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Post When 52nd is better than 15th

Wednesday July 19, 2017

The AJC shared over the weekend a letter from a former baseball letterman calling for a change of leadership for the athletic department. The letter doesn’t break much new ground in its litany of complaints against the athletic department. It wasn’t a great year for some of Georgia’s more visible programs, and Greg McGarity isn’t a popular athletics director these days. Fine.

I couldn’t let this line pass without comment though. Which program would this informed letterman have Georgia emulate?

“Look at Clemson and what their athletic department has done with great leadership and a plan for high success.”

Clemson finished a lofty 52nd in this year’s Directors’ Cup standings. Lest you think that was an off-year, the Tigers were 42nd in 2016 and 57th in 2015. When I say “it’s about the football“, this is what I’m talking about. Clemson’s overall program can barely break into the top 50, but success in the most visible sports creates the perception of “great leadership.” Meanwhile it’s a crisis that Georgia nearly fell out of the top 20.

I don’t bring that up to diminish the concerns expressed in the letter. Success in football won’t eliminate customer service issues, and it won’t make the volleyball program any better. It might be enough that perception matters here: as the AJC notes, the letter gives “an on-the-record voice to the concerns that others have expressed behind the scenes.” Whether it’s based on football (or, in this case, baseball), those shortcomings invite us to find others. The athletics administration doesn’t have many defenders, at least not in the public space. Is that perception recoverable?


Post Thompson’s recovery to be tested early

Wednesday July 12, 2017

Trenton Thompson was already one of Georgia’s more interesting players. As a headliner of the 2015 signing class, he showed early promise and emerged as an anchor of the defensive line as a sophomore. His second season ended with a well-deserved MVP recognition in the Liberty Bowl. After that impressive performance Thompson seemed poised for a triumphant junior season that would usher him into the NFL.

Life isn’t linear, and it had other plans for Thompson. His withdrawal from classes in February after a peculiar hospitalization was one of the most shocking stories of the offseason. Weeks earlier Thompson had been a dominant focal point of the Georgia defense. In February all of that became secondary to his physical and mental well-being.

Fortunately Thompson seems to be back on more solid ground and will be back in classes over the summer. There’s good news on the medical side also. Kirby Smart revealed at SEC Media Days that Thompson “should be full go” for preseason practices.

While Thompson’s first two seasons make big expectations reasonable for 2017, his offseason setbacks add a bit of uncertainty about the player we’ll see. He missed spring practice during his hiatus, and he would have likely missed time anyway due to some shoulder surgery shortly after the bowl game. It’s great that won’t miss any more time, but there has to be some readjustment after missing time in the classroom and on the practice field. Can Thompson return to the player he was against TCU, and how quickly can he get there? Smart likes what he’s seen so far. “He’s gone out and worked out very hard,” Smart said. “His conditioning has been really good. His weight has been really good. I’m expecting him to be full go.”

Thompson’s readiness will be put to the test early in the season. He and his fellow defensive linemen might face their toughest challenge of the season just two weeks into the campaign.

Recently Cy Brown at Dawgnation took a stab at the top five offensive linemen Georgia will face in 2017. Two of them play next to each other: Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey. Nelson and McGlinchey are Notre Dame’s Chubb and Michel: two experienced and talented upperclassmen who passed up likely NFL draft selections and returned to their team for a final season. McGlinchey isn’t just a senior – he’s a graduate student. SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic believes that the duo “might be the best double team combo” in the nation.

This is the kind of matchup that should be a fascinating game-within-the-game: one of the nation’s best defensive linemen against a pair of excellent blockers. If Thompson is not completely back in form, the Irish duo would have the advantage, and Notre Dame’s new quarterback might have an easier time getting comfortable. But if Thompson can hold his own against this offensive line, it could be the game that launches him and his team toward much greater national recognition.


Post Quarterback game theory

Monday July 3, 2017

It’s one thing to say that Georgia recruiting is changing for the better. It’s another to see how that’s playing out. I’m just trying to wrap my head around this story.

Georgia has two bluechip five-star quarterbacks on the roster. It would be rare, if not unprecedented, for a school to get consideration from a third in three years.

Yet here we are: Georgia is being considered by, if not favored by, not one but two of the top quarterbacks in the nation. Justin Fields (formerly a Penn St. commitment) and Matt Corral (formerly a Southern Cal commitment) both have high interest in Georgia. Fields is a dual-threat passer from Georgia who has exploded in recruiting circles during the offseason. Corral is a west coast gunslinger sought by the best teams in the nation. Any program would be fortunate to get either. Corral would be another big arm that could thrive in Georgia’s pro-style system en route to the NFL. Fields is dynamic enough that Georgia would modify its offense to make use of his talent (think Deshaun Watson).

The recruiting of Corral and Fields sets up some intriguing chess moves for the summer. Corral is planning on taking visits in July and committing before his senior season. Fields might take his visits a little later. It’s possible that Kirby Smart will have decisions to make both in terms of this recruiting battle and the identity he wants for his offense. Does this timing affect Georgia’s approach? It shouldn’t.

Modern recruiting never stops. The best recruiters continue to recruit through Signing Day – even their own commitments. Because verbal commitments are nonbinding, coaches must always work on their own pledges even as they attempt to flip prospects committed elsewhere. They also continue recruiting positions at which they have commitments. First, they must line up contingencies if their commitments flip or become nonqualifiers. Second, there’s a chance that other prospects might emerge during the process.

