’s made a difference in our defensive line. He has the knack for doing things. There are very few days I haven’t seen him making plays when I’ve watched film.”
The inside linebackers are Trajan Stephens-McQueen, the team’s leading tackler with 110 total stops last season, and play-making junior Blake Carroll. Starters on the outside are Jordan Strachan, Victor Heyward (70 tackles) or Jontrey Hunter.
The secondary has cornerbacks Quavian White (two interceptions) and Jaylon Jones and safeties Chris Moore, a graduate transfer from Virginia, and Antavious Lane, who has been the talk of the preseason camp.
“We’ve really improved at safety,” Elliott said. “Lane and Moore have done a good job creating turnovers and getting the runner to the ground. Last year we didn’t always get them to the ground. Lane is a turnover creator. He has the knack for knocking the ball out and he has tremendous strength and can pull that ball out. That’s something I’m excited about.”
Ready or not, the team opens against a team that was predicted to win the Sun Belt’s Western Conference. The Ragin' Cajuns, who played 11 freshmen in the game, opened the season with a 31-14 win over No. 23 Iowa State. Georgia State is 0-4 against Louisiana-Lafayette.
“This is how football is supposed to be,” Elliott said. “We’ve practiced for so long, we’re ready to play a game – conference or non-conference. There are going to be buns we’ll have to iron out, no matter if it’s offense, defense or special teams.”