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Post Preseason pessimism dump

Monday July 29, 2013

I’m generally a pretty upbeat fan, and I’m really excited about this coming season. That said, when you have all offseason to think about these things, some doubts never fail to pop up. Since practice starts tomorrow, I’m going to get them all out of my system now. There are obvious concerns like all of the youth on defense or the ever-present threat of a key injury, but here are a few others:

Murray’s head. Any questions about Aaron Murray’s ability to make throws went out the window years ago. His improvisation at the end of the first half against Ole Miss was one of the most impressive individual plays I saw last year. Where Murray stands to make the biggest gains as a senior is in his mental approach to the game.

Murray tends to be an emotional player. His habit of getting too “juiced up” at the start of games has been tough to shake. To his credit, he’s spent time working on himself. He worked on the quarterbacking part over spring break out at Oklahoma. But he’s also taken the initiative to work on his leadership, solicit feedback from his teammates, and apply his industrial-organizational psychology academic work to the team’s offseason program.

He took a big step forward last year in terms of production and efficiency. It’ll be tough enough maintaining that level of play. The loss to Alabama hit Murray hard, and I’m sure many of his teammates feel the same way. Channeling that emotion into the upcoming season instead of dwelling on the loss will be important – there’s no time to come out with anything but the most focused, confident, and level-headed effort.

Tailback. Setting aside Gurley, I still don’t think we know what we have at the tailback spot. Marshall was brilliant in bursts, but after starting the year with at least ten carries in each of the first six games, Marshall had only one other game with over eight carries and only two other games with over 40 yards. I’m really looking forward to seeing how he’s developed in the offseason and whether the coaches will be more aggressive about giving him carries (or, going by his nice work on the touchdown reception in the bowl, opportunities in the passing game out of the backfield). It comes down to this – if, heaven forbid, Gurley is sidelined for any period of time, can Marshall manage the workload?

Special teams. Georgia’s 2013 outlook is usually discussed in terms of a loaded offense and an inexperienced defense. The third element of the game hasn’t come up much. Collin Barber at punter is fairly solid. Morgan seemed to exorcise his extra point problems towards the end of the year, but he was only 2-of-6 on field goals after October. His possible absence for the opener adds more uncertainty.

Then there’s returners. Malcolm Mitchell was hit-or-miss last year on kickoffs, and last season’s new rules make long returns less likely. Fair or not, Mitchell’s injury track record also makes it a scary proposition to put a player expected to be a top receiver at risk on returns. Punt returns weren’t an especially productive area. But do they have to be? With a potent offense, there’s less pressure to affect field position through aggressive special teams. So long as he’s reliable with possession, McGowan’s 8 yards per punt return could be all the team asks for.

Game management. Pace has been a hot topic over the past few weeks as coaches debate whether there are legitimate concerns about player safety. Pace will also be a factor for Georgia’s coaches to consider. Of course winning the game comes first, but Georgia’s young defense is less of a potential liability the less it’s on the field. Now “pace” isn’t necessarily the same as scoring quickly. Teams can have aggressive tempo but eat up the field using many short-yardage plays in long scoring drives. Teams can also be slow to snap the ball but better than most in generating big plays that result in quick scores. Does the need to rest and manage the defense drive in part how Georgia’s offensive coaches approach their ideal pace? There’s another way to look at it – if you’re fairly confident in the offense, is there less of a reason to be cautious with the defense?

Is the offense as good as we think it is? I guess this is what we’re all waiting to see. You only have to go back a year to the expectations of the defense. Of course the defense wasn’t awful (and even better than 2011 in some instances.) But the suspensions put the unit on its heels from the outset, and it took a remarkable crisis in the middle of the season for the unit to start performing as we had hoped. Even then, there were big flaws that showed up in the postseason that were shocking for a unit loaded with such talent.

The 2013 offense (knock wood) will at least start the season much more intact than the 2012 defense did. There’s always the dreaded sophomore slump, but Gurley was consistent enough in 2012 to have faith in him going forward. Murray’s ability isn’t in doubt, though he’ll be fighting against history to maintain the level of play from his junior season. Mitchell, when healthy, is as good of a target as there is. Bennett’s return seems to be on track. Lynch emerged last year to become arguably the best tight end in the conference.

The line, especially after the return of Kolton Houston, finally has depth and experience. Some line spots aren’t 100% settled yet, but there won’t be a lack of options, and a freshman won’t have to be pressed into service on the starting line. So there’s plenty of good reason to be optimistic about the offense, but the prospects for the season depend on it living up to its billing.

There. That feels better. Maybe some legitimate concerns, maybe some overthinking blather. It’s good to get it out, and I look forward to the unofficial start of the season tonight at the UGA Day event in Gwinnett.

