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Post A trip to remember

Friday September 15, 2017

It’s been a rough week without power and internet access since we returned from Chicago and South Bend, but I wanted to get a few posts out about the trip.

Our group arrived Thursday, and the flight up was reminiscent of earlier trips to Tempe and Boulder. Georgia fans in good spirits (and drinking good spirits) filled the plane, and that became a commonplace sight throughout the trip. We used Chicago as our base and did the Cubs/Dawgs/Falcons triple-header. For several of us, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to check off three of the most iconic venues in sports. It looked as if we weren’t alone, and many smiles, “Go Dawgs!”, and even a few barks were exchanged with thousands of fans throughout the weekend. The experience of being a Road Dawg is a treasure. It’s not always inexpensive, and it can be tough to leave family and other obligations for a distant football game, but it’s almost always worth it. I hope every dedicated Georgia fan can experience a big road game.

I was impressed with the folks behind the Dawg Days events in which thousands of fans participated. I can only speak for my group’s experience, but everything went smoothly – pre-event communication, registration, transportation, and of course the events themselves. It was a well-organized operation, and it even handled the sudden Cubs’ time change. Of course drink and bathroom lines can always be shorter, but that’s a fact of life when you offer free beer to Georgia tailgaters.

That brings us to the game and the campus. $400 million buys you some nice stadium improvements, and it showed. The exterior facade of the stadium blended into the surrounding buildings. Wide concourses had almost a vintage feel, modernized with all of the conveniences. It’s natural to compare the results of this renovation with the needs of Sanford Stadium, but that’s a whole other post for some offseason.

A friend called it “Masters Football.” The stadium wasn’t lit up with marquee boards, there was no find-the-leprechaun-behind-the-french-fries game, and in-game messages highlighted faculty achievements and other points of pride. The only blemish was piping in music, especially on opponent third downs, but that’s kind of a given now. (And with several of the music selections Atlanta hip-hop, perhaps they were just trying to make us feel at home.) The campus of course was immaculate with nearly every Georgia fan seeking out a photo opportunity in front of the Golden Dome or Touchdown Jesus.

The quantity of Georgia fans in South Bend shook a lot of us. Even Georgia fans who expected a large turnout were overwhelmed and didn’t expect it to be that big. I was giddy and immensely proud of the turnout, and I’m relieved that we left a fairly good impression. I don’t blame Notre Dame fans for being put off by an opponent taking over their stadium, but I agree with Michael that the Georgia turnout should be considered the highest compliment to Notre Dame. I don’t know that as many Georgia fans would travel to Penn State or Nebraska, though we’d have an above-average showing as we did for Arizona State and Colorado. Regardless of Notre Dame’s current relevancy, college football fans have to acknowledge the program’s place in our history. Most any program’s DNA has some common threads with Notre Dame whether it’s directly (Harry Mehre) or indirectly (Vince Dooley). If you want to go deeper than I care to here, you can explore Notre Dame’s embodiment of northern college football or even dive into Savannah Catholicism. For whatever reasons, we had to be there. A fun city like Chicago nearby added to the appeal, and the opportunity to take in Wrigley Field and Soldier Field as well as Notre Dame made the trip a must for me.

Seeing the red was impressive enough, but the lights during the fourth quarter fanfare took your breath away. The colors were tough to pick out in far corners of the stadium, but there was no mistaking the breadth of the individual lights from nearly every section of the stadium. There were audible gasps, and you can hear the roar growing from the Georgia fans as they realized the magnitude of the Bulldog presence. I heard a Notre Dame observer on the WSLS podcast talk about how demoralizing that moment was for the home crowd, and I wonder what it did for the teams. Georgia’s players and coaches have been effusive with their praise for the road crowd, and I would bet that it took a little wind out of the sails of the home team.

I’ve been a proponent of keeping these big games on campus, though I realize it’s swimming upstream agaisnt the money to be made from neutral site games. Kirby Smart has expressed his preference for the big neutral site games. Fortunately this home-and-home was negotiated before the coaching change. It’s a fact that the interests of the fans don’t always align themselves with what’s best for the team. Georgia could have simply scheduled another lightweight home game as they will in 2018. Speaking for my wallet, a trip of this magnitude isn’t workable every year or even every other year (especially if Jacksonville is an annual ritual,) but I’m already looking forward to UCLA in 2025. Perhaps the rarity and uniqueness of these games make them so desirable. I don’t know that I would have gone to this game in, say, Dallas. I’m selfishly glad they took the risk to play this series.

I should close by commending everything about Notre Dame. From Chicago to South Bend, ND fans were cordial, welcoming, and gracious. Campus ambassadors and game day staff went looking for ways to help and point us in the right direction. There was some bantering of course, and maybe Notre Dame fans are more subdued than usual these days, but I hope they have at least half as good a time in Athens in 2019 as we did last weekend.


Post Year 2, Game 2

Thursday September 7, 2017

“Year 2” was a common offseason theme. Kirby Smart was entering his second year as head coach. Jacob Eason was entering his second season as the starting quarterback (get well soon!) It was natural that we saw countless “Year 2 effect” stories pointing out how well a coach or quarterback did in his second season relative to his first.

With Smart, it was exciting to think about how Mark Richt took an 8-4 team in 2001 and produced an SEC champion the next year. Smart’s association with Alabama and Nick Saban reminded us that Saban’s 7-6 squad in 2007 improved enough to post an undefeated regular season in 2008. Eason can’t seem to escape Matthew Stafford comparisons, and so we looked to 2007 and Stafford’s second season as the starting quarterback for what we might expect of Eason after one year leading the offense.

Within a single season, the second game gets similar treatment. The claim that “teams usually make their biggest improvement between the first and second games” has been repeated enough that we accept it as a fact and an inevitability.

The second game hasn’t always been so kind to Georgia. We only have to go back a season. We felt good about overcoming a decent North Carolina team, got giddy over Nick Chubb’s return, and saw the promise of a talented freshman quarterback. Then came the horror of the Nicholls game. Since we brought up 2007, remember how it began. Georgia had an impressive win over Oklahoma State in the opener, and Stafford was productive and efficient leading the team to a comfortable win. That was followed up by an ugly 16-12 loss to South Carolina – a game in which the offense failed to reach the end zone for the first time in six years. That loss ended up keeping Georgia from a shot at SEC and national titles in 2007.

