Friday April 28, 2017
It was a good night for the SEC at the NFL Draft with the #1 overall pick and a record 12 first round draft picks. Half the conference (seven teams) contributed at least one player to this haul. Of course Georgia wasn’t one of them. Seth Emerson reminds us that Georgia’s absence isn’t a bad thing, though it is a necessary consequence of the fallout from the class of 2013 and finishing unranked in consecutive seasons. It’s worth remembering that several players who would have been likely draft picks (though not necessarily first rounders) chose to return and contribute to the 2017 team.
Emerson concludes that “it should be a good year numbers-wise for the Dawgs in the 2018 draft,” and he’s also right that there doesn’t seem to be a first round lock among them. I’ve thought that Michel projects as a higher pick because of his versatility, but Chubb could also do a lot for himself by playing a full, productive, and healthy 2017 season. Trenton Thompson has a very high upside among the defenders. Still, it’s likely to be a deep class, and you don’t have to look far to find ten eligible players from the 2017 team who should expect a serious look from the NFL.
The flip side of Emerson’s piece is an added urgency to produce in 2017. All eyes are on the incoming freshman class as Kirby Smart restocks the roster, but the potential loss of anywhere from 5 to 10 NFL-quality players (depending on the decisions of underclassmen) would leave plenty of holes around the depth chart. When you combine the returning seniors and the rising juniors, the team is perhaps as loaded at the upper end of the experience curve as it is at the lower end. After this season, the demographics of the team change to favor Smart’s first three classes and the 2017 class in particular. The extent to which the program is able to reload for 2018 depends on the progress of Smart’s first two classes as well as whatever the team is able to add in 2018, but that uncertainty makes it more important to show results with this current group.
A part of us wants to be patient with Smart’s process and recognize that there are still holes on the team where playing freshmen might be necessary even with so much top-end talent. At the same time, you don’t want the “throwaway season” label within miles of a team with that many potential draft picks. Seeing so many talented players come through without so much as an SEC East title would be as big of a shame as Stafford, Moreno, and Green also leaving without a trip to Atlanta. It’s going to be a lot harder to enjoy Draft Day 2018 if we don’t have much to enjoy in 2017 first.
(Is it unhealthy to already be anticipating the “well, we’re a very young team” line in 2018?)
Wednesday April 26, 2017
When a team with a healthy Nick Chubb and Sony Michel trots out Brian Herrien as its featured tailback, you knew right away that the running game wouldn’t feature much in Saturday’s scrimmage. We saw enough of #1 and #27 to reassure us that, yes, they really did come back for another season, and that was plenty.
Herrien didn’t get a chance to break many runs against the first team defense. Blocking wasn’t great, but the first team offense also faced some of the crowded fronts we saw last year. Establishing some credible downfield threats as the offenses did in the scrimmage will help loosen things up for Chubb and Michel. Holyfield had a little more success against the second team, and he demonstrated why there’s some chatter about his value in the red zone. We saw no runs for the receivers or much beyond the basic sets and plays in the ground game.
This G-Day was all about the passing game. I’ll say only this about the quarterback depth chart: we should feel fairly at ease if the backup has to come in the game, and Fromm appears as if he’ll be ready to play if needed. That in itself is a relief. Fromm’s was as talented as advertised, but he also made some of the decisions that terrify you about putting a freshman quarterback on the field. It’s a growing process you’d rather not see play out in live action, but Fromm was worth getting excited over. He showed good composure, ran the offense well, didn’t make many glaring mistakes within the context of what he was asked to do, and only took a couple of risks you’d expect a freshman to take. Georgia has a good situation at quarterback, and it’s a much better idea to enjoy the bounty of talent at the position rather than make the competition a negative story. The only ominous sign was obvious during warmups – it’s not a crowded QB meeting room.
Eason did struggle out of the gate. Protection was some of the problem, but there were a handful of “sacks” on which Eason held the ball a little long. Things settled down for him in the second half, and the arm is just fine. Eason’s weaker throws came when he was on the move. He was especially shaky with timing and accuracy of some of the check-downs. Some good gains were there to be had with better throws, and he and the backs will have to continue to work on those short passes.
What was as disappointing at times as the line play was protection by non-linemen. Holyfield didn’t square up well to take on pass rushers. Payne had a poor block that aided a Natrez Patrick sack. Yes, linemen have primary responsibilities in pass protection, but most protection schemes feature roles for some combination of tight ends, tailbacks, and fullbacks. When these players miss an assignment, it often gets lumped in with “line play” because the results are the same – a sack, a hurry, or a quarterback running for his life.
I don’t see much use spending a lot of time on the offensive line. I don’t believe the August depth chart will look much like what we saw Saturday, so there’s not much use dwelling on the combinations. That position more than any other could see quite a bit of movement between now and the start of the season. About the only thing to take away is that the door is open for the heralded incoming class to compete for playing time and even starting jobs.
The same can be said for kicking – Blankenship started well and showed he had the leg to kick from 50 yards out, but focus and consistency left him in the second half. The door is open for competition there too. Punting is also up for grabs. Marshall Long was unavailable as he recovers from surgery, but grad transfer Cameron Nizialek was good enough to be considered for the role during the season.
I’m liking the skill set Georgia is developing at receiver. Wims had the usual JUCO adjustment year but is settling in as a favorite target of Eason’s. It took Godwin a little while to make an impact on Saturday, but I saw flashes of the improvement he’s said to have made in the offseason. Godwin’s ability to stretch short completions into longer gains is becoming an advantage. I didn’t see anything to make me think anyone other than Wims and Godwin will be the top two receivers. Chigbu and Stanley are in that limbo as upperclassmen where they must become more consistent or risk being passed over by the younger players that were on display. All that’s without Riley Ridley or Mark Webb, another promising incoming receiver.
There’s no denying the talent that Holloman and Hardman showed, though Holloman’s size advantage was exaggerated against a smaller walk-on defensive back most of the game. The hands and the routes will work against any most coverage, but we’ll see if he can be as physical against bigger and better coverage. Hardman didn’t get much of a chance to get the ball in space, but he made a nice move for extra yards on one such catch late in the game. We didn’t see any of the runs or gadget plays that could feature someone like Hardman – or, for that matter, Simmons. Simmons had a rough start with a fumble and a couple of early drops, but he rebounded well to make some tough catches and show off his speed on a long touchdown reception. I’m high on Simmons if only because there has to be a role for that kind of speed, and he was also able to take his lumps as a straight-up receiver in this game.
Yes, Hardman looked the part at receiver. Yes, he spent a lot of time there this spring. We don’t know what percentage of time, but it was enough to play him there exclusively at G-Day. At the same time, the Holloman-Hill matchup told you plenty about Georgia’s cornerback depth. I can’t picture a permanent move to receiver until we get a better idea in August about needs in the defensive backfield.
If you were expecting this to be the game in which Georgia showed an expanded role for tight ends, this wasn’t it. Blazevich was held out with a knee sprain. Jackson Harris caught a pass. Nauta’s only reception was a dump-off by Eason that resulted in a loss. Eason’s connection with Woerner in the fourth quarter was the only significant play to a tight end. Woerner split outside in the slot and found a hole about ten yards downfield. He shed a few tacklers (something which won’t sit well with Smart) and got a chance to show off some speed by outrunning the defense to the endzone. Tight ends were targeted a handful of other times, but for better or worse it was more of the same for the position.
