Georgia Bulldogs: Ace Sanders

Now that the pens have been put to paper, the classes have been announced and most of your attention has turned to the 2014 recruiting season, it's time to take a look at how each school in the SEC did when it came to immediately filling needs.

We're checking out what all 14 teams did to fill holes, and we're looking at which holes still remain. We'll start with the SEC East:

FLORIDA

Needs filled: LB, OL, DB, WR, DT -- The Gators had one of the most complete classes out there, finishing second in the ESPN class rankings. Florida landed the top cornerback prospect (No. 3 nationally) in Vernon Hargreaves III, defensive tackles Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick, linebackers Daniel McMillian and Matt Rolin, and safeties Keanu Neal and Marcell Harris. The Gators also added five wide receivers, including ESPN 150 members Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood.

Holes remaining: DE -- Will Muschamp seemed thrilled with his class, but he probably would have liked to get a least one more defensive end. The Gators missed on a few, including Tashawn Bower, who almost picked the Gators before signing with LSU. Four-stars Jordan Sherit and Antonio Riles were the only defensive ends in this class.

GEORGIA

Needs filled: ILB, S -- The Bulldogs had to replace a few bodies at middle linebacker, and did so by signing four. The star of the group is four-star ESPN 300 member Johnny O'Neal, who is the No. 5 inside linebacker in the county. Tim Kimbrough and Ryne Rankin, both ESPN 300 members, also signed with the Dawgs. Georgia also signed five safeties, including two junior college standouts. The top safety in this class is ESPN 150 member Tray Matthews.

Holes remaining: Elite OT, elite RB, elite DT -- Mark Richt was pleased with his 32-man signing class, but he knows it could have been better if a few elite players had signed with Georgia. The Dawgs barely missed on top offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil (Ole Miss), No. 4 running back Alvin Kamara (Alabama) and No. 2 defensive tackle Montravius Adams (Auburn).

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Before we completely turn the page on the 2012 bowl season, we'll let you tell us who in the SEC had the best individual performance in the postseason.

So start casting those votes in our SportsNation poll, and we'll go over the results in the next few days.

Here are the five candidates:

Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama: He looked like a crimson-and-white bulldozer running over Notre Dame defenders on his way to 140 rushing yards in Alabama's 42-14 victory over Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship. His 20-yard touchdown romp three minutes into the game set the tone for what was an utter mismatch.

SportsNation

Which of these SEC bowl performances was the best?

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    15%
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    59%
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    6%
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    9%
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    11%

Discuss (Total votes: 13,998)

Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: Johnny Football put on a post-Heisman Trophy show with a Cotton Bowl-record 516 yards of total offense in the Aggies' 41-13 demolition of Oklahoma. He accounted for four touchdowns and set an FBS bowl record with 229 rushing yards on 17 carries. Manziel joined Vince Young as the only two players in history to rush for more than 200 yards and pass for more than 200 yards in a bowl game.

Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia: His start to the game was shaky, as Murray threw two interceptions in the first quarter. But he came roaring back to set Georgia bowl records with 427 passing yards and five touchdowns in the Bulldogs' 45-31 victory over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. Murray was lights-out on third down and threw two of his touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to break a 31-31 tie.

AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama: McCarron obviously likes the big stages. After winning Most Outstanding Offensive Player honors in last season's BCS National Championship, he followed up that performance with four touchdown passes against Notre Dame last week to lead the Tide to their second consecutive national title. He directed touchdown drives on each of Alabama's first three possessions and was 8-of-9 passing in those three drives.

Ace Sanders, WR, South Carolina: In what turned out to be Sanders' farewell to the Gamecocks, he scored three touchdowns in their 33-28 win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. He had a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown and caught a pair of scoring passes. He also had a clutch fourth-down catch to keep South Carolina's game-winning drive alive and finished with nine receptions for 92 yards.

About Them Dawgs: Collin Barber

December, 16, 2012
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Editor’s note: Each day between now and Georgia’s Capital One Bowl date with Nebraska, we will review the season for a key Bulldogs player and attempt to project what’s next. Today we’ll look at punter Collin Barber.

No. 32 Collin Barber
Freshman/Punter
57 punts for 2,371 yards, 41.6 avg., 60 long

Role in 2012: Barber arrived on campus during the summer and won the punting job by the time the regular-season opened and did a fine job in his first season as a college player.

