Georgia held a press conference this afternoon to announce, confirm, settle, and resolve that Orson Charles would be the only early departure from the 2011 team. Much of this news leaked out earlier in the week, but a lot of that was second-hand information. Solid, but still second-hand. Flanked by several juniors and team leaders, Mark Richt was understandably “thrilled” to reveal that all draft-eligible underclassmen, save Charles, would be returning for 2012. He also announced that sophomore quarterback Hutson Mason decided against a transfer and will remain a Bulldog.
Georgia was smart to pull together an event like this. Such press conferences are usually held to announce departures, but it’s not uncommon for high-profile players to use an event to announce their return. Being able to present a group of rising juniors and seniors of this quality to speak about why they’re returning, the common goals, and their vision for 2012 is a rare opportunity. It’s a shot of positive press during the peak of recruiting season. It’s also a gauntlet thrown: everyone pledging to return recognizes what is possible in 2012, and they’re embracing the expectations along with the possibilities. It’s now up to them to make it happen.
The biggest impact of this news will be on the defense. Almost all of the players considering the NFL draft were on that side of the ball. Now that it appears every draft-eligible junior and sophomore will return in 2012, we’re able to start thinking about a defense that will return 9 of 11 starters.
The two departing starters are big ones: Georgia sure could have used the athleticism of Tyson in the postseason (thanks, Jay Finch!), and lack of depth at the defensive end spot didn’t help as LSU’s offensive line took over and Michigan State held off the Georgia pass rush. And Boykin – it could take as many as three or four (very good) players to try to do what he did for the 2011 team.
The answer, at least at cornerback, seems clear. It’s Branden Smith’s to lose. Smith improved his coverage in 2011, and I’m entirely content with a secondary of Commings, Smith, Williams, and Rambo. The questions lie in depth. Swann played a good deal in 2011, and Marshall saw a lot of time on special teams. Chris Sanders will also play in a reserve role. Jordan Love would have helped, but he’s decided to transfer.
The picture at defensive end is a little less clear. You didn’t hear his name much in the list of players considering the NFL, but I’m thrilled to have Abry Jones back. You assume Garrison Smith has a good shot at the other end spot considering that he was first off the bench when Tyson was injured. Smith did well in relief, especially against Tech, but there wasn’t much behind him. Ray Drew, who spent much of his freshman season struggling with the transition to outside linebacker, might be more comfortable and effective on the line after adding a few added pounds.
The starting four at linebacker – Jones, Gilliard, Ogletree, and Washington – are outstanding. Washington’s consistency can be an issue, but otherwise there aren’t many weaknesses among that group. As we saw after Ogletree’s injury, depth here too is an issue. Herrera contributed well and lost playing time as the starters became healthy, but you expect his progress to continue. Having an experienced leader like Robinson to step in situationally is a valuable bonus. Ramik Wilson and other newcomers should have an opportunity to play.
I think that a lot of the depth issues we’re talking about were responsible for Georgia’s second half problems against some of its better opponents. Guys like Jenkins were able to step into immediate needs, but Georgia is still feeling the effects of a couple of underwhelming recruiting classes. No offense to guys like Jeremy Sulek who earned every bit of playing time they got, but it’s illustrative that the loss of a starter can throw the depth chart into such a crisis.
Will those depth issues be resolved in 2012? With minimal losses, it won’t be worse. Via the invaluable Recruiter’s Roster, we can see that Georgia adds in three redshirt freshmen. You expect a little development from the handful of true freshmen who saw action either on defense or special teams. There should also be a small number of true freshmen who are able to earn their way on the field, though the need for immediate contribution isn’t as strong as it might have been in 2011. So, yes, Georgia’s defense should be a little deeper overall.
There are a few gotchas about the depth. You assume a certain amount of development from one year to the next, but that doesn’t always work out. The defense will also be deeper at some spots than others. Another look at the Recruiter’s Roster reveals a scary picture on the defensive line – Mike Thornton is the only player standing between the junior class and any true freshmen. Again, it might take some position changes to help that situation while a nice 2012 haul of defensive linemen gets up to speed. Then there is always the possibility of injury. Georgia was fortunate to make it through spring and most of the season with few long-term injuries, but that’s not common. They were able to overcome the loss of Ogletree for the first half of the season against lighter competition, but they really missed Tyson and Gilliard in the postseason.
