Georgia Bulldogs: Chris Conley

We continue our breakdown of each position group in the SEC on Wednesday by looking at a group that might be low on name recognition but quite high -- and deep -- on talent.

Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jordan Matthews are all off to the NFL. Now a new group of playmakers is ready to emerge.

Who will be this season’s star pass-catchers? Let’s find out.

Wide receiver/tight end position rankings

1. Alabama: Like so many on this list, all of it depends on who is throwing the football. If Jacob Coker shows he can spin it, then Alabama will have the best group of pass-catchers in the SEC -- maybe the country. It isn’t just Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard, whom you will read about later this afternoon. Howard, who was underutilized in the passing game last year, is poised to have a breakout sophomore campaign. But there’s also veteran DeAndrew White, all-purpose star Christion Jones and depth that includes a litany of former blue-chip prospects.

2. Texas A&M: Too bad Johnny Manziel didn’t stay another year because he might have really enjoyed the guys he was throwing to. Malcome Kennedy, he of 60 receptions and seven touchdowns last season, isn’t even the most exciting receiver on the field. That honor belongs to one of two freshmen. Ricky Seals-Jones, who redshirted last season, would have reminded Manziel so much of Evans, an impossibly tall target who can go up and get the ball. And then there’s Speedy Noil, the No. 1 athlete in the 2014 class, who looks like a dangerous weapon at slot receiver. With tight end Cameron Clear working the middle of the field, the Aggies should be able to stretch the field effectively.

3. Georgia: How can you not like Chris Conley? Not only did he write and direct a "Star Wars" fan film, he’s also a pretty good receiver with 45 catches for 651 yards last season. Starting opposite him, if his health holds up, should be Malcolm Mitchell. The redshirt junior has loads of potential, as he was second on the team in receiving in 2011 and 2012. Throw in Jay Rome, one of the more underrated tight ends in the SEC, and that’s a good group for quarterback Hutson Mason to work with.

4. Auburn: Nick Marshall is progressing as a passer at the right time. His receiver corps, which looked thin at times last season, is set to make a big jump. Sammie Coates, Auburn’s leading man, has the potential to become much more than a speed demon who can run a nasty post. Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis are all guys who have shown flashes of talent. Then there’s D'haquille Williams, the former No. 1 junior college receiver. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound target has all the tools to become one of the best receivers in the SEC.

5. Ole Miss: Offensive coordinators love it when they can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Laquon Treadwell, who as a true freshman trailed only Jordan Matthews for the most receptions in the SEC last season, is the type of home-run threat to keep safeties on their heels. Evan Engram, who made a positive impression as a rookie himself before succumbing to injury, gives Ole Miss a one-two punch by demanding coverage in the middle of the field because he’s simply too athletic a tight end to be covered by most linebackers in the league.

6. South Carolina: They’re on the small side. Let’s get that part out of the way. There’s not a 6-3 or 6-5 receiver Dylan Thompson will be able to lob the ball to this season. But nonetheless, he’s got some options. Damiere Byrd is one of the fastest receivers in the SEC, and Pharoh Cooper is another guy who is dangerous with the ball in space. That’s not to mention Shaq Roland, who has All-SEC type talent. Though his 6-1 frame might not excite you, he’s one of those guys who can create separation and get the ball in traffic. If there’s one spot you’d like to see the Gamecocks progress, it’s at tight end. And with Jerell Adams and Rory Anderson, there’s potential to improve.

7. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen needs to find some playmakers on offense. Outside of running back, his ability to develop talent at receiver and tight end has been somewhat of a disappointment. This year could change that. Jameon Lewis has the upside of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, someone who can take it the distance any time he touches the football. De’Runnya Wilson, a 6-5 target with a hoops background, is just the type of over-the-top threat to play off the small, speedy Lewis. With a good group of running backs and a quarterback who can extend plays, expect more from the passing game in 2014.

8. Tennessee: Butch Jones has a lot to be excited about when it comes to his receivers this season. But until the status of Pig Howard is determined, that excitement is on hold. The talented receiver was forced to miss all of the spring with “personal issues.” If he can return and join Marquez North, it would make for a formidable one-two punch. Add top signee Josh Malone into the mix and whoever starts under center should be happy with what he’s working with. That said, without a single starter returning on the offensive line, time for the quarterback to throw downfield could be a big obstacle.

9. LSU: Yes, the team’s top two receivers are gone. Jarvis Landry and Beckham were both the real deal last season, accounting for 66 percent of all receptions. And, yes, LSU is replacing its quarterback, too. But we’re betting on potential here. Travin Dural and John Diarse have the tools to be starters in this league. And then there are the freshmen. LSU signed two the top three receivers in the 2014 class -- No. 1 Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- in addition to Jacory Washington, the No. 5 tight end in the country.

10. Florida: It’s time to prove it, Florida. We’ve heard for a few years now how the receivers were getting better. But last season was the same old story with no real playmakers on the outside. Maybe new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will change that. Demarcus Robinson seems in line for a big sophomore bump, along with Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. With seniors Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose back, there’s a good amount of depth to lean on. But until we see consistent results from the Gators’ receivers, we’ll have to wait and see if this really is the year.

