Georgia State wide receiver Diondre Champaigne (82) celebrates their victory during Georgia State season opening game against the Kennesaw State at Georgia State Stadium on Thursday, August 30, 2018. Georgia State won 24-20 over the Kennesaw State. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

GSU’s Elliott: “We need to improve on everything” on defense

Coach Shawn Elliott did not mince words when discussing Georgia State’s defensive play during last year’s 2-10 season.

“Listen, if you turned on the film (from last year) and watched this defense, you’d say we need to improve on everything. That’s about as blunt as I can put it,” Elliott said.

The stats support his observation. The Panthers gave up 489.5 yards per game and 37.4 points per game, including five losses in which their opponents put at least 40 on the scoreboard. Now, during spring practice, defensive coordinator Matt Fuqua said that the players are working to improve on those disappointing performances.

“We have to approach every day with high energy and outwork the day before,” Fuqua said. “They’re attacking it with the right mindset, and they have a bad taste in their mouths from last year.”

Fuqua diagnosed the defensive issues as primarily his fault. With a very young defensive squad, he decided to focus on nailing down the base packages rather than inundating the players with more coverages. Fuqua regretted the decision in hindsight because it deprived the defense of responses when opposing offenses threw out different looks.

Two practices into the spring sessions, the new emphasis for the defense is clear: generate more turnovers. The Panthers finished last season minus-8 in turnover margin, with 18 giveaways (12 fumbles, six interceptions) to just 10 takeaways (four fumble recoveries, six interceptions).

“The turnover margin wasn’t in our favor a year ago, and we’ve got to continue to build on that and talk about it,” Elliott said. “Stripping the football, creating those turnovers defensively -- that’s something I would love to see us improve. A drastic improvement.”

Fuqua said that the goal for the defense every practice is to get 15 “hands on balls” and generate seven turnovers during live-ball plays. It’s easy to keep track of for Elliott because he requires that any time a defensive player gets a takeaway, he must run the ball over to the coach.

“I saw five turnovers today. They have to come and bring me the ball when they generate a turnover. It seems to be picking up because in about every other drill, I see a guy run up to me and give me a ball,” Elliott said.

The Panthers lost only a few key contributors from last season’s defense, while the rest of the returners will have another season under their belts. Starting safety DeAndre Applin is gone, but the biggest loss is Marterious Allen, a defensive end that registered 3.5 sacks last season. No other player had more than two.

Fuqua hopes that additions to the GSU defense will make up for its couple of departures. Allen and linebacker Michael Shaw were the only members of the front seven who won’t return, while the Panthers signed five players along the front seven and hired an experienced defensive line coach in Brad Lawing.

“Getting coach Lawing is huge,” Fuqua said. “He’s mentored and put a lot of guys in the league that are pass rushers. He’ll be able to teach things to his guys and the outside linebackers to make them better.”

Georgia State’s defense has a long way to go to be competitive. But much like the offense, the Panthers’ defense will count on a bevy of returning starters to learn from the hard knocks of last season and come back with vengeance.

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