Georgia Bulldogs: Shaq Wiggins
Making Murphy throw: Without question, Georgia's defensive game plan will center around slowing down running backs Mack Brown and Kelvin Taylor enough to force the Gators to put the ball in the air. LSU and Missouri were largely successful in that regard, with the Gators rushing for 111 and 59 yards in the last two games, respectively. The Gators are averaging an SEC-low 4.4 yards per carry this season on designed runs, down a full yard from last season, when their 5.5-ypc average on designed runs ranked fourth in the SEC. If Georgia can make Florida's offense one-dimensional, it would appear to be a big advantage even against the Bulldogs' mediocre secondary. Gators quarterback Tyler Murphy has been subpar in the last two games, including a 3.0 Total QBR in the Missouri game -- the lowest QBR by a Florida starting quarterback in the last decade. His QBR has declined in each game he has played this season.
The Gurley factor: All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley -- who rushed for 118 yards and a touchdown last season against Florida -- returns to Georgia's lineup today after missing the last three games with an ankle injury. The Bulldogs' offense fell into a major slump without Gurley and the assortment of other offensive weapons who have missed time lately with injuries. He's the most important piece, however, so his return is one of the most positive developments for the Bulldogs' offense in weeks. Georgia averaged 554 yards of total offense in the four games in which Gurley played this season. Without him in the lineup, Georgia averaged 370 yards.
Three is the magic number: Winners of the last two in the series, the Bulldogs have the chance to build their first three-game winning streak against Florida since 1987-89 -- with 1989 representing the final season before Steve Spurrier returned to Gainesville as head coach and launched Florida's two decades of dominance in Jacksonville. Georgia has six winning streaks of at least three games against Florida, but the Gators had won 18 of the last 21 meetings before Georgia launched its current winning streak with a 24-20 victory in 2011.
Turnover troubles: Georgia's last two wins in this series were punctuated by the eight turnovers the Bulldogs generated -- six last season and two in 2011. All-American Jarvis Jones was the driving force behind that turnover trend, but he's now in the NFL and the Bulldogs have struggled mightily at generating takeaways in his absence. With seven turnovers, Georgia is tied with Kentucky for last in the SEC, and only Arkansas (minus-six) has a worse turnover margin than Georgia's minus-five. The lone positive sign in this category for Georgia is that it posted its first multiple-takeaway game in its last outing, when both Shaq Wiggins and Corey Moore intercepted Vanderbilt passes and Wiggins returned his for a touchdown.
Florida's blitz: With some impressive edge rushers at its disposal and tenacious cornerbacks known for playing tight coverage, Florida's defense has been largely successful when it utilized the blitz this season. The Gators have sent five or more rushers on 25 percent of their opponents' dropback passes, with opponents completing just 38 percent of those passes and averaging 3.0 yards per play. Both numbers rank in the nation's top three among defenses from AQ conferences.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Brendan Douglas has been the hurdler and the hurdlee, so he has firsthand knowledge of the embarrassment that accompanies an opponent leaping directly over you. The thing is, the Georgia tailback still isn't sure what he should have done when teammate Jordan Jenkins hurdled his attempted block during the Bulldogs' second preseason scrimmage.
It wasn't like he dove at Jenkins' ankles on the play. The 5-foot-11 back was nearly standing straight up when he lunged to block Jenkins, and the linebacker simply jumped straight over him.
“You're just like, 'What am I supposed to do?' He just cleared me,” chuckled Douglas, who also hurdled cornerback Shaq Wiggins in the same scrimmage. “I didn't dive on the ground or anything. I just kind of lunged at him a little bit and then he was over me. I didn't know if I should like grab his foot or what. It's kind of like you've just got to let him go at that point.”
“I was shocked I got over him,” Jenkins said. “Actually I stopped and thought, 'Oh God, I got over him,' and I just tried to get LeMay.”
Two months later, teammates still marvel at the athleticism required for Jenkins to pull off such a move.
“That was crazy,” tailback J.J. Green said. “I've never seen something like that where somebody was standing straight up and you just jump right over them.”
Most Georgia fans were first introduced to the in-game hurdle when All-America tailback Knowshon Moreno famously jumped over a Central Michigan defender in a 2008 victory. However, Moreno's legend began to grow two years earlier when as a redshirting freshman on the scout team, he jumped over teammate Donavon Baldwin in practice.
“That was probably most impressive one I've seen,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “He did it down on the turf [practice] fields and I think he kept his feet and went on and scored.”
Hurdle sightings have become much more prevalent over the last few years as the sport's increasingly big and athletic players have demonstrated the ability to avoid blocks or tackle attempts at their ankles by simply jumping over their opponent.
Bulldogs tight end Arthur Lynch has attempted it a number of times, most recently when he successfully cleared Missouri defensive back Randy Ponder's diving tackle attempt along the UGA sideline, bringing some electricity back into Sanford Stadium after the Bulldogs had fallen behind 28-10 in the second quarter.
“I thought it really did bring the crowd back into it [against Missouri] and also just kind of gets into the mind of your opponent, as well,” Lynch said. “I know like in a boxing match, if you go for the body shot, body shot, body shot, go up top, you've got a guy thinking. I think it's the same concept. If you run somebody over, the next play he's going to lower his shoulder and not be able to see anything, and [you can] go over the top.”
