Most of this will be familiar if you’ve paid attention to the team over the summer. I’m just putting this up to clear my head before the opener.
When we last left them…
Georgia was last seen in a lifeless effort against Central Florida, losing 10-6 in the Liberty Bowl. The defense did well against a decent UCF offense, but Georgia’s own offense petered out after a promising opening drive. Georgia’s coaches chose to lay up for a field goal in sight of the goal line, and that decision would prove to be a lightning rod for criticism after a disappointing 6-7 season.
A year after completely revamping the defense, Mark Richt decided not to make any coaching changes after 2010. Instead, he felt a cultural change was necessary. It started with a change in the conditioning program. The men appointed to the job weren’t exactly known for modern cutting-edge methods, but they were living and breathing symbols of the toughness and attitude Richt wanted back in the program.
Richt’s credibility received a huge boost in early February when Georgia hauled one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. It was arguably Richt’s best group of incoming players, and it happened at a very dark time for the program. The class was looking shaky in January with several key names still uncommitted. Even former Georgia players were questioning Richt’s ability to salvage a recruiting class after such a bad season. It was a good year for high school talent in the state, and Georgia’s recruiting strategy focused on this “Dream Team” of elite in-state talent. A big announcement from a pair of Valdosta players late in January got the ball rolling, and other Dream Team targets continued the momentum right up through Signing Day.
The off-season has been relatively quiet. There have been few run-ins with the law, but there are several players no longer with the team. Some hung up the cleats due to chronic injuries. Others didn’t see eye-to-eye with the changes being made and transfered. A couple were, to put it bluntly, weeded out. But the vast majority have spent the spring and summer dedicated to the new conditioning program and arrived ready to reverse the course of the program.
Key Losses and Departures
- WR A.J. Green: The most talented receiver in Georgia history is in the NFL now. Green was playmaker, magician, and security blanket.
- DE Justin Houston: As he became more familiar with Georgia’s new 3-4 defense, Houston became an increasingly dangerous pass rusher. He finished the year with 10 sacks, second only to Nick Fairley in the SEC. Unfortunately we only got to see Houston shine for one year in this system. His departure leaves a void at a key spot in Georgia’s scheme.
- Strength coach Dave Van Halanger: With criticism mounting on Georgia’s conditioning program, Coach Van accepted a transition to a mentoring role and opened up room for changes in the weight room.
- Tailbacks Caleb King and Washaun Ealey: The duo that formed the core of Georgia’s running game over the past two years is no more. Ealey was disgruntled over playing time, and King hadn’t made sufficient academic progress to return for his senior season. With their departure, Georgia suddenly had a big problem with both depth and experience at tailback.
- LB coach Warren Belin: Coach Belin was only in Athens for a year, but his contributions were seen not only at the linebacker position but also in much improved coverage units on special teams.
- OT Trinton Sturdivant: Sturdivant’s injury-plagued Georgia career came to an end in the spring with another knee injury. Senior Cordy Glenn will move from guard to handle the important left tackle position.
- RB Isaiah Crowell (#1): There’s no beating around the bush: Crowell was a must-sign for Mark Richt. Heralded as Georgia’s next great tailback, Crowell will get a chance to contribute from the start. With such expectations comes an enormous amount of pressure, and how Crowell handles the spotlight will be as big a part of his story as how he handles defenses. He’s already grown up quite a bit in the short time he’s been on campus. Reports from camp haven’t been over the top, but they’ve made it clear that Crowell looks every bit as advertised.
- OLB Ray Drew (#47): Drew’s reputation as one of the best high school defenders in Georgia led every major program in the area to his door. He also is expected to play early. But his value to the program will go beyond his play. He’s already an ordained minister. Call him “The Pastor of Disaster” or the “Pastor of the Pass Rush,” but Drew has already asserted himself as a leader of the future for Georgia football. He’ll be one of the players looked to as a solution to replace Justin Houston. He’s wearing #47 in honor of (and with the blessing of) David Pollack.