Surely Saban had it easier? The second game of his turnaround 2008 season was an unconvincing 20-6 win over Tulane that featured only one offensive touchdown. The Tide had a dominant eye-opening win over Clemson in the Georgia Dome to start the season, but even this team that would head into the postseason without a loss couldn’t avoid a Game 2 hangover.

Georgia enters Game 2 of 2017 focused as much on survival as improvement. We hope the offensive line takes a step forward with Solomon Kindley’s return. The many true freshmen who played in the opener should also be past their first game jitters and can iron out some of Saturday’s mistakes. The team’s biggest priority though is preparing Jake Fromm for his first start. It’s tough to expect wholesale improvement as the team has had less than a week to prepare for Notre Dame while scrambling to get Fromm and his backups as much work as possible. Since Fromm looked comfortable and confident in the opener, I’d expect that he’s faced everything but the kitchen sink this week in an attempt to rattle him and see how he responds.

We’ve seen some impressive season openers before, but it’s not often that Georgia has faced a Game 2 of this magnitude. You have the novelty of the Notre Dame trip, a road game as the underdog, the challenge of a Top 25 opponent, and you’re placing the offense in the hands of a true freshman. That would be enough for an entire offseason of preparation; now you’re doing it within the normal parameters of just another game week. If Georgia is able to sustain the level of play from the opener while showing improvement in light of the major shock to the system of losing Eason, this Game 2 could open up some big possibilities for the rest of Year 2.


Post Georgia 31 vs. Appalachian St. 10: Sweet, sweet boredom

Wednesday September 6, 2017

Saturday’s season-opening 31-10 win over Appalachian State was an unremarkable drama-free win by a top 15 program over a quality mid-major team, and it barely moved the needle beyond Athens. In other words, it was a novelty.

The past two seasons of home games have been less pleasant than pulling teeth, so Saturday’s win was a much-needed release for the Sanford Stadium crowd. After the slow start and the early injury to Jacob Eason, Georgia’s defense bought time for a freshman quarterback to come off the bench and build a comfortable lead by halftime. It was, dare we say, fun to watch. The weather was perfect, the crowd was engaged, and damn near the entire roster saw the field. After hearing all week about Michigan 2007, Nicholls, and the fact that Georgia hadn’t won a game by more than 14 points in almost two years, it was a welcome and refreshing sight to see a dominant win.

Georgia’s strongest unit was, as expected, the defense. When you have that much talent, experience and, presumably, decent enough coaching, it should show up in the results. The Bulldog defense was stingy on the interior, and Appalachian State’s tailbacks weren’t much of a factor. Georgia’s pass defense was equally effective, holding Appalachian State to under 5 yards per pass attempt.

The good news is that the defense can be even better. The base pass rush can improve – one of Georgia’s two sacks came on a safety blitz, and the team recorded zero quarterback hurries. Appalachian State’s most effective running plays were by the quarterback on read option plays, and that discipline on the edge will have to be better against a Notre Dame quarterback that rushed for over 100 yards. There was the occasional breakdown in pass coverage, and that’s to be expected with so many inexperienced defensive backs playing large roles. If this is the reference point though, this could be a fun defense to watch.

Less expected was the special teams performance. The return units didn’t have much to do – kickoffs were sparse, and punts were often fair catch candidates. Georgia’s kicking though was eye-opening. Cameron Nizialek was a true weapon as the punter. His usual punts were good enough, but twice he was able to pin back Appalachian State inside their own 10, and that field position helped to set up a very short field for Georgia’s first score. Thanks to good hangtime and good speed on the coverage team, no Georgia punts were returned. Rodrigo Blankenship was true on a short field goal attempt but really showed progress on kickoffs. I want some of what got into his leg in the offseason. The one kickoff that was returned was snuffed out inside the 20.

So add good defense and special teams, and you have Kirby Smart’s ideal: an opponent forced to drive the field and the occasional good field position for your own offense. Three of Georgia’s four touchdown drives began beyond the Georgia 30. Georgia’s advantage in field position was such that the defense could afford infrequent long runs or passes by Appalachian State and still have plenty of room to recover. Mix in an offense that eventually found ways to move the ball, and you have all three phases of the game contributing. The result? Points on five out of six drives and a lead that grows to a comfortable margin.

On offense, of course the quarterback situation has to dominate the discussion about the offense. Eason didn’t have a strong start and overthrew Nauta, but the playcalling was also fairly restrained on those opening drives. Before we get to Fromm’s performance, I have to commend the preparation of both Fromm and the coaches. It helped that he was an early enrollee, but Fromm was poised and put into situations where he could gain confidence. It’s standard now to compare Fromm and Murray as we do with Eason and Stafford, but Fromm wasn’t without his Stafford gunslinger moments. You couldn’t see that sidearm pass he threw in the third quarter without thinking about some of the unconventional fearless (if not occasionally ill-advised) throws Stafford became known for.

So what do we have in Fromm? We know the leadership qualities are there, and we know he’s not afraid to make most any throw. His arm isn’t what Eason’s is, demonstrated by the trajectory of some of his deeper passes. He might be a quick study in the film room, but coaches won’t feel comfortable using as much of the playbook as they might otherwise have. Of course he’ll likely make a poor decision or two as he sees more pressure from better defenses. We didn’t see him flushed from the pocket much, but he’s supposed to be a little more mobile than Eason. (That said, how much do we want him scrambling without a viable backup?) What seems to matter most is that he has buy-in from his coaches and teammates. Even former players noticed it and commented on it during the game. Those around him and those who have been in the Georgia program recognize someone capable of running and leading the offense. That’s good enough for me.

