Panthers ready to enter brand new world with FBS debut

ATLANTA — When Georgia State’s football program first started in 2010, the team’s first preseason practice seemed like a brand new world.

Even though that team’s redshirt freshmen are now seniors, the Panthers’ world seems just as new as they met with the media prior to the team’s first practice of the 2013 season Friday at GSU Practice Complex.

With a new coaching staff, led by head coach Trent Miles, and new schemes offensively and defensively, plus a new conference (Sun Belt) and a new subdivision, there are definitely a lot of changes in the air around the GSU program.

But Miles is confident the Panthers will be able to handle all of them.

“The changes around everything have all been for the better,” Miles said. “Young kids are resilient. They handle change a lot better than us old folks.”

Indeed, despite coming off the worst of the program’s first three seasons in a 1-10 campaign during GSU’s FCS finale a year ago, there is a definite sense of optimism and excitement around the Panthers as they begin preparation for their 2013 opener against Samford on Aug. 30 at the Georgia Dome.

“It’s a great day,” Miles said as he opened his press conference Friday. “It’s like Christmas to us as coaches. This is what we live for. We’ve very, very excited to get our season started off on the right foot and get out there and watch our young men perform, and see who can really play football. It’s very exciting.”

Considering the formidable challenges the Panthers will be facing, including the schedule taking a major step up in a conference that produced four bowl teams last year, plus a non-conference schedule that features trips to two-time defending national champion Alabama and Big 12 member West Virginia, one might not think there is a whole lot to be excited about.

Most preseason prognosticators aren’t that optimistic either, with GSU being unanimously picked to finish last in the poll of the SBC coaches, with at least one publication tapping the Panthers last among the nation’s 125 BCS teams.

But like Miles, the players aren’t fazed by the dire predictions.

“We hear it, but we don’t feed into it,” said senior defensive lineman Theo Agnew. “Essentially, we’re running our race. We’re the horse with the blinders on just going full speed ahead. We’re not really concerned about external things. We’re worried about us in this room as a family, as Panthers.”

Well, at least one Panther player has heard the doom and gloom of the early predictions, and admits he has at least a little bit of a chip on his shoulder as he enters the 2013 season with something to prove.

And one can’t blame Brookwood grad Ben McLane, who is trying to fend off challenges from JUCO transfer Clay Chastain and redshirt sophomore Ronnie Bell to keep his starting quarterback job after enduring a rough freshman season a year ago.

“Anyone who says they don’t pay attention to (the negative predictions) is probably lying to you,” the 6-foot-1, 210-pound sophomore joked when told about Agnew’s comment. “You hear things, but you take it for what it’s worth and then you get together and work hard. You don’t pay too much attention to it. We know how good we are. We know what we can do. We know how hard we’ve worked (in the offseason). We’re excited to get going and see where that can take us.

“It’s just trying to compete. Ronnie and Clay are both great quarterbacks, and every one of us can play and help the team win. It’s just competing to get all three of us better so whoever the guy who ends up playing (is) can play his best.”

Whoever wins the starting quarterback job isn’t the only Panther player on either side of the line of scrimmage and special teams who must get better from last year, even playmakers like Agnew on the defensive side and receiver/return specialist Albert Wilson.

That also includes the offensive line, which not only features 6-8, 290-pound senior and two-year starter Ulrick John, but also a major Gwinnett County flavor, with incumbent starter Harrision Clottey healthy after offseason shoulder surgery and set to battle Brookwood grad and redshirt freshman Jah-Mai Davidson for one of the starting guard spots.

And as many changes has he’s seen in his four previous years in the program, Clottey says he is embracing yet another new atmosphere in his final year at GSU.

“I actually see it as a blessing,” the 6-foot-5, 310-pound redshirt senior said. “I’ve had a very unique experience just playing college football. I’ve been blessed to be on an inaugural football team and play a different schedule the first year and go to an FCS schedule. It’s one of the biggest blessings playing an FBS schedule now. I just see it as a challenge you need to take on full speed, and just have a chip on your shoulder to prove (the naysayer) wrong.

“A lot of the guys who were here from the beginning, this is our last ride together. So, these are challenges that we welcome.”