The good: Barber and pooch punter Adam Erickson rarely had a huge swath of green space to punt into thanks to Georgia’s offensive efficiency this season. That probably affected their yards-per-punt averages, as most of the time they punted it high to prevent a return or tried to drop it inside the opponent’s 20-yard line to give them poor field position. Both players were effective in that endeavor, with 27 of Barber’s 57 punts resulting in a fair catch and 18 leaving the opponent inside its 20.

The bad: Georgia finished in the middle of the pack in net punting -- 59th nationally at 36.78 yards per punt -- but Barber and Erickson limited opponents’ chances to even attempt a return. Opponents returned only 14 kicks all season for a total of 156 yards -- 70 of which came on South Carolina star Ace Sanders’ return for the only touchdown against Georgia’s punt team this season. Still, the Bulldogs could use a little more distance on the punts in the future in addition to the height.

Crystal ball: Barber is just the second freshman punter to start under Richt (the first was Gordon Ely-Kelso, who averaged 39 yards per punt as a freshman in 2003). Barber’s numbers were OK and figure only to improve over time. He and Erickson definitely helped their coverage team prevent big plays. After the South Carolina game, when Sanders broke the long return, the Bulldogs punted 32 times in seven games, but opponents totaled only 35 punt return yards.
Editor’s note: Georgia’s football season is halfway over and the Bulldogs will take this weekend off before resuming SEC play next Saturday at Kentucky. We’ll take a look at a different position group each day this week and evaluate how it performed in the first half of the season in our DawgNation midseason report cards.

ATHENS, Ga. -- A year after special teams play was a glaring weakness for Georgia, it was more of a mixed bag for the Bulldogs in the first half of this season.

Todd Gurley returned Georgia's first kickoff of the season for a 100-yard touchdown against Buffalo, but South Carolina’s Ace Sanders returned a punt for a touchdown last week that all but eliminated Georgia’s chances for victory.

Shaw picks apart UGA defense early

October, 7, 2012
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Planning to contain South Carolina’s dual-threat quarterback Connor Shaw and actually doing it are two very different things.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesQuarterback Connor Shaw was just elusive enough to keep the Gamecocks out of Georgia's reach.
Georgia learned that on Saturday night as Shaw’s running and throwing ability allowed the No. 6 Gamecocks to easily drive for touchdowns on their first two possessions en route to a crucial 35-7 win against the fifth-ranked Bulldogs.

“He played an outstanding game,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “We did nothing to make it tough on him as far as decision-making or to have to drop back and throw and make a bunch of plays that way. They threw when they wanted to throw.”

The Gamecocks came out wanting to throw, and Shaw got the job done, completing 5 of 7 passes for 100 yards in the first quarter, including a 42-yard bomb to Damiere Byrd where the receiver made an acrobatic catch by snatching the ball away from Bulldogs safety Bacarri Rambo. That set up a 20-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington moments later.

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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Georgia fans doubtlessly feel like they've been here before. The last time the Bulldogs played a regular-season game with ESPN GameDay in town -- in 2008 against Alabama -- Georgia seemed stumbled out of the gate and trailed 31-0 at the break.

Saturday's game against No. 6 South Carolina was a repeat of that ugly start as the Gamecocks went up 21-0 on the fifth-ranked Bulldogs in the game's first 10 minutes and coasted into halftime with a three-touchdown lead. Let's review what happened:

Stat of the half: 177-39. Georgia came into Saturday’s game as the most productive offense in the SEC, but the Bulldogs struggled mightily as South Carolina jumped out to a 21-0 lead by outgaining Georgia 177 yards to 39 in the first quarter alone.

Player of the half: Connor Shaw. South Carolina’s quarterback executed two impressive touchdown drives in the first quarter, capping them with scoring passes to Bruce Ellington and Rory Anderson. He finished the half 5-for-9 for 100 yards passing, plus he rushed seven times for 50 yards.

What’s working for Georgia: After struggling to find a pulse in the first quarter, Georgia finally held its own in the second -- although it was down by three touchdowns by that point. The defense held South Carolina to 34 yards of offense in the second quarter and the offense drove to the Gamecocks’ goal line before failing to score on fourth down.

