Georgia Bulldogs: Michael Gilliard

Continuing our run-up to Georgia's spring practice, this week we'll review the Bulldogs' five best recruiting classes of the past decade.

Today, we'll look at No. 1: the 2009 group that was built around a couple of stars and a larger group of key contributors on one of the best teams of the Mark Richt era (2012).

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesAaron Murray enjoyed a record-setting career at Georgia.
The stars: You have to start with Aaron Murray: a four-year starter at quarterback who went on to set every significant SEC career passing record. The only All-American out of the class was tight end Orson Charles, who left after a standout 2011 season where he was a finalist for the John Mackey Award. But there were multiple All-SEC honorees (including Murray, Charles, offensive guard Chris Burnette and tight end Arthur Lynch) and future NFL players (so far including Charles, receiver Marlon Brown, safety Shawn Williams, nose guard Kwame Geathers, and defensive lineman Abry Jones with more to come in May) within the group.

The contributors: The strength of this group is its depth. More than half of the signees became at least part-time starters at some point and a dozen were valuable members of the 2012 team that finished fifth in the national rankings. Guards Burnette and Dallas Lee started for most of the past three seasons, Williams was one of the emotional leaders of the 2012 club, linebacker Michael Gilliard was one of the team's leading tacklers in 2011, and Brown and Rantavious Wooten overcame injury-filled careers to enjoy solid senior seasons. Brown was one of the highest-rated players in the class, but his impressive 2012 helped him finally break through and become an undrafted free agent signee with the Baltimore Ravens -- and then one of the top rookie receivers of the 2013 season.

The letdowns: There were some notable departures in this group, starting with quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who eventually became a two-year starter at LSU after getting dismissed before his second season at UGA. Washaun Ealey, who led the team in rushing for two seasons, also parted ways with the Bulldogs before the 2011 season. In addition, ESPN 150 signee Dexter Moody never enrolled and cornerback Jordan Love and defensive linemen Montez Robinson and Derrick Lott left Athens early in their careers. Offensive lineman Austin Long was a huge recruit, but struggled with numerous health issues before finally contributing as a reserve in 2012. He left the team over an academic issue before the 2013 season. The off-field issues that robbed UGA of Ealey, Moody and Mettenberger's services are perhaps the biggest disappointments in this class, although the Bulldogs did just fine with Todd Gurley and Murray instead.

The results: There was more star power in other classes, and perhaps one or two of them will still catch up to this bunch before their time at Georgia is over, but the 2009 group was full of blue-collar players who produced for at least two seasons in Athens. The program was at a low point early in the class' tenure, but the group helped Georgia bounce back with consecutive division titles and seasons with at least 10 wins. Their time at UGA ended in disappointing fashion as injuries crippled a 2013 team that started in the top five. Nonetheless, the program is once again on solid footing thanks in large part to this group's on-field production and leadership.
With four players selected in Saturday's final rounds of the NFL draft, Georgia concluded the three-day event with eight players picked -- matching the program's record for most players picked in one year.

Last year the Bulldogs nearly tied the previous program record, eight in 2002, by having seven players selected. They reached the record this year when safety Bacarri Rambo went to the Washington Redskins in the sixth round -- although several players who hoped to hear their names called Saturday went undrafted, including nose guard Kwame Geathers, who opted to skip his senior season in college to enter the draft.

Georgia players halted a conspicuous trend Thursday when outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (17th overall to Pittsburgh) and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree (30th to St. Louis) were both picked in the first round. It had been eight years since Georgia had a defensive player picked in the first round, dating to when David Pollack and Thomas Davis were both first-rounders in 2005.

Defensive players dominated this draft class for Georgia, with seven of the eight picks having played under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham last season. Along with Jones, Ogletree and Rambo, nose guard John Jenkins (third round, New Orleans), safety Shawn Williams (third round, Cincinnati), cornerback Sanders Commings (fifth round, Arizona) and defensive end Cornelius Washington (sixth round, Chicago) were picked this year.

Receiver Tavarres King (fifth round, Denver) was Georgia's only offensive draft pick.

Shortly after the draft concluded, defensive end Abry Jones tweeted that he had signed as an undrafted free agent with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Meanwhile, several other former Georgia players became available to sign with teams as undrafted free agents. In the next few days, Geathers, receiver Marlon Brown, cornerback Branden Smith and linebackers Christian Robinson and Michael Gilliard could sign with teams via free agency.

