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Post Georgia adds quarterback Greyson Lambert

Thursday June 4, 2015

What else to do in June but lose our collective heads over the addition of a reserve quarterback? There haven’t been so many “but what does it meeeeeean?” takes since the final scene of Mad Men.

I get it – Georgia’s quarterback situation is as unsettled as it’s been since 2006, and there isn’t a first-round draft pick waiting in the wings (until next season, anyway.) The 2015 starter has been fretted about and over-analyzed since the bowl game ended, and adding another variable at this late hour has only added to the uncertainty. The reaction has ranged from panic to indifference, and it boils down to (in order of least plausible):

  • The QB situation is so dire that Georgia is desperately trolling the graduate transfer pool to find their 2015 starter.
  • Lambert is being brought in as a hedge against another quarterback transferring.
  • Georgia’s just trying to build their quarterback depth – didn’t you see what happened to Ohio State last year?

The first reaction is a byproduct of Georgia not only speaking with Lambert but with Everett Golson also. Why is Georgia so intent on adding a quarterback? What’s wrong with the guys in the system? That leads to the second reaction. Is someone leaving? We’ve all heard the chatter, and we know that the depth chart only gets more crowded next season. But we’re not in the business of pushing people out the door, so we’ll take the roster as-is.

That leaves the depth angle, and it’s where most people seem to be landing. We know Ohio State had to go three deep to win the national title, and their depth was exceptional. Not many (if any) programs have that kind of quarterback depth, and we’re not suggesting that Lambert puts Georgia in that league. But it does give the staff some options, and – for better or worse – he is now the only quarterback on Georgia’s roster with starting experience for a BCS conference program.

Lambert’s transfer gives Georgia six quarterbacks. Lambert joins Park, Bauta, and Ramsey. Sam Vaughn, a one-time Georgetown commitment, walked on and redshirted last season. Georgia will add another walk-on this year in Californian Nick Robinson who had a couple of mid-major offers. Vaughn and Robinson won’t figure into the starting job, but Georgia will have plenty of arms for practice and scout team work. This isn’t 1998. The expectation isn’t that Lambert will leapfrog to the top of the depth chart, nor is there the pressure and need for him to do so. That’s a good thing – Lambert won’t arrive at Georgia until July 13th, and someone showing up less than a month before camp opens shouldn’t be counted on as an immediate contributor.

We’re getting some good insights from the Virginia crowd about what to expect from Lambert. Good size, capable arm, but a tendency for poor decisions that lead to crippling turnovers. He earned the starting job but then lost it – not encouraging for anyone expecting Lambert to grab the UGA starting job. If that’s the bar you’ve set for this transfer or what you think Georgia needs, you’re likely to be disappointed.

That said, the Georgia starting job is still up for grabs, and Lambert will be given as much of a shot as the others. Again, he’s not going to have much time to get up to speed, but all of the quarterbacks are still learning the system of first-year coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

So why Georgia? Though the starting job is nominally open, a newcomer with Lambert’s track record isn’t likely to come in and claim the job in Athens. Lambert also had interest from Florida, though it’s not a given that he’d start there either. He’d be nearly a sure thing to start for an FCS or Sun Belt-level program. There were still a couple of things in Georgia’s favor.

Lambert is a southeast Georgia native who played his high school ball for Wayne County. The message boards are all over reports that his girlfriend attends Georgia. So at the very least, he has his undergraduate degree from Virginia and can earn a graduate degree in two years while finishing out his career much closer to home. But if Lambert wants to make the most of his final two seasons, there’s a history with he and Mark Richt.

Lambert was a 3* prospect in the 2012 class. He had offers from Alabama, Clemson, South Carolina, and, among others, Georgia. The Dawgs eventually went with Faton Bauta in 2012, but there were several factors that made Lambert consider Georgia’s offer. First was the style of offense. “I like all the schools with pro-style offenses,” he said. “Basically, I could see myself playing in that offense.” Second was Georgia’s success developing quarterbacks. “I’m looking at player and quarterback development in all the schools that have offered me and definitely Georgia is right up there at the top, especially with Matthew Stafford going #1 overall in the draft,” he explained.

Richt only strengthened Georgia’s pro-style identity with the addition of Schottenheimer. And if Lambert was frustrated by the Virginia offense and his development there, it makes sense to turn to a coach and a program whose quarterback development Lambert has held in high esteem since he was a prospect. Whether Lambert can flourish and develop under Richt or make a dent in the depth chart is yet to be seen. It would be nice, but it’s not a make-or-break issue for the 2015 season.

What interests me most is that this is one of Schottenheimer’s first public stamps on the program. Even if you accept the coaches’ explanation that they’re satisfied with the rest of the quarterback depth chart, they entertained two graduate transfers and eventually landed one. It’s fairly low-risk; if Lambert doesn’t develop into a starter, he’s another arm in practice for the next two seasons. The only negative outcome would be if this chain of events leads to the departure of someone who wasn’t already halfway out the door. And if Richt and/or Schottenheimer can improve Lambert’s game, all the better for Georgia.


Post Softball fights on

Thursday May 21, 2015

Even with baseball struggling this year, there has been plenty to get out and enjoy during the Athens springtime. Bernie took in tennis, and we spent last weekend down South Milledge at the first-rate Jack Turner Stadium supporting the softball team in their NCAA regional.

The weekend mirrored last season’s Athens regional: Georgia won their opener but fell on the second day, forcing them to play again Saturday night and then win twice on Sunday. Saturday’s loss was a 2-1 14-inning pitcher’s duel against Western Kentucky – the longest game ever played at Georgia’s stadium. The Dawgs survived a nail-biter in Saturday’s elimination game against a powerful UNC team, and the magnificent Alex Hugo’s walk-off home run meant that Georgia would play on.

In order to advance, Georgia had to beat – twice – the pitcher that had stymied them for 14 innings on Saturday. They came out on the attack and built big leads in both games, cruising to a pair of mercy-rule wins by a combined 29-3 score.

Other than the outburst of offense on Sunday, the story of the weekend had to be Georgia pitcher Chelsea Wilkinson. Wilkinson pitched a combined 18 innings on Saturday and came off the bench to earn the win in the nightcap. Georgia’s quick start in the first game on Sunday meant that the Dawgs could rest their ace, but Wilkinson returned to pitch 5 more innings in the complete game shutout that won the regional. Through 23 innings and over 300 pitches, she allowed only four runs and set a career high in strikeouts on Saturday.

So the Dawgs move on to the Super Regionals. They’re up in Ann Arbor to face the #3 national seed Michigan. It will be a big job to advance to the WCWS in Oklahoma City, but this team has the ability to get it done. Games will be Thursday and Friday on the ESPN networks.


Post Our five favorite Gurley moments

Thursday April 30, 2015

It’s Todd Gurley Day around the Bulldog Nation as we wait for the NFL Draft and salute those headed to the next level. These are my top five Gurley memories looking back on a career that seemed to go by as fast as one of his kickoff returns. Have some of your own? Let’s hear them in the comments.

1. The Auburn kickoff
Yes, it was called back. The anticipation for Gurley’s return from suspension was at a fever pitch when Auburn came to town. For a moment, it was right out of a movie script: Gurley’s first touch of the ball in over a month was a 100+ yard kickoff return that sent the frenzied stadium into pandemonium…until we saw the flag. Still, in what would prove to be his final game as a Bulldog, Gurley delivered one of the most electrifying moments I’ve ever seen in Sanford Stadium.

2. His debut: Buffalo 2012

Gurley calls it his favorite game. The true freshman wasted no time introducing himself to the home crowd. Gurley posted three touchdowns, including a kickoff return, and put up 100 yards of rushing on only 8 carries in one of the most spectacular debuts for a Georgia player.


