Georgia Football Post-Spring Preview: The Good, the Bad and the Unknown
For Georgia Bulldog fans everywhere, the 2011 season cannot get here soon enough. After enduring the disappointment of this past season's 6-7 campaign, expectations are high once again because of a top-five recruiting class, a successful spring and the addition of two new coaches.
2010 has come and gone but new opportunities abound in 2011. Winning a division crown is not an unreasonable goal for this group of Dawgs. The past two seasons have been major disappointments but a return to Atlanta could stop the bleeding and place UGA back in their rightful place as one of the nation's elite.
Over the next two weeks, I will be releasing my post-spring, pre-fall team previews. During this time, I will post articles on Bleacher Report for all 12 SEC teams.
I also will have a corresponding radio program you can listen to live online. You will be able to call the live show with any questions, comments or disagreements. In each of these reports, I will release the good, the bad and the unknown for each team.
Once fall practice starts, I will be attending at least one practice for each of the 12 teams. At that time, I will release a final preseason analysis and projected rankings.
Good News No. 1: Aaron Murray and the UGA Tight Ends
Make no mistake about it, if UGA wants to move the ball successfully this season it will be on the shoulders of Aaron Murray and the UGA tight ends.
Aaron Murray, after putting up senior-like numbers as a freshman, will be a first team all-SEC preseason selection. I am going on record now to say that Aaron Murray will be a Heisman finalist his junior season.
Had he not been injured his senior year, he would had been the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the nation. I was able to watch him in high school, and he is one of top three quarterbacks I have ever scouted and was far and away the No. 1 quarterback of that class.
Georgia will also have the top rated tight end in the nation, Orson Charles, a high school teammate of Murray. The amazing thing is, that although he is clearly the most talented tight end in the SEC, his teammate Aron White is not that far from him.
In fact, UGA will have three future NFL tight ends on their team. If coach Mark Richt and coach Mike Bobo are creative, we will see,at times, three tightends on the field at the same time. White and Jay Rome on the line and Charles in the slot. This does not need to be an every down formation, but I dare someone to try to stop it when it is on the field.
I cannot think of one team in the nation with a better group of tight ends.
Good News No. 2: Special Teams
I don't think it is stretch, if they play up to their potential, to believe that this season's special teams unit should go down as the best in UGA history and perhaps SEC history.
The Bulldogs will be led by punter Drew Butler (2009 and 2010 All-American), Kicker Blair Walsh (2008, 2009, Lou Gazza Award finalist) and kick returner Brandon Boykin who shares the all-time SEC kick return touchdown record (four) with Tennessee’s Willie Gault and Arkansas’ Felix Jones. Of his four touchdowns, three were returned for 100 yards.
One could argue that there might be someone better at a certain position than one of these Bulldog members. That stance would be debatable. However, as a group, it is not up for debate. This advantage in special teams could mean the difference of 15 to 20 yards each possession.
Mark Richt recently stated that they are considering allowing Boykin to return punts as well. Branden Smith had been returning punts, and doing a nice job, but he continued to battle injuries all season.
Good News No. 3: Year 2 of the 3-4 Defense
UGA is primed this season to take another step toward being a dominant defense once again . Despite losing seven players to the NFL and transforming to a new defensive scheme, prior to the 2010 season, the Dawgs leaped from 10th in scoring defense to fifth in scoring defense and from seventh in total defense to fourth in total defense.
All of this despite the fact the SEC offenses were much more potent this past season with teams like Auburn, South Carolina and Arkansas making huge strides.
This season should result in the Dawgs best defense since Brian VanGorder left to be head coach of Georgia Southern. In fact, this front 7 has an opportunity to turn UGA into a top 10 defense nationally and anything less than third in total defense in the SEC will be a disappointment.
Compare UGA last season to the No. 1 defensive unit in the SEC, Alabama. Alabama only held opponents to 0.46 less yards per play. That is about 18 inches per play. Alabama did do a much better job of keeping teams out of the end zone, holding teams to almost nine less points per game.
However, in a season that should have seen a step back, with the lack of returning starters and a new defensive scheme, UGA held their opponents to six less points per game.