Post-spring position review: ILB 

April, 23, 2013
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Editor’s note: Our DawgNation post-spring positional analysis continues this week after focusing on the offense last week. Today we examine the inside linebackers:

Returning players/stats: Amarlo Herrera, Jr. (Nine starts in 2012. 70 tackles, three tackles for a loss, one interception); Ramik Wilson, Jr. (6 tackles, one TFL); Kosta Vavlas, Jr. (9 tackles)

Newcomers: Johnny O’Neal, Fr. (ESPN’s No. 153 overall prospect in the 2013 class, No. 5 ILB. Expected to enroll this summer); Tim Kimbrough, Fr. (No. 289 overall, No. 11 ILB. Expected to enroll this summer); Ryne Rankin, Fr. (No. 296, No. 13 ILB. Enrolled in January); Reggie Carter, Fr. (No. 32 ILB. Enrolled in January).

UGA spring preview: 5 positions to watch 

February, 28, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Coaches always emphasize the importance of competition during spring practice, and there will certainly be more than enough at Georgia once the Bulldogs start spring drills on March 2.

The competition on the defensive side of the ball will be the story of the spring, as coordinator Todd Grantham and company work to find replacements for the 12 departed regulars who figured heavily into the Bulldogs’ defensive plans last fall.

Here are five positions that bear close watching this spring:

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Last two classes made instant impact 

February, 5, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia’s coaching staff proved in the last two seasons that it is more than willing to play a newcomer in order to address glaring needs. And as they prepare to put the finishing touches on their 2013 signing class, the coaches can only hope that the newest Bulldogs can be as effective as their predecessors from that last two years at addressing Georgia’s depth concerns.

Mark Richt’s critics might once have had a point when they observed that his coaching staff gave veterans too much of a benefit of the doubt when it came to playing them over talented young players. The last two seasons have neutralized those criticisms, as it’s hard to imagine Georgia having won the last two SEC East titles without extensive contributions from brand new Bulldogs.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley #3 and Keith Marshall
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesFreshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall combined for 2,144 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns in the 2012 season.
Think back to 2011, when John Jenkins’ emergence at nose guard was one of the leading factors in Georgia’s defensive resurgence that carried the Bulldogs to their first division title since 2005. Or how tailback Isaiah Crowell led the team with 850 rushing yards en route to SEC Freshman of the Year honors. Or how Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Conley both made their share of big plays at receiver, as did Amarlo Herrera at linebacker.

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Coaches' take: Aulden Bynum 

January, 30, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Ashley Henderson has heard all of the questions about whether a player from a small private school in Georgia can make the leap to playing major college football. He believes Aulden Bynum has the physical tools and the toughness to make that transition.

“People have asked me, ‘Well, because he goes to Valwood, do you think he’s going to be able to do it?’ ” said Henderson, who coached Bynum and the Valiants to a Georgia Independent School Association (GISA) state title last fall. “I said, ‘Well, I coached O-line at Valdosta for seven years and he’s as good as I ever had there.’ ”


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Dawgs Snapshot 2013: Shaun McGee 

January, 29, 2013
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To gear up for 2013 national signing day, DawgNation's Radi Nabulsi is breaking down every commitment in the Bulldogs' 2013 recruiting class.

Vitals: Defensive end Shaun McGee, Lawrenceville, Ga./Brookwood | 6-foot-2, 235 pounds

Committed: July 16, 2012

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Coaches' take: Ryne Rankin 

January, 27, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- There were obvious benefits to Ryne Rankin becoming the rare Georgia early enrollee to participate in the Bulldogs’ pre-Christmas bowl practices, but there were drawbacks, as well.


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Georgia Class of 2009 review 

January, 24, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- In reviewing Georgia’s seven recruiting classes since 2006 -- when ESPN entered the recruiting game -- last week, we opined that the Bulldogs’ 2009 haul was the best of the bunch. As the various member sites from Recruiting Nation collectively review their schools’ 2009 classes today, let’s take a closer look at what made that group so special.


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Rising stars: Five to watch on D 

January, 11, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt said Thursday that he wants his up-and-coming defensive players to ask themselves, “Am I going to be good enough to help this team win a championship?” as they work toward playing bigger roles in 2013.

There’s no question that if the Bulldogs return to the SEC championship game for a third consecutive year, those defensive players will have made enormous strides to get them there. They return every key offensive player except receivers Tavarres King and Marlon Brown, but lose 12 important defenders.

So let’s take a quick look at five key players who will lead the rebuilding effort for Georgia’s defense this fall -- and then three more to watch for good measure.


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Bulldogs plan to remain among elite 

January, 11, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- As Mark Richt turns the page from one season to the next, Georgia’s coach insists that his expectations will not change this fall.

