We're almost back around to the time of year we all look forward to. It's hard to believe it's been 7 months since we watched that amazing Peach Bowl comeback. It's also hard to believe we're just over a week from watching football in Sanford again. For those of you familiar with my diatribes, take this for what it's worth, one fan's perspective on the team. I don't pretend to know everything. This is merely for fun and hopefully it will be an enjoyable read to get you more ready for the season (as if you needed help on that).
The State of the Program
It's really hard to fathom that this will be Mark Richt's 7th season between the hedges. He's developed nicely from an un-trained, oft-questioned first-year head coach into a man widely regarded as one of the top coaches in the country, much less the SEC. His greatest strength might very well be that he's willing to acknowledge his weaknesses (recall that he got some offseason coaching after 2001 because he felt he had some in-game clock management issues), and this year marked perhaps the largest step Richt has taken towards improving a perceived flaw as he handed off Playcalling and Offensive Coordinator status to QB coach Mike Bobo. While fans had clamored for Richt to step aside from these duties off and on for the entirety of his tenure, there are still some questions as to how exactly this whole thing will play out.
Bobo coordinated two games last season, both wins, with one being a solid, if unspectacular, win over a good GT defense (with a brilliant final drive) and the other a veritable offensive explosion against another good defense in VT. It's widely accepted that the players love what Bobo is doing with the offense and we can expect to see more motion, more formations, etc., but I don't expect a wholesale departure from the offense that has been extremely successful in most all statistical categories since Richt's arrival. While we never really saw the offense many thought he'd bring from FSU that some assumed would set the SEC on its ear, that can be attributed to a couple of things…one, the better defenses in the SEC and two, the rule modifications made by the SEC to curtail the use of the no-huddle (rules that specifically referenced Richt on their arrival).
While the defensive staff underwent no changes (stability has largely been a hallmark of the Richt staff), the offense saw a significant change in addition to the announcement of Bobo as OC with the departure of Neil Callaway and the addition of Stacy Searles. Searles comes to Athens from LSU where he managed to put together a string of amazing offensive lines. He is a young, fiery coach that has already left his mark on the OL by abandoning the Split-Tight designations favored by Callaway to the more traditional Left-Right designation. Early returns are that the players love him. If you were going to change OL coaches, now would be the time as we brought in a ton of OLs in the recruiting class and return only two upperclassmen. Before you get completely freaked out, we returned absolutely ZERO upperclassmen OLs in 2003 and managed to win the East (while setting a record for sacks allowed along the way).
Don't ask me what the season holds this year, there are plenty of questions, and I don't think anyone has any idea what the answers will be until the whistle blows, but if nothing else, Richt has earned my trust that he'll trot out a team that we can be proud of and one that won't give up no matter what. It would've certainly been easy for UGA to roll over last year after the UK loss, but they rallied to beat 3 straight ranked opponents, leaving us all with a much sweeter taste in our mouths this offseason. I'm not so blindly optimistic as to think we're going to win every game, we've simply got too many question marks along the OL and at various places in the defense to expect that, but every team has questions and it's certainly possible that we could pull off a miraculous run. Certainly not probable, but possible.
Quick Position Rundown…I'll try to keep it quick…
QB – Matthew Stafford certainly has all the things you look for in a QB…massive arm, mobile enough to stay upright (that might come in more handy this year), smart, charismatic, etc. He made big strides late in the year last year and from all accounts he's continued that progression through the offseason. He managed to pull these stats together in the most recent scrimmage against our #2 D…14-17, 218 yards and 4 TDs to 4 different receivers. Now that's exciting. Behind him, Joe Cox has been so good that Richt has announced Cox will get in for a series in the opener. Cox is the steady, confident backup every team wants. He's a team favorite and he's got a great approach to being the backup. We're in a great spot at QB this year
Top Question: Will Stafford make the next step towards fulfilling his promise?
Future Star: You still have to go with Stafford.
RB – loaded again. Kregg Lumpkin returns for his senior season and Thomas Brown amazingly appears recovered from his ACL tear to be pushing for the start. They both are good, steady backs, with neither being a pure breakaway threat we've lacked for a few years. The buzz around redshirt freshman Knowshon Moreno is as loud as any in recent years. True-freshman Caleb King is as talented a 4th string back as you'll find and could be the homerun threat we've appeared to lack in recent years although camp hamstring injuries have kept him off the field and possibly heading for a redshirt.