As good as the news was about everyone returning for 2012, it means that the turnover heading into 2013 is going to be brutal. This is the window when the “Dream Team” should be coming into its own, but it’s also going to require some very strong 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes to maintain the talent level on defense.
Georgia will miss Orson Charles, but if you told me a month ago that he’d be the only early departure from the 2011 squad, I’d have considered it foolishly optimistic. We feared that Charles’s announcement yesterday would open the floodgates, but only good news started to pour in.
It was, for the offseason, quite a day. Around noon on Wedneday, we were faced with both the impending departure of Charles as well as rumors about the Falcons reaching out to Todd Grantham. By the end of the day, yes, Charles had indeed announced his departure. But then word spread that Rambo was staying. Grantham smartly issued a statement to put an immediate halt to rumors about him leaving. We soon found out that Shawn Williams and Cornelius Washington had also decided to stay. By the end of the day, it appeared as if Jarvis Jones succeeded in his mission to return the entire group of eligible defensive early entrants.
These were smart decisions. I don’t ever begrudge anyone who follows their dream, but Charles was the only player considering the NFL where another year might not make a world’s difference. I admit there is some selfishness to seeing good players hang around as long as possible in Athens, but none of the defensive players returning (Jarvis Jones excepted) were probable high-round picks. It’s an indication that, despite the temptation, hangers-on looking to make a buck, and possible personal need of the quick payday, these guys had some good advice coming from somewhere that they were mature enough to heed.
“If you’re not a top 15 pick you should stay in school,” Grantham stated flatly. “If you’re a top 15 pick, the amount of money that you make you can justify it. But if you’re not, you should work to become that. Because if you look at the guaranteed money you make up at the top is so great, you can actually make money by staying. You go from being a middle second-round pick to a bottom first- or top-second-round pick, you’re talking hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. You can make that by working hard.”
Of course that last sentence is the key. Take a guy like Bacarri Rambo. He entered the 2011 season as a wildcard. He didn’t have the best sophomore season, and he was suspended for the first game. Rambo put in the work to go from an iffy starter to a legitimate pro prospect. Now he’ll enter the 2012 season as a known entity, he’ll be on every relevant preseason watch list, and he’ll be playing on what should be one hell of a defense. If he continues to work, he’ll illustrate Grantham’s point and realize a windfall when he enters the 2013 draft in much better position than he would have in 2012.
Nothing is 100% official until the deadline to enter the draft passes this Sunday. At least for now it looks as if Georgia will have one of its most experienced and deepest defenses heading into 2012, and they’ll still have their coordinator to continue the development that took place in 2011.
It’s a combination we were fortunate enough to see several times while the two played for Georgia, and it was nice to see Thompkins feed Leslie for Travis’s first NBA dunk last night. It’s great to see them both find a spot on an NBA roster.
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Georgia lost only one player from last season’s Sweet 16 group, but it was a significant loss: Porsha Phillips was Georgia’s top rebounder and a big presence inside on both ends of the court. With Phillips gone, the Lady Dogs have gone just a little smaller. On the upside, they are able to have 4 players on the court with outside range. Anne Marie Armstrong nominally takes over for Phillips. Armstrong of course isn’t a power forward but has the size and jumping ability to play inside. As a natural wing, Armstrong can put it up from outside or make quick moves to the basket with a long stride.
Jasmine Hassell returns as Georgia’s inside presence. Hassell has continued to improve, especially on defense. She continues to have a nice scoring touch around the basket and was key to Georgia’s win over Georgia Tech. Tamika Willis can provide important minutes off the bench at center.
Georgia starting guards all return. Mitchell is the team’s lone senior and can play anywhere from the 1-3 spots. James and Miller hold down the traditional guard spots with James playing the majority of possession at the point. All three of these guards, in addition to Armstrong, are threats to hit from outside.
