Hello from Oklahoma. Long day of traveling.
I got an e-mail earlier today asking why the AJC hasn’t done a position-by-position breakdown of the Bulldogs going into the season. Actually, we did. It ran in the newspaper in last Sunday’s college football preview section. But I’m glad you asked, and I thought it’d be appropriate to post it here on the night before the opener. . . .
Scouting report: Joe Cox has won the past 32 games he has started at quarterback. Problem is, only one of them has been in the past four years. Cox went 31-0 as the starter at Independence High School in Charlotte and won the only game he has started for Georgia (at Ole Miss in 2006). The fifth-year senior, who will graduate in December, gets one season as UGA’s starter before moving on to a planned coaching career. He doesn’t have Matthew Stafford’s big arm — or big bank account — but Georgia expects him to complete a high percentage of his passes and to provide steady management of the offense. Georgia also is expected to be creative in getting dual-threat backup QB Logan Gray into games. Promising freshmen Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger are still finding their way. “I’m pleased with all the quarterbacks, quite frankly,” coach Mark Richt said. “I think we’ve got some outstanding quarterbacks at Georgia right now.”
What must go right: Basically, Cox has to be the player on Saturdays that teammates and coaches say he has been on the practice field for years: an accurate passer, good decision-maker and consummate leader who thrives under pressure.
What could go wrong: Face it, Cox has thrown only 58 passes in games in the past four years – only 15 last season. He remains an unknown commodity on Saturdays.
Scouting report: Georgia appears set on Richard Samuel — a 6-foot-2, 224-pound, 18-year-old, sophomore tailback from Cartersville — as the starter at Knowshon Moreno’s old spot. Samuel is a physical runner who might be able to carry a heavy load, but other tailbacks also figure to find roles as Georgia tries to replace Moreno’s 1,400 rushing yards and 392 receiving yards. The 5-foot-7 Carlton Thomas and (when healthy) the former Gwinnett County prep star Caleb King likely will be part of the equation, and freshman Washaun Ealey might still work his way into it, too. While tailback remains a work-in-progress, there is clarity at fullback, where junior Shaun Chapas, a powerful blocker, is entrenched. “He makes coaching that position very easy,” running backs coach Bryan McClendon said.
What must go right: Clearly, the Bulldogs have to run the ball effectively. They are 37-3 in the Richt era in games in which they have a 100-yard rusher.
What could go wrong: The coaches’ main concern about Samuel has been that he has a bit of a reputation for fumbling. If that recurs, he’ll be on the sidelines.
Scouting report: A young, injury-ravaged line held up reasonably well last season, and a healthier, more experienced line is expected to be a pillar of this year’s team. The best news for this group is that Trinton Sturdivant, a starter as a freshman in 2007, is back at left tackle after missing last season because of knee surgery. Other projected starters are: left guard Chris Davis, who started every game last season at three different spots on the line; center Ben Jones and right guard Cordy Glenn, both of whom made the All-SEC freshman team last year; and right tackle Clint Boling, a junior who started 12 games last season at three positions. Justin Anderson and Vince Vance, both former starters, are among the backups. “We’ve got some experience coming back at O line, but we don’t have five guys who have played the same position next to each other,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “I know everybody thinks we’re going to be awesome on the offensive line, but we’ve got to find some continuity.”
What must go right: With the loss of so many playmakers from last year’s offense — Stafford, Moreno, Massaquoi — the line is being counted on to smooth the transition with stellar play.
What could go wrong: Injuries, old or new, remain a worry. Will Sturdivant’s reconstructed knee hold up all season? Will Jones be 100 percent for the opening game after a preseason ankle injury? Will Vance, who also had knee surgery, regain his form of early last season?
RECEIVERS AND TIGHT ENDS
Scouting report: A.J. Green caught 56 passes for 963 yards as a freshman last year while playing, he admitted later, with a groin injury that bothered him all season and without full grasp of the playbook. Makes you wonder how much better he could be this year, healthy and well-versed. “I’ll be the 100 percent A.J., whatever that is,” Green said. A key to his season — and certainly to the team’s — will be whether other receivers can complement him nearly as well as Mohamed Massaquoi did last season. Fifth-year senior Michael Moore is being counted on for a lot of catches, but beyond him Georgia will need production from inexperienced receivers like redshirt freshman Tavares King and highly touted true freshmen Marlon Brown and Rantavious Wooten. Also, expect the Dogs to throw to the tight end much more than a year ago, with freshman Orson Charles, a prolific pass-catcher in high school, a fascinating addition there. Aron White, likely the season-opening starter at TE, also can be a threat.
What must go right: Simply put, the players who are given open opportunities when opponents double-team Green must make plays.
What could go wrong: The freshmen could struggle, as freshmen not named A.J. Green often do.