3. Later, Gator

Gurley only played against Florida twice, but only perhaps Jarvis Jones had as much to do with sustaining Georgia’s winning streak. In two games against some very stout Florida defenses, Gurley put up 218 yards rushing and two touchdowns. He added 110 receiving yards and one memorable long touchdown reception. His 2013 performance was especially tough: sitting out several games with an injury took a toll on Gurley’s conditioning, but he had enough in the tank to push Georgia to a 14-0 lead before he was sidelined.


4. 2012 SEC Championship

This great game had so many twists and turns that Gurley’s contribution is easy to forget. He didn’t rip off any long scoring runs or go for 250 yards. What he did do was grind against the nation’s best defense in a de facto national semifinal. Only two teams managed to rush for more than 100 yards against Alabama in 2012. The freshman Gurley went for over 120 yards on his own.

5. Clemson 2014

How could we not mention this game? Gurley was already a household name coming into the 2014 season, but this game took his status from a star to an early-season Heisman favorite. It started with the first half kick return, but Gurley really made jaws drop in the second half when Georgia’s running back depth finally wore down the Clemson defense. He managed 198 yards rushing (on only 15 carries!), finished with a school record 293 all-purpose yards, and accounted for four touchdowns.

Bonus: Tech 2013

Wins over Tech always deserve a little mention, and Gurley accounted for every yard of Georgia offense in overtime. Gurley didn’t have the best numbers in regulation, as Tech’s defense focused on the run and forced first-time starter Hutson Mason to put the game on his shoulders. Gurley was held to 72 yards of rushing in regulation but still had one touchdown rushing and one receiving. He broke through in overtime, scoring in just three plays and then made quick work of the second overtime in a single 25-yard scoring run. He finished the day with 122 rushing yards and four total touchdowns.


Post 2015 NFL Draft prep

Thursday April 30, 2015

The NFL Draft begins tonight, and Todd Gurley should break a couple of droughts. Not only should he be Georgia’s first first-round selection since 2013; he’s likely to be the first running back selected in the first round since 2012.

The Dawgs only had two players selected last year, and they should fare a little better this year. There’s still only one certain high draft pick (Gurley), but Georgia stands a good chance of having three or four players called before it’s all over. Any more than four would be a pleasant surprise, but late round selections can be unpredictable. Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd deciding to remain in school made Georgia’s draft class smaller than it would have otherwise been, and that’s great news for the 2015 Bulldog team.

Marc Weiszer has a look at what’s expected to happen for Georgia’s NFL hopefuls once Gurley is off the board. In all, about nine or ten Dawgs could be drafted or at least sign a free agent deal that will earn them a trip to an NFL camp and a chance to make a roster.

  • C David Andrews
  • WR Chris Conley
  • DE Ray Drew
  • RB Todd Gurley
  • LB Amarlo Herrera
  • QB Hutson Mason
  • S Corey Moore
  • CB Damian Swann
  • DT Mike Thornton
  • LB Ramik Wilson

Todd Gurley is rocketing up many draft boards, and why wouldn’t he? The only question about him is the knee, and that recovery seems to be going just fine. I admit that I’m surprised to see him in some top 10s, and he’s nearly a consensus first round pick. It’s not that he’s not one of the best running backs in the draft. It’s just that spending such a high pick on Gurley would buck the trend. “In the past two years, a running back hasn’t been taken in the first round,” notes Dan Kadar. With so much emphasis on quarterbacks and the line of scrimmage in the NFL, running backs have become more or less interchangeable parts with a shelf life of 4-5 years. Kadar again: “Only one of the top 10 rushers in the NFL (in 2014) was a first-round pick.” That’s a relatively low payoff for such a valuable first round pick.

Whoever drafts Gurley will end up with a fantastic player with all of the tools to become and NFL star. It says a lot about his potential and ability that it’s a foregone conclusion that an NFL team will spend an unconventional first round pick on a running back only months removed from a major knee injury.

Few players made as much noise at the NFL combine as Chris Conley. Conley’s long been a Georgia fan favorite, and he’s become well-known as a Renaissance man in the classroom and of course behind the camera. But the combine was a reminder that Conley can play a little football as well, and he should hear his name during the draft.

Conley’s likely draft position is uncertain; Kiper has him anywhere from the second to the fifth round. One reason for that wide spread is the depth of the receivers in this year’s draft. At least six players (Amari Cooper, Kevin White, DeVante Parker, Breshad Perriman, Jaelen Strong, and Nelson Agholor) are possible first round selections, and Conley probably won’t jump any of them. Where these receivers end up will be one of the more interesting subplots of the draft. Cooper could go as high as third, triggering a run on the position. Then again, teams might pass on using a first round pick on a receiver and feel confident about getting a good value with a later selection. How soon this deep pool of receivers is exhausted will play into where Conley is drafted. If there’s an early run, he might be one of the best receivers left in the second or third round. If teams put off drafting receivers, it could take several rounds before Conley is the top receiver on the board.

Ray Drew was the lynchpin of Georgia’s 2011 signing class. After several position changes, a slew of new position coaches, and some nagging injuries, a healthy Drew finally began to come into his own as a senior. Drew was magnificent against Tech and played well for most of the back end of the 2014 season. It’s unfortunate for Georgia that Drew leaves just as things were starting to click, but that’s potentially good news for his NFL hopes. He has the ability to be a very good defensive end at the next level, and now it’s just a question of finding the right opportunity.


Post The IPF location of the day

Thursday April 30, 2015

It’s become a bit like deciding where to place a sofa in the living room, but yet another location has emerged as the favored spot for the indoor practice facility. Speaking in Albany on Tuesday, athletic director Greg McGarity hinted that the facility might now be built on the upper grass practice fields adjacent to the Butts-Mehre building. McGarity noted that this location was the preferred choice “back in 1999 and 2000” when the idea was originally discussed. It would allow easy access from the football offices, locker room, and training facilities.

Mark Richt has been outspoken about his desire to avoid a location to which the team would have to bus, and that was the huge negative about a facility at the expansive South Milledge complex. The Hoke Smith complex emerged as a location that would be within walking distance but would also preserve the existing practice fields, but it would also require the relocation of academic services and the Cooperative Extension Service. McGarity stated that “we’re probably not going in that direction right now.”

The new location isn’t without its own compromises. McGarity has said in the past that “we don’t want to disturb that environment” of “the first-class practice facility we have here with two grass fields and two turf fields.” But building on those grass fields would leave the Bulldogs without a way to practice in the conditions they’re most likely to face during the season: outdoors on grass.

So if the IPF winds up replacing the grass practice fields, the question becomes whether or not those fields will be relocated elsewhere. The idea of converting one of the turf fields to grass seems plausible, but Georgia just spent $3 million on a project that included rehabilitating those turf fields. (But what’s $3 million between friends?) It might turn out that areas considered for the IPF (such as the Hoke Smith parking lot) end up as grass practice fields instead.

Blutarsky has a good observation: if the budget of $30 million doesn’t include relocation costs for the Hoke Smith buildings, that’s one heck of a price tag for just the facility. Of course there would be some expense involved with reconfiguring the site to get the most use out of the space (and possibly add more grass fields), but that’s still an impressive figure. If you look at comparable projects (Michigan) (Texas A&M), you see that the facilities included a lot of extras that were already addressed in the recent $40 million Butts-Mehre expansion.

To give you an idea of what $30 might get you, have a look at the Coliseum Training Facility behind Stegeman Coliseum. When it opened in 2007 at a cost of $30 million, it contained practice gyms, offices, locker rooms, and meeting space for three of Georgia’s major athletics programs. Eight years later, it’s still one of the best facilities of its kind in the nation. If that’s the bar set for the IPF, it should prove to be a very impressive showpiece for the football program.