Two freshmen have worked into the rotation. Guard Erika Ford brings a refreshing attacking style on offense and has proved especially good at driving the baseline. Krista Donald is seeing time at small forward and has impressed me with her intensity and aggressive rebounding.
Though I’d argue that the team is as all-around strong as it’s been in several years, a few weaknesses stick out. Size is one of the obvious ones. Teams with well-developed frontcourts can give Georgia plenty of trouble. Turnovers can also be an issue. Georgia’s solid defense means that they enjoy a positive turnover margin, but the team is still averaging over 15 turnovers per game.
The Season So Far:
Georgia’s nonconference slate this year wasn’t incredibly challenging. Though they’ve lost only two games, the bad news is that those losses were against the only ranked teams on the schedule. The Lady Dogs were competitive but just short of a good Georgetown team. They led Gonzaga by 15 points late in the game, but a complete collapse with turnovers and missed free throws resulted in a shocking loss. The good news is that Georgia has avoided slip-ups against lesser teams. They have a handful of decent wins against quality opponents with Georgia Tech, TCU, and USC highlighting their resume. Georgia has been ranked in the teens for most of the season.
Around the SEC:
It’s a familiar landscape to those who have followed SEC women’s hoops lately. You have a top tier with Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia. Vanderbilt is pesky as always and can probably be considered a favorite to earn a top four position. Several teams have similar records at this point, but there’s a wide spread in strength of schedule. Mississippi State’s 10-3 is nowhere near the quality of Tennessee’s 10-3. That said, Tennessee – while still very good and probably still the class of the league – has shown some vulnerability. The problem is the relative lack of challengers. Kentucky has to be considered a legitimate threat to win the conference, but few others have the resume to this point that would establish themselves as SEC contenders.
A storyline this year will be the movement among teams in the middle tier. South Carolina has improved over the past several seasons. LSU is trying not to slip very far under a new coach. Arkansas has a nice collection of scorers. There are no truly awful teams – even Alabama has some nice results to their credit. It’s going to be a long year though for teams like Ole Miss, and Auburn is already 8-6.
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The new year means that basketball season is about to head into conference play. For the women, SEC action is already underway. The Lady Dogs had an impressive win over Arkansas last Sunday, and they’ll be in Knoxville tonight. The men start things off with a familiar foe: the quirks of the schedule and SEC Tournament mean that Alabama will be the opponent for the third time in the last four conference games. That’s not necessarily good news: the Tide dispatched Georgia twice last year and will be favored to do so again this time. Playing Alabama has a tiny bit of added significance now: Georgia and Alabama replaced coaches at the same time, and in some small way Mark Fox and Anthony Grant will be compared and contrasted as long as they hold their current posts.
With the start of conference play nigh and the football season now over, let’s play catch-up and see where our basketball teams are over a third of the way into the season. We’ll start with the men.
You didn’t have to be an expert to get an early read on the 2012 Dawgs. The departure of Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins in addition to the graduation of Chris Barnes and Jeremy Price meant that this year’s team would be woefully thin in the frontcourt. The only hope was for an impact newcomer, and that didn’t exactly happen. Georgia did bring in several young post players, but they’re understandably, well, young and are having to learn on the job.
Donte Williams and Marcus Thornton have started most of the year up front. Thornton’s had to play a bit out of position – he’s a natural small forward and not really a post, and he’s been injured for the past few games. Still, he’s managed to be Georgia’s leading rebounder out of the gate.
Nemanja Djurisic is one of the newcomers and has started while Thornton is out injured. Djurisic is “raw” personified, but he isn’t afraid to drive to the basket or fight for rebounds. He also has nice range on his shot, giving the Dawgs a fourth outside weapon when he’s in the game. John Florveus and Tim Dixon are the other newcomers providing minutes in the frontcourt, and Connor Nolte continues to contribute off the bench.
Struggles on the frontcourt have had an impact on the guards. A lot was expected of returning senior starters Dustin Ware and Gerald Robinson, and it’s been tough for either to establish consistency. A weak frontcourt means that defenses can extend on the guards, and that’s been disruptive.
