Georgia Bulldogs: Chris Mayes
Yesterday we examined the competition at safety. Today let's move to the defensive line, which lost a starter in Garrison Smith, but should otherwise have plentiful depth and experience:
Departures: Smith (63 tackles, six sacks, 10 TFLs) started all 13 games last season and was one of the emotional leaders on the defense, earning defensive team captain honors after the season.
Returning reserves: John Taylor (nine tackles, one sack, 1.5 TFLs) and Toby Johnson (seven tackles, 1.5 TFLs) are probably the first names to mention here. Both players appeared in 10 games off the bench in 2013 and should compete for extended playing time this fall. Taylor was a redshirt freshman and still looked a bit green last season, while Johnson was only nine months removed from a season-ending ACL tear when the Bulldogs opened preseason camp a year ago. Josh Dawson (eight tackles, one TFL) appeared in 12 games and started once at end and Mike Thornton (five tackles, one sack, one TFL) appeared in 11 games. Smith mentioned Thornton as a player who might fill a larger role in the Bulldogs' retooled 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Newcomers: Redshirt freshman John Atkins is among the more intriguing players who will enter the mix this spring. He's big and quick enough to play any position along the line, and it wouldn't be a big surprise to see him figure into the line rotation early next season. Noseguard DeAndre Johnson is also coming off a redshirt, but he faces steep competition in the middle this spring. The Bulldogs also signed defensive tackle Lamont Gaillard -- ESPN's No. 55 overall prospect and No. 4 DT -- and ESPN 300 defensive end Keyon Brown, but neither player is on campus yet.
What to watch: The line came into 2013 with limited experience, but ranked among the pleasant surprises for a defense that disappointed overall. The Bulldogs defended the run fairly well -- Georgia's average of 3.7 yards allowed per carry ranked second in the SEC -- thanks in large part to typically stout play by the line. With six sacks apiece, Drew and Smith both ranked among the SEC's top pass-rushers, but the group generally struggled to generate a consistent pass rush or convert sack opportunities. Identifying strong rush men will likely rank among new line coach Tracy Rocker's goals for the spring, as will simply teaching his new players how he wants things done. This will be the third line coach in as many seasons for the Bulldogs, so the group has certainly become accustomed to change. It will be a big spring for all of the linemen since Rocker brings a fresh set of eyes to the table, without having formed an opinion based on their performances in previous seasons. It might provide a chance for someone like Johnson -- we recently discussed his situation here -- Taylor or Atkins to grab a bigger role than he previously enjoyed.
We talked about wide receiver Jonathon Rumph and offensive guard Brandon Kublanow in the first two installments. We move on Wednesday to a defensive lineman who could play a bigger role in 2014 now that he has had a year to heal from an injury and get his bearings at Georgia.
Toby Johnson (defensive lineman, Sr.)
2013 review: A late addition to Georgia's 2013 signing class, Johnson was the No. 4 overall prospect on the ESPN Junior College 100 and hoped to play a much larger role along the defensive line. He was coming off an ACL injury from the previous November, but he did not want to redshirt. So he played in 10 games as a reserve, finishing the season with seven tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss.
Why spring is important: Playing time would have been available for Johnson even without Garrison Smith -- a 2013 senior who started all 13 games last season -- leaving the lineup. Johnson was listed as Smith's backup at defensive end in the bowl loss, and like Smith, he is capable of playing either inside or outside depending on the situation. The goal this spring will be for Johnson to prove to new defensive line coach Tracy Rocker that he deserves to be one of the leading figures along the line and not the role player he was a season ago.
Best case/worst case: Johnson was only about 10 months removed from ACL surgery when last season started, and while he said he felt healthy, he never made a dent in the starting lineup. Smith, Chris Mayes and the Ray Drew-Sterling Bailey combo handled the top spots along the line for much of the season, but a big spring could push Johnson toward the front of the line this fall. There are other contenders for playing time -- including John Taylor, John Atkins, Josh Dawson and Michael Thornton -- so this will be a pivotal spring for all of them. If Johnson fails to make a move this spring, he runs the risk of remaining as a utility man as a senior, which would be a big disappointment for a player who carried such acclaim when he signed with the Bulldogs.