But Lynch's successful hurdle still surprised his teammates -- even his buddy Aaron Murray.
“I didn't think he could get that high,” said Murray, Georgia's quarterback. “I don't think anyone did, but that was pretty sweet.”
On the final defensive play of Georgia's 44-41 win against LSU, Jenkins attempted his pass-rush hurdle again, but it didn't go quite as smoothly. Rushing from the right side, he tried to soar over a block from LSU's Travis Dickson – and he was nearly successful again.
He cleared Dickson with his right leg, but the LSU tight end caught Jenkins' left leg and flipped him into the air. Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger stepped backward with Jenkins flying toward him and Leonard Floyd rushing into his face and threw incomplete for a turnover on downs that sealed Georgia's win.
“I didn't pick up my leg like I was supposed to,” Jenkins said. “It's like when you try to jump a hurdle in track, if you don't pick up that back leg, you'll fall down.”
Nonetheless, the hurdle is proving to be an effective-enough technique that Georgia tight ends coach John Lilly instructs his players to look for chances to leap over smaller defenders who will try to take out their legs instead of attempting a traditional tackle.
But even when a player sees his opponent lowering his head and preparing to hit him low, Jenkins said it takes a little something extra to attempt the hurdle instead of a different method of getting away.
“You've got to have that swagger to do it,” Jenkins said. “As long as you have it in your mind, if you know you can do it, if you have it in your head thinking, 'I know I can get this guy' and just commit to that, you can do it. But if you're half-guessing yourself, it ain't going to work out.”
The speed typically increases as a talented, capable player grows more comfortable with what he's doing -- and that's why Shaq Wiggins' interception for a 39-yard touchdown last Saturday against Vanderbilt is an encouraging sign for the freshman cornerback.
“I was sitting there and lining up and trying to figure out what we're going to do and if we were lined up right,” Georgia outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “When I saw it on film, Shaq read it in maybe two seconds. He saw that nobody was blocking him and they made a mistake and just left him unblocked. He saw the quarterback go back and he took off in front of the man and just picked it off. That's definitely something you don't see out of many young guys this early in their career.”
This has been far from a banner season for Georgia's beleagured defensive backfield, but Wiggins is quickly emerging as a bright spot. He gave up a couple of long passes against Missouri -- including one for a fourth-quarter touchdown on a double pass -- but has also made some big plays.
He started for the third straight game against Vanderbilt and recorded both an interception and a pass breakup that was nearly his second pick of the game. He said learning how to make better use of his study time has helped him become a more productive defender, as he said he had seen the trick play the Commodores attempted before on film.
“I was kind of confused when all those linemen came out, so I knew it was either going to be a screen or a pass to the other side, to the other receivers. … I just kind of read it before those big linemen got some hands on me and just made a play on the ball,” Wiggins said.
The truly impressive part is that Georgia hadn't worked on that play at all, Jenkins said. The freshman simply made a quick decision that allowed him to short circuit the play before the Commodores knew what hit them.
“I'd never seen an alignment like that before,” Jenkins said. “That wasn't in our dress rehearsal, anything, and you've got to credit Shaq for that.”
“That is the kind of play Georgia's players are beginning to expect from Wiggins. He has already shot into the backfield on screen passes to record three tackles for a loss and generally displayed the competitiveness and speed that helped make him the highest-rated prospect in Georgia's 2013 signing class according to ESPN's recruiting rankings.
I called it before the game in an interview I did. They asked me who was going to make a play on the ball, who was going to get a strip or an interception or something and I said it was Shaq Wiggins.” Defensive end Garrison Smith on Wiggins' pick-six vs. Vanderbilt.
“I called it before the game in an interview I did,” senior defensive end Garrison Smith said. “They asked me who was going to make a play on the ball, who was going to get a strip or an interception or something and I said it was Shaq Wiggins. Some guys are just gifted with different abilities and he's just one of the guys that I can tell he's got great ball skills. That's one of the things he's good at, so I wasn't surprised at all when he did that.”
Like secondary mates Brendan Langley, Quincy Mauger and Tray Matthews, Wiggins is a freshman who was thrown into the fire because of the Bulldogs' lack of veteran depth at their positions.
They have all experienced their struggles, but a play like his pick-six confirms that the light is clicking on for Wiggins. The big plays he surrendered against Missouri were a painful learning experience, too, but the freshman believes difficult matchups against such high-caliber receivers as Vandy's Jordan Matthews and Mizzou's Dorial Green-Beckham will only help accelerate his development.
Even for a player so small that Jenkins joked with him that Wiggins “looked like a JV high school player playing up in college.”
“I look at myself every day in the mirror and it's always obvious that I'm probably the smallest guy on the field. I just play with a chip on my shoulder,” said Wiggins, who is generously listed at 5-foot-10. “Like a lot of fans and other people say, 'He's too small, can't guard so-and-so receiver,' so I just kind of take that, keep that in the back of my head and make plays. The more plays you make, the more people will start believing in you and feeling comfortable with you on the field. I think I'm kind of proving that.”