There have been two positive developments in the backcourt. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was Georgia’s first McDonald’s All-American signing in 20 years, and he hasn’t disappointed. KCP leads Georgia in scoring and has the ability to make the steal, the move, or the dunk that gets the crowd on its feet. He’s a freshman and still has a lot to learn and work on in shot selection and especially defense, but he’s off to a great start. The other good development has been the play of Vincent Williams. Williams has come on as a backup point guard and shows a lot more confidence in his shot. He’s even earned the start lately over Ware.
The Season So Far:
As expected with the turnover from last season’s NCAA Tournament team, it’s been a rough go of it for the Dawgs. Georgia is 9-5 going into conference play. If there’s one thing positive in the results so far, it’s that the team hasn’t had a truly bad loss – with one exception. The home loss to a poor Georgia Tech team was possibly the low point of the season and really highlighted the deficiencies of the Dawgs. To Georgia’s credit, they rebounded and have won five straight. The Dawgs don’t really have any marquee wins under their belt, but some nice wins away from from against Notre Dame and Southern Cal were impressive.
Around the SEC:
As shaky as Georgia has looked so far, they’re far from the worst team in the league. That says a lot about the state of the bottom tier of the SEC, but it could also help the Dawgs avoid the basement even with their shortcomings. If the guards can carry the team past a couple of lower-tier conference foes, they should break clear of the bottom third of the league.
As expected, Kentucky and Florida are off to strong starts. Kentucky is the clear favorite and a national title contender, but the Gators aren’t to be dismissed. Mississippi State had moderately strong expectations after a disappointing season a year ago, and they’ve lived up to the billing so far. The Bulldogs have stepped up their typically weak nonconference slate, and they’ve met the challenge.
Alabama has been a slight disappointment. The Tide started the season ranked and won their first seven. They lost three of four in early December, but they’ve since righted the ship. Their 25-point demolition of Georgia Tech this week was appreciated, but it’s also a warning to what awaits Georgia in their SEC opener. Vanderbilt has been the league’s real disappointment. They started the year in the top 10. Some early losses to quality opponents fell in the “close call, but no shame” category, but chance after chance to establish themselves among the top third of the league was missed. A convincing win over Marquette demonstrated what the Commodores can do, but they’ve missed that target more often than not this year.
Then there’s the bottom half of the league. Each division has three teams that are going to struggle to earn much postseason notice. The West might have the slightly stronger group: LSU and Ole Miss aren’t awful, but Auburn is. Georgia and a Tennessee program with their new coach could battle for 4th/5th in the East, and South Carolina should wind up on the bottom.
Remember that the SEC is going away from divisional standings this year. Though the schedule will still follow a divisional format (which doesn’t make much sense), the teams will be sorted on overall conference record. Under this system, Georgia could realistically finish somewhere around 7th-10th this year.
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The backlash over Georgia’s 2012 schedule is well underway. I don’t deny that the schedule opens up some great opportunities, but let’s win them first and worry about impressing the critics later.
If Georgia does have a big year in 2012, it’s going to have to come with wins:
at a jacked-up Missouri hosting their first-ever SEC game. Missouri will likely finish 2011 ranked, is well-coached, and should have another competitive team in 2012.
at South Carolina to play a program that returns a lot of talent in a stadium where Georgia usually doesn’t win easily. Georgia has lost two straight to the Gamecocks, and South Carolina will likely see Georgia as their primary obstacle to winning the East.
in Jacksonville where, Florida down or not, the Dawgs haven’t put together consecutive wins since the Reagan-Bush years.
against a very good, likely top 5, team in the SEC Championship if the Dawgs are able to return to the Dome.
And all of that says nothing of traditional rivalries with Tennessee, Auburn, and Georgia Tech – teams that would give a lot to ruin our season, and teams that have spoiled some Georgia seasons in recent years.
“There’s no denying that a schedule that didn’t include the toughest teams from the SEC West probably was the biggest factor in Georgia’s 2011 turnaround. “
There is a bit of truth to the “Georgia is better because of a lighter schedule” angle, but it’s not because the teams on the schedule changed.