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 119 overall in 2012, No. 11 defensive tackle
This season: The prep school transfer did not seize a role in the defensive line rotation, but impressed coaches and teammates with a promising skill set that could help him play multiple positions in the future.
Veteran's perspective: “John Atkins' footwork is crazy for a big guy. He's like 320 -- we're the same size – and he has amazing footwork and work ethic. He's going to be one of those guys popping off the scene next year.” -- sophomore defensive lineman Chris Mayes
Davin Bellamy, Fr., OLB
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 299 overall, No. 25 defensive end
This season: Underwent shoulder surgery during the offseason, but could have played this season according to defensive coordinator Todd Grantham were it not for the emergence of Floyd and Jordan Jenkins at his position.
Veteran's perspective: “Bellamy's a big-bodied kid. I know just from being around him, he has a giant attitude. And when I say that, it's a good thing. He believes in himself and what he can do. He thinks he's the best thing since sliced bread, which is the attitude that you have to have when you're playing football because if you don't believe in yourself, nobody will.” -- junior defensive end Ray Drew
Paris Bostick, Fr., ILB
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 55 safety
This season: Grantham compares Bostick's skills to those of another converted safety -- former UGA linebacker Alec Ogletree. Bostick suffered a toe injury during the summer and returned to practice during the season.
Veteran's perspective: “Bigger than what most people think -- real big dude now. He's just trying to learn the system and figure out where he's going to fit in at. … He's a real big dude, but he still runs like a safety. He's fast. He's going to be a real good addition to us.” -- junior linebacker Ramik Wilson
Shaquille Fluker, Jr., S
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 36 on Junior College 50, No. 2 safety
This season: Initially set back by an array of physical ailments, Fluker was designated as a redshirt candidate by midseason. He announced this week his plans to transfer in search of playing time.
Coach's perspective: “I can't comment on any medical situation, but everybody wants to play more, obviously, and I hope wherever he goes, he gets to play. I hope he finds a good home. I like him a lot. He's a good kid. I'm very confident we had his best interests at heart the entire time he was here at Georgia and we treated him well.” -- coach Mark Richt
DeAndre Johnson, Fr., DL
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 84 defensive tackle
This season: The youngest defensive lineman on the roster, Johnson needs to have a productive offseason in order to crack a veteran-heavy rotation next season, defensive line coach Chris Wilson said.
Veteran's perspective: “He's a low-pad-level player, just a young guy that's got to build up and get more experience and get comfortable with the game. … I think he'll be able to play the 3-technique as he has to learn the game and progress. For his size, he's pretty shifty, so I think he'll be all right.” -- Mayes
Kennar Johnson, Jr., CB
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 4 safety
This season: Injuries slowed Johnson's development early in the season and the coaches opted to redshirt him instead of utilizing another inexperienced player in a youthful secondary.
Veteran's perspective: “KJ is an athlete. He's very fast. It just comes with being able to compete and learning the system. I think he was kind of put in a bad situation coming in playing behind Corey [Moore], playing behind Tray [Matthews], who was here in the spring, and playing behind Josh [Harvey-Clemons] who's been here for two years. … [Johnson and Fluker were] playing behind guys who had already been here that grasped the system very well. That kind of put them behind the 8-ball a little bit.” -- junior cornerback Damian Swann
Shaun McGee, Fr., OLB
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 43 defensive end
This season: Capable of playing inside or outside, McGee's development this offseason will establish which of the two spots he plays next fall according to Grantham.