The speculation should wind down soon: the athletic board will meet towards the end of May, and it’s likely that a site will be proposed and approved. The program hopes to begin construction as soon as the 2015 season (and postseason) wraps up, and the IPF should be ready in time for the 2016 season. With that timetable, decisions will need to be made soon, and the biggest decision – the location – could come within a month.


Post IPF timetable taking shape

Friday April 24, 2015

Construction could begin on Georgia’s indoor practice facility as soon as January and be ready in time for the 2016 football season. Speaking at UGA Day in Rome last night, UGA president Jere Morehead discussed a possible timetable for the facility. They don’t want construction to disrupt the 2015 season, and there’s still a ways to go before all of the necessary approvals, site selection, and design work are ready.

We’ve had a look at where the $30 million facility might go, and a location somewhere adjacent to or including the current practice fields still seems to be the preferred option. We can see how construction in that area would affect football practice. There will still be some compromise: a project of that magnitude beginning in January will surely have a significant impact on events and parking at Stegeman Colisuem, Foley Field, and elsewhere inside the Vince Dooley Athletic Complex.

We should learn more after the May athletic board meeting.


Post UGA-GT hoops game gets a later date

Friday April 24, 2015

For all of the success that Mark Fox has started to bring to the Georgia basketball program, the start of the season remains a thorn in the program’s side. November in particular has been unpleasant, and nothing illustrates that frustration better than the current four-game losing streak to Georgia Tech. Fox’s teams have been a combined 24-25 in November games or in games up through the Tech game. The program is 11-18 in those games during the past four seasons.

Of course there are always mitigating factors. Kenny Gaines started the past season recovering from an illness that had wiped him out. November usually features a holiday tournament with some fair-to-exceptional competition, so these losses aren’t coming (for the most part) against RPI killers. The Dawgs usually find their wind, and this season’s unbeaten December after a 3-3 start helped to launch the team into the NCAA Tournament.

Righting the Tech rivalry on the home Stegeman Coliseum court should be an important milestone in next season’s quest for a consecutive NCAA Tournament bid. To that end, next season’s game won’t take place until December 19th. Of course there’s nothing magical about the date. The Dawgs have lost to Tech in both November and December during the current losing streak. But it should at least give the Dawgs an opportunity to overcome any preseason issues and acclimate a new frontcourt before this very important nonconference game.

The last time Tech and Georgia played that late in the season was in January 2010 when Mark Fox’s first Georgia team upset a Tech team ranked #17 at the time. More significant than the date though is the coach: Tech’s Brian Gregory hasn’t taken a team to the postseason in his four seasons, but he’s a perfect 4-0 against Georgia. The Dawgs should have the roster, the home court, and now the favorable schedule to end that streak.


Post Joni Crenshaw introduced as new Lady Dogs head coach

Thursday April 16, 2015

After what athletic director Greg McGarity called a “national search,” he only had to look down the hall to find Andy Landers’ successor. Associate head coach Joni Crenshaw, a four-year member of the Lady Bulldogs staff, has been promoted to head coach.

At 36, Crenshaw is a grizzled veteran compared to when Andy Landers took the job at age 26. Crenshaw played her college ball at Alabama and has spent time as a key assistant and successful recruiter at, among other places, Alabama and LSU. She’s been with Georgia four seasons and was quickly promoted to associate head coach. She understands the standards set for the program and said that Georgia has the “resources, facilities, and support to do things on a national level.” Competing on a national level is exactly what’s expected of her.

For those who have been around the program during the past four seasons, this is a popular hire. Joni is well-liked, sharp, engaging, and exactly the energetic woman you’d want as the face of a program. She’s been impressive and a fan favorite breaking down opponents during the pregame “chalk talk” with boosters. She’s made many friends in Athens in her brief time at Georgia, and she has the relationships with other coaches and the media that you’d expect of the recruiting coordinator of a major program. We’ve heard that a bloc of Lady Dogs alumni were squarely in Crenshaw’s corner, and that’s a significant endorsement.

With that popularity in mind, it’s difficult to get an objective read on the promotion. Everyone is thrilled for her, and they should be. This is a tremendous opportunity and payoff for someone who has worked hard towards this moment. Both McGarity and Landers praised her “character” and “deep-rooted values and morals,” and those have become important traits for this program. Crenshaw called Georgia basketball a “people program,” and she has the personal foundation to keep it that way. Georgia fans can be confident that the emphasis on doing things the right way from the gym to the classroom will continue under Crenshaw.

The message implied by this promotion though is that the program was in good shape. Deputy athletic director and Lady Bulldog alum Carla Williams, a point person in the coaching search, said plainly, “The program’s not broken.” Andy Landers put things differently when he retired. “We weren’t doing what we built this thing to do,” he concluded.

True, a program two years removed from the Elite Eight isn’t a flaming wreck. If things were that bad, it would have been much easier to take action. What happened at Georgia was more gradual and prone to rationalization. Georgia hasn’t been to the Final Four since 1999, but they still made the tournament and occasionally advanced to the regionals. They didn’t have All-Americans but still had several quality all-conference candidates and occasionally had a WNBA draft pick. Georgia went from a title contender to, as Landers put it, “trying to figure out what we had to do to win a four-seed in the SEC.” Many teams would be happy with a fourth-place SEC finish, but it wasn’t what Landers had built and worked for. For better or worse, Crenshaw has been a part of that. It might be a positive that she’s had a front row seat to identify some of the issues, but she’ll also have the challenge of untangling herself from the inertia that led to the gradual decline of the program.

Some of that decline came in recruiting, and Crenshaw was brought on board in part to help shore up recruiting. She contributed to top 10 classes at both Alabama and LSU, but it’s been a while since Georgia has had a class like that. There has been some progress: the Lady Dogs signed two top-100 players a year ago and have another on the way in 2015. Still, Georgia has been on the outside looking in for some elite prospects in the state and region, and one of Crenshaw’s first tasks should be to reevaluate and rework the recruiting process in which she has played a major role.

To her credit, Crenshaw didn’t waste much time addressing one of the biggest recruiting deficiencies. “I want to talk directly to recruits in the state of Georgia,” she said in her opening statement. “You are our first priority.” With that stake in the ground, it will be interesting to see what actions take place beyond what the program was already doing. At the very least, there’s one opening on the staff with possibly more to come *. Crenshaw will have an early opportunity to make this a stronger staff and begin the tough job of marketing Georgia against some very stout competition.

* Though Crenshaw’s future husband is an accomplished assistant coach for a successful South Carolina program, do not expect him to join Georgia’s staff. Williams said such a possibility “wasn’t even asked about,” citing Georgia’s nepotism laws.

Promoting a program’s top assistant isn’t uncommon, but it’s often tough to follow a legend. Holly Warlick has managed several SEC regular season and tournament titles since replacing Pat Summitt, but even Warlick has faced criticism for a lack of Final Fours and national titles. Georgia has gone down this path several times whether it was with Ray Goff or Ron Jirsa or Jay Clark. While it’s unfair to project those results on Crenshaw, that’s the lens through which many Georgia fans will view this hire.

Crenshaw’s cultural fit is outstanding, and she has over a decade in the business to qualify her for the job. Whether she was the best candidate available or considered is another question with less clear answers. We don’t know who else was interviewed or even offered the job, though Williams confirmed that Georgia spoke with candidates participating in the Final Four. Notre Dame’s Niele Ivey was rumored to be a top candidate as well as Connecticut’s Shea Ralph and a couple of successful mid-major head coaches.

I really hope that this process didn’t come down to money. We’ve been through this with the football program, and the stinginess of the athletic department is a favorite hobby horse of Georgia bloggers. It was unlikely that Georgia was going to throw Dawn Staley money around and make that kind of a high-profile statement, though a major commitment to restore one of Georgia’s most successful programs wouldn’t have been beyond the pale. It would be more troubling though to learn that Georgia’s offer wasn’t even enough to attract assistant coaches from top programs, let alone successful head coaches.

