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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Grading the Game: The Preseason

One of the weekly features I'm hoping to do during the season is to grade the Bulldogs' performances after each game. While we're still a few days away from having any game-day action to analyze, however, but I figured this might be a good time to look at how much Georgia was able to accomplish during the preseason.

QUARTERBACK: The preseason began with a bevy of turnovers coming from the quarterbacks. Although Mark Richt didn't exactly single out any of Georgia's QBs as the primary culprit, a few other coaches seemed to indicate it was the two freshmen -- Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger -- throwing the bulk of them.

Beyond that, the quarterbacks really haven't been much of a story this preseason, and that's probably a testament to how secure the team is with Joe Cox. His leadership throughout the offseason was outstanding, earning high praise from Richt.

"He wasn’t afraid to say this is what we need to do to be successful," Richt said. "I don’t know how it’s going to translate out on the field, but he’s done as fine a job of getting everybody ready to go as anybody since we’ve been at Georgia.”

Cox may not have the arm that made Matthew Stafford a No. 1 overall draft choice, but it's hard to argue with the attitude he brings and I have to think that in the long run, that's more important.

Logan Gray continued his strong efforts following an impressive spring and has secured the No. 2 spot on the depth chart. Richt and Mike Bobo have both said they expect he'll see some snaps on game days, too, in what is being dubbed the "GrayHound" formation.

Murray and Mettenberger continued to look like freshmen, although both seemed a bit more seasoned than they did this spring. The potential is clearly there for both of them, and perhaps its a good thing that the pressure isn't on either of them to perform immediately, as was the case in 2006 with Stafford.

Final Grade: B+

TAILBACKS/FULLBACKS: No preseason battle promised more intrigue than the shuffle for position atop the tailback depth chart. As it turned out, however, the battle never really had a chance to begin.

Caleb King drew raves from teammates for his work ethic over the offseason, but his fall camp was cut short during the team's first scrimmage due to a pulled hamstring. King has yet to return to work and is not expected to travel with the team to Oklahoma State.

While King's injury was a setback for the running backs, the impressive performances of Richard Samuel and Carlton Thomas more than made up for it.

Samuel missed all of the spring following wrist surgery, but still managed to make huge strides in his ability to make people miss downfield and -- most importantly -- hold on to the football. He's clearly the No. 1 guy on the depth chart now after two strong scrimmages and, while most assumed Georgia would have a tailback-by-committee this year, it now looks like the bruising Samuel will be the go-to guy.

Thomas wowed fans and coaches in the spring but his size really prevents him from being the type of consistent pass blocker coaches look for at Georgia. Still, his moves with the ball in his hands are so impressive that he has guaranteed himself at least a niche role on the offense, and he'll likely see a good number of touches -- particularly as a receiver, where he is probably the best equipped of all of Georgia's tailbacks.

As much as Thomas and Samuel impressed, however, the lack of progress made by King, along with redshirt freshman Dontavius Jackson and true freshman Washaun Ealey, was a bit disappointing. There's still time for all three to prove they can make an impact this year, but at this point, the Bulldogs would probably be thrilled to see just one of them get on the field and make a few plays.

At fullback, Shaun Chapas was the perfect veteran leader for the running back group. After making a huge leap forward last season, he continues to be the foundation of the Georgia ground game. Fred Munzenmaier looked good enough for coaches to put their stamp of approval on him as a fill-in halfback, should the need arise.

Final Grade: B

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: The wide receiver corps simply isn't very deep, and coaches will be counting on four inexperienced receivers to get significant playing time in 2009.

Michael Moore continued to be the consistent leader of the group and earned raves from his younger teammates for his willingness to be a teacher this offseason. A.J. Green was his typical brilliant self. It's what comes after them that is a concern.

Freshman Rantavious Wooten drew praise for his crisp route running at such a young age, and he was able to pack on a few pounds to help prepare him for the gauntlet of the SEC season. Tavarres King has bulked up some, too, and while coaches aren't exactly endorsing him as a blocker, they've been pleased with his progress.

Marlon Brown arrived at Georgia amid expectations he would be the next A.J. Green. He hasn't exactly created that type of buzz this preseason, and a week off from catching passes due to an injured finger didn't help. Brown's progress has been steady, but like Green, his physical skills may help him overcome some early limitations in terms of playbook knowledge.

Aron White appears ready to take over as the starting tight end, and like King and Wooten, has managed to add a few pounds so he can hold up better in the blocking game.

Georgia's best blocking tight end may be Arthur Lynch, a true freshman who has drawn plenty of plays from coaches for his size, strength and football IQ.

The crown jewel of the preseason, however, might be freshman tight end Orson Charles. Like Green last season, Georgia's players may be foreshadowing big things for Charles with the platitudes they've thrown his way during the past few months. Charles has a big body, but is far more athletic and quick than the typical tight end. He has ball skills that rival Green's, and his attitude and enthusiasm are as much as you could ask for from a freshman. He has a chance to be an impact player immediately.