Veteran's perspective: “He's a little bit shorter, but he's very strong. His legs are massive and he can run. He has great speed off the edge, so I see that being one of his best contributions to the team.” -- Drew
Reggie Wilkerson, Fr., CB
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 163 overall, No. 15 athlete
This season: Enrolled in January and was on track to contribute this season before suffering a season-ending knee injury during summer workouts.
Veteran's perspective: “Reggie had a pretty good spring and he had a freak injury during the summer doing [pass skeleton drills] and we lost him. But I think he can be a big key and big part of this secondary with what we already have with Sheldon [Dawson], with Shaq and with [Brendan] Langley.” -- Swann
Georgia's quarterback had just completed another brilliant performance that allowed the Bulldogs to escape the most grueling opening month in school history – with games against three top-10 opponents, and the Bulldogs winning two – and helped his team remain a legitimate national championship contender.
That pride was evident throughout Sanford Stadium in the electric celebration that followed Georgia's fourth-down stop when a Zach Mettenberger pass fell incomplete at midfield. Mettenberger and LSU's offense produced in such situations over and over throughout the game, but the Bulldogs forced four consecutive incompletions to close out one of their biggest home wins in years.
“We knew if we stopped them from converting on third down, we would win the game,” said Georgia defensive lineman Chris Mayes, who recorded his first career start and first career sack against LSU. “At the end, we finally did that on third and fourth down and it got us a big team win.”
Georgia coach Mark Richt's uncharacteristically emotional postgame celebration showed that he was as caught up in the moment as his players and fans. Richt walked from corner to corner of the field, repeatedly raising his arms in victory with the home fans cheering enthusiastically each time.
“You can't ask for anything better than what happened today,” Richt said. “It just showed how great the University of Georgia can be.”
And the inside of the locker room looked like a disaster area, covered in water and other debris – the remnants of a raucous postgame celebration that Georgia might typically reserve for a win that clinched a division championship. Once they finished celebrating in the locker room, the Bulldogs took it back to the field, making a victory lap around the hedges that line the playing surface to slap hands with the thousands of fans who were still celebrating the win.
“We were in here and [offensive coordinator Mike] Bobo said, 'The fans are still here. You need to go thank them.' It was a great idea, so we went back out and sure enough, they were there,” said receiver Michael Bennett, who caught a pair of touchdown passes.
Georgia's offense once again saved the day despite an outstanding performance by Mettenberger, making his return to the school where he started his college career. LSU's quarterback – whom Richt dismissed from the team in 2010 following an arrest – showed no signs of being adversely affected by the emotions of the day. He went 23-for-37 for 372 yards and three touchdowns and kept LSU's offense afloat when the Tigers' vaunted running game produced only 77 yards on 36 carries.
Mettenberger gashed the Bulldogs' secondary repeatedly on third downs – LSU went 10-for-15 – and converted a 25-yard bullet to Odell Beckham Jr. on third-and-22 at his own 13. That kept alive LSU's go-ahead touchdown drive that ended with Jeremy Hill's 8-yard scoring run that gave the Tigers a 41-37 advantage – their first lead since the first quarter – with 4:14 to play.
That was more than enough time for Georgia's explosive offense to answer, however, as it has almost every time its young defense has put the Bulldogs in a tight spot. That was certainly the case here, but Murray calmly completed all four of his passes on Georgia's ensuing drive, hitting a wide-open Scott-Wesley on the final throw to regain the lead when a less veteran team might have lost its composure in the pressure of the moment.
“I think we're about as composed a group as you can find, from the freshmen to the sophomores to the guys who have been here 12 years like Aaron and I,” said Georgia senior tight end Arthur Lynch, who caught two passes on the final touchdown drive. “We've got guys who aren't afraid of a challenge, which has been a good thing. Especially in this league, I think guys can be a little intimidated. But for us to handle that situation the way we did I think is pretty impressive.”
It was far from a perfect first month for Georgia, particularly on defense. LSU gained 449 yards against a defense that came in allowing 388.7 per game (11th in the SEC). Richt reminded reporters after the game that his team is still “very vulnerable to getting whipped if we don't just put it all together,” starting with next week's venture to Tennessee.
