Georgia State football coach: ‘We achieved something special’

The scene in the Georgia State locker room after the season-ending win in the Camellia Bowl on Christmas Day was completely unlike it had been 10 weeks ago when the Panthers were trying to figure out how to salvage a season that started 1-4.

“I know we played in the Camellia Bowl, but it was almost like we’d achieved something really special – and we did,” coach Shawn Elliott said. “It was just remarkable to watch every one of their faces to see how much enjoyment came out of winning that game.”

The 51-20 victory over Ball State gave the Panthers an 8-5 record. That set a school record for wins. Georgia State won seven of its final eight games and competed in a bowl game for the third consecutive year and fourth time in five seasons under Elliott.

The team’s success has raised expectations and standards for a program that began playing FBS football on a full-time basis only in 2014.

“The world today we live in, (a) 1-4 (record and) everybody wants to give up and move on, and we had a few that did that,” Elliott said. “But our team just dug in. My old coach (Appalachian State’s Jerry Moore) used to say, ‘We’ve got our cleats to the back of that cliff and everybody is trying to push us over, so dig in. We’ve got to go fight.’ And we did, every week and had fun doing it. So, this team is special because a lot of teams across the country at 1-4 would just call it a day.”

The future looks bright, too. Starting center Malik Sumter, right guard Pat Bartlett and running backs Tucker Gregg and Jamyest Williams will use their bonus COVID-19 seasons in 2022, and the school is appealing to the NCAA to get tight end Aubry Payne an extra season. The only offensive player who is eligible and won’t return is talented receiver Sam Pinckney, who will enter the transfer portal after spending much of the season dealing with a hamstring injury.

The defense graduates nose guard Dontae Wilson and safety Chris Moore, but among its eight returning starters are inside linebacker Blake Carroll and cornerback Quavian White, a pair of all-conference selections who will return for their bonus season. The defense set school records with 38 sacks, 92 tackles for loss and forced 21 turnovers.

“Those guys could easily move on and start their lives, but it says something about our football program that people want to stay that extra year,” Elliott said “After five years of football, some people have had enough. It feels good to know they like being around our staff and our program.”

Georgia State also will return quarterback Darren Grainger, who was the MVP of the Camellia Bowl. Elliott said the decision to go with Grainger as the starter over incumbent Quad Brown was a key in turning around the season. Brown left the team shortly after losing his job to enter the transfer portal.

“The quarterback change really had something to do with it,” Elliott said. “The coaches made what I thought was the right the decision. When we added Grainger to the offense, it was almost like we added him to defense, as well. Everything kind of came together and the pieces just kind of fell into place, and we got on a roll and never really looked back.”

Grainger finished with 1,715 yards passing and 19 touchdowns and 670 yards rushing and three touchdowns, but ball security was enhanced when he took over. Georgia State turned the ball over only five times in the final eight games after giving it away nine times in the first five games.

“He is such a coachable young man,” Elliott said. “When you have someone at the quarterback position that can be coached so easily – and he allows us to do that – and I love him because he’s got a big smile on his face, and very seldom does he have a down moment.”

Elliott said there was no timetable to replace offensive coordinator Brad Glenn, who left to become quarterbacks coach at Virginia Tech. Elliott said he has begun to send and receive emails and text messages about the position.

“What a huge asset he’s been to our offense,” Elliott said. “All the records, the points, the production, coaching the quarterbacks, keeping things simple. He never gets upset. He’s just steady. We’re losing a good man, a great family and a hell of a coach.”

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