Let’s get straight to some of this week’s Junkyard Mail. …
Stuart in Austin, Texas, writes: Bill, I’m encouraged by the information coming out of the first few spring practices regarding the defense. Focusing more on fundamentals (specifically tackling and bringing opposing players to the ground vs. the bumping often done under coaches Willie Martinez and Todd Grantham), increasing the overall pace of practices, evening out the reps for all players, keeping the schemes and terminology simple, and better communication particularly in the secondary. This new run to the ball without overcomplicating the schemes sounds good, but I’m concerned it could hurt us against teams like Auburn and Georgia Tech where disciplined, assignment football is crucial. Martinez and Grantham defenses did perform relatively well against both AU and Tech. In the 2014 BCS Championship game, Coach Jeremy Pruitt’s Florida State defense held AU to 31 points, but he had a month to prepare and better athletes than our 2013-2014 defense, which held AU to 36 points (garbage final TD not included). We have a while to go until the season starts, but what are your thoughts?
Well, compared with the tentative, reactive defense that the Dogs displayed too often last season, the idea of encouraging them to swarm to the football and play a faster-paced, more aggressive style of defense strikes me as a really good thing. Too often under Grantham we saw players trying to figure what the defensive call was and where they were supposed to be. You’re right about the dangers of going too fast if players commit too early or overpursue, but playing a more uptempo defense doesn’t have to mean getting burned by spread-option or read-option teams. The key, as you noted, is still playing disciplined assignment football. Hopefully, we’ll still see that.
Jim Jameson writes: Bill, I saw recently that LSU has beefed up its nonconference schedule over the next few years by signing to play home-and-home series with UCLA and Arizona State out of the Pac 12. Meanwhile, after opening tough the past couple of years with Clemson, Georgia fans now have the likes of Southern and ULM to look forward to, what with Greg McGarity having backed out of the previous deal with Oregon. This really bothers me for a couple of reasons. While I can see the necessity of having some cupcake games on the schedule, it really is like spitting in the eye of the UGA fans, particularly the season ticket holders, to make them pay for noncompetitive, generally boring games. And no wonder student attendance is lagging. And second, with the new College Football Playoff coming, I’m concerned that Georgia might get aced out by a team that’s played a tougher nonconference schedule. Your thoughts, please?
Let’s remember first of all that, unlike LSU and quite a few other SEC schools, Georgia plays a major nonconference opponent every year — Georgia Tech. And while McGarity generally prefers to fill out the rest of the nonconference schedule with games the Dogs are considered a lock to win (aka cupcakes), he’s indicated that one of the reasons he’s opposed to a possible expansion of the SEC schedule to nine conference games is that it would pretty much preclude adding a second major nonconference opponent like Clemson to the schedule occasionally. (McGarity has held off on future schedules while the SEC figures out what its future plans are.)
The impetus behind the possible nine-game conference schedule is to upgrade the product (for ESPN and the SEC Network) with an eye also on the strength-of-schedule component in playoff selections. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive has said that he’d like conference teams to play 10 hard games a year, and if the conference goes to nine games, Georgia would have that with the conference schedule plus Tech. Adding another such game would mean 11 major opponents out of 14, which might impress the selection committee if you win them all, but would make it tougher to do so.
If the SEC does not go to nine games, then I definitely would like to see Georgia schedule another major opponent occasionally. Ohio State backed out of a deal, but there reportedly have been informal discussions about possibly scheduling FSU. Of course, keep in mind a home-and-home deal with a major opponent like Clemson means that some years that would dictate one less home game in Athens. Another option for adding the occasional big name to the schedule is a one-shot neutral-site game like the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta.
However, there’s another aspect to all of this that concerns me, and that’s opening the season with a major nonconference opponent, like last season and this season. Since it appears to be a fact of life that Georgia is almost guaranteed to have some players suspended for the first game or two each season thanks to its tougher disciplinary policies, opening with a cupcake makes the most sense. So, even if there’s a year where a Clemson or some other major program gets added, I’d prefer it to be later in the season.
Rich Rochester writes: I haven’t heard anything yet about special teams play.
Inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler, who along with tight ends coach John Lilly is now coordinating Georgia’s special teams, told the Athens Banner-Herald this week that the Dogs are devoting two practice periods a day and a walk-through to special teams, and that new drills have been added and schemes have been changed (hopefully meaning no more blocked punts!). Ekeler and Lilly are the special teams coordinators, but new defensive assistant Kevin Sherrer is “heavily involved over there,” Ekeler told the ABH. Sherrer works with the punt team protection, kickoffs and punt block. Tony Ball handles kickoff returns. Six assistants in all have a hand in special teams, Lilly said, and up to five may work on one unit, but the difference this season is that the ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of Georgia’s special teams will lie with Lilly (punting team, kickoff returns, field goals/extra points) and Ekeler (kickoff coverage, punt returns, blocking field goals/PATs). Mark Richt told the paper that the goal is for all defensive starters to play on at least two special teams, but walk-ons with special-team expertise, such as Kosta Vavlas or Lucas Redd, won’t be pulled off “just to say we’ve got a starter in there.” Lilly said there’s more competition on units for spots than in past springs. “We’ve got three- and four-deep fighting it out,” he said. We’ll have to wait until the season, of course, to know whether all of this is enough to straighten out Georgia’s problems with special teams play.
