Georgia currently is slated to return 17 of 22 starters from this year’s 10-3 squad when it defends its SEC Eastern Division championship next season. That’s obviously a big reason for optimism.
That nine of those starters will be back from one of the nation’s stingiest defenses is cause for excitement. That the three losses on offense are all on the line is cause for concern. The Bulldogs also will be completely revamping their special teams, with the graduations of punter and holder Drew Butler and place-kicker Blair Walsh. That will be no small undertaking.
Of course, it’s all relative. One must also consider that South Carolina, which beat the Bulldogs 45-42 in Athens and ultimately knocked them out of the Capital One Bowl, also returns a lot of starters. The Gamecocks will have 16 starters back if wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and defensive end Devin Taylor choose to return. They are also replacing their specialists.
So with all that in mind, following is a quick look at the team Georgia will return in 2012. Let me know what you think of the Bulldogs’ chances of repeating as East champions and returning to the Georgia Dome in 355 days.
Georgia appears poised to reload on offense in 2012, but its success will be dependent upon the development of a very young offensive line. The Bulldogs are extremely blessed at the skill positions, with the leading producers back at every spot barring early departure for the NFL.
Comment: Murray will be one of the top quarterbacks in the country as a junior. The backup situation is going to be interesting. Mason has openly discussed the possibility of transferring. LeMay, who was redshirted last season, was considered the No. 2 quarterback prospect in the country when he committed in high school.
Comment: Ogletree (5-10, 224) is undersized but proved capable in a backup role as a freshman. Hicks marks a return to the traditional pro-style fullback role that has characterized UGA backfields under coach Mark Richt. Georgia got away from running the football at this position this past season.
Comment: Let the competition begin. Production plummeted the last quarter of the season due to injuries for Crowell and Samuel and disciplinary setbacks. Richt pronounced the competition for playing time open for bowl practices and it will surely continue in the spring, when the ballyhooed Marshall joins the fray.
Comment: There is unlikely to be a position as a stockpiled with talent as is this one. Mitchell, an All-SEC freshman, will be one of the league’s most explosive playmakers. Meanwhile, Bennett and Brown are big targets with a penchant for making tough catches.
Comment: King was Georgia’s second-leading receiver with 40 catches and leading scorer among wideouts and probably is underappreciated as a consistent threat. Conley came through with a midseason redshirt removal. Scott-Wesley was so impressive as a redshirt the Bulldogs came close to doing the same with him.
Comment: The health and welfare of this position will be impacted by Charles’ decision to turn pro early or not. Charles earned All-America honors and was the Bulldogs’ leading receiver and be the best in the country as a senior. But even if he leaves the position appears to be in good hands. Lynch is one of the team’s strongest players and Rome is a fleet-footed receiver along the lines of Charles and Aron White who the Bulldogs bit the bullet on as a redshirt.
Comment: Line coach Will Friend repeatedly referred to Andrews as the most seasoned and capable of Georgia’s freshman group. He better be, as he’s replacing the team’s most valuable player of 2011 and Rimington Award finalist in Ben Jones. Chris Burnette is capable of sliding over from guard to play here and that might be the best bet.
Comment: Lee played surprisingly well after overcoming an asthma-like condition that sidelined him for almost a year. He had taken over the starter here before a broken leg versus Florida sat him out for the remainder of the regular season. Gates started seven games here but will likely be needed at tackle.
Comment: Burnette started 11 games in 2011 and was sidelined by injury for the other two. But expect this to be an intense competition as Houston was competing to be a starter before he ran afoul of NCAA policy and had to sit out the entire season. Houston can also play tackle. Burnette can also play center.
Comment: The biggest question mark on offense heading into 2012 is at this critical position. Cordy Glenn proved to be a warrior in handling these duties in 2011 but the Bulldogs gave up 29 sacks nonetheless. Gates has played here occasionally and practiced often. Long has been injury prone and there’s nothing but youth behind him. Ward is extremely athletic but coming off ACL surgery. Theus is a five-star signee who will enroll early.