That’s to say that Georgia’s recruiting of both Corral and Fields will press on even if one or the other commits to Georgia or to any other school. While we might debate which could be a better fit or have a higher ceiling, the real shame would be missing out on both of them when Georgia seems to be in such a good position at this point. Georgia would gladly take a commitment from Corral or Fields, but that commitment wouldn’t stop Kirby Smart from continuing to recruit the other.

I’ll be thrilled if Georgia lands either – the quarterback room in 2018 would be as deep and as talented as it’s ever been. Even if you don’t follow recruiting, this situation and how it plays out should give us some signals about Kirby Smart’s plans and preferences for the future of his offense.


Post It’s the football, dummy

Monday July 3, 2017

I read pieces like this and wonder if we’d be seeing them – or if they’d resonate nearly as much – if Georgia were to win the SEC East in football this year.

I’m the polar opposite of the football-only fan, and I have no time for the subset of our fans (and they do exist) who are openly hostile when resources are directed to anything but the football progam. At the same time, I won’t pretend that anything but football sets the agenda and mood at Georgia. When you appear – and especially feature – on lists of most tortured fan bases, it’s going to color how you view most everything else.

There hasn’t been much going on in Sanford Stadium for at least two years. The Auburn game last year was certainly an exception, but any good feeling generated by that close upset win was erased weeks later when Tech came back from 13 down in the 4th quarter. It’s been a long time since that glorious early September evening in 2014 when the Dawgs were on top of the college football world and it looked as if Georgia, and not Clemson, was poised for bigger things.

When things aren’t going well on the football field, especially for such a lengthy period of time, your eye starts to wander to everything else that’s off. You’re annoyed by the in-game music. You are irritated by the wait for a bite to eat and the conditions in the bathroom. You start to question why you got up at 5:30 AM to have some semblance of a tailgate for a noon kickoff. Eventually you ask yourself why you continue to pay as much as you do for this experience when you could be just as disappointed in the comfort of your own home. In a few months, you’ll see that some other Georgia team lost to Florida, and all of the football dread will come washing back over you. We’re in a bad place right now.

I don’t mean to dismiss legitimate concerns with the state of the athletic department. Are there issues that can be laid at the feet of the athletic director? Personnel decisions certainly. Resources and facilities are also up there, though I don’t think Butts-Mehre has been asleep at the wheel in facilities. We’ve had messy incidents with the swimming program, the tennis programs, and even within the athletic department itself. Taken together, it’s not a good look and not an indication of a healthy culture. That’s all worth exploring, but does the average Georgia fan really have the stomach for that, or is it enough to tip the scales when compounded with our football dissatisfaction?

I do think each sport deserves to be evaluated individually, so it’s important to discern what exactly we’re griping about. I don’t remember the state of the athletic program when Georgia was five yards from the national title game in 2012. Successes like that of the track team or the men’s tennis run or softball’s WCWS season a year ago didn’t seem to move the needle much – certainly not relative to a Homecoming loss to Vanderbilt. If there’s worry over the athletic department, it’s mostly to do with its ability to support a championship football program.

Georgia – all of it – needs a successful 2017 football season. Structural issues in the athletic department, whatever they might be, won’t necessarily be cured by a few more wins, but how the sausage is made is not a careabout for many Georgia fans – so long as the end product is palatable. The bad news is that it’s going to be a while before we have an opportunity to get that good news. We’ll get some shots in the arm from recruiting, but that’s no substitute for the real thing. Even if the football team starts well, we know that expectations for 2017 involve a win in Jacksonville and an SEC East title. That’s still six months or more down the road, and that’s a long time to carry around this much angst.


Post Ramsey’s return?

Thursday June 1, 2017

One lasting impression from G-Day was the lack of quarterback depth. Jacob Eason and Jake Fromm played from start to finish with a few series handled by walk-on Sam Vaughn. The position was so thin that Brice Ramsey helped out in spring practice drills even after announcing his intention to transfer for his final year.

Kirby Smart disclosed earlier this week that Ramsey’s transfer destination might just be Georgia – especially if Smart has anything to say about it. “We want him there,” Smart said. “We’ve been actively recruiting Brice.” Ramsey saw more action as a punter than as a quarterback over the past couple of seasons, but Georgia’s rosters at both quarterback and punter mean that Ramsey would return to the program as a quarterback.

The quarterback depth situation is about much more than next-man-up during a game. It’s about preparing the team during the offseason and during the 20 hours of work each week during the season. Over the next six months, Georgia’s receivers are going to take hundreds of reps with quarterbacks in drills and practices. It’s not so much about resting Fromm and Eason as it is making sure there are enough arms to keep workouts moving at the most efficient rate. Smart touched on this need when he explained Ramsey’s role during spring practice.

“We’re talking from a standpoint of can we get enough balls being thrown?” Smart said. “(Ramsey is) going to do that. Those three guys (Eason, Fromm and Vaughn), they’re going to get a lot of work. Most of the time, you’d like to have five quarterbacks but three of them getting the reps. What are the other two doing? Most of the time they’re helping facilitate a drill. Well, Brice is going to do that to stay in shape, to keep himself in shape, and also continue looking at other places.”

Ramsey would help the team in that regard even if he never saw the field during a game. Along with incoming freshman walk-on Stetson Bennett IV, Ramsey would give Smart his five quarterbacks. But it seems unlikely that Ramsey would return only to be a human Jugs machine if he has the opportunity to play at another school. If he returns, you’d expect him to work for a place on the quarterback depth chart. “He’s a guy who could come in and compete, first, second or third, and he’s very experienced,” Smart explained.