Scouting report: The defensive front should be a strength of the team and maybe one of the best in college football, with Jeff Owens returning from knee surgery to join Geno Atkins and Kade Weston in giving the Bulldogs three highly regarded seniors at the two tackle spots. “We want to set the tempo,” Atkins said. The starters, Owens and Atkins, have a combined 44 games of UGA starting experience. Owens had 24 starts before a torn ACL ended his 2008 season in the first quarter of the first game, and his return restores a vocal leader to the defense. Sophomore DeAngelo Tyson, a Parade All-American in high school, is the fourth DT – a testament to the strength of the position.
What must go right: The interior D-line should provide a powerful push up the middle and stifle the run. And it would help if Atkins matches his 2007 sacks total (7.5) instead of his 2008 total (0) – a discrepancy probably attributable to opponents being able to focus on him more when Owens was out.
What could go wrong: Health is probably the biggest concern with this group. In addition to Owens’ ACL tear, Weston had knee problems last year.
Scouting report: This was an injury-ravaged and unproductive position last season, when the D-ends accounted for only 9.5 sacks (2.5 in SEC games). There have been some mildly encouraging developments since then. Junior Demarcus Dobbs has had an impressive preseason, and senior Rod Battle is healthy after struggling with neck and shoulder injuries last season. Redshirt sophomore Justin Houston showed much promise in spring practice, but won’t play until the third game because of a suspension for violating team rules. Coaches tried to reinforce the position by moving Kiante Tripp from the offensive line in the spring and fifth-year senior Marcus Washington from linebacker this month; freshman Montez Robinson could play, too. Somewhere in all of that, Georgia hopes there is basis for improvement. “We’re going to hold up our end of the deal,” Dobbs vowed.
What must go right: More pass rush from the ends is essential, and a healthy season from Battle and breakthrough seasons from Dobbs and (after the second game) Houston are probably the keys to accomplishing it.
What could go wrong: A continuation of last season.
Scouting report: There weren’t many bright spots on Georgia’s defense last season, but one shining light was Rennie Curran. He was named first-team All-SEC by the league’s coaches, and his 115 tackles were second most in the league. The junior from Snellville again will start at weakside linebacker and will be joined in the opening-day lineup by junior Darryl Gamble at middle linebacker and senior Darius Dewberry at strongside. All have impressed in preseason practices. Akeem Dent and Marcus Dowtin also will play a lot. Curran thinks the linebacker group can be exceptional if it stays focused and disciplined. “We realize leadership and the team concept are going to be what makes us successful and sets us apart,” he said.
What must go right: Curran needs to have at least as good a season as he had last year, and Gamble needs to make the type of big plays — interceptions, fumble recoveries — he has become known for on the practice field.
What could go wrong: Gamble and Dewberry battled injuries last season, as did Dewberry and Dent this preseason, although all are expected to be healthy for the opener.
Scouting report: There are two new starters in the secondary — sophomore Brandon Boykin replacing Asher Allen, who left early for the NFL, at one corner and senior Bryan Evans, a converted corner, replacing the graduated CJ Byrd at free safety. (Ask players who’ll have a breakout season, and you often hear Boykin’s name.)The other starters are senior corner Prince Miller and junior safety Reshad Jones. Keep an eye, too, on three promising redshirt freshmen — Bacarri Rambo, Makiri Pugh and Sanders Commings — and one true freshman, Branden Smith. Last year, remarkably, only one Georgia defensive back had an interception — Jones with five. Improving that performance has been a major point of emphasis this summer. “We’ve done a lot of ball drills,” Evans said. “We haven’t dropped many picks. We’ve got better judgment on the ball in the air.”
What must go right: More interceptions. Better open-field tackling. Fewer penalties.
What could go wrong: Evans, who is being counted on at safety, struggled mightily in coverage while at cornerback early last season. And Jones’ missed tackles against Georgia Tech last year remain a scary thought for Georgia fans.
Scouting report: Blair Walsh retains the placekicker job after an up-and-down freshman season in which he made 10 of his first 12 field-goal attempts but only five of his next 11. He has been battling junior-college transfer Brandon Bogotay for kickoff duties after struggling in that area last season. At punter, Drew Butler takes over for the graduated Brian Mimbs. After fretting about Butler’s inconsistency in the spring, coach Mark Richt recently described himself as “very encouraged” and “very pleased” by his punter’s progress. Elsewhere, Richt said Prince Miller likely will handle the bulk of the punt returns and said several candidates — Richard Samuel, Brandon Boykin, Bryan Evans and freshman Branden Smith — remain in the running to return kickoffs.
What must go right: With the offense in transition, reliability from Walsh on field goals is essential. Similarly, the defense needs all the field-position help it can get from Butler’s punting and from Bogotay/Walsh’s kickoffs.
What could go wrong: The kickoff strategy and execution will be closely watched after Walsh had eight of 75 go out of bounds, including two against Georgia Tech, and only four go for touchbacks last season.