Monday October 13, 2014
Before the South Carolina game I wrote something about toughness. I didn’t think the Dawgs would face a bigger challenge of their mental toughness during the regular season. I was wrong. Thursday’s shocking suspension of Todd Gurley was an event that shook the Georgia fan base to the core. I expect it did much the same to the team.
There were a couple of ways the past several days could have gone. The team could have followed the lead of pundits and many fans and accepted that the team was lost without Gurley. The defense could have put up an average performance, and Mason could have made his own mistakes trying to compensate for a diminished running game. They’d have had a good excuse, and no one would have jumped on them too much.
We saw another possible response. Georgia rallied around their suspended star, responded to what they saw as an attack on one of their own, and took it out on their opponent. As postgame images emerged of the players holding up three fingers in tribute to their missing man, there was no doubt that Gurley’s absence brought out the best from the rest of the team. Some were motivated by the injustice of Gurley’s suspension. Others took offense to the conclusion that Georgia had nothing without Gurley.
Whatever the motivation, the results were fantastic. There are few things more satisfying in sports than being pushed by unexpected circumstances and finding out that you have what it takes. The coaches did an admirable job holding things together and keeping the team focused, but we’ll remember this win for the players who believed in themselves and their teammates when a lot of us were still hanging our heads. Kudos also to the road fans who, because of faith in the team or just sunk travel costs, stuck it out and supported their embattled team in one of the SEC’s most distant outposts.
I’m thrilled with this win, but I can’t help but look ahead. Gurley’s suspension certainly brought the team together and fired them up. How long can a team ride that kind of emotional wave? How many times can you dip into the us-versus-the-world well? Georgia was able to feed off of some very fresh and raw emotions – there wasn’t hardly time to process what happened Thursday. Was this an elevating moment like the 2007 Florida game or Shawn Williams’s challenge in 2012? Or was this the one-off combination of an emotional outburst and a vulnerable opponent?
Now with a week for everything to sink in, the reality of a very different test of toughness takes center stage. If you switched the TV over to Alabama-Arkansas after the Georgia game, you saw a very physical battle between two teams that like to run and who defend the run well. Georgia must prepare to face the largest offensive line they’ll see this year, and emotion will carry you only so far when you’re slugging it out. But a few more things about the Missouri game first…
It started with defense. I wasn’t the only one who was reminded of the 2006 Auburn game – the last time I recall seeing such an unexpected turnover-fueled dominant performance by a Georgia defense. That team had been left for dead after four losses in five games. This team had been given little chance with a crippled offense and a defense that was still trying to find its way.
A personal foul on the first play wasn’t a great start, but the Dawgs forced a punt four plays later. It was only the second time all season that the opponent hadn’t driven into scoring position on their opening drive. A week after allowing an above-average performance by the Vanderbilt rushing offense, Georgia did an outstanding job of shutting down Missouri’s running game and forcing them to throw the ball. Mike Thornton had one of his better games, and the rest of the front seven also played well. The pass rush was effective and created one turnover directly while disrupting things enough to cause one or two other turnovers.
The story of the day was Georgia’s success in the secondary. Even on the interceptions that might be credited more to luck than skill, Georgia’s defenders were in a position to take advantage of a lucky bounce or poorly-thrown pass, and they made the plays. At the end of the Vandy game, with things well in hand, Jeremy Pruitt could still be heard exhorting his defensive backs to “catch the damn ball” when an opportunity for an interception was squandered. The defense made the most of those opportunities at Missouri.
It didn’t take long for Brendan Langley to rise up the depth chart after moving back from wide receiver. He has size and skills lacked by other Georgia cornerbacks, and he looked at home on the outside. Langley’s contributions allowed Pruitt to move Swann to his preferred nickel back role. There are still important roles for Moore and Davis in certain situations, but the Langley-Swann-Bowman-Mauger-Sanders combination looked fairly comfortable in what it was doing.
Third down for what?
Georgia was able to stick to their offensive game plan for two reasons. First, the success of the defense kept the game from getting into a shootout. Even when the game stagnated at 20-0, Georgia felt little pressure to take risks and open up the offense. Second, Georgia’s ability to convert third downs and sustain drives let them maintain possession and keep the explosive Missouri offense off the field.
Georgia’s 12-of-21 success rate on third down might be as surprising as Missouri’s 0-for-7. Georgia had converted over 50% of third downs only once all season – 6-for-11 against Troy. They hadn’t converted more than six third downs in a game all season. Georgia’s 37.5% third down conversion rate entering the game was among the bottom third of the NCAA. Converting 57% against Missouri was improbable not only because of Georgia’s prior futility but also because Missouri’s outstanding pass rush was built to thrive on third downs.
The circumstances of the game couldn’t have been better for the Georgia offense. Without much scoring pressure from the Missouri offense, Georgia could be content to play their game and give the ball to Nick Chubb nearly 40 times. Georgia’s ground game wasn’t nearly as explosive as it had been with Gurley, but that’s an unfairly high standard to meet. Missouri did begin to key on Chubb, and it’s no coincidence that Georgia struggled on those drives where they didn’t gain much on first and second downs. But as a boxer throwing continuous body blows eventually opens up an opportunity to go for the knockout, Chubb and Douglas eventually found more and more space. In earlier games, that space turned into long touchdown runs for Gurley. At Missouri, it was enough for moderate gains that let Georgia take up all but two minutes of the fourth quarter.
I said on Saturday, and I still think, that this was one of Hutson Mason’s best performances. Again, the success of the run game and the lack of scoring from Missouri meant that Mason wasn’t asked to do a ton, but he delivered. It’s damning with faint praise to pull out the dreaded “manager” label; Mason had some important work to do against some of the SEC’s best pass rushers. His touchdown pass to Bennett was textbook. He executed the read option perfectly on his touchdown run.