Top Question: Will Moreno live up to the hype?
Future Star: Knowshon Moreno appears to have it all
FB – Brannan Southerland is beyond solid. He returns and brings two touted redshirts with him in Fred Munzenmaier and Shaun Chapas. We've been blessed with excellent FB play under Richt, but Southerland is more than just a blocker, as evidenced by his lengthy reception in the G-Day game and his constant inclusion on short-yardage rushes.
Top Question: Who wins out the #2 spot behind Southerland?
Future Star: Fred Munzenmaier has the size you want plus a great football name.
WR – This is a strength in numbers position. We've got 13 guys (literally) that are vying for time and hopefully out of that bunch we can pull enough solid contributors to avoid the inconsistencies that dogged the position last season. Mohamed Massaquoi struggled at times but closed the year with a series of clutch catches in the win over GT. Kenneth Harris has the measurables but disappeared often last season. The return of Sean Bailey and Demiko Goodman from injury should help to stretch the field. Youngsters Mike Moore and Tony Wilson will add a physical presence. A.J. Bryant has always been on the cusp of a breakout. There's a ton of talent in this unit, we just need for it to start showing.
Top Question: Who steps up to become the go-to guy and can we catch the ball consistently?
Future Star: True Frosh Walter Hill has been generating some buzz but will likely redshirt
TE – Milner is gone to ATL. For the first time in years we don't appear to have a true weapon at the TE position. Tripp Chandler is a solid option but he's not going to be a guy that defenses key on like Watson, Pope or even Milner for that matter. NaDerris Ward has the size and speed, but he missed a chunk of spring, hindering his development. Bruce Figgins has been impressive early. Aron White is like Weapon X (whatever that is)…he's a hybrid that the coaches want to get on the field.
Top Question: Can Ward emerge as the next great UGA TE?
Future Star: Bruce Figgins appears to be a blocking machine
OL – This is where things start to get shaky. Gone are Inman, Shackleford and Jones, stalwarts of the OL for a number of years. In their place, we're going to trot out a mixture of OLs that will likely result in not a single returning starter (at the same position) as the lone 2 returnees (Fernando Velasco and Chester Adams at both guard spots) are presently slotted for OC and RT. A talented incoming freshman class and well-chosen JUCOs have resulted in enough bodies to fill out the depth chart, but it remains to be seen how this will affect the quality of the line. Given the nearly complete turnover in the depth chart (in addition to the departed starters, backups Watts and Smith are also gone), now is as good a time as any to bring in a new OL coach with his different schemes, nomenclature and techniques. Searles comes as highly regarded as an OL coach possibly could. If he manages to put together an effective line with this group, he's worth every penny we paid him. Early Camp injuries to Adams (RT) and JUCO signee Scott Haverkamp (RG), together known as Team Extreme (self described), resulted in a line that consisted of 1 senior (Velasco), 1 redshirt-Frosh (Chris Davis) and no fewer than 3 true freshmen (Trinton Sturdivant, Clint Boling and Justin Anderson). While that's great for the future, it's a significantly scary proposition for the immediate present. With injuries being such a potential issue for depth, Kiante Tripp offered to move over to OT from his DE spot. Richt has raved about the sheer athleticism Tripp brings to the spot and if he's able to add a few pounds, don't be surprised to see him out there, he's going to be special. Don't forget, he was a highly rated OT recruit out of HS.
Top Question: Can Trinton Sturdivant adequately handle LT as a true freshman?
Future Star: Kiante Tripp has NFL OT written all over him
DT – Gant, Elmore and Dixson are gone. In their place we added JUCO signee Corvey Irvin and Ricardo Crawford and Brandon Wood from the redshirt ranks. Jeff Owens is the clear leader of this group, bringing quickness and surprising strength for his somewhat under-sized frame. He didn't have quite the year last year many expected, mainly because expectations were so high. Kade Weston still has the potential to shine given his size and our needs. Geno Atkins seems to be a favorite of DT coach Rodney Garner. Last year was his first as a DL and he managed to see the field. I expect good things from him although he's somewhat undersized as well. Jarius Wynn has cross-trained here as well and should provide some interior pass rush.
Top Question: Can Irvin contribute immediately, shoring up our depth?
