An Emerging Star, College Football
Shai Werts: He probably could make a tackle, but he doesn’t have to
Shai Werts did not have to make - uh, attempt - a tackle all season.
Quarterbacks try to tackle a defensive player after they have thrown an interception. Usually, it’s a kind of half-hearted try, though there are some QBs known to slap a lick on people and,of course, they risk injury.
For the Georgia Southern starting quarterback, from Clinton out of Newberry High School, no tackle attempts means no interceptions.
Not even one. Not even a bounce off the receiver’s hands, one. Not even a “coach, he ran the wrong route,” one. Not even a diving defender makes a spectacular catch and toe-taps, one. None.
And, there’s something else.
No other FBS program’s top quarterback IN THE NATION could say that, except Shai Werts. The Eagles turned the ball over just 5 times and that, too, is a FBS record.
It wasn’t like the 10-3 Eagles were playing cream-puffs. Clemson’s vaunted defense - none. Louisiana-Monroe and Troy - nope. Eastern Michigan didn’t catch an errant Werts toss in the bowl game.
Clemson, UL-Monroe and Troy were the teams Georgia Southern lost to - but not because of a pick-six or even a regular interception. Eastern Michigan was the team the Eagles beat in the Camellia Bowl, Werts was the offensive most valuable player (that award is named for Bart Starr).
The 37th best dual-threat quarterback IN THE NATION coming out of high school is making the Eagles’ investment in him pay off. The Sun Belt team took a chance on a 5’11” quarterback - he repaid them with 987 yards passing and 908 yards rushing, playing as a red-shirt sophomore.
Werts played in and started all 13 games.
His raw quarterback rating (for 13 games) is 78.8; it was 25.4 in his freshman season. So, his efficiency is improving, even as he attempts fewer passes.
He has thrown 118 passes in a row without an interception.
“I did get lucky one game,” said Shai Werts, as he took a quick break from Christmas vacation in Clinton to sit down with The Chronicle.
“Against Coastal, I was rolling out, trying to throw it away but I was getting tackled at the same time. I threw it right in the outside linebacker’s chest, and he dropped it. He blessed me with that one.”
As a freshman for Georgia Southern, Werts broke a freshman passing yardage record that had stood since 1983. His first season on a college field, Shai Werts accounted for 1,486 yards in total offense.
This past season, as a sophomore, Werts ran the ball for 15 touchdowns and threw the ball for 10 touchdowns. He is the player you have to stop if you’re going to beat Georgia Southern.
Clemson held him to 8 passing attempts and 10 yards rushing - and won, 38-7.
App State held him to 3 passing attempts but allowed him 129 yards rushing - and lost, 34-14.
New Mexico State held him to 4 passing attempts but allowed him to run for an 11.7 yards per carry average - and lost, 48-31.
Werts threw the ball 7 times against Eastern Michigan, and Georgia Southern took home the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl trophy, 23-21. A Tyler Bass 40-yard field goal with no time left on the clock was the game-winner. Before Bass booted three field goals, Werts ran in two touchdowns - with PATs, that was the Eagles’ scoring for the game. Eastern Michigan had the game won, as it took its only lead of the game, if it had ended at the 3:33 minutes-left-to-play mark.
This spring, Werts will return for a junior campaign with the Eagles, then he will have a decision to make.
Declare for the NFL or take a graduate transfer - or stay. His major is sports management (he took a red-shirt year).
Not too shabby for a player who decided to take his high school game 20 miles down the road.
Playing for Phil Strickland, Werts was the 2015 HSSR-SCHSL Division I AA Offensive Player of the Year (career: more than 6,000 total yards and 73 touchdowns).
“That’s a long story,” Werts said of why he didn’t play for Clinton.
“Looking back on it now, I wanted to play in an explosive offense. We moved to Greenwood but the zoning wasn’t right, (the house) was zoned for Emerald. So I went to live with my dad in Newberry. Just before my senior year, when Coach (Andrew) Webb came, I thought about going back (to Clinton), to play with all those guys I came up with.
“My family was against it. And it would have been pretty foul to leave in my senior year.”
Werts said he wanted to stay loyal to Coach Strickland, who took a chance on him as a freshman and guided the team to the Upper State Final - “and we almost won it.”
Georgia Southern Head Coach Chad Lunsford signed 19 prospects in the early signing period last month. So, it’s inevitable that some day, the “undersized kid” from Clinton is going to hand off the Eagles’ signal-calling duties to somebody else.
“I’m not looking at anything beyond spring. I want to stay in the now,” Werts said. Even after he graduates, the signal-caller said, as things stand now, he will end his college playing days at Georgia Southern.
The one thing that could change the plan, possibly, in Coach Lunsford getting a another job, as Scott Satterfield did going from App State, and 2018 Sun Belt Coach of the Year, to the Louisville head coaching position.
There’s the matter of the Eagles’ program getting a “signature win” (see: App State over Michigan, The Citadel over Carolina, Troy over Nebraska) and something else related to the All-Conference Team.
“It’s just another game,” Werts says in December, 2018 about Georgia Southern’s first game of August, 2019 - against LSU. “The media wants to hype it, but you prepare for it the same way. Control the things you can control.”
The signature win opportunities will come in twos - at LSU and at Minnesota in 2019, and at Boise State and at Ole Miss in 2020.
Werts says he hasn’t set upcoming season goals yet. But he is annoyed - although, again, it’s out of his control - that for the second consecutive year he’s an honorable mention All-Sun Belt player. Three quarterbacks were honored ahead of him - Georgia Southern beat two of those quarterbacks’ teams in 2018. Shai Werts has already heard it - how does a guy lead his team to 8 more wins, rack up more than 900 yards passing and running, and throw NO interceptions all season become an “honorable mention”?
“Just watch the film,” Werts says. “How I run our team - and how they run their team.”
Side Note: Georgia Southern opponents
The Eagles lost to Clemson, which defeated Notre Dame Dec. 29 in one National Championship Semi-final.
The Eagles defeated App State, which ended the season 11-2 and defeated Middle Tennessee in a bowl game.
The Eagles lost to Troy, which ended the season 10-3, won a bowl game against Buffalo and defeated Nebraska in the regular season.
The Eagles’ only other loss was to UL-Monroe, which ended the season 6-6, losing their final two games.
The Georgia Southern Eagles went from 2-10 last season (2017) to 10-3 this past season (2018), winning their final 3 games of the season. Almost everybody is coming back (for 2019) - Georgia Southern loses its leading rusher and its leading tackler to graduation.
Seven Georgia Southern players were named to 1st, 2nd and 3rd Team All-Sun Belt Conference. Werts was an honorable mention in his second season at quarterback.