Nobody's safe: Five SEC teams in the Top 25 lost Saturday, and only one (Florida) was an underdog coming in. Georgia and South Carolina still were considered among the favorites to win the East, but both teams tripped up on the road to unranked opponents. Vanderbilt scored a touchdown in the final minutes to knock off the Bulldogs, and Tennessee kicked a field goal as time expired to spoil Steve Spurrier's latest trip to Knoxville. No. 7 Texas A&M was a heavy favorite at home against Auburn, but the Aggies' defense let them down again. Auburn rushed for 379 yards and scored late to pull off a 45-41 upset. In the nightcap, a short-handed Ole Miss team jumped out to a 17-0 lead and held off No. 6 LSU at home.
Auburn is for real: You can make excuses, particularly this one: If Johnny Manziel hadn't hurt his shoulder late in the game, Texas A&M would've won. But the fact of the matter is Auburn went to Kyle Field, put up 45 points, gained 615 yards and beat a top-10 team. Quarterback Nick Marshall looked very impressive after missing last week's game. He threw for 236 yards, rushed for 100 yards and scored four touchdowns. Even the defense, much maligned throughout the game, made the stop when it mattered -- with Manziel in the game. It comes back to first-year head coach Gus Malzahn. He has changed the culture around the Auburn program, and the Tigers are now 6-1 and the biggest threat to Alabama in the West.
Signature win for Butch: Tennessee came oh so close to pulling the upset against Georgia two weeks ago. It would've been the win to take the Volunteers to the next level, and show recruits that what coach Butch Jones is doing is real. But they came up short. Instead of dwelling on the loss, Tennessee bounced back after a week off and beat a Top 25 team at home. It wasn't pretty, but a win is a win. And how about that catch from Marquez North late in the game to put the Vols in range for the game-winning field goal? That was a grown-man catch. Tennessee isn't likely to go into Tuscaloosa and upset the No. 1 team in the nation, but it's obvious that Jones is turning around the program. The Vols took another step with Saturday's win over South Carolina.
Freshman impact: North's catch was spectacular, but he wasn't the only true freshman who had a big game on Saturday. Georgia's Shaq Wiggins returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown. Florida running back Kelvin Taylor scored the Gators' only offensive touchdown on a 20-yard run in the third quarter. And for Alabama, tight end O.J. Howard caught his first touchdown pass from 17 yards out, and running back Derrick Henry showed why he was such a heralded recruit with an 80-yard touchdown run late in the game. It just goes to show how important recruiting has become in the SEC, and it doesn't matter if it's the worst team in the conference or the best team -- freshmen will still play a role.
Shaq Wiggins: A lack of turnovers has been a major issue for Georgia's defense this season, but freshman cornerback Wiggins provided an enormous boost when he quickly diagnosed a Vanderbilt trick play, intercepted an Austyn Carta-Samuels pass and returned the pick 39 yards for a touchdown. That gave Georgia a 17-14 lead and an enormous shot in the arm when Vandy seemed to have momentum on its side. Wiggins nearly had another interception in the second half, but settled for a key pass breakup. He finished the day with one tackle, one PBU and the first interception of his career.
Jordan Jenkins: Jenkins predicted before the season that he would record double-digit sacks this fall, but had only one at the season's midway point. He jump started his pursuit of that total against Vanderbilt, however, notching two sacks along with three tackles for a loss, one pass breakup and five tackles. Jenkins joked this week that he can't allow Ray Drew (who has a team-high five sacks) to lead the Bulldogs this season, and he finally took some steps toward catching his teammate on Saturday.
Ramik Wilson: By far the biggest play of the game involving Wilson actually went for a penalty against the Georgia linebacker. But it's not his fault that the officials completely dropped the ball on the play, when he broke up a fourth-down pass with a big hit on Jonathan Krause. The referees initially flagged Wilson for targeting, a 15-yard penalty that carries an automatic ejection, although the ejection was overturned upon further review. The 15-yard penalty remained, however, and Vandy got a free first down at Georgia's 15-yard line, which it turned into a touchdown to make it 27-21. The Commodores drove to Georgia's 13-yard line on their next drive before Wilson's 13-yard sack forced a third-and-extra-long and an eventual field goal to make it 27-24 Bulldogs. Wilson also recorded eight tackles on top of his sack and TFL.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Aaron Murray finally ran out of the late-game magic that served No. 7 Georgia so well up until Saturday's 41-26 loss to No. 25 Missouri, as the Bulldogs quarterback's interceptions on his final two drives prevented Georgia from overcoming a big early deficit.
“Four turnovers. They had none, we had four, and you can't win ballgames when you turn the ball over four times,” said Murray, who was 25-for-45 for 290 yards and three touchdowns but also tossed two picks and had a fumble returned for a touchdown that put Mizzou up 28-10 in the second quarter. “I don't care who you're playing. It's just a recipe for disaster.”
Murray completed late touchdown passes that paved the way for Georgia (4-2, 3-1 SEC) to beat South Carolina, LSU and Tennessee in what has been the nation's most difficult schedule to this point. But two crucial turnovers in the first half -- Murray's lost fumble for a touchdown and freshman Brendan Douglas' fumble at the Missouri 6 -- allowed the Tigers to build the 18-point halftime lead over a Georgia team that was without many of its top offensive weapons.