Ramsey’s potential return also raises an idea that seemed unthinkable a few months ago: redshirting Jake Fromm. Though Fromm seemed more than capable during spring, it’s still very much Eason’s starting job. Thanks to Eason’s durability, Greyson Lambert attempted a single pass in 2016 (in mop-up duty against UL-L) once Eason claimed the starting job for good after the Nicholls game. You’d hate to waste a year of a promising quarterback’s eligibility if that same situation played out in 2017 and Eason (knock wood) remained healthy throughout the season.

If Fromm is open to redshirting, it would allow an additional year of separation between he and Eason. Ramsey can more than handle the role in typical backup situations, and you wouldn’t have to burn a year of Fromm’s eligibility in the 4th quarter of the Samford game or if Eason had to miss a play after losing his helmet. Fromm would always be available if the situation called for it.

There’s also a recruiting implication. Georgia has missed on a few top 2018 quarterback prospects, and an additional year of Fromm would ease some pressure to sign a top-rated QB this year (though it won’t stop Smart from trying.) You’re still going to need depth and will have to replace Ramsey in 2018, but you might cast a wider net if Fromm would be with the program for a year beyond initial expectations.

There are a lot of unknowns involved in redshirting Fromm – least of all his openness to the idea – and he’d have to stay 4 or 5 years for the redshirt decision to make sense. We’ve seen a quarterback redshirt pay off handsomely with Greene and Murray, but every situation is unique.

Ramsey is still exploring his options in the meantime, but Smart expects resolution within a couple of weeks.


Post Why would you sign early?

Wednesday May 10, 2017

It’s official: there will be an early signing period for football. “Early” is a generous description: we’re talking about a whole six weeks before the usual February signing date. We’ve kicked this idea around for over ten years, and for whatever reason now was the time for change. What I wrote then had to do with a proposed earlier signing period in the summer or fall, but my thinking doesn’t change much with a December date.

Put it this way: why would a prospect want to sign six weeks before he’d otherwise do so? What does he gain?

A lot can happen in the December-January time frame to affect the decision. Coaching staffs change. NFL Draft decisions are made along with other roster attrition. Lower-profile or late-blooming prospects might pick up additional offers. Yes, an exception for coaching changes seems to have fairly popular support, but that’s not how the new signing period will operate at first. Once you’re signed, you’re signed.

The only reason to consider signing early is if the prospect feels his offer is in jeopardy. We know there’s a certain elite class of prospect who will have an offer for as long as the decision takes. For the Roquan Smiths of the world, this is a good position to be in. These are the kids the coaches would like to focus on with the rest of the class signed in December. For the rest, how many coaches are above using the offer as leverage to get most of the class inked in December?

We’re supposed to see the early signing period as a positive for the coaches stretched thin by herding an entire class until early February. It’s interesting to see which coaches aren’t thrilled about the idea. They oppose it for the same reason why I think it’s not a great idea for prospects: the loss of flexibility. We saw this ourselves last year with the Toneil Carter situation after Chubb and Michel decided to come back. The coaches who want to keep their options open as long as possible will now have a fair portion of their scholarships locked up well before they’d prefer.

It’s sad and cynical to see this early signing period as a game of chicken between coaches and prospects, but I guess I’ve been following recruiting too long.


Post Basketball teams active in spring recruiting

Wednesday May 10, 2017

Hoop Dawgs add two in spring signing period

Mark Fox wrapped up the 2017 signing class with the addition of forward Isaac Kante from New York. The 6’8″ Kante spent the past year as a postgraduate at Putnam Science Academy in Connecticut. Kante used the postgraduate year to work on his skills and increase his exposure to major programs. The plan worked: his offers included Georgetown, Kansas State, St. John’s, and of course Georgia.

Depending on the NBA Draft status of Yante Maten, Georgia could have a solid frontcourt next season. Maten is a known star. Edwards and Ogbeide improved a great deal this past year. Incoming forward Rayshaun Hammonds should be able to work into the rotation right away.

Kante is Georgia’s second signee of the spring period. Combo guard Teshaun Hightower committed earlier in the year and signed at the beginning of the signing period in April. Hightower is the lone guard in the 2017 class. He’ll have an opportunity to contribute, but much of the backcourt production will have to come from a combination of Jackson, Harris, and Crump. The team will need much more consistent production from that group to come close to replacing what J.J. Frazier brought to the team. Wings Parker, Wilridge, and Diatta will also have to step up on the perimeter.

Lady Dogs add impressive transfer

Joni Taylor has added an interesting transfer from Maryland, 6’6″ center Jenna Staiti. Staiti was the Gatorade State Player of the year for Georgia in 2016 and a national top 20 prospect who was a highlight of Maryland’s top-rated 2016 recruiting class. She was a reserve as a freshman for a loaded Maryland team and will have three years of eligibility at Georgia after sitting out this season. The transfer year could be a boon for Staiti. She’s still relatively new to competitive basketball after starting out as a nationally-ranked swimmer, and her game will benefit from the additional year of development.

It’s tempting to look two years down the road and anticipate a frontcourt that features 6’6″ Staiti, 6’5″ Bianca Blanaru, 6’3″ Malury Bates (an incoming top 100 prospect), and a senior Caliya Robinson at 6’3″. With quality options at center, I’m looking forward to Robinson improving and extending her game as forward. It’s been a while since Georgia has had that kind of depth and size up front, and post play has been a big part of the success at South Carolina and Mississippi State. Georgia is building the roster to compete at that level. The program inked a top ten class for 2017, and Staiti is essentially a 5* prospect to kick off the 2018 class.

Transfers have always been a part of college athletics, but women’s basketball has seen a surge of high-profile players on the move. Tennessee and South Carolina have been beneficiaries in the SEC. UConn is set to add a key transfer. With Staiti, Georgia will have three players on its roster who began their careers in the Pac 12, Big 10, and ACC. But while some schools have improved via transfers, others have been hit hard. North Carolina signed one of the best classes in program history in 2013. All four players were gone within two years. Diamond DeShields has found stardom at Tennessee. Allisha Gray is a national champion at South Carolina. The Tar Heels, reeling from the transfers and the uncertainty of an academic scandal, finished last season under .500. There’s a lot more to say about the positives and negatives of that transfer trend, but for now it’s a good sign that Georgia is a net destination for transfers rather than a source of them.


Post Bottom line says to keep the game in Jacksonville

Tuesday May 2, 2017

Last week we learned that Jacksonville’s government has been presented with a new contract that will keep the game in place through 2021. The new deal preserves the current revenue split and sweetens the pot with a shared $2.75 million of incentives over the life of the deal.

Bill King wonders what it might take to force the schools to consider a home-and-home arrangement rather than continuing at the neutral site. The first catalyst he mentions is a possible move to a 9-game SEC schedule. “If that were to happen,” King explains, “Georgia and Florida would be at a disadvantage in having one less home game in the odd-even rotation of home and away, and one less spot open for a cupcake home game.”

It’s true, and that disadvantage is already the case – when Georgia is the “home” team in Jacksonville, that’s a conference game we don’t get in Athens. We get three SEC contests at home, four true road SEC games, and Jacksonville. Georgia faces that situation every other year, but they usually pick up another cupcake game to fill out the home schedule. It was even worse in 2016 – there were just three home SEC games and not one but two neutral site games. I doubt Georgia or Florida would allow the rotation in a 9-game schedule to create a 3 home / 5 road imbalance, and the teams would have four home conference games every year while “hosting” a fifth in Jacksonville in alternating years.

King also wonders whether market forces might compel a move back to campus. As schools face increased pressure to sell season tickets as more fans watch at home, they might have to consider improving the quality of home games. It makes sense – Florida on the home schedule would definitely make a season ticket more attractive. Neither Florida nor Georgia seems to be at that point yet – we’ve seen the empty seats, but the tickets are still – for the most part – being sold.

Let’s say that season ticket sales do fall off. It would take a precipitous drop to give up the cash cow that’s the WLOCP. With ticket prices $70 and up, Georgia’s share of the gate is already more than they’d make selling out a home game at normal prices every other year. That’s even before you include 1) the incentives and bonuses built into the new contract and 2) the fact that Georgia’s take in Jacksonville is pure revenue. The schools pay nothing to host this game and forego only concessions revenue. More, let’s remember that all neutral site game revenue is on top of what we’re already paying for season tickets. Georgia gets the Hartman Fund donations, season ticket renewals, *and* any revenue from neutral site games. It would take one heck of an apocalyptic fall in season ticket sales to upset that gravy train.

Rather than encouraging games on campus, economic incentives tell us to prefer the neutral site. Successful neutral games can command premium ticket prices, cost the schools nothing in terms of operating expenses, and will almost always come with a national TV audience. There might even be untapped revenue to be had. As neutral games go, the Georgia-Florida game is still a bargain. $70 will get you in the door in Jacksonville. Last season it took at least $85 to buy a UGA-UNC ticket, and of course better seats cost more. Prices for this year’s FSU-Bama, Florida-Michigan, and even Tech-Tennessee games are comparable or even higher.

The guarantees that come with these games easily eclipse the net revenue from a home-and-home with a comparable opponent. Michigan is walking away with $6 million for their 2017 opener against Florida. Again, that’s on top of whatever Michigan is bringing in from season ticket sales and priority donations. When Jeremy Foley talks about the “unique opportunity” of Florida playing in that game, he’s not talking about a chance to spend quality time with Jerry Jones. These schools might not have the sharpest knives in the drawer running the athletic department, but even they can do the math.

I’ve said my piece about removing some of the best nonconference games from Sanford Stadium. It might seem inconsistent for me to turn my nose up at non-conference neutral site games while wanting to preserve the Jacksonville game, but that’s a hypocrisy I’m willing to live with. I enjoy it too much. Kirby Smart has made known his preference for a big neutral site game to start the season, so that ship has sailed anyway. As for Jacksonville, until Georgia begins to take a noticeable hit from its own core fans about the quality of the home schedule, there’s just too much value in the neutral venue. If that backlash doesn’t happen with the rancid 2017 and 2018 home slates, will it ever?


Post Why I’m hoping ESPN can continue doing what it does best

Tuesday May 2, 2017

This is a self-centered post, so it’s worth noting first that many good journalists whose work I’ve relied on here are no longer with ESPN. The nature of journalism means that we tend to connect more with these names than we would had ESPN cut cameramen or accounting staff, but it’s an indivdually significant and life-changing moment and an opportunity for empathy anytime someone gets that news. Employees are bearing the cost of management decisions and market forces.

I was on the couch Sunday afternoon watching the home finale for Georgia softball. (Not a great season, but that’s another post.) I was watching an SEC Network-branded broadcast via the ESPN app on my Apple TV. Nearly every softball game has been available that way. Same with women’s hoops. Thanks to the SEC Network and the digital platform, just about every Georgia football and basketball game is now available nationwide when it’s not on CBS or a basic ESPN channel. Thanks to ESPN (and Apple), I now live in a world where it’s frustrating when I can’t pull up a nonconference softball game. G-Day was broadcast nationally, and there was even an alternate stream. For a spring game. It’s all available now, and it’s wonderful.

I doubt that my viewing habits are typical. I’ve never been a regular SportsCenter viewer even in the “Big Show” era, and I can count on one hand the number of hours in a month I might spend on an ESPN channel that isn’t live play-by-play. The 30-for-30 series was fantastic, but that’s about it. If there’s been an editorial shift in programming outside of live sports, I haven’t really been affected. I wasn’t watching anyway. Yes, it’s been impossible to ignore the promos and tie-ins during the games, but quibbling with sports reporters and their narratives isn’t exactly uncharted territory.

So “stick to sports” is how I’ve always approached viewing ESPN, and in that regard it’s never been better. The digital platforms are phenomenal technology. The score app is great, but the evolution of ESPN3 into WatchESPN has been as big of a turning point in how I watch sports as the original ESPN was. Further, ESPN’s presence in the market meant that any network or entity broadcasting sports – from the NCAA to Augusta National – had to provide a comparable experience, and the home sports viewer is better for it. Streams are expected now. There’s enough available now to actually affect attendance trends – why go through the expense and hassle of going to a game when you can gorge on quality HD broadcasts of your game and several others?

The selfish part of me now wonders what happens to this content. ESPN has been able to raise its carriage fees even in the face of the market trend of cord-cutting, but even they can’t avoid the consequences of a dwindling pool of subscribers. Yes, it’s possible that some households decided they could do without ESPN because of politics, and live sports is the one thing keeping many of people attached to their cable or dish subscription. But that revenue pool is still shrinking. Today it affected ESPN itself and several of its journalists. Down the road ESPN will have decisions to make about the money it spends on its content and technology platforms. It will have decisions to make about bidding for broadcast rights. Those decisions will of course trickle down to things you and I care about – college sports, the SEC, and the precious revenue stream we’ve come to count on from those broadcast rights.

I have no idea where it’s headed or whether the current level of content is sustainable. For my sake, I hope it is. I could take or leave ESPN’s journalism. There’s not much of a shortage of sports journalism, and I expect we’ll see many of these bylines reappear at other outlets soon. What is unique and more difficult to replace is access to the games. Unfortunately that’s the most expensive part of this enterprise and where both broadcaster and broadcast rights holder are likely to feel the pinch.


Post Potential talent drain adds urgency to 2017

Friday April 28, 2017

It was a good night for the SEC at the NFL Draft with the #1 overall pick and a record 12 first round draft picks. Half the conference (seven teams) contributed at least one player to this haul. Of course Georgia wasn’t one of them. Seth Emerson reminds us that Georgia’s absence isn’t a bad thing, though it is a necessary consequence of the fallout from the class of 2013 and finishing unranked in consecutive seasons. It’s worth remembering that several players who would have been likely draft picks (though not necessarily first rounders) chose to return and contribute to the 2017 team.

Emerson concludes that “it should be a good year numbers-wise for the Dawgs in the 2018 draft,” and he’s also right that there doesn’t seem to be a first round lock among them. I’ve thought that Michel projects as a higher pick because of his versatility, but Chubb could also do a lot for himself by playing a full, productive, and healthy 2017 season. Trenton Thompson has a very high upside among the defenders. Still, it’s likely to be a deep class, and you don’t have to look far to find ten eligible players from the 2017 team who should expect a serious look from the NFL.

The flip side of Emerson’s piece is an added urgency to produce in 2017. All eyes are on the incoming freshman class as Kirby Smart restocks the roster, but the potential loss of anywhere from 5 to 10 NFL-quality players (depending on the decisions of underclassmen) would leave plenty of holes around the depth chart. When you combine the returning seniors and the rising juniors, the team is perhaps as loaded at the upper end of the experience curve as it is at the lower end. After this season, the demographics of the team change to favor Smart’s first three classes and the 2017 class in particular. The extent to which the program is able to reload for 2018 depends on the progress of Smart’s first two classes as well as whatever the team is able to add in 2018, but that uncertainty makes it more important to show results with this current group.

A part of us wants to be patient with Smart’s process and recognize that there are still holes on the team where playing freshmen might be necessary even with so much top-end talent. At the same time, you don’t want the “throwaway season” label within miles of a team with that many potential draft picks. Seeing so many talented players come through without so much as an SEC East title would be as big of a shame as Stafford, Moreno, and Green also leaving without a trip to Atlanta. It’s going to be a lot harder to enjoy Draft Day 2018 if we don’t have much to enjoy in 2017 first.

(Is it unhealthy to already be anticipating the “well, we’re a very young team” line in 2018?)


Post You had to bring up the 2013 Auburn game

Wednesday April 26, 2017

Almost four years later and it still hurts. Bill Connelly is looking back at the games of the year for his 50 best college football teams (“best” usually meaning “most interesting” – buy the book.) 2013 Auburn is one of those teams, and you can guess what this featured game was. I agree with him – the Kick Six was a remarkable and unforgettable moment, but this Georgia-Auburn contest was a better game. For whatever reason I’m not the type to try to forget games like this…it’s the opposite, really. There’s so much to unpack from this game, and because I’m a masochist we’ll do some unpacking.