Future Star: Geno Atkins was impressive last year and should continue to improve
DE – Moses and Johnson didn't have quite the season everyone pegged them to have, but they were still players that opposing OCs had to gameplan for. Right now, we don't have anyone that is going to scare anybody right away. I feel like I should be more worried about DE than I am, but the last time I was concerned about DE was when I was wondering how we were going to replace Charles Grant's QB pressure when it appeared an unathletic converted DT was slotted for his spot. That DT was Pollack and if you don't remember, he turned out OK (3 time AA). The apparent starters right now are Marcus Howard and Roderick Battle, neither of whom is overly large, with Howard being downright small at 6-2, 235. Battle has been impressive in limited action, but he's yet to prove he's an every down DE in the SEC. There are a couple of impressive bodies in the redshirt freshman class in Demarcus Dobbs and Michael Lemon as well as redshirt sophomore Jeremy Lomax who has begun to add weight to his lanky frame. Dobbs in particular has been mentioned as developing nicely. Given the departure of both Tripp and Wynn from the DE position battle, the coaches have to feel pretty good about the situation there.
Top Question: Can Battle turn his good numbers in limited time into an all-conf season?
Future Star: DeMarcus Dobbs sounds like he's ready to step it up
LB – Jackson, Taylor and Verdun-Wheeler completed what seemed to be their 8th years of eligibility last season. Taylor will be most difficult to replace as he blossomed as a playmaker last season, making several clutch INTs and a particularly memorable fumble recovery and TD in the win over GT. After a brief, and somewhat misleading, fling at MLB, Brandon Miller moves back out to his more comfortable SLB spot which he's manned for 3 years now. With that taking place, Dannell Ellerbe moves inside to MLB and Darius Dewberry kicks over to WLB, where he could really raise some havoc. Ellerbe apparently go the coaches extremely excited with his play at MLB. Given his size (6-1, 235) and number (33), let's hope for an Odell Thurman type season (on the field). Rennie Curran has been all that was advertised and appears to have nailed down the backup slot at WLB. Marcus Washington had a good camp and is entrenched as the backup at MLB after struggling with injuries and weight in his first two seasons in Athens. Akeem Dent is a very solid backup at SLB. LB is a solid 2 deep talent-wise but aside from Miller there's not a whole lot of experience.
Top Question: Can Ellerbe make an impact at MLB?
Future Star: Rennie Curran just screams future fan favorite
S – Tra Battle's undersized body and oversized heart graduated. In his place, C.J. Byrd gets the nod initially to join Kelin Johnson as a starting safety. Both guys have good size and solid ball skills, but their backups are what have Dawg fans salivating. Reshad Jones showed at G-Day why he was the nation's top rated safety out of HS. He's got a nose for the ball and isn't afraid to hit anybody. His fellow backup Quintin Banks appears to be the next in line for the Thomas Davis-Greg Blue guided missile award. Safety is in good shape.
Top Question: How does Martinez get Jones on the field?
Future Star: Reshad Jones is living up to the hype so far
CB – Losing Oliver is tough, but if we could absorb the loss of a projected AA at any position, it would have to be CB. Even with his loss, we've got 4 young guys that I would feel comfortable seeing start in Asher Allen, Prince Miller, Bryan Evans and Ramarcus Brown. Allen has really had a good camp so far and Evans was starting to grow into his considerable talents before tweaking his hamstring. He really looked good at the end of last season. Prince Miller saw the field as a freshman last fall and is no slouch either. As if from nowhere, nearly forgotten senior Thomas Flowers appears to have taken a starting spot with Allen backing him up. Donovan Baldwin will provide depth. Vance Cuff took forever to get on campus but has drawn rave reviews from players and coaches and could possibly see the field. Brown sits the first two games but when he returns, he'll provide another uber-talented underclassman body with starting experience to the table…we're stacked at CB.
Top Question: Is Evans ready to take his game to the next level?
Future Star: You pick...Allen, Evans, Miller, Brown and Cuff are all young…and good
ST – Brandon Coutu is everything you want in a kicker…big leg, no fear. He's just unflappable. His injury might have been the most damaging injury we've received in recent years. He's probably also our best punter but I'd be surprised if we asked him to do it. Brian Mimbs and Kevin Butler's son Drew Butler are still battling it out for the job. Ely-Kelso struggled at times last season, so I wouldn't expect a big drop off. Mikey Henderson and Flowers might be the top pair of punt returns in the country. We've got lots of weapons to try at the kick return spot. The new rules will likely force more teams to go to a directional kickoff, something we've been doing for years.
