Georgia State strikes emotional chord in season opener at South Carolina

It will be a combination season opener and an unusual homecoming for Georgia State on Saturday when the Panthers play at South Carolina to open the sixth season under coach Shawn Elliott.

The first game is loaded with emotional buttons for Elliott, who was born and raised in the state, and for the 20 native South Carolinians on the Panthers’ roster.

“South Carolina is someone that I’m very familiar with, that a lot of our players are familiar with,” Elliott said. “So that adds a little bit more to the mix, but we’re ready to go.”

Kickoff for Georgia State’s season opener comes at 7:30 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN-Plus. It can be heard locally on WRAS-FM 88.5, with play-by-play man Dave Cohen starting his 40th season behind the microphone.

Elliott, who grew up in nearby Camden, is an emotional guy by nature and will be even more so this week. He spent seven seasons on the staff at South Carolina – he and current South Carolina coach Shane Beamer were assistants on the team that won the SEC East in 2010, and their families remain close friends – and served as interim head coach for the final six games in 2015 when Steve Spurrier quit in midseason. This will be a rare instance when Elliott is on the visitor’s side of the field at Williams-Brice Stadium.

“It’s going to be thrilling, honestly,” Elliott said. “I grew up 25 miles away, watched a lot of games there, won a state championship there. And now we’re taking our team there to open our season. That’s going to be hopefully a great night. It’s going to be an exciting one.”

Elliott earlier this week received the Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian honor awarded by the governor of South Carolina. It is given to individuals who demonstrate extraordinary lifetime achievement, service and significant contributions.

“I’m just humbled by it, to be honest,” Elliott said. “I’ve had a pretty decent career in athletics, and the game of football and some other things have led to that award. But I’m just speechless. It’s just incredible.”

Elliott has tried to downplay that aspect of the game, but most of the players already have been scuffling to find enough tickets to accommodate their family members. The prominent Georgia State players with South Carolina roots include quarterback Darren Grainger, sixth-year center Malik Sumter, all-conference cornerback Quavian White and kicker-punter Michael Hayes.

“It’s always great to go back to South Carolina and play in front of your home crowd,” said Grainger, who engineered the team’s win at No. 24 Coastal Carolina last season. “We have a bunch of South Carolina guys, our coaches played at South Carolina, so it’s going to be a great time just going back down there and being able to play.”

Also returning to South Carolina is Jamyest Williams, who transferred to Georgia State and was switched to running back. Williams had three interceptions in 19 games with the Gamecocks and was named to the 2017 SEC All-Freshman team. Since joining Georgia State and moving to running back midway through 2020, he has rushed for 1,112 yards and nine touchdowns in 21 games.

“I’m mainly excited for all the athletes here,” Williams said. “They get to go down there and experience that environment, that feeling, especially a night game. And, quite frankly, a lot of athletes here are supposed to be playing on that type of stage.”

Georgia State will play South Carolina for the first time, but this is its 14th game against a Power Five opponent and the sixth against a team from the SEC. The program’s signature win came against Tennessee in the 2019 season opener.

The Panthers return 18 starters from last season’s 8-5 team that won the Camellia Bowl. Georgia State finished second in the Sun Belt’s East Division and went to a bowl game for the third consecutive season.

“We opened with Eastern Illinois last year,” Beamer said. “No offense, but this ain’t Eastern Illinois. They’ve played a lot of football together and had a heck of an opportunity to beat Auburn last year (a 34-24 loss). … We know what this game means to them, and we have to go and play well.”

The only real newcomer in the Georgia State lineup is Bryson Broadway, who started for that Eastern Illinois team to which Beamer alluded. Broadway will start at left tackle. Travis Glover, who started at left tackle last season, will move to left guard to replace Shamarious Gilmore, an all-conference player who was one of the last players cut by the Seattle Seahawks on Tuesday.

“We feel comfortable about (Broadway) going into the ballgame, and some of the other guys have been around here for a long, long time,” Elliott said. “It’s the usual suspects.”

Other newer faces who will see time on offense include tight end Kris Byrd of Lyman, S.C., and right tackle Montavious Cunningham of Athens.

The game has special meaning for South Carolina’s Jordan Strachan, who started his career at Georgia State in 2017. After being moved from safety to outside linebacker, Strachan tied for first in the nation with a school-record 10 ½ sacks in 2020. He transferred to South Carolina in January 2021.