Georgia Bulldogs: Malcolm Mitchell

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ATHENS, Ga. -- Once again, Georgia took home the victory on G-Day.

The Bulldogs' annual spring game ended with the Red Team, comprised mostly of the first-team offense, defeating the Black Team, headed by most of the first-team defense, 27-24 in front of an announced crowd of 46,073 inside Sanford Stadium.

You can learn only so much from spring games, but there are always some nuggets here and there that you can take away from them.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsHutson Mason looked in full command of the offense in Georgia's spring game.
Here are five things we learned from Georgia's G-Day:

1. Mason looks pretty comfortable: It's easy when the quarterback isn't getting hit, but Hutson Mason looked very comfortable on Saturday. He was quick with his delivery, very accurate and very sharp. Again, he wasn't asked to do too much, but you can tell that he's more than comfortable running coordinator Mike Bobo's offense. I mean, he has been there for what feels like a decade now, so he better be. Even without some of his best targets in Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley (both were out this spring recovering from ACL injuries), he didn't skip a beat, as he passed for 241 yards and a touchdown on 18 of 27. "I felt good about my accuracy and my completions," Mason said. "Just wish I would have thrown the deep ball a little better."

2. Floyd and Johnson could be a solid combo: There's no question that Georgia's defense still needs a lot of work. The secondary had its issues and the defensive line is still looking for more playmakers. But one thing that really stood out on Saturday was the play of defensive lineman Toby Johnson and linebacker Leonard Floyd. Both required constant double teams on Saturday. We all knew Floyd had the potential to be a very, very special player, and he constantly harassed the Red Team's quarterbacks. He finished with six tackles and broke up two passes. Floyd can play with his hand down when the Dawgs are in a 4-3 formation or at outside linebacker in a 3-4. As for Johnson, he could be one to watch for the Dawgs this year. He made his way to the quarterback early and often in the game before the Black Team's line adjusted to put an extra body on him. Still, he was able to break through even with that extra set of arms to battle.

3. Gurley ran with purpose: There has been plenty of talk this spring about running back Todd Gurley's toughness, but he didn't look like he was holding back on Saturday. While he was limited to just six rushes (32 yards and a touchdown) and caught three passes (38 yards), Gurley was trying his hardest to bowl guys over. Coach Mark Richt sat Gurley down earlier in the spring to talk about his toughness and his practice habits, and it clearly paid off. Gurley didn't look hesitant, despite still not being 100 percent with nagging ankle issues. We don't know if Gurley will ever truly be healthy at Georgia, but it's a good sign that he doesn't have an issue playing through pain. He just wanted to deliver it Saturday.

4. Battle for No. 2 continues: Mason is clearly Georgia's starting quarterback, but the fight behind him should be a fun one for the months to come. It's down to redshirt sophomore Faton Bauta and redshirt freshman Brice Ramsey. On Saturday, Bauta was the more impressive of the two, passing for 232 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. Ramsey, who suited up for both teams, finished with 78 total yards and an interception on 2 of 13 passing. While Ramsey wasn't as accurate as he'd like to be, he has a cannon of an arm and might have the most arm talent on the team. He just has to get that thing under control before he can take another step in the process. "I obviously could have thrown it a lot better, but at the same time I feel good about my performance," Ramsey said. "I was picking up blitzes, making the right reads. I just need to put the ball on. I had a bad day throwing." As for Bauta, he shed the black non-contact jersey in order to take some contact and finish plays after defenders got their hands on him. He was certainly a lot more efficient than Ramsey, but he said he knows that he can't slow down when it comes to winning this job before the fall.

5. The secondary has a ways to go: New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will have his hands full with Georgia's secondary. A unit that surrendered 227 passing yards per game and 18 touchdowns last year showed some of the same issues it had last season during the spring game. Now, injuries to guys like Tray Matthews and J.J. Green, who was at running back last year, contributed to that, but the offenses were able to make too many big plays in the passing game. If not for a couple of overthrown deep balls, the offenses could have put up a few more points. It didn't help that the defenses were called for six pass interference penalties with half of the starting receivers out. Six players averaged 15 or more yards per reception against the secondary on Saturday. "We're getting better," cornerback Damian Swann said. "Everything that happened today can be fixed, and that's why you have games like this. ... I think we did pretty good as a secondary."

