My blog has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 6 seconds. If not, visit
http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/bulldogs-blog/
and update your bookmarks.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Two-A-Days: Ole Miss Rebels

Last year, we spent two weeks talking with beat writers from around the SEC to get a feel for how Georgia's competition stood at the end of spring.

To read previous entries, click HERE.

Ole Miss in a flash:

Head Coach: Houston Nutt, 3rd year
2009 Record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC), beat Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl
2009 Stats: Total offense, 402.38 ypg (5th SEC, 44th nationally); Total defense, 314.69 ypg (4th SEC, 21st nationally)
Coaching Changes: Offensive coordinator Kent Austin left following the 2009 season to take over as head coach at Cornell. In his place, Nutt hired Dave Rader, who last worked as OC under Mike Shula at Alabama. Rader will coach QBs and share OC duties with O line coach Mike Markuson.
Starters Returning: Offense (4), Defense (6), Special Teams (1)
Key Player Losses: QB Jevan Snead, RB Dexter McCluster, WR Shay Hodge, DE Greg Hardy
Big Games: @ Alabama (10/16), Arkansas (10/23), Auburn (10/30), @ LSU (11/20)
Non-Conference Slate: Jacksonville State (9/4), Tulane (9/11), Fresno State (9/25), Louisiana-Lafayette (11/6)

Houston Nutt took Ole Miss to the Cotton Bowl in each of his first two seasons, but the job gets much tougher this year with the departure of the bulk of his offense from last year's team. The schedule isn't particularly daunting aside from a three-game stretch in October against Alabama, Arkansas and Auburn, but there's definitely going to be a lot of work for the Rebels to get done between now and then.

As for how far Ole Miss progressed this spring, I checked in with Rebels beat writer Parrish Alford of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. Here's what he had to say…

David Hale: Jevan Snead's decision to leave for the NFL caught a lot of fans by surprise, but how much has this left Ole Miss in the lurch? How impressive were Raymond Cotton and Nathan Stanley this spring? What's the status of Cotton's labrum injury?

Parrish Alford: Ole Miss is left in the lurch, because Snead was 18-8 in 26 starts. There is only one QB on the roster, Nathan Stanley, with game experience, and Stanley received more than mop-up duty just once in five appearances last year. Snead threw 20 picks, but his 20 touchdowns can't be overlooked. He has the tools, and if you're a coach, you'd choose to take an 18-8 veteran and take the chance of working him through his problems, rather than go into a season inexperienced under center.

That being said, the question was asked of Houston Nutt in the spring if he thought he could be better at quarterback. Stanley had a good spring with accurate throws and improved decision-making. In his two seasons of practice he's thrown a nice deep ball, and he'll surprise some folks with his mobility.

Stanley won the job with his own performance, but getting there was certainly made easier by the absence of his primary competition, Raymond Cotton. It was discovered late in spring that Cotton has a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. It may or may not require immediate surgery. If it does not, Cotton showed enough in the spring game to indicate he'll continue to push Stanley in August. If surgery is required this summer, the Rebels become very thin at QB. Two inexperienced quarterbacks are definitely better than one inexperienced quarterback.

Junior college transfer Randall Mackey will arrive in the summer. He's extremely athletic, and he'll help out. Nutt has mentioned him as in the mix for starter, but it's hard to believe a guy who won't practice with his teammates until August will win the job. It didn't work out well when the previous administration tried that with Brent Schaeffer.

Needless to say, Mackey's role will increase greatly if Cotton has surgery.

DH: I'm guessing no one can step in and replace Dexter McCluster, who did a little of everything for Ole Miss last year. But from what you saw this spring, is there someone who can at least help bridge the gap as the Rebels transition their offense?

PA: Dexter McCluster will have to be replaced with several people. Sophomore wide receiver Jesse Grandy will do some of the same things as far as getting on the edge with short passing and taking off with a shotgun snap. Grandy had a really good spring and showed good hands downfield as well.

As far as what McCluster did between the tackles, there are a three backs, all with some SEC experience, but none who has been “the guy.”

Brandon Bolden enters spring at No. 1. They tried to make Bolden “the guy” last year, and had he taken over, McCluster would not have become the McCluster that people remember. He'd have still played a key role as a wideout and utility player but not as a 25-carry a game tailback. Enrique Davis and Rodney Scott are the other top backs. They're mostly straight-ahead runners. The wiggle comes from deeper down the depth chart with converted DB Derrick Herman and redshirt freshman Korvic Neat. That difference could get Herman or Neat on the field.

DH: With so much transition on offense, how much pressure is on defensive stalwarts like Kentrell Lockett and Jarrell Powe to carry the team? How have they responded this spring to that pressure?

PA: Kentrell Lockett and Jerrell Powe had really good springs. The DL typically dominated the OL, although the OL improved and got in some licks later in the drills. There's no question the defense will have to carry this team early. There are four seniors on the 2-deep at tackle, but only Lockett with game experience at end.

DH: How much will the Rebels be counting on some of the JuCo transfers -- both the spring arrivals and the ones getting to campus this summer -- to help make up for all the personnel losses from last year? How did the JuCos already on campus perform this spring?

PA: JuCo transfers will play a key role. Wayne Dorsey will start at the end opposite, Lockett, and Damien Jackson could be a starter at safety.

The Rebels basically rotate three safeties between the strong and free positions, and Jackson will definitely get lots of action. He turned heads in the spring with his hits and his ability to break on the ball and make big plays.

