We’re ready for another season. The Dawgs are ranked in the top 10, they’re favorites to return to the SEC Championship, but they have even bigger goals in their sights and have rallied around the motto “Our Team. Our Time. No Regrets.” Will this be the kind of year that sees Mark Richt finally reach the top? Here’s our 2012 season preview.
When we last left them…
A Georgia team that entered 2011 with a lot of doubts from the top down got back on course with a 10-win season and an SEC East title. The 7-1 conference record was Georgia’s best SEC showing since 2002, and the team played in its first SEC Championship since 2005. Mark Richt brought the program and his career back from near-collapse, and he’s now in a position to approach the next season with confidence.
Pairs of losses to bookend the season temper the excitement about the 2011 season. Georgia rolled off 10 straight wins through the middle tier of the SEC, but they lost to the four best teams they played. They looked outclassed against superior LSU and Boise State teams, and they made fatal mistakes against South Carolina and Michigan State teams that could be considered peers. The running game fell apart as the season wore on, the defense showed no staying power against better competition, and the team couldn’t muster a win against a team that finished the season ranked.
That mix of mostly good and a healthy dose of sobering reality resulted in a final ranking of #19. Depending on your poll of choice, the 2012 Dawgs open as many as 13 places higher in the rankings? What’s happened since?
Georgia’s high ranking has mostly to do with the number of players that return, especially on defense. All but two starters return, and the group of veterans that decided to forego the NFL draft and return is a once-in-a-decade collection. Add in a third-year starter at quarterback, an intact group of receivers, and a favorable schedule, and Georgia’s prospects are that much better.
Roster numbers became one of the biggest offseason themes. We anticipate some attrition each offseason, and we saw plenty after the 2011 season. The Dawgs were already working with low numbers, and no one would use recent recruiting classes as examples of oversigning. So the attrition – whether for discipline, playing time, or academics – left Georgia with under 70 players who had signed out of high school. The 2012 recruiting class of 19 (with two who didn’t qualify) wasn’t huge, but it does meet needs in key areas. The team has increased its scholarship numbers by awarding scholarships to well-deserving walk-ons, but the situation means two things: Georgia needs a big recruiting class in 2013, and they’ll be thin at a couple of key positions. In addition, like last season, much of the incoming freshman class will have a chance to play.
Key Losses and Departures
DB/Ret/Everything Else Brandon Boykin: Coaching cliches require us to say that Boykin did everything but sell popcorn. By the end of the year, Boykin had lined up at tailback, caught passes, returned kicks, and held down the starting cornerback job. In the bowl game he put points on the board on offense, defense, and special teams. Even though the Dawgs lost, it was impossible to name anyone else as the game’s MVP. It will take as many as four players to replace the roles that Boykin filled during 2011, and it will be tough for any of them to play any single position as well as Boykin did.
OL Cordy Glenn and Ben Jones: Georgia lost three starting offensive linemen to graduation, and these two are playing in the NFL now. Centers don’t often get much attention, but Jones was a four-year starter whose attitude set the tone for the line. Glenn played at both tackle and guard, and his versatility was key for a line that faced serious depth issues during Glenn’s career.
TE Orson Charles and Aron White: Two of the best receiving tight ends Georgia has seen are no longer with the program. Charles was the team’s lone early entrant into the NFL draft. His absence will take away one of Murray’s favorite targets and will change the way Georgia uses the tight end.
RB Isaiah Crowell: Once again Georgia’s leading returning rusher is no longer with the program. In fact, with the early departure of Carlton Thomas, Georgia’s top two returning backs (with over 1,200 yards between them) are gone. Both frustrated fans and coaches, but Georgia again enters a season without much experience in the backfield.
P/K Drew Butler and Blair Walsh: Two of Georgia’s most successful specialists are gone. Though Walsh ended on a shaky note, we trade that for the uncertainty of true freshmen.
RB Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall: Once again Georgia will turn to true freshmen for help at tailback. Though Malcome, and to some extent Samuel, will be there, the Dawgs are counting on big contributions from the two newcomers from North Carolina. Marshall is the speed guy – confident enough to spend the offseason racing Malcolm Mitchell. Gurley is a bit bigger – but not a slow, plodding power back by any means. Gurley’s additional size might give him a little edge in readiness at this point, but both will see action.