It does Crenshaw no favors to compare her against hypothetical candidates. She was the best choice for the deal Georgia was willing to offer. It’s enough that she’ll be measured against the standards set by her predecessor. She’s correct that Georgia’s coach will have the “resources, facilities, and support” to get the job done in a state full of good basketball talent. Georgia’s returning roster is good enough to get her head coaching career off to a positive start, and a little early success will go a long way to raise her profile.


Post Andy Landers steps down after 36 seasons

Thursday March 19, 2015

I might as well start here: I wouldn’t have met my wife had Andy Landers not given her a graduate assistantship. My reaction to his unexpected retirement on Monday isn’t going to be very impartial. So it’s been with much of the reaction I’ve seen this week – everyone has a story, a connection, or a personal memory.

As we reflect on Landers’ career, the relationships rise to the top. He has such a magnetic and ebullient personality that it’s impossible to start with anything other than the relationships. When you’re reading things like this from the media that covered the team, let alone the players he coached, you begin to get a sense of the presence that Landers developed in his 36 years in Athens.

For me, though, the relationships came later. The Red & Black writes that “Andy Landers will be remembered by his legacy as a leader and a man, not as just a coach. That’s true, and it’s the kind of sentiment you naturally turn to in these eulogistic pieces, but the “just a coach” part was what got me to follow the program.

He could coach. That seems silly to write about a guy pushing 900 wins, but it’s easy to get caught up in the caricature of Landers as the folksy cow farmer with the scowl on the court and the wry sense of humor off the court. He built his empire of over 850 wins, 20 Sweet Sixteens, 11 Elite Eights, five Final Fours, and two national title games by developing, teaching, and demanding that his teams play an uncomprimising style of basketball. His well-known tirades weren’t random outbursts; they were the consequences of falling short of the expectations of Georgia basketball. Landers knew when his players were capable of more, and almost always they were.

Basketball is what drew me to follow the team, and an appreciation of the game played and coached at a high level earned my respect long before I met the coach. I was hooked during the SEC Tournament run in 1993 when longshot Georgia knocked off highly-ranked Tennessee and Alabama on consecutive days to reach the finals. I was fortunate to be there during the march to the Final Four in 1995. I’ve seen the heartbreak in 2004 and 2013 when teams worthy of the Final Four came up just a possession short. Before you even get to know about the man on the sideline, this was a fun brand of basketball to watch and be around. For a basketball fan at Georgia looking for a taste of success, the men’s program was a perpetual tease. Landers delivered.

Two things stand out to me about Landers’ teams at their best: guard play and relentless pressure defense. I don’t mean to short the great forwards and posts to come through the program: Harris and McClain of course, Henderson, Thomas, Robinson, Humphrey, and others I could spend the rest of this post listing. But special guards became the hallmark of the program. It starts with Edwards. Roundtree and Holland were outstanding in the mid-90s. They were followed by the amazing backcourt of Nolan and the Miller twins. Sherill Baker was one of the best defenders you’ll ever see. Even towards the end, Houts and James developed into the backbones of their teams.

These guards and athletic forwards were essential not only for their scoring and floor leadership but also for executing Georgia’s press defense. The press went hand-in-hand with a tight man-to-man approach. Georgia’s bread-and-butter press was the 2-2-1 described here. As Landers noted, the press was an effective counter that made Georgia a difficult opponent. “Because most teams do not press, we do. By pressing, we upset offensive tempo, create excellent scoring opportunities, and win on off-nights.”

That formula worked for most of Landers’ career. With his best teams it was devastating, and his other teams could gain an advantage that helped them “win on off-nights” and pull some memorable upsets. So what’s changed? First, Landers’ observation that “most teams do not press” isn’t the case anymore. Enough teams run variants of press defenses either in their halfcourt defense or as a full-court press that it’s not an exotic experience to see pressure. Presses can be and are still effective even when you prepare for them, but it’s something teams face more often than not now in games and in their own practices.

The second change has to do with the roster. For several years Georgia has lacked the depth and the talent to run their preferred press, often falling back into a 2-3 zone in the halfcourt. Landers’ attention to defensive fundamentals has made Georgia a capable defensive team even in the leanest years. The difference has been the team’s ability to “create excellent scoring opportunities” as Landers described in his rationale for running the press. A team playing even an active 2-3 zone isn’t going to create the same turnovers and transition chances that you’ll get from full-court pressure. When your team thrives on those transition points, and especially when you struggle to generate points from your own halfcourt offense, getting away from the press is going to affect wins and losses.

We dug into the talent issue back in 2009, and many of the same points still apply. Georgia isn’t recruiting at the level it once did, and that’s limited what Landers has been able to do using the strategies that led to so much success. When he said that the past few seasons have been about “trying to figure out what we had to do to win a four-seed in the SEC,” it’s a by-product of recruiting. Elite talent has gradually given way to above-average talent that’s been good enough to make the NCAA Tournament and compete for a top-four SEC finish. It hasn’t been good enough to compete for titles at the national or even conference level, and that was the vision Landers had for the program. “We weren’t doing what we built this thing to do, and that responsibility is mine,” he admitted. I give him tremendous credit for that admission. Many people with the accomplishments and accolades that he’s earned have enough of an ego and enough sycophants around them that the situation can be rationalized. As Landers put it, he tried to spin the situation as human nature leads us to do, but it wouldn’t spin.

Though the ultimate responsibility does lie with Landers, it’s worth peeling back a few layers. We’ve used the 2003 departure of assistant and recruiting coordinator Michael Shafer as a dividing line. Georgia hasn’t appeared in a Final Four or won an SEC title since. That has less to do with Shafer than it does with the management of the program. Georgia has had difficulty finding and then retaining assistants who can perform at the level you’d expect of a national contender. It’s affected both recruiting and player development. Georgia’s current staff has been together about three years now, and that’s long enough to just start gaining traction after so much ground had been lost.

(A related thought: When you look at successful programs, a great head coach is often supported by at least one long-term assistant who’s as highly regarded among assistants as the head coach is among his or her peers. Every staff has turnover, but how many top programs have that one key experienced associate coach? Chris Dailey at UConn. Holly Warlick at Tennessee under Summitt. Nikki McCray-Penson at South Carolina. Amy Tucker at Stanford. Vic Schaefer at Texas A&M during their national title run. Carol Owens at Notre Dame. Bob Starkey at LSU. Georgia simply hasn’t had anyone in that league. As Georgia’s assistants have struggled with inexperience and a lack of continuity, Landers had to be much more hands on, and even the best coach can’t do it without a strong staff.)

To use Landers’ phrase, it shows how “spoiled” we’ve become to dissect a perennial NCAA Tournament program like this. But it was his vision and legacy that the program would have higher standards, and no one recognized the state of the program better than the man who built it. He didn’t need the athletic director or any of us to tell him that things had slipped from the expectations he had set. He just reached a point where he didn’t see a way back under his leadership.

It’s going to be tough going for Landers’ successor. There’s the whole following a legend thing, but there are more concrete concerns first. While the program won’t be starting from rock-bottom, any new coach will have to deal with the inertia of a very established culture. He or she won’t have to start from scratch teaching the expectations of winning or hard work, but there are bound to be conflicts against the inertia of a 30+ year way of doing things. Georgia has a capable group of rising seniors, and getting buy-in from that leadership from the start will go a long way for the sake of continuity.

