It certainly isn’t often we talk up a traditionally rush-heavy team as an underrated offense. For a long time, Georgia Southern has seen option teams dominate on offense. Come and gone were multiple Paul Johnson disciples as head coach over the last two decades, including Jeff Monken. That changes in 2022 with the introduction of Clay Helton as head coach.
Clay Helton: A Pass Heavy Approach
Helton had been the head coach at USC since 2015 but was let go after an underwhelming season. Landing at Georgia Southern is a chance to rebuild his reputation as a recruiter and offensive mind.
Since taking over as head coach, Clay Helton has been one of the pass heaviest coaches in the game. Every season for the Trojans, he was above average (43%) in neutral game script pass rate. In the 2019 season, he posted 65%, which would lead the country most years. Helton wants to throw in all situations but especially in neutral and early downs. This is a marked difference from Chad Lunsford, who was clearly below average every season. To highlight the difference, his highest was still below 30%.
Ranked 10th in neutral game script pass rate in 2021, Helton threw early and often. He also ran plays at one of the highest rates in the country. Ranking 17th in pace with 75.1 plays per game, a fast-paced pass-heavy offense is coming to Statesboro.
The Impact of Bryan Ellis
The hire of assistant coach/offensive coordinator/passing game coordinator Bryan Ellis might be the most underrated coordinator hire of this cycle. Losing the popularity contest to sexier names, Ellis will only look to make this offense more productive. Ellis was a longtime Western Kentucky staff member under head Coach Jeff Brohm, overseeing productive seasons with quarterback Brandon Doughty when he led the nation in passing yards and touchdowns. As a receiver coach, he saw Taywan Taylor post 98-1,730-17 en route to a third-round draft pick and Nicholas Norris with 76-1,318-14 in the same year.
Headed to USC in 2017, working under Clay Helton, Ellis coached Sam Darnold and Kedon Slovis as quarterback coach. He returned to Western Kentucky last season. Working under the second-pass heaviest offense of all time, Ellis operated as the receivers’ coach again. This time helping Jerreth Sterns and Mitchell Tinsley both surpass 1,400 yards. As a coordinator, Ellis has been a staff member on some of the pass-heaviest offenses in the country. Ellis and Helton will be on the same page, providing an up-tempo approach.
Personnel – Quarterback Play
One of Clay Helton’s first priorities as head coach was bringing in a quarterback he felt could run his offense. Enter Kyle Vantrease. Entering his final year of eligibility, there’s excitement around the program for what this offense could be with Vantrease. At Buffalo, he faced some of the heaviest neutral game script rush rates for a starter. In 2021, Buffalo ranked 119th in neutral game script pass rate, and given the strong offensive line play, it’s justifiable.
However, Vantrease, despite the limited sample, has been a quality player. His career-high passing attempts in a season is 256 in ten games. But in 2020, his best season as a starter, he attempted 154 passes in seven games. Vantrease has has a 61.8% completion percentage since 2020. Over time, his play has been admittedly a mixed bag but that doesn’t detract from his potential upside and willingness to push the ball downfield. This was evident in the spring game where he led the first-team offense to efficient performance.
The regression line above is somewhat misleading as it speaks to what the average of the Top 12 NFL quarterbacks did in college. That’s not the goal here with Vantrease but being close to and above the line in two seasons does highlight the upside. It also shows he wants to throw it deep. In Buffalo, Vantrease had Quian Williams and Jovanny Ruiz who are quality receivers in the Mid-American Conference, but he has an improving cast headed to the Eagles this season.
Offensive Personnel – Receivers
Despite being one of the most rush-heavy offenses over the last few seasons, there’s quality personnel in the receiving game for the Eagles. Khaleb Hood returns as the leading receiver from last season after posting 41-497-0 and he’s a dynamic playmaker in his own right. Hood is the veteran leader in this offense and a clear starter in 3WR sets but his target share could be lower given the incoming talent and progression for the rest of the offense.