We didn’t see much of a downfield passing game, but I expect that was a tip of the cap to Missouri’s pass rush. The Dawgs used the short and intermediate passing game to help with some protection issues. Mason, particularly early in the game, dumped it off to Chubb. Chubb’s four receptions were as many as Gurley has posted in a single game this year. It was good to see Malcolm Mitchell involved in the passing game again. Mitchell’s six receptions led the team, but they were primarily glorified handoffs on quick receiver screens to the sideline. The Dawgs didn’t have a reception longer than 14 yards. The only really long pass attempt I recall was a harmless shot into the endzone on which Mitchell was well-defended.
At first, you wondered if Georgia’s difficulties cashing in on Missouri turnovers would cost them. The Dawgs only managed a single field goal from Missouri’s first two turnovers, and at that point we were all still wary of Missouri’s offense catching fire. The two second quarter touchdowns certainly helped, but you didn’t start to feel comfortable in the outcome until midway through the third quarter. Georgia started the second half unable to do much on offense, and Missouri put together two drives that nearly matched their entire first half output. They got into Georgia’s end of the field with relative ease, but two interceptions killed both drives. After Sanders picked off a poor decision of a pass, the Dawgs finally put together a second half scoring drive that sealed the win.
If there’s one thing to pick at from such a satisfying win, it’s ball security. Georgia was fortunate to avoid their own turnover deluge. The Dawgs fumbled the ball five times and didn’t lose the ball once. Both punt returners very nearly set up Missouri deep in Georgia territory in the first half.
Friday October 10, 2014
Todd Gurley was suspended indefinitely by the University on Thurday. UGA cited “an ongoing investigation into an alleged violation of NCAA rules,” and media later reported that the investigation has to do with alleged payments received for signed items.
The blame game isn’t very interesting to me. There’s outrage and culpability to be directed all over the place from Gurley himself to the people buying autographed items and fueling the market. And of course there are the ridiculous name, likeness, and image rules at the center of the story.
None of that changes the fact that Georgia is without Todd Gurley for an undetermined number of games. Focusing on that alone, these are some of the questions that will have to be answered before we see Gurley back on the field (if ever):
- Did Gurley break any rules? This is obviously the central question, but it’s still unanswered. We’re proceeding under the assumption that Gurley did receive improper benefits, but that fact hasn’t been established.
- If Gurley received cash, how much? We’ve heard reports of anywhere from $400 to thousands of dollars. The amount involved, if any, will determine the minimum length of Gurley’s suspension.
- Was Gurley truthful with investigators? Even if small amounts were involved, we know that the NCAA can be much more harsh if investigation reveals dishonesty.
- How active will Georgia’s athletic administration be in pushing for a quick resolution? Greg McGarity’s inital comments weren’t encouraging. This is the same administration that left a Hall of Fame swim coach in limbo for the better part of a season earlier this year. Will they do more for their Heisman candidate?
- On a related note, did Gurley have representation when the NCAA interviewed him? If not, why in the world not?
Tuesday October 7, 2014
With everything else going on around college football on Saturday, it was nice to spend a Homecoming Saturday on the periphery of things. We’ve seen Vanderbilt spoil Homecomings before, most recently in 2006, but this Vandy team is not nearly good enough for that to have ever been a possibility this year. Georgia was never in danger of becoming part of the carnage that took out so many ranked teams. So we got a relatively uneventful win that was wrapped up by the end of the first quarter, a weekly serving of Todd Gurley’s magnificence, and enough stumbling to make a 27-point SEC win seem unimpressive.
We saw the first glimpses of a two-quarterback system when Brice Ramsey took a series in the first half. By the end of the game, four different Bulldogs, including Faton Bauta and Todd Gurley, took snaps. Unlike some rotations in other seasons, I’m not sure what the endgame is here. Is it trying to light a spark under Mason? Is it grasping at straws to find some answers in the passing game? Is it an audition for Ramsey?
This isn’t Stafford biding his time behind JT3, nor is it Greene versus Shockley. Ramsey might be the favorite to take over the position next year (the Dawgs have a redshirting true freshman who might have something to say about that), but we haven’t seen enough of a difference between the starter and backup to have the sense of inevitability that developed around this time during the 2006 season. Shockley was a change of pace different enough from Greene to present defenses with unique challenges in preparation and execution. Other than perhaps sharper passes, Ramsey and Mason are running the same offense. If Georgia has a QB rotation that offers any real difference to defenses, it’s actually with Bauta (or Gurley) running the ball.
We saw a baffling throw from Mason on his interception and a dangerous telegraphed pass on Georgia’s first drive that should have been picked off, but Mason deserves credit for two nice throws on the touchdowns to Conley. On the first throw, Mason had good protection, and he was clearly comfortable with his pocket. He took his time, stepped into the throw, and put it right on the money. The second score required a different throw, but again Mason was accurate and put the ball high and in front of the slanting Conley where only Chris could make a play on the ball. Conley did a good job to reach for the ball and snag it out of the air.
At any rate, the job remains the same: sustain drives and value possession. Georgia’s 40% third down conversion rate in this game was actually an improvement on their season average, but it’s still not good enough. It’s still very much a feast or famine offense. Against Tennessee, Georgia didn’t face a third down on any of their four touchdown drives. Against Vanderbilt, Georgia faced only one third down on their three first quarter scores.