  • A turning point in a game like this? It was early, but J.R. Reed’s sack and forced fumble came at an important moment. Taylor Lamb ripped off a long run into Georgia territory, and Appalachian State threatened to post the first points of the game. Reed came off the right side, got off a block as he kept his eyes on Lamb, and then charged the quarterback at a sprint to force the fumble. The loss of over 20 yards killed the drive. Georgia didn’t score on their next possession, but Nizialek punted the ball inside the 10 and set up the field position that would result in Georgia having only 40 yards to go for their first points.
  • Reed was just one of several newcomers to have impressive debuts. LeCounte played most of the game and survived his trial by fire. Swift was used both at tailback and in the slot and showed promise.
  • Fromm’s two best throws might’ve been on Georgia’s first scoring drive. First was the quick pop down the seam to Nauta that Isaac caught in stride. Next was the completion to Wims to set up Chubb’s touchdown. The ball was placed perfectly between defenders and settled into the hands of Wims. Fromm had his share of questionable throws, but those two early passes showed a special ability.
  • Was Fromm’s pass to Nauta an RPO? There was certainly a fake to the tailback that helped to create space for Nauta. Was there a run option built into that play?
  • Things we didn’t see? Tailbacks weren’t involved in the passing game. Swift caught three passes, but he often lined up in the slot, and only one of those receptions came from the backfield. No need to show those elements yet.
  • We also didn’t see many of the jet sweeps or “Isaiah McKenzie” plays that were so effective last year. Certainly there was some motion, but it was almost always a decoy.
  • Kudos to the UGA staff for $2 water until 6:00. A nice plus for people who are in the stadium early. I rarely visit the concessions, so most of the improvements were lost on me, but the water deal was one of those little things that you appreciate after a walk over from tailgate.

Post Expect more of the defense

Saturday September 2, 2017

I’ve seen more predictions than not giving Appalachian State 17 or 20 points. It’s understandable – I respect their running game. I respect their senior quarterback. But if Georgia is giving up in the neighborhood of 20 points to a non-P5 opponent, it tells me that Georgia’s defense isn’t what we think it is. With so many returning starters and contributors in their second year in the system, there shouldn’t have to be much of a readjustment period for the defense. If we’re using last year’s Appalachian State-Tennessee game as a cautionary tale, the Vols’ problem was an offense that took the better part of three quarters to get going. Tennessee held the Mountaineers to 13 total points and shut them out in the second half, and as we saw in Athens, it wasn’t the most dominant Tennessee defense. Appalachian State managed just ten points at home against Miami. Should we expect as much from the 2017 Georgia defense?

I’d like to see this opponent held to no more than ten points. It’s an ambitious target given the quality and experience of the offense we’re facing, but the defense is supposed to be the lynchpin of the 2017 team. Let’s challenge them. A low score for App. State would also imply that other areas of the Georgia team are pulling their weight. The offense isn’t creating a short field via turnovers or three-and-outs. Special teams isn’t shanking punts or giving up long returns. It would also tell us whether Georgia’s red zone defense has improved.

It would truly be a team effort to hold the Mountaineers under 10 points, and I include the reserves in that goal. Last year against ULM Georgia coasted to a 35-7 lead. They gave up consecutive touchdowns in the final five minutes to close the gap to 35-21. Those touchdowns were meaningless in the outcome, but fourth quarter misadventures were part of the story way too often in 2016. Finishing a complete game has to be a team mindset, and hopefully we’ll get to see how even the true freshmen handle it.

Again, if we’re looking at their opener against Tennessee last season, the bigger challenge should be for Georgia’s offense. We can expect the same compact look we saw from every defense last season in an attempt to stop the run first. We’ll see what new weapons are available to stretch the field in the passing game. We’ll see if Eason can trust his protection and become a more accurate and efficient passer to sustain and finish more drives. We’ll see if the coaches can continue the creativity they showed in the bowl game with Michel catching passes out of the backfield or the tailbacks gashing the defense on outside runs late in the game. There’s a lot more uncertainty about the offense, especially with several inexperienced linemen making their first starts.

Appalachian State’s formula for keeping this game close isn’t a shootout; it’s a low-scoring ugly game similar to the 13-13 regulation draw in Knoxville a year ago where a single turnover, busted defensive play, or field goal could turn the game. 17 or 20 points on their side would be enough to keep them in the game. It’s the job of this experienced and talented defense to make things a little more comfortable as the offense finds its way.


Post Positional heat check

Tuesday August 29, 2017

It’s game week! Preseason camp is over, and the team is well into opponent preparation. After all of the news reports and tidbits I’ve picked up over the past month, this is my sense of how the various position groups are faring heading into the season.

Offensive line: Lukewarm

If you were counting on definitive answers along the offensive line to make you feel better about the 2017 season, you’re going to be waiting for a while. The combination of newcomers, minor injuries, and the sheer number of open spots on the first and second team lines means that there are still decisions to be made. That’s maddening to fans looking for resolution to the team’s biggest question, and Kirby Smart is in no hurry to announce anything decisive. Though there hasn’t been and likely won’t be official confirmation, a starting line has begun to coalesce. There are nuggets of good news – Isaiah Wynn has looked to be the veteran anchor he was expected to be. True freshman Andrew Thomas has been a pleasant surprise and might even start. But as for nailing down specific positions and the depth chart? Ask us again in the second quarter of the App. State game.

The bright side? There is finally enough depth to have a legitimate competition. In less than three weeks, Georgia will have to name a traveling roster for the Notre Dame trip. Assuming there are 10 offensive linemen on the travel roster, there are about 11 or 12 players competing for those 10 spots. Some familiar names might be left off that list. In fact, given how fluid the composition of the line might be over the next couple of weeks, the battle for a coveted trip to South Bend might be more interesting than the competition to be a week one starter.

The big question remains how the line will perform. It was underwhelming at G-Day, but we were reassured that the incoming class would help. Thomas and perhaps Isaiah Wilson could crack the rotation, but the lines we’ve seen in practice have largely been returning players. In some sense, that’s a positive – the fewer freshmen linemen that play, the better, even when you’re talking about one of the best OL recruiting hauls in the nation. On the other hand, you’re relying on the development of players who either contributed to last season’s sub-par line or weren’t able to unseat those who did play. That development should be aided by another year with Sam Pittman, and it’s the first time since 2014 that a Georgia team will have the same line coach and blocking approach for consecutive seasons.