But as long as Murray and Georgia's offense function as capably as they did on Saturday, the Bulldogs are going to be awfully difficult to beat. By surviving yet another close call against a top-10 opponent, all of Georgia's preseason goals remain within reach despite the grueling nature of its opening schedule.
“We know if we just continue to win games and continue to put up points, we're going to be in the national championship, bottom line,” Bennett said. “We've just got to keep doing that.”
But before Georgia's coaching staff can help its reserves gain some on-field seasoning, the starters must first take control against a resilient Mean Green (2-1) club that outscored Ball State 31-7 after the first quarter on Saturday to win, 34-27.
“Just this past weekend, you saw Michigan playing Akron, and I don't know what their mindset was going into the game, but I know what it was, I'm sure, when the game was over,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said, referring to Saturday's game in Ann Arbor, where the Wolverines needed a last-minute goal-line stand to defeat Akron, 28-24. “I think everybody's just got to understand that we must focus very, very hard on improving, but we need to focus very hard on our game plan.”
Nonetheless, as long as Georgia's starters take care of business against the Mean Green, there should be more than enough playing time to go around for backups and those returning from injury to get some work in a game.
Repeat -- as long as they take care of business.
“We'll play the game as it happens,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said of the prospect of playing Mason, the backup quarterback and potential 2014 starter. “Coach has never been one and I've never been one to say, 'Hey, you're playing this series, that series.' We're going to go out there with all our bullets, so to speak, and play the game and take it from there.”
Against North Texas -- a team that ranks 94th nationally in total defense, allowing 435.7 yards per game -- the opportunity should arise to filter in some of the players who rarely saw the field in the first two games against Clemson and South Carolina.
That might include freshman tight end Jordan Davis or offensive lineman Brandon Kublanow, neither of whom has played to this point. Or more of fellow freshmen like Carter, Tim Kimbrough, Ryne Rankin, Quincy Mauger and Shaq Wiggins, who have contributed mostly on special teams.
“I would think anybody that's going to play has been on special teams and you've kind of seen them in there doing something,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “Guys that maybe haven't done anything, I think right now the plan would be not to play those guys. Now obviously injuries or something could change that, but if I was looking to give you a barometer on the guys to expect moving forward, it would be guys that are playing on special teams right now.”
Grantham's prediction doesn't include someone like Rumph, the junior college transfer who missed the first two games and a chunk of preseason practice with a hamstring injury. Richt said last week that the wide receiver was healthy again and should be available against North Texas if he sufficiently knocks off the rust this week in practice.
“I don't know if he'll get in as a rotation from the very beginning or it will be contingent on how the game goes,” Richt said. “I'm not sure exactly where he's at, but he'll be available to play. He was getting a lot of work on special teams. Coaches are trying to incorporate him back into that. If he wasn't injured, I think he'd have been playing by now, scrimmage snaps and special teams snaps.”
Preseason injuries also affected defensive lineman Chris Mayes and defensive backs Shaquille Fluker and Kennar Johnson – all junior college transfers, as well – so some combination of that trio could also figure into the coaches' plans at some point.
Otherwise, it could be the freshmen and reserves who take over in the second half so long as Georgia's starters build a big early lead. And that could be valuable at positions like receiver, tailback and inside linebacker where the Bulldogs could stand to develop some of the younger players who aren't at the top of the depth chart.
“Like I said at the beginning of the year, it was a concern of mine, the depth at tailback,” Bobo said, although such a comment could apply at several positions. “It was good to get Brendan Douglas in [against South Carolina] and J.J. Green got a carry. He got a carry, got in last week.
“So we've got to continue to develop that depth if injuries do happen. It's a rough and tough league. We played two very good opponents in the first two weeks and guys played a lot of snaps and hopefully we'll get healed up and be ready to go.”
