Georgia Bulldogs: Mike Bobo
Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo didn't want to wait for next season, however. His plan entering Saturday's game at Georgia Tech was for the Bulldogs to run the hurry-up offense for much of the afternoon before the Yellow Jackets jumped out to an early 20-0 lead.
"We tried to go fast really all night tonight. We just early in the game, we had some guys and we missed them and couldn't really get anything going," Bobo said, later adding, "They don't play a lot of people on defense, so I thought if we could wear them down with the screens and with the hurry-up, no-huddle, we'd be able to run the ball late. And we just got so far behind, we kind of had to stay in the pass mode and some one-back runs out of the gun."
It's no coincidence that the Bulldogs set an up-tempo pace on the possession, much like the style Mason used to become a record-setting passer at Lassiter High School in Marietta, Ga. In fact, Mason has practiced as the Bulldogs' No. 1 quarterback in similar situational drills each week for much of the season.
"Every Thursday we've done one-minute this year, and except for one time, he did it every time with the offense, and [we] let him run it to get experience, because Aaron had had so many reps," Bobo said. "So he's been doing it in practice all year on Thursdays and has done a nice job, so I knew he would feel comfortable with that."
Bobo installed a no-huddle scheme before the 2011 season, which Georgia has used intermittently over the last two seasons. Don't expect Bobo to completely revamp Georgia's offensive thinking next season -- "we'll still control the tempo that we feel will give us the best chance to win the ballgame," he said last week -- with a workhorse tailback like Gurley in the backfield. But it would not be surprising to see more of an up-tempo style under Mason than the Bulldogs employed under the more deliberate Murray.
"I like to keep things going a little quick," Mason admitted. "Not like Oregon, you know, but I just have a tendency from playing at Lassiter, we were a no-huddle offense, so just by my nature I'm a little faster than Aaron."
If Bobo goes in that direction, it would bring its own set of new challenges for the Bulldogs. For one thing, it would require them to have the proper depth and conditioning level to be able to move quickly without sacrificing their effectiveness.
Exhibit A was the one-minute drive that Mason led as soon as he took over for the injured Murray against Kentucky. Georgia drove 43 yards for a touchdown in only 53 seconds, with Mason going 4-for-5 on the possession, but receiver Michael Bennett admitted he felt the effects of the up-tempo pace afterward.
"As soon as the play's over, he's yelling, screaming to get everyone on the ball, let's get another play going," Bennett recalled. "It's good, but that one-minute drive, for instance, right before the half, I was sucking [wind]. I was dying. But it's just the way he rolls."
It also would require quick thinking, not just quick physical action, receiver Chris Conley said.
"You can't be celebrating. You can't be thinking, 'Oh that was an awesome run.' You've got to get back to the line, you've got to get the play in, you've got to analyze the defense, you've got to go," Conley said. "Whether it's a great play or a bad play, you've got to shuck it out of your mind, and you've got to move forward. It's at a rapid pace, and you have no time to sit and praise or pity yourself."
The main objective in playing that quickly is that it weakens defenses physically and makes it more difficult to counteract what the offenses are attempting, which is why Conley said he expects to utilize more of the up-tempo pace in 2014.
With Mason at the trigger and impressive depth at the offensive skill positions, the Bulldogs should have all the ingredients to execute effectively.
"The fact that Hutson likes it and he's good at it is all the more reason why we'll probably be doing more of that," Conley said. "We brought the no-huddle into this offense a couple years ago to get teams off balance, and it's worked. It's really worked because of the personnel that we have and their ability not only to recover, but make plays down the field and continue to make plays at a rapid pace. The fact that we have the people to do it, yeah I could see that happen."
Stuck behind Aaron Murray –- who this season became the SEC's all-time leading passer -– on Georgia's quarterback depth chart, Mason gave serious thought to transferring simply so he would not spend his entire career as a backup.
“My heart was telling me one thing and my pride was telling me another thing,” Mason said. “My heart wanted to be a Georgia Bulldog, but I knew I just wanted to play and I knew time was running out. It was a very, very tough decision. I don't think I even knew what the right decision was.”
After his freshman and sophomore seasons, Mason saw the writing on the wall. If he remained at Georgia and in the same class as Murray, he might go his entire college career without ever getting a chance to play. He expressed those concerns to Bulldogs coach Mark Richt and asked Richt to shoot him straight.
“He asked me to treat him as I would my own son. If he were my son, what would I tell him?” Richt recalled. “One of the things I told him was that first of all, there’s really no guarantee that wherever you go is going to be any better of a situation. With having to sit out, you might transfer, sit out, and then while you’re sitting out, some other guy may take off and play his tail off, and then all of the sudden you’re stuck.”
More than that, Richt said, Mason was learning and improving while working alongside Murray and quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. The coaches saw potential in Mason that would be useful once Murray left the lineup, whether by injury, by early entry into the NFL draft after the 2012 season or after Murray completed his full eligibility this fall.
“Learning the game of football and learning everything from defenses to the run game, all of the blocking schemes and protections and route concepts, everything that you have to learn in this system – it’s a lot, and he’s really learning football,” Richt said. “I thought he was getting better as he went.”
So they hatched a plan for Mason to redshirt in 2012, providing a year of class separation between himself and Murray so that Mason would have a chance to win the starting job as a senior next fall.
With Murray's season-ending knee injury, however, that opportunity came two games earlier than expected. Mason is preparing to make his first career start on Saturday against one of Georgia's biggest rivals, Georgia Tech.
Obviously, Murray's absence creates uncertainty entering the Tech game – “he was the most prolific passer in the history of the Southeastern Conference, so I think when you lose a guy like that, it doesn't help your chances,” Richt deadpanned earlier this week – but Mason had earned his coaches' and teammates' confidence long before leading Georgia's offense to four touchdowns and a field goal in five possessions against Kentucky last Saturday.
“I feel like I already know how he'll play, which is going to be very well,” junior receiver Michael Bennett said. “Because I know probably everyone on the team will tell you that because of what we see in practice. I know it's different, but you can just tell when a guy's kind of what we [call] a baller, like a gamer, and he's got it.”
Certainly these aren't ideal circumstances for Mason to make his starting debut, first because it came as a result of Murray's injury and second because it's against a Yellow Jackets defense that ranks 17th nationally with 342.6 yards allowed per game.
Mason's unflappable demeanor and capable practice performances gives the Bulldogs confidence and allows them to focus on other issues on offense.
“Hutson executes at the same level that Murray can, being in the system so long,” receiver Chris Conley said. “He just hasn't done it on a game field, I guess, until last Saturday. We're comfortable with him, we're comfortable with it and there's a lot of emphasis that falls on a lot of other people this week because Tech has a very good defense.