LB/S Josh Harvey-Clemons: You don’t see a 6’5″ safety every day, but that’s what we’ll get with Harvey-Clemons. This talented freshman started off at outside linebacker, but he’s a bit slight for the position at under 210 lbs. Todd Grantham envisions Harvey-Clemons in a hybrid role called “star” – one that makes you think of Alex Ogletree or Thomas Davis. He won’t start at safety with Rambo and Williams there, but he’ll be used situationally underneath to use his long range to cause problems in the middle.
LB Jordan Jenkins: If you had to pick someone to succeed Jarvis Jones after this season, it might be Jenkins. Arguably the state’s top prospect, he was the subject of a fierce recruiting battle with Alabama. Now that he’s at Georgia, he’ll earn immediate playing time behind some of the best linebackers in the nation while improving in areas like run defense.
OT John Theus: He was one of the top prospects in the nation in 2012, and he’s emerged just ahead of some more experienced guys to earn the starting job at right tackle. He may be raw, but in all areas he’ll be an upgrade at that position and will anchor the line for years to come.
FB Quayvon Hicks: Walk-on Merritt Hall is the starter, and Richard Samuel will also see time at fullback – his third position. But Hicks has the physique and skills that could develop into an NFL type of fullback. He’s not ready yet, and it might be too soon to call him an impact newcomer for 2012. Once he comes around, he’ll revive a position that’s slipped a little since a good run of fullbacks in the 2000s. More important in the short-term, Hicks has taken on a leadership role among the freshmen to help prepare the newcomers to contribute right away.
P/K Marshall Morgan and Collin Barber: You’ll get to know these two quickly as they step in right away for Walsh and Butler. There are some walk-ons waiting in the wings just in case, but the Dawgs will be much better off if these two can deliver.
Sherman Armstrong and John Thomas: The Georgia coaching staff remained intact, but the strength and conditioning program continued the turnover that started last season. John Kasay retired, and the program added Armstrong and Thomas. Armstrong is a speed coach – the kind of professional the players had been seeking out on their own dime. Thomas was the long-time strength coach at Penn State and brings decades of experience. From two seasons ago, Georgia’s strength and conditioning program has seen a complete and dramatic overhaul and upgrade.
Watch Out For…
RB Ken Malcome: We saw a little bit of Malcome at the end of the season as he slowly worked his way out of the coaches’ bad graces. Though plenty of attention will be on the freshmen, Malcome is – at least for now – your starting tailback. He’s earned it with a strong offseason, and the coaches will trust him more early on as the newcomers pick up blocking schemes and life in the SEC.
TE Arthur Lynch: Lynch is the man expected to step in for Charles and White. As a senior with game experience he’s no rookie, but he’ll have a big job as redshirt freshman Jay Rome comes along. Lynch is more of a traditional tight end, and he will be an upgrade in blocking.
DB Damian Swann: Swann is the leader of Georgia’s next group of young defensive backs. Though the secondary will get help from Malcolm Mitchell, Swann’s role will be important as he backs up the starters and moves over to nickel back for passing situations.
DE Abry Jones: I hesistate to put a senior NFL prospect in this section, but Jones does such an important job at a relatively anonymous position. In the 3-4, a lot more attention is paid to the nose tackle and the outside linebackers. Do yourself a favor and watch #93 for a few plays. I’m as excited that he returned as I am any other defensive starter.
WR Justin Scott-Wesley: Georgia returns all of its receivers from a year ago. There is one redshirt freshman added to the group. Justin Scott-Wesley arrived last year with more of a track reputation than a football reputation. The sprinter won the 2010 state 100-meter dash in 10.35 seconds, and he redshirted to improve his football skills. Now with a little more bulk, he’ll be a threat on deep passes and whenever he gets the ball in space. It will be tough for him to crack the lineup with everyone else returning, but his speed will earn him playing time.
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it too many times this offseason. Georgia has an “easy” schedule because they “avoid” Alabama, Arkansas, and LSU. As if Georgia had any say in it. SEC expansion added another divisional opponent, and an anticipated trip to Tuscaloosa has been replaced by a game with Missouri. The Dawgs will just have to make do playing the rest of the SEC East, Auburn, and Ole Miss.
The nonconference portion of the schedule *is* easier in 2012. Swap out Boise State for Buffalo and make Tech a home game, and Georgia should be expected to do well against its four nonconference opponents. All will be at home, none are ranked, and only Tech is from a major conference.