Comment: The gargantuan Dantzler was a pleasant surprise as a true freshman and earned awards for his dedication in the weight room. DeBell is super athletic and has added size and strength during his redshirt year. Georgia needs to recruit some depth.
Georgia should field one of the best defenses in the country again in 2012. Nine starters return from a unit that was third in the SEC and top 10 nationally, including All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones. The Bulldogs lose defensive end DeAngelo Tyson and all-everything cornerback Brandon Boykin. Otherwise the defense is back intact.
Left defensive end
Comment: Jones was probably under-appreciated in 2011, leading the down linemen with 45 tackles and collecting four sacks and seven tackles for loss. Thornton came on toward the end of the season and brings quickness to the position.
Comment: When healthy, there is no better duo at a defensive line position in the SEC. Jenkins improved dramatically from the beginning of the season to the end and he should prove a, even more dominant force in 2012. The future looks bright as the Bulldogs bring in freshmen Jonathan Taylor and John Atkins.
Right defensive end
Comment: Smith came on like gangbusters in 2011 and proved a more-than-capable fill-in when DeAngelo Tyson went down with an ankle injury for most of the final three games of the season. Lott is an impressive physical specimen who appears poised for a breakout season. Georgia has several other defensive linemen committed.
Will outside linebacker
Comment: All-SEC, All-American, SEC sack leader in first season — enough said about Jones, the dynamic transfer from Southern Cal. By the end of the season, defensive coordinator was playing Jones all over the place. Drew is a star in the making and will command playing time. T.J. Stripling, Brandon Burrows and Dexter Morant may or may not figure in here or the other outside ‘backer spot.
Sam outside linebacker
Comment: Washington is a force who was starting to come into his own in 2011. Grantham mentioned Bailey among the players who impressed him most during a redshirt year. Wilson can play inside and outside. Signee Kent Turene could figure into the linebacker mix.
Comment: Gilliard took advantage of an early-season ankle injury to Robinson and emerged as the Bulldogs’ second-leading tackler and an 11-game starter. Robinson found a role as a third-down specialist and rotated regularly. Together they combined for 102 tackles.
Comment: Ogletree missed six games and almost all the opener when he broke a foot on the second defensive series of the season. He showed how much the Bulldogs missed him with 25 tackles an multiple behind-the-line plays in the final four games. He could be Georgia’s next All-American. Herrera started seven games as a true freshman and can play any of the second-level positions.
Comment: The versatile Commings, who also three games at safety, was an unsung hero among the defensive backs. Rarely out of position, the only improvement he needs to make is holding onto the football when takeaways come his way. Love and Sanders will battle for playing time.
Comment: Smith brings a wealth of experience to the field, having started seven games as the Bulldogs’ nickelback and contributing both on offense and in the return game. Swann could have started in a lot of other secondaries and figures to fill Smith’s previous role as a versatile multi-tasker.
Comment: Rambo is a legitimate star, having already earned All-America honors as a junior and leading the SEC interceptions in 2011. He should be a candidate for Thorpe Award. If he can master Georgia’s defensive schemes, Marshall has the potential to be even better. Marshall can also play corner.
Comment: Williams proved to be an enforcer along the lines of Thomas Davis and Greg Blue. He’s one of the team’s hardest hitters and best tacklers but needs to improve in pass coverage. Moore was a special teams regular as a freshman.
Comment: The Bulldogs are putting a lot of stock into Barber to come in from Cartersville High and be able carry the torch left by Drew Butler, an All-American and Ray Guy Award recipient. Walkons such as Erickson will be the only other options.
Comment: Senior-season struggles aside, Georgia most certainly will miss record-setting kicker Blair Walsh. The Bulldogs went back to South Florida to replace Walsh, grabbing another Chris Sailers’ protégé in Morgan from Miami. Georgia chose Morgan over a pair of in-state standouts in Austin Hardin of Marist (committed to Florida),and Calhoun star Adam Griffith (Alabama). So there will be much pressure on Morgan to perform.
Comment: The snapping duties appear to be in good hands with Theus, a graduate of the Ray Guy Kicking Academy, set to succeed Frix.