What’s not working for Georgia: There are plenty of choices to point to here. In addition to its struggles at the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball, Georgia also gave up a 70-yard punt return touchdown to Ace Sanders. A general lack of composure existed for the Bulldogs in the first quarter and that resulted in an enormous early deficit.

Notebook: WRs move on without Bennett

October, 3, 2012
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Such is life in football that when a player is injured, his teammates can’t afford to dwell on his absence for too long and the next man in line must step in to take his place.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bennett
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireDespite his productivity during the first five games, Georgia feels it can replace the production of injured wide receiver Michael Bennett.
For the first time this season, Georgia’s players dealt with such a scenario on Wednesday when they learned that Michael Bennett -- the team’s leading receiver with 24 catches for 345 yards and four touchdowns -- will miss the rest of the fall after tearing his right ACL at the end of Tuesday’s practice.

“Michael getting hurt was just a very sad thing,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose fifth-ranked Bulldogs face No. 6 South Carolina on Saturday. “We were having quite a good practice yesterday. It was the very last play and I was thinking what a good day it was, what a good practice it was and then that happened.”

Bennett was blocking cornerback Devin Bowman when his knee buckled and popped audibly. Although he was able to walk off the practice field as coaches and teammates gathered for the end of practice, a post-practice MRI confirmed the UGA training staff’s fears that Bennett would miss the rest of the season after already surpassing his 2011 production in the first five games of 2012.

“I saw him go down, but then he got up and started walking and everybody thought it was going to be all right,” senior receiver Marlon Brown said. “I told him to call me that night and he called me and told me what happened. It just [stinks] for him.”

Although Richt said Bennett’s absence will be costly because of the toughness and work ethic he helped instill in the team, he and the Bulldogs can take solace that receiver is one of the deeper positions on the roster. Brown (68) and Tavarres King (61.4) both rank in the top to in the SEC in receiving yards per game. And other wideouts like Malcolm Mitchell, Rantavious Wooten and Chris Conley have performed well in big games.

Richt said Mitchell -- who spent most of his time at cornerback this season prior to Saturday’s win against Tennessee after totaling 665 receiving yards last season -- will continue to be available on defense. And he is not ready to burn freshman Blake Tibbs’ redshirt yet, either.

“I think we’re still going to be fine,” Richt said.

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Justin Hunter and Da'Rick RogersAP Photo/Wade PayneJustin Hunter (11) and Da'Rick Rogers (21) are considered to be the best receiving duo in the SEC.
Our SEC position rankings continue with a look at schools' wide receiver and tight end groups.

Past rankings:
On to the league's wide receiver/tight end groups:

1. Tennessee: The Vols are equipped with two of the top wideouts in the league with Da'Rick Rogers, who was second in the SEC in receiving last year, and Justin Hunter, who might be the SEC's top deep threat. It sounds like Hunter will be 100 percent this fall after his ACL injury last year. Junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson is big, fast and possesses the big-play gene. The speedy Zach Rogers is back and is so is talented tight end Mychal Rivera.

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You've already seen Chris Low's to-do lists for the Western Division teams, so now it's time to check out what the East teams need to take care of before next fall:

FLORIDA
  • Two major areas new offensive coordinator Brent Pease needs to hit during his first offseason with the Gators is running back and wide receiver. Florida must find a downhill running back for Pease's offense, and a reliable go-to wide receiver -- two things Florida lacked in 2011.
  • With quarterback John Brantley graduating, Pease must find a new starting quarterback. That means developing rising sophomores Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel, who struggled in relief of Brantley at times last season, and Tyler Murphy, who has yet to take a snap.
  • Toughen up mentally and physically. The Gators ranked 89th nationally in penalties, and were called out by coach Will Muschamp as being too soft in his first season. Soft can't win in the SEC.
GEORGIA
  • The Bulldogs' coaching staff needs to toughen running back Isaiah Crowell up. As the season went on he visited Georgia's training table more than the end zone in games. He was even booed by Georgia fans when he limped off the Georgia Dome field in the SEC title game. The Bulldogs were inconsistent running the ball because their lead back was always nicked up.
  • Getting the offensive line ready will be key to 2012. The Bulldogs will have to replace three seniors on that line, including All-SEC performers Cordy Glenn and Ben Jones.

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National recruiting analyst Craig Haubert breaks down the college football recruiting class race atop the SEC East. Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina currently lead the way.
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