Georgia Football: Bulldogs' Top 5 Concerns Heading into Spring Practice
Spring practice gives players and coaches alike the opportunity to improve while knocking off the proverbial rust. More importantly, however, it gives teams a chance to preemptively address concerns before the season—or even the preseason—begins.
The Georgia Bulldogs are not alone in their need to find solutions during spring practice. It's a safe assumption that every team has its fair share of prerequisite improvements before a long summer sets in. But for the Dawgs, a team looking to get back to the SEC Championship Game for the third time in four years, these needs are pressing, given their aspirations.
Here are the five biggest concerns for Georgia heading into spring practice as defined by their potential impact in the fall.
Offensive Line Cohesion
Offensive line stalwarts Kenarious Gates, Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette have left Georgia and taken their combined 109 starts with them. David Andrews, a 27-game starter at center, returns to anchor the line in 2014 and John Theus and Kolton Houston, who both have starting experience, are back as well.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo told Chip Towers of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “We haven’t nailed down exactly how we’re going to start but I do think Theus is going to be at left tackle. We’ll have Kolton at right and David Andrews at center for sure for spring.”
Those assignments were all but assumed, but the filling of the guard positions and the development of chemistry within the unit remains a concern.
Presumably, Mark Beard (a senior) will be a candidate at the left guard position. He backed up Gates last season at the left tackle position. Watts Dantzler, also a rising senior, could fill the open right guard position, while a host of returning players (Greg Pyke, Brandon Kublanow, Zach DeBell, Xzavier Ward and Hunter Long) competes for spots in the rotation.
The good news is the projected starting lineup of Theus, Beard, Andrews, Dantzler and Houston all boast significant experience. All five linemen participated in every game of the 2013 season with the exception of Beard, who missed the Appalachian State game.
The bad—or at least unknown—news is that offensive line play is as much a byproduct of cohesion as it is personnel. More so than any position group on the field, this unit must feed off of itself. In that regard, this spring is of utmost importance as Georgia looks to continue its reign as an offensive force.
Defensive Backfield Personnel
J.J. Green’s move to cornerback is interesting in and of itself but symbolically represents a much bigger concept. New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt wants the best possible athletes in the secondary.
Sadly, Josh Harvey-Clemons’ dismissal has already diminished that talent pool. Nonetheless, Georgia must find answers and improvement amongst its cornerbacks and safeties this spring.
Senior cornerback Damian Swann must emerge as the leader, both physically and vocally, that many expected last season. And someone needs to separate themselves as the undisputed starter on the other side of the field.
By the end of last season, freshman Shaq Wiggins seemed to have locked up that job, but don’t be surprised to see Brendan Langley (the starter of Georgia’s first four games in 2013) re-insert himself into the conversation. Green’s athleticism could be a factor as could JUCO transfer Shattle Fenteng. In any event, someone must take ownership of the position.
Meanwhile, both safety spots are in desperate need of backups. Corey Moore and Tray Matthews boast starting experience and have the inside track to the top of the depth chart, but depth is severely lacking. Quincy Mauger played meaningful time last season, but after him experienced reserves are nowhere to be found.
Georgia must improve secondary play in 2014, and the first step toward that is defining starters at the cornerback positions and developing quality depth at the safety slots. If Pruitt can make strides in these two areas during the spring, the outlook for this embattled defensive unit will be much more positive.
Todd Gurley's Health
Todd Gurley must be healthy for the 2014 season. It’s that simple.
Mark Richt implied that Gurley would be limited in practice, but according to Seth Emerson of the Macon Telegraph Mike Bobo may have different plans. “I’ve already talked to Todd about how we’re going to push him in practice, because I think that’s the only way you can get better,” Bobo said.
Whether Gurley does or does not practice and the extent of his participation is irrelevant, as long as the end result is a fully healthy and well-conditioned player in August.
Georgia needs Gurley to play at a Heisman level in 2014. This spring needs to prepare him appropriately for that task—even if it means fewer reps.
Pass Rush Progression
Ray Drew finally emerged as a fierce pass-rusher in 2013. Simultaneously, Jordan Jenkins failed to fill the big shoes left by Jarvis Jones' departure. Meanwhile, Leonard Floyd was one of the few pleasant surprises on the defensive side of the ball.
Add a talented incoming freshman like Lorenzo Carter to that mix, and the Bulldogs could spend much of the 2014 season on top of opposing quarterbacks. But each of these individuals need to improve this spring so that the group becomes more consistent as a whole.
Jenkins was clear as to what went wrong for him in 2013. “I wasn’t mature about the offseason last year,” he told Seth Emerson of the Ledger-Enquirer.
Perhaps maturity this offseason will lead to consistency in 2014.
If Drew can maintain his positive trajectory, Jenkins can get back on track and Floyd can continue to astound with his athleticism, this unit could steal the show during spring practice.
That sure would take some pressure off the secondary in the fall.
Hutson Mason Under Center
Ironically, Huston Mason’s ascent to starting quarterback barely cracks this list. To be sure, his development during the spring is crucial. He must build chemistry with his receivers and develop a more decisive command over the offense as a whole.
That being said, he has the surrounding weapons, playbook knowledge and game experience to be extremely successful in this offense. Assuming the offensive line gels and Todd Gurley is healthy, the sky’s the limit for Mason—and the offense as a whole.
So while replacing the most statistically impressive quarterback in SEC history may be a tall order, it’s not necessarily as pressing of a concern as locking up the defensive secondary or improving the team’s pass rush.
This spring is less about physical improvement for Mason and more about developing a rapport with teammates and a defined leadership style. Those intangible assets will be valuable in the fall.