I like to start with the comeback. Georgia trailed by 20 twice. They were down 27-7 in the first half, trailed by 17 at halftime, pulled to within 10, and then Auburn responded with 10 points of their own to take another 20-point lead early in the fourth quarter. Instead of folding Georgia responded with three straight scoring drives and forced their only three-and-outs of the game to salvage enough time to take an improbable 38-37 lead inside of two minutes left. That’s how it ended, right? Go Dawgs.

I still marvel at the gift that was Auburn’s playcalling. Protecting a 37-31 lead inside of six minutes remaining and reeling after two Georgia scores, Auburn went away from the running game that had baffled Georgia’s defense. Nick Marshall threw incomplete passes on first and second down, presenting Georgia’s defense with a rare opportunity to get after the quarterback. Ramik Wilson chased down Marshall from behind, Auburn shanked the punt, and Georgia was set up in Auburn territory with plenty of time for the go-ahead drive. Too much time as it turned out.

Todd Gurley made his biggest mark on this game catching passes. A big part of Auburn’s early success came from bottling up Gurley in the running game. He finished with 79 yards on 15 carries – not awful, but not enough to make much of a difference in the game. Auburn’s large lead meant that Georgia was going to have to throw anyway, and Murray ended up attempting 49 passes. The wrinkle was that Gurley caught 10 of those passes. Those receptions only accounted for 77 yards, so they weren’t big gainers, but they were effective in sustaining the drives that enabled Georgia’s comeback and kept Georgia’s defense off the field. Murray came to rely on Gurley as a reliable check-down to counter the Auburn pressure that often left the tailback open. Gurley’s role catching the ball wasn’t new – we had seen him devastate Florida with a long catch and run just a few weeks earlier. He had 37 receptions in 2013 (third-most on the team!), but more than 25% of them came in this game.

Auburn didn’t punt until well into the third quarter. They got into scoring range on every first half drive. It was bad enough to be down 27-10 at halftime, but the only thing that kept Georgia in the game was that four Auburn scoring chances ended with FG attempts rather than touchdowns. The Bulldog defense was hanging on by its fingernails, but the game could have easily been over by halftime had Auburn turned half of those opportunities into touchdowns. The Tigers converted three of those four FG attempts, but another was blocked in the second quarter and kept Auburn from delivering the knockout blow. Limiting Auburn to a FG attempt early in the fourth quarter was key to Georgia’s comeback – it extended Auburn’s lead to 37-17 but still kept Georgia within three scores.

I’m glad Bill mentioned this – Georgia nearly had a response for the ages. Facing 75 yards to go with 25 seconds left, two long completions and an offsides penalty gave Georgia one shot from 20 yards out. That was about the situation for Michael Johnson’s catch in 2002, but it was Auburn’s year for miracles. I was still impressed that Georgia could do anything resembling football after what had just happened.

Aaron Murray came so close to several career-defining moments. The final drive of the 2012 SECCG is at the top of the list. But like Mason-to-Mitchell against Tech in 2014 or Eason-to-Ridley against Tennessee in 2016, Murray’s tough run to get every inch of five yards for the go-ahead score at Auburn was eclipsed seconds later and ultimately became a cruel glimmer of hope in a heartbreaking loss. Murray’s Georgia career ended a week later with a non-contact knee injury on a run against Kentucky with the game well in hand. That go-ahead score at Auburn was Murray’s last great moment in a Georgia uniform, and hopefully it won’t be forgotten as we try to put the end of the game out of memory. (Bat it down!)

The loss saved Georgia fans from a lesser disappointment: Georgia went into Auburn with faint hopes of an SEC East title, but they’d need to win out and have Missouri lose at least one more. That Missouri loss never came, and we were spared the gut-punch of being denied an SEC East title by Vanderbilt.

UPDATE: For a happier ending, Bill also features the 1980 South Carolina game in which Herschel Walker has no time for geometry.


Post “We wanted to see if we could throw the ball some.”: G-Day 2017

Wednesday April 26, 2017

[G-Day Stats]

When a team with a healthy Nick Chubb and Sony Michel trots out Brian Herrien as its featured tailback, you knew right away that the running game wouldn’t feature much in Saturday’s scrimmage. We saw enough of #1 and #27 to reassure us that, yes, they really did come back for another season, and that was plenty.

Herrien didn’t get a chance to break many runs against the first team defense. Blocking wasn’t great, but the first team offense also faced some of the crowded fronts we saw last year. Establishing some credible downfield threats as the offenses did in the scrimmage will help loosen things up for Chubb and Michel. Holyfield had a little more success against the second team, and he demonstrated why there’s some chatter about his value in the red zone. We saw no runs for the receivers or much beyond the basic sets and plays in the ground game.

This G-Day was all about the passing game. I’ll say only this about the quarterback depth chart: we should feel fairly at ease if the backup has to come in the game, and Fromm appears as if he’ll be ready to play if needed. That in itself is a relief. Fromm’s was as talented as advertised, but he also made some of the decisions that terrify you about putting a freshman quarterback on the field. It’s a growing process you’d rather not see play out in live action, but Fromm was worth getting excited over. He showed good composure, ran the offense well, didn’t make many glaring mistakes within the context of what he was asked to do, and only took a couple of risks you’d expect a freshman to take. Georgia has a good situation at quarterback, and it’s a much better idea to enjoy the bounty of talent at the position rather than make the competition a negative story. The only ominous sign was obvious during warmups – it’s not a crowded QB meeting room.