Tailbacks: Surface of the sun

Take a returning group of Chubb, Michel, Herrien, and Holyfield. Add true freshman D’Andre Swift, who was turning heads early in fall camp, and you have one solid unit. When the big question for the tailbacks is who gets the carries after the first two guys, you can feel pretty good about the position.

Quarterbacks: Throwing more logs on the fire

The team replaced Lambert with another touted freshman, and Ramsey is back in the fold as a quarterback rather than a punter. Let’s not assume just yet that the position is in a better spot than it was a year ago. Fromm’s potentially more talented than Lambert, but Fromm is far less experienced and would have to go through the same growing pains Eason experienced a year ago. So whether the QB position is in better shape seems to hang on the progress of Eason. That progress is…ongoing. There have been good moments, but we’re still a ways from feeling as confident about the position as we are about the tailbacks. Fromm, for his part, has been fairly anonymous. That’s a good thing as far as snuffing out any kind of manufactured controversy. He hasn’t struggled any more than you’d expect, but he also hasn’t overtaken Eason. That’s fine – he’s a good true freshman quarterback who will be brought along as such. As with the tailbacks, it’s worth watching who comes off the bench. With Fromm a redshirt candidate until he plays, do things go well enough that Ramsey can handle the rest?

Tight ends: Simmering

Nauta, Blazevich, and Woerner are all a year older. It’s an experienced and healthy group. We’ve been proclaiming “The Year of the Tight End” for what seems like three or four years now, and it’s unlikely that Georgia will have a better combination of depth, talent, and experience for a couple of seasons. Don’t forget about Harris and Davis either. Now it’s up to the coaches to use them.

Receivers: Warming up

Jacob Eason didn’t have a ton with which to work a year ago, and it was a mixed blessing that Isaiah McKenzie became a favorite target. McKenzie was a capable playmaker and will be missed, but Georgia still lacked much of a deep threat or physical outside receivers. With much of the same group back, is there hope for improvement? Start with Javon Wims – the 6’4″ JUCO transfer had a typical JUCO adjustment and recorded just two receptions through the first six games. He added 15 receptions in the back half of the season. Terry Godwin, a former 5* prospect, has been a steady contributor since his freshman season but recognizes the need to play a larger role. Chigbu and Stanley have been known more for their blocking, but this is their best opportunity to earn playing time a some of Georgia’s larger receivers before younger receivers develop. Riley Ridley showed us what he can do at times as a freshman, but consistency and personal discipline will determine whether he’s a breakout star in 2017.

Newcomers should be able to contribute early. Ahkil Crumpton is a JUCO known mostly for his kick return ability, but he’ll also be an option for several of the McKenzie-type plays. Mark Webb’s size should get him on the field on special teams as well as at receiver. J.J. Holloman electrified the crowd at G-Day, but he’s been quiet in August as he cautiously rehabilitates a hamstring injury. Don’t be surprised to see him contribute with relatively little fanfare.

An issue is what seems like a glut of talent in the slot. Crumpton, Godwin, and Hardman are cut from similar cloth. It will be a challenge for the coaches to keep them involved and still have the personnel on the field to improve the vertical passing game. Godwin has the experience and talent to line up outside on certain plays. Any of these slot receivers, in addition to Michel, Swift, and Herrien, could feature in the Wildcat, on jet sweeps, or just about any play in the book designed to get the ball into space.

Defensive line: A rolling boil

This is a fun group to think about, and new position coach Tray Scott has to be excited. Thompson, Atkins, and Ledbetter are enough to make you smile, but then you remember Rochester, Marshall, Carter, Hawkins-Muckle, Young, and Clark. Chauncey Manac can contribute at DE in pass situations. There’s depth, and it’s good depth. Malik Herring, a key member of the 2017 signing class, might have to be a redshirt candidate. With Thompson, this group can be very effective against the run. The first order of business is conditioning: it’s nice to have a deep rotation, but some of the linemen need to make themselves available for more snaps when the team needs their skills in the game. The next step is to become a more disruptive group on pass plays.

Linebackers: On the back burner

We’ve heard quite a bit from and about Lorenzo Carter in the preseason. Good things. But how often have you seen the names Roquan Smith or Natrez Patrick in practice or scrimmage reports this month? If linebackers were an unknown, that would be a sign to worry. Because we know plenty about Carter, Smith, Patrick, and Bellamy, no news is good news. Reserves D’Andre Walker and Chauncey Manac will contribute depth on the outside, and Tae Crowder and Jaleel Laguins will try to hold off some talented freshmen on the inside. Several in this group can be moved around and matched up depending on the opponent. If there’s a doubt about this group, it’s the same as the defensive line: can all of this talent generate a more effective pass rush?

Secondary: Cold front?

The outlook was sunny for Georgia’s veteran defensive backfield. Though they’d be replacing the production of Mo Smith and lost some reserves to attrition, the group still had enough experience and returning starters to get by – barely. An injury to Malkom Parrish caused a sudden chill in the optimism. Without Parrish for the first couple of games, Georgia will have to shuffle its secondary and play inexperience underclassmen or perhaps even true freshmen. There is competition among that young talent though, and coaches have been pleased with the newcomers. Safety J.R. Reed could follow Jake Ganus and Mo Smith in a line of transfers who make an immediate contribution to the defense. The duration of Parrish’s absence will have a lot to say about the composition of this group after the first couple of weeks, but it might be a matter of time before we see more significant playing time for freshmen Richard LeCounte III or Deangelo Gibbs.

Special teams: Thawing

Georgia’s 2016 struggles on special teams began in the season opener and rarely let up. There was the occasional bright spot (Blankenship at Kentucky), but even the Human Joystick dropped off until the UL-M game. Punting fell to a reserve quarterback. That’s enough about last year.