Perhaps things might have been different if Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall were in Georgia's backfield or if Malcolm Mitchell, Michael Bennett or Justin Scott-Wesley was in at receiver. But the Bulldogs still outgained Missouri's explosive offense 454 yards to 375 even without those players and had trimmed the Tigers' lead to 28-26 after a furious third-quarter rally.
If healthy, Gurley -- who Georgia coach Mark Richt said has “a realistic shot” of playing next Saturday against Vanderbilt -- would have been the likely ball carrier on the play in which Douglas fumbled. But the other three turnovers were the responsibility of veteran regulars. The interceptions were both bad reads by Murray. His sack came after senior tight end Arthur Lynch allowed Shane Ray to beat his block and knock the ball away from Murray with a blindside hit before Michael Sam picked up the loose ball and ran in for the score.
The difference in the outcome was that Georgia's defense couldn't carry over its momentum into the fourth quarter -- even after Missouri quarterback James Franklin left the game with a shoulder injury -- and the Bulldogs committed two more turnovers in the final period, ending any hope of another dramatic Georgia victory.
“I'm not going to sit here and start talking about if we'd had this or that,” Richt said. “That's football. Everybody has injuries. We had injuries; other teams do too. Their quarterback went out when the game was a two-point game. They found a way to win.”
And the Tigers did it with backup quarterback Maty Mauk coming on to lead a pair of late touchdown drives that secured the victory. Up 28-26 early in the fourth quarter, Missouri (6-0, 2-0) was facing a third-and-6 at its 45-yard line when Franklin left the game.
Georgia's defense had an opportunity to halt the Tigers' drive but allowed Mauk to slip away with a 6-yard scramble for a huge first down at midfield. Two plays later, Tigers receiver Bud Sasser hit L'Damian Washington -- who made a leaping catch over freshman cornerback Shaq Wiggins -- with a 40-yard touchdown off a double pass.
“You had a chance on third down to get [Mauk] and they run him and we don't finish him off on the tackle and the guy gets it, and the next play is an explosive play,” Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said.
That series ruined what had been an enormous turnaround by Grantham's defense in the second half. The Bulldogs surrendered touchdowns on three straight Tigers possessions before halftime, and it looked like Missouri might win a blowout when it led 28-10 at halftime. But Georgia allowed just 35 yards in the third quarter and forced Missouri to punt all three times it had the ball in the period.
Murray and the offense used those opportunities to trim the lead to 28-26 after he hit Chris Conley with a 10-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. Even when Conley dropped the two-point pass that would have tied the score, the Bulldogs had seemingly gained the upper hand before allowing Missouri to convert the two big third downs that kept alive the ensuing touchdown drive that ended with Washington's touchdown grab.
"One negative play here or there that's an explosive play can eliminate a lot of good plays," Grantham said.
With their résumé already full of last-minute heroics, the Bulldogs believed they were still in it even when Mizzou pushed its lead back to eight. They were still down eight when the defense forced a punt, giving the ball to Murray and the offense with 4:25 left.
Only Murray didn't deliver this time. Randy Ponder intercepted a first-down pass and returned it to the Georgia 33, setting up another short touchdown drive that put the Tigers up 41-26.
“We're thinking we're in position to win the game, we're going to drive the field, score, score the two, overtime, who knows,” Richt said. “Yeah, we're absolutely thinking, 'Here we go again. We've got a chance to do it.' And to their credit, they made a play.”
They threw open the SEC East race in the process.
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.”
No. 5 Georgia and No. 8 Clemson will end a 10-year hiatus in their historic rivalry Saturday when the Bulldogs visit Death Valley n in one of the most intriguing matchups of opening weekend.
Let’s examine five key elements involved in a game that could impact this season’s BCS championship chase:
Big-play offenses: Las Vegas is predicting two of the nation’s most-prolific offenses to combine for around 70 points on Saturday night. And research provided by ESPN Stats and Information gives us plenty of reasons to see why many analysts expect a high-scoring game between the Bulldogs and Tigers.
Beyond simple scoring and total offense stats, they both ranked among the nation’s top big-play offenses a season ago. Georgia ranked first nationally or tied for first in touchdowns of at least 20 yards (31), 30 yards (22) and 50 yards (12) and led the nation with an average of 7.09 yards per play.
Clemson, meanwhile, led the nation in completions of 25 yards or more (51) and touchdown passes that covered at least 25 yards (20). Clemson’s Tajh Boyd had 11.2 percent of his passes go for completions of at least 25 yards, which was the highest of any quarterback in the country who attempted at least 150 passes.
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray led the nation in yards per pass attempt (10.1) and percentage of attempts to gain 20 yards or more (16.1).
Both quarterbacks improved their accuracy on passes of 20-plus yards last season, with Murray completing 46 percent of such throws (an increase of 17.3 percent) and Boyd hitting on 51 percent (an increase of 14 percent).
Will Watkins step up?: With Georgia breaking in a largely rebuilt secondary, this game would seem like a prime opportunity for Clemson’s 2011 All-American receiver Sammy Watkins to exploit the Bulldogs’ youth.
