AT A GLANCE
POSITION COACHES: ILB coach Brian Landis (second year at GSU), OLB coach Nate Fuqua (fifth year at GSU, also defensive coordinator)
RETURNING STARTERS: Senior ILB Blake Carroll* (team-leading 74 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, joint-team high 2 fumble recoveries in 2020); Junior OLB Jontrey Hunter* (1 sack, 1 interception, 1 fumble recovery and 2 forced fumbles in 2020)
RETURNING CONTRIBUTORS: Redshirt-freshman ILB Justin Abraham*, sophomore ILB Marcus Anderson, junior ILB Zach Dixon, junior ILB Jordan Veneziale, junior ILB Kyle Wright (transfer from UNC); Senior OLB DeAndre Bowman, senior OLB Jacorey Crawford, sophomore OLB Terrell Gordon, sophomore OLB Jay Lepkoske, sophomore Jamil Muhammad (Vanderbilt transfer/former QB), junior TJ Smith, senior OLB Jhi’Shawn Taylor* (3 tackles for loss, 2 sacks in 2020)
NEW NAMES: Freshman ILB Evan Graham, freshman ILB Jordan Jones; Freshman OLB Chris Davis, junior OLB Shamar McCollum (transfer from Wake Forest)
KEY LOSSES: ILB Trajan Stephens-McQueen (fourth-leading tackler in school history with 260); OLB Jordan Strachan (NCAA sack leader in 2020 with 10.5 in 10 games, transferred to South Carolina), OLB Victor Heyward (top 10 in career sacks and tackles for loss at Georgia State)
* = projected starter
The Georgia State linebacker corps loses a steadying force in graduating senior Trajan Stephens-McQueen but returns arguably the team’s most improved player in 2020 in senior Blake Carroll, who took a hold of the starting linebacker spot next to Stephens-McQueen and ran with it, leading the team in tackles and earning a spot on the All Sun-Belt Honorable Mention team at the end of the year. The early clubhouse leader to take the vacant starting spot next to Carroll is redshirt-freshman Justin Abraham, who impressed in spring. On the outside, Jontrey Hunter returns to the OLB spot he had taken over by season’s end in 2020 and will be asked to drop back in coverage as well as offer support in the pass rush and run defense. Jhi’Shawn Taylor is the current projected starter at the other outside linebacker position, earning the unenviable task of replacing the hard-to-replace in last season’s national sack leader Jordan Strachan, who entered the transfer portal in the spring and ended up in Columbia, SC, with the Gamecocks.
As a general point, there won’t and shouldn’t be an expectation that any one player replaces Strachan’s prolific output – double-digit sack-getters don’t grow on trees. His loss will surely have been felt as the Panthers were looking forward to at least one more season with #7 being a terror around the edge, but the fact is that Georgia State has some options to piecemeal together his pressure numbers and make the opposing quarterbacks in 2021 uncomfortable. Among the options outside of the starting group stand two very intriguing wild cards. Shamar McCollum transferred in from Wake Forest shortly after the news of Strachan’s departure, and if there is anyone who could have Strachanesque sack total, McCollum – a former high-3-star recruit out of HS – is the best bet to do so and could well be the starter at the rush end OLB spot before too long. The other possible option is perhaps the most unexpected player at this position, former QB-turned pass-rusher Jamil Muhammad, himself a transfer from Vanderbilt. Muhammad is still relatively new to the defensive side of the ball after moving to OLB near the beginning of last season, but he’s put in real work to bulk up and learn the intricacies of the position, so his potential impact can’t be ignored.
On the inside, the starters feel pretty enshrined based on early indications but there’s still some experience to lean on for depth. Zach Dixon was a part-time starter in 2019 after the injury to Ed Curney and Jordan Veneziale has played situational reps at ILB in addition to showing up all over the field on special teams. Kyle Wright remains an rotational option after transferring in from Chapel Hill ahead of the 2020 season and Marcus Anderson likewise cannot be ruled out from being a contributor.