GOAT: Herschel Walker (RB)
Key Losses: AJ Green (WR), Justin Houston (OLB), Trinton Sturdivant (OT)
Key Additions: Malcolm Mitchell (WR), Isaiah Crowell (RB), Ray Drew (OLB), John Jenkins (NT), Nick Marshall (DB), Kwame Geathers (NT)
Mark Richt has reached a point where every loss pushes him closer and closer to the door. After starting off like a house on fire when he first got to Athens, he’s seen his program fizzle and fall behind many SEC titans. Beginning with what should have been his most explosive team in 2008, UGA has been on a steady decline for three years.
2008 saw UGA open as the pre-season favorite by many to win the national title. After getting blown out by Alabama and Florida, the team lost to lowly Georgia Tech, finishing a very disappointing 10-3. 2009 was even worse, with UGA dropping 5 games for the first time in Richt’s tenure in Athens. If 2009 was a punch to the gut for UGA fans, 2010 was a roundhouse kick to the solar plexus, followed by a shot to the balls for good measure. A team loaded with NFL caliber talent slept-walked through 13 games en route to a 6-7 shitshow. The only reason UGA wasn’t set on fire by the national media was because Texas was an even bigger disappointment.
After back-to-back-to-back failures, the heat is on Richt to produce, and to do so NOW. If you buy into recruiting hype, last February was a good sign that Richt wasn’t ready to leave Athens. He and his staff landed the most hyped class in his 10 years in Athens, with Rivals ranking it the 5th best class in the nation.
But perhaps the biggest change in Georgia’s program won’t be the new infusion of talent, but the newly designed strength and conditioning program. One of the dirty little secrets in the SEC was the lackluster S&C program being deployed in Athens. While Florida, Alabama and LSU were getting bigger, stronger and faster, Georgia seemed to have lost a step and gotten soft, as Thomas Davis recently put it.
This fact led Richt to fire his long-time friend and replace him with Joe Tereshinkski, or Coach T. In all 7 of Georgia’s losses the Bulldogs found themselves within a touchdown in the fourth quarter, yet they couldn’t close the deal. Tereshinski, and Richt, hope that the new change will pay dividends in 2011. While the off-season chatter has been nothing but positive, most Georgia fans have adopted a believe-it-when-they-see-it approach.
Can Georgia take advantage of a soft SEC slate and get back to Atlanta, something they haven’t done since 2005? While the youth movement is a good start, there are simply too many issues for this Georgia team to reach the title game.
The one positive to take away from 2010 was the play of redshirt freshman Aaron Murray. Headed into 2010, if you had told Richt that Murray would throw for more than 3,000 yards, 24 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions, he would have taken it all day, every day. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, thought UGA’s one weakness was going to be the green quarterback. If only…
The offensive line was once again a massive disappointment. Stacy Searels bolted to Texas to take over their underachieving offensive line after coaching Georgia’s underachieving unit for three years. You’ll have to excuse Georgia fans for laughing when they hear Texas talk about Searels as if he’s the second coming. They thought the same thing, yet it turned out quite differently.
In place of Searels is Will Friend, a former Alabama star offensive lineman who’s been the offensive line coach at UAB for a few years. Friend will have two solid building blocks with center Ben Jones and LT Cordy Glenn. Former freshman All-American Trinton Sturdivant was set to give UGA a troika of dependable, solid offensive lineman until he tore his ACL for the third time in four years this spring, ending his football career. After AJ Harmon transferred because he couldn’t pass class and former all-world recruit Bret Benedict transferred to Virginia Tech after a dispute about the new S&C program (cough***pussy***cough) UGA was left with a VERY thin offensive line. Kenarious Gates will once again start. After a solid (true) freshman campaign, he is going to be heavily relied on throughout 2011.
After the 2009 game against Georgia Tech, Bulldog fans were salivating at the thought of having Caleb King and Washaun Ealey as a dynamic running back duo; then 2010 happened. Both King and Ealey were terribly inconsistent, both fumbling the ball in crucial moments (see: South Carolina, Mississippi State and Colorado). Well, UGA fans won’t have to worry about either player anymore as both have left, albeit for different reasons. Ealey
was pushed transferred out after being told he was going to have to earn carries, and then King was declared academically ineligible this summer, ending his college career.
This is where the “Dream Team” of recruits comes into play. Running back Isaiah Crowell was one of the most sought-after recruits in the nation in 2011, and he is being dubbed the savior of the Bulldog program by (idiot) fans. Crowell was going to see loads of playing time with Ealey and King on the roster, now he’ll get the bulk of the carries once he settles in. Before that happens, running back-turned-linebacker-turned-running back Richard Samuel will hold down the fort alongside redshirt freshman Ken “Boo” Malcolm. Crowell is easily the most talented back on the roster, but if he can’t learn pass protection (he comes from a very simple high school offense) he won’t see the field as much as most fans are expecting.
While the running back position needs to be fixed, the biggest replacement job will fall on the wide receivers. Georgia will no longer have the luxury of looking out wide and seeing AJ Green matched up with some poor, helpless defensive back. Instead they’ll see Tavarres King, Marlon Brown and Rantavious Wooten. All are solid, nice wide receivers, but none are even close to what Green was. Ahh, but the Dream Team may strike again. Georgia won a hard-fought battle with Alabama for the services of Malcolm Mitchell. Alabama saw him as a defensive back (as did Rivals) but Georgia liked him as a wide receiver. If pre-season reports are accurate, Georgia may have found exactly what they need on the edge. King is a solid collegiate wide receiver, but if you pair him with a game-breaker like Mitchell, all of the sudden the wide receivers aren’t as big of a question mark.