Richt got exactly the conditions and energy level from the team that he was hoping for in Wednesday’s second scrimmage of the preseason -- a marked difference from the Bulldogs’ listless effort a week ago.
“I thought it would be a good idea to do it this week because I just wanted it to be a nice, cool night, I wanted everybody to be well-rested and I just wanted to see a lot of energy out there,” Richt said. “It was like night and day from the first scrimmage as far as just the energy level out there.”
Georgia’s coaches got what they expected from their starting units, as well, with those groups mostly having their way against the backups in traditional series and situational scenarios.
“When you scrimmage like this and you go ones versus twos, you hope that your No. 1 offense is going to have a pretty good go against your No. 2 defense and vice versa. And that’s about how it’s gone,” Richt said. “If your second offense was just thrashing your No. 1 defense, then you’ve got a really, really serious problem. But that’s not the case. I thought both No. 1 units played pretty good.”
Several of Richt’s assistant coaches said recently that they would begin narrowing the field of candidates for playing time after Wednesday’s scrimmage so that they would have defined roles when they hold their third and final scrimmage next Wednesday. Richt said the coaches would grade film of the scrimmage within the next 24 hours, but their personnel decisions will likely take at least a few days.
“It’ll be maybe a day or two before we start trying to figure out ... and it won’t be exact until probably next Wednesday,” Richt said. “I would think by next Wednesday when we have that practice game, we’ll have a really good idea of our lineup.”
As for statistics, there were no particularly eye-catching numbers on Wednesday -- unlike last week’s scrimmage, when starting quarterback Aaron Murray threw three interceptions. Murray bounced back to go 14-for-18 for 173 yards, one touchdown and one interception on Wednesday, with backup Hutson Mason finishing 9-for-19 for 107 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley was the offensive star of the evening, rushing five times for 33 yards and two touchdowns and adding three receptions for another 72 yards. Tailback Keith Marshall had six carries for 39 yards and freshman Brendan Douglas added seven rushes for 50 yards and two catches for another 31 yards.
“[Douglas] was very impressive today,” Richt said. “He ran the ball well, he ran with power, he ran with some vision, he continued to pass [block] pretty good. He’s not perfect in that area.”
Blake Tibbs and Michael Bennett caught the two touchdown passes and Malcolm Mitchell led the receivers with four catches for 58 yards.
Josh Harvey-Clemons, suspended for the opener at Clemson, led the defense with seven tackles and three pass breakups. Amarlo Herrera had five tackles and two pass breakups, while T.J. Stripling, Connor Norman, Garrison Smith and Leonard Floyd all had four stops. Floyd also made a tackle for a loss and would have recorded a sack, Richt said, if not for being blatantly held by an offensive tackle.
Defensive end Toby Johnson recorded the one official sack.
Freshman cornerbacks Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley both made interceptions, with Langley returning his interception 48 yards for a touchdown. Richt said Langley also broke up a pass at the goal line to prevent a touchdown.
The two freshmen are not just competing to be the backups at cornerback, Richt said, they’re competing with Sheldon Dawson to win a starting job alongside junior Damian Swann.
“I’d say they’re all still competing, other than Swanny’s going to be in there,” Richt said. “But who the other starter will be, it’s just a matter of watching what happened in this scrimmage and what happens between now and next Wednesday, probably.”
Kennar Johnson and Lucas Redd also intercepted passes.
The Bulldogs are still contending with a number of injuries, as 15 players appeared on Wednesday’s injury report -- including safeties Tray Matthews (shoulder/hamstring), Corey Moore (knee sprain), Shaquille Fluker (illness), Marc Deas (elbow sprain) and Paris Bostick (foot surgery).
Nose guard Chris Mayes (concussion), linebackers Tim Kimbrough (knee sprain) and Chase Vasser (ankle sprain), receivers Reggie Davis (knee sprain), Rhett McGowan (ankle sprain) and Rantavious Wooten (hamstring strain), tailback A.J. Turman (knee/ankle) and tight end Jay Rome (ankle sprain) were also sidelined.