Post Kolton Houston’s nightmare ends

Friday July 26, 2013

After three years in NCAA limbo, Georgia junior offensive lineman Kolton Houston finally got the word on Thursday that his eligibility had been restored – on his birthday, no less.

Houston’s story had become well-known among Georgia circles and went national earlier this year thanks to a segment on ESPN’s Outside the Lines. A misapplied shot after a surgery left trace amounts of a banned substance in Houston’s system. UGA director of sports medicine Ron Courson presented evidence to the NCAA that Houston had not reused the substance, but the levels of the substance remained agonizingly just above the allowed threshold for several years. Houston even had unnecessary surgery to try to clear his body of the substance, but even that couldn’t clear him.

It had become questionable whether he’d ever get to play a down for Georgia, but Thursday’s good news means that he’ll finally be able to start his career.

Houston’s return will have immediate implications for Georgia’s offensive tackle rotation. Georgia might’ve been disappointed at the tackle spot on signing day back in February, but the addition of Houston is like adding a 4* prospect with the added bonus of three years of development within the system. Scout had Houston as the nation’s #6 guard prospect coming out of Buford in 2010. Had Houston been cleared a year earlier, he would have entered fall camp as the first-team right tackle. Georgia ended up having to use a true freshman, John Theus, at the position.

Now Theus has a year of experience, and Xzavier Ward has developed well enough to challenge Theus. Kenarious Gates is the incumbent left tackle with Mark Beard also available. So the depth chart is a little more muddled for Houston this year, and of course he hasn’t been able to do much work outside of spring practice. What it could do is open up the possibility of redshirting someone like Watts Dantzler who probably should have redshirted last season. OL coach Will Friend has to like the additional flexibility he’s been given, and I’m sure we’ll see Houston worked in during the season – possibly as soon as the North Texas game unless injuries require that he play sooner.

Houston might not be done with the NCAA yet. He enters 2013 with two years of eligibility remaining, but he’ll have the option of petitioning for an additional year after the 2014 season. We’d hope the NCAA wouldn’t take three years to grant that request.

Post Cashing in on scoring opportunities

Monday July 22, 2013

Yet another interesting post over at Football Study Hall – this one looks at how well teams finish scoring opportunities (or at least trips inside the opponent’s 40). With a good kicker, you can start thinking about points not to far past that yard line.

The data for Georgia go in two different directions. First, Georgia was outstanding at generating points if they crossed the opponent’s 40. Georgia came away with an average of 5.17 points per trip – 4th best in the nation.

Of course the counterpart to that bit of information is to look at how often Georgia got the ball into that position. There they weren’t as successful. Over half – 53% – of Georgia’s drives made it across the opponent’s 40. That’s not bad, but it’s still only a little above average. 46 teams were better. For comparison, Alabama and A&M both had over 64% of their drives make it inside the opponent’s 40. That might not be surprising for the Aggies, but it’s a reminder of how quietly efficient the Alabama offense was last year.

So when Georgia’s offense got rolling, it was hard to stop. It also had its stagnant moments where drives fizzled. If there’s an area where Georgia’s loaded offense can improve in 2013, it’s in sustaining drives. Get that 53% over 60%. It’s an attainable target; 13 teams managed it last year. If Georgia can finish those drives at a comparable rate, you’ll see some big dividends. At the same time, improvement in this area will also help the young defense. You’ll have the offense on the field longer, and more sustained drives means fewer three-and-outs that put the defense right back out there.

Post Malzahn’s crusade against gamesmanship

Monday July 22, 2013

One of the themes of last week’s SEC Media Days was the pace of play as it relates to player safety. Several coaches had already made their preferences known, so this wasn’t exactly new ground. Still, it was a chance to get most everyone on the record.

Auburn’s Guz Malzahn, as you’d expect, spoke strongly in support of his up-tempo approach. “We completely believe in pace,” he began. Malzahn even turned the issue around, pointing a finger at defenses who try anything they can to slow things down.

We need to look at the guys on defense that are faking injuries to slow down these pace teams.

He’s right that there will be gamesmanship, but I admit that his line about fake injuries rubbed me the wrong way. The last time Georgia faced a Malzahn offense over at Auburn, we were treated to the Auburn crowd – praised for their “sophistication” by Gary Danielson – booing a Georgia player struggling to get off the field after taking a helmet to the knee. We come down on the side of the up-tempo teams, as Malzahn and Mark Richt do, but for some reason we can’t too worked up over Malzahn’s objection.

Post Georgia-South Carolina set for 4:30 on ESPN

Tuesday July 16, 2013

The SEC announced the television schedule for the first three weeks of the season today. We already knew that the Clemson opener would be a night game (8:00 p.m. on ABC). We weren’t so lucky with the SEC opener. The September 7th game against South Carolina in Athens has been slotted for a 4:30 p.m. start, and ESPN will televise the game.

