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Post 2014 Georgia football preview: Special Teams

Thursday August 28, 2014

Once a hallmark of Georgia’s success last decade, the special teams units of 2013 weren’t much to be proud of. The first half of the season was particularly bad. Georgia either gave up points or missed scoring chances as a direct result of special teams miscues in five of the first seven games. The blocked punt at Tennessee ended up affecting the punting game for the rest of the season, and the breakdowns at Vanderbilt led to an extremely poor loss.

Things got a little better towards the end of the year if only because Georgia, well, punted. If fake punts were a concern, it was enough to abandon any notion of a return. Incoming assistant coach Mike Ekeler joked in his interview that “you set an NCAA record for being in punt safe.” If such a record exists, Ekeler’s claim can’t be far off. Even when punts were fielded, the returners were on their own as far as technique, and the results were obvious.

The defensive coaching change gave Georgia the opportunity to address special teams. This need was a big part of the reason behind hiring someone like Ekeler who played linebacker and special teams for Bill Snyder at Kansas State. Though special teams responsibilities will still be distributed across the staff, John Lilly and Ekeler have been named special teams coodinators for offense and defense. Lilly will oversee punt coverage, kickoff returns, and placekicks. Ekeler will oversee kickoff coverage, punt returns, and defending placekicks. The difference might be subtle, but there is still a greater emphasis this year on accountability and instruction.

If there are to be changes on special teams, it will have to come from coaching because the personnel is more or less the same (with one big exception). In 2013 punting took a turn for the worse at midseason. Collin Barber took a concussion on a blocked punt at Tennessee. He went from 46.75 yards per punt before that game to 40.8 yards per punt afterwards. Barber eventually ceded the job to Adam Erickson who had primarily only been the pooch punter to that point. Those two return in 2014, and it’s still undecided which will be Georgia’s primary punter.

If there was one area of strength on special teams last season, it was placekicker Marshall Morgan. Morgan shook off an inconsistent freshman campaign and a suspension at the start of the 2013 season to emerge as a dependable weapon – even from beyond 50 yards out. Morgan has been putting in the work in the offseason to get even better, and we’ll feel confident in Georgia’s chances of getting points anytime they cross the opponent’s 40.

Georgia took the unusual step in the 2014 signing class of inking a prospect primarily on his future as a return specialist. Isaiah McKenzie could see time as a wide receiver, but he’s much more likely to get on the field first as a kick and punt returner. McKenzie turned heads during preseason camp with his combination of speed and elusiveness. Some overenthusiastic fans have even given him the nickname “The Human Joystick” for his ability to shift as if he were playing a video game. If there’s one thing that might keep him off the field at first, it’s a hesitancy to put a true freshman in the situation of having to cleanly field and return a kick in a huge game on national television. So you might see Reggie Davis or someone else out there for the first few kicks, but this is eventually going to be McKenzie’s job.

One other change you might notice is an increased use of starters on special teams. We have this discussion almost every year about the trade-offs between putting the skills of starter-level talent on the field vs. the risk of a Boss Bailey type of injury. Remember that Justin Scott-Wesley got hurt last year covering a punt. But the staff is in the corner of playing starters, and the AJC has a good look at how that might work:

the goal is for all defensive starters to play on at least two special teams, but walk-ons with special-team expertise, such as Kosta Vavlas or Lucas Redd, won’t be pulled off “just to say we’ve got a starter in there.”

Hopefully some combination of personnel, a more aggressive approach to special teams, and increased attention and teaching from the coaches will pay off. I’d say that I’d be happy if special teams just avoided the catastrophic mistakes that affected the outcomes of games last season. I remember though the Richt teams where special teams often made the plays that meant a momentum shift in Georgia’s favor, and I hope that’s the standard this staff has in mind now.

Post 2014 Georgia football preview: Defense

Thursday August 28, 2014

Players leaving on their own, players kicked off the team, players moving to offense, players moving from offense, walk-ons competing for starting jobs, a coaching change – and that’s just the secondary. While the offense, apart from graduating seniors, remained fairly stable from a year ago, upheaval has been the theme of the offseason on defense.

We’ll start with the coordinator. That Georgia could convince the rising star coordinator of the newly-minted national champions to make a lateral move both shocked and delighted the Bulldog fan base. Jeremy Pruitt’s track from high school innovator to Alabama to FSU and now Georgia might seem like the pendulum swinging back the other way. Where the previous coordinator was praised for his NFL experience and sophisticated scheme, Pruitt’s appeal comes from his high school roots and his emphasis on simplicity. That’s not to say that his scheme is vanilla or elementary. His approach is just more straightforward: “If you can’t execute it, we’re not going to call it.” One of his biggest jobs has been to reduce or eliminate the confusion and chaos that was so obvious on the field last season.