The defensive front looked capable even without Thompson. Atkins’ pursuit and tackle for loss was one of the highlights of the day. Ledbetter, Walker, Bellamy, and Carter provided constant pressure. The defense had a bit of an advantage knowing that there wouldn’t be much of a running threat, but generally they did well to limit big plays on the ground and focused on getting to the quarterback. Eason in particular faced stacked fronts similar to what he saw last season and what he’ll likely see again in 2017 until the offense can loosen things up with explosive plays downfield. Juwan Taylor seemed to have a good game at ILB for the second team defense and was among the overall leaders in tackles.
Deandre Baker had a challenging afternoon – he was beaten deep a couple of times, shaken up on a minor injury, but he also had his share of wins. Malkom Parrish made some plays on the other side, and Tyrique McGhee had good coverage on one pass in particular to the endzone. Richard LeCounte was active and led his team in tackles, though, as Smart noted, it’s not a great sign for a safety to be making so many tackles. That was a result of Fromm’s success and Holyfield occasionally getting upfield. It is a positive sign, though, for an early enrollee to display such a nose for the ball. He and Gibbs should become quite a tandem in the secondary. If the first team defense needs to be humbled, Eason’s Black team ended up with a handful of explosive plays through the air.
Friday April 21, 2017
Interior: With Trenton Thompson and Roquan Smith sidelined, we’ll see deeper down the depth chart at defensive line and inside linebacker. If the offensive line is performing well and Georgia’s tailbacks are, well, Georgia’s tailbacks, those defensive units will have a tough test in stopping the run. If the first team offense struggles to run the ball inside without Thompson and Smith on the field, that wouldn’t be encouraging.
Shining star: Georgia didn’t lose much on defense, but Mo Smith leaves a big void after a successful one year stint at star. The position can be anything from a nickelback (third cornerback) to a hybrid LB/DB used to counter modern wide spread offenses. Senior Dominick Sanders began his career in this role, but he’s since settled into the safety position. Georgia is currently looking at a trio of defensive backs for the star role: early enrollees Richard LeCounte and Deangelo Gibbs along with sophomore Tyrique McGhee. McGhee, at 5’10” and 180 lbs., might be the smallest of the three but has a little bit of an edge thanks to his experience. All three bring a little something different. Gibbs is the biggest of the three at 6’1″ and just over 200 lbs – that’s closest to Mo Smith’s 6’0″ / 195. That could get him on the field in certain situations. As Kirby Smart put it, “I mean, you’re out there playing on Charlie Woerner and he comes to block you, do you want a 160-pound guy or do you want a 205-pound guy? It’s pretty obvious that we’ve got to have a big guy.” LeCounte, at about 5’11” and 180 lbs. He’d be considered undersized at safety and even at star, but his athleticism and power could help him win his share of battles against larger targets.
Red zone: There’s been an emphasis on improvement in the final 20 yards of the field, and revisiting 2016 red zone film was like “a kick in the stomach” to Lorenzo Carter (tell me about it, Zo.) This is one of those classic spring game Rorschach tests: the offense had their own red zone issues in 2016 and have been working through their issues. Elijah Holyfield, a physical “bowling ball” type of runner, has emerged as a possible red zone weapon. So if you see some scoring in red zone situations on Saturday, are you happy for the offense’s progress or dismayed for the defense?
Friday April 21, 2017
Isaiah McKenzie will be on campus Saturday, but he’ll be a spectator at G-Day like the rest of us. The unexpected unavailability of the Human Joystick – Georgia’s only underclassman to declare for the NFL Draft – leaves big shoes to fill across the team. He was Georgia’s leading receiver in 2016, but the returning roster plus some impressive newcomers should be able to absorb those receiving yards. He’ll also be missed in the return game. His biggest impact might’ve been as a gadget player (though maybe not on 4th-and-1…too soon?) His nine combined touchdowns (rushing plus receiving) tied him with Nick Chubb for team honors. Georgia is exploring options at receiver and returner, but it’s that utility role that most of us will associate with McKenzie. Who might we see running those sweeps?
Sony Michel: It’s tempting, isn’t it? It didn’t take two games into his freshman season to see Michel’s possibilities beyond tailback. He also had a kickoff return touchdown called back in the Belk Bowl as a freshman. His receiving touchdown in the Liberty Bowl was his first score in the passing game since the 2015 South Carolina game, but it’s no secret what Michel can do with the ball in space. At the same time, he’s still right up there with Chubb in the tailback rotation, and his readiness to step in as the feature back at a moment’s notice has to be considered.
Mecole Hardman: Getting Mecole involved was a priority entering spring practice. We didn’t see much of this heralded freshman beyond some reserve duty at cornerback, but there’s still enough hype for folks to wonder how much, if any, contribution he could make on offense. Kirby Smart cautioned that Georgia’s depth at defensive back might require Hardman to work primarily on defense, and Hardman’s role on offense could be determined by his ability to show the “sustainable focus” that’s necessary to handle the additional meeting time and work of two positions. Hardman saw work with the offense almost immediately in spring practice and will play on offense at G-Day, but his role beyond spring is still to be determined.
Tyler Simmons: Georgia flipped Simmons from Alabama on Signing Day 2016. He appeared in six games as a true freshman in a limited role. Simmons’s calling card is speed, and he was used in high school on the kind of sweeps McKenzie perfected. “Track speed” is always a plus. At under six feet tall, he’s going to have to rely on that speed to make an impact, and the McKenzie role could be a perfect fit.
Terry Godwin: Godwin might be too entrenched as one of the more experienced receivers to be considered for a utility role. Of course he’s always a threat to run (or throw) the ball, but I’d expect to see him continue in more of a traditional receiver role. Do we see the return of the Wild Dawg in 2017? If so, is Godwin still a top option to be behind center?
Friday April 21, 2017
The offensive line took its share of the blame for the offense’s struggles in 2016, and fans will be watching G-Day for any signs of improvement up front. Reports out of practice are encouraging, but everyone would prefer to see the results for themselves.
While the current unit is improving, the line was also a focal point of the outstanding 2017 signing class. The Dawgs signed six offensive linemen (five high school prospects and a JUCO), and there is national top 100 talent at both tackle and guard.
The incoming class makes this a big offseason for a number of returning Bulldog linemen. Some veterans like Isaiah Wynn are in good shape to start and see playing time, and a couple of younger players, Solomon Kindley in particular, are getting noticed. But with a number of positions unsettled, freshmen will be competing for those roles. You’d prefer to not play many freshmen, especially on the offensive line, but several in this class are talented enough to merit immediate consideration.
For the rest, it’s an opportunity to stand out or risk being passed over by the next wave of linemen. You want to see growth out of a group that includes Pat Allen, Chris Barnes, Sam Madden, and especially former five-star prospect Ben Cleveland. The good news is that some of that growth seems to be taking place. Unfortunately Cleveland might not be able to showcase his work at right tackle at G-Day due to an injury, but a lot of eyes will be on the others watching how they and the line overall perform.