The game started with a positive development: the defense forced a 3-and-out on the opponent’s opening drive for the first time this season. It was an impressive series with an alert deflection by Sanders and a sack where Vanderbilt laughably left a tailback all alone to block Floyd. The defense started well enough to allow the Dawgs to jump out to a 21-0 lead and never allowed Vanderbilt the opportunity to get back in the game.
A game this lopsided doesn’t provide many opportunities to test a defense’s ability to make a stand, but there were a few important moments when the defense came through. The first was midway through the second quarter. Vandy had scored and forced a Georgia 3-and-out. They drove the ball inside of Georgia territory with a chance to make it a one-score game going to halftime. The defense forced consecutive incompletions and a punt. The Dawgs, thanks to Todd Gurley’s arm, responded with another scoring drive and opened up a 20-point lead. I was also impressed with the defense’s stand following Mason’s interception. The Commodores only gained seven yards on six plays and had to settle for a field goal. The shift in momentum from a potentially game-changing interception was limited.
The pass defense wasn’t flaming wreckage. That’s what you’d hope for against a team playing inexperienced reserve quarterbacks that hadn’t done much through the air all season. Bowman was beat deep to set up Vanderbilt’s first score, but he more than made up for it by stepping in front of a horrible pass on a bizarre play. I’m really appreciating what Aaron Davis is doing – he’s every bit an inexperienced walk-on, and it shows sometimes. He more than anyone personifies what’s going on with the Georgia secondary this year. It’s not enough that the Dawgs have to play a rookie walk-on in the secondary. It’s that such a player had had to go from safety to cornerback and, against Vanderbilt, back to safety. That’s a hard enough job for an upperclassman like Swann.
With Vanderbilt’s own haplessness limiting their passing game, the focus turned to the front of the Georgia defense. It wasn’t the best performance of the year for Georgia’s front seven. The pass rush was largely ineffective after the first series (though I think a Toby Johnson tackle for loss later in the game should also be considered a sack.) There were some near misses, but few of Vanderbilt’s issues throwing the ball could be credited to the Georgia pass rush.
More alarming was the run defense. Vandy is one of the poorest rushing teams in the nation at 111.3 yards per game. They netted 132 yards on the ground against Georgia. Not horrible, but above average for Vanderbilt. Ole Miss and Kentucky held the Commodores below average on the ground, and the Commodores had more success in both rushing and passing against South Carolina.
Vanderbilt never broke a long run – their best run went for 14 yards. The issue, and it was a fairly consistent problem, was missed tackles that let a short gain (or a tackle for loss) turn into a moderate gain. Rarely did Georgia drive a runner back. Excluding the sacks by Floyd and Johnson, the Dawgs posted only one tackle for loss against an offense they should have outmanned. All three Vanderbilt backs averaged at least four yards per carry. The Dawgs will face much tougher and varied running threats in the next two games – the spread attack of Missouri and the bruising power attack of Arkansas. Each presents a unique challenge to the defense, but the answer to stopping both teams starts with the same fundamentals – sound gap play and finishing tackles. The defense has some work to do there.
It’s enough to say that Georgia’s longest punt of the day was 38 yards – and that was with a stiff northwest wind at the punter’s back. It was telling that Erickson got the opportunity for a non-pooch punt in the second half. At least there’s one positive – the punt unit avoided the crippling error that opened the door for Vanderbilt to win in 2013.
Wednesday October 1, 2014
I guess we know now that last week’s angst was well-founded. I didn’t see it being that close, but I’m not surprised that Tennessee’s defense frustrated Georgia at times or that the Vols were able to hit some big passes. Georgia did a better job of capitalizing on turnovers, and they had the best player on the field. That was enough for a fifth straight win over the Vols and enough to even a very streaky series at 21-21-2.
Most pre-game analysis boiled the game down to a battle between Tennessee’s passing game and Georgia’s pass rush. If the pass rush didn’t get there, the Vols would have an advantage with a fleet of big, talented receivers and a quarterback capable of getting them the ball. But a young Tennessee offensive line presented a good Georgia front seven with opportunities to affect the timing and rhythm of the passing game.
That’s more or less how it played out. Tennessee’s passing game had their moments. When they got passes off, those tall receivers made plays against an inexperienced secondary and a group of linebackers whose pass coverage has never been a strong point. But Georgia’s pass rush played an important role in the outcome. It started in the first quarter when a blind side corner blitz on Tennessee’s third drive led to a McKenzie punt return that set Georgia up well inside Tennessee’s end of the field. The Dawgs regained momentum after falling behind 10-0 and put up 21 straight points of their own.
Georgia’s pressure continued into the second half. A Jordan Jenkins hit put Tennessee’s starting QB on the sideline for a crucial stretch during the half. The Dawgs weren’t moving the ball, but the Vols couldn’t take advantage of some favorable field position. Georgia increased the pressure on Tennessee’s backup and held on to a slim lead until Gurley finally broke a long scoring run.
While the game went about as expected when Tennessee threw the ball, I was a little surprised at how much the Vol running game contributed. Jalen Hurd carried for 119 yards behind a weak offensive line, and about 40% of his yards came after contact. Sack yardage meant that Tennessee’s rushing total was actually below average, but Hurd made a difference. Tennessee’s quick scoring drive before halftime was fueled by a couple of draw plays. Prevent defense doesn’t just matter in the passing game – with much of the defense bailing out to cover deep vertical routes, Hurd only had to elude a linebacker after he cleared the line. It’s likely that Tennessee isn’t as aggressive later on that drive without the initial success of those draws.