SEC's next wave of star players

March, 18, 2014
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For the most part, we have an idea who the top returning players are in the SEC for next season.

There are 11 players back who earned first- or second-team All-SEC honors last season from the coaches, including six first-team selections: Auburn center Reese Dismukes, Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon, Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt. The second-team selections returning are Mississippi State tight end Malcolm Johnson, LSU offensive tackle La'el Collins, South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers and Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins.

Picking the next wave of All-SEC players can be tricky, and it's certainly not a given that all these players returning will be repeat selections.

So what we've done is go through and pick the 10 players most likely to emerge as All-SEC players next season, and the caveat is that they can't have previously earned postseason all-conference honors from either the coaches or Associated Press (first or second team). That rules out a few other players not listed above such as Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., Kentucky defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Alabama safety Landon Collins.

Here's our next wave of SEC stars, listed alphabetically:

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner / Icon SMIChris Jones showed his big-play potential as a freshman at Mississippi State.
Caleb Azubike, OLB, Vanderbilt, Jr.: Look out for the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Azubike coming off the edge in Derek Mason's new 3-4 defense. Azubike tied for the team lead last season with 9.5 tackles for loss.

A.J. Cann, OG, South Carolina, Sr.: The anchor of what should be the best offensive line in the SEC, Cann enters the 2014 season as perhaps the top guard in the league.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama, So.: Just go back and turn on the tape from the Sugar Bowl. Henry is going to be a beast and is in great shape after what's been a terrific offseason for him thus far.

Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State, So.: The league is full of good, young defensive linemen, and the 6-5, 300-pound Jones is right there near the top. He's a force at both tackle and end.

Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn, So.: The Tigers will miss Dee Ford and his pressure off the edge, but the 6-2, 261-pound Lawson is the next star in the making on the Plains.

Curt Maggitt, OLB, Tennessee, Jr.: You might have forgotten about Maggitt after he missed last season because of injuries, but he's healthy again and will be used in several different roles for the Vols.

Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia, Jr.: Injuries are the only thing that have kept Mitchell from being one of the top playmakers in this league. If he can stay healthy, he'll put up huge numbers in 2014.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss, So.: The top high school player in the country a year ago, Nkemdiche will move inside and has the size, power and athleticism to be dominant.

Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: He started his career at guard, moved to right tackle last season and is now in line to be the Aggies' third straight star left tackle as he takes over for Jake Matthews.

A'Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama, So.: The team leader with 5.5 sacks last season as a freshman, Robinson has a chance to be the best defensive lineman the Tide have produced under Nick Saban.

A few others to watch:
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.

Video: Georgia offseason spotlight

February, 24, 2014
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SEC reporter Chris Low discusses players to watch at Georgia this spring and offseason.

Players to watch: Jonathon Rumph

February, 24, 2014
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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.
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.

Season report card: Georgia

January, 29, 2014
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An avalanche of injuries and an underperforming defense caused Georgia to slip from its top-five preseason ranking to an 8-5 finish. Let's review.

OFFENSE: B-plus
[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesInjuries took a toll on Todd Gurley and the Bulldogs in 2013.
Georgia's offense deserves a ‘With TG’ grade and a ‘Without TG’ grade because it was a completely different group when star tailback Todd Gurley was healthy. Even with Gurley struggling with a quad injury, the Bulldogs still scored 35 points against Clemson in the season opener. With Gurley out for a month at midseason, the offense sputtered a bit, and the Bulldogs lost twice more. But it's no coincidence that once he returned to the lineup, Georgia won four of its last five regular-season games and nearly pulled off a dramatic upset against eventual SEC champ Auburn. Record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray was the glue to this group until suffering his own season-ending injury -- the unfortunate story of Georgia's season, as receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall all missed at least half of the season, as well. Despite the physical setbacks, Mike Bobo's offense still set multiple school records, including a new mark for total offense (484.2 ypg). We'll always wonder what might have been with this group, but it was still a pretty good season.

