Georgia State opens practice looking for next quarterback

Georgia State Panthers football coach Shawn Elliott takes questions at his news conference during football media day Thursday, August 1, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Georgia State Panthers football coach Shawn Elliott takes questions at his news conference during football media day Thursday, August 1, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

When Georgia State football practice started this week, there was something about coach Shawn Elliott that looked different. New haircut? Summer tan? Or maybe it was the face mask and clear face shield. That’s new, right?

Welcome to the 2020 edition of preseason camp.

Shields and masks are part of the new look adopted by the school to help protect its players, coaches and staff from the spread of COVID-19. The new safety guidelines have created some changes and challenges, but any inconvenience is worth right now.

“Everything is different,” Elliott said. “I’m not going to paint you a pretty picture and say it’s the greatest thing ever because it’s not. It’s something we have to do and will continue to do. We’re distancing players, but we’re practicing the game of football, so that’s very hard. We all understand what we’re up against and trying to do the best we can.”

The new hoops will be worth the navigation issues if the Panthers can play football this fall. They opened camp Wednesday with the goal to get ready for the season opener Sept. 3 against Murray State and contend for the Sun Belt title.

Georgia State returns 16 starters – eight on offense, eight on defense – from last season’s team that went 7-6 and played in the Arizona Bowl. There are strengths, and there are questions that must be answered.

Here are five things we know about Georgia State with the season opener scheduled for less than a month away.

There will be a new quarterback. But who? Dan Ellington graduated – and joined the coaching staff as an assistant – and leaves some plus-sized shoes to fill. Elliott may know who the favorite is, but he isn’t saying.

“We’ve got 29 practices until Murray State, and we’ll probably need all 29 of them to determine who will strap it up that first game,” Elliott said.

Cornelious Brown and Kierston Harvey both played last season when Ellington was injured. But the more intriguing options appear to be Jamil Muhammad, a transfer from Vanderbilt, and prized signee Mikele Colasurdo, who was Mr. Football in South Carolina last season. All four are freshmen or redshirt freshmen.

The offensive line should be stout. The Panthers will miss all-conference tackle Hunter Atkinson, but return four other starters to a line that is expected to be a team strength. Center Malik Sumter, guards Shamarious Gilmore and Pat Bartlett and tackle Travis Glover are an experienced group that should make the transition less painful for the new quarterback.

Gilmore became the first Georgia State player to earn a spot on the watch list for the Outland Trophy, given annually to the nation’s top interior lineman. The Riverdale native has started 37 consecutive games and is a first-team preseason All-Sun Belt choice.

Likewise, there is plenty of depth at the skill positions. Yes, the Panthers will miss career rushing leader Trae Barnett, who was durable, tough and productive. But there is plenty of depth at tailback with Destin Coates, Seth Page and Dawson Hill for an offense that ranked 13th in the nation in rushing last season.

The receivers include Cornelius McCoy (70 catches in 2019), a healthy Sam Pinckney (36 catches) and the return of Terrance Dixon, who was injured last season. The tight end group is solid with Roger Carter (28 receptions) and Aubrey Payne (13 catches, six touchdowns).

The defense struggled in 2019, but should be improved. The Panthers lost key pieces in linebacker Ed Curney and safety Remy Lazarus, but have plenty of veterans who are coming back. The returners include leading tacklers Trajan Stephens-McQueen and Victor Heyward, as well as line stalwarts Dontae Wilson and Hardrick Willis and defensive backs Jaylon Jones, Quavian White and Cedric Stone.

The Panthers also should get a boost from defensive back Jamyest Williams, a transfer from South Carolina. Williams played 19 games for the Gamecocks, including four starts, before injuring his shoulder. The former four-star recruit, ranked as the ninth-best player in Georgia as a senior at Grayson High School, will have two seasons of eligibility remaining.

The role as team leader remains wide open. For the past two years, Ellington has been the team’s vocal leader. No question about it. But with his graduation, that void has yet to be filled. Elliott said not having a legitimate spring practice and the restrictions on workouts has made the leadership role more uncertain.

“We worked in much smaller groups during the summer,” Elliott said. “With no real team interaction, it’s really hard to develop that leadership and gain the respect and attention of everyone. That’s something we really have to watch and see how it develops.

“I told them, ‘Great teams have great leaders.’ We’ve got to see those great leaders rise to the forefront here in the next few weeks. That is as critical as blocking and tackling. We’ve got to have leadership.”