Recruiting will be what makes or breaks the new coach, and he or she can have immediate success by improving Georgia’s in-state recruiting. The number of top prospects leaving the state is too long to list, and with powerful programs nearby at Tennessee and South Carolina, it will be a big but necessary job making Athens a destination for Georgia’s best. For the right coach, the Georgia position has much to offer: a talent-rich home state, a high-profile and competitive conference, an established and supportive fan base, outstanding facilities and resources, and the deep pockets of a successful SEC program. The tools are in place for a capable coach to attract (or keep home) the kind of talent it will take to reestablish Georgia as an SEC contender.

Those deep pockets will be put to as much of a test with this hire as they were during the football offseason. This isn’t the athletic department of 1994 when it took the threat of a lawsuit to properly pay its women’s coaches, but Landers still wasn’t on the cutting edge of compensation. Attracting a quality head coach and assembling the type of staff we described above will likely cost more than it did to retain the outgoing Hall of Fame coach. The wallet opened up for the football program after the 2014 season, and it will be interesting to see how aggressive the offer is to find Landers’ successor. South Carolina famously caused a stir when they offered Dawn Staley $650,000 in 2008, but that risk has paid off with a top 5 program.

I have no idea in which direction Georgia will or should go. There’s the sentimental instinct to look for someone with ties to Landers. Do you look outside the program for a fresh approach? Do you look for another young coach out of relative obscurity with the possibility of another decades-long run, or do you look for the security of an established veteran? When Andy Landers has been the only coach the program has known, there just isn’t a precedent to follow.

It’s been a sad few days reflecting on this inevitable transition. With any change though there’s the excitement and optimism that a new direction is the answer. Lady Dogs fans can look to the legacy of Andy Landers to know what’s possible at Georgia, but that same legacy will set some high expectations for the next coach. With a solid returning roster, some key pieces working back from injury, and some talented incoming freshmen, the opportunity is there for an immediate impact.


Post Visualizing the indoor practice facility

Tuesday March 10, 2015

We learned last month that the athletic department is going forward with an indoor practice facility (IPF).

Greg McGarity put out some information on Monday that talked a bit about the process (and why news to this point has been short on specifics.) More interesting is a series of renderings showing how an IPF might look in various locations around the current practice fields.

One thing to note is that the IPF won’t look exactly like the building you see, so don’t get hung up on the design. They’re using a generic facility to show how a building of similar size will sit in these locations. “Please understand the focus on these renderings centers only on the MASS of the facility in specific areas,” McGarity explained. “Architectural design will be developed as the process continues.”

The renderings make clear the tradeoffs in picking the location. It’s tight quarters. Some combination of existing buildings, existing practice fields, campus streets, and parking will be affected. While the perspective of the renderings make it tough to pinpoint the exact locations, we see several distinct locations under consideration.

  • Some of the renderings lie in part of what we’ll call the “Hoke Smith Block” bordered by Lumpkin St., Carlton St., Sanford Dr., and Smith St. We’re shown versions that are aligned east-west as well as north-south. The north-south orientation cuts off Smith St. and replaces the smaller turf practice field below the track. The east-west version brings the facility closer to Stegeman Coliseum.
  • Other configurations show the facility on the footprint of either a full-length turf or grass practice field. McGarity has insisted for several years that “we don’t want to disturb that environment” of “the first-class practice facility we have here with two grass fields and two turf fields.”
  • At the same time, we’ve come a long way in a year. In December 2013, McGarity seemed resigned to the idea that “it’s gotta probably be out on South Milledge.” We know now that the focus is now much closer to the existing complex. Has McGarity’s stance on sacrificing a practice field changed as well? After all, is an outdoor turf field much different than an indoor one?
  • Another possibility shows the facility placed in the area surrounded by Foley Field’s left field wall, the tennis complex, the Carlton St. parking deck, and the Rankin Smith Center.

Since we’re still in the proposal phase, it’s not worth spending time on the pros and cons of each location or guessing which is most likely. Each location shown will have some impact either on current football facilities or on campus infrastructure (or both).


Post 9th Annual SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 4, 2015

The SEC women break the Nashville/Duluth cycle this year and head west to Arkansas this week for their 2015 tournament. North Little Rock has hosted the tournament three times already, most recently in 2009. While there is a clear favorite this season, the battle to make it to Saturday and beyond is a toss-up.

At the top of the standings, it’s been pretty much as expected. South Carolina and Tennessee finished with a single conference loss each, and no one would be surprised to see them square off for the championship. There have been some interesting developments in the next tier of teams. Mississippi State has been a great story. LSU could be considered a bit of a surprise as well after disappointing nonconference results. Texas A&M and Kentucky are used to finishing a little higher than they did, and each has been vulnerable. With so much SEC Tournament experience between those two teams, you almost expect one of them to make a little noise from the 5 and 6 seeds.

The bottom of the field has also seen some shifting. A slew of midseason injuries left Georgia, once comfortably among the top third of the league, fighting just to avoid the ignominy of playing on Wednesday. Missouri put together a run and a couple of upsets at the end of the season to merit the 7 seed. Vanderbilt has had a season below their standards while Ole Miss took a nice step forward. Alabama and Auburn rose to the middle of the pack last season but have returned to the bottom.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: #10 Georgia vs. #7 Missouri: 7 pm ET. SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. #2 Tennessee: 7 pm ET. SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: 7:30 pm ET. ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 3:30 p.m. ET. ESPN
Complete Bracket Here

The Field

1) South Carolina (15-1): If last season’s SEC regular season championship announced the arrival of Dawn Staley’s program, this year’s campaign showed the conference that the Gamecocks liked it at the top. The next step for Staley? An SEC Tournament title. Despite the regular season crown in 2014, South Carolina fell in the semifinals and didn’t play for the tournament title. They’ve been the league’s most dominant team all season, though recent challenges from Tennessee and Kentucky shows that the champs have plenty of work to do before they’re crowned in Little Rock. They won’t have to face either of those teams until the championship game on Sunday.

As with any champion, the Gamecocks are talented, well-coached, and confident. There’s a slew of experienced players returning starting with All-American guard Tiffany Mitchell. Senior forward Aleighsa Welch is the team’s leader and sets the tone with an incredible work rate around the basket. A stellar freshman class including forward A’ja Wilson and lightning-quick point guard Bianca Cuevas has elevated the team to contend for the national title.

2) Tennessee (15-1, 23-4): While South Carolina deservedly enters the tournament as the favorite, how can you overlook the team that’s won four of the last five tournaments? Tennessee has dropped three games outside of the league to very good opponents, but they’ve only fallen once in conference play: a very competitive loss at South Carolina that went down to the final possession. Tennessee still thrives on relentless defense and aggressive rebounding, and that will do against most teams.

The Lady Vols took a big hit recently when center Isabelle Harrison was lost for the season, but the team showed at South Carolina that they can still be dangerous without her. There’s still a tremendous amount of talent, and forwards Cierra Burdick and Bashaara Graves can step up in place of Harrison. Ariel Massengale and Andraya Carter lead a veteran backcourt. Tennessee doesn’t go that deep, so they’ll need big production across the starting five to repeat as tournament champions.

3) Mississippi St (11-5, 26-5): No team has made a bigger jump this season. MSU has improved from 13th a year ago to third under third-year coach Vic Schaefer. They raced out to an 18-0 start against a typically weak schedule, but they’ve held it together in conference play. Their 11 SEC wins and 26 overall wins are both program records. If a loss at Vanderbilt can ever be considered a bad loss, that’s their only blemish. MSU has knocked off three teams ranked at the time – Georgia, West Virginia, and Texas A&M. They’ve yet to claim a top 10 scalp, though they went to two overtimes against Kentucky. With the Wildcats their likely Friday opponent, that rematch could be one of the more entertaining quarterfinal games.

