Georgia Southern Extra: New coach Clay Helton welcomes the heat as football camp opens

·9 min read
Georgia Southern players warm-up during the first practice of the season on Wednesday morning at Paulson Stadium.
Georgia Southern players warm-up during the first practice of the season on Wednesday morning at Paulson Stadium.

Newsflash: It's hot in Georgia in August.

It might not be pleasant to practice football in the heat of the day, but what if that could be turned into a strategic advantage?

When the Georgia Southern football team held its first fall practice on Wednesday from 10 a.m. to past high noon, new head coach Clay Helton evoked the name of the most iconic Eagles legend at the end of the session as his players gathered around him at Paulson Stadium.

"I thanked coach (Erk) Russell today," Helton recalled in his post-practice session with local media. "I told the boys out there. I said, 'I want everybody to look up in the sky and thank coach Russell because he's given us something that not a lot of people are getting, and that's extreme heat, Statesboro heat.' Another way of being able to give some adversity to guys, being able to embrace hardship and suffering in being out there because that will make the game easier."

With the first of 25 practices under their belts and more to come in the heat, game days this fall could seen more of a breeze. Opponents who had more comfortable conditions could "melt" in the heat and humidity while trying to keep up with the Eagles' uptempo offense.

"We've always believed in relentless effort, and it's one of the reasons these kids practice so hard," Helton said. "There is only one speed that we practice with. It's 4 to 6 seconds per play ... that is all-out relentless effort. You do that from the start of practice all the way to the finish. You do that, you don't have to do the extra conditioning that the old school used to do because you're going so hard."

So no need for gassers to end practice. No one will complain about that.

Georgia Southern ran each position group through drills two at a time, meaning more reps and more conditioning in double time.

"I'm really proud of the kids in an adverse day right off the bat, their mindset of toughness, discipline, being united" in the first practice," Helton said. "Now the challenge is to be consistent and do it in practice 2" on Thursday morning.

Depth at QB

There were plenty of quarterbacks in drills Wednesday, led by sixth-year player Kyle Vantrease, a transfer from the University of Buffalo.

While he has been working with the starters since the spring and has been introduced as the starter by Helton, there is no shortage of others competing behind him.

Georgia Southern quarterback Kyle Vantrease passes during practice.
Georgia Southern quarterback Kyle Vantrease passes during practice.

Redshirt-sophomore Connor Cigelske, the only QB with starting experience for the Eagles, was joined by true freshman Zak Rozsman and transfers Colton FitzGerald (Boise State), Richie Lankford (College of San Mateo) and Kyle Toole (Troy).

Not suited up was true freshman David Dallas, on early enrollee out of Trinity Christian who had surgery in the spring. Helton said the team feels no rush to get him on the field. By the way, his brother Josh Dallas is a true freshman wide receiver.

"We're being really preventative," Helton said Wednesday. "We're thinking big picture. As soon as he's ready to go, we'll get him out there. He's got a little bit more time. We're going to make sure he's 100%. We're not going to push it.

"Obviously, having experience right now with Kyle (Vantrease) and some others that have been in games, we don't have to rush him right now. You can't wait for him to get reps and progress as a quarterback, but we're not going to sacrifice long term just because we get a little bit greedy here. We're going to make sure he's medically clear, he's confident and he looks right."

Wednesday's practice was the first of four scheduled for this week to kick off fall practice. The Eagles are slated to be back at Paulson Stadium for practice from 10:05 a.m. to 12:05 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with Sunday off.

Next week, the football team practices at Paulson at the same time on Monday, then moves over to the Eagle Creek practice fields the following day of what should be routine for Tuesdays.

The student-athletes are off Wednesday, Aug. 10 for the first day of classes.

The public also is invited to attend two scrimmages. The first is on Saturday, Aug. 12 at Paulson at a time TBA. The second is more unique, as the Eagles come to Savannah on Aug. 20 to scrimmage at Memorial Stadium at 10 a.m., followed by a Little Eagles children's clinic.

Details on registration will be announced at a later time, along with more information on practice schedules.

The 40-Year Football Team

To commemorate the 40th year of modern football at Georgia Southern, the Eagle Football Alumni Association and the department of athletics have partnered for a special project.

Fans will be voting for the 40-Year Team, position by position, over designated days, leading up to the full team announced Sept. 2 — the night before the 2022 season opener against Morgan State in Statesboro.

Fans vote only once per voting period. The poll for the offensive and defensive lines opened 12:01 a.m. ET on Aug. 1 and closes at 11:59 p.m. ET on Aug. 4.

Other voting periods are Aug. 8-11 (specialists and slot backs), Aug. 15-18 (wide receivers and defensive backs), Aug. 22-25 (running backs and linebackers) and Aug. 29-Sept. 1 (quarterbacks).

To be eligible, a player had to have finished his eligibility at GS, or have graduated before transferring to another school. All players on the ballot were one of the following:

• On the GS Athletics Hall of Fame ballot; an all-conference (first/second/third team) selection or conference award honoree; an All-American; a member of the GS Athletics Hall of Fame; a national award winner; an NFL player; an NFL draft pick; or has their number retired.

The EFAA approved the initial list and had the discretion to adjust the nominations. Fans will have the vote in determining the actual team.

To view the ballots and vote, go to https://gseagles.com/sb_output.aspx?form=199

Eagles in the NFL

Whether the argument is if Georgia Southern is RBU or Kicker U (or neither), fans can take pride in watching Eagles soar to the NFL level at any position. It's a dream for the players, and a few are getting their opportunities at training camps this summer.