Wednesday March 1, 2017
This is our eleventh preview of the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament, and it’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the conference over that time. The addition of Texas A&M had an immediate impact, and Missouri has started to make their mark. You don’t have to go back through many of our previews to find South Carolina and Mississippi State among the bottom half (if not bottom quarter) of the conference. That they’ve turned things around and displaced perennial favorites like Tennessee, LSU, and Georgia shows the kind of turnover that can happen in a competitive league as resources begin to equalize, media coverage becomes universal, and a new wave of ambitious coaches tries to take what once belonged to the conference’s old guard.
Vic Schaefer took over Mississippi State in 2012-2013 and is already the program’s 2nd-winningest coach. He took two seasons to rebuild the program, posted consecutive 11-5 conference records in 2015 and 2016, and came up just short of the regular season title in his fifth season. That follows on the heels of Dawn Staley’s own meteoric rise as she built the Gamecocks from an afterthought into the four-time defending regular season champions.
The top of the league has been fairly airtight this year, but some cracks are showing. South Carolina and Mississippi State distinguished themselves early, and the only question was which team would win the regular season title. The Gamecocks won the head-to-head meeting, but Mississippi State had a chance to win at least a share of the title until the final game. The biggest upset of the season might be Missouri over South Carolina, but Mizzou has been ranked (or close to it) all season. Tennessee’s win at South Carolina was also a shock, but is a Tennessee win ever really an upset? South Carolina should be expected to be playing for the title on Sunday, but can Mississippi State snap out of a recent funk to join them? That side of the bracket could get wild if the #2-seed Bulldogs can’t refocus.
Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:
Thursday / Second Round: #8 Georgia vs. #9 Auburn: Noon ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. #1 South Carolina: Noon ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: 5:00 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 3:00 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here
1) South Carolina (14-2, 24-4) (LY-1): Their odds of winning the conference seemed long after an upset loss at Missouri, but they bounced back to win their final two games while Mississippi State faded. After the dust cleared Sunday, the Gamecocks won their fourth consecutive regular season conference title. Only Tennessee from 1998-2004 has had a longer run at the top. Now the team looks for a third-straight SEC Tournament title – a feat previously only accomplished by, you guessed it, Tennessee.
Any discussion of South Carolina must start with the frontcourt of Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson. The duo has been dominant even though Coates has battled foul trouble and injuries. Few do the high-low game any better. Consistency at guard has been an issue for the Gamecocks. Transfers Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis are known as prolific scorers, but they’ve disappeared at times or, worse, contributed to inefficient offense with poor shot selection. Bianca Cuevas-Moore is an x-factor who can dart to the basket or pull up for a big outside shot.
South Carolina has cranked out the wins again this season, but they’ve been tougher to come by. One reason is depth. They really need Coates and Wilson on the court at the same time to be at peak production. I don’t know if “leadership” is the right word, but the team has missed the steadying influence of a veteran like Tiffany Mitchell. Wilson is the often the best player on the court, but she has to get the ball. Make no mistake: this is an extremely talented team, and they’re the favorites to repeat as champions for the third time. South Carolina now occupies the territory Tennessee once held. They’re used to taking everyone’s best shot and have the most experience making deep tournament runs. They’re only 100 miles from home and should have plenty of crowd support. I wouldn’t bet against them, but you wonder who’s going to get the ball at the end of a close game.
2) Mississippi State (13-3, 27-3) (LY-3): A week ago Mississippi State had an outright lead for the regular season title and a probable #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They dropped their final two regular season games, lost out on even a share of the conference title, and they’d have to win the conference tournament to have a chance at a top NCAA seed. Did they wilt under the pressure? That’s possible, but they also faced a pair of good teams. The Bulldogs started 20-0, and a controversial close loss at South Carolina was their only blemish until the final week of the season. MSU rolled through much of their schedule, and they have impressive wins against Texas and at Tennessee.
Junior forward Victoria Vivians has been a top performer since she arrived in Starkville. Vic Schaefer has built up the surrounding cast, and defenses can’t focus solely on Vivians. Morgan William is a slashing guard who can get to the rim and draw fouls or hit the occasional outside shot. The frontcourt of Teaira McCowan, Chinwe Okorie, and Breanna Richardson is formidable. This is a deep squad that can spread it around featuring seven players averaging at least 7 PPG and ten players seeing at least 12 minutes per game. At crunch time, though, Vivians wants the ball and more often than not can make good things happen.
A couple weeks ago there was no hotter team in the SEC. It’s been a rough past two weeks though with a pair of close calls against Georgia and Texas A&M and then the losses to Kentucky and Tennessee. The Bulldogs will still earn a high NCAA seed, but they’ll need a strong showing in Greenville to gain back the confidence and momentum they’ll need for a deep NCAA run. They arguably face the easiest path to the championship game of the four top seeds. It will take much better play than they’ve shown lately to get there.
3) Missouri (11-5, 21-9) (LY-8): A five-game winning streak propelled the Tigers to a double-bye and their best finish as an SEC member. They’re arguably the hottest team entering the tournament. As with other recent Mizzou teams, they’re productive from the outside. Robin Pingeton has an experienced team that plays sound basketball. They lead the league in free throw percentage. Once again no SEC team has attempted more three-pointers, and they’re hitting almost 36%. In terms of SEC WBB, Missouri is the new Vanderbilt.
Sophie Cunningham was SEC Freshman of the Year last season and has only improved as she matures into a team leader and an SEC star. She has help: Cierra Porter is an impressive presence inside who will make teams pay for focusing on outside shooters like Sierra Michaelis who has attempted nearly 200 three-pointers. Missouri’s success is even more remarkable considering they lost a pair of veteran forwards to injury prior to the season. Jordan Frericks was the team’s second-leading scorer behind Cunningham, and Porter has done a fantastic job anchoring a depleted frontcourt.
The Tigers have been in and out of the rankings all season, but their current winning streak featuring an upset of South Carolina has them trending up. Missouri’s problem has been finding success away from home. The Tigers are a stellar 15-1 at home but just a pedestrian 6-8 in other arenas. They have won two road games during their current winning streak. Whether they’ve figured out how to play at a high level will be tested right away. They’ll probably face a good Texas A&M team on Friday, and Missouri won that regular season meeting by just two points in Columbia.
4) Kentucky (11-5, 20-9) (LY-5): We’re used to seeing the Wildcats at or near the top of the standings. Matthew Mitchell’s squad is once again among the class of the league, and it’s been a pretty remarkable coaching job to have them among the top four this year. The Wildcats were hit with a slew of transfers during the offseason, forcing Mitchell to adapt his style of play. The Cats aren’t especially deep due to the attrition which hinders the frenetic pace and trapping defense that Mitchell prefers, but this team can still do damage in a halfcourt game. Kentucky hasn’t faltered against the lower two-thirds of the conference, and they’ve notched wins over Missouri and Mississippi State. Seniors Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator are just the kind of dependable and productive players you want your seniors to be, but Taylor Murray, Maci Morris, and Jaida Roper are a trio of underclassman guards providing important contributions to balance the scoring. No one will have a tougher path to the finals with Tennessee and South Carolina in their way.