Eason did struggle out of the gate. Protection was some of the problem, but there were a handful of “sacks” on which Eason held the ball a little long. Things settled down for him in the second half, and the arm is just fine. Eason’s weaker throws came when he was on the move. He was especially shaky with timing and accuracy of some of the check-downs. Some good gains were there to be had with better throws, and he and the backs will have to continue to work on those short passes.

What was as disappointing at times as the line play was protection by non-linemen. Holyfield didn’t square up well to take on pass rushers. Payne had a poor block that aided a Natrez Patrick sack. Yes, linemen have primary responsibilities in pass protection, but most protection schemes feature roles for some combination of tight ends, tailbacks, and fullbacks. When these players miss an assignment, it often gets lumped in with “line play” because the results are the same – a sack, a hurry, or a quarterback running for his life.

I don’t see much use spending a lot of time on the offensive line. I don’t believe the August depth chart will look much like what we saw Saturday, so there’s not much use dwelling on the combinations. That position more than any other could see quite a bit of movement between now and the start of the season. About the only thing to take away is that the door is open for the heralded incoming class to compete for playing time and even starting jobs.

The same can be said for kicking – Blankenship started well and showed he had the leg to kick from 50 yards out, but focus and consistency left him in the second half. The door is open for competition there too. Punting is also up for grabs. Marshall Long was unavailable as he recovers from surgery, but grad transfer Cameron Nizialek was good enough to be considered for the role during the season.

I’m liking the skill set Georgia is developing at receiver. Wims had the usual JUCO adjustment year but is settling in as a favorite target of Eason’s. It took Godwin a little while to make an impact on Saturday, but I saw flashes of the improvement he’s said to have made in the offseason. Godwin’s ability to stretch short completions into longer gains is becoming an advantage. I didn’t see anything to make me think anyone other than Wims and Godwin will be the top two receivers. Chigbu and Stanley are in that limbo as upperclassmen where they must become more consistent or risk being passed over by the younger players that were on display. All that’s without Riley Ridley or Mark Webb, another promising incoming receiver.

There’s no denying the talent that Holloman and Hardman showed, though Holloman’s size advantage was exaggerated against a smaller walk-on defensive back most of the game. The hands and the routes will work against any most coverage, but we’ll see if he can be as physical against bigger and better coverage. Hardman didn’t get much of a chance to get the ball in space, but he made a nice move for extra yards on one such catch late in the game. We didn’t see any of the runs or gadget plays that could feature someone like Hardman – or, for that matter, Simmons. Simmons had a rough start with a fumble and a couple of early drops, but he rebounded well to make some tough catches and show off his speed on a long touchdown reception. I’m high on Simmons if only because there has to be a role for that kind of speed, and he was also able to take his lumps as a straight-up receiver in this game.

Yes, Hardman looked the part at receiver. Yes, he spent a lot of time there this spring. We don’t know what percentage of time, but it was enough to play him there exclusively at G-Day. At the same time, the Holloman-Hill matchup told you plenty about Georgia’s cornerback depth. I can’t picture a permanent move to receiver until we get a better idea in August about needs in the defensive backfield.

If you were expecting this to be the game in which Georgia showed an expanded role for tight ends, this wasn’t it. Blazevich was held out with a knee sprain. Jackson Harris caught a pass. Nauta’s only reception was a dump-off by Eason that resulted in a loss. Eason’s connection with Woerner in the fourth quarter was the only significant play to a tight end. Woerner split outside in the slot and found a hole about ten yards downfield. He shed a few tacklers (something which won’t sit well with Smart) and got a chance to show off some speed by outrunning the defense to the endzone. Tight ends were targeted a handful of other times, but for better or worse it was more of the same for the position.

The defensive front looked capable even without Thompson. Atkins’ pursuit and tackle for loss was one of the highlights of the day. Ledbetter, Walker, Bellamy, and Carter provided constant pressure. The defense had a bit of an advantage knowing that there wouldn’t be much of a running threat, but generally they did well to limit big plays on the ground and focused on getting to the quarterback. Eason in particular faced stacked fronts similar to what he saw last season and what he’ll likely see again in 2017 until the offense can loosen things up with explosive plays downfield. Juwan Taylor seemed to have a good game at ILB for the second team defense and was among the overall leaders in tackles.

Deandre Baker had a challenging afternoon – he was beaten deep a couple of times, shaken up on a minor injury, but he also had his share of wins. Malkom Parrish made some plays on the other side, and Tyrique McGhee had good coverage on one pass in particular to the endzone. Richard LeCounte was active and led his team in tackles, though, as Smart noted, it’s not a great sign for a safety to be making so many tackles. That was a result of Fromm’s success and Holyfield occasionally getting upfield. It is a positive sign, though, for an early enrollee to display such a nose for the ball. He and Gibbs should become quite a tandem in the secondary. If the first team defense needs to be humbled, Eason’s Black team ended up with a handful of explosive plays through the air.


Post G-Day Prep: Defense

Friday April 21, 2017

Interior: With Trenton Thompson and Roquan Smith sidelined, we’ll see deeper down the depth chart at defensive line and inside linebacker. If the offensive line is performing well and Georgia’s tailbacks are, well, Georgia’s tailbacks, those defensive units will have a tough test in stopping the run. If the first team offense struggles to run the ball inside without Thompson and Smith on the field, that wouldn’t be encouraging.