The good injury news, Richt said, was that he did not believe the team suffered any new injuries during the scrimmage.
“It was a good day. No one was banged up today,” Richt said. “Sometimes the next day you hear something, but today Ron [Courson, Georgia’s director of sports medicine] came to me and said everything looked good, so that’s a blessing.”
The new defensive line coach’s face broke into a wide grin when explaining why he loudly informed Sterling Bailey -- who finished spring practice as a starting defensive end -- that Ray Drew was now the starter in Georgia’s base defense and that Bailey would be the first-team end when the Bulldogs play a nickel defense.
“We make on-the-field adjustments,” Wilson cracked.
“[It happens on a] daily basis,” Bailey chuckled. “He just loves motivating us. He just wants us to play hard.”
Georgia largely stuck with a small rotation of veteran players along last season’s defensive line, but that practice created fatigue that Alabama obviously exploited in racking up 350 rushing yards against the Bulldogs in the SEC championship game. The Bulldogs’ coaching staff has vowed to rotate more players up front this fall -- and Drew and Bailey are among the seven or eight players that Wilson hopes will figure heavily into that rotation.
But they have to prove to their new position coach that they deserve the opportunity, as neither player has been more than a role player thus far in his college career.
“[Wilson] mentioned it to me one time before that he likes competition within the players because if he puts you in a position and you’re not getting it done, he bumps someone else in there,” Drew said. “He wants you to take enough initiative to say, ‘OK, I’ve got to get my stuff together and win my spot back.’ So we look at it as a competition between the two players, but it’s actually just a way to make each other better.”
There should be no shortage of competition for spots in Wilson’s rotation over the next few weeks. Junior college transfer Toby Johnson -- the No. 4 overall prospect on the ESPN Junior College 100 -- is “kicking butt” at defensive end thus far in practice, Wilson said, and other youngsters such as John Taylor, John Atkins and Chris Mayes have impressed him at points.
They have a prime opportunity to solidify those impressions when the Bulldogs hold their first preseason scrimmage at Sanford Stadium on Wednesday -- even if the depth chart will probably remain flexible well into the season.
“We never know what the set depth chart is,” Drew said. “One thing he made perfectly clear to all of us is he does not care who plays. He’s going to put in the guy that is going to play his behind off, do what he’s coached to do and make things happen. So it doesn’t matter if you’re an 18-year senior or if you’re a first-year freshman. If you’re getting it done and you’re doing what you need to do, that’s what matters.”
As of now, the “play his behind off” factor might be the most important element of the competition.
Yes, understanding their assignments and playing with the proper technique will be of utmost importance once the linemen take on the Clemsons and South Carolinas and LSUs that they will face in the first month of the season. But as they enter their first scrimmage, Wilson wants to see them fight for their jobs, viewing competitive fire as perhaps his top means of evaluation.
“Here’s the thing that I would like to see more than anything in our next scrimmage: I would like to see us play extremely hard. I’m talking about with relentless effort,” Wilson said. “And if they are playing that hard, that means they know what to do. And if we will play as hard as we can and know what we’re doing, I think we’ve got a chance to win all the football games that we play.
“And so if we can come away with just those two simple things that sound so simple, we really have become a better football team."
With numerous starters to replace and a boatload of newcomers joining the team this spring and summer, the Bulldogs’ defensive staff has its work cut out in first determining which players can help the team this fall, and then preparing them for that job.
When he met with reporters last week, Grantham explained how the staff will break its August preparations into three segments, starting with Thursday’s first preseason practice.
“The first third of camp, we need to evaluate our talent and find out what our pieces are,” Grantham said. “And then find the guys that can help us win and put those guys in those positions.”