“Game manager” is a condescending label we put on quarterbacks who aren’t the focal point of their team’s offense. But even among that classification, there are standards. The distinction between game manager and just average quarterback play is an important one. 1-for-10 on third downs is offense managed about as well as the NFL’s Ray Rice debacle. Georgia’s lone conversion was a short Chubb run in the third quarter. It doesn’t bother me at all if the passing game lies near the bottom of the league stats. What we do ask though is the ability to sustain drives, value possession, and take advantage of the opportunities opened up by defenses keying on the tailbacks.
Mason seems to be very much a rhythm passer, and the offense follows suit. On Georgia’s four touchdown drives, the Dawgs didn’t face third down once. Mason was 9-for-11 passing on those drives and had one touchdown pass and one score on a keeper. He was just 7-of-14 on all other drives. The Dawgs didn’t complete a pass for positive yardage from the first play of the second half until about the 10:20 mark of the 4th quarter. Even with a dominant running game, the Dawgs are 93rd in the nation on third downs at a conversion rate of just 37%. A little more consistency will improve that conversion rate, lead to more sustained drives, and produce fewer stretches like we saw in the third quarter.
For all the heat that Mason is getting after this game, people are also asking questions of the receivers. Georgia’s most talented receiver is on the sideline. The ones on the field either lack experience or have made careers as role players. Conley and Bennett have made valuable contributions at some big moments over the past 3+ seasons. Neither has emerged as a primary target this season capable of demanding anything more than single coverage. Do I think things will improve when the injured/suspended receivers return? I’m not sure. Scott-Wesley’s impact is a little overstated. Mitchell, when healthy, will demand more attention. You’d expect Conley and Bennett to thrive a bit more when they’re able to play the supporting roles and not have to carry the passing game.
Tennessee’s onside kick proved to be an important late decision. With nearly three minutes remaining and all three timeouts available, the Vols must not have had much faith in their ability to stop Todd Gurley even knowing that Georgia would surely run the ball. As it turned out, the field position made Georgia’s fourth down decision much easier. With just a three-point lead, I doubt that Georgia attempts the fourth down conversion on their own end of the field.
That final sequence reminded me of the 2002 Tennessee game. The Vols scored late to pull within one score. They made a questionable decision to onside kick with over three minutes remaining, and Georgia took over on Tennessee’s end. Facing 4th and 2 with a chance to put the game away, Richt called a toss sweep to Tony Milton, and the Dawgs maintained possession. Once again, that’s a much tougher decision if the ball is on Georgia’s end.
Gurley’s fourth down carry was impressive enough – he met with contact two yards short of the marker and had to maintain his balance to finish the run. His third down carry was even more important. The Dawgs lost yardage on second down and faced 3rd and 12. Gurley was hit in the backfield but managed to get away and head down the south sideline for nine yards. The hold by Andrews helped get Gurley around the corner (and the clock forced Tennessee to decline the penalty), but Gurley’s effort on third down earned enough yards to give the coaches a decision on fourth down.
Tuesday September 23, 2014
At the risk of jinxing things, Georgia’s ability to avoid turnovers through three games has been impressive. The only giveaway of the season was a questionable fumble by Michael Bennett against Clemson. Mason hasn’t thrown a pick, and the fleet of tailbacks have held onto the ball.
The benefits of not turning the ball over are obvious, but one big benefit has been Georgia’s advantage in field position. It’s pretty remarkable – only one opponent drive all season has started in Georgia territory. That happened when Barber mis-hit a punt in the third quarter of the Troy game and gave the Trojans the ball at the Georgia 45. Otherwise Georgia’s opponents have had to drive for their points.
It’s even more impressive than just forcing opponents to start in their own half – there have only been four drives all year that started outside the opponent’s 30, and half of those were by Troy. South Carolina and Clemson each had just one drive start beyond their own 30. For context, I count 20 Georgia drives through three games that have started past the Georgia 30. The lack of Georgia turnovers is a big factor in that disparity, but it also speaks to Georgia’s kick coverage, punting, and the ability of the offense to avoid getting pinned down near their own goal line.
An advantage like that in field position is often an indicator of success, and we saw the fruits of that advantage against Clemson. South Carolina was a different story – Georgia only got three points from two turnovers inside of South Carolina territory. On the flip side, the South Carolina offense was good enough (or the Georgia defense poor enough) to overcome the field position and put together long scoring drives all day.
If the Dawgs can keep this up against Tennessee, it should lead to a long day for the Vols. The Tennessee offense is good enough to hit some big plays, and Georgia’s pressure won’t win every play. But is the Tennessee offense good enough to string together enough plays to drive the ball 70+ yards consistently? It’s especially tough to sustain drives with the nation’s #95 rushing offense getting just 3.33 yards per carry. For Tennessee to have success, they’ll have to either reverse Georgia’s field position fortunes (the Vols have forced six turnovers through three games) or protect the passer well enough to keep drives going.
Tuesday September 23, 2014
I know a lot of hardcore fans dread games like this. The win is a sure thing, the competition isn’t interesting, the stars you come to see are done by halftime, and you just hope to come out on the other side without injuries. And, yes, things got slow in between nine Georgia touchdowns. A game like this gives you plenty of opportunities to look around. I saw families taking kids to their first Georgia game. I saw fans who had been given tickets by friends making a rare visit to see their favorite team in person. To them, this was the biggest Georgia game they’ll see this year.
It was a little bit of the same on the field. Gurley and Mason had early exits, but this was the most important game in the lives of some of the players either making their debuts or showing their coaches that they deserve more opportunities. Take Tramel Terry and his difficult path to this moment. Since a knee injury at the tail end of his high school career, Terry hadn’t played in a game in nearly two years. He’s switched positions and gone from the next great receiver to a rookie safety trying to learn and earn playing time. So even though the score was 52-0 at the time, Terry’s third-quarter interception in the end zone meant the world to him.