Overall, Georgia might have hoped Wooten, Brown, King and Israel Troupe would be a little farther along at this point, but all four have made enough progress that the coaching staff won't be too uneasy about using them Saturday.

“I’m not going to lie and say I’m 100 percent comfortable that they’ll be able to go out and execute everything we want them to do but they’re going to have to play because of the need offensively," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "Hopefully we keep getting better every day. Will we be at full potential Game 1? Probably not, but they have talent that’s going to help them survive early on and hopefully they’ll keep getting better mentally throughout the season.”

Final Grade: B+

OFFENSIVE LINE: The line figured to be a strength for Georgia this season with Trinton Sturdivant and Vince Vance both returning from season-ending injuries. Georgia was quick to identify its starting five of Sturdivant, Chris Davis, Ben Jones, Cordy Glenn and Clint Boling and got the starters plenty of work together early in the preseason.

The problems came when both Davis and Jones went down with ankle sprains and missed much of last week's practices. This identified two potential issues: 1.) It prevented the line from continuing to gel, but that was a minor setback at worst. 2.) It showed just how quickly things can turn ugly again. Davis and Jones are Georgia's only two legitimate centers, and with both out, Kevin Perez was forced into the starting lineup. No offense to Perez, but his size would likely leave him extraordinarily overmatched against top SEC linemen.

Vance's slow return has also been a bit troubling, but the beauty of this season is that Georgia won't need to depend on him early. Justin Anderson was also a starter last season, but will likely serve as the No. 1 guard off the bench this year. Josh Davis missed all of the preseason following offseason shoulder surgery, but he is close to returning.

The bottom line: Georgia's line probably will get better as the year goes along, but they've done enough this spring to approach the level they'll need to be at to keep the offense moving.

“They’re going to be better than a year ago and better than two years ago, I don’t think there’s much doubt about that," Richt said. "I’m very hopeful that they’ll perform with excellence, and I think they’re ready to do that.”

One other negative note on the O line: The No. 2 units were so poor during practice that coaches essentially said it was impossible to get a read on Georgia's No. 1 defensive line. The reserve O linemen simply couldn't block them. Ideally, that's never an issue during the regular season, but if last season taught us anything, it's that you can never be too prepared.

Final Grade: B

DEFENSIVE LINE: Georgia entered the preseason with its biggest strength and its biggest weakness both on the defensive line. After a month of practice, not much has changed.

The interior line looks to be as dominant as we might have thought. Jeff Owens has shown no lingering effects of last season's torn ACL and has stepped back into his role as a vocal leader on the defense. Geno Atkins has benefited from Owens' return, but already appeared on the verge of a dominant season. Kade Weston, who has seemed to have one injury after another throughout his career, has been healthy and productive, and freshman Abry Jones proven to be the breakout star of the preseason on defense. Rodney Garner said he had hoped to redshirt Jones, but the Northside product has simply played too well to keep him off the field. Brandon Wood has been hampered by injuries, but DeAngelo Tyson has looked good and Ricardo Crawford helps to round out a solid depth chart at tackle.

The same can't be said for the defensive ends, however.

Coaches have raved about the work done by starters Demarcus Dobbs and Rod Battle, and for good reason. Both have looked great this preseason, with Battle looking dominant in all three scrimmages. Of course, much of that work came against an overmatched second-string offensive line, but the simple fact that both players have looked healthy and strong is a nice bonus.

With Justin Houston suspended for the first two games, however, there is a clear lack of depth behind Dobbs and Battle, and that is a major concern. With temperatures likely to be taxing in Stillwater, Georgia still hasn't identified a single back-up defensive end who will be a clear contributor when Dobbs and Battle need a breather. Marcus Washington was moved to the position from linebacker at the start of preseason, but he has had a minimal impact thus far, and his progress hasn't been much different from that of a freshman. Cornelius Washington has shown flashes, but a myriad of injuries last season has hindered his growth, and he's still behind where the coaches would like him to be. Kiante Tripp is still adjusting to D-end as well after moving from the offensive line in January, but he has slimmed down considerably and should see action. A shoulder injury cost him a week of practice, however. Freshman Montez Robinson has shown flashes of potential, but coaches have been cautious about saying he'll play early.

Final Grade: C

LINEBACKERS: This might be the deepest position on Georgia's roster, and John Jancek made the most of it this preseason. None of Georgia's projected starters played in the first scrimmage of the fall and saw just limited action in the second. That gave coaches a chance to get a better look at a deep corps of young talent, led by sophomores Nick Williams and Marcus Dowtin and freshman Mike Gilliard. Williams and Dowtin have played their way into Georgia's six-man rotation at linebacker, Jancek said, and Gilliard played his way out of a redshirt. He'll likely see most of his work on special teams, but Richt said he expected Gilliard to get some scrimmage downs, too.