- WR/DB Malcom Mitchell (#26): Georgia’s “Dream Team” incoming freshman class has a lot of talented players, but few are as interesting as Mitchell in terms of how the coaches might use him. He could easily be one of the better cornerbacks on the team right away, but Georgia has good depth at that position. Mitchell will get his first opportunity at wide receiver. Though he’s technically not a starter, Mitchell has the speed and hands to get on the field early. He can be used as a straight-up receiver or even like Branden Smith on running plays.
- Strength coaches Joe Tereshinski II and John Kasay: It’s laughable to consider these guys “newcomers” as each, in various administrative roles, has been associated with the Georgia program for decades. But these were the men charged with the revitalization of Georgia’s strength and conditioning program. With the support of the new athletic director, the new conditioning program has involved everything from nutrition to just making sure the players are accountable and in the gym. There’s definitely a different, leaner look to the team, but we’ll have to wait until the season to find out if that leads to better play at the end of games.
- DT Jon Jenkins (#6): Georgia’s switch to a 3-4 defense last year lacked one important piece: a big plug in the middle of the defensive line. DeAngelo Tyson was talented enough to hold his own, but he was undersized against better opponents. Jenkins, a JUCO transfer, was the answer. He’s a big prototypical nose tackle with impressive speed and agility for his size. Jenkins won’t start, though. His arrival lit a fire under Kwame Geathers (#99), and Geathers got into shape and earned the starting job. So Georgia went from a big hole at a key defensive position to having two promising solutions. You’ll see plenty of both of them – maybe even at the same time.
- LB Jarvis Jones (#29): Jones, a Columbus native, spent his first season at Southern Cal. His freshman season was cut short by a neck injury, and the Trojans wouldn’t clear him to return. He chose to transfer to Georgia, sat out last season, and the neck is fine. His arrival was an instant shot in the arm to the linebacking corps, and he’s already a starter.
Watch out for…
- LB Alec Ogletree (#9): Ogletree played safety as a true freshman last year and eventually earned a starting job. This year he’ll be moving to linebacker – a Thomas Davis in reverse. He’s known as a devastating hitter and will be one of the first people on the scene to make the tackle after Jenkins or Geathers clears the way.
- WR Marlon Brown (#15): Brown arrived two years ago as one of the top high school receivers in the nation. Though he didn’t have the immediate impact of an A.J. Green, Brown is finally a starter in his junior season. If he can play to his potential, it will give Aaron Murray another nice option and draw defensive attention away from other top targets Tavarres King and Orson Charles.
- S/CB Sanders Commings (#19): It might surprise some people to not see Bacarri Rambo starting at safety, but Commings has versatility on his side. Not only is he the starting safety, he’s listed as one of the top backups as cornerback. He has the size to make the hits as a safety, but he also has the speed and coverage skills to play at cornerback. If the front seven can get decent pressure, Commings might end up as one of the team’s interception leaders.
- The tight end position: most everyone knows about Orson Charles (#7), but Georgia is deep enough at the position to consider redshirting one of the nation’s best incoming TEs. Aron White (#81) is another pass-catching threat with a senior’s experience. Arthur Lynch (#88) sat out last year to improve his receiving and strength, and he gives Georgia that big, tough prototypical blocking tight end. With the receiver position a little more thin than usual, expect to see more out of this position in 2011.
- The defensive front: With Geathers and Jenkins anchoring the middle, DeAngelo Tyson (#94) moves back to end, a position that’s a more natural fit for him. Holding down the other side is Abry Jones (#93), a junior coming into his own. There are also solid backups like Derrick Lott, Garrison Smith, and Mike Thornton. The capabilities of the players allow for some creative situational combinations. If they want a massive front, they can play a line of Tyson-Geathers-Jenkins. Or in pure pass-rush situations, they can have Geathers and Jenkins in the middle with outside linebackers Jones, Drew, or Washington moving up to the line as Houston did often last year. Don’t be concerned if you don’t see big numbers from this group. The defensive line in a 3-4 scheme is often asked to fill gaps and occupy the offensive line while the linebackers clean up the tackles. You’ll know the DL is doing its job if you see Jarvis Jones and Ogletree wreaking havoc in the backfield.
- WR Michael Bennett (#82): If you’re looking for a darkhorse to contribute on offense this year, consider Bennett. He redshirted last year, but there’s always room on the field for someone who can catch.
