Georgia State brings tougher approach to season opener with Rhode Island

Credit: Michael Blackshire

Credit: Michael Blackshire

Since January the Georgia State football team has immersed itself in the process of become a program that is tougher and better prepared to face the adversity that comes during the course of a game.

The workouts have been more demanding. Accountability has been ramped up. Players have been tested in ways that were inconceivable a year ago. Coach Shawn Elliott called it making the players “uncomfortable.”

Now it’s time to see if it all worked.

The Panthers will open the season against Rhode Island at Center Parc Stadium at 7 p.m. (ESPN+, WRAS-FM 88.5) The players and staff can’t wait to see how it all comes together on game day.

“It’s going to be our first contest since I felt like we had to change as a team, so I’m ready to see what it’s going to be like once we get a lot of action,” sixth-year senior offensive tackle Travis Glover said. “I feel like we’ll be ready for bear and hope we come out and show that to everybody.”

The motivation comes from last season’s disappointing 4-8 record and from the team’s inability to close. The Panthers lost six games in which they had a lead in the second half and ended the year with a three-game losing streak. Georgia State failed to go to a bowl game for the first time in three years.

“It’s very important,” senior defensive end Javon Denis said. “We haven’t won a game in three games, so this is going to be one game that we’ve got to keep pushing on and giving our fans something to come back to every Saturday or Thursday.”

No one welcomes game week more than Elliott, who is starting his seventh season as the program’s head coach. Typically a bundle of energy, Elliott joked that he would have started two weeks ago if needed.

“It’s great to have a game week,” Elliott said. “We had a tremendous camp. I’ve been doing this for 27 years, and it’s the best preseason camp I’ve ever known. Great energy. Our anticipation for Thursday night is at an all-time high.”

The Panthers have two new pieces of the coaching staff. Strength coach Mike Sirignano was instrumental in conceiving and carrying out Georgia State’s “get tougher” plan. Chad Staggs, who spent the past four years as defensive coordinator at Coastal Carolina, came to GSU to serve in the same capacity with the Panthers.

“We’re the healthiest we’ve ever been and have been in very good shape from the first practice to now. Coach Sirignano has pushed players to the extreme,” Elliott said. “The defense has responded well to coach Staggs. The scheme is not a total change, but what we do with it will be a total change.”

While the defense will have plenty of new faces and a new operation, the offense will look much the same. Quarterback Darren Grainger is back for his sixth-year senior season and is approaching numerous career milestones. He threw for 2,443 yards and 18 touchdowns and ran for 734 yards and six touchdowns in 2022. Grainger added 20 pounds during the offseason without sacrificing his speed.

The featured back will be powerful Marcus Carroll, who ran for 622 yards as a junior last season, with K.Z. Adams expected to show the sort of speed that made him the most productive high school runner in South Carolina his senior season.

Grainger has a deep cadre of receivers in returners Robert Lewis, Ja’Cyais Credle and Tailique Williams, who are joined by transfer Jacari Carter. Kris Byrd and Ahmon Green, a pair of underrated tight ends, both return.

The offensive line is led by Glover, a preseason All-Sun Belt selection, and transfers Tyden Ferris and Lamar Robinson.

The most untested part of the roster is on special teams. The placekicking will be handled by either Liam Rickman or Isaac Cone, and Kade Loggins won the job as punter. Both duties were handled last season by Michael Hayes, who transferred to West Virginia.

Georgia State will open the season against its first FCS opponent since 2019, when the Panthers survived a shootout with Furman, then led by current GSU quarterback Grainger. Georgia State beat Rhode Island 41-7 in their only previous meeting, when both were members of the Colonial Athletic Association. Rhode Island went 7-4 in 2022 and was picked by the league’s coaches to finish sixth in 2023. The Rams have added 12 Division I transfers since last season.

“They’re a well-coached football team,” Elliott said. “The last couple of years they’ve really been on the cusp of making their mark on the FCS level.”

Rhode Island’s top players are three-year starting quarterback Kasmin Hill, a mobile, dual-threat, and right guard Nick Correia, who has started 37 consecutive games and was preseason All-CAA.

A year ago, Georgia State opened at SEC opponent South Carolina and led 14-12 in the third quarter before losing 35-14. The Panthers are eager to show how their offseason efforts have changed the team’s approach.

“It’s very important,” senior linebacker Jordan Veneziale said. “The first game of the season you’ve been working hard all offseason. You’ve got to show what you’ve been working for. So, it’s really important we go out and show what we know we can do. We can showcase that and just keep the ball rolling from there.”