DEFENSE: D
Georgia fans expected this to be a rebuilding year on defense after losing 12 key contributors off the previous season's defense. But 2013 was a more painful transition than most expected. The Bulldogs gave up some huge point and yardage totals early in the season, and while they did improve a bit as the season progressed, they were still far too inconsistent. They finished the season ranked eighth in the SEC in total defense (375.5 ypg) and tied for 10th in scoring (29 ppg) -- totals that simply weren't good enough for the Bulldogs to live up to their preseason billing once their high-powered offense began to slow down with the injuries. After the season, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and all three defensive assistants left the staff, with former Florida State coordinator Jeremy Pruitt taking over. Georgia returns almost everyone from its 2013 defense, so Pruitt could be set up to enjoy early success.

SPECIAL TEAMS: D
If Marshall Morgan hadn't been one of the best kickers in the nation, this grade might have been even lower. However, Morgan was absurdly good, converting 22 of 24 field goals (including 7-for-8 from 40 yards or more) and all 47 PATs. Otherwise, Georgia's special teams play was a comedy of errors: blocked punts, fumbled snaps, kick returns allowed for touchdowns. Some Bulldogs fans have clamored for Mark Richt to dedicate an assistant coach specifically to improve in this area, but he has thus far resisted that idea. Nonetheless, there wasn't much to like on special teams aside from the kicker making huge strides as a sophomore.

OVERALL: C
Prior to the season, no Georgia fan would have been pleased to learn that the Bulldogs would finish the season with five losses. After nearly playing for a BCS title and returning most everyone on offense from 2012, this was a team expected to at least contend for the SEC East title. It's only fair to cut the Bulldogs a bit of slack (check out what happened at Florida after injuries hit the roster in a similar fashion) for remaining a competitive club despite the physical setbacks. But 8-5 is simply not very good for this program, and it could have been a much better season.

Past grades:
Florida
Auburn
Arkansas
Alabama

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.

Tale of the tape: Georgia-Nebraska

December, 9, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- We learned on Sunday that No. 22 Georgia (8-4) would face Nebraska (8-4) in its bowl game for the second straight season. Let's take a closer look at the two teams in advance of the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, which will kick off at noon ET on New Year's Day and air on ESPN2.

Remembering last year: Georgia closed its 45-31 victory over the Cornhuskers in the Capital One Bowl with a 21-0 run -- featuring touchdown passes from Aaron Murray to Chris Conley of 49 and 87 yards, respectively. Murray torched a previously stellar Nebraska pass defense for 427 yards and five touchdowns and Todd Gurley ran for 125 yards and a score. Huskers running back Rex Burkhead (140 rushing yards and one TD plus 39 receiving and another score) and quarterback Taylor Martinez (204 passing yards, two touchdowns plus 46 rushing) had their moments, but Nebraska's porous defense let the its second-half lead slip away.

Who's under center?: Both of these teams featured a first-time starting quarterback in their last game. Hutson Mason led Georgia back from a 20-0 deficit to beat rival Georgia Tech in double overtime, passing for 299 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. The results weren't so positive for Ron Kellogg III in replacing Martinez. He passed for 199 yards, one touchdown and two picks and the Huskers lost 38-17 to Iowa.

Injury issues: The injuries to Murray and Martinez create perhaps the most glaring injury absences from last season's standouts, but both teams have struggled with physical ailments throughout the year. Martinez suffered a foot injury in the first game that hampered him initially and eventually shut him down by midseason. The Huskers also lost valuable offensive lineman Spencer Long and saw a number of other linemen deal with injuries, rendering a formerly dangerous offense ineffective. Sound familiar Georgia fans? Murray made it to the end of the season, but many of his most dangerous weapons did not. Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Keith Marshall all suffered season-ending knee injuries before midseason and All-SEC tailback Gurley led a big group of players who suffered multiple-game injuries.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIHow Georgia backup QB Hutson Mason does in comparison to Nebraska's backup QBs will be key in which team wins the Gator Bowl.
More similarities: It isn't just their matching 8-4 records, their having played in a bowl last season or their widespread injury problems that make these teams so similar. They have also dealt with similar problems throughout the season -- namely special teams ineptitude and ugly turnover margins. Nebraska is tied for 118th nationally with a minus-12 turnover margin (16 takeaways, 28 giveaways), while Georgia is not much better, tying for 97th with a minus-6 margin (14 takeaways, 20 giveaways).

Hailing Mary: Although it wasn't technically a “Hail Mary,” perhaps the most memorable play from Georgia's season came when Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall launched a 73-yard bomb into double coverage in the game's final minute, only to have Bulldogs safeties Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons converge and deflect the ball to Tigers receiver Ricardo Louis, who caught it for the game-winning touchdown. Likewise, Northwestern was on its way to a 24-21 win over the Cornhuskers before third-string quarterback Kellogg's Hail Mary deflected backward to Jordan Westerkamp for the game-winning score.

Best wins: Nebraska doesn't have a win against a ranked team, but it beat Penn State (7-5) in overtime and edged Michigan (also 7-5) 17-13. Georgia started the season with wins against No. 9 South Carolina (10-2) and No. 16 LSU (9-3) in the first month. The Bulldogs also edged rivals Florida (4-8) and Georgia Tech (7-5).

Worst losses: No. 17 UCLA scored 31 unanswered points to beat Nebraska 41-21 in September. The Huskers also turned it over five times in a 41-28 loss to No. 4 Michigan State in mid-November. Georgia's narrow losses to No. 12 Clemson and No. 2 Auburn were painful, but the two-game midseason losing streak against No. 8 Missouri (41-26) and Vanderbilt (31-27) might have been worse because of the injuries that weakened the Bulldogs' offense in those games.

Offensive stars: Gurley (903 rushing yards, 10 TDs in nine games) and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (ninth nationally with 1,568 and 8 TDs) create an intriguing rushing matchup between two of the nation's best backs.

Defensive stars: Georgia inside linebacker Ramik Wilson leads the SEC and is 10th nationally with 128 tackles, plus he's tied for the team lead with 11 tackles for a loss. Junior college transfer Randy Gregory is a force on Nebraska's defense, leading the Huskers with 17 tackles for a loss, 9.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hurries from his defensive end position.

X-factor: Quarterback composure will be worth watching. We know Mason will start for Georgia after leading the comeback against Georgia Tech, although he got off to a slow start in that game. Kellogg tossed two first-quarter interceptions in the disappointing loss to Iowa. Freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr., who has started seven games this season, could also get the starting nod against the Bulldogs. Regardless of who starts for the Huskers, the team whose inexperienced quarterback plays a steadier game could very well end up as the winner.

Bulldogs facing Huskers again in Gator

December, 8, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Seems like we've been here before.

For the second straight year, No. 22 Georgia (8-4) will conclude its season with a New Year's Day bowl matchup against Nebraska (8-4) in Florida.

“I think it's becoming a good rivalry,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who was born in Omaha, Neb., and cheered for the Cornhuskers as a child. “... We're looking forward to playing Nebraska. They're obviously a very good team, and we think we're pretty good, too. It was a great battle last year and we'll just see what happens this year.”

The Bulldogs defeated the Cornhuskers 45-31 last January in the Capital One Bowl, with quarterback Aaron Murray torching Nebraska for 427 passing yards and five touchdowns. The rematch -- this time in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, which will kick of at noon in Jacksonville and air on ESPN2 – will pit teams that endured decidedly less exciting seasons than last January's combatants.

Georgia tumbled from a No. 5 preseason ranking to out of the polls following a midseason lull created by debilitating injuries to key offensive players like receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. The Bulldogs went 4-1 -- losing on a last-minute touchdown pass against eventual SEC champ Auburn -- and averaged 41.2 points per game once Gurley returned from an ankle sprain suffered in a September win over LSU.

The Bulldogs lost Murray to a season-ending knee injury in a November win against Kentucky, however, meaning that junior Hutson Mason will make his second career start against Nebraska. He passed for 299 yards and two touchdowns in the Bulldogs' comeback, overtime win against Georgia Tech on Nov. 30.

“That's part of football. We all understand that and we're not complaining, we're not crying about it,” Richt said of the injuries. “We just find out who's next in line and make sure they know what to do and give them an opportunity for them to have their day. Hutson has been preparing for a long time for this opportunity and we think he's ready to play well.”

Nebraska also slid from its No. 18 preseason ranking after losing senior quarterback Taylor Martinez to a season-ending foot injury. The Cornhuskers initially went with Tommy Armstrong Jr. (803 passing yards, 7 TDs, 7 INTs) at quarterback, but Ron Kellogg III (919, 6-3) -- who tossed the game-winning Hail Mary touchdown pass against Northwestern -- made his first career start in the 38-17 loss to Iowa that concluded the regular season.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIHutson Mason will make just his second career start against Nebraska in the Taxslayer.com Alamo Bowl.
The Huskers also lost 41-21 to No. 17 UCLA, 34-23 to Minnesota and 41-28 to the Big Ten's champion, No. 4 Michigan State – all of which will play in bowl games.

“We had a great experience at the Gator Bowl when we played there in my first year here [2009],” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said in a release from the bowl. “We have some familiarity with Georgia having played them last year in the bowl game, but these are two different teams. This will be a great challenge for our football team, and we look forward to the opportunity.”

This will be Georgia's fourth appearance in the Gator Bowl, most recently beating Michigan State 34-27 on Jan. 1, 1989, Vince Dooley's final game as the Bulldogs' coach.

It's also the Bulldogs' second trip to Jacksonville this season, after beating Florida 23-20 at EverBank Field on Nov. 2. Regardless of where Georgia played its bowl game -- the most likely alternatives seemed to be Atlanta's Chick-fil-A Bowl or the Music City Bowl in Nashville -- it would have been in a city where the Bulldogs have already played this fall.

So while his team's fans won't be visiting a particularly exotic location, Richt believes the Bulldogs' familiarity with Jacksonville -- and the party atmosphere that UGA fans associate with their annual visits to the region around Halloween -- means it still has some appeal as a bowl destination.

“I know the Georgia people love Jacksonville. There's no doubt about that,” Richt said. “We've been playing in Jacksonville for about 80 years, so everybody really I think enjoys that and understands the area and is looking forward to spending more time there.”

Final exams started at Georgia last week and will continue through Wednesday. The Bulldogs will hold their first practice in preparation for Nebraska on Saturday, with the team holding its annual football gala later that night.

Reviewing a wild season of UGA football

December, 2, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia's season is obviously not over, as we'll learn the 8-4 Bulldogs' postseason fate sometime within the next week. But Saturday's double-overtime win against Georgia Tech put an exclamation point on easily the craziest regular season in Mark Richt's 13 seasons as Georgia's coach.

Let's look back over the season and recap some of the highs and lows:

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsAaron Murray had a standout season until he joined the long list of Georgia injuries.
What might have been: There is not a single game this season where the Bulldogs did not play without at least one key player -- and by the Tech game, the injured list featured an all-star team of talent. Considering how receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin-Scott Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall suffered season-ending knee injuries before the midway point, quarterback Aaron Murray will miss the final two games with an ACL injury and that tailback Todd Gurley, receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett and tight end Jay Rome all dealt with multiple-game setbacks, it's a wonder that Georgia didn't go into a steeper tailspin than it did.

MVP: This has to go to Murray, who broke multiple SEC career passing records as a senior. The Kentucky game started out as a senior-night tribute to the four-year starter, only to see it end in heartbreak when he suffered the knee injury in the second quarter that ended his season. He returned for his senior season to win a championship, although injuries and a shaky defense prevented Murray from reaching that goal. Nonetheless, his leadership prevented what could have become a major mess when many of Georgia's best offensive skill players were missing in the middle of the season.

Wildest finish: There's no shortage of competition in this category, as Saturday's Tech game was only the most recent Georgia game that was decided in the closing moments. That's what happens when seven of your 12 games are decided by a touchdown or less. But the winner here has to be the Auburn game, when the Bulldogs rallied from a 20-point, fourth-quarter deficit to take a 38-37 lead on Murray's fourth-down touchdown scramble with 1:49 remaining. Murray's heroics were for naught, however, as Nick Marshall hit Ricardo Louis on a deflected 73-yard touchdown pass with 25 seconds remaining, after the pass somehow slipped through Georgia's Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews.

Surprise performer: Ramik Wilson. He was certainly not perfect -- particularly in pass coverage -- but Wilson became the SEC's tackles leader by playing nearly every important down and always hustling to the ball. He didn't make much of an impact in his first two seasons while rotating between inside and outside linebacker, but Wilson was a valuable contributor in leading the team with 128 tackles and tying with Jordan Jenkins for the team lead with 11 tackles for loss. He also made one of the Bulldogs' biggest defensive plays of the season when he deflected a Vad Lee pass in the second overtime against Georgia Tech, enabling Damian Swann to knock the ball away for the game-ending incompletion.

Worst defeat: The Auburn loss might have been more painful, but the 31-27 defeat at Vanderbilt was more avoidable. The Commodores outscored Georgia 17-0 in the fourth quarter -- a comeback expedited by a targeting flag on a fourth-quarter pass breakup by Wilson. The penalty was overturned upon review, but it still resulted in a first down and a 15-yard mark-off down to Georgia's 15-yard line, and eventually a Vandy touchdown. Georgia's ineptitude also contributed to the implosion -- including costly turnovers and an overall lack of aggression on offense -- which made it a particularly galling defeat.

Star in the making: Hutson Mason. Several players could figure in here -- Scott-Wesley, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and safety Harvey-Clemons immediately come to mind -- but this will almost certainly be Mason's team next season. He overcame a shaky start against Tech to lead the Bulldogs back to an overtime win by completing 22 of 36 passes for 299 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Let's keep in mind that it was the first start of his career, on the road, against arguably Georgia's biggest rival.

Biggest disappointment: We all knew the score when the season started. Georgia's defense lost almost every significant player from last season, minus defensive lineman Garrison Smith, inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera, outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins and cornerback Swann. A reasonable expectation was for the group to struggle against a challenging early schedule and make rapid improvements as the season progressed. Only that improvement never truly occurred with any consistency. Georgia's defense is better off now than it was when the season started, but there is too much talent on that side of the ball for the Bulldogs to keep making the bone-headed mistakes that plagued them for too much of the season.

Biggest relief: The overtime win against Tennessee kept the Bulldogs in the top 10 for another week, but the rally from an early 20-0 deficit against Georgia Tech will likely be the one more Georgia fans remember. Richt has dominated the Yellow Jackets throughout his tenure, but things didn't look promising when Lee was picking apart Georgia's secondary and Mason and the offense were struggling. A second-quarter touchdown drive helped them to settle down, and they went on to deliver an emotional comeback victory.

Best performance: Gurley's four-touchdown performance against Tech (or his early touchdowns against Florida in his return from a month-long absence) would certainly qualify here. But let's go with one of two showings -- and you can't lose with either one -- by Murray against South Carolina or LSU. Murray faced consistent attacks that he shrunk in the spotlight during his early years, but he largely eliminated those criticisms this season. He was nearly perfect against South Carolina, ending the Gamecocks' three-game series winning streak by going 17-for-23 for 309 yards and four touchdowns. Two games later, he went 20-for-34 for four touchdowns and one interception, plus a rushing score, against LSU and hit Scott-Wesley with the game-winning 25-yard touchdown pass with 1:47 remaining.

Richt: Numerous ACL injuries a fluke

November, 25, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt believes the spate of knee injuries that struck his team this season were a fluke and nothing more.

Most of the injuries, including that of record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray, occurred while changing direction, which Georgia's coach said is unfortunately common in athletics. If a training program existed to prevent such injuries, Richt said the Bulldogs' strength and conditioning staff would certainly follow its methods.

[+] EnlargeKeith Marshall
AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Jason GetzWith his torn ACL, Aaron Murray joined Keith Marshall (pictured) and several other Bulldogs that have suffered that injury.
“If there's some scientific research out there that there's some form of training that would contribute to that, I'm sure that it would have already been written by now,” Richt said on his Sunday evening teleconference. “But it's just unfortunate. It happens. It's a fairly common injury when you're changing direction.

“I think the No. 1 sport for ACL injuries from what I understand is girls soccer -- not really a high-contact sport, but a lot of changing direction, and that happens a lot. So I don't think we're doing anything that we shouldn't be doing. It's just been one of those years where we had a few.”

Murray -- who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee near the end of a 28-yard run in the second quarter of Saturday's win against Kentucky -- is only the most recent example of a problem that started even before the season began. At least six Bulldogs missed all or part of the season after sustaining ACL injuries within the last year.

Freshmen Tramel Terry and Reggie Wilkerson were the first to suffer such setbacks -- Terry in a non-contact situation while returning the opening kickoff in a 2012 postseason all-star game and Wilkerson during summer workouts.

Receiver Malcolm Mitchell sustained his ACL injury while leaping in the air to celebrate Todd Gurley's 75-yard touchdown run in the first quarter of the opener against Clemson. Five weeks later, receiver Justin Scott-Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall both suffered ACL injuries against Tennessee, with Marshall's occurring as he took an awkward hit and Scott-Wesley's coming when he quickly changed direction to avoid running into a return man while covering a punt.

“You've just got to look at each one of them,” Richt said. “Malcolm jumps up and lands funny, and to have an ACL, that happens. Justin Scott-Wesley's changing direction trying to avoid running into a punt [returner]. Aaron's changing direction and it happens. Keith got hit, obviously, and that added to the way his ended up. So I don't think there's really anything you could do or anything that we've done that would cause that type of thing.”

Richt said Murray injured his knee Saturday when he cut to his right in an attempt to gain more yards at the end of his long run -- not on the play that ultimately knocked him out of the game. Although he was visibly struggling with a physical ailment after the run, Murray completed the possession where he suffered the injury and talked his coaches into letting him stay in for the next drive -- playing 13 total downs on the injured knee -- before a hard hit by Kentucky's Za'Darius Smith was the last straw.

“There was something wrong and he knew it and couldn't hide it anymore,” Richt said. “He was trying to hide it from everybody, I think.”

Richt said Murray's staying in the game after sustaining the injury did no additional damage. Murray injured only his ACL, and did so without much swelling around the injured ligament, so he will be able to undergo surgery this week rather than wait at least a week for the swelling to subside.

Murray still has a months-long rehabilitation process ahead, which will prevent him from competing in a postseason all-star game or in the NFL combine, but Richt believes the SEC's all-time leading passer will remain an appealing draft prospect.

“I think he'll get drafted,” Richt said. “ACL injuries, especially if you only have one and you don't have anything extenuating along with it ... there wasn't major damage to his knee, there was just ACL. I may be saying more than I'm supposed to say, but from what I've heard, there's nothing that is connected with it other than that, and those tend to heal very well and rehabs go very well.”

As for the prevalence of the Bulldogs' season-ending knee injuries this fall, Richt said there was a time when such an injury might not have ended a player's season. He used former UGA and NFL receiver Hines Ward, who played his entire college and pro career without an ACL in his left knee -- presumably the result of a childhood accident -- as an example, but there are many others who were able to play more than just 13 downs after sustaining similar injuries.

The goal now for Murray and his other injured teammates is to make good use of their recovery process, and Richt said Murray is “already kind of getting geared up for that challenge.”

“You could play with an ACL torn,” Richt said. “It's just nowadays, you have the imaging now, you have the MRIs, you see what the issue is and you go and make the repair. The repair is usually very successful.”

With Murray out, Mason's time is now

November, 24, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia's period of mourning over Aaron Murray's season-ending knee injury can't last long. The Bulldogs face rival Georgia Tech in six days -- and for the first time since 2009, they'll do it with someone other than Murray under center.

Once considered the Bulldogs' quarterback in waiting for 2014 -- after Murray, the SEC's all-time leading passer, departed for the NFL -- Hutson Mason's time is now, and that isn't as much of a cause for concern as one might expect.

“I think the whole team is confident in him,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said after Saturday's 59-17 win against Kentucky. “He's been preparing for four years now for his moment. His moment's just come a little earlier than we thought it might. I know he's ready, and I know everybody believes in him.”

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIHutson Mason has been Aaron Murray's main backup at Georgia. But now he gets his chance in the spotlight.
Mason has been Murray's primary backup since arriving at Georgia in 2010, and he opted to redshirt last season instead of transferring in order to gain a year of class separation between himself and Murray. The idea was to have one final season where he could potentially serve as the starting quarterback.

Now, he's getting an early tryout for the gig, with an opportunity to make his first career start against Georgia Tech and then to lead the offense once again in the Bulldogs' bowl game.

“I'm going to watch the game tomorrow and then start preparing for Tech,” Mason said after completing 13 of 19 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown, plus rushing for another score, against Kentucky. “I don't think anything in my preparation's going to change because I've been preparing like I've been the starter the whole year, and I think that's what's going to help me. And I don't have a lot of game-time experience, but I'm an older guy and I've been here a while and I know my teammates believe in me, and that's what's the most important thing.”

Georgia's offense didn't miss a beat on Saturday after Mason replaced Murray, who injured the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee after taking a big hit from Kentucky's Za'Darius Smith in the second quarter on Saturday. The Bulldogs scored touchdowns on their first four drives with Mason under center, and he capped his night with a field-goal drive before giving way to third-string quarterback Faton Bauta late in the blowout win.

The Bulldogs generated 309 yards in 37 plays with Mason in at QB against Kentucky, good for an average of 8.35 yards per play.

“When he's at practice, there's no drop-off when he comes in,” senior offensive guard Chris Burnette said. “He knows exactly what to do, has a great skillset, is a great leader. We know what he's bringing to the table, and he knows what we're bringing to the table so I think we're able to feed off of each other and be able to do well.”

There is a major difference between executing in practice and executing in a game, however, and Mason has only 11 games of experience -- almost all of which came in mop-up duty during blowouts. He didn't have time to over-think his role while replacing Murray on Saturday, but now he will be the center of attention for the first time during the run-up to a game against perhaps Georgia's biggest rival.

He said the number of close games Georgia played this season, with Murray playing the entire time, made him sometimes question the importance of preparing. He's obviously glad he continued to put in the work each week now, though.

“That's the nature of being a backup -- you've always got to be ready when your number's called on, especially with the way we've played this year,” Mason said. “There's many times through the week I'm like, 'Should I even prepare?' Because I've got voices in my head telling me, 'Should I prepare? I might not play. Is this worth it?' And it just goes to show you, always prepare like you're going to play because you never know when it's going to come.”

Murray's setback only exacerbates the Bulldogs' injury woes in a season where they have been especially prevalent. Georgia lost receiver Malcolm Mitchell to an ACL injury on the second series of the season -- he was celebrating a 75-yard Todd Gurley touchdown run when the injury occurred -- and tailback Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley both went down with additional ACL tears during a midseason win against Tennessee.

Offensive weapons Gurley, Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Jay Rome have also been knocked out of the lineup for multiple games, but Murray's seems like the most painful after he returned for his senior season only to suffer an injury near the very end. It will prevent him from participating in a postseason all-star game or at the NFL combine.

Georgia, however, must quickly pick up the pieces with Mason at quarterback, much like it did when its starting quarterback left his final home game with a devastating injury.

“I was proud of the way [Mason] played and proud of the way the other guys picked it up when Aaron went down,” Bobo said. “I feel for Aaron on senior night to get hurt with as much as he's invested in the program and everything he's done. But he played great again while he was out there -- just another phenomenal night for him.”

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