Watkins talked a big game about beating Georgia during the offseason, but will he reclaim his spot as the Tigers’ top receiving target after losing that title last fall to DeAndre Hopkins. Watkins was third nationally in all-purpose yards (2,288) in 2011, but totaled fewer than half as many a year later (1,073). His touchdowns-per-touch ratio dropped from 1-in-9.6 to 1-in-17.8, as well.
Clemson quarterbacks targeted Watkins 44 fewer times (from 123 in 2011 to 79 last year) and his catch (82 to 57), receiving yardage (1,219 to 708) and touchdown (12 to three) totals all dropped severely.
Hopkins led the nation with 11 touchdown catches of 25-plus yards last season, so the Tigers desperately need Watkins to live up to the standard he set in 2011 and replace some of the departed star’s production. Watkins is more than capable, posting 11 TD catches of 25-plus yards in his first two seasons as a Tiger.
Pound the run?: An interesting subplot to Saturday’s game is how Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will attack Clemson’s defense. The Tigers also have some concerns in the secondary -- this on the heels of surrendering 7.32 yards per pass attempt a season ago. But conventional wisdom seems to dictate that Georgia uses its powerful running game -- paced by All-SEC pick Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall -- to extend drives and provide time for its defense to rest between series against Clemson’s up-tempo offense.
Both players averaged better than 6 yards per carry last season, due in large part to their capabilities as home-run threats. They combined for 12 runs of 25-plus yards, eight of which went for touchdowns. Gurley alone had 27 carries that went at least 15 yards, which tied for fifth in the FBS.
Clemson ranked 57th nationally against the run last season, surrendering 155.92 yards per game on the ground in Brent Venables’ first season as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. The Tigers were 71st against the pass at 240.3 ypg.
Murray on the big stage: Fair or unfair, Saturday’s game -- and the upcoming matchups with South Carolina and LSU in September -- will serve as another referendum on Murray’s status as a big-game performer.
The positive sign for Murray is that he has won two of his last three games against opponents that finished the season as a ranked team: Florida and Nebraska last season. Following an atrocious first half against Florida last season, Murray has tossed seven touchdowns against three interceptions in 10 quarters against ranked opponents, including the SEC championship game loss to Alabama.
Fresh-faced defenses: Let’s have some fun with numbers concerning Georgia and Clemson’s defensive depth charts.
After losing 12 key players from last season’s defense, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham appears set to trot out a large group of newbies. Of the 22 players listed on the Bulldogs’ defensive two-deep in this week’s game notes, 16 of them have never started a college game. Heck, nine of them, including seven true freshmen, have never PLAYED in a college game.
But a number of them -- including outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, defensive lineman John Taylor, safety Tray Matthews and cornerbacks Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins -- could play big roles on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Clemson has some experience issues of its own. Ten of the 22 players on the defensive two-deep have never started and three of them are freshmen. They’re expected to be without injured freshman cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who at No. 4 in the 2013 ESPN 150 was Clemson’s highest-rated signee in its most recent recruiting class.
It’s easily conceivable that Saturday’s outcome could be determined by which team’s young defensive personnel acquits itself more effectively in its first game in leading roles.
ATHENS, Ga. -- If the last month taught Sheldon Dawson anything about Georgia’s green secondary, it’s that capability is not the Bulldogs’ issue.
“For us to be counted out so bad, we actually look good,” Dawson said earlier this week.
As Saturday’s game at Clemson approaches, the young players stepping into big roles on Georgia’s defense remain the team’s biggest question mark, although Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said Tuesday he is “probably more curious than concerned” about how they will perform.
Nonetheless, with one of the nation’s most prolific offenses on deck, Richt admitted that a secondary that features five players who have never started a game -- including Dawson and true freshmen cornerbacks Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins -- listed on the two-deep depth chart will be tested.
“Those guys aren’t good receivers, they’re great receivers. They’re really prolific guys in the college game that are going to play on Sundays,” Richt said of a Clemson receiving corps that includes 2011 All-American Sammy Watkins. “So here you’ve got some young pups in there that are going to try and hook it up with them, it’s going to be tough. … It’s not a good matchup for us right now.”
Compounding the issue is that the Bulldogs dealt with an assortment of injuries in August. Junior safety Corey Moore is likely out against Clemson after spraining his knee. Dawson returned to practice last week after a number of ailments forced him to miss time during preseason camp. And freshman safety Tray Matthews missed several weeks before returning to his presumed starting role this week in practice.
“Obviously communication is crucial between safeties, so him not being out there, it creates challenges,” Norman said. “But at the same time, he’s been there, he’s been working and we talk all the time. So I think we’ve been doing the best we can when it comes to getting comfortable with each other. We had all spring together, also, so it’s not like he got here and he was out the entire camp. He had a spring here, so I think some of that chemistry was already created.”
Norman, who started twice last season, is one of only six players on the two-deep who has a start under his belt. Included on that two-deep of 22 players are eight freshmen and a junior college transfer who will make their college debuts Saturday night in Death Valley.
“Those guys have really embraced their opportunity to be out here and that comes with learning the defense and knowing it a lot better,” Norman said. “All the credit goes to the guys that have earned the opportunity to play because they’ve taken responsibility for themselves.”
Opportunity abounds on Georgia’s defense, but it exists at certain positions on the Bulldogs’ veteran offense as well -- perhaps nowhere more than along the offensive line.