If you’re wondering why ESPN wouldn’t take such a big game for a primetime night slot, the invaluable lsufootball.net comprehensive TV listing tells us that ESPN has already scheduled Notre Dame-Michigan for the 7:00 p.m. night slot on September 7th. ABC is tied up with NASCAR that night, so that isn’t an option either. CBS, as usual, won’t have a game until the third week of the season when they launch their 2013 SEC coverage with Alabama-Texas A&M.

The Bulldogs have a bye in the third week of the season.

Post Murray’s hipster Heisman campaign

Monday July 15, 2013

Georgia and South Carolina engaged in their own Battle of Who Could Care Less last week when each school announced that it would not actively promote its star player for the Heisman trophy. Georgia SID Claude Felton said that the media would do most of the talking for Aaron Murray, and the Gamecocks cited Georgia’s precedent in their own lack of a preseason push behind Jadeveon Clowney.

Both schools’ decisions reflect the reality that the Heisman is a fluid process. If you go back a year ago, the names you saw at the top of many preseason Heisman lists included Matt Barkley, Denard Robinson, Landry Jones, Marcus Lattimore, and Montee Ball. Geno Smith became a favorite after West Virigina’s explosive start. None of those ended up in the top 5 of Heisman voting.

I think a key is that both schools left themselves a hedge. South Carolina admitted, “we’ll let it play out some.” Felton said, “We’ll see how things stand at the end of September.” The teams will have a good sense of where they and their stars stand after a month. The Gamecocks will have had a pair of SEC games and a fairly high-profile nonconference game under their belt. Georgia will have faced three top 20 teams, and Murray’s offense will have tested themselves against Clowney’s defense.

Now if either Clowney or Murray can navigate an undefeated September and play at the level we expect of them, I’d hope the schools would begin to take a more active approach, especially as we get closer to November. The circumstances of 2012 that saw a freshman emerge to win the Heisman were unique, but it should be noted that A&M’s campaign behind Manziel didn’t start until mid-November, and there was no Notre Dame campaign behind Te’o when the South Bend Tribune launched its own promotion in mid-October.

It’s true that the media will do a lot of the heavy lifting if either player has a season worthy of Heisman consideration. SEC players have advantages over someone from, say, Northern Illinois who must spend effort on name recognition and basic awareness. That said, there still will be a role for Felton and his counterpart at South Carolina. Voters, particularly those outside the region, won’t be focused on Murray and Clowney even if they know the names. They might see a highlight or be roughly aware of a team’s rise and fall in the rankings. But they’ll also need the case for any favorite to be distilled down to a few comparables that they’ll weigh against players from their own backyard – players with whom the voters are much more familiar. A gimmicky introductory campaign behind Murray or Clowney won’t be necessary, but when the time comes we would expect an SEC SID to shine along the lines of the informational site that A&M did behind Manziel last November.

We’ll let it play out some…

Post Malcolm Mitchell’s low profile

Monday July 15, 2013

Recently junior receiver Malcolm Mitchell was named to the Paul Hornung Award Watch List.

Is it me, or is Mitchell one of the least-discussed stars on the Georgia team? I don’t mean he’s unknown or even underappreciated – it’s just that you don’t hear much about him when talking about Georgia’s keys to success this year. I’m sure a part of it is that he’s known and established and we know what we’re going to get, and it’s also possible that his injuries have tempered expectations for him to stand out.

There’s also a question of production. Mitchell’s catches and total yardage were down from his freshman season, but he missed three games due to injury. He was also pressed into service as a cornerback to start 2012, so the fact that he only posted 6 catches for 74 yards in September isn’t an indictment. He ramped up his production in October and had at least three catches in every remaining SEC game. But he only had one 100+ yard game in 2012 and ended the year with as many touchdowns – 4 – as he had as a freshman.

I’m not down on Mitchell – this December article explains a lot of what was going on. Between the injuries and the position uncertainty, he really hasn’t had time to focus on being a receiver. Despite that, he’s maintained an outstanding catch rate over his two seasons and has come up with brilliant plays like this one against Florida that have earned him a reputation as a star receiver. Now he’s a full-time receiver and expected to be a standout as a starter in the passing game.

Steele has Mitchell as a preseason 2nd-team All-SEC pick. That’s about right (and the first-teamers are good choices), but the potential is there for a healthy Mitchell to really make a move this year. The “healthy” part is easier said than done, but if Murray has the kind of year we hope for, someone is going to be catching some passes. Murray began to diversify his targets in the last third of 2012, but there are still going to be primary targets. Mitchell’s consistently high catch rate makes him a likely choice to shine as that primary target.

We’ll also have to see if Mitchell will have a chance to add to his impact again with special teams. He’s the returning kickoff returner, but his results were hit-and-miss last year. With him atop the receiver depth chart now and injuries either a predisposition or an unlucky coincidence, Georgia might take more care to have their top receiver available to catch the ball.