Georgia remains nominally a 3-4 defense. As with the previous coordinator, that 3-4 is just a starting point. You’ll see different combinations along the line of scrimmage as well as additional defensive backs. We saw last week how even 3-4 defenses often use nickel personnel (with five defensive backs) to defend modern spread offenses. Pruitt hasn’t committed to much of a depth chart for a few reasons. First, many roles are still up in the air even as we approach kickoff. But more importantly, Pruitt’s formations and personnel will change often enough situationally that it’s not worth much to dwell on one possible combination. Pruitt’s objective is to cause confusion for the offense while making sure every defensive player knows the call.

Pruitt, in addition to coordinating the defense, will coach defensive backs. The offseason saw a complete shakeup of the defensive staff, and the Bulldogs welcome three new assistants along with Pruitt:

  • Tracy Rocker (defensive line / weakside linebacker): Rocker’s name might be familiar to those who remember him as a standout player at Auburn. He’s coached in college (as part of Auburn’s 2010 national title staff) and most recently in the NFL.
  • Kevin Sherrer (strongside linebacker / star): Sherrer came by personal recommendation of Pruitt. The two have strong ties from their high school coaching days as well as from time together at Alabama.
  • Mike Ekeler (inside linebackers / special teams): Ekeler has coached linebackers for major programs (Southern Cal and Nebraska). He was also a part of LSU’s 2007 national title team.

An overall theme on the defense is lighter and more agile players. That’s evident up front where only one of six players on the tentative two-deep tops 300 pounds. It’s a change in approach from the days of John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers. There’s always a concern about lighter guys against power running attacks, but 1) Georgia won’t face many of those and 2) there are some heavier options on the bench. Georgia’s defensive line loses the versatile Garrison Smith, but nearly everyone else returns. The Dawgs won’t rely much on newcomers up front. The names are familiar – DeLoach, Drew, Thornton, Bailey, and Dawson. Redshirt freshman John Atkins is one of the bigger linemen at 322 lbs., and JUCO senior Toby Johnson is another strong and experienced player who should see action. The only true freshman is Lamont Gaillard. Gaillard might play, but it would take a rash of injuries for him to see a lot of time. The starters here won’t matter much – you’ll see a healthy rotation.

The strength of the defense should be in the linebacker corps. Everyone returns. You have skilled outside linebackers in Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd. You have veteran inside linebackers in Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson. What’s interesting is the movement behind that returning group. Wilson missed some time in preseason and has competition for his starting job from Tim Kimbrough and Reggie Carter. This development has surprised a lot of people since Wilson’s high tackle numbers have earned him national preseason honors. But when a lot of those tackles come in the style of Keith Brooking, there’s room for a challenge from inside linebackers who can take on blocks and attack the line of scrimmage. That’s what we’re seeing here.

As the pass rush specialists, outside linebacker is a glamour position in a 3-4 defense. There’s a lot more to the position though, and certain responsibilities have humbled even gifted defenders like Floyd. Pruitt insists that “We’re not gonna play (nickel coverage) with linebackers,” so it should be rare to see an outside linebacker hung out to dry in a mismatch with a speedy receiver. There’s also some nice depth. Davin Bellamy has earned playing time, but he’ll be suspended for the first two games. That suspension (not to mention an outstanding camp) has opened the door for true freshman Lorenzo Carter. Carter, a 5* Signing Day coup, has lived up to his billing well enough to prompt his position coach to say that Carter has the potential to be “one of the best ones to come through here.” Though an outside linebacker, Carter is versatile enough to be lined up anywhere – even over center. Moving a pass rusher around to confuse the offense is something we saw with Clowney at South Carolina, but we’ll stop the comparisons with that outstanding player there. It’s enough to say that Carter has earned immediate playing time.

For all of the hand-wringing you might have heard about the Georgia defense, the front seven looks fairly solid. There’s ability, experience, and depth. So what’s the problem? It’s time to talk about the secondary.

Whether it’s the third-and-longs, the pre-snap confusion, the lack of turnovers generated, or a specific play against Auburn or Nebraska, we’re all too familiar with the adventures of the 2013 secondary. Now take away four players with starting experience – all highly rated prospects. Welcome to 2014. Matthews, Harvey-Clemons, and Wiggins are no longer with the program. Brendan Langley, who saw quite a bit of playing time earlier in the year at cornerback, is now a wide receiver. There are only a handful of returning players who saw significant time last season: Swann, Bowman, Moore, and Mauger.

With that situation, Pruitt – who will coach the secondary – has had to put together a unit that includes several true freshmen, three former members of the offense, a JUCO transfer, and walk-ons. The depth chart has all the permanence of a middle school relationship, but we can say one thing – Damian Swann has earned one of the cornerback spots. Swann has made the most of the coaching change and seems poised to put a disappointing 2013 behind him. Pruitt isn’t quick with praise, but he singled out Swann as someone ready to play what Pruitt considers “winning football.”