The one thing Georgia does have going for them as far as pass catchers go is all-everything tight end Orson Charles. The hybrid WR/TE is expected to be one of the focal points of the offense in 2011 (think Antonio Gates and the San Diego Chargers). After only catching 26 balls for 422 yards a year ago, look for Murray and Charles to hook up for closer to 50 balls in 2011.
While the offense always gets the hype, the defense is almost always what wins or loses a title. For Georgia, the loss of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder (Atlanta Falcons’ DC) was the turning point for the program as a whole. VanGorder was a classic hardass defensive coordinator who got the best out of his players on every single snap. After he left to take the head coaching job at Georgia Southern, Richt promoted the defensive backs coach, Willie Martinez, to the head job. It was a total disaster.
Where VanGorder brought exotic blitz schemes and an aura of superiority, Martinez brought soft zone coverages and an even softer personality. Under Martinez the UGA defense went from feared to ignored. Insert Todd Grantham, formerly the defensive line coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
In his first year as DC, Georgia improved in most categories, but they still weren’t a very good defense. One of the biggest reasons for the average defense was that UGA didn’t have the personnel to run Grantham’s 3-4 scheme. DeAngelo Tyson was a 290-pound 3-4 end being forced to play NT. He, unsurprisingly, got his ass handed to him more times than not. UGA fans and coaches are excited about the prospects of year-2 under Grantham because they now have not one, but two legit 3-4 NTs in JUCO transfer Jonathan Jenkins (6-foot-4, 340) and spring practice sensation Kwame Geathers (6-foot-6, 340). This presence of Jenkins and Geathers will enable Tyson to slide over to end, his more natural position. The other end will be Arby Jones (6-foot-3, 297), giving Georgia a 900-pound front three. When the Bulldogs are forced into the nickel package, both Geathers and Jenkins will line up side-by-side, giving UGA a potentially dominant pair of DTs.
The linebackers suffered the biggest hit via graduation and attrition as only one starter returns, leaving Georgia to replace the first, third and fourth leading tacklers from a year ago. There is reason for optimism however, as all three of the new starters are more athletic. USC transfer and former all-world recruit Jarvis Jones is slated to replace Justin Houston as the team’s best pass rusher, but his eligibility is in question after a longtime acquaintance allegedly paid for some of his flight to Los Angeles when he was a Trojan. Most expect him to miss UGA’s biggest games (Boise State and South Carolina), though his pre-existing relationship with the person who paid for the tickets gives Georgia some hope.
Alec Ogletree was moved from strong safety to inside linebacker, and if he picks up the scheme he could be the surprise player of the SEC in 2011. He lays the wood and can run sideline to sideline with ease. Christian Robinson is the unquestioned leader of the defense and he will line up inside with Ogletree. The biggest X-Factor for the linebackers will be Cornelius Washington. At 6-foot-4, 260 lbs he’s the perfect pass-rushing OLB in the 3-4. Look for him to put his hand on the ground when Grantham goes to the nickel package. He has a chance to be explosive off of the edge. “Dream Team” member Ray Drew, the bulldogs’ highest rated recruit from the ballyhooed class, will get plenty of playing time as the linebackers have taken some hits in the offseason, and have only six players with any playing time on the roster. Reports out of practice indicate Drew is closer to Washington than he should be, meaning Washington may be in trouble of losing a starting spot at some point during the season.
The secondary is a scary mix of potentially great and potentially terrible. The two starting corners are solid, led by senior Brandon Boykin. Sanders Commings played much better at the end of the year after a poor start, so look for him to start opposite Boykin, though Georgia is toying with him at one of the safety positions. The nickel back will be Branden Smith, the poorly utilized DB/WR (he should be a full-time slot WR in my opinion). Look for Dream Team members Nick Marshall, Damien Swann and Chris Sanders to get legitimate looks at early playing time.
The biggest worry out of the secondary comes at both safety positions. With Ogletree now a linebacker, Jakar Hamilton will slide into the starting role at free safety with Bacarri Rambo holding down the strong safety spot. Rambo hasn’t been the same since suffering a brutal concussion against Auburn two years ago, and Hamilton was nothing special last season either. The first year of the 3-4 scheme saw the Bulldogs suffer from some terrible (and I mean TERRIBLE) blown coverage assignments, something that simply cannot happen in 2011. If the safeties play good, solid football, UGA could have one of the better defenses in the SEC in 2011. The potential is there, but the secondary is weak point. One injury here or there and it could be a severe liability for Richt and Co.
I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or not, but the strongest aspect of Georgia’s 2011 team will be its special teams. The Bulldogs have perhaps the best tandem of kickers in the nation with Blaire Walsh (K) and Drew Butler (P). Butler’s net average was more than 40 yards per punt while Walsh was 20/23, including 2/2 from 50+ yards. Not only will Georgia be strong in the kicking game, they have perhaps the best kickoff return man in the game in Boykin. The senior averaged more than 24 yards per return a year ago, including taking back his 4th career kickoff return for a touchdown. Branden Smith returns as the punt return ace after averaging more than 14 yards per return. Coaches have said they might give Boykin a look at PR as Smith can be hit or miss as far as fielding the punts. If games come down to kicking, punting or the return game, Georgia should have an edge over just about every team they’ll play.
Boise State (Atlanta, Ga.)
Florida (Jacksonville, Fla.)
New Mexico State