5) Tennessee (10-6, 19-10) (LY-7): It’s been a maddeningly inconsistent year for the Lady Vols. They’ve managed wins over four top ten teams yet lost to Virginia Tech, Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss, and Auburn. This follows a year in which the Lady Vols made a run to the Elite Eight after coming close to missing the tournament. The wins show that they have the talent to compete with anyone, and the losses show some serious issues with depth beyond a few key contributors. Diamond DeShields has improved each season and is good enough to carry this team deep into the tournament. This is her team. Mercedes Russell is an elite talent at center. Jamie Nared is the kind of scrappy and clutch player you often associate with Tennessee. If the Lady Vols can get production from those three (and occasionally Jordan Reynolds), they can beat most teams. They won at South Carolina with their three key players scoring 64 of the team’s 76 points. If that production isn’t there, they can struggle.
Tennessee will have their usual large tournament crowd behind them, and they know how to play in big games. If they advance to the quarterfinals, they’ve defeated the three teams likely standing between them and the championship. Then again, they’ve lost to their most likely second round opponent (Alabama). It’s been that kind of year. Still, would anyone be surprised to see them playing on Saturday or even Sunday?
6) Texas A&M (9-7, 19-10) (LY-2): A&M has sort of faded from the national scene after challenging for the conference title a few years ago, but they’re still hanging around and capable of advancing to at least Saturday in the tournament. An early win over 2016 national runner-up Syracuse stands out, but that came a day after a loss to Dayton. They’ve notched wins over Tennessee and Kentucky, but they enter the postseason on a four-game slide that knocked them out of a double-bye all the way down to the 6-seed. Gary Blair will have his team ready to play their trademark tough defense, but they’ll have to pull out of their tailspin quickly to advance beyond Thursday. Danni Williams is the team’s leading scorer and gives the Aggies an outside threat. Forward Khaalia Hillsman adds over 16 PPG inside. Curtyce Knox is another scoring threat at guard, and Taylor Cooper is hitting nearly 42% of her three-pointers.
7) LSU (8-8, 19-10) (LY-13): The Tigers have been quietly competent this year after a 13th-place finish last year, though some late losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia pulled them back to the middle of the pack. The offense flows through a pair of talented guards. Raigyne Moncrief and Chloe Jackson can score anywhere inside the arc and aren’t afraid to get to the rim. You won’t see many three-pointers from these Tigers – Auburn and Missouri have attempted about four times as many. This isn’t a tall team, but forward Alexis Hyder is a physical presence inside. LSU will show token pressure, and their lack of size means that they must be aggressive in halfcourt defense. The Tigers lead the conference in steals, but opponents can have success inside if they handle the pressure.
8) Georgia (7-9, 15-14) (LY-6): It’s been an impressive coaching job by Joni Taylor to have her team in this position. The Lady Dogs were picked to finish 12th preseason as they faced the challenge of replacing a strong senior class with a limited roster of only eight scholarship players. A 2-6 start in league play seemed to validate those preseason expectations, but Georgia turned it around by winning five of their final eight games. Georgia has lived on the edge: three of those five wins came in overtime, and the Lady Dogs are 6-1 in close games. Does that mean they’ve won a few that could have gone the other way? Sure, but Georgia made the plays to win those games, and the emergence of some key players led to those wins.
Wing Pachis Roberts took an important step forward as a senior, more than doubling her 7 PPG average a season ago. Roberts had big games before this season, but she’s been much more consistent and now leads the team in scoring. Sophomore Caliya Robinson adds 14 PPG and continues to show flashes of the talent that led to her SEC All-Freshman selection last season. Robinson can be a dominant forward and has taken over several games this season, but she also struggled with some midseason consistency and can take herself out of games with foul trouble. Taylor has settled on bringing Robinson in off the bench and starting Georgia’s lone freshman Stephanie Paul. Mackenzie Engram is back from the ailment that ended her sophomore season, and she can also put up big numbers as a versatile forward that can run the court, post up, or hit the outside jumper. Georgia is at their best when Roberts and Robinson are productive, and it usually takes at least one more player having a good night for Georgia to be successful. Often that’s Engram, but wing Shanea Armbrister can come up big too.
Even with their best players contributing, Georgia leans on their defense. The Lady Dogs are last in the league in scoring at 62.8 PPG, and they need the score to be in the 50s or low 60s in order to have a chance. That defense has been a big part of Georgia’s better-than-expected finish, though the biggest weakness for a team with such a thin bench has been foul trouble. Turnovers can also be a problem for this team as guard play isn’t a strength. That’s a concern in their opening game: they turned it over 22 times in this season’s win at Auburn.
9) Auburn (7-9, 17-13) (LY-9): One of the mysteries of the season has been the disappearance of the Auburn offense. The Tigers averaged nearly 75 PPG in their five SEC wins, but they struggled to reach 60 during a long slump towards the end of the year. They won two in a row at the end of the season after dropping eight of nine. Few teams are as top-heavy as the Tigers. Guards Katie Frerking, Brandy Montgomery, and Janiah McKay combine for 43 of the team’s 63 points per game. No other player averages more than 4.2 PPG. Auburn’s guard-heavy offense shoots more three-pointers than any team but Missouri, but Auburn is shooting less than 30% from outside. The spotty Auburn offense is often helped by their defense – a tough press that falls back into a tight matchup zone that extends beyond the arc. This frenzied defense often leads to turnovers and points: Auburn is second in the nation in turnovers forced (>22 per game) and also second in turnover margin. Auburn is clinging to the NCAA Tournament bubble, and that desperation could be an extra edge.
10) Ole Miss (6-10, 17-12) (LY-14): With wins over Tennessee, Georgia, and Texas A&M, the Rebels clearly can punch above their weight. That said, they’ve also been on the wrong side of several blowouts and can give up a lot of points. They’ve won only two games away from home, but a strong 15-3 home record was just enough to earn a first round bye and avoid playing on Wednesday. There’s no real standout player, but the Rebels will need big games from Madinah Muhammad and Shandricka Sessom. Alissa Alston can do damage off the bench, and Taylor Manuel and Shelby Gibson can push around teams without physical post players of their own. Ole Miss is near the top of the league in steals and forced turnovers, so their opening game against LSU should provide a good contest between teams who depend on their ability to generate turnovers.
11) Florida (5-11, 14-15) (LY-4): The Gators started the season ranked, but the December departure of leading scorer Eleanna Christinaki sent Florida reeling. They lost their first five SEC games and were just 2-8 after ten conference games. They finished 3-3 down the stretch and gave Missouri and Tennessee close games in a losing effort. They managed to sweep two games against Georgia but have no other wins against teams outside of the play-in games. Senior Ronni Williams took the team on her back and gets nearly 20 points per game. They’ve asked a lot of freshman Delicia Washington, and Washington has responded with over 11 PPG. Brooke Copeland can get hot from outside. Forward Haley Lorenzen can rebound and extend defenses with her range. The Gators have struggled with turnovers, leading the league with over 18 turnovers per game.
12) Alabama (5-11, 17-12) (LY-12): Alabama notched wins over Missouri, Tennessee, and a sweep of Ole Miss. Their 17 wins is the high water mark under coach Kristy Curry, but they’ve had difficulty turning those few noteworthy wins into more sustained success. Meoshonti Knight leads the Tide in scoring, but no player averages over 11.3 PPG. Scoring is spread around with seven players averaging over 6 PPG. Hannah Cook is a very good all-around player who can drill nearly 35% of her three-pointers and also pull down over 5 rebounds per game. Guard Jordan Lewis has been one of the top freshman in the SEC, starting every game and taking home SEC Freshman of the Week honors five times. Forward Shaquera Wade was a key recruit two years ago and is capable of a big game. Alabama isn’t a very big team, but everyone contributes on the glass. They’re second only to Tennessee in total rebounds.