Speaking of progress, rising sophomore Derwin Burges Jr is perhaps the most interesting target on this team. As a true freshman in 2021, Burgess immediately became a productive player for the Eagles highlighted by his 5-134-1 game against Texas State. He started only three games last season and while he only had 27 targets last season. However, his substantial role as a true freshman point to untapped potential. Burgess isn’t a player who came out of nowhere either – he had eight power five offers including South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida State, and Kentucky.
Jeremy Singleton is the big-time transfer for this offense. The former Houston wide receiver joins Clay Helton certainly under the promise of a pass-heavy scheme. Singleton is a sixth-year player with plenty of experience and was a key cog in the Cougars’ offense last year. As the second leading receiver, Singleton could immediately step into a WR2 role, if not more. Like the two receivers above, I expect Singleton to be in on 3WR sets, giving him immediate value.
The offense returns two other key members of the receiver group in Amare Jones who likely splits time between running back and receiver and tight end, Beau Johnson. Jones is a low upside player in this offense given depth at the receiver position but Beau Johnson is interesting. The fifth-leading receiver in 2021, Johnson should see substantially more work as a full-time starter in a pass-heavy offense. He’s not a priority target in fantasy as he’s an undersized tight end but he is worth keeping an eye on for fantasy production.
Offensive Personnel – Running Back
Running backs in this offense are going to be less productive and the rush rate will be lower in 2021. If the offense does improve, it could benefit the running backs by being less predictive but that’s still a big projection. There are two clear contenders for the RB1 role in JD King, the returning leader, and Jalen White who took a massive step forward in spring.
JD King was the presumed starter heading into last season, but his year was cut short by injury and we never saw what we expected. The one-time Oklahoma transfer, King is the best bet to operate as the lead back in a committee. He was the most productive back in 2020 and 2019 for the Eagles.
My favorite target in this backfield is junior Jalen White. The third-leading rusher last season, White seized a big role in spring practice that culminated in starting for the first-team offense in the Blue-White game. White has the traditional size of a workhorse back at 6’0” 210lbs. However, he has not yet been used as a receiver. White posted a 5.6 yards per carry. Green tied this mark last year. Targeting Jalen White is my move in drafts but it’s not without risk.
The two other backs to note here are Gerald Greene, who had more rush attempts than Jalen White last season. However, he operated behind White for most of the spring. Green is a quality back and certainly the third man up at worst in any committee but is a smaller back. The other obvious mention here is Terrance Gibbs the incoming freshman with a high-end recruiting pedigree. How he figures in this year is to be determined but he will play some role in this committee.
Offensive Personnel – Offensive Line
Come on now, this wouldn’t be a comprehensive preview without some offensive line love. The unit ranked 106th in line yards in 2021. However, we should see better cohesion as a unit as they return four starters. The biggest question will be adapting to an entirely new offensive system. These linemen were recruited to play in an option offense and have done so for the last few years, meaning it’s an adjustment on concepts. The unit returns their best lineman in guard Khalib Crowder, hopefully keeping the best parts of this unit intact and not the bottom 25 unit we saw last year.
I tend to believe the quality of returning starters and their ability is enough to rise above the drastic scheme change but that doesn’t mean we won’t see some struggles. For the first few games of the year, we’re probably going to see some poor pass blocking from the unit as they settle into game action but overall, there’s optimism here. The expectation for this unit is that they will provide enough time for quarterback Kyle Vantrease to make requisite throws.
I don’t believe people are factoring in the potential for this offense in drafts in both Campus2Canton and CFF leagues. This team will likely be top 30 in neutral game script pass rate and plays per game. Kyle Vantrease has his warts as a quarterback but in the SunBelt conference, he is more than passable with facing bottom 20 defenses weekly. The sheer volume of the offense should also keep him and the receiving weapons productive.
We’re going to see a surprise (or multiple) fantasy finish from this team. The only concern is projecting who that will be. Derwin Burgess Jr. is my pick to lead the offense. He has made the strides he needs to in spring. However, in deep leagues and some bestballs, Khaleb Hood is worth a dart throw as well as he’s still the returning leader in receiving yards.