Georgia Southern's chances of winning its first Southern Conference football title in five years may wind up in some very inexperienced hands this fall.
Five of the Eagles' top six wide receivers from last year's team graduated, leaving coach Chris Hatcher's high-powered spread engine short a few spark plugs.
But three true freshmen — Patrick Barker, Jamere Valentine and Drexel Copeland — are already busy working with quarterback Lee Chapple, watching film, learning the playbook and sharpening routes in anticipation of the season-opener against Albany on Sept. 5 in Statesboro.
"You can see they are more confident in what they are doing," Chapple, a sophomore, said. "When we started, they were hesitant, not going full speed, trying to not make a mistake.
"They are starting to fly around."
Each receiver brings different skills, according to position coach Ron Dugans:
• Barker, 6 foot 2, 185 pounds from Neese High in Ponte Vedra, Fla. is a speedster who runs good routes.
"The type of speed that [makes defenders think] 'This kid won't run by me' and he'll run right by you," Dugans said.
• Copeland, 6-0, 180 pounds from Mt. Zion High in Riverdale, is a possession receiver. Though that is sometimes code for "slow," he laughs and says he's fast enough.
"We were fired up about his ability go up and get the football," Dugans said.
• Valentine, 6-0, 205 pounds from Myrtle Beach (S.C.) High is bigger than most cornerbacks he will line up against.
"Knows what to do with the ball in his hands," Dugans said. "He can come right in and compete."
Each came to Statesboro highly ranked by various scouting services, making it somewhat surprising that three freshmen of this caliber didn't sign with Division I schools, especially considering the premium colleges are putting on signing big receivers.
"They felt like, if my dreams are to get to the NFL, it doesn't matter what level ball you play. Scouts are going to find you," Dugans said.
Barker and Copeland said the hardest part about transitioning from high school to college has been learning the playbook and developing the intuition they need to share with Chapple when they get to the line.
"We're still trying to get that bond between QB and wide receiver to know where you're going to be," Barker said.
Each of the three said they haven't put any pressure on themselves to help the seniors, who are trying to avoid being the first class at Georgia Southern to not win a conference championship. Nor have they had any pressure put on them by the upperclassmen.
"They want us to exceed," Copeland said. "They are expecting us to succeed. We have to meet their standards. They know their talents. They want to know what we are capable of doing."