ATHENS, G—The Georgia Bulldogs will open up spring camp tomorrow afternoon coming off a 10-4 season that included the teams' first appearance in the SEC Championship game since 2005.
Coming into his 12th year as head coach of the Bulldogs, Mark Richt will step onto the practice field with a new five-year contract. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham had his contact extended three more years in the off-season as well. The contracts have been agreed upon, but the final details are still being worked out.
On the field, the Bulldogs enter as the one of the favorites in the SEC East. There are many reasons why that is the case, including the depth that returns on the defense, and an experienced quarterback leading the offense. On the other hand, there are also reasons for skepticism as off-field problems. Below is a preview of the offense as spring practice commences.
First, the positives. Junior quarterback Aaron Murray will lead the offense, after record-setting seasons during his first two years.
First, here's my big opinion on Murray. While I think he's a solid college quarterback, the numbers that he puts up are better than he actually is. He threw 35 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and 3,149 yards last season.
This is his junior year, and although he could have gone pro after last year, I don't see him making the jump to the NFL after this one, because he doesn't have the pro potential of a 1st or 2nd round pick because of his size, not necessarily ability. And of course, some of you will make the Drew Brees argument, the fact that he is small as well, but he's been successful. (Brees is 6-0, 207, and Murray is 6-foot-1, 211).
My only response is that there's only one Drew Brees, and Murray isn't that close. Now, he could eventually be a solid NFL starting quarterback, but he won't enter next years' draft with the potential of being chosen in the first couple rounds..
With all of that being said though, he is a solid college quarterback and one of the best in the SEC, which isn't saying much. Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson is at the top as well.
The biggest key to Murray's success this next year, won't be who runs the ball or who catches it. Both of the groups have depth, and I'll get to them later. The most important group on offense next year, and the one that has the biggest question marks heading into spring cap and into the fall, is the offensive line.
Last year, the group was the biggest offensive line in all of football—collegiate or professional. But that line will lose three key starters that combined for 122 starts over their collegiate careers. Center Ben Jones (6-foot-3, 316, 48 starts) and tackles Justin Anderson (6-foot-5, 342, 25 starts) and Cordy Glenn (6-foot-5, 348, 49 starts) have all played out their eligibility and replacing them will be difficult.
A trio of juniors with a combined 31 starts will lead the offensive line this year. Chris Burnette (11 starts last year), Kenarious Gates (13 starts during first two years), and junior Dallas Lee (7 starts last year). All of the starts last year between the three were at the guard position.
One of the major things that will be worked on during spring camp, and during fall camp and even during the beginning of the season, will be figuring out the best group of five for the offensive line .
Junior college transfer Mark Beard enrolled at UGA in January, and will compete for a starting spot. Sophomore David Andrews, who played in nine games a center last year, is expected to take over for Jones
Other linemen that will compete for starting spots include junior Austin Long and Watts Dantzler. The offensive line has the biggest question marks heading into the season, namely figuring out the starting lineup and positions. The success of the line will determine Georgia's fate during the 2012 season, but now a quick look at the guys that will attract most of the attention as the 2012 approaches.
First, Isaiah Crowell and the running backs.
Heading into last spring practice, most of the attention paid to the running back battle revolved around a player that had just announced his decision to come to Georgia a month earlier.
Crowell then came to Georgia, and had an up and down year during his freshman season. And now, as the 2012 season approaches, there will be a battle for the running back position.
Crowell will compete alongside a healthy Richard Samuel (who could also play FB), Ken Malcome, Carlton Thomas, and incoming 5-star recruit Keith Marshall.
Crowell is the most talented of the running backs, without a doubt. However, his character, injuries and attitude at times has left him sitting on the bench and in the coaches dog house. If that changes, and the reports from Richt and the players say that he's improving, Georgia will have a stud in the backfield. But if that doesn't happen.
There are other options, just not as talented.
Keith Marshall is a little bit smaller than Crowell, but he might be a little quicker on his feet. He enrolled at Georgia in January after graduating high school early with a 4.29 G.P.A. and will practice during spring camp.
Malcome is a bigger back, and the sophomore doesn't have that much experience, but he has shown a few glimpses of being a decent back. Samuel could play running back, but with the loss of Bruce Figgins to graduation, he might battle Zander Ogletree for the FB starting spot. Carlton Thomas is a change-in-pace back that is the smallest of all the running backs, but he can make a few plays here and there.
Another top recruit, Todd Gurley, will enroll in Athens over the Summer and will compete for playing time as well.
The bottom line when it comes to the running back position is that there is a lot of depth, and a lot of talent. And even with the uncertainty of Crowell, the most important thing when it comes to this group will be the play of the offensive line. Because if the line can't create holes, it doesn't matter how good your running back is, he won't be able to be successful.
And on the other hand, an offensive line that plays well and opens up holes will make a decent running back look great.
Moving on to the receivers, first the tight ends. Georgia will lose a pair of tight ends that contributed a lot to Murray and the offense. Orson Charles left early and Aron White graduated.
Attempting to replace their production will be Jay Rome, a 4-star recruit from the 'Dream Team' who redshirted last season and Junior Arthur Lynch, who has two receptions during his career.
Moving over to the receivers where a main storyline will revolve around who will not play there. And that is now Sophomore Malcolm Mitchell who finished his freshman season with 45 receptions, 665 yards and four touchdowns.
He will spend time in the spring working at cornerback, because Branden Smith and Sanders Commings will miss games at the beginning of the season. The defensive impact of this decision will be addressed later, but for the offense, it is a major blow as Mitchell was one of Murray's top receiving threats last year.
There is the potential for Mitchell to play on both sides of the ball, but with him spending time with the defense in the spring, it will open up other opportunities for other receivers, and there are a lot of them.
Tavarres King led the team with 47 receptions, 705 yards and eight touchdowns last year and he kind of flew under the radar. King is now a senior and will be the leader of the receivers in the spring.
Other receivers include Michael Bennett, who caught five touchdowns last season and might have the best hands on the entire team; Chris Conley, who, like Mitchell, had a productive freshman year with two touchdowns; and Marlon Brown, who has struggled at times during his career, but he did have a two touchdown game against Vanderbilt last season.
There is a lot of depth here, and the main question that won't be answered until the season starts, is how much quality is there at receiver? Mitchell playing defense takes away a deep threat for Murray, but once Smith and Commings are back on the field, Mitchell should be able to focus more on offense.
But like the running back position, this group will only be as good as the offensive line and how well they protect Murray. If the line gives Murray time, then there are definitely receivers that can make plays, even without Mitchell.
The Georgia offense played great at times last year, but also struggled to run the football at times. Murray threw 35 touchdowns last year, breaking Matthew Stafford's record of 25 in 2008. Murray has thrown for 59 touchdowns during his first two years, and his 13 shy of reaching David Greene's school record 72 touchdowns.
As spring camp progresses and the 2012 season approaches, there are many question marks for this offense that won't be answered until kickoff in the fall.
The success of the offense will not come down to Isaiah Crowell limping off the field with an injury, or Murray not having adequate receivers, but rather the ability and cohesiveness of the offensive line. Even though most of the headlines and highlights revolve around the skill positions, the game of football is ultimately won in the trenches, and that's why the offensive line is the most important storyline during spring camp for the offense.