Top Question: Who will win the punting job and can they excel? (OK, that's two)
Future Star: Given his pedigree, I wouldn't vote against Drew Butler
The Incoming Class
Not everyone out there obsesses about UGA as much as we (ok, I) do so for those less addicted fans (what's wrong with you?) here's a rundown (with numbers!) of our incoming freshman class, grouped into their likelihood of seeing the field. Given that Richt recently did a rundown of about half these guys, this is a fairly sturdy limb I'm climbing out on.
• OT Trinton Sturdivant (#77) – our starting LT since spring
• OG Scott Haverkamp (#70) – our starting RG from JUCO
• OG Justin Anderson (#79) – prep-schooler hasn't dominated, but provides mobile beef
• OT Vince Vance (#72) – already redshirted at JUCO
• OL Clint Boling (#60) – backup guard and tackle has really impressed, helps with depth
• LB Rennie Curran (#35) – backup at WLB, could be a special teams enforcer
• TE Bruce Figgins (#89) – has shown incredibly developed blocking skills
• DT Corvey Irvin (#90) – adds beef in the middle
• DL Jarius Wynn (#99) – a solid addition, will play inside and out
The Bubble Guys
• TE Aron White (#87) – coaches really seem undecided here…he'll be a mismatch though
• LB Charles White (#43) – an injury away from the 2-deep, he came in ready
• CB Vance Cuff (#25) – has gotten good reviews, but the secondary is loaded
• P Drew Butler (#13) – obviously if he wins the punting job, move him up
The Likely Redshirts
• RB Caleb King (#22) – crowded backfield and injury have held back future multi-threat star
• WR Walter Hill (#80) – very impressive, but raw…when polished he'll be dangerous
• WR Isreal Troupe (#28) – victim of crowded WR corps
• DE Neland Ball (#92) – 6-5, 220 lb DE has to gain weight
• QB Logan Gray (#19) – if he plays, something's gone horribly wrong
• OG Ben Harden (#76) – all of the incoming OL can't play
• OG Tanner Strickland (#54) – see Harden, plus Tanner was hurt
• OT Chris Little (#73) – see Strickland, plus he came in a little heavy (think darker Fulmer)
• LB Justin Houston (#42) – move to LB pretty much locked down a redshirt
• S John Knox (#32) – latest arrival because of academic questions, shape a concern
5 Potential Breakout Players
Two things to look for in a breakout player…1) opportunity and 2) talent. These guys have the opportunity to help out this season coupled with the talent to take advantage of it. Breakout doesn't necessarily mean All-American, it might just mean a significant improvement over expectations or past performance. This is where I go out on a limb (some sturdier than others…these are all pretty safe this year) and say whom I think is due to take advantage of their opportunity by applying their talent.
1 – Sean Bailey – This guy has been tabbed for a breakout for years now. Coming off injury, he's probably the one guy of our baker's dozen of WR prospects that is a pure deep threat. He's got speed and always seems to have that knack for getting behind a DB. If he and Stafford can get on the same page, look out.
2 – Bryan Evans – Evans was likely to start opposite Oliver anyway, but with Oliver gone, there will be that much more focus on him. He had an excellent bowl game and really appeared to be ready to fulfill the promise he had coming in as an Army All-American. He's always had the speed and has now added the strength after becoming one of the strongest DBs on the team.
3 – Dannell Ellerbe – Ellerbe has always had the physical ability but his playing time has always been blocked by Tony Taylor or Jarvis Jackson. With their graduation, Ellerbe finally has a clear path to playing time. He certainly looks the part, now it's time to just step up and get it done. He's an aggressive, fierce LB that (especially given his move inside) will remind you of Odell. He's even had a few off-field issues in his past to cement the comparison. In all seriousness, most everyone has just been waiting for this guy to bust out and this is his shot.
4 – Trinton Sturdivant – Last year I went with a "hope so" pick (Weston) that was a guy who I hoped would succeed more than I honestly felt he would. If ever a guy was put in a position to either fly or crash, it's a freshman LT in the SEC. Considering he pretty much walked onto campus and immediately too over the LT spot, he's living up (at least moderately) to his considerable advance billing. I say modestly only because it's not like he unseated a gaggle of upperclassmen, seasoned vets. He was already comfortable with Searles techniques and has the athleticism and length you look for in the position. He's done nothing to get passed at LT, so I feel confident saying he's going to be a good, maybe great one for us, the only question is when.