Andrew Hall writes: Hey Bill, I attended both NIT games at Stegeman this year and was very pleased with the general admission seating method. During the first game against Vermont the crowd was absolutely electric and played a huge role in the Dawgs pulling out a victory. Having the fans packed down into the lower level generated a great atmosphere and hostile environment on the court for the opponent. What do you think the chances are that the athletic department considers keeping the general admission seating for the upcoming regular season?
UGA athletics officials and coach Mark Fox definitely noticed the energy generated by the crowds at the two NIT games held at Stegeman and are at work trying to figure out how to enhance the home-court advantage next season. Said athletic director McGarity this week: “We’ve got a group of staff that are working on some options internally, on how we can capture that enthusiasm that was in Stegeman for those two NIT games. Is there some way that we can develop that general admission atmosphere? I’m not sure where that leads us. But we’re certainly going to look at it and see if there are some options we can do to kind of mirror that enthusiasm for this coming season. Because as everybody noticed it made a huge difference.” It’s unlikely that UGA would go to a complete general admission policy for all games because they’ve got to take into account the season ticket holders, and there’s also the danger of opposing fans arriving early and packing the courtside seats. (Particularly during Bruce Pearl’s tenure, Tennessee fans have been known to flock to Stegeman when the Vols play there.) But McGarity told reporters Georgia is exploring whether there’s some combination approach that might allow fans to improve their seating. I think that sounds like a great idea. I’ve long been frustrated when attending games at the Steg by the fact that so many of the lower-level seats, obviously held by season-ticket buyers, sit empty for the whole game. Perhaps a policy could be instituted where fans from the upper level could be relocated down into those empty seats — maybe during the first long timeout of the first half or, if that is seen as too disruptive, perhaps at halftime. That way, at least for the latter part of the game, the lower stands would be packed with fans.
John Hendrix writes: Bill, I love your Blawg and the coverage you give UGA. Your take on most subjects is spot on. I have a question. As UGA is considered a “football” school whereas Kentucky is considered a “basketball” school, why is it so hard to be successful in both? Very few programs are. I guess what I am driving at is why can’t our Dawgs be successful in both? Georgia as a state produces an abundance of superior talent in both sports, and when you take into consideration what our Athletic Department is worth (in the Top 5 nationally by most accounts), it would seem UGA is set up to reap the benefits of both sports. Greg McGarity was at a program (refuse to say their name) where they found success in both and have pretty much sustained that success over the last 15 years. No one-year wonders. Are those in power at UGA just not wanting to invest money and resources into our basketball program? I really like coach Fox and this is not meant to ignore the positives he has brought to our program, but I feel like with UGA’s immense resources both financially, and the fertile recruiting base we have for both sports, the success of both sports should not be as lopsided as they are. My opinion is UGA does not want to commit the resources to improve the b-ball program. I would really like your take on this subject.
OK, I don’t mind mentioning them: Florida is a “football” school that has had tremendous, consistent success in basketball over the past couple of decades since hiring Billy Donovan as coach. Now, part of that is likely attributable to him being an exceptional coach. And Florida also has natural built-in recruiting advantages in most sports because, hey, it’s the land of sun and fun. Could UGA duplicate that kind of success? Yes, I think so, but it’s going to take the program elevating its recruiting on a sustained basis.
As for this idea that UGA hasn’t committed enough resources to basketball or isn’t willing to spend the dollars necessary to win in the sport, I’m not sure what exactly it is that you’d like them to spend money on. OK, possibly on a larger staff of recruiting “analysts” as Nick Saban does for Alabama football. But I think most people who make this statement about Georgia not spending enough on basketball are talking about Stegeman Coliseum. And I have an inkling that a lot of those folks haven’t been to a basketball game in Athens in years and don’t know what the facilities are like nowadays. Yes, the Steg is old, but that alone doesn’t hold back a program if it wins consistently. (Ask Duke.) And the refurbishment of Georgia’s very distinctive-looking arena over the past decade has made it a much nicer facility that it used to be. Georgia certainly could afford to build a basketball palace that seats 20,000-plus (though it probably would have to be on the outskirts of campus), but while those arenas might turn the heads of a few recruits, they don’t guarantee success. Also, a giant arena half-empty wouldn’t be much fun or very intimidating at games. As for the rest of the facilities at Georgia, they’re top-notch. The basketball-gymnastics practice facility that was added to the Stegeman complex a few years ago is as nice as they come.
Basically, for Georgia to be consistently good in basketball, it requires keeping much more of the abundant talent produced by the state from going elsewhere. And the key to that probably is winning, and therein lies the conundrum facing Fox: Can you win big and consistently without landing big recruits? Can you land the big recruits without winning big and consistently? It’s tough, but the Dogs had a surprisingly successful season this year with a relatively no-name lineup. I don’t know whether Fox will be able to crack this problem, but I feel certain that building another, bigger, fancier arena isn’t the answer.
Finally, a Saturday note for Gym Dogs fans: If you’re planning on attending the NCAA Athens Regional, getting under way at 4 p.m. at Stegeman, be sure to wear black! UGA gymnastics boosters want a Blackout in the arena for the sixth-ranked home team, which enters the regional as the No. 1 seed. Danna Durante’s Gym Dogs and five other teams will be vying for two spots in the NCAA Championships April 18-20 in Birmingham. Also competing in Athens will be No. 7 Michigan, No. 18 Central Michigan, No. 22 Ohio State, North Carolina State and Rutgers.
UGA’s rotation in the regional will be: bye, bars, beam, bye, floor, vault.
Ten-time NCAA champion UGA has won a total of 23 NCAA regionals, including 13 in the past 16 years.
Go Gym Dogs!
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg