Georgia Bulldogs: Mike Bobo
By the end of the day Saturday, there might be a clear front-runner in the SEC East race -- and that team will likely be the winner of the matchup between No. 13 Georgia (4-1, 2-1 SEC) and No. 23 Missouri (4-1, 1-0).
With help from ESPN Stats & Information, let's take a look at key factors in Saturday's game in Columbia:
No Gurley, what now?: By now it's no secret that Georgia's offense will operate without the dominant running ability of tailback Todd Gurley (94 carries, 773 yards, 8 TDs, SEC-high 154.6 rushing yards per game). The guy was a Heisman Trophy front-runner for good reason, but now Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo must assemble a game plan against Missouri for the second straight year without his most potent weapon.
Green is now playing defense, so he's out of the picture. But Nick Chubb provides a fairly decent resemblance to Gurley. The freshman (31-224, 7.2 yards per carry) is Georgia's second-leading rusher behind Gurley. Marshall and Sony Michel remain sidelined by injuries, so Chubb and Douglas (sixth on the team with 47 rushing yards in limited duty) might be in line for the biggest workloads out of the backfield -- particularly Chubb.
About one of every five of Chubb's carries (six out of 31) has gone for at least 10 yards, and he's averaging 3.77 yards after contact per carry, which isn't much worse than Gurley's 3.9 YAC -- the best among all Power 5 backs with at least 50 carries. Nonetheless, Gurley's absence is devastating for Georgia and will require massive adjustments late in the week in order for the Bulldogs to get out of Columbia with a win.
One thing that helps the Bulldogs' cause is that Missouri's defense has had mixed results against the run.
Indiana ran 50 times for 241 yards and three touchdowns in its upset win over the Tigers. Hoosiers running back Tevin Coleman averaged 3.95 yards after contact per run that day en route to rushing 19 times for 132 yards and a score. As we've already discussed, YAC is one of power runner Chubb's trademarks, so Missouri tacklers are going to have to bring it Saturday. He's not Gurley, but he ain't bad, either.
Mizzou pass rush: Although Georgia has been more run-heavy compared to recent seasons -- the team is running the ball 64 percent of the time this season compared to 51 percent in 2013 -- the Bulldogs need to produce more in the passing game with Gurley out of the picture.
And Missouri -- particularly star defensive linemen Shane Ray and Markus Golden -- would be perfectly happy to see the Bulldogs try to air it out. Ray ranks second in the FBS and leads the SEC with eight sacks and 11.5 tackles for a loss. Golden is third in the SEC with four sacks and fifth with 6.5 tackles for loss.
Georgia fans might remember Ray as the pass-rusher who laid a crushing hit on quarterback Aaron Murray last season, forcing a fumble that Mizzou end Michael Sam scooped up and ran in for a touchdown that gave the Tigers a 28-10 lead.
Ray had two sacks for a loss of 14 yards in the Tigers' comeback win against South Carolina. Between Ray, Matt Hoch and Harold Brantley, Mizzou had four sacks for 37 yards of lost ground for the Gamecocks.
More good news for Mizzou: It hasn't needed to blitz in order to generate effective pressure. Since the start of last season, the Tigers have 50 sacks when sending four pass-rushers or fewer, the most of any Power 5 school.
QB comparison: Georgia and Missouri both expected more productivity from the quarterback position than what they've gotten so far.
The issue might be slightly more alarming with Mizzou's Maty Mauk (1,110 passing yards, 14 TDs, 4 INTs), whom many college football analysts expected to have a big season. Thus far, Mauk has a 47.1 score in ESPN's Total Quarterback Rating, which is the third-worst in the SEC and more than 30 points lower than his 77.9 from last season.
Third down in particular has been an issue for the Mizzou QB. Mauk is completing an SEC-low 38.1 percent of his third-down passes and ranks 10th among SEC quarterbacks in conversion percentage (29 percent).
Georgia's beleaguered secondary is vulnerable to a strong passing attack, but will Mauk -- whose breakout game last season was against Georgia -- take advantage? That might be the determining factor in Saturday's game. The Bulldogs are in the middle of the SEC pack in pass defense (seventh at 223 YPG), but they have surrendered 284 passing yards and three touchdowns in a shootout win against Tennessee, and 271 yards and three touchdowns in a shootout loss to South Carolina. Doing a better job against Mauk, receiver Bud Sasser (fourth in the SEC with averages of six catches and 90.8 yards per game), and the rest of Mizzou's receivers would greatly improve Georgia's chances of victory.
We've already discussed the challenge Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason will face from Missouri's dynamic pass rush. Aside from avoiding mistakes with Ray and Golden breathing down his neck, how much will Georgia expect from Mason and the passing game? Mason (687 yards, 7 TDs, 3 INTs) ranks 55th in the Total QBR standings with a 59.7 score -- not horrible, but not particularly impressive, either.
Mason hasn't worked with a full complement of receivers yet, but that's starting to change. Receiver Malcolm Mitchell played for the first time in more than a year last week against Vanderbilt, and Bulldogs coach Mark Richt expects receiver Justin Scott-Wesley and tight end Jay Rome to be back for the Missouri game, too.
- What is holding? SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw did his best to explain it.
- Athlon projects the SEC standings for this fall, and -- surprise, surprise -- they have Georgia joining Alabama as division winners.
- The media seem to think the Gators will not be a factor in the SEC East this season.
- Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has evolved in recent years and has earned a lot of respect along the way.
- LSU's Les Miles said he's not opposed to playing two quarterbacks this fall, as the race between sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman early enrollee Brandon Harris remains too close to call.
- Auburn DE signee Jamal Lawrence is hoping the story of his troubled youth will inspire others.
- Kentucky is serious about its strength and conditioning. A raise in salary to $270,000 a year makes High Performance Coach Erik Korem the Wildcats' fourth-highest paid coach on Mark Stoops' staff.
- Ten freshmen, or half of the Gamecocks' Class of 2014, enrolled in South Carolina's first summer semester.
- All but two of Auburn's signees are enrolled and taking classes.
- Alabama's summer camp is always a beehive of recruiting activity. Check out what's going on at the camp's halfway point.
ATHENS, Ga. – Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason sits in a faintly lit meeting room deep inside Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, the Bulldogs' athletic facility/sports museum, reflecting on the past and focusing on the future.
His eyes show purpose as he discusses the season ahead while mentally gearing up for a late spring practice a couple of hours away.
While the present means more reps, and more rhythm inside offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s offense, Mason can’t help but push his brain full throttle toward the fall.
“When you get one shot, you get one opportunity, you want to make sure that you do everything right,” Mason told ESPN.com in early April. “You want to make sure that you don’t have any regrets because I don’t get four years. I don’t have time to get my feet wet. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I wanted to be remembered as a champion.”
Mason wasn’t near the star Murray was coming out of high school and he won’t sniff his college career. He's fully aware, but that didn’t deter him from having a strong spring or setting high 2014 goals.
"I know I have a year left, but it’s hard to realize that, 'Man, you’re the starting quarterback at UGA,'" said Mason, who has 1,324 passing yards and eight touchdowns in his career.
“You gotta grab the bull by the horns, you gotta figure out the problems, you gotta figure out what we’re good at and you gotta win.”
An easily missed, self-described “weak, frail” prospect from Lassiter High in Marietta, Ga., Mason said he had only one scholarship offer (Georgia Southern) heading into his senior year after Iowa pulled its offer.
When Mason started winning (12-1) and finished the season with a Georgia state record 4,560 passing yards and 54 touchdowns and Lassiter’s first-ever region championship, Mississippi State and Virginia offered, but he wanted UGA.
Mason’s "real quick release" from his weaker arm only intrigued Bobo the spring before his senior year, but his summer improvements at one of Georgia’s camps ramped up interest, Bobo said. Still, Georgia wasn’t planning on signing a quarterback in its 2010 class.
That changed after Mason’s senior season -- which showed Bobo the moxie, instincts and composure he once saw in former Georgia quarterback David Greene -- earned him a scholarship.
Mason then dealt with a "roller coaster of emotions" while he sat behind Murray. He prepared like the starter, talked like a starter, but wasn’t seeing enough field action. It would have been easier if Mason felt he wasn’t SEC material, but he believed he was more than capable of leading the Dawgs.
He approached coach Mark Richt twice about transferring, once after the 2011 season and a year later, after Murray decided to return for a fifth year.
“I was putting in just as much work that Aaron was, and there was really no reward for it,” Mason said. “That was the hardest part to swallow. You were doing everything, but weren’t really getting to go out there and do what you have fun doing.”
After some soul searching, Mason had one overwhelming feeling, as his heart battled his pride: He was a Georgia boy playing for the state's best football program. He wanted a real UGA legacy.
“My heart was always stuck at UGA, and a lot of times I wanted to get past that and I wanted to tell myself to move on,” he said.
“I honestly believe that was God’s plan. My path was just a little different and funky. ... Everything I’ve been waiting for, every opportunity is here.”
It’s there if Mason can leave spring and evolve. He’s always been considered a leader, but leading summer workouts and getting players to show up was always Murray’s deal. This offense and this team are in his hands.
“It’s on him now, so this summer is going to be very huge for our offensive football team getting ready for next year because we [had] a lot of pieces missing [this spring] and Hutson’s got to be a big part of that,” Bobo said.
The good news for Mason is that he’s never shied away from leadership. Naturally outspoken, Mason was very vocal with teammates this spring. He called guys out, raised his voice. There was no switch to flip, he was just himself.
And who he is ain't bad. Mason isn’t as crisp a passer as Murray, but Bobo said he knows how to beat defenses better at times when it comes to extending plays. His imperfections sometimes give him an advantage when things break down.
We saw glimpses of that when he replaced Murray (ACL injury) late last season, throwing for 808 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions in three games, and during a fine spring game performance (241 yards, one touchdown).
He’ll also have a slew of offensive weapons returning this fall to help, starting with Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley and veteran receivers.
“I don’t have to be a Heisman Trophy winner, I just have to figure out how to get these guys the ball and they’ll do the rest,” Mason said.
Getting here has been long, draining, and worth it for Mason. There’s no reason for him to let up now.
“He’s progressed beautifully,” receiver Chris Conley said.
“Once he becomes consistent at realizing that he is the guy and that everyone is behind him, then he’s going to blow some people’s minds because he can make all those throws.”
The usual sledgehammer of a player -- so used to ramming through and trampling defenders – felt frail and out of shape during his first few spring practices. That came after he returned from complications stemming from a nagging ankle injury that plagued him for most of the 2013 season.
“The first three practices, every time somebody touched me I kept falling to the ground,” Gurley told ESPN.com last week. “… My legs were just weak.
Gurley, who has rushed for 2,374 career yards in two seasons with the Bulldogs, is a tank whose human side has failed him at times. He was held out of postseason workouts and drills as he tried to recover from a 15-inch high ankle sprain he originally suffered at the end of September in a back-and-forth win over LSU.
“That game, I felt perfect,” Gurley said with a hint of bitterness in his tone. “I felt perfect running and I was the right size and [had the right] speed. I felt like I was going to have one of the best games of my life. When it happened, I was like, ‘Dang.’”
Gurley missed three straight games after that -- a stretch in which Georgia went 1-2 -- and hasn’t been 100 percent since. A leaner Gurley hobbled into spring practice, but eyebrows were raised at the sense that Gurley wasn’t pushing himself hard enough and that his desire wasn’t there.
“The really great players, they have to love to practice,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.
“None of [them] has arrived. You have to work. You’re either going to get better or worse every day; you’re not going to stay the same. Him going out there and trying to get better every day is going to make him and us better.”
Gurley admits his energy was lacking. Spring practice wasn’t pressing or exciting. But the coaches needed more from Gurley, and a conversation between Gurley and head coach Mark Richt a week before the Bulldogs’ spring game helped deliver that.
“Even though he may feel that way, he still has to give effort on a daily basis to become great,” Richt said of Gurley’s early spring attitude. “Those were some of the things we talked about, and he was awesome with it and did well.”
Gurley showed more effort during the final week, pushing his two-hour practices to the limit, before capping the spring with 70 total yards of offense and a touchdown in Georgia’s spring game. His touches were limited, but he ran with fire and purpose. He pounded his teammates and fought for extra yards.
“Everything’s starting to get better, slowly but surely,” Gurley said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been healthy, but it’s slowly getting there.”
When Gurley is at his best, he’s in a class of his own. It’s rare for someone with his size (6-foot-1, 232 pounds) to cut and explode like he does. Gurley punishes defenders with his strength and embarrasses them with his moves and breakaway speed. He’d easily have more than just 13 career 100-plus-yard rushing games if his body would cooperate.
But Gurley’s physical side is only part of what could make him a truly special back. The way he carries himself and how he instructs those around him will go a long way as well.
This spring, his coaches pushed him to bring more energy and leadership. More of a leader by example, Gurley said he opened his mouth this spring. He got more serious and wanted to make sure younger players followed him for the right reasons.
“This Todd is doing a better job of leading,” quarterback Hutson Mason said. “We feel like as long as he’s in shape, he’s healthy and he’s strong, he’s the best back in the country.”
Aaron Murray is gone. Keith Marshall’s status is still up in the air after that devastating ACL injury. The spotlight is fixed on Gurley more than ever before, and he says he’s ready to shine even brighter in a year that could be his last in Athens.
That idea has served as a distraction. Gurley equates this upcoming season to his senior year in high school when some around him told him not to work as hard because he was already headed to college. Save his body, they said.
It makes sense to some, but that’s not Gurley’s concern, he said. He doesn’t want to take time or plays off to save up for the NFL. Gurley has more to prove. He wants more yards. He wants records. And he wants wins and at least one championship.
Resting won’t bring any of that.
“That’s never been the case for me,” Gurley said. “The NFL isn’t going anywhere. It’s not like I’m going to be getting drafted [this fall]. I just have to make sure I’m focused on now and getting better every day so that can help me out for my future and basically doing it for my team.”
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.
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."
- Missouri opened spring practice on Tuesday looking to build on the momentum of a 12-2 record last season.
- Spring practice got started at Vanderbilt, and with it the quarterback derby began as well. Presumed starter sophomore Patton Robinette looks to fend off redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary.
- Pro Football Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton has been compared to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and is among Johnny Football's many advocates, calling him "a quarterback savant."
- LSU's first day in pads revolved around the "Big Cat drill," and there was a minor scuffle between DE Lewis Neal and OL Josh Boutte. The Tigers expect to have stiff competition at guard this spring.
- The first of Alabama's two pro days is today. Injured players Anthony Steen and Vinnie Sunseri are aiming for the second pro day on April 8.
- One year after signing a three-year contract, Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo gets a one-year extension.
- Auburn's message on Twitter about the now-tabled 10-second rule? "We're only going to get faster."
- Florida players are excited about the new offense that will be installed this spring.
- Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson chose not to go early into the NFL draft, and as a result he'll be facing greater expectations with the Vols.
- Former Texas A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, now head coach at his alma mater Texas Tech, said he felt conflicted about his time in College Station, Texas.
- If you remember watching Auburn running back Stephen Davis star in the mid-90s, this might make you feel a bit older. His son, Stephen Davis Jr. is a 6-foot-3 safety who is -- surprise, surprise -- favoring the Tigers in recruiting.
- Many coaches favor some form of an early signing period in football recruiting. Georgia's Mark Richt, however, says, "Be careful what we ask for."
- Athlon ranked all 128 NCAA coaching jobs. Florida, Alabama, Georgia and LSU made the top 10.
- Recently engaged Gamecocks QB Connor Shaw is a busy man preparing for the NFL draft.
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.
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.
For the first time in years -- maybe as far back as 2006, when a loaded backfield prompted coach Mark Richt to redshirt future All-American Knowshon Moreno -- Georgia could actually have too many good tailbacks to take full advantage of everyone's abilities.
Those two good backs -- ESPN 300 prospects Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, both of whom rank among the top eight prospects at the position -- have committed to sign with Georgia in February. Presumably they will join a backfield that already includes sophomores Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and freshmen Douglas, J.J. Green and A.J. Turman.
All-SEC honoree Gurley and Marshall were obviously the group's leaders after rushing for 2,144 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2012, but the freshmen entered this season as complete unknowns.
When Ken Malcome opted to transfer after the 2012 season, Georgia's coaches knew they would have to play at least two of the newcomers behind the two returning stars. They couldn't have expected, however, that injuries to Gurley and Marshall would cause them to rely so heavily on Green and Douglas.
“Douglas and Green we were probably going to have to play because of the depth issue,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “We were getting those guys ready to play special teams. They probably might not have gotten as many snaps at running back.”
There was a time where the coaches considered playing Turman, as well, but they were able to preserve his redshirt by sticking with Douglas and Green until Gurley returned from a three-game absence to play against Florida on Nov. 2.
Gurley recently described Turman as “a beast” and predicted that he will also make an impact once he wins an opportunity to contribute.
“People know their roles,” Gurley said. “I'm pretty sure guys, just like Turman, he would have loved to have come in and played. Sometimes you've got to know your role and if that's redshirting, then it's getting redshirted. And if not, then just try to do your best to get on the field or keep getting better.”
That's what Green and Douglas accomplished as freshmen, establishing themselves as potentially productive SEC tailbacks should they remain at the position. Both players possess the ability to play elsewhere -- Green at receiver or cornerback and Douglas at fullback -- and said they are willing to play wherever needed, although they consider themselves tailbacks first.
Asked recently about Green, Richt said the coaches also view him as a running back, although his role might someday expand to include some receiving duties, as well. So it appears that even with Michel and Chubb set to join the roster in 2014, the Bulldogs could soon possess tailback depth that will rank among the best in the conference. And with Gurley and Marshall both entering their junior seasons -- meaning they will be eligible to enter the NFL draft after next fall -- now is a good time to reload.
“I don’t know if you can ever have enough backs, and certainly injury is an issue,” Richt said. “Guys that are talented enough to possibly have a three-year career instead of a four-year career, you’ve got to plan for all of those things. I don’t know what decisions guys will make down the road, but certainly we’ve got some very talented backs that will have some decisions to make, as well. That’s all part of the reason to continue to recruit great players.”
Michel and Chubb have certainly earned that distinction within recruiting circles, so this could legitimately become Georgia's most talented backfield since the 2006 bunch that included future NFL players Moreno, Danny Ware, Kregg Lumpkin and Thomas Brown.
Green said he, Douglas and Turman will show the newcomers the ropes just like Marshall and Gurley did, but predicted that a fierce competition for playing time will await the freshmen once they arrive on campus.
“Competing at practice, who wants it more? Working out, who wants it more? That's why you have an offseason. Who's going to want it more?” said Green, who is second on the team with 365 rushing yards. “Who's going to step in there and learn the playbook? That's all it's going to take: who wants it more?
“You watch Keith, you watch Todd. You're going to want to be just like them. You're going to try to ball out.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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