We might see a new set of kickers thanks to a pair of graduate transfers. Fans got a glimpse of punter Cameron Nizialek at G-Day, and he seems in position to start the season. David Marvin is neck-and-neck with Rodrigo Blankenship for placekicking, and the two might split placekicking and kickoff duties. The departures of Reggie Davis and Isaiah McKenzie mean that we’ll see new returners as well. JUCO transfer Ahkil Crumpton was a mid-summer addition to the team and will try to fill in for McKenzie as both a returner and receiver. Mecole Hardman and Terry Godwin are also possibilities for kick returns.

Coverage units should benefit from Georgia’s strong recruiting. A large, fast Nate McBride charging down the field on kick coverage would be an impressive sight. The only way some talented newcomers like McBride might make the limited travel roster is on special teams. There is competition for those special teams roles among young defenders and even tailbacks and receivers. As Smart fills out his 85-man roster and improves the quality of depth, that quality will begin to show up on special teams. There’s too much turnover among the specialists – kickers and returners – to justify confidence in special teams heading into the season, but there’s at least hope that it won’t be the train wreck that it was a year ago.


Post Parrish injury puts secondary in the spotlight

Thursday August 17, 2017

Kirby Smart is the prophetic voice of experience. From last month:

“We do not have much depth in the secondary past the group that’s playing,” Smart said. “I’ve never played a year that didn’t have an injury where one of these freshmen that are going to be running with our twos is going to have to step up and play in one of these big games.”

Sure enough, the secondary is already facing its first injury crisis.

In a potential blow to Georgia’s defense, senior cornerback Malkom Parrish could miss the start of the season after sustaining a foot injury. Parrish broke a bone in his foot and required surgery, according to a source with firsthand knowledge of the situation. Such an injury usually keeps a player out several weeks.

Georgia’s depth chart at secondary is one of extremes: “We have a void in our secondary,” Smart explained. “We have old and we have young. We have nothing in the middle.” The first team defensive backs are all upperclassmen, each with multiple years of experience. The second team is much more green with either true freshmen or underclassmen who have seen limited action beyond special teams.

The void Smart spoke of was addressed with a strong group in the 2017 signing class, but it leaves the secondary as one of the positions at which the team can least afford an injury to a starter. It appears as if the team will be without a starting cornerback against the veteran Appalachian State offense and possibly even the talented Notre Dame offense. Georgia’s response to the injury will require exposing some inexperience in nickel situations. As Seth Emerson noted, senior Aaron Davis is most likely to shift back to cornerback from the nickel/star spot. I agree that sophomore Tyrique McGhee will get a good look at star especially for the opener. If Parrish’s injury lingers, it will open up opportunities for freshmen DeAngelo Gibbs and Richard LeCounte III to become part of the solution.

The lack of reserve experience in the secondary was a big reason for the hesitancy earlier this year in deciding on a position for Mecole Hardman. Hardman, who spent last season as a reserve cornerback, showed promise on offense, but Smart was noncommittal about a permanent move until just last month. That ship seems to have sailed though. I’m a little relieved not to hear anything about yanking Hardman back to defense, even if part-time, as a knee-jerk response to this injury. It was a risk to remove a talented athlete from the secondary in light of the experience gap, but it’s a decision Smart is going to have to stick with to realize the biggest potential payoff from moving Hardman to receiver. Smart is going to have to rely on those raw but talented underclassmen and newcomers to round out his secondary.


Post The few but important 2016 redshirts

Wednesday August 16, 2017

Kirby Smart had fewer than two months to salvage and fill out his first signing class in 2016. It wasn’t the largest class, and it didn’t receive the accolades of his first full class in 2017, but last season’s newcomers still had a considerable impact on the 2016 team. How big of an impact? 16 of the 21 signees saw playing time in 2016. About 10 of them became what I’d consider “regulars”: either outright starters or frequently-used reserves like David Marshall and Brian Herrien. Others saw occasional action, had their playing time limited by injury, or contributed on special teams.

One signee, Chad Clay, was dismissed from the program. That leaves just four players who enter 2017 as redshirt freshmen.

  • OL Chris Barnes
  • OL Ben Cleveland
  • OL Solomon Kindley
  • DE/OLB Chauncey Manac

It’s interesting that three of the redshirts were offensive linemen. Even with the state of the offensive line in 2016, the coaches still balked at playing many true freshmen. It’s the toughest position to play as a freshman, and a true freshman on the offensive line is often a last resort. That said, a couple of true freshmen in the 2017 class, especially Isaiah Wilson and Andrew Thomas, are expected to compete for significant playing time – if not starting roles. They’ll be competing against these three redshirt freshmen as well as some more veteran prospects. With Gaillard and Wynn returning, several positions are up for grabs.

Kindley actually saw playing time as a true freshman. He was in for a single snap against Missouri. The coaches considered Kindley one of the team’s top eight linemen and planned to play him more as the season went on, but injuries affected that plan, and he never saw the field again. Georgia appealed to the NCAA to salvage his redshirt, and that appeal was granted earlier this year. Kindley will still have four years of eligibility, and he’s likely to step in for Gaillard at right guard if Gaillard starts at center. Cleveland, a former 5* prospect, has looked the part of a dominant lineman since high school, but he’s a good example of how even the bluest of the blue chips can have an adjustment moving to the college game. He’s a contender at either guard or right tackle, but it feels like a pivotal year for his development.

In many years Chauncey Manac might have played as a true freshmen, but the need at his position in 2016 didn’t justify burning the redshirt. He could be an important piece in Georgia’s search for an improved pass rush. Manac’s combination of size and speed give the coaches some flexibility, and Manac spent the spring working at both outside linebacker and defensive end.

Smart said if the Bulldogs often played against offenses such as Georgia’s, LSU’s and Arkansas’, which are more traditional, pro-style offenses, Manac would exclusively be an outside linebacker. However, with the amount of spread teams Georgia faces, Manac can be utilized on the defensive line due to his speed and size.

A 3-4 defensive end with some speed whose size isn’t a liability is a nice ace in the hole for Kirby Smart and his defensive staff.


Post A 2017 imperative

Wednesday August 16, 2017

Most of us have the SEC East title as our minimum threshold for a successful 2017 season. There are some other objectives along the way – winning in Jacksonville – but a lot of them move us closer to the goal of playing in the SEC title game. Barrett Sallee brings up an unpleasant thought which, if not corrected, would leave a big stain on the season.

No, Georgia Tech doesn’t have the street cred as big brother Georgia…but it has two wins over the last three seasons — both at Georgia — and is fresh off a 9-4 season. That’s enough to give the Yellow Jackets the edge over Kirby Smart’s crew for now.

Question that conclusion if you’d like, but it reminded me of one big to-do for 2017: unless Georgia can win in Atlanta, this year’s seniors would become the first Georgia class since the redshirt seniors of 2002 to finish with a losing record to Tech (*). It’s bad enough that they’ve already dropped two, but I don’t want to live in a world in which Nick Chubb has to carry that stigma around for the rest of his life.

(* – Carter was in. Jasper was down.)


Post When 52nd is better than 15th

Wednesday July 19, 2017

The AJC shared over the weekend a letter from a former baseball letterman calling for a change of leadership for the athletic department. The letter doesn’t break much new ground in its litany of complaints against the athletic department. It wasn’t a great year for some of Georgia’s more visible programs, and Greg McGarity isn’t a popular athletics director these days. Fine.

I couldn’t let this line pass without comment though. Which program would this informed letterman have Georgia emulate?

“Look at Clemson and what their athletic department has done with great leadership and a plan for high success.”

Clemson finished a lofty 52nd in this year’s Directors’ Cup standings. Lest you think that was an off-year, the Tigers were 42nd in 2016 and 57th in 2015. When I say “it’s about the football“, this is what I’m talking about. Clemson’s overall program can barely break into the top 50, but success in the most visible sports creates the perception of “great leadership.” Meanwhile it’s a crisis that Georgia nearly fell out of the top 20.

I don’t bring that up to diminish the concerns expressed in the letter. Success in football won’t eliminate customer service issues, and it won’t make the volleyball program any better. It might be enough that perception matters here: as the AJC notes, the letter gives “an on-the-record voice to the concerns that others have expressed behind the scenes.” Whether it’s based on football (or, in this case, baseball), those shortcomings invite us to find others. The athletics administration doesn’t have many defenders, at least not in the public space. Is that perception recoverable?


Post Thompson’s recovery to be tested early

Wednesday July 12, 2017

Trenton Thompson was already one of Georgia’s more interesting players. As a headliner of the 2015 signing class, he showed early promise and emerged as an anchor of the defensive line as a sophomore. His second season ended with a well-deserved MVP recognition in the Liberty Bowl. After that impressive performance Thompson seemed poised for a triumphant junior season that would usher him into the NFL.

Life isn’t linear, and it had other plans for Thompson. His withdrawal from classes in February after a peculiar hospitalization was one of the most shocking stories of the offseason. Weeks earlier Thompson had been a dominant focal point of the Georgia defense. In February all of that became secondary to his physical and mental well-being.

Fortunately Thompson seems to be back on more solid ground and will be back in classes over the summer. There’s good news on the medical side also. Kirby Smart revealed at SEC Media Days that Thompson “should be full go” for preseason practices.

While Thompson’s first two seasons make big expectations reasonable for 2017, his offseason setbacks add a bit of uncertainty about the player we’ll see. He missed spring practice during his hiatus, and he would have likely missed time anyway due to some shoulder surgery shortly after the bowl game. It’s great that won’t miss any more time, but there has to be some readjustment after missing time in the classroom and on the practice field. Can Thompson return to the player he was against TCU, and how quickly can he get there? Smart likes what he’s seen so far. “He’s gone out and worked out very hard,” Smart said. “His conditioning has been really good. His weight has been really good. I’m expecting him to be full go.”

Thompson’s readiness will be put to the test early in the season. He and his fellow defensive linemen might face their toughest challenge of the season just two weeks into the campaign.

Recently Cy Brown at Dawgnation took a stab at the top five offensive linemen Georgia will face in 2017. Two of them play next to each other: Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey. Nelson and McGlinchey are Notre Dame’s Chubb and Michel: two experienced and talented upperclassmen who passed up likely NFL draft selections and returned to their team for a final season. McGlinchey isn’t just a senior – he’s a graduate student. SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic believes that the duo “might be the best double team combo” in the nation.

This is the kind of matchup that should be a fascinating game-within-the-game: one of the nation’s best defensive linemen against a pair of excellent blockers. If Thompson is not completely back in form, the Irish duo would have the advantage, and Notre Dame’s new quarterback might have an easier time getting comfortable. But if Thompson can hold his own against this offensive line, it could be the game that launches him and his team toward much greater national recognition.


Post Quarterback game theory

Monday July 3, 2017

It’s one thing to say that Georgia recruiting is changing for the better. It’s another to see how that’s playing out. I’m just trying to wrap my head around this story.

Georgia has two bluechip five-star quarterbacks on the roster. It would be rare, if not unprecedented, for a school to get consideration from a third in three years.

Yet here we are: Georgia is being considered by, if not favored by, not one but two of the top quarterbacks in the nation. Justin Fields (formerly a Penn St. commitment) and Matt Corral (formerly a Southern Cal commitment) both have high interest in Georgia. Fields is a dual-threat passer from Georgia who has exploded in recruiting circles during the offseason. Corral is a west coast gunslinger sought by the best teams in the nation. Any program would be fortunate to get either. Corral would be another big arm that could thrive in Georgia’s pro-style system en route to the NFL. Fields is dynamic enough that Georgia would modify its offense to make use of his talent (think Deshaun Watson).

The recruiting of Corral and Fields sets up some intriguing chess moves for the summer. Corral is planning on taking visits in July and committing before his senior season. Fields might take his visits a little later. It’s possible that Kirby Smart will have decisions to make both in terms of this recruiting battle and the identity he wants for his offense. Does this timing affect Georgia’s approach? It shouldn’t.