The top three linebackers will be Rennie Curran, who continues to be the clear leader of Georgia's defense, Darius Dewberry, who is penciled in as the starting Sam linebacker, and Darryl Gamble, who had a monster preseason and looks to be ready to blossom into a consistent contributor, and potentially a star. Akeem Dent figured to be the starting middle linebacker, but a lingering hamstring issue cost him two weeks of practice time and probably his starting job. Jancek said he expects Dent to still see plenty of snaps, however, and it's likely he'll play his way back into a starting spot before too long.

Final Grade: A-

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Mark Richt was asked who has impressed him the most this preseason at Tuesday's news conference, and the first names he mentioned were the young safeties (Makiri Pugh, Baccari Rambo and Sanders Commings) and cornerback Vance Cuff.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the reason those guys had the opportunity to impress was because starting safeties Reshad Jones and Bryan Evans missed a significant portion of the preseason with hamstring injuries.

In most seasons, you might say letting the starters rest and giving the backups some first-team snaps is a good thing. This year... maybe not so much. If you go by the game film from the tail end of last season, Jones needed as much practice in the fundamentals as anyone on the team, and he simply didn't get them. Evans could be a huge asset to Georgia this year, but it's not like he's a grizzled veteran at safety. He just moved to the position less than a year ago. Both guys needed this preseason, and neither got the full time to prepare. That has to be a concern.

The development of Rambo, Pugh and Commings is a reward though. Last year, Georgia's depth at safety was non-existent, and that was probably the No. 1 reason Jones was still on the field for Roddy Jones' third-quarter spectacle in that disastrous loss to Georgia Tech. Having three quality backups this time around gives Willie Martinez a little more room to maneuver, which can only be seen as a good thing.

Of course, that depth could have been a lot better. Quintin Banks went down with yet another injury and won't be back until next week at the earliest, and last year's top backup, John Knox, was booted from the program during the offseason.

At corner, things are looking pretty solid for Georgia. Prince Miller isn't a shut-down corner, but he has three years of experience and he's really done a nice job this preseason of taking on more of a vocal leadership role -- something you probably wouldn't have expected from him in the past. Brandon Boykin has been as advertised -- an athletic speedster with impressive natural instincts for the ball who Evans said can step in for the departed Asher Allen without missing a beat.

Cuff has looked good and seems to have made some strides following a bit bigger role down the stretch last season, but the key to this group may well be Branden Smith, the lightning quick freshman. Smith started slow this preseason, but has improved quickly and has the trust of his coaches. He's likely the third corner on the depth chart, and will see plenty of action in nickel packages.

Freshmen Jordan Love and Shawn Williams could see action this year, but neither of them secured playing time during the preseason. Love battled a toe injury that cost him some practices, but given a bit less depth at corner, he may still be the more likely candidate for scrimmage downs.

Final Grade: B

SPECIAL TEAMS: What's to say? Mark Richt promised more scholarship freshmen would play on coverage teams, but Jon Fabris didn't seem as enthusiastic. The additions of speedsters like Thomas and Smith seemed to provide some new blood to the return game, but Fabris and Tony Ball have indicated that Richard Samuel and Prince Miller are likely to reprise their roles from last season. Brandon Bogotay was brought in to handle kickoff duties, but Richt has at least tacitly endorsed Blair Walsh again and won't name a "starter" for the job before game day.

So what have we learned about Georgia's special teams this preseason? Not a whole heck of a lot.

Final Grade: Incomplete

COACHING: Richt promised a more intense preseason, and from every report I've gotten, he delivered. There has been more contact, more tackling drills, fewer significant injuries, more progress from the youngsters and a noticeably more positive attitude coming from the players. Most importantly, the leadership in the locker room has been night and day from last season, with Cox, Owens and Curran leading the way.

There are some concerns -- like why so many hamstring injuries? But for the most part, this preseason was everything last year wasn't. No controversy, no off-field problems, no light workouts, no excuses.

Whether that translates into better results on the field remains to be seen, but regardless, Richt won't be able to pin any disappointments this season on a lack of effort during fall camp.

Final Grade: A-

So what do you think? Agree with the grades? What are your biggest concerns as we get set for Okie State?


ben said...

as much as i am excited by the idea of the "GrayHound" and richt's ability to mess with d-schemes, the thought of logan gray getting hurt has me reaching for pepto. we'd have to get cox secret service protection...

Anonymous said...

Any word on this that I read
"Robinson's status for Saturday's game against Georgia is in doubt due to an undisclosed injury, a source has told"

David Hale said...

Still trying to track this down -- Okie State does not have media access after Monday, so it's been tough getting details.