13) Vanderbilt (4-12, 14-15) (LY-11): It was a tough initiation into the SEC for new coach Stephanie White. The Commodores lost their first seven league games, but only their loss at Tennessee was a true blowout. They finally posted a win against Alabama. This is a young team that brought in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes along with their new coach. That young group began to figure some things out towards the end of the year and closed with three wins in their final five games. Erin Whalen is one of those freshmen and took home the season’s final SEC Freshman of the Week honor. Scoring has been a team effort: the Commodores have just one player, Rachel Bell, scoring at least 10 PPG, but nine players average at least 5 PPG. Senior forward Marqu’es Webb continues to be a physical presence inside, but this is a team that lives and dies with the three-pointer. Only Missouri has made more, and the Commodores hit an impressive 39.1% of their outside shots. Their inexperience shows up in their ballhandling: only Florida turns the ball over more.
14) Arkansas (2-14, 13-16) (LY-10): Star forward Jessica Jackson can only carry them so far. The Razorbacks made it through nonconference play with an 11-2 record, but those two losses were to Oral Roberts and Missouri State. Reality soon set in during the SEC schedule, and they dropped their first four league games. Arkansas showed signs of life with consecutive wins in mid-January, but they’ve lost ten straight to end the season. There have been a few close calls – six of the losses on their current losing streak were by seven points or fewer – but the breakthrough never came. Jackson’s had yet another impressive campaign in her senior season and scores about 15 PPG. She leads the team in rebounds, three-pointers made and attempted, and foul shots made and attempted. Malica Monk, Keiryn Swenson, and Jailyn Mason provide scoring from the guard position.
Wednesday February 1, 2017
Since most of Georgia’s 2017 signing class is either already committed or waiting until Signing Day to announce, it’s been a fairly quiet couple of weeks. There have been some important visitors each of the past two weekends, but the biggest splash has come from a 2019 commitment.
With the nice-to-have problem of finding enough spots in a stellar recruiting class, this is the time of year when we start to hear all of those “roster management” terms that we use as shorthand to talk about how teams allocate their 85 scholarships. At Georgia, the past week has brought a flurry of “preferred walk-ons.” What makes certain players preferred walk-ons?
The important thing: “preferred walk-on” (PWO) is meaningless as far as the NCAA is concerned. They’re simply non-scholarship players. It’s a term without any kind of formal or standard definition. It’s up to each school how they distinguish one walk-on from another – if at all. Each school runs its own walk-on program differently guided only by the limits of 85 scholarship players and 105 total players on the roster. Though most coaches are up-front about the path to a scholarship, some choose to avoid creating a distinction among their walk-ons. Depending on the program, being a PWO might mean:
- They are recruited and invited by the staff. The PWO is recruited like any scholarship player but with the understanding that he will not be on scholarship. Coaches may promise the opportunity to earn a scholarship down the road if one becomes available.
- They are all but guaranteed to make the 105-man roster. Not every walk-on who comes out for the team will last, but preferred walk-ons don’t have to go through a cattle-call tryout. This seems to be the minimum consensus definition of a PWO.
- They are involved in all team activities – meetings, community service, Fan Day, etc.
- They have access to team perks. This includes gear, access to the weight room and training facilities, and academic support. They also have access to team meals and the dining hall but must pay for meals.
- They may travel to the bowl game. Walk-ons (and even some scholarship players) don’t travel with the team to road games. The rules are looser for bowls, and walk-ons receive the same travel stipend, per-diem distributions, and bowl swag as the scholarship players.
Kirby Smart identified Georgia’s walk-on program for improvement back in the spring. True to his word, Smart has been very active lately adding walk-ons to the 2017 class. Vince Dooley’s grandson is among them. There will even be another Frank Sinkwich on the team. The Dawgs added another pair of walk-ons on Sunday, and they continue to roll in on the eve of Signing Day.
We’ve seen PWOs at nearly every position at Georgia. This year alone the Dawgs have used PWOs to add to their depth at linebacker, punter, fullback, quarterback, and receiver. They even hosted an offensive lineman currently committed to Harvard as a possible walk-on addition. This year, thanks in some part to the visibility of the Blankenship story, the most high-profile PWO commitment to date might be that of Greater Atlanta Christian kicker Brooks Buce. Georgia had interest in several kickers who were weighing walk-on offers against scholarship offers at smaller programs, and Buce signed on. He’ll compete with Blankenship and the rest of the kickers on the roster, but his best chance to make an early impact is as a kickoff specialist.
Monday January 23, 2017
When you see this past weekend called “Georgia’s biggest remaining official visit weekend” and hear about the awful weather going on across the state, it’s a good time to let Georgia’s new IPF have its first big moment.
The IPF won’t be officially dedicated until mid-February, but it’s already getting plenty of use. There were walk-throughs during bowl practices, and offseason workouts are going on there almost daily. Now it’s also available to host some of the most important prospects remaining on Georgia’s board.
Yes, the prospects had a lot of stops across campus and across Athens that put them out into weather that wasn’t nearly as nice as last weekend’s. It’s still nice to bring them back by the showpiece facility and hand out in the program’s new home.
PS…Georgia’s football program isn’t the only team using the IPF to get better during their offseason.
Sunday December 4, 2016
Georgia will face TCU in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis at noon on Friday, December 30. ESPN will televise the game. This matchup had been the consensus among most bowl projections since last weekend, and none of Saturday’s results did anything to change the placement of SEC teams.
Georgia is undefeated in three previous meetings with TCU. The most recent game occurred in Athens in 1998, and Georgia came away with a 38-10 victory.
TCU finished the regular season 6-6 overall and 4-5 in Big 12 conference play. Their wins include impressive blowouts against Baylor (66-22) and Texas (31-9), but they have no wins over ranked opponents. They have a couple of near-misses earlier in the season: Arkansas outlasted them 41-38 in 2OT, and Oklahoma outgunned them 52-46 on Oct. 1. They started the season ranked #13 and were still ranked #21 for that Oklahoma game, but they finished the season 3-4.
The Horned Frogs finished the 2015 season ranked #7 after an improbable comeback win over Oregon in the bowl game. They lost a large group of contributors from that team including QB Trevone Boykin and All-American WR Josh Doctson. Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill leads the TCU offense, but he was injured against Texas. He came off the bench in the season finale against Kansas State but couldn’t kickstart a lackluster offense. You’d expect Hill to be a little healthier in time for the bowl. Hill and his replacement Foster Sawyer have gone back and forth since preseason, and TCU hasn’t been afraid to pull Hill when he’s struggled.
TCU’s offense has put up some big scores this season, but consistency has been an issue. It sounds as if they’ve had some familiar problems at receiver and along the offensive line. A good barometer for Georgia’s success in the bowl game will be the Dawgs’ ability to run: TCU defended the run well in big wins over Baylor and Texas but gave up at least 330 yards on the ground in losses to Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
Wednesday November 23, 2016
“They are looking for chunk plays. You want to make them drive it through. They do; they are very methodical. They manage their down and distances really well, and they stay ahead of chains, it makes them tough to stop. So every time you try to give them a negative play or do something to put them behind the chains, you put yourself at risk. They know it’s a numbers game…The key is being sound, tackling and not giving up big plays, and that’s what our goal is, to do that.”