The 2010 schedule also “didn’t include the toughest teams from the SEC West,” with the exception of Arkansas. The 2011 schedule traded the Hogs for Ole Miss, and that certainly was a step down in class. The rest of the conference slate was identical. If there was a difference, it was that several of those teams weren’t what they were in 2010. Auburn is the obvious example. Mississippi State might not have been as strong as they were in 2010, but they were still good enough to win a bowl, and I’d say that their drop-off had as much to do with expectations than anything else. Of course Florida was down in 2011, but they were also vulnerable in 2010 until Georgia helped them find an offense. Georgia can control many things, but the quality of their conference – and especially their divisional – opponents isn’t one of them.
Georgia’s nonconference slate was much tougher in 2011 thanks to the replacement of Colorado with Boise State. Two of Georgia’s four nonconference games were away from home against bowl-bound teams.
The 2010 schedule gave Georgia just about the same opportunities that the 2011 schedule did. The difference was that the 2011 Dawgs were improved enough to take advantage of those games against weaker or average opponents.
Aside from the obvious “Mark Richt conservative BAD” conclusion about Georgia’s first overtime possession, it’s the consistency that puzzles me. In perfect hindsight, you would have preferred the chip shot in the first quarter, but you understand why that decision was made – especially in light of the outcry after last season’s bowl game and the tone that was set by laying up early. This was the same coach that traded mid-range field goals for risky passes into the endzone in Jacksonville because that was what it was going to take to beat Florida. The same coach called a gutsy third-down pass to a true freshman that all but ended that Florida game – again, because that’s what it was going to take.
So why in a game with so little on the line, especially when contrasted with a game like Florida, would Richt have played it so close to the vest? He had a similar third down opportunity with just over two minutes remaining where a pass would have all but ended it. Even that decision to run can be defended – you put your top-notch defense in to defend an 85-yard field. But to cash in and not even try to gain yards in overtime? “I felt like my man would make the kick,” Richt explained. Is that what it was? No strategy – just a question of faith?
Was the field goal itself a bad idea? Short of the occasional deep pass, Georgia struggled to move the ball at all. The overtime playcalling will be criticized until September, but Georgia couldn’t run nor pass in overtime. They couldn’t even gain positive yardage in overtime when they were trying to score. This would be Walsh’s closest attempt of all three overtime kicks. I don’t have nearly as much of a problem with the notion of “playing for the field goal” as I do with the second down call.
On first down, Carlton Thomas gained two yards around the left edge. Not great, but forward progress to the 23. Move the pile twice more against a gassed defense (everyone is tired in overtime), and you’re on or inside the 20. You face a 37-yard FG which, while only five yards closer than the one that was attempted, is psychologically much different from one over 40 yards out. The kick didn’t miss by much, and I think that the same kick from five yards closer in would have snuck inside the right upright.
Instead, the call was to have Murray center the ball on second down. Worse than an empty play, it cost yardage. Georgia surrendered field position – and the opportunity to better its field position – in exchange for centering the ball on the field. (Kevin Butler made an interesting observation postgame that a placement between the hashmarks might not even be the ideal position for Walsh given his tendency to push his misses right. The original placement on the left hashmark might have been better.*) Georgia went from having a kick no worse than 40 yards out to intentionally lengthening the distance for a kicker who had struggled mightily beyond 40 yards this year.
I’ve also never liked the idea of kicking on third down. I know why you do it – Tech beat Georgia in such a situation in 1999 in the aftermath of the Jasper Sanks incident. But going back 12 years for an example of why you kick on 3rd down leaves me with the conclusion that this is one of the by-the-book decisions, like centering the ball, that’s done without much consideration for the situation or the personnel. The combination of Frix-Butler-Walsh has been consistent. Georgia gave up second down by trading yardage for an advantage that really wasn’t an advantage. They gave up third down to protect against a scenario that we haven’t seen in a decade. It wasn’t even so much the fear of a turnover – it was completely parking the bus, forgetting that this was 2011 Walsh rather than 2010, and going by the book for a generic field goal attempt as if you were Gene Chizik within a shadow of the goal line at the end of last season’s championship game.