The Bulldogs can shoot, hitting more three-pointers than anyone but Missouri. But they succeed by doing the little things well: they’re near the top of the league in rebounding, free throw percentage, and blocks. Martha Alwal remains one of the league’s most well-rounded post players, but she’s had some help this year from freshman wing Victoria Vivians. There’s a deep and experienced pool of guards that make it difficult to key on the posts or on any one shooter.

4) LSU (10-6, 16-12): Heading into conference play, the Tigers were a flat 6-6 with some head-scratching losses. An early-season suspension for leading scorer Danielle Ballard turned LSU into a very ordinary team. Ballard returned soon after the SEC schedule started, and the Tigers have rebounded to become a contender for an NCAA bid despite their overall record. They have impressive wins against Kentucky and Mississippi State, but some inconsistency down the stretch is troubling. They beat a short-handed Texas A&M team to close the season, but that win snapped a streak of three losses in four games including an ugly loss at Arkansas. The Tigers are guard-focused with Ballard and Raigyne Moncrief carrying most of the load. If they can get addtional outside production from DaShawn Harden or any inside production, it’s a bonus. The win against A&M earned them the double-bye, and they’ll likely have to face the Aggies again to make the semifinals.

5) Texas A&M (10-6, 22-8): It’s a familiar place for A&M: they’re not at the top of the standings, but they’re comfortably among the next group. The Aggies weren’t competitive with Tennessee or South Carolina but have an additional three losses by a combined 6 points. They lost point guard Jordan Jones for the season last week against Missouri, and they’ve dropped two straight games without her. A&M is the anti-Missouri, attempting few outside shots, and they depend on that point guard position for penetration and passing inside the arc. Jones is also one of the league’s top defenders. The absence of Jones likely won’t cost them in their first game, but Friday’s game would be a rematch against LSU – a team that just beat the Aggies by 17 on Sunday.

6) Kentucky (10-6, 21-8): The Cats have been highly-ranked all season, but they’ve found it tough to stay near the top of the SEC. They missed a chance to upset Tennessee in Lexington, and there’s no shame in any of their losses. They also have an impressive set of wins over ranked teams, and they captured the biggest win of the season with a Senior Day upset of South Carolina. Their frenetic defense and pace is enough to give them a chance against any opponent. They took a graduation hit in the frontcourt, but a strong senior class led by guard Jennifer O’Neill has plenty of postseason experience. Kentucky was able to knock off top-seeded South Carolina in the tournament last season, and Sunday’s upset of the Gamecocks was a reminder that even the 6-seed could make a deep run in this tournament.

7) Missouri (7-9, 17-12): Three! No SEC team is more dependent on the three-pointer. They don’t shoot the league’s best percentage, but no other team attempts or makes more than the Tigers. When they’re falling, they’re able to beat Texas A&M in College Station. They’ve had some success against the bottom of the conference (not to mention the upset of A&M), but the more talented teams of the league have been able to match up against their guards. Mizzou has been hot down the stretch, winning five of their last six games, so an appearance in the quarterfinals isn’t out of the question.

8) Ole Miss (7-9, 17-12): Their in-state rivals might be the SEC’s most improved team, but the Rebels aren’t far behind. In three seasons, Ole Miss has gone from the disgrace of postseason ineligibility to a last-place finish a year ago to a very respectable middle-of-the-pack result in 2015. It hasn’t been smooth sailing: they started SEC play 4-1 but lost seven straight before righting the ship. They’ve knocked off Georgia, Arkansas, LSU, and Kentucky in Oxford but haven’t done much of note away from home – always a concern for the postseason. Forward Tia Faleru is the league’s best rebounder.

9) Arkansas (6-10, 16-12): When you’re (re)building a program, you want to see a team that’s improved over the course of the season. That’s what you’ve got with Arkansas. The Hogs started out 1-6 in the SEC under first-year coach Jimmy Dykes, but they won five of seven games to get back into the discussion for an NCAA bid. A rout of red-hot LSU shows that this is a team to avoid in your bracket.

10) Georgia (6-10, 18-11): On January 22nd, the Lady Dogs pulled off a mild upset of #10 Texas A&M. It was a low-scoring, defensive battle – the formula that had worked to propel them to a 5-2 SEC record, 17-3 overall. Georgia then dropped a competitive game at Tennessee, but it was the loss of the team’s best scorer and defender, Shacobia Barbee, that changed the season. The tight games that had gone Georgia’s way became close losses, and a litany of injuries piled up as Georgia dropped eight straight and went winless in February. Georgia’s young players have made progress since the injuries afforded more playing time, and they were able to break the losing streak in the season finale at Florida. Georgia’s 20-year NCAA Tournament streak seems to be over, and they’ll have to make do in a spoiler role here.

Georgia’s been led by the backcourt in the past few seasons, but that’s changed a little this year especially without Barbee in the lineup. Merritt Hempe has continued to improve at center, and her return will help the team. Senior forward Krista Donald continues to be a warrior, and All-SEC freshman Mackenzie Engram has been a nice addition. Halle Washington has stepped up in Hempe’s absence.

Guards have struggled with consistency, and it starts with the point guard spot. Freshman Haley Clark has earned more and more playing time and a couple of starts down the stretch, but it’s been tough when so much of the offense runs through the point. Tiaria Griffin, Erika Ford, and transfer Pachis Roberts are all capable of big nights but are just as likely to be ice-cold. Fortunately their defense has been more consistent, but that defense has had little margin for error as the team has struggled to score.

11) Vanderbilt (5-11, 14-15): It’s the dreaded rebuilding year for Vandy. They’ve retooled with a taller but very inexperienced lineup that’s taking its lumps. That doesn’t mean they’re toothless: Vandy has knocked off Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Arkansas and could be a dangerous first or second round opponent. But as an inexperienced team, they’re just as likely to bow out on the first night.

12) Florida (5-11, 13-16): A year after squeaking into the NCAA Tournament, Florida has taken a step back. Florida was unspectacular in nonconference play, and their best conference win was a comeback in Athens during the Georgia collapse. The Gators feature their guards, but consistency, depth, and frontcourt production have been problems.

13) Auburn (3-13, 12-17): A dismal season got even worse after a midseason brawl with rival Alabama. The fallout from the brawl led to the dismissal of leading scorer Hasina Muhammad, and the Tigers seemed headed to a winless SEC season. They turned some heads with a comeback and near-upset against Ole Miss, and they finally broke through into the win column with a win at Georgia and closed the regular season with three straight wins. Guard Brandy Montgomery has stepped up, and the team’s pressure defense can be maddening. They’re not a sure one-and-done team at this tournament.

14) Alabama (2-14, 13-18): The Tide have lost quite a bit of ground from their surprising 7-9 campaign a year ago. Narrow wins over Auburn and Missouri are all that separate Alabama from a winless season, and the upsets that got them to seven wins in 2014 didn’t happen this year.


Post UGA and UNC to open the 2016 season in Atlanta

Friday February 20, 2015

Georgia and North Carolina will open the 2016 season in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome on September 3, 2016.

It’s been a long time coming. Georgia and Carolina have played 30 times with Georgia holding a 16-12-2 advantage. Outside of current SEC members, only Georgia Tech and Clemson have been more frequent Georgia opponents. In fact, the Dawgs have faced North Carolina more times than they’ve faced four SEC West schools. But the Dawgs and Tar Heels haven’t met since the 1971 Gator Bowl when brothers Vince and Bill Dooley squared off in a 7-3 Georgia win.

Rekindling the series has come up several times in the 40+ years since, most recently in 2009 when talks were underway for the 2010 and 2011 Kickoff Classics. UNC ended up playing LSU in 2010, and of course Georgia opened with Boise State in 2011.