Shining star: Georgia didn’t lose much on defense, but Mo Smith leaves a big void after a successful one year stint at star. The position can be anything from a nickelback (third cornerback) to a hybrid LB/DB used to counter modern wide spread offenses. Senior Dominick Sanders began his career in this role, but he’s since settled into the safety position. Georgia is currently looking at a trio of defensive backs for the star role: early enrollees Richard LeCounte and Deangelo Gibbs along with sophomore Tyrique McGhee. McGhee, at 5’10” and 180 lbs., might be the smallest of the three but has a little bit of an edge thanks to his experience. All three bring a little something different. Gibbs is the biggest of the three at 6’1″ and just over 200 lbs – that’s closest to Mo Smith’s 6’0″ / 195. That could get him on the field in certain situations. As Kirby Smart put it, “I mean, you’re out there playing on Charlie Woerner and he comes to block you, do you want a 160-pound guy or do you want a 205-pound guy? It’s pretty obvious that we’ve got to have a big guy.” LeCounte, at about 5’11” and 180 lbs. He’d be considered undersized at safety and even at star, but his athleticism and power could help him win his share of battles against larger targets.

Red zone: There’s been an emphasis on improvement in the final 20 yards of the field, and revisiting 2016 red zone film was like “a kick in the stomach” to Lorenzo Carter (tell me about it, Zo.) This is one of those classic spring game Rorschach tests: the offense had their own red zone issues in 2016 and have been working through their issues. Elijah Holyfield, a physical “bowling ball” type of runner, has emerged as a possible red zone weapon. So if you see some scoring in red zone situations on Saturday, are you happy for the offense’s progress or dismayed for the defense?


Post G-Day Prep: Replacing the Joystick

Friday April 21, 2017

Isaiah McKenzie will be on campus Saturday, but he’ll be a spectator at G-Day like the rest of us. The unexpected unavailability of the Human Joystick – Georgia’s only underclassman to declare for the NFL Draft – leaves big shoes to fill across the team. He was Georgia’s leading receiver in 2016, but the returning roster plus some impressive newcomers should be able to absorb those receiving yards. He’ll also be missed in the return game. His biggest impact might’ve been as a gadget player (though maybe not on 4th-and-1…too soon?) His nine combined touchdowns (rushing plus receiving) tied him with Nick Chubb for team honors. Georgia is exploring options at receiver and returner, but it’s that utility role that most of us will associate with McKenzie. Who might we see running those sweeps?

Sony Michel: It’s tempting, isn’t it? It didn’t take two games into his freshman season to see Michel’s possibilities beyond tailback. He also had a kickoff return touchdown called back in the Belk Bowl as a freshman. His receiving touchdown in the Liberty Bowl was his first score in the passing game since the 2015 South Carolina game, but it’s no secret what Michel can do with the ball in space. At the same time, he’s still right up there with Chubb in the tailback rotation, and his readiness to step in as the feature back at a moment’s notice has to be considered.

Mecole Hardman: Getting Mecole involved was a priority entering spring practice. We didn’t see much of this heralded freshman beyond some reserve duty at cornerback, but there’s still enough hype for folks to wonder how much, if any, contribution he could make on offense. Kirby Smart cautioned that Georgia’s depth at defensive back might require Hardman to work primarily on defense, and Hardman’s role on offense could be determined by his ability to show the “sustainable focus” that’s necessary to handle the additional meeting time and work of two positions. Hardman saw work with the offense almost immediately in spring practice and will play on offense at G-Day, but his role beyond spring is still to be determined.

Tyler Simmons: Georgia flipped Simmons from Alabama on Signing Day 2016. He appeared in six games as a true freshman in a limited role. Simmons’s calling card is speed, and he was used in high school on the kind of sweeps McKenzie perfected. “Track speed” is always a plus. At under six feet tall, he’s going to have to rely on that speed to make an impact, and the McKenzie role could be a perfect fit.

Terry Godwin: Godwin might be too entrenched as one of the more experienced receivers to be considered for a utility role. Of course he’s always a threat to run (or throw) the ball, but I’d expect to see him continue in more of a traditional receiver role. Do we see the return of the Wild Dawg in 2017? If so, is Godwin still a top option to be behind center?


Post G-Day Prep: OL time crunch

Friday April 21, 2017

The offensive line took its share of the blame for the offense’s struggles in 2016, and fans will be watching G-Day for any signs of improvement up front. Reports out of practice are encouraging, but everyone would prefer to see the results for themselves.

While the current unit is improving, the line was also a focal point of the outstanding 2017 signing class. The Dawgs signed six offensive linemen (five high school prospects and a JUCO), and there is national top 100 talent at both tackle and guard.

The incoming class makes this a big offseason for a number of returning Bulldog linemen. Some veterans like Isaiah Wynn are in good shape to start and see playing time, and a couple of younger players, Solomon Kindley in particular, are getting noticed. But with a number of positions unsettled, freshmen will be competing for those roles. You’d prefer to not play many freshmen, especially on the offensive line, but several in this class are talented enough to merit immediate consideration.

For the rest, it’s an opportunity to stand out or risk being passed over by the next wave of linemen. You want to see growth out of a group that includes Pat Allen, Chris Barnes, Sam Madden, and especially former five-star prospect Ben Cleveland. The good news is that some of that growth seems to be taking place. Unfortunately Cleveland might not be able to showcase his work at right tackle at G-Day due to an injury, but a lot of eyes will be on the others watching how they and the line overall perform.