In my opinion, UGA will have that number (scoring defense) down below 18 by the end of next season. With the addition of Johnathon Jenkins, the improvement of Kwame Geathers and the position change of Alec Ogletree this defense will no longer be the weak link of this UGA team but instead the strength of this UGA program.
Bad News No. 1: Lack of Running Back Depth
It wasn't but a week ago, the depth at running back for UGA was a strength. UGA had two players returning (Washaun Ealey and Caleb King) who had been starters and had some marginal success.
However, this past week, the announcement came that Washaun Ealey was transferring. The following day, rumors began to circulate that Caleb King was going to be academically ineligible.
Let me start by saying that the loss of Washaun Ealey , as one Bleacher Reporter put it, is an addition by subtraction. Coach Richt gave Ealey every chance to do the right thing, but his only concern was himself. UGA loses a talented running back but gains much more needed chemistry.
The loss of Caleb King, however, would be devastating. The thing that freshman running backs struggle with the most is pass blocking. This is something that Caleb King excels at. Having King gives Coach Richt the luxury of playing the freshman phenoms Isiah Crowell and Ken Malcome and still have an excellent blocker in passing situations.
Yes, King is injury prone, but he has also averaged over five yards per carry each of the last two seasons. If he stays healthy and academically eligible, he could finally have the impact many hoped for.
I expect big things out of Crowell and Malcome, but let's hope that King remains a part of this team.
Bad News No. 2: No Proven Wide Receiver
This past NFL draft, UGA fans watched as two of the most sure-handed wide receivers (AJ Green and Kris Durham) in recent memory took their talents to the NFL. As a result, UGA loss their two leading receivers both in yards and touchdowns.
UGA is not left with a lack of talent at the wide receiver positions, they simply lack consistency. Rantavious Wooten, Tavarres King and Marlon Brown, have all had their moments, but none have preformed well on a consistent basis.
There are also other capable players who might get time at wide receiver like freshmen Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett . There is also the possibility of Branden Smith, who had a 28-yard touchdown reception in the spring game, receiving more time on the offensive side of the ball.
Those players would give UGA one of the speediest wide receiver groups in the nation. However, they are still young an inexperienced. Fortunately, UGA will have three dynamic tight ends who will be able to release some of the pressure.
One thing to keep in mind, is until AJ Green, Mark Richt has never had a wide receiver that they consistently tried to get the ball to. Instead, they would spread the ball around to multiple receivers. By making AJ Green their number one target every passing play, they became too reliant upon him. As a result, if he was injured or suspended, the offense became stagnant. Maybe his departure will mean a more balanced passing attack.
Bad News No. 3: A Patched Up Offensive Line
This past week, Coach Richt, while speaking in Greenville, SC, said that if Georgia played today, their starting lineup would be Cordy Glenn (LT), Kenarious Gates (LG), Ben Jones (C), Chris Burnette (RG) and Justin Anderson (RT).
This lineup has a lot of potential. However, with the running game in its current state, the offensive line has to step up. Moreover, UGA cannot afford for Aaron Murray to take the kind of hits that he took last season.
This line must step up and perform early. The problem, in evaluating this line, is we don't even know how good the offensive line coach is. This past spring, the Bulldogs hired coach Will Friends from UAB. Coach Friends might end up being one of the top OL coaches in the nation. However, I am dumbfounded why, when Texas needs a coach, they hire one from UGA. When UGA needs a coach, they hire one from UAB.
I guess we will see soon enough. Many people were critical of the VanGorder hire years ago, and that one worked out well. Plus, who wouldn't want Ben Jones leading the offensive line from the center position.
Unknown No. 1: New Strength and Conditioning Program
There is one thing we know, the Bulldogs will be much larger this next season. Coach Richt not only hired a new strength and conditioning coach, but he also hired a team nutritionist.
No more french fries and candy for these Dawgs. In fact, players now have to take pictures of their food, send them for approval before they eat their food.
The result was massive weight gain. From the end of bowl season to the start of spring practice huge gains were reported. Twenty-five players gained seven or more pounds. The top 10 gainers were, Cordy Glenn (28), A.J. Harmon (25), Kwame Geathers (25), Kenarious Gates (21), Zander Ogletree (17), Justin Anderson (16), Ben Jones (16), Zander Ogletree (17), DeAngelo Tyson (16), Alec Olgetree (15).