The Bulldogs would be in a particularly tight spot had seven of those signees not enrolled in January. Most, if not all (except Wilkerson), of those early enrollees could play in some capacity this fall. And some -- like safety Tray Matthews, linebacker Reggie Carter and defensive linemen Chris Mayes and John Atkins -- could play a lot.
The learning process will continue for the early enrollees in camp, but they have a head start on signees who arrived during the summer. Confusion will be the typical state of being for that bunch over the next couple of weeks.
“I think we got a pretty good idea of what those guys can do and the fact that they came in in the spring was very beneficial to us and them,” Grantham said. “Even though they are freshmen, they’ve been through the system for a spring, got a good grasp on it so they’re going to get to do it again in August. The big thing is we need to evaluate the talent.”
Prepare for different offenses: This category required some adjustment for Grantham as well, having spent a decade-plus in the copycat NFL before returning to the college game in 2010. A defensive coordinator in college has to be on his toes because he will face a wide array of offenses over the course of the season -- an issue that doesn’t exist for coordinators in the pros.
The Bulldogs will spend the middle third of the preseason practicing concepts that will help them defend some of those offenses, from the Clemson spread in week one to the Georgia Tech option in the regular-season finale.
“You’ve got some tough games coming along. Obviously the first two [Clemson and South Carolina] are going to be important, but ... we have Florida in the middle there, we’ve got Missouri, we’ve got Tennessee that’s new, and then you’ve got Georgia Tech at the end that’s completely different, too, and you’re always going to have different nuances each week.
“My approach and our approach has always been to introduce those guys to the concepts that they’re going to have to have or understand to stop these style of offenses. So during the middle session, you’re going to get ready for your season.”
Dig into Clemson: Georgia’s coaches formulated general plans for their first two games weeks ago. Once they’re two-thirds of the way through August, it will be time to begin implementing and modifying their plans for the Aug. 31 opener at Clemson.
The Tigers boasted one of the nation’s most productive offenses last season. And while they lost talented running back Andre Ellington and 1,400-yard wideout DeAndre Hopkins, they still return a Heisman Trophy contender in quarterback Tajh Boyd and another star in receiver Sammy Watkins. But Grantham said they will approach preparing for the opener in their standard fashion despite the challenges that exist in defending the Tigers’ explosive attack.
“Once you get to the back end there, that’s when you start focusing in on the first game and getting ready for that,” Grantham said. “I think that no matter who your opponents are, you need to do it that way because you need to be ready for the long haul. You’ve got to be ready for the entire season and the things that present themselves each week.”
The Bulldogs have Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, of course, but they will be draft-eligible juniors after the 2014 season. The only other scholarship backs on the roster are brand-new freshmen A.J. Turman and Brendan Douglas, so Michel and Chubb will add depth and the talent necessary to keep Georgia’s backfield train on the tracks.
With that recruiting need addressed, it brings us to this week’s DawgNation roundtable question: Now that Georgia has addressed its most glaring need for 2014, running back, what is the next position Mark Richt’s coaching staff should square away for this recruiting class?
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Even Garrison Smith, Georgia’s lone returning defensive lineman with any significant experience, had difficulty adapting to a new coach’s methods early in spring practice. So he knew that a new coach and a complex defensive scheme would become major learning obstacles for his less experienced teammates.
And it wasn’t just the new defensive linemen who had a lot to learn. Multiple players across the board used the spring as a jumping-off point for their playing careers at Georgia, but the group made rapid progress during that valuable instructional time.
“You can ask [freshman inside linebackers] Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin about the defense. Like I say, it’s rocket science for them, too,” Smith chuckled. “But that’s just a part of the game when you’re just a young freshman. They don’t expect you to know everything like a senior would, but at the same time, the coaches hold you to a higher standard and they get on you, but that’s just to make you better. They don’t want you to get complacent with not knowing enough. They want to push you as fast as you can so you can learn it.”
Having spent his first three seasons working under defensive line coach Rodney Garner -- who in December returned to his alma mater, Auburn -- Smith had to unlearn some old habits to satisfy new position coach Chris Wilson. It wasn’t like learning an entire defensive scheme, but it required some adjustments nonetheless.
