Published May 11, 2012 - 11:52am
NEW: Discuss this topic in the Google+ community for SEC fans.
Head Coach: This time last year the jury was out on Mark Richt. Some knew he would be fine, while others (me!) had doubts. But he was able to rebound from the 0-2 start and win the SEC East regular season championship. Even though the Dawgs were pummeled in Atlanta against LSU and eventually lost to Michigan State in their bowl game, there are reasons for optimism. Richt returns with some breathing room and high anticipation heading into next season. He returns a formidable defense and a more-than-adequate offense. Combined, the two make Georgia’s expectations high and a favorite to win the East, while some even think the SEC Championship.
Running Back: As in every offseason for the Bulldogs, the running back position is the main skill-position focus. Isaiah Crowell returns slated to start and No. 1 on the depth chart. Crowell was the SEC Freshman of the Year last year, rushing for 850 yards and five touchdowns. He was criticized somewhat for his lack of toughness, leaving the field in several games with an ankle injury, but he and the team says he has turned the page and really grown up this off-season. Crowell has no time to slack because freshmen Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley, not to mention Ken Malcome and Richard Samuel, also return at the position. Crowell and Marshall are the top two talents, but for Crowell, I cannot help but think of the old saying “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”. Georgia should be better this year, whether it’s Crowell or not, because there is better competition at the position pushing everyone.
Offensive Line: If there are any worries on offense, it is focused primarily on the offensive line. Losing three starters on the line from last year is worrisome for any coach. As spring progressed, it seemed evident that the young offensive linemen were getting mauled up front by the defensive line, and rightfully so. Coaches saw positive signs but rare consistency. Chris Burnette and Kenarious Gates proved they were the top two linemen on the roster this spring. Both are returning starters and will develop into nice leaders. The biggest surprise perhaps was Kolton Houston, who sat out last year because of an unspecified NCAA issue. Georgia’s biggest question mark is whether freshman John Theus will be ready to play. Theus could step in and be a starter from game one at tackle, but that’s very hard to do as a true freshman, and that’s almost too high of expectations to put on a young man. Previously, however, Cordy Glenn, Ben Jones, Trinton Sturdivant and Clint Boling all started as freshmen; so, it’s not out of the question.
Quarterback: Aaron Murray returns for his junior season to lead this offensive unit and this football team. He has set several Georgia passing records in his young career. He’s a throw-first quarterback who can sit in the pocket, but he gives you that ability to pick up scrambling first downs when the pocket breaks down. Some argue he may be too quick to run. Nevertheless, Murray should be in the Heisman conversation this season when it’s all said and done. The offensive weapons are there; the defense is very stout to keep the scoring at a minimum; the leadership and maturity is there; the schedule is favorable. Murray is primed for a wonderful season, as he’s arguably the best quarterback in the conference. Backing up Murray, freshman Christian LeMay really showed he’s getting better this spring. He’ll be a good quarterback and Murray’s likely backup, but this year it’s all about Murray and how far he can take this team.
Wide Receiver & Tight End: Wide receiver is an interesting position right now for the Dawgs. While Malcolm Mitchell is seemingly going to play corner because of depth chart issues, Justin Scott-Wesley really blossomed this spring to give this team another deep threat. Scott-Wesley is a track guy with great speed. Tavarres King returns (705 yards on 47 catches), as does Michael Bennett (320 yards on 32 catches), Chris Conley (288 yards on 16 catches) and Marlon Brown (234 yards on 15 catches). There is quite a bit of talent at receiver, but it’s Marlon Brown’s time to step up. Jay Rome and Arthur Lynch look like a one-two punch at tight end. Rome is a special talent and athlete, and he will blossom with experience and maturity once the game slows down a little bit for him. He made some spectacular catches this spring.
Front Seven: Georgia’s front seven could better the best group in the country. With John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers manning the middle, it allows ends Abry Jones, Cornelius Washington and Garrison Smith to attack in the backfield. Both Jenkins and Geathers are 350-plus, and they absolutely clog the middle on any run play. They require two hats on them, and that’s a big reason why this defense was effective last year. Smith has a ton of talent, but he needs to come out of his shell this season. He’s a big talent; now, he just has to step up and be more consistent. With such a massive defensive line, it makes the linebackers look that much better. The linebackers are led by outside rusher Jarvis Jones. Jones led the SEC in sacks last year and elected to come back and give it another run. He’s top 10 material in next year’s draft if he plays like he did last year. Playing alongside Jones will be seasoned backers Michael Gilliard, Alec Ogletree and Christian Robinson, with two up-and-comers in Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herera. This front seven could prove to be the best in the country.
Defensive Secondary: The biggest question mark heading into next year is in fact the defensive secondary. On paper, this group is great and very talented, but three leaders – Bacarri Rambo, Branden Smith and Sanders Commings – will all be suspended for the first two to three games. Mark Richt had to bring over All-SEC freshman receiver Malcolm Mitchell to help out at corner because of the depth issues. I’m not worried about Mitchell transitioning over to defense because he was all-world at corner in high school, but the simple fact of losing one of the biggest deep threats in the country scares me a little bit. He’ll settle in and play nicely, but again, Georgia will need to replace Mitchell and find a deep threat for the first few weeks, anyway. The jury is out on whether Mitchell will play defense the remainder of the year. A name here that is kind of a wild card is freshman Sheldon Dawson. Georgia has a great feeling about this kid and his athleticism, even though he will be a true freshman. The front seven could be good enough to over compensate for the loss of talent through the first couple of weeks in the secondary.
Is this finally Mark Richt’s year to take his team to the next level? We’ve been asking ourselves this question for several years now. With two conference titles under his belt, Richt has a very talented team returning, with a sick defense that chews you up and spits you out. Richt has a quarterback who will be in the Heisman talk and a more than solid offense to back his talk. This season could be Richt’s best chance to get to another BCS game, with the defense being so strong and Murray at quarterback.