For the sake of those fans or players for whom this game was a big deal, it was a great day. Otherwise there’s not much to take away from such a lopsided win in terms of what it means for the rest of the season. One thing we did get a good look at was the future of the program, and Georgia fans have to be happy with what they saw. Michel and Chubb are hardly secrets after the first two games, but even then Michel was able to raise some eyebrows with his play. McKenzie had also contributed this season, but he had his first big highlight with one of what’s likely to be several scores on kick returns.
Other newcomers we hadn’t seen yet had their moments too. Ramsey shook off nerves to show nice arm strength and led several scoring drives. There’s no need to spend much time debating it, but the backup quarterback order seems fairly certain. Bellamy came off his suspension with an impressive second half and ended up being Georgia’s second-leading tackler. Several defensive backs got a look, and Shaq Jones might’ve been among the best. If the encouraging 2015 recruiting class holds up and pans out, there’s going to be a very solid foundation for this program going forward.
The downside to playing such an overmatched opponent is that you might not get an opportunity to work on the specific things you’d like. We had hoped Mason might get a few more attempts, but when Gurley and Michel are ripping off long runs down the sideline, what’s the point? When the line between running it up and playing ball starts to blur before the end of the first half, the focus shifted more towards experience for younger players rather than reps for the first team.
It was a laugher of a win over a bad team. Other Georgia teams have looked much worse before pulling away from similar opponents. We won’t get too carried away with the big win or the shutout, but credit to the team for coming out reasonably well-focused and aggressive considering 1) the post-South Carolina hangover and 2) the early start and subdued crowd.
- Fun day for the special teams. Morgan got back in the saddle with an accurate field goal from intermediate range. Kickoff coverage was more disciplined than it was towards the end of the South Carolina game. About the only negative was a shaky punt. Then there were the punt returns. You could tell McKenzie was itching to scoop an early short punt that bounced in front of him, but he wisely let it go. When the bounce went his way on the next punt, he exploded through it and showed why the staff took a late risk on a return specialist. As Troy started punting away from McKenzie, Georgia adjusted by having Reggie Davis drop back as a second returner. Davis got to show his own return skills on a late return made possible by an impressive block by McKenzie.
- I’m really concerned for Keith Marshall. It’s not just the injury during the third quarter – fortunately the news seems to be good on that. We all remember how devastated he looked on the Tennessee sideline a year ago, and he’s worked so hard to get back on the field. He’s not there yet. The pressure has to be incredible with one half of the former “Gurshall” duo mentioned for the highest honors while a pair of talented freshmen begin to earn their carries. I doubt Marshall will play against Tennessee, so the staff has a couple of weeks to think about it. With Gurley performing well, the freshmen looking more than capable, and Douglas able to do his part, do they consider a medical redshirt for Marshall? As a junior, would Marshall be receptive to the idea?
- Marshall might not have much faith in his knee yet, but his competitiveness hasn’t suffered. He had to make a quick adjustment against a pass rusher to make a key block on a long pass play to Conley.
- Troy had open receivers all day, and Trojan incompetence had about as much to do with the shutout as anything Georgia did. It’s worth noting that we saw a lot of man coverage from the Georgia secondary. Since Georgia was able to clear the bench, was this Pruitt’s method of finding some answers in the defensive backfield while he had the opportunity? We’ll see if the rotation looks a little different against Tennessee.
- If there’s one newcomer in the secondary well on his way to a regular role, it’s Dominick Sanders. With Swann sidelined and Green ejected, Sanders had plenty of time as the nickel back. He’s a favorite choice on corner blitzes, and he’s started to pick up on receiver screens and flare passes.
Wednesday September 17, 2014
When you write something like I did last week, the natural thing to do is to use the outcome of the game as a verdict on Georgia’s toughness. I don’t think we can though. Georgia wasn’t unprepared or unfocused, they didn’t lay a 2012-style egg, and the crowd didn’t do much to rattle the Dawgs. We saw resiliency when the team unfortunately had to battle back several times from double-digit deficits. We saw a struggling defense make a play that set the offense up with a chance to win the game.
But they didn’t win the game. Georgia’s deficiencies, particularly in the defensive backfield, have been well-documented since spring. The route to success for the Bulldogs depended on some combination of 1) multiple defensive players having a breakthrough season, 2) Jeremy Pruitt working magic with smoke and mirrors, and 3) the offense performing at a high enough level to outscore opponents. We saw that at work in the opener as the offense broke open a close game and the defensive pressure began to compensate for some earlier Clemson success down the field.
That formula was less effective in Columbia. The defensive standouts among the front seven were less effective. Pruitt’s scheme was exploited by the same approach that worked against it in 2010 when Pruitt coached at Alabama. The offense nearly did enough to carry the team, but missed opportunities in the first half kept the offense from keeping up on the scoreboard, and the Dawgs had to play from behind most of the game.
Georgia’s defense faltered in the first half against the pass and then in the second half against the run. South Carolina built an early lead by finding gaping holes in a pass defense that simultanously struggled to cover receivers and pressure the passer. Georgia adjusted by bringing more pressure, but the open receivers remained. Georgia’s defensive backs did little to disrupt receivers at the line, so even under pressure South Carolina was able to move the ball with quick-release passes. The effective pass rush that helped to turn the Clemson game never materialized, and the pieced-together secondary proved to be the liability we feared it would be.
The defense didn’t fare much better after the Gamecocks turned to the running game in the second half. Georgia used different personnel – Toby Johnson in particular – to try to counter South Carolina’s big offensive line and tailbacks. The Dawgs actually did fairly well against Mike Davis, but Brandon Wilds did the bulk of the damage, coming up with 93 yards and 6.6 yards per carry. South Carolina was able to bounce runs outside as Georgia tightened up against the interior passing plays. South Carolina didn’t pass for 50 yards in the second half, but they were still able to post two touchdowns and put the game away with their running game.
But as helpless as the defense was, it’s the offense that most people are talking about thanks to the playcalling on Georgia’s final possession. As important as that moment was, the game might have been lost in the first half. Georgia’s offense started well enough with a lightning-fast response to South Carolina’s opening score. We had a deep pass put right into the hands of McKenzie, and Michel scored on a perfectly-timed inside receiver screen. It seemed as if we were poised for a shootout, but that turned out to be Georgia’s only touchdown of the first half. The Dawgs had a chance to gain momentum when Lorenzo Carter recovered a fumble, but Georgia only got three points from the great field position. Georgia also had to settle for field goal attempts on their two other scoring opportunities in the first half. The final field goal attempt proved to be an omen – Marshall Morgan broke his SEC record streak of 20 consecutive field goal makes by missing a 44-yard attempt. Worse, South Carolina was able to take that miss and drive for their own field goal at the end of the half which ended up being the decisive points in the game.
Had Georgia scored at the end, we’d be praising Hutson Mason for his steady play and noting everything that the offense accomplished. Georgia rushed for over 200 yards and outgained a very capable backfield. They didn’t turn the ball over. The Dawgs were a tidy 16-of-22 through the air. Mason, with a few missed center exchanges and throws behind open receivers, wasn’t stellar but also wasn’t Quincy Carter in 2000. After weeks of hearing about the woes of Georgia’s offense in Columbia, the Dawgs scored 35 and left even more points on the table.
I’ve heard a lot of people deflect criticism of the offense by saying that 35 points should have been enough. It wasn’t enough – any more than 35 points would have been enough for South Carolina or Clemson in their openers. 35 points or 200 yards rushing or any arbitrary cutoff you choose is meaningless. On this day with the defense struggling as it was, Georgia needed more from its offense especially in the first half when the team fell behind by deficit that eventually reached double-digits.
As for the playcalling on 1st and goal at the 4…we forget how Georgia had scored its previous two touchdowns. The fourth quarter opened with a nice play-action pass on 1st and goal that found Jay Rome. Georgia’s next drive featured an inspired use of Quayvon Hicks as the ballcarrier which caught the Gamecocks a little off-guard. Gurley was key on both of those drives, but the Dawgs found the endzone by other means.
With that success in their pockets, I can understand why Richt and Bobo thought they might try some more misdirection. This was likely Georgia’s last scoring opportunity without the frenzy of a two-minute drive, and they weren’t going to get a better chance to take the lead. As a friend so brilliantly put it, this was a Jimmy Chitwood “I’ll make it” moment. No matter what else had happened earlier, this was the game distilled down to four yards and three downs with the best back in the nation on your side. You let Jimmy take the shot.
So while I appreciate Richt admitting “if we had to do it again, we would have hammered it,” it’s frustrating to hear. There were reasons why that call was made. Hindsight is fine, but it doesn’t absolve you from having a critical look at the process that led to that decision in the heat of the situation. Even though the play called was reasonable and defensible (outcomes don’t necessarily determine a good or bad play call), that doesn’t make it the best decision.
- With the fake punt in 2011, South Carolina’s punt return in 2012, and Georgia’s onside kick in 2013, you expected there to be a special teams twist that figured in the outcome. Marshall Morgan missing two field goals would’ve been way down on my list of ways that special teams could have affected this game.
- As positive as special teams were against Clemson, they didn’t go nearly so well this time. Gurley was a non-factor on kick returns by design, though Georgia ended up with decent field position on the short kickoffs. Each team had two uneventful punts, but a Gamecock personal foul on their second punt set the Dawgs up to pull within 3. Kickoff coverage became an issue late in the game. After Georgia scored to start the 4th quarter, the Gamecocks returned the ball to their 42, requiring Marshall Morgan to make the tackle.
- With Chubb and Michel both settling into roles, Keith Marshall was conspicuous in his absence. We have to keep reminding ourselves that even though cleared to play he is still working back from a major knee injury. Hopefully Marshall can get some work against Troy and build confidence in his rebuilt knee.
- While the first down on Georgia’s final series will be brought up for years, the Dawgs missed a chance to score on third down. Mason tried to complete a pass to Bennett that would have been short of the goal line. Gurley ran an angle route out of the backfield and appeared to have left his defender on the break. Had Mason thrown to Gurley, Gurley would have had a few yards to build up a head of steam before he met the next defender near the goal line. It wasn’t a clear path to the endzone, but it would have set up one heck of a collision at the goal line, and my money would have been on Gurley. He was visibly frustrated that the pass went elsewhere.
Thursday September 11, 2014
Just the mention of Steve Spurrier is enough to send many Georgia fans to the analyst’s couch. Whether the reaction is rage, hatred, scorn, or even begrudging respect, he signed a long-term lease in our heads sometime around 1992. I’m not much of a fan of using history to break down a game, but Georgia’s coaches and players will hear plenty this week about Georgia’s two-game losing streak in Columbia, the traumatic loss two seasons ago, and the offense’s baffling futility over the past 20 years.
If you need a recent example of this mental block, think about the reactions you saw among Georgia fans to South Carolina’s first game. I lost count of the people I saw on Twitter, Facebook, and message boards moping that South Carolina losing to Texas A&M – an actual conference loss that has real benefits for Georgia in the standings – would just rile up the Gamecocks that much more for our game. Don’t want to do anything to get them mad, you know.
There’s a difference between that warped pessimism and actual analysis of the game. There are many reasons to be concerned about the game, especially with a healthy Mike Davis available to South Carolina. Georgia is far from a perfect team. It’s an SEC road game in one of the league’s most difficult venues.
Mark Richt expects a physical game, and he’s described the challenge as a “fistfight” that “could get a little bloody.” He’s probably right. Both teams run the ball well, and if you watched either in its last game you know that both Georgia and South Carolina would love nothing more than to end the game on a long, punishing drive that breaks the will of the opponent as the clock runs down.
But there’s more to toughness than that. Jay Bilas’s outstanding book on toughness looks at some of the specific characteristics of tough players and teams – characteristics like preparation, persistence, and resilience. While Mark Richt correctly expects a test of physical toughness, the mental toughness of both teams will be as important. South Carolina has had a shaky start, especially on defense, and they know that a loss to Georgia puts them in a deep hole in the standings. Are they resilient? Georgia knows its recent history in Columbia and must set aside its success in the opener. Can they be persistent?
One of the storylines of the past two weeks has been how Georgia has dealt with the attention earned from the win over Clemson. They’re now the favorite in this game, ESPN is in town, and the star tailback is on a lot of way-too-early Heisman lists. This much attention and praise can be distracting. Jon Gruden told Bilas that success can be just as dangerous as failure.
“Whether it is complacency from having a big lead, getting loose with details because you have won and experienced success, or making mistakes, getting penalties, missing blocks, or fumbling from a lack of concentration due to complacency, it all comes down to toughness and staying in the here and now. Don’t fool yourself. You can be victimized by both failure and success.”
An overconfident team isn’t a tough team. Tough teams continue to prepare even after some success. They prepare harder. Most teams know enough to pay lip service to that reality, but few do it. This is part of the culture change we hoped that Jeremy Pruitt would help bring to the program. We all enjoyed the Clemson win, but it’s one game.
“We’ve played one football game,” said Pruitt. “I hope our expectations here are to win and dominate our opponents each and every week. I hope that’s the expectation here at Georgia. Now you look at them and we’re all excited because we won a game. That’s one football game. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
It’s an approach Drew Butler noticed from the defending Super Bowl champions.
Hype isn’t a bad thing. If Georgia is ever going to have a championship quality season, hype will be a by-product of that success. If we want the recognition for Gurley and other standout players that they deserve, the team is going to have to be tough enough to handle the cameras and interviews and high expectations without all of it derailing their focus on the next game.
Pruitt maintains focus by focusing on processes rather than outcomes. “I don’t think you can be results-oriented,” he explained. Win or lose, his focus is on improvement from game to game. Even with the win over Clemson, he welcomed the bye week to continue to work on his new defense. “They can see themselves and where we’re at and where we’ve got to go, which is a long way.”
I know this post is close to “man enough” territory, but it’s more than that. We’re talking about the ability of the team to approach each game with the same high expectations and the toughness to work to meet those expectations. I was encouraged to see some of that toughness in last season’s South Carolina game. The Dawgs shook off the Clemson loss and started off the next game sharp and efficient on offense. They responded to counter-punch after counter-punch from a team that had beaten them three straight times. Finally with the lead in hand, they finished the game with an impressive and physical drive. The challenge is the same this year, but this time it’s on the road in the role of the favorite. I’m looking forward to seeing how the team handles the situation.
Tuesday September 9, 2014
Most of you have already seen this great video of the Clemson pregame from the perspective of a Redcoat snare drummer.
But the drums weren’t the only ones filming. The UGA Sousa Vision channel has four more videos from the game from the sousaphone’s perspective. There’s pregame and halftime, and a must-see for anyone who’s wondered what it’s like to be in the middle of the Dawg Walk.
My favorite? A sousa’s view of the 4th quarter Krypton fanfare.
Tuesday September 2, 2014
Georgia used 298 all-purpose yards from Todd Gurley and opened up a close game with touchdowns on three consecutive plays to win its rematch with Clemson 45-21.
It’s one thing to see the preseason honors for Todd Gurley. We know he’s a special player, and we’ve seen some unbelievable moments from him. It’s another to see him play an entire game as if it’s the first quarter of the 2013 Florida game. No matter what your expectations were before the game for Gurley, I can’t imagine that anyone saw that coming. Enjoy watching him this year.
But even as impressive as Gurley was, we knew – or at least anticipated – that the offense and the running game in particular would be the strength of the team. Other areas of the team were much less certain. So as awe-struck as I was by Gurley’s performance and credit him as the difference in the win, I’m especially pleased to see the role the defense and special teams had in a big win.
The defense showed us the reasons for so much preseason concern but also enough showed progress and improvement to leave us with quite a bit of hope for the future and faith in the change Jeremy Pruitt is leading. Georgia’s inexperienced secondary showed itself early on with a few missed tackles and long receptions. The defense gave up 21 points in a quarter and a half. Adjustments included a little more zone to lessen the exposure of individual members of the secondary, but the biggest difference was pressure taking its toll. Clemson initially held the Georgia pressure at bay
Likewise, Georgia was superior in just about every element of special teams. They were instrumental in creating a field position advantage. The special teams didn’t just avoid the back-breaking mistakes that cost Georgia so often last year; they made a positive difference in the outcome. It wasn’t just Gurley’s return. Coverage was solid, Morgan was automatic, and each punt return sent a little buzz of anticipation throughout the crowd. Last year at Clemson, it was a botched field goal that kept Georgia from tying the game. This year a pair of special teams plays went Georgia’s way to keep the Dawgs from facing a 24-14 halftime deficit.