There is some degree of difficulty to the conference schedule. On paper, Georgia’s four toughest conference games are all away from home. Missouri will add the frenzy of hosting its first SEC game. The Dawgs must win at South Carolina to avoid a three-game losing streak to the Gamecocks. Georgia hasn’t won consecutive games in Jacksonville since the 1980s. The always-competitive trip to Auburn will match wits against the architect of Georgia’s dominant defenses of the early 2000s.
The home slate isn’t nearly as daunting. When Vanderbilt is among your better home opponents, it’s safe to say that Gameday isn’t coming to campus. That’s not to say Vandy isn’t worth watching – we saw the scare they put into the Dawgs last year, and they’re just as full of bravado/themselves this year. Tennessee also comes to Athens. Ordinarily this would be a game circled on the schedule, but the Vols are a bit of a question again this year. Tennessee’s passing game is enough to get anyone’s attention, and it took just one bad afternoon against the Vols in 2004 to derail a promising season.
The schedule might not be as brutal as it could be with a top-5 Bama or LSU on there, but by no means does that make it “easy.”
You can go down the list of departures and gather what Georgia’s top concerns are. It starts up front with the offensive line. There will be three new starters including a true freshman at right tackle and a new center. One of its likely starters, Kolton Houston, remains ineligible. If there’s a bright spot on the line, it’s depth. Will Friend will have at least 7 or 8 guys to rotate in with still more behind them. That’s not to say the team can afford many injuries to the starters. But if the starting unit can hold together reasonably well, it’s a pretty strong group that should improve throughout the season, and there will be sufficient depth for the occasional breather.
Tailback remains a concern until proven otherwise. The team is without its top two returning rushers. Malcome and Samuel provide the lion’s share of the experience. There will be a lot depending on the readiness of two true freshmen. Things aren’t as dire as the end of the 2011 season when the team had to dip into the walk-on pool for a tailback, but this group is also replacing 1,200 yards of production. Aaron Murray’s ceiling will depend on these backs pulling their weight.
Special teams also ranks up there as a concern. Walsh’s struggles aside, two very accomplished specialists are gone. Boykin’s threat as a kick returner is also gone. Those were the strong points of a unit that looked very shaky in other areas from kickoff coverage to punt defense. The scholarship freshmen will get the first opportunity to kick and punt. Branden Smith will get a chance as the return man. Malcolm Mitchell could also get a look, and that will scare the daylights out of fans. Freshmen defensive backs Sheldon Dawson and Damian Swann might also return kicks.
Those are broad-based positional concerns, but there are also a few situations to watch. Murray had costly second half turnovers in three of Georgia’s four losses. Can he avoid those killer mistakes? Can the team avoid the mistakes on special teams – the kickoff returns, the fake punts, and the missed field goals that hurt them in 2011? Georgia’s receivers all return, but can any rise above role player to become primary targets with Charles gone and Mitchell’s role diminished? Then of course there are the unknowns – injuries, suspensions, and the march of the season will all have their say.
Reasons for Hope
Georgia’s lofty ranking and high hopes start with its defense. With only two starters gone, you know the pieces. Some depth has been added by the redshirt freshmen and true freshmen. This is a veteran group with three years’ experience in a complicated and effective scheme. Todd Grantham will have no restrictions on what he can run, and he’ll have playmakers from front to back. There is still lots of room for improvement – second-half collapses to end the year against Michigan State and LSU were as much on the defense as anyone else. They can’t just be phenomenal for one half.
Murray’s comfort as a three-year starter will also be a positive. There are few situations and schemes he hasn’t seen. He’ll have a senior receiver in Tavarres King, and he has experience with the rest of the top five receivers. If the line holds together and the four tailbacks deliver, Murray should have what he needs to meet his goal of at least a 65% completion rate.
Is the schedule a legitimate reason for hope? In a small way, but, again, it’s dangerous to think that Georgia won’t face any challenges from their schedule. Whether its road conference games, toss-up rivalry games, or the pressures that build while chasing a title, there will be plenty keeping the team on their toes. Some opponents will turn out better than expected. Others will turn out to be over-hyped. Hopefully Georgia won’t be among them.
The team is confident, and they have their eyes on some ambitious goals. There isn’t the uncertainty or doubt that faced them this time last year and especially after the first two games. That desperation did serve as a bit of a kick in the pants to rally the team for its 10-game winning streak. The motivation is different this year, but the hunger and focus can’t be any less.