In the Telegraph this weekend, we're running features for both Georgia and Georgia Tech, listing five reasons each team should be better in 2009 and five reasons they'll be worse.
Putting the lists together forced me to go through the roster position-by-position (more on that later). In doing that, I came up with a list of my top five players I think are ready to make a big step forward in their careers.
Certainly there may be others -- and perhaps it's possible I'm wrong about these five -- but after talking to players and coaches about all of them this offseason, I feel pretty confident in saying these Bulldogs are going to be big-time contributors in 2009.
BEN JONES (C/So.)
2008 Results: From the outset, Jones did enough as a true freshman to impress offensive line coach Stacy Searels -- and that's no easy task. He received generous playing time from Day 1 and by Week 4 of the season he had taken over the starting center job, playing nearly every snap the rest of the way.
2009 Outlook: Starting center once again, recovering from offseason thumb surgery.
Analysis: Throughout the 2008 season, Jones played far beyond what should have been expected of a true freshman. This year, he'll have a season of experience under his belt and rather than playing alongside two freshmen, he'll be flanked by veterans.
He says: (On Searels using him in a goal line situation in Georgia's opener last year) "After he did that, I said he trusts me to do this, so I guess I can do anything else. That was a big play for me. I'll always remember that. Ever since then, I was like, I can do anything."
They say: OK, I don't have any quotes from anyone else on Jones that I can find, and the feature I wrote on him early last season has been deleted from Macon.com, but you can read the introduction to the story on Gentry Estes' Alabama blog, and I think it should tell you all you really need to know about Jones.
AKEEM DENT (MLB/Jr.)
2008 Results: Appeared in all 13 games -- primarily at Sam linebacker -- making 10 starts. He recorded 46 tackles, including a career-best 10 vs. Alabama.
2009 Outlook: Slated to be the team's starting middle linebacker.
Analysis: Dent enters his third year as a starter and has shown significant progress in each of the past two. He'll likely move to middle linebacker this season, replacing the departed Dannell Ellerbe. That might be an apt comparison, too. Ellerbe was a key contributor for two years, but blew up in his third year and became one of the SEC's top defenders. Dent was extremely good -- although slightly under the radar -- last season, but he's ready for a break-out campaign. Perhaps most encouraging is that, like Ellerbe did as a junior, Dent has thrown aside his understated personality and begun to come out of his shell and assume more of a leadership role on the defense.
He says: (on mentoring the young guys) "You have those first time jitters the first time you go out on the field because you don't know what to expect, but me, Darryl Gamble, Rennie, we're out there and we critique them on everything, even if it's something minor because we want them to do it the best way."
They say: "Going back and looking at a lot of the clips from the season, Akeem Dent really did a great job." -- Linebackers coach John Jancek
ORSON CHARLES (TE/Fr.)
2008 Results: He had a heck of a year, recording 75 catches for 1,440 yards and 21 touchdowns. Unfortunately it was for Plant High School in Tampa.
2009 Outlook: With no heir apparent to the TD job and a lack of depth at receiver, the athletic Charles is likely to see plenty of playing time as a true freshman.
Analysis: Charles has the skills to be a decent enough pass blocker and an exceptional weapon in the passing game. The question was whether he could develop those skills fast enough to make an impact immediately. To hear his fellow players tell the story (here, here, here or here), he has. So far, Charles is getting the full A.J. Green treatment from his teammates (i.e., they can't stop talking about how great he is) and he certainly seems to have the personality to handle the hype.
He says: "I have my own mind-set from the get-go that I just want to make everybody better around me. I just want to win. ... I don't want to wait til my sophomore or junior year to win a national championship."
They say: "Orson Charles is going to make a big impact. He's a man-child." -- Brandon Boykin.
BRANDON BOYKIN (CB/So.)
2008 Results: Appeared in all 13 games as a true freshman, but saw little action. Finished the season with six tackles.
2009 Outlook: Mark Richt has him slated as the starting cornerback opposite Prince Miller to start fall camp.
Analysis: I remember hanging around when Paul Dehner of the Albany Herald was doing interviews midway through the season last year, asking each Georgia player who they thought were the potential second-half stars. Sadly, the Herald's archives are, um, not good, so I can't find the actual story, but I clearly remember nearly every player bringing up the name Brandon Boykin. That playing time never really developed last year, but now that Asher Allen is gone, the path is clear for Boykin to become the star his teammates predicted, and he has spent his offseason working on getting ready for the job. The kid is extremely athletic, can jump a mile, and perhaps most importantly, he has that natural ability to find the football.
He says: "I'm trying to come in and make plays like Asher did, get in on all the tackles like he did, and I feel like I'm stepping into the position."
They say: "You ought to see him on the basketball court just going up and dunking on people. It's amazing how someone his size can get up so high." -- Wide receiver A.J. Green
JOE COX (QB/Sr.)
2008 Results: Appeared in just three games, serving as Matthew Stafford's back-up, but completed 11-of-15 passes, including Georgia's only touchdown against Florida.
2009 Outlook: When Stafford left for the NFL, Cox was handed the job of starter and, more importantly, team leader.
Analysis: For whatever reason, people are worried about Joe Cox. I'm officially convinced they shouldn't be. No, he doesn't have Stafford's arm -- but how many times did Stafford's cannon really make the difference in a game? Cox can make all the throws he needs to make, he's extremely accurate and he has a great rapport with his receivers. More importantly, the kid is as good a leader as you'll find. I don't root for Georgia and I definitely don't play on the team, but I've left interviews with Cox thinking, "Man, I can't wait for the season to start." He just has an infectious personality that gets people excited to play for him. And while Stafford brought a lot of tools to the table, I can't help but wonder if having the vocal Cox as the starter might not have made the team better last year. Regardless, he's the man this season, and he'll have a tremendous offensive line and a guy named A.J. Green to work with. I think there's every reason to believe he'll be a David Greene-like player who puts together a D.J. Shockley-like season.
He says: "I felt like at times, and really throughout my career, you can see certain games where it just seemed like we were flat. We just needed somebody or something to spark it, and hopefully I can bring the way I like to play, hopefully that can change some things and maybe bring some fire to us."
They say: "He has a confidence about himself that no matter what happens we're going to always prevail. That's something that Stafford had, too, but with Cox it's more like, when you look at him, you know you're looking at a champion, and his energy feeds into you to do the best you can. It's just the confidence he gives off. I don't know the critiques he's being given by the commentators or the scouting reports, but when we look at him, we look at a ball player. And when we look at him, we're ready to play." -- Left tackle Trinton Sturdivant
OK, a few honorable mentions I considered for this list: Carlton Thomas, Bryan Evans, Rod Battle, Michael Moore, Trinton Sturdivant.
How about you? Which players do you think will take the next step toward stardom this season?