Post Brendan Douglas and the future of the Georgia fullback position

Monday July 8, 2013

One of the more interesting members of Georgia’s 2013 signing class is Brendan Douglas. Douglas was a late addition to the class, committing in the week before Signing Day. He got the conversation going for a couple of reasons: first, it was a chance to take a commitment away from Tech at the 11th hour (that phone call with Paul Johnson must’ve been pleasant.) But there was also the curiosity over the interest in a running back unknown to all but the most hard-core of recruitniks.

We didn’t even know what position Douglas played. Many initial reports had him as a fullback, and Rivals had him pegged as the nation’s #5 fullback. The offer of another fullback seemed strange. At the time, Zander Ogletree was still on the team, and Georgia also had underclassmen Hall and Hicks with experience at fullback.

But as the spring went on, coaches made it clear that Douglas is slotted to play tailback. Certainly that has to do with Georgia’s tailback depth – Bobo admitted that a true freshman – either Douglas or A.J. Turman – could see time this year out of necessity. Whether a fullback or a tailback, Douglas seems like the kind of guy who can find a role somewhere, even if it’s initially on special teams. He made news at an Augusta-area combine back in March, and we’ll let the Columbia County News-Times fill in the details:

The star of the day was Aquinas standout and University of Georgia signee Brendan Douglas. He won nearly every competition, posting some astonishing numbers such as a 40.5 inch vertical jump (Michael Jordan’s was 44 inches), a 10 foot, 2 inch broad jump (the top broad jump at UGA’s Pro Day this year was 10 foot, 3 inches), and he powered out 37 repetitions of 185 pounds on the bench press.

All of that is to set up a link to this post over at Football Study Hall (FSH): The run game renaissance and the return of the fullback. Now the fullback has never been marginalized in Mark Richt’s offense to the extent that it was elsewhere, but the points about finding new uses for “versatile” and “hybrid” players apply. Georgia has experimented with some of this versatility, but it’s mostly been with the tight ends. We’ve had Charles flexing outside, and Figgins moved to the backfield, and the H-back concept goes all the way back to the Shannon Mitchell days. But as FSH admits, finding these kinds of players at tight end isn’t easy. While Georgia has relied, and still does rely, on walk-ons at fullback, we’re also seeing an increased use of scholarship players at the position.

It caught my eye in May when Mark Richt mentioned the possibility of Gurley and Marshall in the backfield at the same time. Richt also emphasized that they’d have a fullback in as a lead blocker. That got more than a couple of people wondering how it would look. Certainly the wildcat is a possibility, and it’s a familiar set for Georgia. In a callback to the Shannon Mitchell days, the lead blocker could also be an H-back allowing for a traditional two-back shotgun set.

FSH identifies another possibility: the diamond. The diamond allows for a quarterback and three backs, including one or more fullbacks. It could certainly work with two tailbacks and the fullback that Richt described. Georgia used the pistol formation at times in 2012, and the diamond wouldn’t be a huge stretch from there. We don’t know exactly what the coaches have in mind for the backfield, but we’re encouraged to at least see the wheels turning. As the Bulldogs (and everyone else in the SEC) ponders how to deal with someone like Clowney, FSH identifies a role for the fullback:

As a response to spread tactics, defenses are playing quick and powerful athletes at defensive end but playing lighter and less physical players at linebacker. Consequently, while the defensive ends can be a load for the tight end to block, it’s not as difficult for a physical fullback with any meaningful size to cut block or lead block into those defensive ends. It’s certainly not that difficult for a good fullback to open lanes against the smaller, anti-spread linebackers and safeties when leading through a hole.

Now we don’t expect Douglas to be put out there right away by Game 2, but signing a player like that makes more sense down the road when you look at defensive trends. As FSH puts it, “These fullback/halfback players can free up an offense to feature explosive offensive weapons without losing physicality and committing the cardinal football sin of being ‘soft.'” We’ll be watching how a player like Douglas (whether nominally a tailback or fullback) fits in alongside the backfield of Gurley and Marshall and, later, alongside Chubb and Michel.

Post Inside Georgia’s passing game

Monday July 8, 2013

As long as Mark Richt has been Georgia’s coach, I realized that I hadn’t seen a ton of film of him actually coaching. We’ll get the occasional B-roll footage from practice of Richt or another coach supervising a drill, and the coach’s show will occasionally allow Richt to explain what happened on a certain play. And as Georgia’s offense isn’t one of the fashionable spread derivatives that earns much of the study and analysis

Chris Brown gives us a rare look today at Georgia’s passing game. First, there’s all-22 footage without narration showing some passing concepts used by Georgia’s offense (and many other offenses). Then there’s a clip of Richt explaining (and explaining how to teach) these concepts at a coaching clinic. It might be more useful to watch the second clip first to know what to look for in the all-22 montage. Good stuff.