11. Missouri: Gary Pinkel had to let Dorial Green-Beckham go. But what a waste of talent it was. He would have easily been the most talented receiver in the SEC. Now his future, and that of Missouri’s offense, is up in the air as the Tigers fail to return any of their top three pass-catchers from last season. Seniors Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt are back, which helps, but more receivers will need to emerge to help Maty Mauk in the passing game.

12. Kentucky: Javess Blue quietly was one of the most productive receivers in the SEC last season, despite having little consistency at quarterback. Blue, now a senior, finished 14th in the league with 43 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll anchor a group that has some potential. Ryan Timmons, a former four-star prospect in the 2013 class, could break through after playing in all 12 games as a freshman. And as far as true freshmen go, look for Kentucky to lean on its 2014 class that includes Thaddeus Snodgrass, T.V. Williams, Dorian Baker and Blake Bone.

13. Arkansas: Someone needs to take the load off of Hunter Henry this season. Henry, who caught 28 passes and four touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, stands to make up the majority of the Razorbacks passing game now that Javontee Herndon, the team’s leading receiver in 2013, is gone. So is Kiero Small, the fourth-leading receiver. The good news: Demetrius Wilson, who missed all of last season, returns. Wilson, a big target at 6-foot-3, could be a difference-maker.

14. Vanderbilt: You don’t replace Jordan Matthews. You don’t replace the man with the most career receptions in SEC history. Vanderbilt will try, but it’s going to be difficult. And it’s going to be even more of an uphill battle considering that Jonathan Krause, the team’s second-leading receiver, also is gone. With those two no longer on campus, look for C.J. Duncan and Jordan Cunningham to step up.
This season, it seems pretty much everything is wide open in the SEC. It should make for one of the most compelling seasons in years, and the receivers will be one of the most intriguing positions on the field.

Last year, we knew who our stars were when it came to pass catchers. You had a record breaker in Jordan Matthews, absolute freaks in Mike Evans and Donte Moncrief, the game-changer in Odell Beckham Jr. and one of the toughest players around in Jarvis Landry. And there were budding superstars in Amari Cooper and Dorial Green-Beckham.

As we look to the SEC's crop of receiving talent entering this fall, we still have a couple big names, but figuring out a consensus top five isn't easy.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper is one of the best wideouts in the country and anchors the wide receiving corps.
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAmari Cooper is one of the top playmakers in the SEC but still has work to do on his game.
The favorites

Clearly, Cooper is the headliner at wide receiver. He might not have generated the buzz and excitement last year that he did toward the end of his freshman season with Alabama, but he's a big-play threat and a deep-ball specialist. His numbers dipped in 2013, but with Green-Beckham no longer at Missouri, Cooper assumes the role as the biggest receiving threat in the SEC.

Where Cooper has to improve is his physical play and playing through injuries. If there's one complaint about him, it's that fighting through pain was an issue for him at times. Alabama still needs to find its starting quarterback, but Cooper had another great spring and shouldn't have a problem being the go-to guy for whichever quarterback wins the starting job this fall.

"The guy’s really an explosive guy," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Cooper this spring. "He’s got great speed, he’s got really good hands, he’s got good size. He can catch the ball vertically down the field. He’s difficult to cover coming out of a break.

"He’s good against press (coverage), so he’s a pretty hard guy to stop unless you put two guys on him."

Yeah, try putting two guys on him with receiving targets like DeAndrew White, Christion Jones, Chris Black and O.J. Howard returning for the Tide.

But Cooper has some competition. Mississippi State's Jameon Lewis and Auburn's Sammie Coates are the only two returning receivers who finished ranked in the top 10 of the league in receiving yards last year, but don't forget about rising sophomore Laquon Treadwell, who led Ole Miss with 72 receptions in 2013, or South Carolina junior Shaq Roland, who is so close to breaking out it's scary.

No one returns this fall with 1,000 receiving yards or double-digit touchdown numbers from a year ago, but all of the above-mentioned players could have bigger seasons in 2014. Lewis is sneaky good, and if he can improve his route running, watch out in an offense that loves to get the ball to jittery guys like that in space. Treadwell can jump out of any gym and is moving outside, which should give him more chances to hit the deep ball this fall. Coates needs to be more consistent, but he's grown more and more since the start of last season.

Roland has shown flashes of star power, but he has to get the mental side down. He let the hype get to him his freshman year but followed that by catching 25 passes for 455 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore. He's better than that, and he has a chance to be the go-to receiver for Dylan Thompson in 2014.

[+] EnlargeDunbar
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesQuinton Dunbar should thrive in Florida's new offense.
Keep an eye on

Don't you dare think those are the only contenders for the top receiving spots in the SEC. There are plenty of guys flying somewhat under the radar, and you don't want to sleep on any of them:

  • Chris Conley, Sr., Georgia: Malcolm Mitchell might be back from his ACL injury this fall, but Conley had a great spring and has everything you'd want in a go-to receiver.
  • Quinton Dunbar, Sr., Florida: He's caught a pass in 28 straight games and has 90 receptions for his career. Kurt Roper's new spread look should help him blow past 40 catches in his final season.
  • Speedy Noil, Fr., Texas A&M: No, he hasn't played a down of college football yet, but this kid is the definition of an athlete. He'll make a ton of plays this fall.
  • Marquez North, So., Tennessee: He's turning his raw talent into actual development, which is a very scary thought, and looks more the part with the muscle he's put on.
  • Demarcus Robinson, So., Florida: After all the hype he arrived with, Robinson had a very quiet freshman year. He has to stay focused off the field because following a good spring, a lot is expected from Florida's most talented receiver.
  • Ricky Seals-Jones, RFr., Texas A&M: An ACL injury cut his freshman season short, but Seals-Jones should be one of the Aggies' top receiving threats this fall. He can play inside and out and could top the SEC in overall receiving athleticism.
  • D'haquille Williams, Jr., Auburn: He has zero snaps at this level, but his coaches think he could make a major impact on the offense and should push Coates for catches.
Georgia coach Mark Richt announced on Tuesday that redshirt freshman receiver Uriah LeMay is transferring.

LeMay had a decent spring on the field for the Dawgs, but he would likely have been buried on the depth chart with the return of Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley, who had their 2013 seasons cut short by ACL injuries. LeMay was one of four Georgia players arrested on theft charges earlier this spring. His older brother Christian, a backup quarterback for the Bulldogs, decided to transfer from Georgia in January.

[+] EnlargeUriah LeMay
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsFormer four-star recruit Uriah LeMay is leaving the Bulldogs.
"Uriah made the decision in order to have a better opportunity for playing time," Richt said in a statement through the school. "He has our best wishes in achieving all his goals as a student and athlete."

LeMay was a four-star prospect coming out of high school, but with so much experienced receiving talent returning, including seniors Chris Conley, who had a tremendous spring, and Michael Bennett, it was going to be hard for him to grab a healthy amount of reps and receptions this fall. While his departure will cut into future depth, the Dawgs should be just fine this fall at the receiver spot.

They'll get some help from rising sophomore Brendan Langley, who is moving to receiver from cornerback. While Langley started four games at cornerback last season, he was benched early in the season in favor of fellow freshman Shaq Wiggins, who announced last week that he was transferring. Langley is a bit of an unknown at the receiver spot, but that's what summer workouts and fall camp are for. Langley was an ESPN 300 member and the No. 24-ranked athlete in the Class of 2013, so it's worth a try to see what he can do at receiver.

The loss of Wiggins does hurt the Bulldogs. In a secondary full of issues last season, Wiggins was at times the lone bright spot. He led the team with two interceptions and had four pass breakups. With Wiggins and Josh Harvey-Clemons (dismissed in February) both gone, Georgia's secondary will be lacking experience this fall. Senior Damian Swann is now the only corner on the team who has started more than one game.

Even if Wiggins were still around, it was going to be a battle all throughout the secondary this season. After a roller-coaster season for Georgia's secondary, no job was safe in 2014, and the coaches even moved running back J.J. Green to corner, where he excelled at the star position. Walk-ons Aaron Davis and Lucas Redd even impressed this spring, leaving as first-teamers.

With the return of redshirt freshman Reggie Wilkerson (ACL) and the arrival of 2014 signees Malkom Parrish, Shaq Jones, and Shattle Fenteng, new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will have plenty of bodies to work with. And he was always going to leave the competition open for everyone.


Everyone patiently waiting to see a glimpse of Georgia wide receiver Chris Conley's long-awaited "Star Wars" movie must have been in an absolute tizzy on Monday, as the trailer for his film debuted on Twitter.

Thanks to coach Mark Richt and his very active Twitter account, you can view the trailer for "Retribution" RIGHT HERE!

It's a movie that Conley, who grew up making comic books with his brother and filling his mind with amazing sci-fi fun, has worked on during the last few months, while juggling class and football. Oh yeah, he was pretty impressive on the football field this spring, too.

And this movie looks pretty cool. It has pretty sweet graphics, lightsabers, and it's "Star Wars!" As a certified sci-fi nerd who spent many a Saturday morning watching old Godzilla movies and plenty of week nights checking out "Star Trek: The Next Generation" I'm pretty excited about this short film. Yes, I mixed "Star Trek" with "Star Wars" as a child, and I was proud of it!

Conley plans to release the film in the coming months and will be premiering it in Athens, Ga. When I spoke to him earlier this month, Conley said he was hoping to premier it inside Sanford Stadium. Should be fun.

ATHENS, Ga. – Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason sits in a faintly lit meeting room deep inside Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, the Bulldogs' athletic facility/sports museum, reflecting on the past and focusing on the future.

His eyes show purpose as he discusses the season ahead while mentally gearing up for a late spring practice a couple of hours away.

While the present means more reps, and more rhythm inside offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s offense, Mason can’t help but push his brain full throttle toward the fall.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsAfter waiting his turn for four years, Hutson Mason is ready to be the leader of Georgia's offense.
For the fifth-year senior who had the pleasure -- and sometimes displeasure -- of sitting behind one of the SEC’s all-time greats in Aaron Murray for four years, Mason has to be both here and 10 steps ahead if he’s going to cast his own shadow.

“When you get one shot, you get one opportunity, you want to make sure that you do everything right,” Mason told ESPN.com in early April. “You want to make sure that you don’t have any regrets because I don’t get four years. I don’t have time to get my feet wet. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I wanted to be remembered as a champion.”

Mason wasn’t near the star Murray was coming out of high school and he won’t sniff his college career. He's fully aware, but that didn’t deter him from having a strong spring or setting high 2014 goals.

"I know I have a year left, but it’s hard to realize that, 'Man, you’re the starting quarterback at UGA,'" said Mason, who has 1,324 passing yards and eight touchdowns in his career.

“You gotta grab the bull by the horns, you gotta figure out the problems, you gotta figure out what we’re good at and you gotta win.”

An easily missed, self-described “weak, frail” prospect from Lassiter High in Marietta, Ga., Mason said he had only one scholarship offer (Georgia Southern) heading into his senior year after Iowa pulled its offer.

When Mason started winning (12-1) and finished the season with a Georgia state record 4,560 passing yards and 54 touchdowns and Lassiter’s first-ever region championship, Mississippi State and Virginia offered, but he wanted UGA.

Mason’s "real quick release" from his weaker arm only intrigued Bobo the spring before his senior year, but his summer improvements at one of Georgia’s camps ramped up interest, Bobo said. Still, Georgia wasn’t planning on signing a quarterback in its 2010 class.

That changed after Mason’s senior season -- which showed Bobo the moxie, instincts and composure he once saw in former Georgia quarterback David Greene -- earned him a scholarship.

Mason then dealt with a "roller coaster of emotions" while he sat behind Murray. He prepared like the starter, talked like a starter, but wasn’t seeing enough field action. It would have been easier if Mason felt he wasn’t SEC material, but he believed he was more than capable of leading the Dawgs.

He approached coach Mark Richt twice about transferring, once after the 2011 season and a year later, after Murray decided to return for a fifth year.

“I was putting in just as much work that Aaron was, and there was really no reward for it,” Mason said. “That was the hardest part to swallow. You were doing everything, but weren’t really getting to go out there and do what you have fun doing.”

After some soul searching, Mason had one overwhelming feeling, as his heart battled his pride: He was a Georgia boy playing for the state's best football program. He wanted a real UGA legacy.

“My heart was always stuck at UGA, and a lot of times I wanted to get past that and I wanted to tell myself to move on,” he said.

“I honestly believe that was God’s plan. My path was just a little different and funky. ... Everything I’ve been waiting for, every opportunity is here.”

It’s there if Mason can leave spring and evolve. He’s always been considered a leader, but leading summer workouts and getting players to show up was always Murray’s deal. This offense and this team are in his hands.

“It’s on him now, so this summer is going to be very huge for our offensive football team getting ready for next year because we [had] a lot of pieces missing [this spring] and Hutson’s got to be a big part of that,” Bobo said.

The good news for Mason is that he’s never shied away from leadership. Naturally outspoken, Mason was very vocal with teammates this spring. He called guys out, raised his voice. There was no switch to flip, he was just himself.

And who he is ain't bad. Mason isn’t as crisp a passer as Murray, but Bobo said he knows how to beat defenses better at times when it comes to extending plays. His imperfections sometimes give him an advantage when things break down.

We saw glimpses of that when he replaced Murray (ACL injury) late last season, throwing for 808 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions in three games, and during a fine spring game performance (241 yards, one touchdown).

He’ll also have a slew of offensive weapons returning this fall to help, starting with Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley and veteran receivers.

“I don’t have to be a Heisman Trophy winner, I just have to figure out how to get these guys the ball and they’ll do the rest,” Mason said.

Getting here has been long, draining, and worth it for Mason. There’s no reason for him to let up now.

“He’s progressed beautifully,” receiver Chris Conley said.

“Once he becomes consistent at realizing that he is the guy and that everyone is behind him, then he’s going to blow some people’s minds because he can make all those throws.”

Video: Georgia WR Chris Conley

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Edward Aschoff talks to Georgia wide receiver Chris Conley about his directorial debut and stepping into the role as a go-to player in the Bulldogs' offense.
Georgia lost one of the most decorated quarterbacks in SEC history, but people don't expect to see the Bulldogs' passing game to fall off too much in 2014.

With more than 8,500 votes cast in our SportsNation poll, Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason was picked by our readers to throw the most touchdown passes in the SEC in 2014. Mason, who is replacing longtime starter Aaron Murray this fall, grabbed 32 percent of the vote.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia fans expect Hutson Mason to pick up where Aaron Murray left off.
South Carolina's Dylan Thompson, also taking over for a pretty solid quarterback, collected 27 percent of the vote, Auburn's Nick Marshall received 19 percent and Ole Miss' Bo Wallace got 16 percent. Mississippi State's Dak Prescott only grabbed six percent of the vote.

It's hard to argue with this one because Mason isn't just talented; he has some quality receivers coming back. Georgia's staff has always been high on Mason, and now he gets his chance to really show what he can do when he isn't planted in Aaron Murray's shadow.

Clearly, Mason has to prove that he can be a leader and show that he's ready to be No. 1, but he'll have a lot of help from guys such as Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett. Oh, and he can just hand the ball off to a stable of running backs -- starting with workhorse Todd Gurley -- when he wants to give his arm a break.

While I think Thompson could have a good year as the Gamecocks' starter, I'd keep my eye on Missouri's Maty Mauk. He filled in well for James Franklin in the middle of last season and has all the tools to be an All-SEC player. He's confident and has earned plenty of respect from his teammates. It will help that he has Dorial Green-Beckham leading a solid group of receivers. Losing L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas will hurt, but players such as Bud Sasser, Darius White and Jimmie Hunt could fill in nicely for the Tigers.

I'm also interested in seeing how Marshall improves as a passer. When I spoke with Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee late last season, he told me that he could tell that Marshall was getting more and more comfortable and confident with his throwing ability. He's a great runner, but he wants to be a passer first, and I think we'll see more of his arm in 2014.

Players to watch: Jonathon Rumph

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With spring practice still a few weeks away, this week we'll discuss five players to watch when the Bulldogs open workouts on March 18.

Today we begin with a junior college transfer who arrived to great acclaim last year, only to struggle to make much of an impact in the fall.

[+] EnlargeJonathon Rumph
Jeffrey Vest/Icon SMIJonathon Rumph caught just seven passes for Georgia in 2013. Will he play a bigger role next season?
Jonathon Rumph (Wide receiver, Sr.)

2013 review: When he transferred from Holmes (Miss.) Community College last January, he looked like a weapon that Aaron Murray would instantly utilize. He's 6-foot-5 and was the No. 1 receiver in ESPN's Junior College 100 last year. He added to the hype by catching four passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns in the G-Day game -- and then we didn't see him again until midway through the fall. A lingering hamstring ailment kept him off the field until the Florida game. He played in five of the last six games, including a 98-yard outing against Appalachian State, and finished the season with seven receptions for 121 yards.

Why spring is important: Despite his outstanding performance in the G-Day game, it was apparent that Rumph didn't impress his coaches last spring. Then the injury prevented him from ever truly settling into the receiver rotation. This season is his last shot to accomplish something that might help him land on an NFL roster -- but he has to get on the field at Georgia first. At this point, it's tough to predict whether he'll become a reliable performer, although proving to position coach Tony Ball that he is consistent and coachable during spring ball would be an enormous step in the right direction.

Best case/worst case: Georgia already has some impressive options at receiver. Seniors Chris Conley and Michael Bennett have proven themselves, as have juniors Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley -- both of whom will be returning from season-ending knee injuries. Rumph looks like someone who could join that group of regulars and add both a huge target and vertical threat to the passing game. We'd be a lot more comfortable predicting that he'll actually do that if word begins to spread this spring that he's making good things happen, not more of the mixed reviews that came out around this time last year. If he doesn't get on Ball's good side this spring and preseason, Rumph might have another season like 2013 where he occasionally gets on the field, but fails to make much of a dent on the stat sheet.
Continuing our run-up to Georgia's spring practice, this week we'll review the Bulldogs' five best recruiting classes of the last decade.

Today, we'll look at No. 2: The 2011 class initially dubbed as “The Dream Team,” which immediately helped the Bulldogs rebound from the only losing season in Mark Richt's tenure, a 6-7 mark in 2010, and could further cement a winning legacy in the next two seasons.

The stars: Tailback Isaiah Crowell was initially the crown jewel in this class, and he won SEC Freshman of the Year honors in 2011 before getting dismissed from the team the following summer after an arrest. Several players in this class have flashed star potential including receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley and Justin Scott-Wesley, linebackers Ramik Wilson (who led the SEC in tackles in 2013) and Amarlo Herrera (who was third) and defensive lineman John Jenkins, who earned All-SEC honors and became an NFL draft pick by the New Orleans Saints.

[+] EnlargeRay Drew
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsRay Drew started to play up to his potential last season.
The contributors: One of the class headliners, defensive end Ray Drew, finally started making an impact last fall and has one more season to live up to his five-star billing as a recruit. Tight end Jay Rome will be a redshirt junior this fall and should become the starter now that Arthur Lynch has moved on to the NFL. Cornerback Damian Swann and center David Andrews have also developed into valuable starters, while Sterling Bailey, Corey Moore and Watts Dantzler seem like the next most-likely players from the 2011 class to break through.

The letdowns: This class' legacy could have been ridiculous, but it will always be remembered for the numerous departures within its first year. Crowell's exit drew the most attention, but an arrest-related dismissal cost Georgia possible starting defensive backs Nick Marshall and Chris Sanders. Marshall, of course, developed into a star quarterback at Auburn last fall after spending the 2012 season at a Kansas junior college. In all, six players from this class -- most recently, quarterback Christian LeMay -- have transferred or been kicked off the team.

The results: Let's see what happens this fall. Mitchell, Herrera, Jenkins and Crowell were all important players as the 2011 Bulldogs won 10 straight games and claimed the program's first SEC East title since 2005. That group (minus Crowell) and several other Dream Teamers helped Georgia take another step forward in 2012. And it wouldn't be a surprise to see a number of them earn All-SEC honors this fall if Georgia bounces back from a disappointing 2013. Despite the numerous early exits, the Dream Team's legacy is already positive on the whole, but the group can still further solidify its spot in UGA history if it wins big in 2014.

SEC lunchtime links

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Here's to hoping Atlanta is better prepared for Snowmageddon 2.
Georgia has another top-10 class lined up for national signing day, but its final ranking next week could rise or fall depending on how the Bulldogs finish within their own state -- particularly whether they land their top remaining target, Lorenzo Carter.

As it stands, the Bulldogs have commitments from two of the top six players from Georgia, but that's it among the Peach State's collection of elite prospects. Heavily recruited players such as linebacker Raekwon McMillan (Ohio State) and quarterback Deshaun Watson (Clemson) were among those who checked out Georgia before committing elsewhere.

Mark Richt's staff still has a chance to finish on a strong note, however.

[+] EnlargeLorenzo Carter
Miller Safrit/ESPNLorenzo Carter is the top remaining recruiting target for Georgia.
The Bulldogs seem to be in good shape to land five-star defensive end Carter (ESPN's No. 14 overall prospect and No. 3 player at his position). Other targets such as ESPN 300 prospect Wesley Green (No. 120 overall, No. 13 cornerback, uncommitted), Bryson Allen-Williams (No. 162 overall, No. 10 outside linebacker, committed to South Carolina) and Andrew Williams (No. 174 overall, No. 17 defensive end, uncommitted) are among those lurking as possible final members of the class.

Otherwise, this recruiting class -- one that could be slightly smaller than normal -- adequately addresses Georgia's immediate needs. Let's look at how Georgia addressed some of those positions:

Secondary: Georgia's weakest position segment last season could use some immediate help -- and it will get it in cornerbacks Shattle Fenteng (No. 3 overall prospect, top cornerback on ESPN's Junior College 50) and Malkom Parrish (No. 77 overall, No. 10 athlete). Georgia recently added three-star athlete Dominick Sanders at corner. Green -- who is scheduled to join Carter and others on a visit to Athens this weekend -- and three-star athletes T.J. Harrell and Tavon Ross remain as targets.

The possible shortcoming here is that safety was an inconsistent position for Georgia last season and the Bulldogs have only three-star prospect Kendall Gant lined up so far.

With Josh Harvey-Clemons suspended to open the season, senior Corey Moore, rising sophomore Quincy Mauger and oft-injured Tray Matthews might be the only early options, but keep an eye on Harrell and Ross between now and signing day.

Running back: With Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall entering their third seasons on campus, Georgia needed insurance policies at tailback.

The Bulldogs locked that up in a big way with the current headliners in this class, Sony Michel (No. 19 overall, No. 2 running back) and Nick Chubb (No. 63 overall, No. 7 running back). It will be interesting to see how Richt's staff juggles a glut of talented ball carriers just a year after injuries to Gurley and Marshall created depth problems.

Tight end: With Ty Flournoy-Smith getting kicked off the team last summer and Arthur Lynch exhausting his eligibility in the fall, Georgia had a need at tight end. Jeb Blazevich (No. 101 overall, No. 2 tight end/H) could become Georgia's next great pass-catching tight end thanks to an impressive combination of size (6-foot-5) and soft hands.

Offensive line: Replenishing the line of scrimmage is always a priority, and with Georgia losing starting guards Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee, signing a top prospect such as Isaiah Wynn (No. 106 overall, No. 6 guard) will be particularly valuable. The Bulldogs are also set to sign four-star tackle Dyshon Sims and three-star prospects Kendall Baker and Jake Edwards.

Receiver: Georgia has plenty of bodies here for 2014, but Chris Conley, Michael Bennett, Jonathon Rumph and Michael Erdman will each be seniors and Justin Scott-Wesley and Malcolm Mitchell will be fourth-year juniors.

The Bulldogs have secured commitments from ESPN 300 member Shakenneth Williams (No. 297 overall, No. 45 receiver) and three-star prospect Gilbert Johnson. They also are set to re-sign Rico Johnson, who failed to qualify after signing with the Bulldogs last February.

Defensive line/outside linebacker: Keep an eye on this group for the future. If Georgia lands Carter to go along with already-committed Lamont Gaillard (No. 55 overall, No. 4 defensive tackle), that could be the foundation for some outstanding defensive lines in the next couple of seasons.

The Bulldogs return almost everyone along the line from last season, so it is not a glaring immediate need. The 2014 line will be stocked with fourth-year players, though, so this is a good time to restock the depth charts for the future. They already have a commitment from the versatile Keyon Brown (No. 185 overall, No. 19 defensive end), with Carter and Williams potentially joining him. Like Brown, three-star outside linebacker Detric Dukes brings some versatility to the crop of commitments along the line.

Georgia's coaches never gave up on Allen-Williams even after his commitment to South Carolina in April. He insists he will still sign with the Gamecocks, but plans to visit Georgia with Carter and the others this weekend. Stay tuned.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nebraska seeks to avenge its loss in the Capital One Bowl from a year ago against No. 22 Georgia on Wednesday at noon ET on ESPN2. Here’s a preview:

Who to watch: The quarterbacks are a good place to start. They won't be Taylor Martinez and Aaron Murray, the record-setting senior duo who led these teams to a combined 76 points last year in Orlando; rather freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. is expected to start for the eighth time this season for Nebraska, and junior Hutson Mason gets the call for the Bulldogs for a second straight game. Also, keep an eye on Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, an SEC-caliber star with size, speed and strength. If he’s not the best player on the field, it might be Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

What to watch: Statistically, it’s difficult to identify too many spots at which one team might exploit the other. Remember, though, Georgia was challenged by a schedule that featured five teams arguably as good or better than Nebraska’s best foe. So the numbers matter little in gauging matchups. Here’s a hunch that the Huskers, who couldn’t stop Minnesota or, for one quarter, South Dakota State, will struggle to contain Gurley. He was in contention for the title of best SEC back before the midseason injury. And watch the matchup of UGA receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett against Nebraska defensive backs Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. It should be good.

Why to watch: The trio of Big Ten-SEC clashes on New Year’s Day is always entertaining -- at least, it is for fans of the SEC teams. Seriously, the Big Ten is 0-2 in bowls (0-4 if you count 2014 newcomers Rutgers and Maryland), and the SEC is 3-0. Perhaps this game presents the Big Ten with its best chance to win on Wednesday. If that doesn’t get you, tune in to see if Nebraska's Bo Pelini can join the likes of Mack Brown, Tom Osborne, Steve Spurrier and Barry Switzer as the eighth BCS-conference coach in history to win nine games in each of his first six years at a school.

Prediction: Georgia 34, Nebraska 24. A big day for Gurley and a typical turnover or two will spell doom for the Huskers. Look for Ameer Abdullah to keep the Huskers close for a while, but like last year, the Bulldogs will make plays when necessary late.

Turnover common for Ball, McClendon

December, 26, 2013
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Pardon Bryan McClendon if he took a pessimistic approach before the fall even arrived, but his five seasons as Georgia's running backs coach have permanently ingrained that attitude into his coaching outlook.

McClendon, who each season has juggled his lineups because of an assortment of injuries and off-the-field issues, predicted to All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley before the season that his sophomore year would not be all breakaway touchdown runs and soaring dives into the end zone. Those moments came, too, but McClendon's prediction proved to be correct when Gurley injured himself in the opener against Clemson and later missed three-and-a-half games with an ankle injury sustained against LSU.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Ahmad Christian
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley, who has rushed for 903 yards this season, has been hobbled by an ankle injury this season.
“That's something that we've known and we talked about before the year: it's going to be something,” McClendon said. “We didn't know what it was going to be, but it's going to be something -- just by the position and the style of play that he plays. But I do know that he probably won't be 100 percent [again] until after the year.”

It's always been something for McClendon's players -- and for fellow UGA assistant Tony Ball's receivers, as well -- but the coaches and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo have proven over time that they are capable of adjusting to the personnel available on a given week.

They've certainly had more than enough practice in that capacity this season.

Gurley and Keith Marshall both missed multiple games at tailback, while freshmen J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas also struggled with minor ailments at points. And Ball's wideout group lost Malcolm Mitchell to a torn ACL on the second possession of the season, Justin Scott-Wesley to an ACL at midseason and Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Jonathon Rumph for multiple games at points.

The results with a decimated lineup weren't always pretty -- the Bulldogs committed four turnovers in a midseason loss to Missouri and generated just 221 yards of offense in the following week's loss to Vanderbilt -- but Bobo and company found a way to keep Georgia on pace to break the school's scoring record. The Bulldogs are averaging 38.2 ppg this season, just ahead of their record-setting 37.8-ppg average from 2012.

“There was an adjustment period there that we had to go through,” Bobo said. “That Missouri game, we pretty much stayed aggressive, but we kind of turned the ball over a little bit [and had] some timing issues. We tried to slow it a little bit down in the Vanderbilt game and didn't have the results that way, either, and had to go back to the drawing board and the guys responded and answered and came back and played well the rest of the year.”

That they did. Georgia averaged 45.8 ppg over the final four games, even without key players like Marshall, Mitchell, Scott-Wesley and senior quarterback Aaron Murray, who tore his ACL in the home finale against Kentucky. Even with Rantavious Wooten and Rhett McGowan playing bigger roles at receiver and with the freshmen filling in for Gurley and Marshall in the backfield at midseason, the Bulldogs regularly got production out of less heralded players.

“A lot of people went down and kids had to step up and prove they can play. Even a lot of freshmen had to step up and play,” Douglas said. “I just give credit to the coaches for having them ready to go and Coach B-Mac having me and J.J. ready to roll in whenever we needed to.”

McClendon turned 30 earlier this month, but since Mark Richt promoted him from his post as a graduate assistant in 2009, he has dealt with as much roster turnover as a considerably older coach.

It was stressful, McClendon admitted, but it also expedited his development within the profession.

“You learn by hard times,” McClendon said. “You learn by adversity, you learn by when things are not going just peachy. And obviously that's been the case, and I think I've grown tremendously from it.”

His boss agrees.

Richt saw Green rush for 129 yards in an overtime win against Tennessee and witnessed Douglas post 113 yards of offense against Missouri even when they weren't ready to play leading roles just yet. He saw 10 different wideouts make catches over the course of the season, with seven of them finishing with at least 89 yards in a game this fall.

Injuries are of course part of the game, but Georgia's receivers and running backs have dealt with more than their share over the last couple of seasons – and Richt is proud of the way his assistants have coped with those situations.

“[Ball] coaches them all the same and he does a great job of trying to crosstrain players when they're ready for it to make sure if you do have an injury … you've got guys that have got to be moving around. He did a great job,” Richt said. “And McClendon did, too. Bryan, I think he's blossomed into one heck of a coach.

“I just don't like bragging too much about these guys because everybody wants to try to snag them,” Richt chuckled. “So we don't want that to happen.”

Injuries impacted UGA, Nebraska seasons

December, 23, 2013
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This season's similarities are striking for the combatants in this season's TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Georgia and Nebraska. Perhaps the most notable similarity between the Bulldogs (8-4) and Cornhuskers (8-4), though, is the numerous injuries that helped prevent them from playing up to their potential.

ESPN.com's David Ching and Mitch Sherman discussed how injuries affected the teams' seasons and what might have been if not for all the physical ailments.

1. Out of all of the injuries they sustained this season, which one was the costliest and why?

Ching: There are a lot of directions you could go here, but Todd Gurley's ankle injury and ensuing three-and-a-half-game absence probably hurt the most. Gurley is one of the biggest difference-makers in the country, and Georgia's potent offense simply wasn't as good without him in the lineup -- particularly when fellow tailback Keith Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury the week after Gurley went down against LSU. It's not a coincidence that Georgia bounced back from a two-game losing streak upon Gurley's return, nor that the Bulldogs went 4-1 down the stretch once he was back. He totaled 755 yards and 10 touchdowns in those five games.

Sherman: Taylor Martinez began this season as most indispensable Husker -- and by November, we saw why. Without the fifth-year senior, who started a school-record 43 games at quarterback, including four this season, the Nebraska offense shifted from the strength of this team to a liability. The Huskers failed to gain 400 yards in each of their final four games. Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III performed admirably, but their numbers paled in comparison to the production expected from a healthy Martinez. In good position to become the second QB in FBS history to surpass 9,000 career passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards, he suffered the fateful foot injury in Nebraska’s season opener. By mid-September, his limitations were painfully apparent, stamped into the record books with losses to UCLA and Minnesota in Martinez’s final two starts.

2. Which position group dealt with the most injury issues?

Sherman: Problems on the offensive line began on the opening series of the sixth game against Purdue as All-Big Ten right guard Spencer Long went down with a season-ending knee injury. Long was the leader of the line and a motivating force for the entire team as a senior captain and former walk-on turned solid NFL prospect. As soon as his linemates began to wear Long’s jersey No. 61 as a tribute, the injury bug spread. First, it was left guard Jake Cotton. Tackles Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale, despite staying in the lineup, dealt with injuries, too, as did center-turned-guard Cole Pensick. Long’s replacement, Mike Moudy, missed the final four games. The injuries hurt most in practice, and Long’s injury got the snowball rolling. Before the Purdue game, Nebraska rushed for 285 yards or more in four of five games. After Purdue, it never topped 195 on the ground.

Ching: Georgia's safeties could make a reasonable argument here, but let's go with the receivers. Malcolm Mitchell suffered perhaps the most bizarre injury of the season when he tore an ACL while leaping into the air to celebrate Gurley's 75-yard touchdown run against Clemson on the Bulldogs' second offensive possession of the fall. Justin Scott-Wesley, who essentially caught the game-winning touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against South Carolina and LSU, tore an ACL while covering a punt against Tennessee. Michael Bennett and Chris Conley also missed multiple games with midseason injuries, and junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph didn't play until Game 8 against Florida after injuring his hamstring in August. Because of the regular lineup shuffling, six Bulldogs have at least 20 catches this season.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia went 4-1 after sophomore RB Todd Gurley returned to the lineup, and the only loss was the 'Miracle at Jordan-Hare.'
3. What do you think this team might have accomplished if health hadn't become such a factor?

Ching: I hesitate to say Georgia would have been a BCS title contender because its defense was probably not championship caliber. But it's hard to predict what might have been with any certainty since the Bulldogs started losing key contributors in the first quarter of the first game. I'll go so far as to say the Bulldogs at least would have won a third straight SEC East title and been in the running for an at-large BCS bowl spot. With Aaron Murray, who suffered a season-ending knee injury of his own against Kentucky, at the trigger and an impressive array of skill talent, this had the potential to be the scariest offense Georgia has ever put on the field, but we never saw the full complement for even one full game.

Sherman: It’s difficult to quantify in wins and losses, considering the other problems that plagued these Huskers, notably with turnovers and on special teams. Nebraska could have outscored Minnesota with a healthy Martinez and Long. And it’s likely that the second-half meltdown against UCLA never would have happened if Martinez was operating at full strength. The Huskers moved the ball well in a 41-28 loss to Michigan State. Injuries weren’t the issue against the Spartans; turnovers were, but freshmen committed all five. And Martinez, while turnover-prone since his freshman season, torched the Spartans a year ago. But even at 10-2, Nebraska would have missed a repeat trip to the Big Ten title game.

SEC lunchtime links

December, 19, 2013
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Bowl season is just two days away. The SEC teams won’t play until after Christmas, but there is still plenty to talk about around the conference this time of year. Read the latest in Thursday’s news and notes.
  • When Alabama returned to practice this week, the Iron Bowl loss was still fresh on the players’ minds, but the Crimson Tide are moving forward.
  • Running back Tre Mason and left tackle Greg Robinson already have been tabbed as Auburn players who could leave early for the NFL, but center Reese Dismukes also requested his evaluation from the NFL Draft Advisory Board.
  • With Zach Mettenberger out, LSU’s focus for the Outback Bowl has turned to freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings.
  • Jake Spavital might only be 28 years old, but he earned a promotion as Texas A&M's new offensive coordinator Wednesday and will take over play-calling duties, beginning with the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
  • Coming off what many considered his worst game in an Ole Miss uniform, quarterback Bo Wallace is seeking redemption when the Rebels face Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.
  • Wisconsin is still mad after a bitter loss to Penn State in the season finale. That’s bad news for South Carolina, who will face the Badgers in the Capital One Bowl.
  • The Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl rematch with Nebraska didn’t sound too exciting for Georgia fans, but wide receiver Chris Conley is looking forward to playing the Cornhuskers. He had a career-high 136 yards receiving and two touchdowns in last year’s game.

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