After a standout career in Statesboro, cornerback Darrell Baker Jr. signed this spring with the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted free agent. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder's measurables in testing at pro day and other scouting events caught the NFL's attention in addition to his game film.

Arkansas receiver De'Vion Warren (10) is tackled by Georgia Southern cornerback Darrell Baker Jr. (14) during a game on Sept. 18, 2021 in Fayetteville, Ark.
Arkansas receiver De'Vion Warren (10) is tackled by Georgia Southern cornerback Darrell Baker Jr. (14) during a game on Sept. 18, 2021 in Fayetteville, Ark.

Now, the recent GS graduate with speed, length, quickness, athleticism and football skills is getting his shot to graduate to the next level.

Entering his third season, Tyler Bass appears entrenched as Buffalo's kicker for the present and future. Since he was drafted in the sixth round (188th overall) in 2020, the 5-10, 183-pounder has pounded kicks with great accuracy.

Buffalo Bills kicker Tyler Bass (2), a former Georgia Southern standout, kicks a field goal against the Denver Broncos during an NFL game on Dec. 19, 2020, in Denver.
Buffalo Bills kicker Tyler Bass (2), a former Georgia Southern standout, kicks a field goal against the Denver Broncos during an NFL game on Dec. 19, 2020, in Denver.

In 33 games, Bass is 56 of 66 (84.8%) with no blocks on field-goal attempts and a long of 58 yards. He's 108 of 110 on extra-point attempts (no blocks) and has booted 127 touchbacks with 71 returned on kickoffs.

Matt Breida's great speed is a desirable trait in the NFL, as several teams can attest firsthand. The running back is entering his sixth season after signing with the New York Giants as a free agent on March 21.

Buffalo Bills running back Matt Breida (22), a former star at Georgia Southern, carries for a touchdown in the second half against the Saints in New Orleans. The Bills won 31-6.
Buffalo Bills running back Matt Breida (22), a former star at Georgia Southern, carries for a touchdown in the second half against the Saints in New Orleans. The Bills won 31-6.

The 5-foot-10, 190-pounder was a rookie free agent with the San Francisco 49ers in 2017, then traded in April 2020 to the Miami Dolphins for a fifth-round draft pick. The Bills signed him in March 2021 and he played in Buffalo with Tyler Bass last season.

For his career, Breida has played in 64 games win 19 starts, 466 carries for 2,281 yards (a 4.9 average)and seven touchdowns. He also has 83 receptions for 729 yards a 9.1 average) and six TDs.

Breida has come to the Giants as former Eagles star defensive end Raymond Johnson III has left New York after his rookie season. The 6-3, 270-pounder has signed with the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals.

After signing with the Giants as an undrafted free agent in 2021, Johnson played in 15 games and had four tackles, including one sack of Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady.

Atlanta Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo (7) looks on prior to an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Kevin Sabitus)
Atlanta Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo (7) looks on prior to an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Kevin Sabitus)

Younghoe Koo will be kicking for the Atlanta Falcons for a fourth season after bringing consistency since his arrival in 2019. A Pro Bowl selection in 2020, Koo has shown Falcons fans what Eagles fans already knew during his time in Statesboro. The All-Sun Belt performer was the program's first FBS All-American (third team in 2016) and first finalist for the Lou Groza Award as college football's best kicker.

The 5-foot-9, 185-pounder has played in 44 NFL games, made 90 of 100 field-goal attempts with a long of 54 and one blocked, made 87 of 91 extra-point attempts and had 92 touchbacks with 87 kickoffs returned.

Kansas City Chiefs running back Jerick McKinnon, a former Georgia Southern standout quarterback, is tackled by Pittsburgh Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds (34) during the NFL wild-card playoff game Jan. 16, 2022 in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Chiefs running back Jerick McKinnon, a former Georgia Southern standout quarterback, is tackled by Pittsburgh Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds (34) during the NFL wild-card playoff game Jan. 16, 2022 in Kansas City, Mo.

Jerick McKinnon — who had a knack for big plays at Georgia Southern at quarterback, running back, kick returner, even on defense — showed he could meet the moment during the Kansas City Chiefs' late run into the playoffs last season.

McKinnon said he took some time after the season to deal with health issues before re-signing on June 14 in Kansas City, which has a crowded running backs room.

He's proven he can play in the NFL since being selected in the third round (96th overall) by the Vikings in 2014. He went from Minnesota (2014-17) to missing the 2018 and 2019 seasons due to injury to playing for the 49ers (2020) and Chiefs (2021).

For his career, McKinnon has played in 87 games with 18 starts, 567 carries for 2,299 yards (a 4.1 average) and 12 TDs. He's added 188 receptions for 1,344 yards (a 7.2 average) and seven TDs.

Chicago Bears cornerback Kindle Vildor, a former Georgia Southern star, gets set for a play during an NFL  game against the Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 20, 2020, in Minneapolis.
Chicago Bears cornerback Kindle Vildor, a former Georgia Southern star, gets set for a play during an NFL game against the Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 20, 2020, in Minneapolis.

Kindle Vildor has been making progress in his short tenure with the Chicago Bears, who selected the 5-11, 189-pound cornerback in the fifth round (163rd overall) of the 2020 draft.

He started one game as a rookie and played in all 16. Last season, Vildor started 12 of 17 games. He has two-year totals of 43 solo tackles, 17 assists, one sack (of Ravens QB Tyler Huntley) and five passes defended.

For more coverage of Georgia Southern athletics, go to https://www.savannahnow.com/sports/college/georgia-southern/

Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at ndominitz@savannahnow.com. Twitter: @NathanDominitz

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Georgia Southern Extra newsletter Eagles football team first practice