After Swann, it’s anyone’s guess. Bowman is the most experienced player, but that experience is relative. Georgia signed one of the top JUCO cornerbacks – Shattle Fenteng – and Fenteng is likely to see much of the time opposite Swann. True freshmen Malkom Parrish and speedy Rico Johnson, a former wide receiver, will also compete for playing time. Georgia’s nickel or “star” position will be held down by a defensive back. Former tailback J.J. Green has worked almost exclusively at star, and we could also see true freshman Dominick Sanders or Parrish there as well.

The cornerback rotation is a Biblical truth next to the uncertainty at safety. Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger played often in 2013, and the senior Moore seems more likely to see the field first. Cornerback Reggie Wilkerson impressed in the spring of 2013 but missed the year with a knee injury. He’s moved to safety and should get a look. One of the nice stories of the summer was the rise of walk-on Aaron Davis. Davis is intelligent with a command of the defense, and he’s making it tough for coaches to keep him off the field. Cornerbacks like Green and Sanders could even line up at safety. I don’t think Pruitt is being coy about the lack of decisions in the backfield. The number of newcomers and the general unfamiliarity with a new defense means that the evaluation is ongoing even right up through game week.

It’s positive that there are options, but there’s a reason why Pruitt is going gangbusters recruiting defensive back talent. The attrition was significant in terms of talent if not experience, and the staff has had to get creative to fill those holes. Pruitt will do what he can in terms of fundamentals and getting the defense lined up correctly, but the success of the secondary will come down to talent – is there enough to work with, and how quickly can the rushed training become instinct?

The one thing to remember is that the secondary doesn’t operate by itself. The ability of a talented front seven to create pressure and cause confusion will do a lot to help the secondary along. Ideally, the pressure will cause rushed passes and poor decisions that lead to turnover opportunities. If that pressure doesn’t develop, the inexperienced secondary will show. It’s to be expected with good coaching that the unit will improve as the season goes on and the roles become more defined. The problem of course is that two of its biggest tests will come in the first three weeks of the season.

Post 2014 Georgia football preview: Offense

Wednesday August 27, 2014

Georgia got a glimpse of the 2014 offense last November when Aaron Murray had to be carried off the Sanford Stadium turf. Hutson Mason led the Dawgs under center for the final two and a half games of the season. The results were mixed – the Dawgs didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard in those last couple of games. The comeback at Tech was impressive, but the offense by that point – even for those healthy enough to play – was held together with duct tape. After waiting for four seasons, it’s finally time for Mason to lead a fully loaded offense into a season.

We know by now that Mason’s game is a little different from Murray’s. Mason prefers a faster pace, and while we won’t see Georgia’s offense rival Auburn’s or Oregon’s for pace, the Dawgs could push the tempo when it’s to their advantage. Mason is more comfortable with the short to intermediate passes, and it’s no accident that so much preseason focus has been on the H-back position and getting the tailbacks more involved in the passing game. Georgia might not air it out downfield as much, and they’ll rely on Mason to be efficient distributing the ball to a number of capable receiving targets.

Georgia’s had the luxury for a couple of seasons of knowing with certainty not only the starting quarterback but the backup as well. Mason’s promotion leaves an unsettled backup situation with Faton Bauta and Brice Ramsey contending. If you want very vague comparisons of style, think Tebow (Bauta) vs. Stafford (Ramsey). Each brings unique strengths to the position, but both have rough edges to polish. We saw Bauta for a few mop-up snaps late last season while Ramsey redshirted. Hopefully Mason’s health remains good enough that the backup discussion is academic, and we’ll see Ramsey and Bauta sharing snaps late in big wins.

Georgia has a fairly deep receiving corps, but that group is already dealing with injuries. Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley are out for an indefinite period of time. Both are returning from season-ending injuries in 2013. Mitchell had another knee issue come up during preseason camp and had his knee scoped. The severity of Scott-Wesley’s injury made his recovery timetable a little longer, and now an ankle injury threatens his return. The biggest thing Georgia will miss from these receivers is a deep threat. Even if Mason does better with the dink-and-dunk approach, it’s still an advantage to have those receivers who can go vertical.

There are still good receiving options available. Seniors Chris Conley and Michael Bennett need no introduction. Reggie Davis, perhaps best known for his 98-yard touchdown reception against North Texas, is expected to step into a much larger role as a third receiver. The second team receivers all have experience. Kenneth Towns is a large, physical walk-on who has made progress since seeing spot duty in 2013. Blake Tibbs, entering his third year in the program, started to see the light come on during preseason camp. It’s do-or-die time for senior JUCO transfer Jonathon Rumph. The 6’5″ Rumph turned heads in the spring of 2013, but a nagging hamstring injury and unfamiliarity with the offense held him back as a junior. If he can avoid injuries and have some early success to build confidence, Rumph has the skills to make a difference. Freshman Shakenneth Williams and converted defensive back Brendan Langley could be called on if needed. Freshman return specialist Isaiah McKenzie, along with Davis, could be looked to as the vertical receivers while Mitchell and Scott-Wesley are out.