The consensus is that Georgia’s 2011 schedule lends itself to a good year, but that was the case in 2010 also. You still have to play the games. Georgia again avoids Alabama and LSU. They swap Arkansas for Ole Miss and Colorado for Boise State, and those are about the only real differences in quality. Another reason why people like Georgia’s schedule is that many of the tougher games are at home or at least at neutral sites. Boise might as well be a home game, and South Carolina, Miss. St., and Auburn all come to Athens. Georgia’s SEC road games are at Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt. If they can get past the first two games, the schedule looks very manageable if Georgia is really a better team this year.
- Depth at offensive line: The starting unit looks pretty good with only one real newcomer. Hope they stay healthy. Redshirt sophomore Dallas Lee is the first off the bench, but after that you start playing true freshmen.
- Receivers: Tavarres King (#12) is about the only proven guy on a roster of just six scholarship receivers. True freshman Mitchell should help, but Georgia really needs its upperclassmen – Brown, Troupe, and Wooten – to improve their productivity and consistency. The luxury of a deep tight end position is nice, but it’s no substitute for a lack of receivers.
- Pass rush: Houston, the team’s sack leader, is gone along with several linebackers. Georgia has options here, but they’re young and/or unproven. Jarvis Jones, Drew, and Cornelius Washington will be three guys at the key outside linebacker position who will try to create pressure and generate sacks.
- Confidence: It’s been a good offseason, but the team and its leaders haven’t faced adversity yet. How will this leadership and feel-good talk hold up to a real test? Georgia fans haven’t forgotten about last season, but most would like to see Richt succeed. It won’t take long for them to turn if it looks as if the problems from last season persist. On the other hand, winning the first two could give the team momentum it hasn’t had since late 2007.
Reasons for Hope
- Aaron Murray: He has the temperament and skills you want from your quarterback. Murray has established himself as a leader off the field. Now he has to do it on the field. He hasn’t had that defining 4th quarter moment yet, but you have to think it’s coming soon.
- All the right pieces on defense: Georgia lacked several elements to run a successful 3-4 this year, but they seem to be in place now. You have the stout defensive line, fast linebackers that can hit, and not many holes in the secondary. These pieces still have to mesh, and there are several players without much experience either at their position or playing together.
- Some of the best special teams in the country. Walsh and Butler are unmatched. Boykin is always a threat to bring a kickoff back. Coverage took a big step forward last year. Georgia’s special teams will be the difference at some point this year.
- The newcomers: Georgia had a lot of questions after last year, and they got answers to nearly all of them. You’d rather they be upperclassmen veterans, but Georgia doesn’t have the luxury. Still, several of them can contribute right away. It’s going to be enjoyable watching this group over the next 3-5 years.
- The leadership: I’ve had it too – enough with the offseason stories about working harder than ever (we mean it this time!). Most of us are numb to them by now. That said, Georgia does seem to have some of its best and deepest group of leaders in several years. Underclassmen like Murray and Christian Robinson have earned a position of respect. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Butler, Tyson, Boykin, and Ben Jones are your senior captains. I couldn’t imagine getting on the wrong side of Ben Jones. Importantly, you’re also seeing some of the newcomers be very vocal about their role in Georgia’s turnaround. Ray Drew is a natural. When you see true freshman center David Andrews quote Erk Russell, you know that the right messages are getting through. The team has used the Jon Gordon book
to build unity and align the direction of the team, and they’re not shy about calling out players who have strayed. Again, all of that won’t matter until it passes the tests during the season.
- Mark Richt: Yes, the embattled coach. Call it reinvigoration, recovery, or just desperation – Richt has to know that he’s running out of time to return Georgia to the top of the SEC. That kind of pressure can be destructive, or it can be motivating. Athletic director Greg McGarity is making sure that Richt has everything he needs to run the program his way – you can see that in the new conditioning program, the nutrition staff, and especially the new weight room and football facility. Richt gives credit to McGarity’s support, and he recently told an interviewer that it “has revived me in a lot of ways. I’m energized right now and feeling great.” That’s encouraging, but it also means Richt is just about out of things to change with the program. He has the coaches he wants, a good level of talent, and he has the full support of the athletic department behind him. The rest is up to him…