5 – CJ Byrd – He came in with all the accolades you could hope for and has patiently sat behind others, learning what Martinez calls the toughest position to get down in our system. With the departure of Tra Battle and the subsequent opening at safety, Byrd gets first crack at becoming the next great UGA safety. Fans (myself included) can't wait to see redshirts Reshad Jones and Quintin Banks back there, but we can't forget that Byrd has great ball skills and pretty much everything you're looking for in a safety in addition to more time in the system, which hopefully will translate to fewer blown assignments. I really don't like pegging a buy for a breakout by saying I hope he's going to have fewer blown assignments.
• It occurred to me when I sat down to do this that this makes 5 years worth of Random Thoughts. I'm pretty sure that means I've cycled through everything, so if you've read it before, humor me. Oh, as always, ignore the typos, they're like my calling card.
• Not sure if you caught it or not, but my constant beef (no pun intended) with stadium concessions at Sanford is in the process of being addressed. Apparently they are adding a Zaxby's for next season (2008). I can only imagine the lines at that place. Zaxby's is already slow…now add 90,000+ folks tired of eating the same gas station nachos and hotdogs for a decade and I think we're going to have to come up with some kind of call ahead system. It seems they are also adding a Starbucks,
• I told myself I wouldn't touch this topic, but I had to. The whole Nick Saban thing is reaching a level of absurdity that can only be reached by football in the state of Alabama. Saban, just by being his smug self (look at the guy…every single picture of him you just know he's thinking he's Caesar) has achieved multiple things without even coaching a game yet. 1) Auburn fans, despite having a 5-game win streak, are completely beside themselves trying to fight back their inadequacy issues 2) he's made Bama interesting, in a bad way, as in I'm interested to watch Bama lose only to see this pompous jerk fall on his face 3) he's made the SEC west even more of an incestuous, hate-filled division which I didn't think was possible…think of it, Tommy Tubberville left Ole Miss for AU, Saban left LSU for his dream job (which he abandoned after 2 years) to end up in Bama…you already have the whole AU-Bama thing anyway…it's like professional wrestling, only less believable and with the exception of Ed Orgeron, steroid free.
• So I was talking to my old college roommate who is now an ECON professor (I have smart friends) and he was explaining to me that UGA is inadvertently responsible for the monster that is Notre Dame football. Walk with me here. In the early 80's (I think), UGA (along with Oklahoma…maybe) challenged the existing standards that prohibited colleges being televised more than a few times each season, with TV revenues being shared. At the time, college football was becoming a more viable TV option and UGA saw the considerable potential advantages (there's probably an econ term he used here, but I didn't take his class). Anyway, they challenged and had the rule overturned. The end result was no restriction to the number of appearances, leagues could get their own TV deals and so could, as it turn out, teams. ND eventually was able to make a deal with Satan…I mean NBC, which allowed them to not only appear on national TV weekly, but also to earn enough money in doing so that they could avoid advances from conferences seeking to have them join (that would be the Big 10/11). Not exactly sure how they were able to negotiate the fraud of a BCS deal they have, but I'm sure it was tied in somehow and I just forgot. We had this conversation at the Taco Stand in Athens a few Fridays ago, so I'm piecing it back together as best I can. Anyway, there you have it (mostly), impress your friends.
• I have to say I'm really looking forward to the OSU game for a lot of reasons. 1) it's the start of the football season (seriously) and 2) I love having new, out of region opponents come to Athens. I say that because these out of region games don't have that built-in hate that conference games or other regional matchups do (see Clemson and GT). Colorado was a great example. Great folks. Judging from this picture I saw online, OSU fans seem to be a little different. I have to say I always pictured cowboys wearing the non-foam variety of hat.
• Given that temps have hit 100 or higher what seems like 25 out of the last 20 days, imagine my surprise when I checked the extended forecast for the weather in Athens and saw that the projected high is only in the upper 80s. That's going to feel like 60s given what we've been through. Especially if it's overcast (which it's supposed to be) with an evening kickoff.
Well, I've rambled enough for now. Forgive my preseason sloppiness; I've got another week to get in shape…