The tight end position is a bit of an unknown. The Dawgs lose the popular Arthur Lynch to the NFL. Junior Jay Rome is the heir apparent, but injuries have allowed him to only show glimpses of what to expect. Rome, and occasionally Jordan Davis, will be on the field when Georgia’s offense calls for a traditional tight end. Things get interesting though when Georgia moves the tight end around. One of the big stories of preseason camp was the move of fullback Quayvon Hicks to tight end. More specifically, Hicks has been listed as an H-back. An H-back is a player, usually a tight end, lined up in the backfield, and the position has existed in mainstream football since the 80s. What it means for Georgia is a more determined effort to involve Hicks in the passing game, and we’ll see him (and fellow H-back freshman Jeb Blazevich) in a number of formations. Georgia’s H-backs will still have blocking responsibilities and could even line up as tight ends, but it should tell us something that the coaches, for the first time, used this H-back label for a subset of the tight ends.

Those tight ends will be lined up next to an offensive line that’s a mix of the new and the very familiar. John Theus is in his third year as a starter, but now he’ll be at the important left tackle spot. Senior center David Andrews returns to anchor the line. Kolton Houston now has a full year under his belt since the NCAA lifted his suspension, and he’ll hold down right tackle. The newcomers are at the guard positions. Left guard Brandon Kublanow saw quite a bit of time last season backing up Dallas Lee and will step into that starting role. Greg Pyke at right guard is perhaps the least experienced of Georgia’s linemen, but he’s also the largest listed at 6’6″ and 326 lb and had a strong camp to secure the job. There’s also good talent among the second group. Seniors Danztler and Beard can step in at tackle, and true freshman Isaiah Wynn might have the highest ceiling of the linemen and could push the starters as the year goes on.

That brings us to what should be the strength of the offense – the running backs. Todd Gurley missed three games and chunks of several others last season. He dealt with injuries from the very first game, suffered another injury against LSU, and spent the last half of the season at less than 100% both in terms of health and conditioning. He’s back in top form and has even trimmed down a little. Gurley in top shape is enough, but we can go on. Keith Marshall had just started to come into his own against LSU and Tennessee once Gurley went down. His season-ending injury started a horrible day in Knoxville and left the Dawgs with only true freshmen in the backfield for the rest of October. Marshall is also back and participated in all of preaseason practice.

As if the healthy return of Gurley and Marshall wasn’t enough, Georgia landed two of the nation’s top tailback prospects. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel could start for many teams, but Georgia coaches have the luxury of bringing these freshmen along. Even if the injuries of 2013 don’t repeat themselves, it’s common for teams to feature three or four tailbacks now, so it’s likely we could see one or both of the freshmen right away. Michel might be slightly ahead right now. Let’s also not forget Brendan Douglas, the battering ram who had to step up as a true freshman a year ago. He’ll still have a big job late in games as a punishing back who can put games away. Bruising back A.J. Turman redshirted last season and will fight for playing time. J.J. Green, the other true freshman who was called on last season, has moved to defense. More on him later.

One theme we’re picking up with the running backs this year is increased involvement with the passing game. We saw that even as 2013 wore on. Gurley caught five passes in the first four games before his injury against LSU. After returning against Florida, Gurley caught 32 passes the rest of the season. His 37 receptions were 4th-best on the team behind only Conley, Bennett, and Lynch. His six receiving touchdowns led the entire offense. With a healthy Marshall back and an electrifying newcomer like Michel added to the mix (not to mention – again – an H-back coming out of the backfield), Georgia should have a receiving threat from the backs that has to be accounted for by defenses. This development seems to suit Mason’s skill in the short passing game, so keep an eye on how often Georgia throws to a running back.

The fullback position seemed set with Hicks and Merritt Hall, but that all changed over the past month. Hicks is now a tight end. Hall had to give up football after one too many concussions. The Dawgs only feature a fullback about a quarter of the time, and it might even be less now as they emphasize the H-back. But there’s still a need for the position particularly in short-yardage and goal line “wham” packages. Hicks can step in there when needed, and freshman linebacker Detric Bing-Dukes has moved over to work at fullback. Walk-on Taylor Maxey could see most of the snaps.

With so many players back and the coaching staff intact, you’d expect to see more of the same in terms of playcalling and scheme. But with whispers about tempo and spreading the field with the H-back, it will be interesting to see the evolution of the offense and whether the coaches can get even more out of the unique skills of their players.

Post 2014 Georgia football preview: When last we left them…

Wednesday August 27, 2014

September 28, 2013.

