Football looking to start season strong against Tennessee

Football season is back. For head coach Shawn Elliott and his Georgia State Panthers, the 2019 season gives the program an opportunity to rebound from their 2018 lows and chase some silverware.

The Panthers were one of the worst teams in the country last season. Injuries, especially in the secondary, did not help. When all was said and done, the Panthers finished 2-10, with their opening day victory against Kennesaw State representing one of the few positives.

On the offensive side of the ball, things will be different this season. Wide receiver Penny Hart, who is now a member of the Indianapolis Colts, will no longer be catching passes from Dan Ellington. As a result, there is a huge hole to fill.

On the defensive side of things, the Panthers will hope 2019 ushers in a new age of dominance. At worst, the Panthers’ secondary, which was torn to shreds last season, is now a year older. Head Coach Shawn Elliott, speaking after April’s spring game, confirmed the team’s goal to pressure opposition quarterbacks at a much higher level this season.

Here are some players to look out for:

Dan Ellington: Senior Quarterback

If there is one player who will make or break the offense this season, look no further than Dan Ellington. The dual-threat quarterback is the key to Shawn Elliott’s no-huddle offense. 

Ellington has high hopes for the 2019 season. After being given an honorable mention on the 2018 All-Sun Belt team, the senior is looking to take things to a new level over the course of his last college season.

“My personal goal is to be the best quarterback in the conference,” Ellington said after April’s spring game. “I honestly think I can do it.”

Ellington, who transferred to Georgia State in 2017, will be competing in his final year of eligibility. The quarterback hopes to compete in a bowl game.

“I have never been to the postseason in my life,” he said. “I just want to get to a bowl game.” 

Tra Barnett: Senior Running Back 

The running back position is the second piece to the no-huddle offense. Last season, Barnett earned his starting spot and did not look back. He rushed for 551 yards on 109 carries, giving him an impressive 5.1 yards-per-carry average.

This season, the senior, along with Ellington, will be looking to cement his legacy. His 703 career yards with Georgia State has him seventh in Georgia State history. 

Christian Owens: Redshirt Senior Wide Receiver

Owens was one of the standouts during April’s spring game. The 6-foot-4-inch receiver has the ability to become Ellington’s go-to guy this season.

He caught multiple passes during the spring game, including an 83-yard touchdown. Without Penny Hart, the offense will need its new faces to show up and produce right away. If not, the offense will struggle to move the ball.

Victor Heyward: Junior Outside Linebacker   

Heyward has been one of the defense’s standout players since he arrived in 2017 as a true freshman. Last season, Heyward was one of the few bright spots in what was an otherwise lackluster defensive unit.

Heyward started every game for the Panthers and was fifth in tackles, totaling 48. If Shawn Elliott’s vision for a dominant defensive line is to come true, Heyward will be a key player.

“I was very, very pleased [with the defense],” Elliott said after the spring game. “Every single day this spring, the defense brought it.” 

Jabari Aiken: Sophomore Cornerback 

Aiken was part of the Panthers’ secondary unit that was consistently shredded in 2018. During the spring game, however, the sophomore brought a new level of intensity.

He made numerous defensive plays, including an interception, as the defense went on to claim the match 54-33.

He, like the rest of the secondary, is now a year older. Only time will tell if the improvements show.

Opening Day Preview

The Panthers will open up their 2019 season in Knoxville, Tennessee, as they take on the Tennessee Volunteers.

For the Volunteers, head coach Jeremy Pruitt is going into his second season. The Volunteers finished 5-7 last season and missed out on a bowl game, something which left little to celebrate. 

On offense, junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano is one to look out for. With Jim Chaney taking over as the Volunteer’s offensive coordinator this season, Guarantano could finally have his breakout season. 

The defense will look to slow down Georgia State’s up-tempo offense and keep them off the scoreboard as much as possible. 

This game represents a chance for both programs to lay down a marker for success in 2019. For the Panthers, a victory against an SEC team would signal a sharp jump in quality, hopefully setting them up for a run at the Sun Belt Conference title. For the Volunteers, nothing short of a dominant victory would be seen as a positive. If the Vols have aspirations of fighting for the SEC East or a bowl game appearance, they simply must win in front of the Neyland Stadium faithful. 

Espen Indrisano’s Season Predictions:

August 31 will be a massive day for the Panther’s football program, regardless of the result. For the players and coaching staff, victory is obviously the number one priority, but do the Panthers have enough to run with Tennessee?

If the team can survive the first half and perhaps take a lead into the locker room, you won’t want to take your eyes off the screen, as the Volunteers do have some weaknesses that can be exploited. Do I believe this will happen? Probably not. Keep your expectations to a minimum. 

I think the Panthers will hold their own, but ultimately fall 31-17. 

For the season as a whole, though, I believe the Panthers will take a big step forward. A loss against Tennessee would be a disappointment, but the Panthers could have a realistic shot to get their seniors into a bowl game.

The games against the Western Michigan Broncos and Army Black Knights will also represent tough out-of-conference matchups, but if the Panthers can go down to Statesboro on the final week of the season and steal one against the Eagles, I think a 6-6 record would be good enough to appear in another bowl game, perhaps the Cure Bowl for the third time.