Personally, this is the best matchup I could ask for – the team I grew up supporting against my alma mater. My only quibble is that this was a missed opportunity for a series. The history between the two programs is there. Athens and Chapel Hill are iconic college towns with two top public Southern universities. The stadiums even share a common heritage. Kenan Stadium isn’t huge, but its picturesque setting among the pines is worth visiting. It was built by T.C. Atwood who then designed our own Sanford Stadium. I’ve said my peace before about giving up home games for neutral sites, but it especially applies for these two teams: fans of both schools are giving up the chance to visit another classic college town and stadium in order to close down a soon-to-be abandoned dome in downtown Atlanta.

I get why a home-and-home would have been tough to do. Georgia is headed to South Bend in 2017, so the return trip wouldn’t happen any time soon. The neutral site game gets us off the hook at the cost of a 2016 home game against a lesser opponent. Neutral site games also charge a premium for tickets, so there will be a minor financial windfall. Georgia received $1.7 million for the 2011 game against Boise State, so we’d expect at least $2 million this time around. Those 2011 tickets were $55 – higher than a $40 home game but still towards the low end of neutral site games.

If this is the only way to make a game between UGA and UNC happen, so be it. I hope it’s a starting point to consider an on-campus series in the future.


Post A possible indoor facility compromise – at what cost?

Tuesday February 17, 2015

Discussion of Georgia’s eventual indoor practice facility (IPF) has always come back to this tough choice: do you sacrifice existing outdoor practice fields for the on-campus location, or do you sacrifice convenience to build exactly what you want out on South Milledge Ave?

Seth Emerson, previewing a Tuesday Athletic Board meeting at which an IPF will be on the agenda, suggests that another location has emerged as a possible compromise that provides both a convenient location and a way to retain the outdoor fields. This location though raises another set of concerns. Emerson writes:

…one site has emerged as a possibility: The area just beyond the existing outdoor practice fields, off of Lumpkin Street, leading up to Stegeman Coliseum.

Other locations had not been ruled out as of last month: An off-campus area off Milledge Avenue, or tearing up one of the existing outdoor fields and building it there. But the location off Lumpkin seems a good compromise, keeping the existing facilities but not having it far from the Butts-Mehre building.

That location, “just beyond the existing outdoor practice fields,” is the block bordered by Lumpkin Street, Carlton Street, Sanford Drive, and Smith Street. It’s the site of the Hoke Smith Building, the Hoke Smith Annex, and a large parking lot that serves the Hoke Smith complex as well as athletic events during off-hours.

The location is ideal until you consider the buildings already occupying the site. Displacing typical academic buildings would be a tough enough sales job to the University community. These buildings house the University’s Cooperative Extension Service – essentially the state’s home base for CES outreach and 4H. It’s not as if these services would go away, but relocating them would draw statewide interest.

The political cost is just the start. The expense of a new CES location would obviously add to the cost of the practice facility. Would UGA or the athletic department foot that bill?

Would there be a way to preserve the buildings? Not realistically. If you try to shoehorn in a facility with the exact footprint of a practice field, the hulking football facility would just about touch the buildings and require the closure of Smith Street and Sanford Drive. And of course the facility will take up more space than the outline of a practice field.

ipfnope

So we’re left with this: if you take over the block completely, there seems to be ample space for a full-size indoor field with a nice buffer of greenspace around it. Personally, as someone who attends a lot of events at Stegeman, I’m not looking forward to losing those parking spaces, but that’s something I’ve said every time a new University building goes up. It’s worth pointing out that this solution is just one of several being considered, and we’ll learn more as the board discusses the future facility.

ipfvertical


Post Signing Day 2015

Thursday February 5, 2015

[See Georgia’s 2015 signing class here.]

Overall

Take a step back for a second – in the past year, Georgia has replaced both coordinators and the entire defensive coaching staff. Only Mark Richt and three offensive position coaches remain from the 2013 season. On the field Georgia weathered the first stage of that transition in 2014 with a 10-win season and a top-10 final ranking. On the recruiting trail, Georgia might’ve fared even better. Despite losing longtime offensive coordinator (and perhaps the program’s best recruiter) Mike Bobo, Georgia held on to and even added to an outstanding 2015 recruiting class. Georgia’s new coaches have put together consecutive consensus top-10 recruiting classes, and Wednesday’s large (and perhaps soon to be even larger) group replenishes the roster at several positions.

Needs

I sat at the Blind Pig facing their list of signees, and the emphasis of the class was hard to miss. The half of the list dedicated to the offense had a blank column big enough to write Terry Godwin’s name vertically while the defensive side had run out of space. About two-thirds of Georgia’s class are defenders, and the team addressed areas on defense hit by graduation as well as areas that needed shoring up.

The class is strongest on the defensive line. Georgia signed not only defensive tackles (Trenton Thompson could have immediate impact), but there are also several guys who could be effective 3-4 defensive ends. The class was a little thin at linebacker with only a trio signed (pending Roquan Smith), but one of the cardinal rules of recruiting is to avoid getting hung up over a player’s stated position. We’ll see how the pieces are plugged into the roster down the road. The secondary, though losing only Swann, had to replace a slew of transfers and added signees both at cornerback and safety. Several will have an opportunity to have the immediate impact that Dominick Sanders had in 2014.

Georgia’s haul on offense was lighter, but you still see areas of focus. The Dawgs didn’t sign a quarterback, and the only backfield signee was a late addition more in the mold of Quayvon Hicks than a true tailback. Georgia got an outstanding tight end, bolstered the receivers, and four offensive linemen ranging from 6’4″ to 6’7″ give the team a head start on replacing the group that will be graduating after 2015. 5* athlete Terry Godwin gives Georgia another versatile weapon to go along with Michel, McKenzie, and Mitchell.

With a class of around 30 players, it’s hard to say that any areas of need were left wanting. Georgia is committed to the quarterbacks on the roster knowing that the nation’s best quarterback is on his way in 2016. Likewise, Georgia will ride with the five returning scholarship tailbacks and address the future of that position in 2016. You might have liked a little more help at inside linebacker with Herrera and Wilson departing, but we’ll see how the staff distributes the roster in August, and UAB standout Jake Ganus could help.

Walk-ons

Californian Nick Robinson will join the team as a quarterback. U.S. Army All-American kicker Rodrigo Blankenship will walk on until a scholarship becomes available in 2016 when he’ll be the leading candidate to replace Marshall Morgan. Hudson Reynolds of Bainbridge could very well become the next long-snapper once Theus graduates.

Immediate Impact

Where does the large 2015 class have the best opportunity to get on the field? You can start with Trenton Thompson. The dominant lynchpin of Georgia’s defensive line class will be an important part of the rotation right away. We’ll likely see other true freshmen join Tracy Rocker’s rotation. It will also be hard to keep Godwin off the field – as we saw with Michel and McKenzie in 2014, a creative offensive coordinator should get playmakers involved even as true freshmen. Depending on the health of Jay Rome, tight end Jackson Harris could be next in line behind Blazevich. The most intriguing area might be the secondary – the 2014 unit was largely improvised with changing lineups and walk-ons and true freshmen pressed into service. Some like Sanders and Mauger made enough progress to be considered returning starters, but there’s a whole lot of playing time up for grabs.

Kirby Choates

We’ve all heard the fans who claim to prefer lower-rated prospects who bleed red and black over the 5* guy making a business decision. Often that’s just a form of sour grapes and has always struck me as odd – why not prefer 25 5* guys whose parents named them “Herschel?” That’s a roundabout way of getting to Kirby Choates Jr. Choates, a “self-professed longtime Bulldog fan,” was off the radar for most of the process while he worked to become academically qualified. Even once he cleared up academic concerns, it was touch and go whether Georgia’s class had filled up. The offer he had waited for finally came, and his signing ceremony tells you everything you need to know about what the opportunity to play at Georgia means to him. It’s unfair to make Tim Jennings (another unheralded 11th hour offer) comparisons, but we do know that Kirby Choates will have a lot of fans in his corner when he arrives in Athens.