On a picture-perfect day in Athens, Georgia had just knocked off the #6 team in the nation. The team, and its star quarterback, were the toast of ESPN’s Gameday. Neither fans nor players, recognizing the glory of the moment, wanted to leave the stadium. With a grueling September that featured wins over LSU and SEC East favorite South Carolina, the Dawgs looked to have put a narrow season-opening setback at Clemson behind them and reestablished themselves in the national conversation. An emotional Mark Richt, with the opening month and far more important things weighing on him, summed it up: “No one does it better than Georgia.”

If the preseason consensus was correct, Georgia had passed its toughest tests and had become the frontrunner for a third straight SEC East title. But that spectacular day in September proved to be the peak and not the launching point. The injuries had already started piling up. The top receiver and now top tailback were out of service after the LSU game. That was just a preview of the attrition that left Georgia depleted across the offense and eventually cost them their starting quarterback. A young defense never really came together, and fans were glad to see the once-celebrated coordinator head elsewhere. Even the schedule didn’t go according to plan. Missouri and Auburn were better than expected, and the Dawgs ended up playing the SEC Championship participants after Georgia’s tough September.

As much as we’d like to forget the 5-4 finish to the 2013 season, I’ll want to take four things from it. There’s the improbable game-tying drive at Tennessee which featured two true freshmen tailbacks and a reserve receiver in a must-score situation on the road. Any win over Florida deserves celebration, and this one was the third win in a row in a series that was going the other way for far too long. Even with the game’s sickening finish, Murray was at his best and toughest in the comeback at Auburn in what turned out to be his last complete game. The comeback overtime win at Tech was a nice way to end the regular season and deny our in-state rivals the win they thought was in the bag.

But those bright moments aside, it was an end of the season we’d rather not remember. It was fitting that the bowl game was an uninspired and forgettable loss – by that point most of us were beyond ready to put the season behind us and start over. Within days of the bowl the entire defensive staff had turned over, and Georgia introduced a new coordinator who almost overnight got moping fans excited again about the future of the program.

The arrival of Jeremy Pruitt (and, soon after, three new defensive assistants) had an immediate impact on recruiting as Georgia secured a small but top 10 2014 signing class. Pruitt and his new staff made a number of defensive offers right up to the end, and Georgia assembled nearly a quarter of its signing class in the 10 days leading up to Signing Day. The biggest late catch was in-state defensive end Lorenzo Carter. Carter favored Georgia, but he could name his school and wavered during the coaching turnover. The addition of Pruitt and Tracy Rocker to the staff was enough to assure Carter, and he’s expected to play and contribute right away.

Spring practice was fairly uneventful as the new defense was installed. The offensive line and secondary emerged as concerns, and they remained two of the more unsettled areas right through August’s preseason camp. The story then became about attrition, especially on the defense. A coaching change often brings about some departures, and Pruitt’s no-nonsense approach butted heads with even some established starters. Safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and cornerback Shaq Wiggins left and ended up at Louisville. Safety Tray Matthews was dismissed and will play for Auburn. Most recently, defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor was dismissed. All four were expected to contribute in 2014, if not start, and the safety position in particular has had to adapt. To add to the trouble, six Georgia players accounted for seven arrests over the offseason.

Once the dismissed players are removed from the roster, Georgia only has a couple of players suspended for the start of the season:

  • Receiver Justin Scott-Wesley is out for at least one game due to a marijuana arrest. He’s still working his way back from a serious knee injury, so his exact return is still up in the air.
  • Linebacker Davin Bellamy will miss the first two games due to a DUI arrest.

Georgia made it through preseason camp with mostly minor injuries. Unfortunately Malcolm Mitchell had a setback with his knee and will miss at least the opener. A concussion cut short the career of Merritt Hall. Yes, Chris Conley has a shoulder that is going to bother him. Yes, Ramik Wilson had a concussion that has stirred up some drama at his position. But the usual preseason knocks aside, the team is in fairly good health heading into the opener.

Post Red-out for Clemson

Wednesday August 27, 2014

I was skeptical when they called for a red-out against LSU last year. That’s like asking Johnny Cash to perform in black, right? I have to admit though that the effect was noticeable. Sanford Stadium really popped (as did most things that day).

The two pictures below are from similar angles. The first is from the LSU game. The second is from the Missouri game a few weeks later. Yes, the lighting and situations are different. There’s a lot of red in the Missouri photo. There’s a pretty clear difference though. Wear red.



Post Final approach for the Jacksonville Landing?

Monday August 25, 2014

It’s almost a rite of passage for those attending the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, but the days of the Jacksonville Landing might be numbered. In coordination with a plan to revitalize downtown Jacksonville, the owners of the Landing have presented a vision that includes tearing the place down and replacing it with a development that has more emphasis on apartments and residential space than it does restaurant and retail. Of course they’re after public money, and the plans could change once all stakeholders have their say. Still, a popular Georgia/Florida gathering place and landmark seems to be in for a big change.