After his three-year NCAA eligibility battle ended this summer, Kolton Houston has battled 2012 starter John Theus for the right tackle job in August. The two have split first-team reps at tackle, while Theus has also filled in at right guard while team trainers took it easy on starter Chris Burnette in his return from offseason shoulder surgery.
“I was the kind of guy for three years that I don’t want to slack off and hold back the past three years because I always thought that there was going to be a time that I could play, so I always wanted to be ready,” said Houston, on the verge of playing his first college game since arriving at Georgia in January 2010. “And so now I definitely have a little more of a spark, but I’ve always practiced competitively since I’ve been here. I think that’s what’s helped me now.”
Redshirt sophomore Justin Scott-Wesley also seems ready for an increased role at receiver after earning substantial playing time for the first time in his career in Georgia’s last game, its Capital One Bowl win over Nebraska. The UGA track star is listed as Michael Bennett’s backup at split end and is one of a number of less experienced wideouts -- including freshman Reggie Davis and Kenny Towns -- who received a longer look in August thanks to injuries to veterans.
“Anytime you can get game reps and experience on the field, it’s good for your confidence and it’s good for the coaches’ confidence in you and your teammates’ confidence in you,” said Scott-Wesley, who had three catches for 67 yards against Nebraska. “So me coming out and showing that I could handle myself in a gametime situation is good for me moving forward.”
More than any spots on offense, however, the young players in the secondary and at linebacker will be under the microscope in Saturday’s opener. This will be their opportunity to prove they deserve further playing time before Harvey-Clemons and the assorted injured veterans return to the lineup.
“Even a week from this game, we’re going to be in better shape from a safety standpoint, as far as health and guys that are available to play,” Richt said. “Do we have all hands on deck right now? We don’t, but the guys that are in there have to step up and play and do well.”
“Really if you play hard, you’ll end up making a play,” the Georgia outside linebacker said after Tuesday’s practice.
It might not sound like much, but that playing style -- “I’m bringing speed all day, every day,” Floyd said -- has helped him become perhaps Georgia’s fastest-rising freshman during preseason practice. Other Bulldogs might play with a high motor, but Floyd’s consistent effort in practice has been enough for Georgia coach Mark Richt to single him out during a team gathering.
“His head’s still spinning learning stuff, but he’s really impressed me how hard he practices on a daily basis,” Richt said. “… He really stood out to me. He’s been standing out to me for a while.”
The pass-rush specialist quickly made an impression on teammates and coaches with his work at strongside linebacker, to the point that he could steal some playing time from expected starter James DeLoach. In fact, he almost seems to be a lock to contribute on scrimmage downs.
“Floyd’s going to be a good asset to us,” outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “I think he’ll play a good bit this year, a guy with his size and his frame. He’s quick off the ball and he’s really like his nickname, Flow, because he’s real smooth with his moves and stuff like that.”
Floyd might be the freshman who made the biggest impression in Georgia’s preseason practices, but he’s not the only member of that group. Here are a few others whose names consistently cropped up as impact freshmen in a highly informal poll of Georgia veterans.
Brendan Douglas, running back
Douglas might be the most pleasant preseason surprise on Georgia’s veteran offense.
“He’s just running people over. He hurdled a DB [a diving Shaq Wiggins] last week in the scrimmage. It was an unbelievable play,” senior quarterback Aaron Murray said. “Just a tough kid, and one of our best blocking running backs right now. He’s not afraid to stick his nose in there, I don’t care who it is, and knock them right under the chin. So it’s great to see him back there. He’s worked his tail off and he definitely deserves some playing time.”
Douglas has ceded the No. 3 tailback spot to fellow freshman J.J. Green for now after spraining the MCL in his left knee on Monday. But Richt said after Wednesday’s scrimmage that the injury would not require surgery and will not end Douglas’ season.
Reggie Carter, inside linebacker
Carter has continued his upward trajectory from spring practice this August, solidifying a spot behind veteran starters Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson as the season approaches.
Wilson recently said that Carter possesses the quickest hands among the Bulldogs’ inside linebackers and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said he has been the most consistent of the four freshmen who arrived in the most recent signing class.
“I’d have to say Reggie’s the guy that’s kind of stood out the most right now,” Grantham said.
Carter tied Herrera for second on the team with three tackles in Wednesday’s final preseason scrimmage -- one behind Wilson. But it seems evident that all three players will fill key roles on Grantham’s defense once the Clemson game arrives.
Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley, cornerbacks
These days, you rarely hear one of the freshman cornerbacks mentioned without the other’s name following shortly thereafter. But that’s a good thing, as both of them have emerged as consistent playmakers in the injury-depleted secondary.
They both intercepted passes in each of the last two team scrimmages -- with Wiggins returning one for a touchdown in Wednesday night’s practice game and Langley taking one to the house the previous week.
Although the freshman duo has no chance of taking junior cornerback Damian Swann’s job and will face heavy competition for playing time from sophomore Sheldon Dawson, their performances have impressed the coaches.
“I thought our young guys were challenged [in the second scrimmage] a little bit and made some plays,” Grantham said. “I see those guys getting better. Langley’s a guy that continues to improve. He’s a very conscientious guy.”
