Nick Arbuckle was hailed as the biggest signing in Georgia State football history when he joined the team in December.
After three years of ineffective quarterback play, Arbuckle was expected to provide a passing attack the team hadn’t had since its inaugural 2010 season.
Arbuckle hasn’t disappointed, using intelligence, improved fundamentals and a focus on improving to be a bright spot this season.
He leads the Sun Belt Conference in passing (309 yards per game), touchdown passes (16) and total offense (314.2 ypg). With a good performance Saturday against Appalachian State, Arbuckle can break or tie several career records, in only his ninth game, further showing how well he has played and the problems the Panthers have had under center.
“Smartest quarterback I’ve ever played with, bar none,” wide receiver Robert Davis said. “He just gets all the playmakers the balls in the best position to make plays.”
That intelligence comes from studying in the film room, where offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski and position coach Luke Huard said Arbuckle can be a handful with his steady stream of suggestions.
But Huard said he would prefer to have a quarterback who knows what he likes, what he can execute and what he sees, than one who doesn’t.
“He definitely thinks like a coach, which can be fun because you are having conversations on the same level,” Huard said.
Five wide receivers, Donovan Harden, Robert Davis, Lynquez Blair, Avery Sweeting and tight end Joel Ruiz, are either having career seasons or are on pace for career seasons as Arbuckle sprays the ball around the field. He has completed 61 percent of his passes, with nine interceptions.
“He’s found a rhythm in terms of trusting our receivers,” coach Trent Miles said. “It’s only going to get better as we go.”
Arbuckle and Harden connected for a school-record four touchdown passes in Saturday’s loss to Georgia Southern. Three of the touchdowns were the result of Arbuckle or Harden recognizing the defense and changing the play.
They would have had a fifth, but Harden dropped a pass near the goal line. In the past two weeks, Arbuckle has hit Harden 21 times for 318 yards, the largest two-game output by a receiver in school history. Harden on Tuesday was added to the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, given annually to the nation’s best wide receiver.
“We are getting our chemistry and our timing down,” Harden said. “It’s all meshing together.”
And the production is coming despite Arbuckle not getting to work with Harden or Sweeting in the spring because both were out with injuries. Davis wasn’t able to do much in the spring or preseason because of injuries. Instead, Arbuckle developed chemistry with Blair and Ruiz.
Blair, a senior, had never caught more 10 passes in a season. He has 30 for 387 yards and three touchdowns this season.
Ruiz was an unknown commodity after transferring from Presbyterian 1 1/2 years ago. He has 34 catches for 445 yards and three touchdowns, stats that pushed him onto the watch list for the Mackey Award given annually to the nation’s best tight end.
But it’s not all just about the wide receivers.
Arbuckle could be seen Monday walking through the GSU Sports Arena carrying a box of glazed doughnuts. He was en route to study hall to treat the offensive line, which didn’t allow a sack last week for the first time this season.
“It was a surprise after class,” tackle A.J. Kaplan said.
After the loss to Georgia Southern, Arbuckle took the blame for the false starts committed by the line, saying he needed to soften his voice so as not to confuse checks with the snap.
That’s the kind of leadership that caused so many Georgia State fans to be so hopeful when Arbuckle committed after two years at Pierce College in California, where he passed for nearly 7,000 yards and with 73 touchdowns.
Arbuckle worked hard to improve his footwork and release point during the spring, so that he could put more speed on passes.
Turnovers were a problem earlier in the season, but Arbuckle has thrown one interception in the past four games, and that came last week when he was hit as he tried to throw the ball out of bounds.
“He has a lot of confidence in himself, no matter if we are up 30, down 30 or tied,” Huard said. “It doesn’t matter the scenario in the game, whether he’s in rhythm, out of rhythm, he has confidence and belief that he can execute the next play. It’s rare in quarterbacks. It’s something you have or don’t have.”
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