Veteran Georgia State team opens preseason camp with title aspirations

Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott (L-R), Malik Sumter and Blake Carroll with the Sun Belt Championship trophy at the recent media days event. The Panthers want full-time possession of the trophy in 2022.

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott (L-R), Malik Sumter and Blake Carroll with the Sun Belt Championship trophy at the recent media days event. The Panthers want full-time possession of the trophy in 2022.

When the Georgia State football team opens its preseason camp Friday morning, the players won’t be worried about the 90-degree temperatures or the high humidity on the practice field at Center Parc Stadium. They’re looking at the long-range goal, which is winning the Sun Belt Conference championship.

“We want to dominate everybody in front of us,” said linebacker Jamil Muhammad. “That’s been the overall goal. We want a Sun Belt championship.”

The Panthers, who have 18 returning starters, have a good reason to be optimistic. They won a school-record eight games a year ago and appeared in their third consecutive bowl game, winning their second consecutive. Georgia State tied for second in the conference behind Appalachian State, the best finish in program history.

Eight Panthers players were named to the all-conference preseason team, and the team was picked by the coaches to finish third in the rugged Eastern Division. A handful of players received watch-list status for national awards.

There’s a reason there’s a buzz around the program.

“It’s one of the more thrilling times of the year if you’re a football coach and you’re on the eve of starting practice,” said Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott, who begins his sixth season. “There are a lot of emotions running through you, and I think our football team has the same effect and the same feeling. A lot of momentum heading into this fall camp and looking forward to getting started.”

There are few holes on offense or defense.

The offense returns quarterback Darren Grainger, who took the job from incumbent Quad Brown a year ago and has emerged as one of the team’s leaders. Running backs Tucker “The Trucker” Gregg and Jamyest Williams bring a thunder-and-lightning approach, and there was only one graduation loss from an experienced offensive line.

The defense, which has ranked among the nation’s best in sacks the past two seasons, also is stacked. There are outstanding linebackers in Muhammad, Blake Carroll and Jordan Veneziale, cornerback Qua White and safety Antavious Lane, who has proved to be a turnover machine.

Lane said, “This year we became a lot closer as a unit, as a coaching staff to the players … everybody. I’m just excited to see what this year will bring. I feel like we’ve got the depth at everybody. We’re just ready. I’m excited.”

The main concerns are finding someone to replace five-year starting guard Shamarious Gilmore, who is in training camp with the Seattle Seahawks. Elliott said the staff will spend time evaluating players and trying see if makes sense to make some strategic shifts up front.

On defense the biggest hole may be in the secondary, where super senior Chris Moore graduated at safety. The veteran was a solid player who helped in the development of Lane. He will likely be replaced by sophomore Jalen Tate.

The other question mark is at placekicker, where the dependable Noel Ruiz graduated. Punter Michael Hayes, who was signed as a kicker, is scheduled to handle the punting and kicking duties.

Elliott sees the practices leading to the season opener against South Carolina on Sept. 3 as the time to fill those few gaps and set the tone for the season.

“Each and every year your team is different,” Elliott said. “You’ve got to grow and you’ve got to develop. You really find out what your team is going to become about three or four games into it. It’s kind of crazy because you say it’s your report date or your first date of practice, when you know all year, your players have been around here. They’ve been practicing, they’ve been doing their player-led practices. I think we’ve had a real good offseason, a really good summer season, and we’re ready to get started in practice.”