Kirby Smart explained some fundamental concepts of the option offense on Monday, and it’s no secret that the offense can generate a big gain on the ground on just about any play if just one defensive assignment is missed. We’ve all seen the pound-pound-pound-pound-BAM of several short dive plays followed by a devastating pitch for 60 yards when the defense cheats inside against the dive.
Last week against Virginia, Tech had 29 rushing attempts that went for a total of 72 yards. But they had two additional runs that went for touchdowns of 60 and 67 yards. Those are exactly the kind of “chunk plays” that Smart is talking about stopping.
But it’s not just big plays on the ground that the Georgia defense must watch for. Tech quarterback Justin Thomas has been especially effective hitting big pass plays. If teams start to sell out to stop the run, defense will leave receivers wide open. Tech has had at least one completion of 50 yards of more in four of their last five games, and five Tech players have receptions of at least 36 yards this season. The one game without a long pass play was against Virginia Tech – a game Thomas missed due to injury. It’s not just the wide receivers who can make big plays in the passing game. Running backs releasing from the backfield have had some of the biggest receptions. Tailback Clinton Lynch has had receptions of 45 yards or more in five of Tech’s eleven games. Lynch has six of Tech’s nine receiving touchdowns, and Georgia’s secondary must pay attention when he’s in the game.
Tech thrives on these big plays from both the running and passing games. They’re 20th in the nation in yards per play thanks to the ability to hit these explosive plays. They’re at 6.3 YPP for the season and 6.8 over their past three games. (Georgia, by contrast, averages 5.1 YPP this season.) As Smart said, Tech is content to take four or five yards per carry on the dive if it’s there, but limiting these explosive “chunk” plays is what could keep the score in a manageable range for Georgia.
Wednesday November 23, 2016
I spent most of Saturday’s game entertaining a four-year-old at his first Georgia game, and that kind of sums up the crowd that ranged from disinterested to, well, absent. It’s unfair to the players who are expected to perform at a certain level regardless of the opponent or juice from the stands, but it was a welcome change to be a little bored at a home game. The performances of McKenzie, Chubb, and the secondary notwithstanding, you’re not going to hear this game celebrated for years to come. On the other hand, it won’t be a game like Nicholls or Vandy that will provoke nausea just by mentioning the opponent’s name.
I was expecting a close game – or at least low-scoring – game because of the identity this team has developed. That’s not a criticism; it’s just what’s come to be over the first ten games of the season:
- Georgia doesn’t push tempo. They’re content to chew clock. That lends itself to fewer possessions and plays.
- They struggle to convert scoring opportunities. The line can’t generate much of a push for power running, and the receivers aren’t built for the fade/jump balls we often see teams use close to the goal line.
- Georgia isn’t an explosive offense. They’re in the bottom third nationally at 5.1 yards per play. Georgia must often drive to get into scoring range, and it’s been tough for this team to sustain and finish drives.
All of that held true to form in the UL-L game with one big exception: Georgia scored three of their five touchdowns on explosive plays. The Dawgs averaged a solid 6.8 yards per play thanks to long scoring plays by McKenzie and Chubb. Otherwise things looked very much the same. Georgia got just seven points off of four UL-L first half turnovers. (To be fair, one of those turnovers came in the final minute of the half.) They had just one scoring drive longer than five plays: a nice 11-play, 93-yard series that really put things out of reach early in the third quarter. Georgia’s other long drives that led to scoring opportunities – an 11-play drive in the first half and an 8-play drive in the second half – ended on turnovers.
Credit McKenzie and special teams for putting Georgia in a good position very quickly. Reggie Davis had perhaps the best kickoff return of the season to open the game, and McKenzie cashed it in with fewer than 30 seconds off the clock. McKenzie then made his own special teams highlight with nice blocking once McKenzie shook free of the initial coverage. Playing with a two-touchdown lead isn’t a luxury Georgia has enjoyed often this year.
McKenzie’s touchdown run was a nice counter to a play that UL-L had surely seen a billion times on tape – the toss to Chubb. While the action went with Chubb and the toss, McKenzie went back against the action, got a block from Payne (fortunately not called for holding on the play), and had nothing but space in front of him.
That early lead was tested after Eason’s interception. Chubb and Lamont Gaillard hustled downfield to make sure a bad play didn’t turn into the kind of disastrous turnovers we saw against Nicholls. Still, UL-L had good field position, and it took some good defense and timely penalties to put UL-L in a position to have to go for it on 4th and long. The shutout was intact, at least for the moment, and Georgia soon added a third touchdown for some breathing room.
The defense did well with their discipline on the gadget plays UL-L showed. An early reverse was snuffed out by Aaron Davis with Roquan Smith in fast pursuit. Deandre Baker stayed with his man and had textbook coverage on a reverse flea-flicker not long after UL-L’s interception return.
Nice pick by the umpire on Nauta’s touchdown.
Chubb’s touchdown reception was one of the most encouraging plays of the game. Eason was staring down the slot receiver running a corner route, but it was covered. He checked down to the open Chubb, and Nick was off to the races. This outlet to the tailback has been there a lot this season (most notably on the pick six against Ole Miss), and it’s exciting to see Eason start to look at his options. It helped that he had time – pass protection was generally solid on Saturday.
UL-L’s garbage times scores only matter to Vegas and the coaches trying to develop defensive depth. What was more concerning was UL-L’s ability to get outside on running plays. Georgia didn’t hold the edge very well, and even solid tacklers like Parrish were ineffective once the runs went wide. Those plays become big gains against the option pitch. The defense also struggled to get off the field. A week after a superlative performance against Auburn, the defense allowed UL-L to convert third downs at better than 50%. Three-and-outs were rare: UL-L had only two drives without a first down. As a result, the visitors limited Georgia to only five second half possessions. Fortunately the Dawgs scored on two of those possessions to put the game away at 35-7.
Wednesday November 16, 2016
Man, we needed that.
It hasn’t been an especially cheery time at Sanford Stadium lately, and it had been about a year since the last SEC home win. Georgia was in danger of going winless against SEC competition at home, and the Dawgs faced long odds to avoid a losing conference record in Kirby Smart’s first season.
For one night we got Sanford Stadium at its finest. The crowd was engaged from the awesome pregame flyover. Georgia connected on two early deep passes to give us hope that the Dawgs could move the ball. The halftime deficit was concerning, but Auburn wasn’t able to build the kind of lead that would take the crowd out of it. After Georgia equalized on Mo Smith’s pick six, the crowd was locked in.
The story of the game of course was Georgia’s defense. It cooled off Auburn’s red-hot offense by first limiting big plays in the running game and then choking off any kind of success when it became clear that the Tigers struggled to move the ball through the air. You hadn’t seen a half of defense like that since the 2011 SEC Championship game where Georgia held LSU without a first down in the first half. This time, though, the Dawgs were able to put their dominant second half together with a reasonably good first half and avoided the turnovers and special teams scores that led to a loss in that 2011 game.