Modern recruiting never stops. The best recruiters continue to recruit through Signing Day – even their own commitments. Because verbal commitments are nonbinding, coaches must always work on their own pledges even as they attempt to flip prospects committed elsewhere. They also continue recruiting positions at which they have commitments. First, they must line up contingencies if their commitments flip or become nonqualifiers. Second, there’s a chance that other prospects might emerge during the process.

That’s to say that Georgia’s recruiting of both Corral and Fields will press on even if one or the other commits to Georgia or to any other school. While we might debate which could be a better fit or have a higher ceiling, the real shame would be missing out on both of them when Georgia seems to be in such a good position at this point. Georgia would gladly take a commitment from Corral or Fields, but that commitment wouldn’t stop Kirby Smart from continuing to recruit the other.

I’ll be thrilled if Georgia lands either – the quarterback room in 2018 would be as deep and as talented as it’s ever been. Even if you don’t follow recruiting, this situation and how it plays out should give us some signals about Kirby Smart’s plans and preferences for the future of his offense.


Post It’s the football, dummy

Monday July 3, 2017

I read pieces like this and wonder if we’d be seeing them – or if they’d resonate nearly as much – if Georgia were to win the SEC East in football this year.

I’m the polar opposite of the football-only fan, and I have no time for the subset of our fans (and they do exist) who are openly hostile when resources are directed to anything but the football progam. At the same time, I won’t pretend that anything but football sets the agenda and mood at Georgia. When you appear – and especially feature – on lists of most tortured fan bases, it’s going to color how you view most everything else.

There hasn’t been much going on in Sanford Stadium for at least two years. The Auburn game last year was certainly an exception, but any good feeling generated by that close upset win was erased weeks later when Tech came back from 13 down in the 4th quarter. It’s been a long time since that glorious early September evening in 2014 when the Dawgs were on top of the college football world and it looked as if Georgia, and not Clemson, was poised for bigger things.

When things aren’t going well on the football field, especially for such a lengthy period of time, your eye starts to wander to everything else that’s off. You’re annoyed by the in-game music. You are irritated by the wait for a bite to eat and the conditions in the bathroom. You start to question why you got up at 5:30 AM to have some semblance of a tailgate for a noon kickoff. Eventually you ask yourself why you continue to pay as much as you do for this experience when you could be just as disappointed in the comfort of your own home. In a few months, you’ll see that some other Georgia team lost to Florida, and all of the football dread will come washing back over you. We’re in a bad place right now.

I don’t mean to dismiss legitimate concerns with the state of the athletic department. Are there issues that can be laid at the feet of the athletic director? Personnel decisions certainly. Resources and facilities are also up there, though I don’t think Butts-Mehre has been asleep at the wheel in facilities. We’ve had messy incidents with the swimming program, the tennis programs, and even within the athletic department itself. Taken together, it’s not a good look and not an indication of a healthy culture. That’s all worth exploring, but does the average Georgia fan really have the stomach for that, or is it enough to tip the scales when compounded with our football dissatisfaction?

I do think each sport deserves to be evaluated individually, so it’s important to discern what exactly we’re griping about. I don’t remember the state of the athletic program when Georgia was five yards from the national title game in 2012. Successes like that of the track team or the men’s tennis run or softball’s WCWS season a year ago didn’t seem to move the needle much – certainly not relative to a Homecoming loss to Vanderbilt. If there’s worry over the athletic department, it’s mostly to do with its ability to support a championship football program.

Georgia – all of it – needs a successful 2017 football season. Structural issues in the athletic department, whatever they might be, won’t necessarily be cured by a few more wins, but how the sausage is made is not a careabout for many Georgia fans – so long as the end product is palatable. The bad news is that it’s going to be a while before we have an opportunity to get that good news. We’ll get some shots in the arm from recruiting, but that’s no substitute for the real thing. Even if the football team starts well, we know that expectations for 2017 involve a win in Jacksonville and an SEC East title. That’s still six months or more down the road, and that’s a long time to carry around this much angst.


Post Ramsey’s return?

Thursday June 1, 2017

One lasting impression from G-Day was the lack of quarterback depth. Jacob Eason and Jake Fromm played from start to finish with a few series handled by walk-on Sam Vaughn. The position was so thin that Brice Ramsey helped out in spring practice drills even after announcing his intention to transfer for his final year.

Kirby Smart disclosed earlier this week that Ramsey’s transfer destination might just be Georgia – especially if Smart has anything to say about it. “We want him there,” Smart said. “We’ve been actively recruiting Brice.” Ramsey saw more action as a punter than as a quarterback over the past couple of seasons, but Georgia’s rosters at both quarterback and punter mean that Ramsey would return to the program as a quarterback.

The quarterback depth situation is about much more than next-man-up during a game. It’s about preparing the team during the offseason and during the 20 hours of work each week during the season. Over the next six months, Georgia’s receivers are going to take hundreds of reps with quarterbacks in drills and practices. It’s not so much about resting Fromm and Eason as it is making sure there are enough arms to keep workouts moving at the most efficient rate. Smart touched on this need when he explained Ramsey’s role during spring practice.

“We’re talking from a standpoint of can we get enough balls being thrown?” Smart said. “(Ramsey is) going to do that. Those three guys (Eason, Fromm and Vaughn), they’re going to get a lot of work. Most of the time, you’d like to have five quarterbacks but three of them getting the reps. What are the other two doing? Most of the time they’re helping facilitate a drill. Well, Brice is going to do that to stay in shape, to keep himself in shape, and also continue looking at other places.”

Ramsey would help the team in that regard even if he never saw the field during a game. Along with incoming freshman walk-on Stetson Bennett IV, Ramsey would give Smart his five quarterbacks. But it seems unlikely that Ramsey would return only to be a human Jugs machine if he has the opportunity to play at another school. If he returns, you’d expect him to work for a place on the quarterback depth chart. “He’s a guy who could come in and compete, first, second or third, and he’s very experienced,” Smart explained.

Ramsey’s potential return also raises an idea that seemed unthinkable a few months ago: redshirting Jake Fromm. Though Fromm seemed more than capable during spring, it’s still very much Eason’s starting job. Thanks to Eason’s durability, Greyson Lambert attempted a single pass in 2016 (in mop-up duty against UL-L) once Eason claimed the starting job for good after the Nicholls game. You’d hate to waste a year of a promising quarterback’s eligibility if that same situation played out in 2017 and Eason (knock wood) remained healthy throughout the season.