As for Wiggins, take his fellow freshman’s word concerning his play thus far in August.
“We all know he’s a feisty little dude,” Langley said. “He’s making plays almost every play. Like I said, he’s real feisty, he’s a great cover corner. He’s come up and making big plays in the running game, so you can’t really ask for more.”
Reggie Davis, wide receiver
If there was any question whether Davis might redshirt this season because of Georgia’s impressive depth at receiver, it seemed to be answered on Wednesday. He played with the regulars, not the scout team, and ranked among the team’s leading receivers with two catches for 29 yards.
“He might play a lot this year. He’s a speed demon,” Murray said of the former high school track star. “He’s I think the fastest guy in our receiving corps and we have some speed over there, and he’s worked his tail off to earn his position, learn the plays, has definitely opened a lot of eyes out there with what he’s able to do with his route-running ability.”
Georgia has multiple reliable options at receiver, including Malcolm Mitchell, Michael Bennett and Chris Conley. But Davis’ speed and consistent hands have apparently helped him win some playing time.
“In the next two years, he’s probably going to be one of the best players here. Hands down,” Mitchell said. “He wants to learn, he wants to get better. That’s where it starts.”
The Bulldogs simulated the second half of their Aug. 31 opener against Clemson and Georgia coach Mark Richt gave his scout team a 28-0 lead on the regulars before play even began. Richt further helped the scout team -- or “Clemson” -- with timely free first downs and other forms of assistance, but “Georgia” rallied to cut the Clemson lead to 41-35 entering the scrimmage’s final minutes.
That’s when senior quarterback Aaron Murray -- who finished 11-for-14 for 194 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions -- re-entered the game and led Georgia on a game-winning drive of approximately 60 yards, capping it with a game-tying touchdown pass to tight end Arthur Lynch.
The identity of the place-kicker who booted the game-winning extra point? That will remain anonymous, Richt said.
“I can’t tell you,” said Richt, who has not announced whether last year’s kicker, Marshall Morgan, will face a suspension following an offseason arrest. “Secret stuff.”
Nonetheless, Georgia’s coach said he was pleased with what his team accomplished in Wednesday’s practice game. The veterans’ offense showed off some balance with 17 running plays -- freshman J.J. Green rushed for 62 yards and fullback Quayvon Hicks scored two touchdowns -- and 21 passes.
Murray tossed touchdowns to Lynch, Keith Marshall and Malcolm Mitchell and 10 “Georgia” players caught at least one pass.
All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley did not carry the ball, Richt said, because “we’ve seen enough of him.”
On the defensive side, outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins and inside linebacker Ramik Wilson tied for the team lead with four tackles apiece. Jenkins had a sack and Wilson a tackle for a loss.
Freshman cornerbacks Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley both intercepted passes, with Wiggins returning his 17 yards for a touchdown. Both freshmen intercepted passes in last Wednesday’s scrimmage as well, with Langley returning one for a score.
“Those guys, they’re getting some reps with the varsity and making plays, which is good,” Richt said of the two freshmen in his injury-depleted secondary. “They do have good ball skills, very good hands.”
Among other notable defensive players, Josh Dawson forced a fumble, Damian Swann broke up a pass and Reggie Carter and Amarlo Herrera both had three tackles, with Herrera notching one for a three-yard loss.
Richt said the “Georgia” defense surrendered one touchdown off a legitimate drive without his assistance, but also forced “Clemson” to attempt field goals on two occasions when he gave the scout team free first downs within field-goal range.
“We got done what we wanted to get done,” Richt said. “We had a lot of live kicking situations. We had a lot of situations that we needed to see to transition from a kicking to a scrimmage play back to a kicking play. I thought we did a pretty good job, really.”
The Bulldogs will hold another scrimmage-like practice on Thursday where they will work more on kicking-game scenarios and a few other situational exercises like short-yardage and goal-line plays in preparation for the real Clemson game next Saturday.
But for the most part, Richt said the coaches have determined who will make the trip to Clemson and how those players might be utilized on Aug. 31 -- with some minor lineup tweaking still a possibility once the staff reviews tape of Wednesday’s practice game.
“We have a preliminary list, but we have to re-evaluate it here in the next day or two,” Richt said.
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.”
Georgia coach Mark Richt said DeLoach should be back for the Bulldogs' Aug. 31 opener at Clemson, though the sophomore will practice for some time with his hand covered by a cast when he returns in the next day or two.
"He knows enough of what to do that I don't think it will [set him back]," Richt said of DeLoach, who watched from the sidelines during Monday's morning practice while wearing a green non-contact jersey. "He can get all the mental reps, as well, so I think he'll be fine."
Freshman outside linebacker Davin Bellamy also sustained a left thumb injury -- a fracture -- during Sunday's practice and was slated for Monday surgery. Bellamy is expected to be healthy in time for the Clemson game, too.
"You've got a lot of hand-to-hand combat in there and your digits get pushed back sometimes and get damaged. So we're going to clean them up with the surgery and club them up to protect them," Richt said. "They'll be practicing relatively soon. You don't miss an awful lot off of that, and then we're hoping by the time the game rolls around, they'll have just about every finger and thumb free."