Did Auburn have much to do with Georgia’s success? Sure, and that’s probably the case in any half that turns out like the second half did. Sean White was horribly inaccurate despite entering the game as one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the nation in efficieny. His health has been the subject of rumors before and since the game, but he was the quarterback Auburn chose to stick with. There were also a couple of drops, though no Georgia fan will have much sympathy there. Georgia’s pressure did its fair share to disrupt, hurry, and alter several of those incompletions.
I guess we can also thank Auburn’s coaches for insisting that 3rd-and-short was a passing down. On Auburn’s lone scoring drive, they faced 3rd-and-3 and 3rd-and-1. They ran both times and converted both en route to the touchdown. In the second half, Auburn faced 3rd (or 4th)-and-2 five times and chose to pass each time. The results were a sack and four incompletions. My analysis involves gift horses and mouths.
If Georgia tweaked one thing on defense after giving up 20+ points in each of the past two games, it was a more aggressive use of interior blitzes. Auburn’s struggling pass offense meant that Georgia could risk bringing the occasional blitz, and pressure from Roquan Smith and Reggie Carter in particular led to a pair of big third down stops.
The Smith interception was without question the turning point, but another third down stop in the first half kept Georgia in a position to win the game. Early in the second quarter Auburn had put together another promising drive immediately after their lone scoring drive. The Tigers faced a 3rd and 6 at Georgia’s 38, and a conversion would have at least placed Auburn in Daniel Carlson’s range. I think the outlook of the game changes if Auburn is able to score on consecutive possessions and open up a two-score lead. Mel Tucker called a Roquan Smith blitz up the middle, and a retreating White dumped the ball off in the backfield to Kerryon Johnson. Davin Bellamy was waiting and made a shoestring tackle for a 13-yard loss around midfield. Auburn punted. The Tigers managed just one more first down later in the quarter and never entered Georgia territory again.
It’s odd to praise an offense that, for the first time this season, didn’t score a touchdown. Had Auburn’s offense been more productive, we’d be dwelling on the invisible force that causes Georgia drives to stall around the opponent’s 30-yard line. But Auburn’s offense wasn’t more productive, and the Bulldog offense did just enough to make its own mark on the game.
The offense’s biggest contribution was in field position and time of possession. The best defense against an offense like Auburn’s is to keep it on the sideline. As much as we made about Auburn’s lack of second half first downs, Georgia posted only two three-and-outs in the game. No, it didn’t lead to many points, but being able to move the chains contributed to the team win:
- The offense got the Bulldogs out of the few instances when they were pinned deep on their own end.
- It allowed the Georgia defense to rest up and maintain a consistently high level of play in the second half.
- It kept field position in Georgia’s favor even when a punt or two was shanked. Auburn’s best starting field position was its own 32 yard line. Nine of their drives started with touchbacks or inside their own 25.
- It wore down Auburn’s defense to the point that Georgia was able to use up valuable clock on two second half drives that lasted at least 6:45 each. The Tigers had only three possessions after the 5:29 mark of the third quarter.
Georgia’s ability to spread the ball around stood out. Chubb and Michel got their share of touches of course. Entering the game you’d never have expected Georgia to gain more rushing yards than Auburn and for Chubb to be the only back over 100 yards. The offense did well to involve speedy receivers like McKenzie, Godwin, and Ridley – the end-around to Ridley was an effective play that got the ball outside into space. The Dawgs still found opportunities to connect with Nauta on a couple of nice shallow crosses.
Though we can quibble with individual play calls, the overall gameplan was solid. Georgia moved the ball, got the right people involved, and did just enough to capitalize on the amazing work of the defense. Credit Auburn and their outstanding defensive front for being good enough to disrupt several plays that looked as if they could go for big yardage. Linebacker Deshaun Davis seemed to be everywhere and had the awareness to stay with Eason on Georgia’s attempted trick play. But even a defense that’s played as well as Auburn’s can’t spend that much time on the field without it affecting them, and it was enjoyable to watch Georgia run sweep after sweep against a tired defense to salt away the fourth quarter.
The turning point that wasn’t
There was an Auburn punt with nine minutes left in the game that was about 30 seconds of pure horror. First Auburn lined up with 10 men on the punt team. They snuck an additional gunner in along the north sideline, and Georgia didn’t respond to cover up the additional player. The crowd began to stir as they saw an uncovered eligible receiver who could have walked for first down yardage (and then some.) Auburn fortunately executed a routine punt – perhaps they also didn’t recognize the opportunity.
Just as we were about over that little adventure, Georgia dodged another bullet fielding the punt. McKenzie was unable to field the ball cleanly after contact with an Auburn player, and Auburn would have been set up in a position to at least tie the game if their recovery stood. Counting on Saturday’s officials to make a call was a crapshoot, but they managed to flag the catch interference and save Georgia from another special teams disaster. The Dawgs responded with a 14-play drive that took nearly seven minutes off the clock that brought us to the closing stages of the game.
The statute of limitations is up, right?
I wondered about this at the game and confirmed it on the re-watch, but it sure looked as if Eason was down with one second left on the clock. I’m probably not the only one who spent the last few minutes of the game trying to figure out how Auburn would one-up Tennessee’s finish, and the possibility of a turnover and one final play for Auburn was terrifying. I’m just surprised it wasn’t even reviewed (whether initiated by the booth or the league office we got to know in Lexington.) It took a while before I could exhale and enjoy the win.
So now with two close SEC wins under their belts, you’d hope the Dawgs could build on those and finish the season on a roll like 2007 or 2012. Does this team have such a roll in them? Each win has been a close one, and the team hasn’t shown the firepower yet to put up a big score. They’ll also be challenged to get up for a couple of noon games after a big national spotlight for Auburn, and this weekend in particular will be a test of Smart’s ability to get the team focused and just as motivated as they were for Auburn. It didn’t take long for people to start mentioning the Nicholls (let alone the Vandy) game as examples of what can happen when the team isn’t sharp. We’ll see this weekend what’s come of those close games and whether Georgia can finally put a team away.
Friday November 11, 2016
Courtesy of Marc Weiszer:
Better news: no one on that list is a senior.
Friday November 11, 2016
I think this is one of the first conversations with Georgia’s left tackle I’ve seen since the season started. Tyler Catalina transferred in from Rhode Island and moved right into the starting left tackle position to replace a 5* multi-year starter and NFL draft pick. It hasn’t been a smooth season, but Catalina wouldn’t trade the experience. If anything, he’d like another year to develop after adjusting to the speed of the college game at its highest level. He and his fellow linemen will face perhaps their toughest assignment of the season this weekend against Auburn’s outstanding defensive line.
I’ll say this: I’m glad Catalina is here. The circumstances that led to him starting at left tackle aren’t his fault, and he takes the heat for the consequences of Georgia having no serviceable tackles ready to go after 2015. Unless you have reason to disagree with Sam Pittman’s evaluation of his depth chart, Georgia’s line is better off (however marginal that might be) with Catalina than it would have been without him. It’s fine to be frustrated with the player when mistakes are made that have nothing to do with ability, and Catalina has certainly had his share. But as tempting as it is, I can’t apply a standard to the position that ignores why Catalina is on the field to begin with.