Even the kicker gained nine pounds.
The weight, according to the coaches, is all good weight, and in the case of Kwame Geathers, it really showed on the field during the spring. However, I do have a major concern. What if this weight results in a loss of quickness and/or agility? What if the linemen are bigger but cant move their feet as quickly?
The staff claims they are making sure that this does not happen and if they are correct this will change from an unknown to a major advantage, but until that time, it remains an unknown.
Unknown No. 2: The Dream Team
I have spent several years as a scout. I worked for a company that sent us all around the nation critiquing high school players, and they would take our results and send them to over 100 college coaches. As a result, I have some knowledge in evaluating players. With that said, the UGA and FSU classes were the top two in the nation.
The question is not if these players will contribute, but when will they contribute. Can players like Isaiah Crowell, Ray Drew, John Jenkins, Malcolm Mitchell and Jay Rome contribute this season? If so, the sky becomes the limit for UGA.
No matter how talented a recruiting class might be, you can never assume that a freshman will adapt right away. However, I love this classes leadership and work ethic. Players like Ray Drew are going to give a 110 percebt every practice and should progress quickly.
This team was named the dream team as a gimmick, but this dream could become a nightmare as soon as this season for opposing coaches.
Unknown No. 3: Jarvis Jones, Richard Samuel and Bacarri Rambo
These three players intrigue me the most. They could mean the difference in a mediocre season and an SEC Championship. Jarvis Jones is the linebacker who transferred from USC prior to last season. He had a serious injury and became a victim of new USC coach, Lane Kiffin's, cut program.
He cleared his medical exam, however, and was allowed to transfer to UGA. He did have to sit out one year, but during that time, he received constant praise for his work in practice. We got our first view of him in the spring game, and he looked every bit as good as he was advertised. He currently is slated to start at linebacker.
Richard Samuel also red-shirted last season. Samuel was the starting running back for most of the 2009 season. However, they decided he would be more productive at LB and moved him to the other side of the ball. He looked good during the spring and could add much needed depth at LB.
Lastly, Bacarri Rambo. I am not sure if, in all my life, I have seen a player go from unanimous praise to being a victim of such harsh criticism. Rambo first burst onto the scene as a freshman when he made the infamous game-saving hit against Auburn. The hit, however, would lead to him being carried off of the field on a stretcher.
His first game back, against Texas A&M in the 2009 Independence Bowl, with the game tied at 7-7, Rambo blocked a punt that led to a go-ahead touchdown from Caleb King and an eventual blowout.
Then signing day came, and he stood up for all of the Dawg nation on facebook when he blasted Da'rick Rogers for backing out from his almost year-long commitment to the Dawgs in favor of Tennessee.
Fast forward to 2010 and he became, perhaps, the most criticized member of the Georgia team. There were several plays that he missed an assignment or a tackle on that led to big plays. However, he still ended up with 76 tackles on the season.
In my opinion, early on, he was hesitant because of the injury he had suffered toward the end of the 2009 season. He seemed to pick up steam toward the end of the 2010 season. In fact, in his last four games of the season, he had 28 tackles, two interceptions and a touchdown.
Despite a good stat line, UGA needs him to step up his play another notch. By moving Ogletree to ILB, he is now the only saftey with significant playing time.
UGA needs to send a message this season, that the last two seasons have been just a blip on the radar. In my opinion, this will happen. I currently have them finishing the regular season with a 10-2 record. However, how UGA handles the running back situation could alter that dramatically.
Lastly, I want to say something that I know will receive a harsh response from many. If UGA can make it through the first two games of the season (Boise State and South Carolina) without a loss, they have a legit shot at the national championship game. In fact, they will end up in Jacksonville with the same scenario as they did in 2003.
UGA will not lose to Mississippi State at home, and they will not lose to Tennessee on the road. You can bookmark this page because that is a guarantee. That means the only major road block left will be Florida and the SEC Championship.
However, if they go 0-2, the coaching staff will have to fight to keep the wheels from coming off. As of now, I have them splitting them, but this could change after fall practice starts.