“And so we're not really worried about Hutson. There's so many other things that we as an offense have to get better at, and we have to be prepared for this weekend to have success.”
As Bennett and Conley both mentioned, though, what they have seen of Mason is largely limited to practice reps. Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium won't be practice, and it won't be mop-up duty against Appalachian State or in relief of Murray against Kentucky once Georgia had already built a big lead.
Saturday will represent Mason's biggest test to date, and his ability to handle the job is one of Georgia's biggest questions entering this game.
“People ask me what I look for in a quarterback: Is he an accurate passer? Is he a good decision-maker? Can he handle the pressure of the job?” Richt said. “Well, we’re about to find out if he can handle the pressure of the job.”
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.”
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.”
“Keep them boys believing, man,” D.J. Shockley's message read. “Make them answer the bell. This is your legacy. Remember that: how do I want to be remembered when things get a little tough.”
He desperately needed to hear Shockley's message, and was so appreciative that he saved the text as the screen saver on his cell phone so that it would be a constant reminder of his role as a team leader.
“It's the first thing I see every morning when I hit my phone,” Murray said. “I look at it and that little thing right there just meant the world to me. It's awesome to get those kind of supporting text messages from him and [David] Greene and other guys who have played here.”
Circle of support
Murray has a large circle of supporters, ranging from family to teammates to quarterbacks across the country with whom he has formed a bond at various events. But he has a special relationship with those who played quarterback at Georgia before him -- Shockley and Greene, in particular -- because he had the foresight to reach out before taking his first college snap.
“He embraced the guys that have come before him and wanted us to just kind of help him at the very beginning, work with him,” Greene said. “It wasn't ever a relationship where we were talking every day or anything like that. It was more of like a big brother kind of role, I guess. It wasn't like we touched base that often.
““But during the season at times, like after this weekend [when Auburn spoiled a fourth-quarter comeback by scoring the game-winning touchdown with 25 seconds to play], I definitely shot him a text and basically just said, 'Look, I admire the way you play the game.' As a former player that knows what it's like to be in those situations, as much adversity as he faced, you could tell that he wore his heart on his sleeve. He wanted that game and he fought tooth-and-nail to get it back, and he's done that his whole career.”
If you just look at stats, you say, 'Since he's been quarterback, Georgia has not won a big game.' I get it, I agree. But does it mean that I could win the big game because when we played in the SEC championship, we only gave up three points [to Arkansas in 2002]? Does that mean that I could win the big game and he couldn't? No, of course not. It's not fair to compare the two. ... The way that he has played this year I think has completely erased any doubt of whether or not he could play big in big moments.” -- Former Georgia QB David Greene
There are several reasons why Georgia's ex-quarterbacks have developed relationships with the current players on the roster.
One is that the Bulldogs have had the same quarterback-centric head coach and position coach, Mark Richt and Mike Bobo, for the last 13 seasons, which helps maintain continuity between generations. Another is an event that Richt brought from Florida State -- the “Quarterback Classic” -- which serves as a reunion between Richt's ex-Seminoles quarterbacks and current and former Bulldogs signal-callers.
While Murray joked that there is heated competition in events like ping pong, bowling, air hockey, bocce ball and horseshoes, he said that it provided a tremendous outlet.
“I think that's one of the best times of the year, getting together with those guys and playing all these crazy games that only the old guys win because they know how to play them,” Murray said.
Bobo agreed on its value.
“It's a chance for those quarterbacks to meet those older guys and they get contact info from them and they kind of stay in touch," he said. "Greene and Shockley have been real good about staying in touch with all those guys."
With 108 passing yards Saturday against Kentucky -- Murray's final home start as a Georgia player -- he can become the first quarterback in SEC history to pass for 3,000 yards in all four seasons. He's already the only one to do it three times.
He owns the SEC career records for passing yards, total offense, touchdown passes and completions, and could break the marks for pass attempts and touchdown responsibility before season's end.
Statistics are not the only way we measure quarterbacks, though. The glaring hole in Murray's resume is that, unlike Greene (2002) and Shockley (2005), he never won a conference title. It's a painful reality, particularly because of last season's near-miss against Alabama in the SEC championship game, where Murray and the Bulldogs fell just short of a spot in the BCS title game.
“There's also a piece of me that feels a little bad for him because I think there's been a couple of times throughout his career where he's kind of had a legacy moment kind of taken away from him,” Greene said.
Murray would be the first to point out the things he should have done better in games that didn't turn out in Georgia's favor, but Greene is quick to offer a counterpoint of sorts.
Consider the brilliance with which Murray performed in wins against LSU and South Carolina, how he led the last-minute comeback to force overtime against Tennessee with nearly all of his most important playmakers sidelined by injuries, how he dove for the go-ahead touchdown against Auburn, and the argument that he shrinks under the spotlight seems silly.
“If you just look at stats, you say, 'Since he's been quarterback, Georgia has not won a big game.' I get it, I agree,” Greene said. “But does it mean that I could win the big game because when we played in the SEC championship, we only gave up three points [to Arkansas in 2002]? Does that mean that I could win the big game and he couldn't? No, of course not. It's not fair to compare the two. … The way that he has played this year I think has completely erased any doubt of whether or not he could play big in big moments.”
Murray has Shockley have been there. Better than nearly anyone else, they understand the demands Murray faced for the last four seasons – and they remain impressed by how he thrived under those circumstances.
“I think people will say he was arguably one of the best quarterbacks to play at the University of Georgia, but … There's an asterisk right there. They didn't get that championship and that kind of stuff,” Shockley said. “But in my book, he's No. 1. He's done it all. The numbers don't lie. He's put them in position, and obviously he can't play defense and special teams. He's definitely had a great career and worthy of being one of the best.”
Following Saturday's date with Kentucky -- the final game at Sanford Stadium this season -- the Bulldogs will look entirely different on offense the next time they take the field before a home crowd. And many of the players who will take over for the likes of Aaron Murray and his fellow seniors next fall also filled their spots in the fourth quarter of Georgia's 45-6 win over the Mountaineers two weekends ago.
Assuming he wins the quarterback job, Mason will be in a convenient position next season. Georgia loses seven seniors -- Murray, tight end Arthur Lynch, receivers Rantavious Wooten and Rhett McGowan and offensive linemen Chris Burnette, Kenarious Gates and Dallas Lee -- who started on offense against Auburn. And yet the returning skill-position talent surrounding the Bulldogs' next quarterback will be as impressive as that of nearly any offense in the country.
Not only will tailback Todd Gurley return for his junior season, the Bulldogs expect to get receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall back from season-ending knee injuries that crippled the offense at points this fall. That's in addition to other returning weapons like receivers Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Jonathon Rumph, tight end Jay Rome and tailbacks J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas and 2014 commitments Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, both of whom rank among ESPN's top eight prospects at running back.
