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.