Post Turning the page to 2014

Monday August 25, 2014

It’s game week! As we turn the page from 2013 to 2014, Georgia has some big questions heading into the season. Who’s going to play in the secondary? Can the defense turn it around under a new coach? How will the holes be filled along the offensive line? Not much good will happen without positive solutions to those problems. Other than fewer visits from the injury bug, what are some of the more specific changes we’ll be looking for from 2013 to 2014?

Can Hutson Mason start games as well as he’s finished them? It’s a small sample size, but it’s taken the Georgia offense a while to get going in both of Mason’s starts. Tech surprised Georgia on both sides of the ball before the Dawgs managed a score just before halftime, and it took well into the second half before Georgia mustered a touchdown in the bowl game. This was occasionally an issue for Murray due to nerves, and Georgia’s first two 2014 games will be nothing if not hyped and emotional. If the offense is supposed to be the strength of the team, it can’t take its time before showing up.

Will Collin Barber be back in form? Barber has been a solid punter, but he wasn’t quite the same after taking a brutal hit on a blocked punt at Tennessee. Barber averaged an impressive 46.75 yards per punt over the first five games in 2013 but only 40.8 yards per punt after the Tennessee game. After a poor outing at Auburn, Barber was replaced by Adam Erickson for the rest of the season. With so much of the special teams under scrutiny this offseason, we haven’t talked much about punting. We hope we never have to punt the ball, but we’ve seen how much of a weapon a strong punter can be and how much an inconsistent punter can cause problems for a struggling defense.

As good as the linebackers are, they’ve struggled defending the pass. Will that remain an exploitable weakness, or will Pruitt fix it?

Can the team sustain a setback? The middle of the 2013 season was a Jekyll and Hyde experience for Georgia’s defense. The defense actually helped the team build double-digit second half leads against Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Florida. That defensive success proved fragile, and each game had a very clear turning point that eventually put Georgia’s lead at risk and saw some good defense turn into bad rather quickly. The 2014 defense can show improvement in many areas, but one of the most important might be developing the ability to overcome a turnover or special teams mistake that could swing momentum back to the opponent.

Can Pruitt really be transformative? Of course Georgia’s new defensive coordinator has the freedom to remake the defense as he pleases. He’s left his mark on the hiring of positional coaches, and he’s taking on an exhausting audition of talent to construct the 2014 secondary. The hiring of Pruitt though implied more than just improvement on the defensive side of the ball.

There’s a hope that Pruitt will leave as much of a positive impact on Georgia’s culture as he does on its defense. It’s what was behind the pining of so many fans for Kirby Smart, and the success of Pruitt’s last two programs gave him instant credibility with Georgia fans. To put it crudely, we want some of the success of those programs to rub off on Georgia.

Agents of change can face resistance, and Georgia has some very established ideas about how to handle everything from academics to discipline to recruiting. Importing cultural change has big risks, especially in a field where large egos are the norm. This is still Mark Richt’s program, and it will ultimately reflect his core ideals and values. That doesn’t mean Richt must be inflexible in all areas, and we’ve already seen some subtle changes – most visibly in the higher numbers Georgia seems to be targeting for its 2015 signing class. To what extent will Pruitt (and the new assistants) be able to nudge the program towards its championship goals, and how much of that change can show up on the field in 2014?

Post A closer look at the job of the star / nickelback

Friday August 22, 2014

If Todd’s Grantham’s scheme brought one bit of vernacular to the Georgia program, it was the “star” position – a kind of hybrid linebacker/safety/cornerback popular in 3-4 systems who most often roamed the field as a fifth member of the secondary. Traditionally this was a nickelback – a third cornerback who came on the field to provide pass coverage help in obvious passing situations. As we saw with Grantham’s star position, this role is evolving as the spread offense demands a different response from modern defenses. Georgia used everyone from an outside linebacker (Floyd) to a safety (Harvey-Clemons) to a cornerback (Swann) in that role.

Football Study Hall has a piece up today about the rise of the nickelback (the position – thankfully not the band) as a full-time position which explores this versatility and the difference between what’s asked of a nickelback in college vs. one in the NFL. Since college teams are playing a lot more nickel personnel (even Grantham’s 3-4 was often a variant of a 4-2-5, 3-3-5, or even a 2-4-5), a lot is being asked of players at this position.

Jeremy Pruitt uses this type of player in his defense, but there’s one big difference: “We’re gonna play with DBs at that spot,” Pruitt said. “We’re not gonna play with linebackers.” So, yes, hopefully no more Leonard Floyd out in space asked to defend a much faster receiver. That opens the door for players like converted tailback J.J. Green and incoming freshman Malkom Parrish. These two, at 5’9″ and 5’10”, are far cries from someone like Floyd or Harvey-Clemons, both of whom towered at least 6’4″.

Using a third corner in this role is common. As Football Study Hall notes,

The main way teams are finding to be option sound against today’s option is to embrace man coverage, so every position in the defensive backfield typically needs to be able to man up with at least some offensive skill players. The more good man coverage players you can put on the field, the better things will be for everyone else on the field in your defense.

At the same time, they warn that “it’s impossible to protect the nickel from all run responsibilities.” That becomes an especially important point when you go smaller at the position. If Pruitt is going to use a third cornerback, they will be involved against the run, especially against option teams. Green and Parrish, two guys who have never played a college snap yet as part of a college defense, will have a big job right away against some very good offensive schemes.

Post A better way to improve the in-game experience

Tuesday August 19, 2014

While Georgia prepares for an assault on the senses, Baylor is harnessing technology to offer visitors to its new stadium an application featuring “in-seat mobile video replays, team information, customized camera angles and up-to-the-minute real-time statistics.” The application will “(push) the envelope by being the first college athletics app to provide instant replays from multiple views.”

Baylor’s app will be backed by the same high-capacity cellular distributed antenna system installed in Sanford Stadium over the offseason but also a free high-density wi-fi network.

I’m a little ambivalent about too much mobile technology in the stadium – I’d prefer fans be engaged in the game rather than buried in their phone or tablet. At the same time, real-time access to replays and stats on a high-speed network fills a need I would bet all of us have wished for at Sanford Stadium one time or another.

Post They haven’t even had their first 3rd-and-long yet

Monday August 18, 2014

Grab the popcorn. Via SI

Bobby Petrino says he’s changed. But in reporting a story about the new Louisville coach that is in SI’s college football preview, it appears Petrino is still just as difficult to work and play for. Sources with ties to the Cardinals’ football program and Petrino said there’s significant friction between Petrino and feisty defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. The two have feuded often since Grantham’s hiring in January.

So much that one source insists Petrino would have already gotten rid of Grantham if not for his guaranteed five-year contract that pays him nearly $1 million annually. He came to Louisville after four seasons as Georgia’s defensive coordinator. “He’s stuck with him,” a source said.

Worth reading also for the introduction to Todd Gurley’s golf game.

Post Georgia on opponent schedules

Thursday August 14, 2014

We’ve been up and down Georgia’s 2014 schedule looking where the breaks and tough road stretches are. The flip side of that is where the Georgia game lies on the schedules of our opponents. Who has a bye before they play the Dawgs? Who will be licking their wounds from a rough stretch of games?

Clemson: A lot will have changed for both teams from last year’s Clemson win. Most obvious will be the quarterback position. Both teams will have a guy making his first Sanford Stadium start, but Clemson’s will be doing it in front of a hostile crowd.

@ South Carolina: The Gamecocks have a fairly demanding couple of home games before Georgia comes to town. Texas A&M, even with their losses, will be a quality test in the season opener. East Carolina isn’t a cupcake; they’re a quality mid-major looking to build off of a bowl win. With that kind of start, South Carolina won’t have many secrets by the time Georgia comes to town on September 13. The Dawgs have a bye week before this game, so it will be a solid two weeks of preparation for this game to determine the SEC East frontrunner.

Troy: We should get a good idea of the challenge Troy will pose in the second week of the season when they face Duke. They’ll get their own cupcake (Abilene Christian) before coming to Athens, so we should expect a team that’s been focused on Georgia for several weeks.

Tennessee: The trip to Athens will be Tennessee’s SEC opener, but they’ll have been tested by a trip to Oklahoma. Opening games against Utah State and Arkansas State are no automatic wins. The Vols get a bye week before traveling to Athens, so they’ll have two weeks to prepare and stew over last season’s near-upset.

Vanderbilt: Vandy will have played three SEC games by the time they visit Georgia. The trip to Athens will be Vanderbilt’s second straight road game, and it’s possible they’ll be coming off their first SEC win (Kentucky).

@ Missouri: Mizzou ends September with a highly-anticipated rematch at South Carolina. But even if that game lives up to 2013’s meeting, the Tigers will still get the benefit of a bye week before the Georgia game.

@ Arkansas: Any game in Little Rock gets a little extra attention from the Arkansas faithful, and Georgia’s first game in Little Rock will add that much more novelty to this game. It will also be a second straight long road trip for the Dawgs – they’ll have to fly back out to the western frontier of the SEC after doing it a week earlier at Missouri. One thing in Georgia’s favor – Arkansas will have just played Alabama.

Florida: As is often the case, both Georgia and Florida have a bye week before this game. Each team will have faced Missouri plus an SEC West foe (LSU for Florida) heading into that bye week. The difference is that Florida won’t have left Gainesville since October 4th while Georgia will be resting from a long stretch on the road.