Not a bad situation for a first-time starting quarterback who must replace the most distinguished passer in SEC history.
“We've got a lot of weapons,” redshirt freshman receiver Blake Tibbs said. “And Hutson, he don't care who's open. If they put a dog in a helmet and some equipment out there, if he was open, Hutson would throw it to him. That's one thing about Hutson: He don't care. If you're open, he's going to trust you to make the play and he's going to keep throwing to you.”
Mason certainly proved that in his lone opportunity for significant playing time this season. He hit his first eight pass attempts, connecting with the likes of Rumph, Green, freshman Reggie Davis and walk-on Kenneth Towns on his first drive. Then came further completions to Tibbs, Michael Erdman, Douglas and Rumph again before his first incomplete pass.
The common bond there? Those are mostly the players with whom Mason has regularly worked on the Bulldogs' second-team offense, so chemistry was not an issue when they hit the field.
“That group's kind of been playing together -- besides Rumph -- for a long time and a lot of when our twos go against the ones, they always seem to do well and I think there's a chemistry between those guys kind of like Aaron and Bennett and other guys,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.
There's a long time between now and the reserves' time to shine. Heck, there are three games remaining this season.
That means there is plenty of time for the stars in waiting to continue to develop before the Bulldogs open the 2014 season against Clemson on Aug. 30 -- which is exactly the mentality Rumph says he's developing.
“That's what young players have got to understand,” said Rumph, who has six catches in the last three games after missing the first half of the season with a hamstring ailment. “This is your job, so every time you go to school or go to practice, you've got to work to get better. That's all I'm trying to do is keep adding stuff to my game. I've got the feel for the game, I know what I'm capable of. I'm just trying to keep adding stuff to my game.”
Mason echoed those thoughts, pointing out that while even coach Mark Richt has declared Mason as the frontrunner to win the job next season, he still must make good use of this opportunity and not just assume the job is his from the get-go.
He has the opportunity to work with what could be an extremely productive offense next season -- if he stakes a claim on the job.
“I'm not going to be na´ve. I hear about that stuff and I read some of it and stuff like that. I've always been the first to say that I believe they're just being nice,” Mason said. “I believe that I've done a good job of performing when my opportunity comes, but I've never stepped on the field in front of 90,000 and like I was saying earlier, that's different from playing in practice.
“So I enjoy the comments and I enjoy the people that have faith in me, but really myself, I just take it day-by-day and say, 'You know what, what have I proven?' because in reality I haven't proven a lot. So when that opportunity comes, hopefully I'll show up.”
Entering Saturday's visit to No. 7 Auburn (9-1, 5-1 SEC), No. 25 Georgia (6-3, 4-2) is the healthiest it has been on offense since a disastrous visit to Tennessee when tailback Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley went down with season-ending knee injuries and wideout Michael Bennett suffered a knee injury that knocked him out of the lineup temporarily.
“We're getting guys back, which is good, but they've also missed a lot of practice time, which on the flip side is a negative,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “So we're having to work a little harder than we may have in the past in November. But I think it's good. I think it's a confidence boost to the offense.”
Conley leads the team with 30 catches for 418 yards and four touchdowns, while Lynch's 15 catches for 243 yards rank fifth. But while their receiving production is obviously important, their simple presences in the lineup -- alongside players with whom they've shared so many practice and game reps -- are just as valuable.
“It definitely helps the chemistry because we went through camp all together and you kind of get that chemistry with those guys together,” said Bennett, who posted a team-high five catches in each of the two games since he returned to the lineup. “You can lose it when you've got new guys coming in. But those other guys have done a heck of a job coming in and filling in for us. But when you have those veterans come back like Artie and Conley, it definitely brings a new confidence.”
Lynch's return is well-timed, as Rome was the only other scholarship tight end who has played this season. Freshman Jordan Davis is on track to redshirt and walk-on Hugh Williams has played as a blocker, but has yet to catch a pass.
Meanwhile, Conley brings some punch back to a receiving corps that struggled during Georgia's midseason lull, when at one point they were without tailbacks Todd Gurley and Marshall and wideouts Mitchell, Scott-Wesley and Bennett. It's no coincidence that the Bulldogs lost to both Missouri and Vanderbilt during that period, or that they posted a paltry 221 yards of total offense -- including just 114 passing -- in the Vandy loss.
Conley seemed questionable at best for the Auburn game early in the week, but he was able to practice in non-contact drills on Wednesday which encouraged Bulldogs coach Mark Richt.
“I was telling the quarterback, 'He's going half-speed' or whatever, and Conley kind of ran a little faster than half-speed and snatched the ball,” Richt said. “And Bobo was looking around like, 'We ought to let him practice a little bit.' … He didn't practice the whole time, but he got some work in and he looked good. I don't think he had any setbacks.”
Richt insisted that Conley's role might still be limited should he play on Saturday, but he comes back to a group of receivers that had to look elsewhere for production during his two-game absence -- and might have found another spark in Jonathon Rumph.
The junior college transfer was sidelined by a hamstring injury throughout the first half of the season and played sparingly for the first time two weeks ago against Florida. He caught his first passes -- four of them, in fact, for 98 yards -- in the fourth quarter against Appalachian State, causing Bobo to remark that he's “actually getting excited about him” earlier this week.
“I had a feeling that I knew what I was going to do, but I really didn't want to mess up,” Rumph said of his performance last week. “I focused a lot on the game plan, I knew everything I had to do and everybody on the sideline kept me lifted. The starters told me, 'All right, when you're opportunity comes, take advantage.' That's all it was, just making plays for my team.”
For the first time in more than a month, Georgia's offense has a wide array of players who seem ready to do that. The main one to watch is likely Gurley, who is still not back to 100 percent and has not been able to handle a full workload in the two games since returning from an ankle injury. But quarterback Aaron Murray clearly has more established weapons at his disposal than he has had in weeks, and that can only be a positive sign for the Bulldogs.
“The more guys you get out there that Murray feels comfortable with, I think, the better,” Bobo said.
Well, Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has been home, aside from one season he spent at Jacksonville State in 2000 as an assistant coach, ever since playing quarterback for the Bulldogs from 1994-97.
He’s a rarity these days in college football. He’s one of the few former players that are now assistant coaches at their alma maters.
Bobo, 39, is in his 19th season at Georgia as a player, graduate assistant or assistant coach. He and Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown are the only two coaches in the SEC calling plays at the school in which they played, although Brown finished his college career at Massachusetts.
While Bobo will always be a Dawg at heart, he didn’t grow up dreaming about playing for Georgia, and when his playing career ended in 1997, it wasn’t necessarily his goal to coach at Georgia.