The Bulldogs lose 12 key defensive players from a team that finished fifth in the final Associated Press poll and fourth in the USA Today Coaches Poll -- the third-best finish for a Richt-coached Georgia team in both polls -- but Richt said he still expects his team to rank among the national elite.

“We plan on being that. We hope to be that. We’ve got to earn that,” Richt said Thursday afternoon on his season-wrapup teleconference.

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ATHENS, Ga. -- This won’t be the most crucial offseason of Todd Grantham’s relatively brief time at Georgia -- that honor goes to 2010, when he started installing his 3-4 scheme shortly after joining Mark Richt’s staff in January -- but it might be the one with the most roster uncertainty.

The Bulldogs will lose 11 key players off its 2012 defense, and that number could grow to 12 if junior nose guard Kwame Geathers declares for the NFL draft, so spring practice will feature major competition within every defensive position group.

“I kind of put them up on the board the other day and we’ve got some talented guys. It’s just a matter of developing them and working them and filtering it,” Grantham said. “Our depth is going to be better than it’s been the last couple of years, but it’s going to be young. So there’s a little bit at every spot.”

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Dawgs, Huskers boost their motivation

December, 30, 2012
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A month ago, Georgia and Nebraska both had their sights set much higher than the Capital One Bowl.

But after each team suffered severely disappointing losses in their respective conference championship games, here they are in Orlando, Fla., trying to salvage the finale for seasons that could have ended under much brighter spotlights.

“To be that close, it’s definitely a memorable season, a season I know I’ll be telling my kids [about] one day, and I know a lot of Georgia fans really enjoyed the season,” Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray said. “But it can definitely hurt us if we don’t win this game, drop out of the top 10 and then it just becomes just another season.”

The winner of Tuesday’s bowl game very well might be the team that takes that philosophy seriously.

No. 7 Georgia (11-2) came within five yards of upsetting Alabama before falling 32-28 in the SEC championship game -- the contest that determined Notre Dame’s opponent in the BCS title game. And No. 16 Nebraska (10-3) expected to be playing in Tuesday’s Rose Bowl, but it fell flat in the Big Ten championship game, surrendering 539 rushing yards to five-loss Wisconsin in a 70-31 defeat.

Those letdowns create reasonable questions as to whether either team will be mentally prepared to play in a non-BCS game, but the Bulldogs and Cornhuskers both insist they will be ready.

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Position scouting report: ILB 

December, 25, 2012
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Ramik WilsonRadi Nabulsi/ESPN.comSophomore linebacker Ramik Wilson has shown he's ready for a bigger role on the Georgia defense.
Editor’s note: Over the next several weeks, we’ll take a look at each position on Georgia’s depth chart and project how it might look in the future. Today we examine Georgia’s inside linebackers:

Current two-deep depth chart:
Alec Ogletree (Jr.), Christian Robinson (Sr.)
Amarlo Herrera (So.), Michael Gilliard (Sr.)

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About Them Dawgs: Christian Robinson

December, 18, 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 linebacker Christian Robinson.

No. 45 Christian Robinson
Senior/Inside linebacker
44 tackles, 6.5 TFL

Role in 2012: Robinson mostly contributed in third-down situations -- although he played a much greater role in defending the option offenses of Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech at the end of the season.

The good: The senior mostly had a quiet season until the final two weeks against Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech. He tallied half of his season total for tackles (44) in those two games alone -- 13 against Georgia Tech and nine against Georgia Southern -- and four tackles for a loss. Otherwise, he typically played on third downs while Amarlo Herrera and Michael Gilliard alternated alongside Alec Ogletree on first and second downs.

The bad: Robinson is the first to admit that he isn’t Georgia’s most physically gifted linebacker -- and that was a key reason why he lost playing time to Herrera and Gilliard after opening 2011 as a starter -- instead having to rely on smarts and preparation to get his job done. There were times where opponents exploited that shortcoming with quicker receivers or backs, but by and large he played his role effectively.

Crystal ball: Although he plans to eventually become a football coach just like his father, Robinson hasn’t given up on the idea of playing professional football. He was invited to participate in a postseason all-star game -- the Raycom Bowl in Montgomery, Ala. -- along with teammates Gilliard, Cornelius Washington and Abry Jones. One way or another, he has a promising future in the sport, whether it’s on the field or on the sidelines coaching.

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Dawgs Continue Class Rankings Climb
National recruiting analyst Craig Haubert discusses Georgia's latest ESPN 300 recruit: WR Van Jefferson. It's the fourth consecutive week the Bulldogs added a ranked prospect and their third straight week rising in the class rankings top 10.
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