I came to feel the same way about Lambert last season. All he did was come in and set personal career bests in just about every area, but he was criticized for not being Aaron Murray (or even Hutson Mason.) Georgia’s quarterback recruiting and the stunted development of Ramsey wasn’t Lambert’s fault. Just as an FCS transfer stepping into the starting left tackle position tells you all you need to know about Georgia’s recruiting and development of tackles since Theus signed, the state of Georgia’s quarterback position in 2015 was exposed when Lambert earned and then maintained the starting job.
Friday November 11, 2016
The 2015-2016 Lady Dogs season ended with a first-round NCAA Tournament exit after a 21-10 season and a 6th-place finish in the competitive SEC.
First-year coach Joni Taylor took over the program under favorable conditions. The Georgia program was slumping, but it was by no means starting from scratch. Taylor inherited a veteran-heavy team that included four returning senior starters. She was able to guide the team to a strong start and held on as two starters were lost for the year to injuries. Georgia returned to the NCAA Tournament and avoided the ignominy of becoming part of the first Georgia teams to miss consecutive postseasons in over 30 years.
With those four seniors, Taylor was essentially presiding over the end of the Andy Landers era. She made some adjustments and left no question that it was her team and program now, but there was also a strong core that had bonded for three seasons under Landers (with Taylor doing her part as an assistant.) That core is gone now, and there are only a couple of players remaining on the roster for whom Landers was the head coach longer than Taylor has been.
2016 will mark new beginnings for Taylor in several areas. On the court, it will be the first team that largely bears her imprint. She paid her dues as a rookie coach and can begin to take the program in the direction of her vision. On a personal level, Taylor and her husband welcomed their first child just eight days before the start of the season. As she spent last season learning the ropes of being a head coach, she’ll now be a rookie mom and will follow the lead of many professionals who must learn parenthood on the fly while finding the work/family balance that suits them. There is no set return date, and Taylor will likely ease back into the role. Associate Head Coach Karen Lange will be the acting head coach, and a plan for handling Taylor’s absence and gradual return to the program has been worked on for months.
In addition to the four graduated seniors (Barbee, Griffin, Hempe, and Butler), two other players are no longer with the team. Three-point specialist Amber Skidgel is now at North Georgia. Walk-on guard Hannahkohl Almire has also moved on.
The roster features 12 players, and that’s already under the NCAA limit of 15 scholarship players. Freshman post Kortney Eisenman will never play for the team after a medical disqualification. Eisenman was a national top 20 post player and was slotted to be a likely replacement for Merritt Hempe. Two other players, 6’5″ center Bianca Blanaru and guard Taja Cole, will sit out this season as a condition of their transfers.
So that leaves Taylor with eight scholarship players and a walk-on available for 2016-2017, and only six of those are returning players.
There are three seniors on this year’s squad. But unlike last year’s team whose seniors were all multi-year starters, this senior group features a number of role players who will be asked to step into a much larger leadership role. Center Halle Washington became an occasional starter last season after Engram and Barbee were lost to injury. She’s an athletic and capable post player who has improved each season, but foul discipline has been a persistent issue. With Eisenman unavailable, Georgia needs every minute they can get out of Washington. Pachis Roberts is in her third season as a wing after transferring from Syracuse. She has the ability to play on the perimeter but also pulled down over four rebounds per game. Shanea Armbrister was a JUCO transfer who saw limited time in relief of Georgia’s starting guards. Armbrister was brought in as a perimeter threat and will be looked to for offense this year.
Georgia’s underclassmen might be more familiar to fans. Junior forward Mackenzie Engram had an impressive freshman campaign, but her sophomore season was cut short by an upper respiratory illness. Haley Clark spent the past two seasons learning the point guard position behind Marjorie Butler, and now it’s her turn to run the Georgia offense. Georgia’s lone sophomore emerged as one of the brightest new starts in the SEC last season. Forward Caliya Robinson was a SEC All-Freshman Team selection who averaged nearly 15 points per game over Georgia’s last four games. Robinson averaged 8.0 points and was the team’s third-leading rebounder despite only starting one game as a freshman. Look for her to be a focal point of Georgia’s post offense and a tough interior defender on the other end.
Georgia signed two newcomers in addition to Eisenman. Stephanie Paul was the #32-ranked prospect in the country according to Prospects Nation and should earn immediate playing time behind Georgia’s frontcourt starters. Simone Costa is a junior college transfer guard with good 5’10” size who will be asked to back up Armbrister and Clark. The team recently added a walk-on guard, Ari Henderson.
The strengths and weaknesses are fairly apparent. Washington, Engram, and Robinson form a fairly good starting frontcourt, and Georgia’s offense should look to go inside-out. The backcourt is a concern. Georgia’s 173 three-pointers were 6th-best in the SEC last season, but players no longer with the team accounted for 127 of those. Armbrister (2.2 PPG) and Clark (1.4 PPG) haven’t been big scorers. It’s possible that Roberts (7 PPG) could start as the 2-guard. As a wing she’s capable from outside and can cause mismatches for smaller guards, but she’ll also be asked to defend quicker guards on the other end. Georgia can move Roberts to small forward if substitution patterns require, and Paul will be also be part of the frontcourt rotation. Costa will be an option at either guard spot. If Armbrister doesn’t start, she’ll be quick to come in off the bench especially if Roberts has to rotate inside.
The team also looks to be stronger inside on defense. Washington and Robinson can block shots, though Washington must avoid fouls. Robinson is also a solid rebounder, but Georgia will sorely miss Barbee’s work on the glass. There’s not a ton of size available especially if Washington is on the bench. Paul should bring a good shot of toughness to the frontcourt. We just haven’t seen enough of the guards to know if they can play consistent defense for the kinds of minutes they’ll see.
Visits from BYU and Virginia highlight the home nonconference schedule, and they’ll travel to face Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, and Oklahoma State. There’s a Thanksgiving tournament in the Bahama where the Lady Dogs will play Minnesota and either South Florida or North Carolina. None of Georgia’s nonconference opponents is currently ranked though several received votes.
The SEC slate is another story. Five of Georgia’s first seven SEC opponents earned a preseason ranking, and the Lady Dogs will face national title contender South Carolina twice during that stretch. The rotating SEC schedule means that Georgia will face South Carolina, Kentucky, and Florida twice. Home fans will get to see several quality teams: Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, and LSU all visit Athens.
Given the departures, Georgia either needed a loaded group of returning players or a stellar recruiting class to not miss a beat. They don’t have either. There is some talent on the roster and a couple of promising newcomers, but the depth of a well-rounded roster isn’t there. The SEC coaches pick Georgia to finish 12th out of 14 teams, and the Lady Dogs don’t place anyone on the preseason All-SEC teams. Georgia must finish at least 10th to avoid playing in the Wednesday play-in games at the SEC Tournament, and a finish in the bottom half of the league would likely mean that Georgia misses the postseason for the second time in three years.
The future is bright: Blanaru and Cole will make instant contributions after sitting out. Georgia also has four top-100 prospects already committed to a 2017 class that’s currently rated #5 in the nation. Taylor knows that the talent level has to be raised, and we’re seeing indications that Georgia won’t be down for long. In the meantime, though, it looks like a transitional year and one in which Georgia will be considered more of a spoiler than a contender.