It just sort of happened that way.
The son of a legendary high school coach in the state of Georgia, George Bobo, the younger Bobo just knew that he wanted to coach. He spent a couple of seasons at Georgia as an administrative assistant and graduate assistant under his old coach, Jim Donnan, and then went to Jacksonville State in 2000 to coach quarterbacks.
In Bobo’s mind, his days at Georgia were probably in his rear-view mirror until Mark Richt came along in 2001.
“When coach Richt called me up and wanted to talk, people were saying that he might ask me to come back and be a GA, and I’d already been a GA here for two years. I was like, ‘I’m big time. I’m coaching my position (quarterbacks) here at Jacksonville State. I’m not coming back as a GA,’” Bobo joked.
But when he met Richt, his tune quickly changed.
“It wasn’t about football,” Bobo recalled. “It was about my life, his life, family, how he wanted to treat the players. I was like, ‘I’ve got to get around this guy. If I really want to get into coaching, I need to be around a guy like this, just his passion for life and players.’
“My dad always said, ‘Whatever you do, surround yourself with good people,’ and I decided that I was going to go work for this guy no matter what.”
That first season, Bobo was basically a full-time graduate assistant. But as he gained more of Richt’s confidence, his role increased. In 2007, Bobo was promoted to offensive coordinator and replaced Richt as the Bulldogs’ play-caller.
It takes a special person to call plays at any big-time school. But when you’re one of their own, the criticism and second-guessing can really get nasty. Bobo, despite the Bulldogs’ offensive success on his watch, has been a frequent target of the fans.
He learned a long time ago to develop a thick skin.
“The thing that matters to me is that when I walk into that room, the players believe in what we’re doing,” Bobo said. “If they believe in that and believe in me, we’ve got a chance. And I’ve never felt that those guys don’t believe.
“If you let the outside noise get to you, it will eat you alive.”
The truth is that Bobo has probably been one of the more under-appreciated offensive coordinators in college football. Since becoming coordinator, Georgia has averaged more than 30 points per game every season but 2009 when the Bulldogs averaged 28.9.
The 2012 Georgia offense scored a school-record 529 points and racked up more than 40 in eight games. The Dawgs also set a school record in 2012 with 37.8 points per game, 37 touchdown passes, 6,547 total yards and 72 touchdowns scored.
Even this season with all the injuries, Georgia is still fourth in the SEC in total offense with an average of 478.6 yards per game (22nd nationally) and averaging 35.6 points per game.
More importantly, the Bulldogs can stay alive in the Eastern Division race Saturday with a win at No. 7 Auburn.
“The thing you keep coming back to is that this is your school and your state, and there’s an incredible amount of pride associated with being able to represent both every day when I come to work,” Bobo said.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t had opportunities to leave.
A year ago, Virginia Tech tried to hire him and actually sent a plane to Athens to pick him up, but Bobo never got on it. Georgia rewarded him with a $240,000 raise and three-year contract, and he now ranks among the highest-paid offensive coordinators in the league.
Football isn’t the only thing that’s kept Bobo in Athens. He and his wife, Lainie, have five kids under the age of 10, including triplets, and he said it’s impossible to put a price on being able to raise your family in the same place, especially in the volatile world of coaching.
Sure, there have been times that he’s cast a wandering eye around the college football landscape and asked himself if he were limiting his opportunities by staying in the same place for so long. But he always arrives back at the same answer.
“You might look around and think, ‘I should be doing this or doing that or maybe wonder what it would be like to go somewhere else,’” Bobo said. “But at the end of the day, what we’ve got here is hard to beat.”
Gurley returned in last week's 23-20 win against Florida and produced 187 yards of offense, even if he was clearly not operating at 100 percent. Nonethelesss, he and Bennett are back in the lineup and the Bulldogs' offense is inching closer to becoming as healthy as it can be for this season's stretch run.
Bobo discussed the issues the injuries created and how the Bulldogs might return to their high-scoring ways in this week's Q&A. Here's what he had to say:
Q: Aside from Gurley being back, what was the difference in the offense's improvement from Vanderbilt to Florida?
Mike Bobo: Obviously the off week helped. It gave us a chance to improve with the guys that were out there. We talked those two weeks about trust, and I think you saw a level of trust in the players that were out there, Rhett McGowan] and Brendan Douglas and just playing ball and guys laying it on the line. I'd say that would be one thing.
Q: How does Todd make your job easier?
MB: Well, he's a difference-maker. You get a guy in space and you never have the perfect call, but when you do sometimes and you've got a chance to score, he has the ability to take it to the house. There was that safety [on Gurley's 73-yard touchdown catch against Florida] and some guys might get tackled, but instead of a 25-yard gain, it was however long it was and a touchdown. If it's a 25-yard gain, great play. But then you've got to execute even more times against a very good defense. To have that explosive play and get a touchdown is a big difference.
Q: Has this season been your most challenging since you became a play-caller?
MB: With the injuries, we've had to do a lot of adjustments and change a lot of things that we've done, and it's kind of been week-to-week. The consistency of who's out there kind of affects what you do offensively. To be honest, it's been a fun one, too, because there are a lot of guys who had opportunities to make plays that might not even have been on our field in practice. They'd have been on the scout team. And it's good to see those guys succeed, to be honest.
Q: If you were going to put a finger on something that you might have done different in October, is there something you think might have made a difference?
MB: I would say probably preaching more about believing and trusting in what we got, and let's go play. That would be the No. 1 thing.
Q: What's the most important factor in the offense looking like what we saw early in the year as you guys hit the stretch run?
MB: After that Vanderbilt game, we really talked about improving and getting better and back to the basics. We've really got to work hard at the little things because there's new guys, there's not a lot of continuity and continuing to do that. Sometimes when it's later in the season, you might taper off a little bit. I think where we're at, getting some guys back, we've kind of got to ramp it back up and make sure we're all on the same page and not take anything for granted. Whereas in some years past, it might be, 'OK, these guys have got a lot of cumulative reps.' Well, guys like Bennett and Gurley don't have those cumulative reps from all the time they missed, so we've got to make up that time and make sure everybody's on the same page when the game gets here.
Todd Gurley's impact
Thanks in part to injuries up front, they weren't as dominant in their last two games, both losses, allowing 175 rushing yards to LSU and 205 to Missouri. But with a few key faces returning up front -- including defensive tackle Damien Jacobs and possibly outside linebacker Ronald Powell -- Florida should pose a major test to Gurley and Georgia's rushing attack.
Georgia's depleted receiving corps vs. Florida secondary
By this point, anybody who follows Georgia football with even a passing interest knows about the debilitating injuries that struck the Bulldogs' offense over the last month. They have been especially debilitating for a once-explosive receiving corps, which lost Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley to season-ending knee injuries and Michael Bennett and Chris Conley to shorter-term ailments.
Conley is still out, but Bennett should be back from a two-game absence on Saturday, possibly bringing some productivity to a group that has struggled mightily in recent weeks. The Bulldogs passed for just 114 yards in a loss to Vanderbilt, with senior quarterback Aaron Murray failing to complete a pass of at least 20 yards for the first time in his career.
Facing Florida's aggressive secondary is no treat for the Bulldogs' passing game. The Gators surrendered an uncharacteristic 295 passing yards to Missouri in their last game, but with ball hawks like Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and freshman Vernon Hargreaves III leading the charge, Florida leads the SEC and ranks fifth nationally in pass defense at 172.4 ypg.
Murray's composure vs. Gators
Murray largely put to rest questions about whether he was a big-game player in nearly flawless performances against South Carolina and LSU earlier this season. A composed performance against Florida on Saturday would place an additional nail in that particular coffin. The Florida native has never gotten off to a great start against the Gators, starting with his very first play as a freshman in 2010 -- when he threw an interception to Florida's Janoris Jenkins. Murray led a comeback to force overtime in that game but threw a back-breaking interception that helped Florida win 34-31 in the extra session. Georgia won each of the last two meetings against the Gators, but Murray was fairly shaky in both, going a combined 27-for-58 for 319 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions. Georgia has a chance to build its first three-game winning streak against Florida since 1987-89, but it likely will need Murray to play his best game yet against the Gators for the streak to remain intact.
Will Mike Bobo "let it rip?"
With Gurley and Bennett back in the lineup, Georgia's offense should have some more punch on Saturday, and that will be necessary against Florida's tough defense. Bobo likely must break out of the conservatism that set in with multiple offensive weapons sidelined and show some aggressiveness if Georgia is to break through against the Gators.
Florida's pass rushers vs. Georgia offensive line
If Powell is able to play on Saturday, that would provide a huge shot in the arm for Florida's pass rush. Powell has Jarvis Jones-like ability, but injuries have been a regular problem for the junior. Even if he doesn't play, Georgia's offensive line -- which has dealt with consistency issues for much of the season -- will have its hands full with buck Dante Fowler Jr., who almost single-handedly kept the Gators afloat against Missouri even when the offense was performing pitifully.
Fowler leads the team with three sacks, eight tackles for a loss and three forced fumbles. He hasn't gotten a ton of help from his comrades up front -- Florida is tied for 10th in the league with 11 sacks -- but getting some line depth back should help. Georgia's line has struggled against speedy edge rushers, particularly in the Clemson and Missouri losses, so keep an eye on the edges Saturday.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Brendan Douglas has been the hurdler and the hurdlee, so he has firsthand knowledge of the embarrassment that accompanies an opponent leaping directly over you. The thing is, the Georgia tailback still isn't sure what he should have done when teammate Jordan Jenkins hurdled his attempted block during the Bulldogs' second preseason scrimmage.
It wasn't like he dove at Jenkins' ankles on the play. The 5-foot-11 back was nearly standing straight up when he lunged to block Jenkins, and the linebacker simply jumped straight over him.
“You're just like, 'What am I supposed to do?' He just cleared me,” chuckled Douglas, who also hurdled cornerback Shaq Wiggins in the same scrimmage. “I didn't dive on the ground or anything. I just kind of lunged at him a little bit and then he was over me. I didn't know if I should like grab his foot or what. It's kind of like you've just got to let him go at that point.”
“I was shocked I got over him,” Jenkins said. “Actually I stopped and thought, 'Oh God, I got over him,' and I just tried to get LeMay.”
Two months later, teammates still marvel at the athleticism required for Jenkins to pull off such a move.
“That was crazy,” tailback J.J. Green said. “I've never seen something like that where somebody was standing straight up and you just jump right over them.”
Most Georgia fans were first introduced to the in-game hurdle when All-America tailback Knowshon Moreno famously jumped over a Central Michigan defender in a 2008 victory. However, Moreno's legend began to grow two years earlier when as a redshirting freshman on the scout team, he jumped over teammate Donavon Baldwin in practice.
“That was probably most impressive one I've seen,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “He did it down on the turf [practice] fields and I think he kept his feet and went on and scored.”
Hurdle sightings have become much more prevalent over the last few years as the sport's increasingly big and athletic players have demonstrated the ability to avoid blocks or tackle attempts at their ankles by simply jumping over their opponent.
Bulldogs tight end Arthur Lynch has attempted it a number of times, most recently when he successfully cleared Missouri defensive back Randy Ponder's diving tackle attempt along the UGA sideline, bringing some electricity back into Sanford Stadium after the Bulldogs had fallen behind 28-10 in the second quarter.
“I thought it really did bring the crowd back into it [against Missouri] and also just kind of gets into the mind of your opponent, as well,” Lynch said. “I know like in a boxing match, if you go for the body shot, body shot, body shot, go up top, you've got a guy thinking. I think it's the same concept. If you run somebody over, the next play he's going to lower his shoulder and not be able to see anything, and [you can] go over the top.”
But Lynch's successful hurdle still surprised his teammates -- even his buddy Aaron Murray.
“I didn't think he could get that high,” said Murray, Georgia's quarterback. “I don't think anyone did, but that was pretty sweet.”
On the final defensive play of Georgia's 44-41 win against LSU, Jenkins attempted his pass-rush hurdle again, but it didn't go quite as smoothly. Rushing from the right side, he tried to soar over a block from LSU's Travis Dickson – and he was nearly successful again.
He cleared Dickson with his right leg, but the LSU tight end caught Jenkins' left leg and flipped him into the air. Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger stepped backward with Jenkins flying toward him and Leonard Floyd rushing into his face and threw incomplete for a turnover on downs that sealed Georgia's win.
“I didn't pick up my leg like I was supposed to,” Jenkins said. “It's like when you try to jump a hurdle in track, if you don't pick up that back leg, you'll fall down.”
Nonetheless, the hurdle is proving to be an effective-enough technique that Georgia tight ends coach John Lilly instructs his players to look for chances to leap over smaller defenders who will try to take out their legs instead of attempting a traditional tackle.
But even when a player sees his opponent lowering his head and preparing to hit him low, Jenkins said it takes a little something extra to attempt the hurdle instead of a different method of getting away.
“You've got to have that swagger to do it,” Jenkins said. “As long as you have it in your mind, if you know you can do it, if you have it in your head thinking, 'I know I can get this guy' and just commit to that, you can do it. But if you're half-guessing yourself, it ain't going to work out.”
There was one problem: over time, that became an impossible proposition.
Tailback: Todd Gurley (1,385 rushing yards, 17 TDs in 2012), Keith Marshall (759-8).
Receiver: Malcolm Mitchell (40 catches for 572 yards last season), Michael Bennett (24-345 in five games last fall), Chris Conley (20-342), Justin Scott-Wesley (made win-clinching touchdown catches against South Carolina and LSU early this season).
After season-ending injuries to Mitchell, Marshall and Scott-Wesley and ailments that kept Gurley and Bennett out for three and two games, respectively, here's the travel roster Bobo was working with on Saturday against Vanderbilt, when he called an ultra-conservative game in hopes of slipping out of Nashville with a win:
Tailback: Freshmen J.J. Green (313 rushing yards, 6.7 yards per carry this season) and Brendan Douglas (218, 4.2), walk-ons Brandon Harton and Kyle Karempelis (no carries between them), Gurley (who is still injured and watched from the sideline).
Receiver: Conley (team-high 30-418 this season), Rantavious Wooten (14-174), true freshman Reggie Davis (7-189), Rhett McGowan (7-70), Jonathon Rumph (who just returned from a hamstring injury that has sidelined him for nearly the entire season, but did not play against Vandy), walk-ons Kenneth Towns (no catches) and Michael Erdman (1-6).
With a full complement of skill players, Bobo has certainly never been afraid to call for the deep ball, and quarterback Aaron Murray hasn't been afraid to throw it. Georgia was actually one of the nation's most successful teams at generating big plays last season when Gurley and Marshall were breaking long runs and the Bulldogs' assortment of wideouts was getting behind the secondary for long completions.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Georgia led the nation last season with 31 touchdowns that covered 20 yards or more and ranked fifth with 63 completions of at least 20-plus yards. And this season initially looked to be more of the same, with 37 plays of 20-plus, six touchdowns of 20-plus and 27 completions of 20-plus through the first five games.
It has been a completely different story over the last two weeks, however. The explosive play did not exist in the 31-27 loss to Vandy -- Georgia's longest play of the game was a 17-yard completion to Green -- and the offense mustered only a paltry 221 yards against a Commodores defense that gave up 51 points to Missouri its last time out.
Murray completed 16 passes for 114 yards, just five more completions than his career low, and attempted only two throws that covered at least 15 yards. Both were incompletions.
The previous week's loss against Missouri was not as underwhelming. The Bulldogs finished with 454 total yards and Murray was 25-for-45 for 290 yards, but nearly half of his completions (11) came on dump-off passes to Green and Douglas, as Bobo and his quarterback elected to dink and dunk to their checkdown receiving options against Missouri's zone defense.
Green broke a 57-yard run and Wooten made a 48-yard reception, but explosive play and aggression was largely lacking in that loss, as well.
The long ball was a key element in the offense in the first five games, with Murray going 21 for 37 on throws of 15 yards or more, averaging 17.8 yards per attempt and connecting for five touchdowns versus no interceptions. He was 4-for-11 on such throws against Vandy (0-2) and Missouri (4-9), but averaged just 8.7 yards per attempt with no touchdowns and two picks.
Georgia still has only six touchdowns that covered 20 yards or more, leaving the Bulldogs in a tie for 74th nationally after leading in that category last fall.
The good news for Georgia is that Gurley and Bennett are expected back for the Bulldogs' next game, Nov. 2 against Florida. Perhaps more than any other player on the roster, even Murray, Gurley is the linchpin in Georgia's offensive explosiveness -- and his presence allows Bobo to call a completely different game than what we just witnessed in Nashville.
The sophomore back's ability to run physically between the tackles forces opponents to funnel defenders into the box to slow him down. And his formidable speed makes Gurley a threat to break a run for a big gain at any time.
The sophomore already has seven touchdowns of 20 yards or more in 18 career games.
Aside from their occasional case of fumble-itis, Green and Douglas have done a fine job in Gurley and Marshall's absence, but they can't replace what Gurley brings to the lineup. If another running back anywhere in the country is capable of that, he's on a mighty short list.
Now will Gurley make a big enough difference against Florida? We shall see. He has been on the shelf since Sept. 28 and hasn't been able to practice for three weeks. But if he returns with fresh legs and his injured ankle has healed to the point that the Gurley of old takes the field in Jacksonville, Georgia's chances of victory -- and its chances of generating big plays on offense -- will increase exponentially.
Defense isn't good enough yet: To this point, Georgia had won four of its first five games simply because its explosive offense could outscore the opposition. Sure, the defense had made a couple of key plays to secure wins -- a late goal-line stand against South Carolina and a fourth-down stop against LSU, for instance -- but Todd Grantham's group had been a liability overall. Grantham's defense made stops here and there against Missouri's exceptional offense, and Georgia was even dominant during the third quarter, but the defense still wasn't good enough to win on a day where an offense missing multiple key players was not playing up to its usual high standard.
Offense isn't hopeless: We wouldn't argue if you were to contend that Saturday's outcome would have been different if Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo had Todd Gurley and the numerous missing offensive pieces at his disposal. Despite their absence, Georgia still gained 454 yards of total offense against Missouri, including 242 total yards by freshman tailbacks J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas. Douglas had a key fumble inside the Missouri 10, but the Bulldogs' other three turnovers were by senior quarterback Aaron Murray. The missing personnel certainly affected Georgia's big-play ability and likely reduced Bobo's play-calling aggressiveness, but the turnovers and occasional mistakes by the offensive line were the difference in the outcome.
Team won't quit: Say what you will about Georgia's flaws -- and the injury-riddled team has plenty as it is currently constructed -- but you can't say the Bulldogs aren't resilient. They imploded in the second quarter and seemed to be on the verge of getting blown out by one of the best offensive teams in the SEC when Mizzou went up 28-10 in the second quarter. But the Bulldogs were a dropped two-point pass away from tying the score early in the fourth quarter. And they had another chance to tie it before Murray's interception with just over four minutes to play. Georgia battled through the nation's toughest schedule to win four of its first five games, but it ran out of fourth-quarter magic on Saturday. That's the danger in relying so heavily on one side of the ball to win games.
Since taking over as Georgia's quarterback in 2010, there has been a seemingly endless parade of skill players in and out of the Bulldogs' offensive lineup -- from A.J. Green's four-game absence to open Murray's freshman season, to regular tailback shuffling in 2011, to debilitating injuries at receiver last season, to considerable upheaval over the last two weeks of this season.
And he needs to be.
In Saturday's noon ET game against No. 25 Missouri (5-0, 1-0 SEC) Murray must deal with his biggest personnel challenge to date. With Georgia already without Malcolm Mitchell, who tore his ACL in the opener against Clemson, the Bulldogs lost two more key wideouts, Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett, last week against Tennessee. Tailback Keith Marshall also went down with a season-ending knee injury last Saturday, joining fellow star tailback Todd Gurley on the sidelines as the Bulldogs' high-scoring offense started to sputter without so many key pieces.
“I would say it affected not only the offense, but the team,” fullback Quayvon Hicks said. “It was players that are not only playmakers on the field, but great teammates. Losing them and knowing that they're not going to be out there, it's something that you've got to just suck it up and keep going.”
Murray and No. 7 Georgia (4-1, 3-0) barely salvaged the game, forcing overtime with a last-minute touchdown and winning 34-31 with a field goal in the extra session. The lone constant in Georgia's lineup over the last three-plus seasons, Murray's experience adjusting to the personnel around him might have been the difference in the outcome.
“You never really can truly practice everything that might happen in a game,” Bobo said. “So I think it's been a lot of experience for Aaron, obviously, to have to go through that and the game plan altered in the middle of a game. And then obviously myself with calling plays. You've just got to adjust. That's football, and I think any time you've got experience to draw back from instead of maybe something that you practiced, it's always beneficial.”
Injuries will force the Bulldogs to do some major adjusting over at least the next couple of weeks. Georgia coach Mark Richt said Gurley remains doubtful to play against Missouri and Bennett is probably out until at least the Nov. 2 game against Florida.
That leaves Bulldogs with little to no experience suddenly in the mix for playing time. Richt has mentioned walk-ons Kenny Towns and Michael Erdman as possible fill-ins at receiver, along with redshirt freshman Blake Tibbs, who has yet to appear in a game.
The running game could once again be in the hands of a group of true freshmen if Gurley is unable to go. It might even mean that A.J. Turman -- a clear redshirt candidate before Marshall's injury made that outcome less of a certainty -- joins fellow freshmen J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas in the backfield.
“[Turman] seems to be excited about getting reps with the ones or twos or whatever reps that he's getting right now,” Richt said. “He doesn't look like a guy who's bummed out about an opportunity, a possible opportunity. He seems to be a guy who's kind of anxious for it, so that helps.”
Georgia's running game could be a key factor in Saturday's game. The Bulldogs' still-developing defense will have its hands full with a Missouri offense that is one of only five in the country averaging at least 255 yards on the ground and 285 through the air. The UGA backs' ability to extend drives and keep the defense on the sideline will almost certainly be of major importance, and last year's game against the Tigers was not especially encouraging in that department.
Missouri actually outgained Georgia 371 yards to 355 last year and limited the Bulldogs' running game to just 113 yards -- 44 of which came on a single Gurley run. Georgia needs a more productive performance from Green, Douglas and the other backs if Gurley isn't there to power the Bulldogs' running game.
Otherwise, Georgia will lean more heavily on the injury-depleted receiving corps led by Chris Conley -- who would have redshirted in 2011 if not for injuries that led to his debut in the fourth game of that season.
In other words, Murray is far from the only offensive player on the roster who had to adapt on the fly because of personnel changes.
“It's definitely caused us to be mature,” Conley said. “And for guys to learn how to play in that situation, it's something that you're not comfortable doing naturally. Over the last couple of years, we've had multiple guys who had to become comfortable doing that -- stepping up, learning things on the fly, going in on a Saturday like they've been doing it all along.”
Georgia needs that trend to continue Saturday with some of the new faces in the lineup and old faces who will attempt new things. If they can handle this adjustment as capably as they have the others over the last couple of seasons, the Bulldogs still might be able to ride out their recent rash of debilitating injuries.
With receiver Michael Bennett (knee) out and All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley (ankle) questionable for Saturday's game against No. 25 Missouri (5-0, 1-0 SEC), No. 7 Georgia (4-1, 3-0) has little time to identify the personnel who must play larger roles in order to hang with a Tigers offense that ranks among the nation's most productive units.
Here are four groups/trends to watch as the Bulldogs move forward:
Freshman tailbacks: With Georgia's two star backs both possibly out Saturday, it's certainly possible we will see another heavy dose of true freshmen J.J. Green -- who rushed for 129 yards last Saturday against Tennessee -- and Brendan Douglas at tailback.
“We see those guys in practice, and they do a great job of breaking tackles or shaking guys or breaking loose for touchdowns against a great defense,” offensive guard Chris Burnette said. “Seeing them do that in practice, we know they're capable of doing that in a game.”
The larger question is what happens if Gurley is unable to play Saturday. If one of the top running backs in the nation remains unable to go as the week progresses -- and he once again did not practice on Monday -- Georgia's coaches might have to take a longer look this week at freshman A.J. Turman.
He seemed like a certain redshirt candidate a week ago, but Richt's staff must determine whether the two freshmen who already have played and walk-ons Kyle Karempelis and Brandon Harton would be enough to carry the load without Gurley and Marshall.
“A lot may depend on how Gurley's doing,” Richt said. “If Gurley comes back and you've got the other two, you don't normally have to go three backs. But if Gurley can't go, then we've got to try to figure out what we're going to do. We've got Harton and Karempelis that have played for us before, so those are possibilities. We've just got to kind of try to figure that out.
Wild cards: Speaking of Turman, he's not the only newcomer who has not played yet and still might or might not make an impact this fall.
Receivers Tramel Terry and Jonathon Rumph -- Georgia's second- and sixth-highest-rated 2013 signees in ESPN's player rankings -- have not played to date but still could factor into offensive coordinator Mike Bobo's plans ... eventually.
Richt said "it's very doubtful that [Rumph would] be ready" for the Missouri game while still dealing with a left hamstring strain, but "after that, we're going to definitely try to get him ready."
Meanwhile, Terry struggled during preseason practice while still recovering from offseason ACL surgery and seemed set to redshirt this season. But because of the receiver attrition, the freshman might be someone the coaches eventually consider.
“I just think the longer he practices coming back from his injury, the better he'll be,” Richt said. “Is he really ready for this type of competition? I don't know.
“And the fact that he hasn't had a lot of reps with our offensive unit, he's been working mainly scout team reps, and he's a freshman, so it's hard to really be ready in all the ways that you have to be ready -- not only physically, but knowing the game plan and just having experience running the routes and playing in games like that. So I'm not counting him out, but I really don't know the answer right now.”
More tight ends: Considering the level of in-game attrition that occurred at Tennessee, perhaps the most surprising statistic from that game was that neither Arthur Lynch nor Jay Rome made a reception.
Expect that to rank as a statistical anomaly moving forward.
When Georgia's receivers encountered a number of injury issues last season, Lynch and Rome were two of the top pass-catching beneficiaries. The two tight ends combined for 25 catches for 367 yards -- 251 by Lynch and 116 by Rome – over the final six games last season. In the first eight games of 2012, they combined for 10 catches and 216 yards.
Lynch and Rome have 212 yards -- 169 by Lynch and 43 by Rome -- this season.
Yes, they have fifth-year seniors Rhett McGowan and Rantavious Wooten available, but both players have been role players throughout their careers. Beyond that, Georgia might need reserves like Reggie Davis, Blake Tibbs, Michael Erdman, Kenny Townes to pick up their production.
“We're deep in the receiver room,” McGowan said. “A lot of people don't know that, because they haven't played, but they're at Georgia for a reason.”
Bennett will undergo arthroscopic surgery today to determine the extent of his knee injury. Even if he receives positive news, the junior will certainly miss the Missouri game and possibly more time after that.
Since they have dealt with regular injuries over the last two seasons, the receivers believe they are well-prepared for their current situation and now must take advantage of this opportunity.
“[Receivers coach Tony] Ball always tells me, 'Prepare like you are the starter, and you never know, because you're one play away from [being] a starter,' ” said Wooten, who caught two touchdowns against Tennessee. “So all the guys know that in the room, and I know that myself, and I always had that in the back of my head. Any guy could be the next man up. The coaches have the final decision on that, but at the end of the day, that's what we do, we practice, and we get ready for those types of situations.”
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Aaron Murray's not sure how much more of this he can take.
Then again, this is precisely the reason he came back to Georgia, for moments like this.
A fifth-year senior, who was once branded as the guy who couldn’t win the big one, Murray has made winning an art form this season for No. 6-ranked Georgia, and he engineered yet another thrilling 34-31 overtime win Saturday against Tennessee in Neyland Stadium.
“These are memories we’ll have for the rest of our lives,” Murray said. “When we come back and have reunions and meet up, these are the games we’ll talk about. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.
“We’re five games into the season and made a ton of memories ... and have a lot more to go.”
Murray, who became the SEC’s all-time leader in passing yards, was one of the few in the Georgia locker room not on crutches or ailing in some way Saturday evening on the banks of the Tennessee River.
In Saturday's game alone, the Bulldogs lost tailback Keith Marshall and receivers Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley to knee injuries. Even punter Collin Barber was knocked out of the game with a concussion.
And after the game, even Georgia coach Mark Richt was sporting a bloody finger after cutting it on a chair while doing his post-game interview.
“I’m not really in the celebrating mood so much, just thankful to escape here with a victory considering what happened,” said Richt, who also took a spill on the sideline during the game after a player crashed into him.
Richt, who lost his top receiver, Malcolm Mitchell, in the opener against Clemson, said he purposefully didn’t talk to Georgia head trainer Ron Courson before meeting with the media.
“I didn’t want to say anything to anybody. I’m just not in the mood to talk about it right now,” said Richt, whose Bulldogs won their third game this season despite giving up 30 or more points.
Georgia (4-1, 3-0 SEC) will know more about the injuries after the players undergo tests, but the fear was that Marshall and Scott-Wesley could be lost for the season. Bennett’s injury may not be as severe, and Richt said Gurley was probably “50-50” for next week’s game against Missouri.
As bummed as Richt was about seeing so many of his players go down with injuries, he was thrilled with his team’s resiliency.
Murray was surgical on the game-tying 75-yard touchdown drive to force overtime, and then Marshall Morgan won it for the Bulldogs with a 42-yard field goal in overtime after missing from 39 yards in the third quarter and making one from 56 yards to open the game.
On Georgia's last drive before the end of regulation, Murray was without his top three receivers and his top two running backs, and his 2-yard touchdown pass to senior Rantavious Wooten was a third-down strike that couldn’t have been thrown any better.
“I talked to Aaron on the phone right before the drive, and there was no panic,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “He just said, ‘Let’s go do this.’
“Everything that possibly could go wrong was going wrong, players falling out right and left. You’ve got to give [Tennessee] credit. They did a great job against us, but we made enough plays to win.”
The Bulldogs only needed a field goal in overtime after the Vols fumbled the ball at the goal line, resulting in a touchback. Pig Howard lost the ball just short of the goal line while trying to stretch out and get to the pylon. It was called a touchdown on the field, but was overturned by replay.
It was a heartbreaking way for the Vols to lose, but the most convincing statements yet under first-year coach Butch Jones that he has the program headed in the right direction after three consecutive losing seasons.
“This team has become closer than any team I’ve been a part of, and they hurt. But we’re going to keep grinding. That’s the only way I know how to do it,” said Jones, whose Vols went for it on fourth down three different times in the game and converted all three.
The Bulldogs appeared to be in huge trouble after the Vols (3-3, 0-2 SEC) went ahead 31-24 with 1:54 to play.
Neyland Stadium was rocking like the old days, and Georgia was limping -- literally.
“As a quarterback, that’s what you want, the ball in your hands and a chance to lead your team down the field,” Murray said.
And that’s exactly what he did.
Of course, it’s that kind of wherewithal that has defined this program over the last few years. Even with the injuries, the Bulldogs probably shouldn’t have been in a position where they needed a clutch drive just to force overtime, especially after leading 17-3 at the half.
But when adversity has come their way, they’ve responded.
It’s probably fitting that Wooten was the one catching the game-tying touchdown with five seconds left in regulation. He was involved in an automobile accident two years ago that ended his season, and he hadn’t played a whole lot this season prior to Saturday.
“When other guys go down, you just have to step up and make plays,” Wooten said. “You can’t be that guy that doesn’t make the play. That’s what good teams do. We say ‘next man up’ here at Georgia for a reason. We believe in that.”
The obvious question now: Can the Bulldogs continue winning these thrill-a-minute games, and probably more importantly, can they keep winning when they’re giving up 30-plus points every game?
“We know it’s on the defense to keep getting better and keep growing,” Georgia outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “This was such an emotional win, a tough win, a win that cost us a lot of good players. But what matters is that this team found a way to win it, and that’s what we’re going to keep doing.”
As Murray walked off the field on Saturday, he looked at Richt and joked that he was aging in dog years.
“I’ve aged about 10 years in these last two or three weeks,” said Murray, who threw three touchdown passes and also had a 57-yard run to set up a touchdown. “This team just continues to grow up and mature every week.”
And continues to hang around in the national championship mix despite the odds and despite what now appears to be some key players watching from the sideline the rest of the way.
“This senior class has been through a lot. All the seniors and juniors have done a great job of leading this team and pushing this team,” Murray said. “We understand what losing seasons feel like. We understand what it takes to come back from an 0-2 start and what it takes to come back from a huge loss to South Carolina.
“We’ve been through it all, and we’ve never lost focus.”