DeLoach and Bellamy are among a number of young Bulldogs defenders who are dealing with minor injuries early in camp. And that comes at an inopportune time as several of the newcomers are competing to fill holes created by 12 departed regulars from Georgia's 2012 defense.
Freshman cornerback Shaq Wiggins was impressive in the first few days of camp, but was sidelined Monday by a groin strain. Freshman safety Tray Matthews -- who claimed a first-team job in the spring -- practiced for the second straight day in a non-contact jersey on Monday after injuring his shoulder. And first-team cornerback Sheldon Dawson continues to practice through a knee injury he sustained in the spring.
"It's not good," Richt said. "But like I told them after practice, that's football. ... You take DeLoach and Bellamy, Davin's the one that's going to have a harder time missing those reps where a veteran missing a day or two won't kill him on a knowledge standpoint.
"But yeah, it is inconvenient for them not to be there and not to get reps. We just hope that they do a great job in meetings, and we do a lot of walkthroughs so most guys can walk and talk through assignments if they can't go full speed so they get as many mental reps as possible."
But Georgia’s coach has stepped away from that conservative approach somewhat in recent seasons. Today, if a need exists and a new Bulldog is capable of addressing it, Richt’s coaching staff is more than willing to allow him to play a leading role -- with players like tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, receiver Malcolm Mitchell, outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins and former safety Alec Ogletree making big impacts as true freshmen.
That philosophy will remain evident this fall, particularly on Todd Grantham’s defense which must replace 12 significant contributors. Several of those replacements will be brand-new Bulldogs, while additional reserve roles will also go to freshmen and junior college transfers who impress the coaches over the next few weeks.
For the most part, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s starting lineup is in solid shape as the Bulldogs prepare to open preseason camp on Thursday. There are questions about how the offensive line rotation will shape up and which players will seize roles at receiver and tailback, but most of the key pieces return from last season’s high-scoring offense.
It’s entirely possible, though, that junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph and freshmen Tramel Terry and J.J. Green will contribute immediately at receiver. And it’s entirely likely that either A.J. Turman or Brendan Douglas, if not both, will carve out a role behind Gurley and Marshall at tailback.
“I’d like to have a third and a fourth tailback. ... I do like we got some bigger guys in Douglas and Turman,” Bobo said. “We’ve got to get those guys ready -- get them on special teams, get them playing, get them confidence, treat them like we treated Gurley and Marshall last year because we’re planning on playing them.”
Grantham’s defense is where the greatest concentration of newcomers will be found this fall, however. There are openings on the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary that will almost certainly go to a freshman or juco transfer.
Freshman safety Tray Matthews, who enrolled in January, was the talk of Georgia’s spring practices thanks to a number of big hits. But he’s far from the only new Bulldog who will be up for strong consideration throughout August as the coaching staff attempts to determine which players will contribute in the fall.
Up front, juco transfers Chris Mayes and Toby Johnson and prep school transfer John Atkins all figure to play a role. The No. 4 overall prospect on ESPN’s Junior College 100, Johnson is fully recovered from last fall’s knee surgery and has been working out without limitation this summer alongside his new teammates.
“He’s ready. He’s doing everything we’re doing,” senior defensive end Garrison Smith said. “He looks he’s 100 percent to me.”
Inside linebacker Reggie Carter also made a mark in spring practice and now has company from summer arrivals Johnny O’Neal and Tim Kimbrough, as well as Shaun McGee, who Grantham said will work at strongside and inside linebacker during camp.
And the secondary will be littered with new faces, including juco transfers Shaq Fluker and Kennar Johnson and freshmen Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley. Grantham mentioned Fluker as a candidate to play immediately at strong safety and said Wiggins and Langley will receive similar consideration at cornerback.
Tight end Arthur Lynch, for one, said the 6-foot-1 Langley has been impressive in the Bulldogs’ summer passing sessions.
“I think Langley’s a guy that can be pretty good,” Lynch said. “He’s very athletic and he runs like a deer. He can run for days and he’s very fast.”
Richt’s staff recruited the 31 newcomers with the knowledge that there would be numerous spots to fill this year, and that many of the signees needed to be prepared to play right away. That was the purpose of bringing in a program-high 13 players in January so they could participate in offseason conditioning and spring practices, and it was a factor even with signees who couldn’t arrive on campus until the summer.
They’ll soon get their chance to crack the rotation -- and don’t be surprised if on Aug. 31, a significant number of them are playing scrimmage downs and on special teams in the Bulldogs’ opener against Clemson.
“Anytime you can go against quality people in practice, it allows you to become better and truthfully it allows you to find out where you are,” Grantham said. “It allows you to find out what your strengths are and maybe what the things are you need to work on.”
10 NEWCOMERS TO WATCH
John Atkins, nose guard
Thomson, Ga./Hargrave Military
ESPN ranking: Four stars, Was No. 11 DT when he initially signed with Georgia in 2012
Breakdown: Atkins enrolled in January after spending last fall at Hargrave and ended spring practice as the Bulldogs’ No. 3 nose guard. He’ll compete with Michael Thornton and a fellow newcomer -- juco transfer Chris Mayes -- for a chance to contribute in the middle of the defensive line.
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