@ Kentucky: Georgia will have to shake off the Cocktail Party hangover for the trip to Lexington. Georgia hasn’t lost in Lexington since 2006, but they’ve survived several sloppy games. The last really comfortable win up there was in 2004. Kentucky will be coming home from a road trip to Missouri, and it will be towards the tail end of a long stretch of games. Georgia will be Kentucky’s seventh straight opponent since a September bye week.

Auburn: It’s nice to get Auburn at home for a change. The Auburn game will be Georgia’s first true home game since Vanderbilt on October 4th, so there is likely to be a little travel fatigue. In addition to it being a road game for Auburn, the Tigers will have just endured a tough stretch featuring South Carolina, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M. We’ll see what’s left in the tank for both teams.

Charleston Southern: Not that it matters, but this will be the final game of the season for Charleston Southern. It will be interesting to see how they fare against Vanderbilt the week after the Commodores come to Athens.

Georgia Tech: Tech has scheduled a bye week before they bus over to Athens. They had a virtual bye week last season against Alabama A&M and used the time to install a few defensive wrinkles that caused Georgia problems at first. The Dawgs will hopefully get a couple of weeks of Tech preparation with a lightweight game the week before.

Post SEC Network channels for Comcast Atlanta

Thursday August 14, 2014

Kudos to the guys at Good Bull Hunting for putting together this comprehensive guide for the SEC Network launch.

Unfortunately Comcast, one of the largest launch partners, didn’t announce their SEC Network channels in advance, and the channels will vary by market. The network will appear on the launch date (today), but it’s left for us to hunt and spread the word ourselves.

In Gwinnett County, the SEC Network can be found on channels 300 (SD) and 792/1738 (HD). I can’t confirm the channels for any other Atlanta-area Comcast franchisees, but try those channels first.

UPDATE: From the comments: “It is 804 and 805 alt. plus 310 and 311 in Asheville NC”

UPDATE 2: SicEmDawgs is putting together a roundup of channel locations across the state of Georgia for all carriers.

Post 2014 game day experience improvements

Wednesday August 6, 2014

Georgia announced today some changes and enhancements to the Sanford Stadium experience for the 2014 season.

There’s news about concessions (Sonny’s…ugh) and where you can cool off during the warmer games.

Fans should notice improved cellular service throughout the stadium. Service providers, especially AT&T, have installed millions of dollars worth of equipment to handle the flood of demand during games.

The biggest change is a controversial one. The sound system has been improved. That’s good news. But Georgia will also be taking advantage of new SEC rules that allow schools to pump in music and artificial noise at almost any the ball is not in play. Georgia promises to “respect the collegiate atmosphere and traditions.” We’ll see how far that respect goes.

Post One step closer to an indoor practice facility

Wednesday August 6, 2014

In September Georgia’s Athletic Association board of directors will consider an indoor football practice facility.

The idea of an indoor facility has been on the table since the Donnan years, so what finally got it on the agenda? When we looked at the pros, cons, and questions associated with the facility last year, this was the conclusion: “If you’d like to see an indoor facility, the good news is that there aren’t many higher priorities remaining.” Georgia’s coaches and administrators had given higher priority to other projects several times when funds became available, but this time there isn’t much else at the top of the list. Athletics director Greg McGarity explained, “It’s always been on our project sheet. We basically have priorities on that sheet. Some move up quicker than others.”

Even if the board decides to go forward with a facility, there are several specifics to be hammered out. These three questions cover most of them:

  1. Where will it go?
  2. What’s the scope (and cost) of the facility?
  3. Who will pay for it?

The location seems to be pinned down to the soccer/softball complex out on Milledge Ave. Ideally the facility would be adjacent to the on-campus practice fields, but there just isn’t the room. Neither the outdoor practice fields nor the track will be sacrificed for the facility. I had wondered about the vet school property with its large new campus set to open soon, but it looks as if most of the current vet school buildings will remain in use. So Milledge it is.

The scope is a little less certain, but $15 million is the number we’ve see most often. What does $15 million get you? For comparison, this is what Auburn got for $16.5 million in 2011. Clemson’s 2013 facility ran about $10 million, complete with videoboard. Virginia recently completed a similar facility for about $13 million.

Mark Richt’s initial vision called for a much more ambitious complex with offices, a weight room, a dining hall, and an indoor track. The price tag for that kind of project would have been well over $30 million. How would a scaled-back $15 million facility square with Richt’s vision? Much of what Richt wanted was accomplished with the $40 million Butts-Mehre expansion completed in 2011. From a football perspective, all that was missing was a 120-yard covered field. Georgia’s indoor facility won’t need many extras.

McGarity is clear that the athletic department won’t be footing the entire bill for whatever comes of this discussion. As with the ongoing Foley Field renovation, some level of private donations will have to be raised before athletic department funds kick in. “There will be a fundraising piece to this,” McGarity said. If the board does decide to go forward with the facility in September, expect those who have been calling for an indoor facility to be asked to show just how important it is to them.