* – I don’t expect Richt to have Walsh’s kicking tendencies at his fingertips for calls like this. It would be something you might expect someone like a special teams coach to know though.
For all of the gains made during the 2011 season, the whole point of the exercise and the entire reason for revamping the conditioning program could be summarized by the concept of “finishing.” Using that concept as a rubric, the final game showed that Georgia hadn’t mastered what it set out to focus on during the offseason. The game also showed that all areas of the team contributed to the problems in finishing. Offense, defense, special teams, and coaching all had roles in the evaporation of a 16-point halftime lead.
All of that is not to say that the focus on “finishing” was a failure when you zoom out and look at the season as a whole. Georgia was able to close out a good many games in 2011, and it’s a large part of why they won 10 games, won in Jacksonville, and won the East. We can conclude that the process is, at best, incomplete. That led to disappointment against better competition in 2011. If you want a silver lining, we shouldn’t have to worry about complacency heading into 2012 – all of that wasn’t going to be undone in one year, was it?
If there was a common thread among the teams that gave Georgia its four losses and biggest problems closing out games in 2011, it was superior defensive line play. Boise’s line is one of the best in the nation. South Carolina had a disruptive front that made game-changing plays. LSU…well. Michigan State offered one last test against a top defensive front. Worthy and Gholston were as good as it gets. In fact, Georgia’s offense against MSU reminded me a lot of the Boise game. You had a few big plays go for scores, but by and large it was a frustrating day getting anything going.
A lot of people asked where the tight ends were against Michigan State. Orson Charles had a single, insignificant reception. The (lack of) production from that position is a byproduct of the offensive line. Georgia couldn’t block MSU with five linemen plus a running back, so the tight end was more often than not a sixth offensive lineman. Watch Murray’s long touchdown pass to King: as the pocket moved right, Charles was protecting the backside of the play.
The Bulldog offensive line will and should receive a lot of scrutiny in the offseason. Georgia couldn’t stand up to the best defensive fronts it faced in 2011, and that’s a large part of what separates them from a higher class of teams. I don’t say that as an indictment of what Coach Friend did in 2011. He put together a decent line with what he had available, and it’s worth a closer look to see why he’ll have another big challenge in 2012.
To begin with, you had three senior starters. Not a bad start. Two of them were guards playing out of position at tackle. One of those was a guy who had sat out 2010 while training to play on the defensive line. Georgia’s other two starters, both guards, were relatively inexperienced. They had a single reserve, Dallas Lee, who could be counted on for significant playing time, and Lee was lost after the Florida game. All of that was good enough for much of the year, but it wasn’t when asked to stop or push high quality defensive lines.
Remove the three seniors, and you see why this is perhaps the central storyline heading into 2012. Georgia’s returning starters at guard are fair but won’t be preseason all-conference mentions. Save Lee, there won’t be much returning experience. Pencil David Andrews in at center. That leaves tackle.
Against elite defensive lines, you need quality tackles to deal with the speed and athleticism of the ends. If you think about it, the Dawgs haven’t really had a true left tackle in top form since Sturdivant in 2007. Georgia’s 2011 tackles were converted guards. The 2012 tackles – whoever they end up being – will be inexperienced. The Dawgs recently got a commitment from a very nice JUCO lineman, Mark Beard. Beard plays guard, but he’s told recruiting services that Georgia is interested in him as a possible tackle. Going to the JUCO well for another guard-turned-tackle might be an insight into the lack of depth at the position. If Long and Danztler aren’t ready to step in, the Dawgs might even have to turn to a true freshman like John Theus. The coaches are also hard after top tackle prospects Brandon Greene and Avery Young.
Georgia’s going to have a lot in their favor in 2012. Schedule, defense, experienced QB, nice receivers, and maybe even some quality depth at tailback. But without that line, they’re going to run into many of the same struggles against the type of team they’d likely meet in the postseason. It’ll be October before the 2012 Dawgs have to face their first strong test up front, at South Carolina. Before then, there’s an awful lot of work to do to develop a unit that can push the Dawgs past the defensive lines of the best teams on the schedule.