Immediately after the disappointing loss to Nebraska in the Gator Bowl, Mark Richt and his coaches and players were anxious to look ahead to next season.
Linebacker Jordan Jenkins was typical of the Bulldog locker room chatter when he talked about the Dogs just needing to fix “the little things” in order to be back on track.
That put the team in sync with many fans, who back in midseason 2013 already were waxing optimistic about Georgia’s chances next season once all those injured star players are back healthy.
After all, assuming Malcolm Mitchell, Keith Marshall and Justin Scott-Wesley come back 100 percent to join Todd Gurley and Michael Bennett, Mike Bobo’s record-setting offense should be a mostly veteran unit loaded with talent. True, the quarterback who owns most of the SEC’s records, Aaron Murray, will be gone, but projected starter Hutson Mason has years in the program and got a head start by playing the last couple of games this season.
Also, Georgia doesn’t look to lose any underclassmen to the NFL, and it will lose only one defensive starter. And while the schedule starts out with Clemson and South Carolina, it again doesn’t include the likes of LSU, Alabama or Texas A&M from the SEC West.
Sounds like a pretty good situation. But looking at the nagging problems that plagued Richt’s program this year, and the likelihood that some of them might continue to be issues, perhaps the Bulldog Nation needs to temper its expectations slightly for 2014.
For starters, Mason has quite a way to go before he’ll be capable of operating Bobo’s offense fully like Murray did. Against Nebraska in the Gator Bowl, it wasn’t just a slippery ball that hindered the former backup QB. Postgame talk indicated he had “trust” issues with not only his inconsistent offensive line against the Cornhuskers’ formidable pass rush, but also with his receivers (hence all the passes to Gurley out of the backfield and the lack of many long throws downfield). Plus, Mason’s penchant for wanting to go uptempo means he’s less likely to check out of a bad play than Murray, who was like a coach on the field at times.
Speaking of inconsistent or underperforming offensive lines, that’s been a weak point of Richt teams ever since Jim Donnan’s players graduated, and the prospects for 2014 are cloudy at best, with starters Kenarious Gates, Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee departing. Chances are the OL is going to take a few games to gel, and even then that doesn’t guarantee consistency, based on past seasons.
Elsewhere on the offense, the skill players should all be back, but assuming tight end Jay Rome gets completely healthy will he be able to block and catch at the level of departing Artie Lynch?
Of course, Gurley is supremely talented and is alone reason for optimism, but he was never fully healthy during the 2013 season and getting him back to 100 percent and keeping him there is a must for Georgia’s oft-questioned conditioning staff in 2014. Georgia doesn’t need a repeat of the Gator Bowl scenario, where the team’s best player at times was kept on the sideline while the offense was in the red zone because the coaches felt he was too tired.
As for the defense, there’s a lot of skepticism out there about Todd Grantham and his ability to get his players all on the same page. The run defense was much improved this year and the defensive front should again be a strength in 2014, but while the mostly young players in Georgia’s awful secondary will have a year of experience under their belts, the almost complete lack of progress seen during the 2013 season isn’t very encouraging.
I thought the dismal situation with the defensive backs, so often out of position or failing to make tackles this year, was summed up pretty well by safety Quincy Mauger talking about whiffing on his attempted tackle on Nebraska’s 99-yard touchdown pass. “In the SEC and I guess in the Big 10 you have to wrap up. At all times,” Mauger said. “I failed to do that so next time I’ll have to put that in my head.”
Thirteen games into a season and he hadn’t figured out yet that you have to wrap up a tackle??!! You wonder whether it’s the players who are unteachable or the defensive coaches who simply don’t have a clue when it comes to developing young talent.
And then there’s the most clueless aspect of Georgia football under Richt: special teams. Luckily enough, Marshall Morgan righted himself this season and became money in the bank on PATs and field goals, and while he had trouble getting touchbacks, Georgia’s kick coverage generally was pretty good. Late in the season, the problem getting punts off without having them blocked even seemed to be fixed.
But Richt has all but abandoned a key aspect of the game: punt returns. The tendency in the past to bite on fake punts has meant Georgia now plays punt safe, meaning the defensive starters are left in and no real attempt is made at crafting a return. As long as you field the ball safely, that at least doesn’t hurt the team, though it passes up a chance at improving field position or even breaking a score.
But too often this year we saw players back there receiving punts who acted like they’d never been taught how to do it, resulting in fumbles and easy points for the other team. If they’ve even been coached on how to receive a punt, the lessons obviously haven’t taken.
Special teams is an area where fans long have been demanding change, but it’s also one where Richt has shown his most stubborn streak, and I don’t anticipate special teams getting any better in 2014. Which means you can figure there’ll be at least a game or two where catastrophic special teams plays might be a factor in an unexpected loss.
And then there’s that schedule, which really doesn’t look to be quite as easy as many anticipated when it first was announced, thanks to the return of Auburn to elite status and the rise of Missouri and Vanderbilt, both of whom beat Georgia in 2013.
So, the bottom line is that a lot needs fixing, as Jenkins put it, if the Bulldogs are going to do better than nine or 10 wins next season and have a shot at making the new college football playoff.
I’m not feeling that optimistic right now; how about you?
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg