As spring practice drew to a close last week, I took an unscientific straw poll of 18 Georgia players and coaches to get their thoughts on who had improved the most during the past month.
The question posed was simple enough: Which one or two players on each side of the ball have taken the biggest step forward this spring?
The answers varied wildly. There were some veterans with more than 20 starts under their belts already. There were some freshmen who had yet to play a single snap on game day. The majority of the votes, however, tended to focus on the handful of freshmen and redshirt freshmen who got a taste of life in the SEC a year ago and took what they learned to the practice field this spring.
In all, there were three names mentioned more than any other. Several others received multiple votes, and a bunch more appeared on one ballot. Here's how things shook out…
(*Note: classes are as of the start of 2009 season)
The Top Performers
Carlton Thomas (RB, RFr.), eight votes
Background: The undersized Thomas came into spring practice as "the other running back" with Sophomore Caleb King expected to nail down a job as at least a part-time starter replacing the departed Knowshon Moreno. Instead, it was Thomas who wowed teammates with his speed and elusiveness.
At stake: Thomas figures to be strongly in the mix for a starting job now this fall, but the return of Richard Samuel and Dontavius Jackson from injury and the arrival of freshman Washaun Ealey will make it a competitive battle for carries.
Quotable: "Last year he was just trying to learn the plays, but this year, he's playing wide open and making plays," said Thomas' roommate Nick Williams. "You're not going to get a big hit, you're not going to sling him down, so just break down, let him do his thing, and then make the tackle."
"He's just so quick that if he sees a hole, he can get through it in a hurry," wide receiver Kris Durham said. "And he's always running straight downhill. I always saw him as more of a scat back, but he's hit it through the tackles real well."
"I know we're battling," said fellow tailback Caleb King, "but he's doing good."
Brandon Boykin (CB/So.), seven votes
Background: Boykin played in all 13 games a season ago, but mostly in limited duty as a nickel back. His speed and athleticism, however, had already turned heads during practice last year.
At stake: When Asher Allen surprised many by foregoing his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft, Georgia's short corner position was thrown up for grabs. While incoming freshman Branden Smith figures to make a run at the job in the fall, Boykin's big spring has certainly given him a leg up in the race.
Quotable: "He's just an athlete, and he's just always in the right spot at the right time," said tailback Caleb King.
"You ought to see him on the basketball court just going up and dunking on people," wide receiver A.J. Green said. "It's amazing how someone his size can get up so high."
"He's always been a big-time playmaker but he's excelled his game so much this year," said Nick Williams, who played in the secondary with Boykin as part of Georgia's No. 2 unit much of last season. "He's playing with confidence, he knows what to do, and when a play needs to be made, he's there."
Nick Williams (LB, So.), five votes
Background: Williams arrived at Georgia a year ago as a safety, but was moved to linebacker midway through the season because of a rash of injuries at the position. Williams took to the new role quickly and coaches liked what they saw enough to keep him there this spring. He's put on 30 pounds in the past year and hopes to add another 5-10 more before the season starts.
At stake: As thin as the linebacker position was last year, it's that deep this season, and with Rennie Curran ahead of Williams on the depth chart, he's not likely to see a ton of action in 2009 regardless. But Williams' progress has been so impressive that coaches will have to think about getting him on the field whenever possible, and he's secured a role as one of the top special-teams performers already.
Quotable: "Nick is a high-energy individual," defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said. "Anything he does, he can't sit still, and we like that. But it's trying to calm him down though in times when he's got to focus, but he's learning it."
"Nick's definitely a character," linebacker Rennie Curran said. "He's a little goofy kid, but he really has a passion. He has a real positive attitude, and I'm excited about what he's going to do for our defense."
"He played a lot of special teams and I think that's where you develop that desire to go hard every play," wide receiver Tony Wilson said.
Justin Houston (DE, So.), three votes
Background: Houston was a part-time starter a year ago, finishing with 19 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 16 QB hurries. By the mid-point of spring practice, he was the only healthy scholarship defensive end with any game experience at the position.
At stake: Georgia's D-ends were dismal last season, failing to get pressure on the quarterback with any consistency. This spring, nearly all of them were relegated to the sidelines with injuries. Houston used the opportunity to improve his game and now has a chance to be a major weapon for the Bulldogs' 2009 pass rush.
Quotable: "I thought a lot of guys perked up, but the guy that really caught my eye in a hurry was Justin Houston," head coach Mark Richt said. "Considering the limited amount of plays these guys are getting, that was by far the most productive defensive player."
"One name that always jumps out is Justin Houston," linebacker Rennie Curran said. "I've watched him in the weight room just sort of explode in his improvement."
"With the D ends being so thin, for him to push through that on almost every snap has been impressive," lineman Chris Davis said. "He's worked hard."
"I thought it was going to be rough, but I looked at it as a time to get better, and the more reps I got, the better I got," Houston said. "Every rep I got was a chance to do it my hardest, and I got better."
Aaron Murray (QB, Fr.), three votes
Background: Murray arrived as an early enrollee with a huge amount of hype. He rallied from a broken leg early in the season to lead his Plant High School team to a Florida state title. His mix of athleticism and arm strength made him one of the nation's top recruits.
At stake: Joe Cox seems established as the starter at this point, but there are shades of the 2006 season when true freshman Matthew Stafford overtook fifth-year senior Joe Tereshinski for the starting quarterback job midway through the season. Murray isn't quite the natural QB Stafford was, and Cox is a good bit better than Tereshinski, but there may just be a few snaps for the freshman anyway if he continues his strong play. He finished spring with the longest play from scrimmage in each of the Bulldogs' three practices.
Zach Mettenberger (QB, Fr.), three votes
Background: Like Murray, Mettenberger arrived at Georgia a semester early to get a leg up on the competition. Unlike Murray, Mettenberger didn't have quite the hype or pedigree. What he does have is a mighty impressive arm that offensive coordinator Mike Bobo compared favorably to Stafford's.
At stake: Mettenberger's spring didn't go nearly as smoothly as Murray, and he struggled to complete passes in each of the scrimmages. Of the two, he seems more likely to redshirt in 2009, but there's still plenty of potential there. The knock on Mettenberger coming in was his footwork, and coaches have raved about his improvement in that area.
Quarterback Quotables: "I'm really, really pleased with the quarterbacks," head coach Mark Richt said. "Zach is placing the ball very, very well. Aaron has found the open man deep a couple times, which is good. I stand right in the huddle and listen to them call the play and they're getting more and more confidence. There's a lot less confusion."
"I'm surprised how quick they're picking up the offense, and they've both got great arms," wide receiver A.J. Green said.
"When they first came in, you could tell they were nervous," offensive lineman Clint Boling said. "But as spring went on, they got more and more comfortable, they knew what they were doing, and hopefully they can keep building on that. I think they did a good job this spring."
"I've been very pleased with his knowledge of the game and his approach to studying," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said of Mettenberger. "I've been fairly pleased with how he moves, his footwork in the pocket. We knew we were going to have to work on his feet, but he's worked hard at that and actually moved pretty good avoiding the rush."
"Our main goal has been to get better every day, and from a quarterback standpoint, each of us has gotten a lot better from Day 1, so it's been a lot of fun," Murray said. "It's a big learning curve jumping in here, but I feel pretty good right now."
"You take every rep and every scrimmage and try to learn from it," Mettenberger said. "My stats people probably look at and think, 'Oh man, he sucks,' but there's a lot behind the scenes. The knock on me was my footwork, but I think my footwork's been 10 times better than what people have seen."
Prince Miller (CB, Sr.), two votes
The low-down: Miller has been a solid contributor for two years now, but he took a step forward last year as a full-time starter and has taken on a leadership role this spring as the senior member of the cornerbacks. More importantly, said fellow senior Bryan Evans, going against A.J. Green each day in practice has made Miller into a better player. "I think Prince can do nothing but get better going against A.J. Green, one of the best receivers in the country," Evans said. "You're not going to see too many receivers like A.J." That sentiment was shared by the man, himself. "He got better," Green said of Miller. "He's pushing me and I'm trying to push him, and we're competing every day."
Marcus Dowtin (LB, So.), two votes
The low-down: Dowtin worked primarily at middle linebacker this spring after seeing some action all over the field last year. He's got a lot of competition ahead of him, but with two sacks in the G-Day game, he's firmly in the mix for playing time. "In the film room, he's become a lot more football smart," linebacker Rennie Curran said. "He's really responded well, he's buying into the program, and he's going to be a huge contributor in the future."
Sanders Commings (CB, RFr.), two votes
The low-down: Commings appears poised to handle the primary nickelback role this season. He's battling for a spot at the short corner but is behind Brandon Boykin on the depth chart right now. With his size – he's 6-2, 210 – he won't be overwhelmed by any receiver in the league, but he's still a little green in terms of experience. "They definitely have the look in their eye like they're ready to get out there and contribute," wideout Kris Durham said of Commings and Boykin. "They're coming out with a new focus and a new state of mind."
Baccari Rambo (S, RFr.), two votes
The low-down: Rambo still looks to be behind Bryan Evans and Quintin Banks on the depth chart at safety, but he impressed this spring with his athletic ability and his willingness to hit. He spent a lot of time last season as the QB for the scout team, however, and that may have impressed his coach as much as anything. "Bacarri Rambo, if you had to turn him into a quarterback in a pinch, he can play," head coach Mark Richt said. "That might come into play for us."
Rennie Curran (LB, Jr.), two votes
The low-down: Curran had an All-SEC season a year ago and could become an All-American this year. He's been far more concerned with becoming the most vocal leader of the Georgia defense, however, after the D came up far short of expectations a year ago.
Tavarres King (WR, RFr.), two votes
The low-down: With the loss of Kris Durham for the season due to a shoulder injury, Georgia needs another wide receiver to step up. That might just be King, who saw action in a few games early in the year before falling victim to an ankle injury and taking a medical redshirt. "In the past he wasn't as consistent, but he's been making a lot of plays and showing he really wants to get out there," linebacker Rennie Curran said.
Geno Atkins (DT, Sr.), two votes
The low-down: Atkins turned down a chance to potentially be a first-round pick in the NFL draft, and Georgia's coaches were thrilled. Atkins has easily been the most dominant player in camp this spring, and he's hopeful that he'll be just as successful on game days in the fall. "Geno is just a dominant football player right now," head coach Mark Richt said. "I don't know if anybody can block him."
Kade Weston (DT, Sr.), two votes
The low-down: Weston battled through a nagging knee injury last year and had trouble staying on the field. This year, he'll be teamed with fellow seniors Atkins and Jeff Owens on the interior line, and Bulldogs fans are expecting big things.
Fred Munzenmaier (FB, Jr.), two votes
The low-down: With several of the running backs shelved this spring, Munzenmaier got his chance to touch the football early and often in Georgia's scrimmages. He has just two career carries in games – both went for touchdowns – but he showed he knew what to do with the ball in his hands during a couple of scrimmages this spring. Mark Richt said there could be a bigger role as a ball carrier ahead for Munzenmaier. "He hasn't had a lot of opportunities to do it," fellow fullback Shaun Chapas said, "but when given a chance, he's looked really good."
Others Receiving Votes
(*Note: Each received one vote)
Bryan Evans (S, Sr.), Logan Gray (QB, So.), Tony Wilson (WR, Jr.), Michael Moore (WR, Sr.), A.J. Green (WR, So.), Christian Robinson (LB, RFr.), Quintin Banks (S, Jr.), A.J. Harmon (OL, RFr.), Caleb King (RB, So.), Tanner Strickland (OL, So.), Ty Frix (RFr., Sn.), Drew Butler (P, So.).
Clint Boling on Tanner Strickland: "I thought Tanner has done a good job this spring of taking the opportunity and trying to get a chance to play. He's accepted the role, and hopefully in the fall when guys come back, he'll still be trying as hard as he was this spring."
Rennie Curran on A.J. Harmon: "He's just had a real transformation from his first year up until now. He's really just kept a positive attitude through everything, really worked hard in the weight room."
Aron White on Caleb King and Carlton Thomas: "They're playing more confident now and are two guys to watch out for next year doing big things."
Logan Gray on A.J. Green: "He's been stepping up, and he's definitely a fun guy to throw to."
Blair Walsh on special teams: "They're trying to get other positions settled, but we try to individually perform well. We lost our punter and our snapper from last year, and Ty Frix and Drew Butler have really come along great."
Mike Bobo on Logan Gray: "It's a big spring for Logan and establishing himself at that position, showing us that he can do the finer things of playing quarterback fundamentally."
Caleb King on his spring: "My biggest things was the blocking, and I think I'm doing excellent in the blocking scheme this spring."
Tony Wilson on his recovery from injury: "As far as the progress out of the surgery, it's the same, but now that I'm getting out there and putting some pressure on it, it's totally different. I can actually get out there and move and get in and out of cuts a little bit more."
Willie Martinez on Bryan Evans: "Bryan has done a really good job of being positive and each and every day he's getting better and better and better with understanding it."