Roquan Smith

Smith’s story became an instant Signing Day classic – the surprising announcement, the wait while he put the UCLA gloves on, and then the excitement that circulated as rumors of second thoughts spread. Georgia’s top signee, Trenton Thompson, became involved. Then news hit that his would-be coordinator at UCLA was going to become part of the Atlanta Falcons staff. The day ended not with a reversal but with a step back to reconsider all four of his finalists.

We were reminded that Signing Day isn’t a day – the 2015 football signing period goes through April 1. For his own sake, I’m glad that he didn’t rush into following through on a very public announcement if he still had doubts. The confusion over the UCLA coaching decision showed that he made the right decision to wait.

As a Georgia fan, of course I want Smith in Athens. His talent is without question, and he plays at a position of need for Georgia. He’s feeling the stress and weight of a bigger decision than most of us had faced at that age, and the pressure from friends and family to stay home can be both a positive and a negative. I think Tyler has a good insight here – I hope those bridges can be rebuilt as Smith reconsiders his decison.


Post Georgia names Brian Schottenheimer as new offensive coordinator

Friday January 9, 2015

The Georgia football program announced on Wednesday the selection of Brian Schottenheimer as the team’s new offensive coordinator. Schottenheimer will replace Mike Bobo who took the Colorado State head coaching position back in December. Schottenheimer, who served as the offensive coordinator for the New York Jets and St. Louis Rams, had considered other opportunities to coach college ball in the South and finally pulled the trigger when the Georgia position became available.

I have to admit that my first reaction was reflexively negative – perhaps it had to do with an aversion on principle to NFL coaches, or as Dawg Sports put it, “Schottenheimer joins the ranks of other NFL offensive coordinators who have gone on to have great careers as offensive coordinators in the SEC, such as ________. And _______.” Or, in the words of Blutarsky, “Bobo’s departure doesn’t come as a relief.” I was in no rush to see Bobo leave the program and would have been just fine paying him Schottenheimer-level money* to keep the status quo.

(* – We don’t know yet the terms of Schottenheimer’s deal, but this was a guy making $1.5-2 million as an NFL coordinator. He might be willing to take a cut to get his foot in the door of the right situation if coaching college ball is his objective, but he still figures to command a deal worth more than Georgia has been paying its coordinator. It will be interesting to learn, if we ever do, whether Bobo was indeed offered a similar deal to remain in Athens or if the rumors that Georgia didn’t do much in the way of a counter-offer are true.)

So after the mixed results with Grantham and after watching Weis flame out at Florida, we are understandably jaded about plucking another coach from the NFL. He might well be the exception to the rule – I am only aware in the most general sense of his track record in New York and St. Louis, the personnel issues he dealt with in both situations, and the coaches for whom he worked. One benefit of our Grantham experience is the learned lesson that an NFL resume in itself is no talisman. The college game has its own unique demands and challenges, and there’s not much to go on when we try to map Schottenheimer’s experience to our expectations for what he’ll do at Georgia.

One of the key dynamics to watch will be the Schottenheimer-Richt collaboration. Schottenheimer’s head coaches in New York and St. Louis were defensive guys who (within reason) delegated the offense. It’s the opposite at Georgia. Richt has (again, within reason) been hands-off with his defense and even allowed fundamental scheme changes like the switch to a 3-4 system in 2010. That’s not happening on offense. Richt was clear heading into this hire that “were gonna continue to do what we do offensively.” Though Richt may have handed over playcalling over eight years ago, he still has very specific expectations for the offense, and anything Georgia runs will have Richt’s stamp of approval and oversight.

Will that dynamic constrain Schottenheimer or will it allow him to grow? Richt has always run a “pro-style” offense, but that vague label has applied even as the offense evolved during the Richt-Bobo partnership. Of course there was plenty of the usual I-formation or shotgun, but we’ve also seen the use of pistol and wildcat. We’ve seen the use of tempo as a strategy. Those are just a few of the wrinkles that gave Georgia the flexibility to go from featuring one of the conference’s most prolific passers to producing eye-popping results on the ground without skipping a beat. So even as Richt insists on a certain identity, there’s still room for creativity,innovation, and growth within that framework.

With scheme more or less settled, there are a few other challenges for the newcomer.

Recruiting

Jeremy Pruitt has gone on a tear restocking the defensive side of the roster. He’s pretty much had to – attrition and recruiting shortcomings had left things in a state where walk-ons and freshmen have been forced into action. Schottenheimer comes into a better short-term situation. The tailback position looks great, there are returning veterans at receiver and tight end, the line will be about as seasoned as it gets, and there will be a good pool of quarterback candidates.

Schottenheimer will have a similar opportunity to recruit the next wave of stars for Georgia’s offense, but, again, Richt has established the parameters. “The skill sets that we’ve recruited for, they have nothing to worry about, because we’re gonna use them to their fullest.” Schottenheimer’s first job is holding together some important 2015 and 2016 commitments, and Richt’s promise is a none-too-subtle message to reinforce Georgia’s position with those commitments and prospects. The recruiting services have already reached out to those prospects, and the responses have been positive for Georgia and Schottenheimer.

Bobo’s role as a recruiter was about as important to Georgia as his playcalling role. The Thomasville native had the connections to make deep inroads for the program into South Georgia. Bobo wasn’t only involved with quarterbacks and other offensive skill prospects; he was Georgia’s man for many high-profile South Georgia defenders from Ray Drew to Trenton Thompson. It’s going to be tough for Schottenheimer to take over without the same homegrown network, and it’s going to take a collaborative effort to maintain Georgia’s advantages in that important area of the state.

Teaching

As the quarterbacks coach Schottenheimer will be asked to continue what’s become the golden age of Georgia quarterbacking. Four of the seven quarterbacks who started for Bobo and Richt earned an NFL roster spot, and even in the transitional seasons of 2009 and 2014 Georgia won at least nine games. Georgia’s top five quarterbacks in terms of career efficiency have all been from this era (Murray, Mason, Shockley, Greene, Cox). Georgia might be blessed with a fleet of tailbacks, but it’s no coincidence that Richt found a coordinator with experience working with quarterbacks. Modern offenses require competent quarterback play first and foremost, and Schottenheimer has a high standard to follow at Georgia.

Former boss Jeff Fisher calls Schottenheimer an “excellent teacher.” Even though that’s said in the context of defending an embattled coordinator, it’s worth something that Fisher would single out that attribute. Similarly, Schottenheimer is praised for his organization, and he’ll have to be organized to get the most out of limited practice opportunities. He’s worked with some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and he’s been able to involve new talent (like Tre Mason this season) quickly.

There are adjustments for an NFL coach making the transition to college. Near the top of the list is the understanding that most college players don’t start with a basic fluency in fundamentals. When Pruitt began a year ago, he had to spend time stressing even the most mundane details. The time required just to build that fundamental foundation means that what’s build on that foundation can’t be particularly complex. Adding to the time crunch are the built-in NCAA time limits, the requirements and distractions of college life, and the fact that you’re instructing nearly twice as many players as you would with a 53-man NFL roster.

A year ago, there was nearly universal accord for Georgia’s new defensive coordinator. We were ready to move on from the predecessor, and Pruitt had done exactly the same job for the national champion. There seems to be a lot more wait-and-see with this hire, and we’ve outlined some of the reasons for that above. Considering the recent success of the Georgia offense, I imagine that anyone hired to follow Bobo would make us a little nervous. In his favor, Schottenheimer is more than qualified for the position. He’ll have some of the best talent in the nation with which to work and all of the resources he’ll need. He’ll have input into the hiring of a new offensive line coach. If Schottenheimer is ready to prove himself at the college level, he’s set up for success.