Georgia’s players are going to hear a lot of good things about themselves over the next two weeks. Fans remember Tennessee 2004 or Auburn 1997 or another game where a celebrated win was followed up with a flat effort. The coaches will spend the bye week drilling in the need to keep improving and focus on the next challenge. When the division and conference titles as well as a spot in the national playoff are your goals, the next game becomes even more important than the last. Georgia will soon turn its attention to the SEC opener, but I’ll spend just a few more minutes savoring a very enjoyable win.
- The fans were outstanding. On a day where many of us were surely sapped by the oppressive weather, the crowd was involved from beginning to end. When I got to my seat about 40 minutes prior to kickoff, the student section was almost full.
- One of the things I had hoped to see this year – particularly from the defense – was the ability to overcome a setback. We saw potentially good defensive performances crumble last season after turnovers and special teams mistakes. One of Georgia’s best defensive series was its second. The defense allowed a scoring drive on Clemson’s first possession, and the Georgia defense was put right back on the field after a quick three-and-out by the Bulldog offense. Thanks to a tipped pass by Sterling Bailey, the defense was able to force a three-and-out of their own and set the offense up with good field position for Georgia’s first touchdown. Punter Collin Barber deserves a mention here – his 60-yard punt flipped the field. The Dawgs had only one turnover in the game – Michael Bennett’s questionable fumble. Again, the defense got right back to work after the setback and finished off another three-and-out with a sack. Georgia’s offense got the ball back at the Clemson 36 and scored five plays later.
- Much was made over the past few weeks about Ramik Wilson’s spot on the depth chart. Wilson ended up on the field during Clemson’s opening series and ended up, as usual, as one of Georgia’s leading tacklers. But Kimbrough and Carter showed why there was competition for playing time at inside linebacker. Carter’s speed made the difference in breaking up a deep pass down the middle. Kimbrough’s hits were nasty, and he nearly caused a fumble on a kick return.
- We were told to not pay much attention to the depth chart. For once, coaches meant it. You can examine all three levels of the defense and see play after play by guys who weren’t part of pregame introductions. There was Drew’s role in stopping the inside runs. It didn’t matter which of Wilson, Kimbrough, or Carter started – each contributed. If it was an obvious passing situation, it was Lorenzo Carter’s time. Moore and Davis were steady at safety, but there’s Mauger making several big pass breakups.
- That rotation played a big role in the outcome. As Clemson wore out, Georgia’s defenders thrived in the sweltering conditions. It also sent a message to Georgia’s defenders – if you’re prepared and put in the work, they’ll get you on the field regardless of who starts. That’s an important concept for guys like Drew who have been frustrated by position and coaching changes and who have been trying to break through on the depth chart. The defense needs these players, and knowing there’s a role for them has to be a tremendous motivator.
- Georgia’s overall conditioning was a welcome advantage. A lot of us griped when Gurley was used sparingly in the first half (on one drive in particular), but the approach paid off. Georgia’s fleet of fresh tailbacks was unstoppable. I doubt if that few carries for Gurley in the first half was the plan though.
- Mike Bobo surely must enjoy the talent he has available at the skill positions. Sony Michel’s first carry had him lined up in the slot, and he ran a jet sweep. Georgia then ran the same play with a freshman receiver, Isaiah McKenzie. We saw two tailbacks in at once. We saw a four wide set. But the most effective formation of the day was the one we saw on the decisive fourth quarter sweeps – a tight end, fullback, and an H-back in motion combined with a pulling offensive line to pave the way for Gurley and Chubb.
- As impressive as the tailbacks were, they got some outstanding blocking. How cool was it to see David Andrews busting his tail to help Chubb finish his scoring run? We thought the preseason focus on the fullback spot was a little overdone because of how much Georgia used one-back sets a year ago, but everyone watching knows the name Taylor Maxey now.
- Run blocking predictably improved as Clemson wore down. Pass blocking was a little more of a mixed bag. Georgia’s plan used short, quick passes to counter Clemson’s speed up front, and it more or less worked. There was a sack, but there weren’t the costly breakdowns that helped to swing last season’s game.
- Hutson Mason won’t get many glowing reviews for his first home start, but he won’t receive much condemnation. People are using the dreaded “manager” label to describe his performance, but he completed nearly 70% of his passes and didn’t turn the ball over. The short nature of the passing game shows in the 5 yards per attempt – about half of what we had in Murray’s best outings. The Dawgs didn’t get much downfield though they did draw a few interference penalties. Whether or not Georgia needed to be better throwing downfield is easy to say in hindsight. This was still a close game entering the fourth quarter, and both offenses went stagnant during the third quarter.
- If there’s one area where Mason still can improve, it’s trusting his protection. After the Tech game last season Mason admitted to being a little too quick to give up on plays. I think we saw a little of that tendency against Clemson. The protection wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t as bad as some of the hurried throws made it look.
- Finally, only a performance like Gurley’s could overshadow how well Floyd and Herrera played. As with Gurley, you’d better enjoy Floyd this year while we have him. (Seeing Floyd, Jenkins, and Lorenzo Carter overloaded on the same side of the line has to make any quarterback nervous.) Herrera was left off some of the preseason lists that featured his teammates, and he responded with one of the best games of his career. If the same motivation can fuel him for the next 11+ games, he’ll be on plenty of postseason lists.
Lots to work on for both offense and defense, but it was a much better start across the board this year. The next game is even bigger as it counts in the conference standings. We’ll be on the road in a stadium where Georgia hasn’t posted three touchdowns in a game in 20 years. On Georgia’s last trip to Columbia, Gurley was held to 39 yards. To build on this big win over Clemson, Georgia has two weeks to figure out how to do some things they haven’t done in years.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.