“Even though I’m a veteran, I’m kind of like a freshman all over again because I’m learning new techniques of how to play different things because I’ve got another coach that wants me to play a different way, so I’m having to adapt every day,” Smith said.
That process will continue well into preseason practice, as Wilson continues evaluating and instructing the players who were available in the 15 spring workouts and adds to the mix others such as junior college transfer Toby Johnson, who learned just this week that he will be eligible to compete in the fall.
Smith seemed to like the direction things were heading in the spring, however, noting that the young defense was holding its own against the Bulldogs’ veteran offense more often than experience might have indicated.
“We’ve got one of the best offenses in the country, so if our defense with all these new guys can compete and play on the level of this great offense we’ve got, then the sky’s the limit for us because we’re playing against some of the best right now,” Smith said. “Other opponents, we’re going to be able to match up well against them if we can contain our own offense.”
2012 record: 12-2
2012 conference record: 7-1 (first, SEC East)
Returning starters: Offense: 10; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 2
Top returners: QB Aaron Murray, RB Todd Gurley, CB Damian Swann, WR Malcolm Mitchell, OLB Jordan Jenkins, OL Kenarious Gates, OG Chris Burnette, ILB Amarlo Herrera
Key losses: OLB Jarvis Jones, LB Alec Ogletree, S Shawn Williams, S Bacarri Rambo, NG John Jenkins, CB Sanders Commings, WR Tavarres King
2012 statistical leaders (* - returner)
Rushing: Gurley * (1,385 yards)
Passing: Murray * (3,893 yards)
Receiving: King (950 yards)
Tackles: Alec Ogletree (111)
Sacks: Jones (14.5)
Interceptions: Swann * (4)
1. Safety starters: With 2011 All-Americans Rambo and Williams completing their college careers, the Bulldogs entered the spring with two big holes at safety. It appears sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons and January enrollee Tray Matthews have all but claimed the starting positions, however. Harvey-Clemons was named the Bulldogs’ defensive MVP of spring practice, and Matthews generated the most buzz of anyone this spring with his ability to deliver crushing hits. Georgia’s inexperience along the back end of the defense is not ideal, but the two youngsters could become a pleasant surprise.
A defense that lost 12 significant players will be a focal point well into the fall, and it was in our post-spring recaps. Let’s take a look at the defensive positions first:
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Returning players/stats: Garrison Smith, Sr. (Eight starts in 2012. 57 tackles, two tackles for a loss, one sack); Ray Drew, Jr. (23 tackles, 1 TFL); Michael Thornton, Jr. (No tackles); Sterling Bailey, So. (One tackle); Jonathan Taylor, RFr. (Redshirted in 2012)
Newcomers: Toby Johnson, Jr. (ESPN’s No. 4 overall prospect in the 2013 junior college 100, No. 3 DT. Expected to enroll this summer); John Atkins, Fr. (Hargrave Military transfer. Enrolled in January); Chris Mayes, Jr. (No. 87 in 2013 junior college 100, No. 14 DT. Enrolled in January); DeAndre Johnson, Fr. (No. 84 DT. Expected to enroll this summer)
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Jonathan Taylor -- who shifted to defensive end during the spring -- Chris Mayes and John Atkins typically came up ahead of Thornton when such discussions started. And yet after a strong spring, Thornton has apparently pushed himself to the front of the line in new defensive line coach Chris Wilson’s estimation.
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ATHENS, Ga. -- While predicting which freshmen will play this fall is obviously an inexact science this far ahead of the regular season, Georgia coach Mark Richt on Saturday shared an easy explanation of how quickly his staff must bring along certain members of their 13-man class of midyear enrollees during spring practice.
If they play a position of particular need, Richt said, their learning curve naturally will accelerate.
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Projecting Impact Teams in 2015 Recruiting
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35