If Fromm is open to redshirting, it would allow an additional year of separation between he and Eason. Ramsey can more than handle the role in typical backup situations, and you wouldn’t have to burn a year of Fromm’s eligibility in the 4th quarter of the Samford game or if Eason had to miss a play after losing his helmet. Fromm would always be available if the situation called for it.

There’s also a recruiting implication. Georgia has missed on a few top 2018 quarterback prospects, and an additional year of Fromm would ease some pressure to sign a top-rated QB this year (though it won’t stop Smart from trying.) You’re still going to need depth and will have to replace Ramsey in 2018, but you might cast a wider net if Fromm would be with the program for a year beyond initial expectations.

There are a lot of unknowns involved in redshirting Fromm – least of all his openness to the idea – and he’d have to stay 4 or 5 years for the redshirt decision to make sense. We’ve seen a quarterback redshirt pay off handsomely with Greene and Murray, but every situation is unique.

Ramsey is still exploring his options in the meantime, but Smart expects resolution within a couple of weeks.


Post Why would you sign early?

Wednesday May 10, 2017

It’s official: there will be an early signing period for football. “Early” is a generous description: we’re talking about a whole six weeks before the usual February signing date. We’ve kicked this idea around for over ten years, and for whatever reason now was the time for change. What I wrote then had to do with a proposed earlier signing period in the summer or fall, but my thinking doesn’t change much with a December date.

Put it this way: why would a prospect want to sign six weeks before he’d otherwise do so? What does he gain?

A lot can happen in the December-January time frame to affect the decision. Coaching staffs change. NFL Draft decisions are made along with other roster attrition. Lower-profile or late-blooming prospects might pick up additional offers. Yes, an exception for coaching changes seems to have fairly popular support, but that’s not how the new signing period will operate at first. Once you’re signed, you’re signed.

The only reason to consider signing early is if the prospect feels his offer is in jeopardy. We know there’s a certain elite class of prospect who will have an offer for as long as the decision takes. For the Roquan Smiths of the world, this is a good position to be in. These are the kids the coaches would like to focus on with the rest of the class signed in December. For the rest, how many coaches are above using the offer as leverage to get most of the class inked in December?

We’re supposed to see the early signing period as a positive for the coaches stretched thin by herding an entire class until early February. It’s interesting to see which coaches aren’t thrilled about the idea. They oppose it for the same reason why I think it’s not a great idea for prospects: the loss of flexibility. We saw this ourselves last year with the Toneil Carter situation after Chubb and Michel decided to come back. The coaches who want to keep their options open as long as possible will now have a fair portion of their scholarships locked up well before they’d prefer.

It’s sad and cynical to see this early signing period as a game of chicken between coaches and prospects, but I guess I’ve been following recruiting too long.


Post Basketball teams active in spring recruiting

Wednesday May 10, 2017

Hoop Dawgs add two in spring signing period

Mark Fox wrapped up the 2017 signing class with the addition of forward Isaac Kante from New York. The 6’8″ Kante spent the past year as a postgraduate at Putnam Science Academy in Connecticut. Kante used the postgraduate year to work on his skills and increase his exposure to major programs. The plan worked: his offers included Georgetown, Kansas State, St. John’s, and of course Georgia.

Depending on the NBA Draft status of Yante Maten, Georgia could have a solid frontcourt next season. Maten is a known star. Edwards and Ogbeide improved a great deal this past year. Incoming forward Rayshaun Hammonds should be able to work into the rotation right away.

Kante is Georgia’s second signee of the spring period. Combo guard Teshaun Hightower committed earlier in the year and signed at the beginning of the signing period in April. Hightower is the lone guard in the 2017 class. He’ll have an opportunity to contribute, but much of the backcourt production will have to come from a combination of Jackson, Harris, and Crump. The team will need much more consistent production from that group to come close to replacing what J.J. Frazier brought to the team. Wings Parker, Wilridge, and Diatta will also have to step up on the perimeter.

Lady Dogs add impressive transfer

Joni Taylor has added an interesting transfer from Maryland, 6’6″ center Jenna Staiti. Staiti was the Gatorade State Player of the year for Georgia in 2016 and a national top 20 prospect who was a highlight of Maryland’s top-rated 2016 recruiting class. She was a reserve as a freshman for a loaded Maryland team and will have three years of eligibility at Georgia after sitting out this season. The transfer year could be a boon for Staiti. She’s still relatively new to competitive basketball after starting out as a nationally-ranked swimmer, and her game will benefit from the additional year of development.

It’s tempting to look two years down the road and anticipate a frontcourt that features 6’6″ Staiti, 6’5″ Bianca Blanaru, 6’3″ Malury Bates (an incoming top 100 prospect), and a senior Caliya Robinson at 6’3″. With quality options at center, I’m looking forward to Robinson improving and extending her game as forward. It’s been a while since Georgia has had that kind of depth and size up front, and post play has been a big part of the success at South Carolina and Mississippi State. Georgia is building the roster to compete at that level. The program inked a top ten class for 2017, and Staiti is essentially a 5* prospect to kick off the 2018 class.

Transfers have always been a part of college athletics, but women’s basketball has seen a surge of high-profile players on the move. Tennessee and South Carolina have been beneficiaries in the SEC. UConn is set to add a key transfer. With Staiti, Georgia will have three players on its roster who began their careers in the Pac 12, Big 10, and ACC. But while some schools have improved via transfers, others have been hit hard. North Carolina signed one of the best classes in program history in 2013. All four players were gone within two years. Diamond DeShields has found stardom at Tennessee. Allisha Gray is a national champion at South Carolina. The Tar Heels, reeling from the transfers and the uncertainty of an academic scandal, finished last season under .500. There’s a lot more to say about the positives and negatives of that transfer trend, but for now it’s a good sign that Georgia is a net destination for transfers rather than a source of them.