Dorsey had a good spring too, and when his knowledge allows him to turn it loose, his speed will take over. He's quicker than a 6-8, 255-pounder should be.

That being said, there's an acclimation period for all newcomers. Dorsey and Jackson – and Mackey on offense – are expected to move through this pretty quickly.

DH: What's the mood from Houston Nutt at the end of spring practice? With so many new faces in key places, was he genuinely pleased with what he saw or is there still a good dose of concern heading into the summer?

PA: Houston's feeling coming out of spring is a mixed bag. He's further along in the secondary than he thought he'd be after seeing the play Jackson and redshirt freshman cornerback Charles Sawyer along with the veterans. He believes he has a good quarterback situation and is cautiously optimistic about his offensive line. He can't afford an injury there, and really needs good play from Rishaw Johnson at right guard.

The Rebels are a little more experienced at the tackles, but Johnson – who was suspended the back half of last season – can bring a more physical nature to the interior – where there will be three new starters. He can't afford an injury on the OL.

The plus side is the schedule, with Jacksonville State and Tulane out of the gate, gives a young team a chance to grow before opening SEC play at home on Sept. 18 against Vanderbilt.

***

Ah, "cautiously optimistic." Aren't we all. Many thanks to Parrish for the great insight. You can read his Ole Miss coverage HERE, check out his blog HERE and follow him on Twitter HERE.

So, what are your thoughts on Ole Miss this year? Can the Rebels' soft early schedule help them overcome the losses of Snead and McCluster? Or will this be a rebuilding season for Houston Nutt's crew?

And don't forget, we'll be wrapping up Two-A-Days with an in-depth look at Georgia, so if you have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments section here or send me an email at dhale@macon.com.

NEXT UP: Georgia Tech on Monday.

Two-A-Days: Florida Gators

Two-a-Days rolls on with our seventh installment, in which we take a closer look at the Florida Gators.

To read previous entries, click HERE.

Florida in a flash:

Head Coach: Urban Meyer, 6th year
2009 Record: 13-1 (8-0 SEC), beat Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl
2009 Stats: Total offense, 457.86 ypg (1st in SEC, 6th nationally); Total defense, 252.57 ypg (2nd SEC, 4th nationally)
Coaching Changes: Teryl Austin became Florida's third defensive coordinator since December when left the Arizona Cardinals to replace George Edwards, who was on the job for just a month after replacing longtime DC Charlie Strong. Recruiting coordinator and receivers coach Billy Gonzoles also left, replaced by Zach Azzanni. Cornerbacks coach Vance Bedford and running backs coach Kenny Carter also left. Stan Drayton, who coached at Florida in the earlier part of the decade, returns as running backs coach. D.J. Durkin takes over defensive ends and special teams. Oh, and Urban Meyer has been in and out as he takes occasional leaves of absence.
Starters Returning: Offense (6), Defense (7), Special Teams (2)
Key Player Losses: QB Tim Tebow, WR Riley Cooper, TE Aaron Hernandez, C Maurkice Pouncey, LB Brandon Spikes, CB Joe Haden, S Major Wright, DE Carlos Dunlap
Big Games: @ Alabama (10/2), LSU (10/9), Georgia (10/30) @ Florida State (11/27)
Non-Conference Slate: Miami, Ohio (9/4), South Florida (9/11), Appalachian State (11/20), Florida State (11/27)

After yet another season dominating the SEC East, Florida remains the likely favorite once again. But this year, the Gators will go to battle without a number of stars, most notably quarterback Tim Tebow, who was taken in the first round of the NFL draft by the Denver Broncos. So while the talent level remains high at Florida, there are plenty of questions about the new-look defense, the ability of John Brantley and the development of some offensive playmakers to boot.

So, how much will be reloading and how much will be rebuilding? For those answers, I turned to Orlando Sentinel beat writer Jeremy Fowler, who, contrary to recent reports, is not a bad guy…

David Hale: The obvious topic of debate -- and one you found yourself in the middle of earlier this spring -- is the transition from Tim Tebow to John Brantley. First off, what have you seen from Brantley this spring? Is he taking that leadership mantle that Tebow handled so well, too? And given that the two are dramatically different in terms of what type of QB they are, how much might Florida's offense need to change along with the QB?

Jeremy Fowler: Brantley has handled the transition well so far. He wasn't flawless this spring, but he was impressive in the spring game. He seems to rise when the lights come on. His arm's never been in question, but the leadership process will take some time. I think he's good in the huddle, but we don't know what type of poise and leadership he'll display in, say, Tuscaloosa on Oct. 2. He's trying to shed his aw-shucks demeanor. Florida will still run the option, still run with the quarterback, but not nearly as much as with Tebow. You will probably see a lot more screen passes with hybrid WRs/RBs such as Chris Rainey. Lots of quick routes for short gains. And Florida has backup QB Trey Burton, who runs a 4.5 40, to spare Brantley some of the wear and tear of rushing.

DH: Florida's offense had some serious problems in the red zone last year, and now Tebow -- the Gators' best red-zone threat -- is gone. How have they worked to correct that issue this spring?

JF: One of the issues was playcalling. Florida got so predictable by rushing Tebow over and over. Florida must rely on its running backs more, and at least in the spring, the Gators showed they aren't afraid to make the tough throws in the red zone. They must get less timid. It's too early to tell whether they will overcome last year's red-zone struggles, but the Gators look like they are in the right direction.

DH: Charlie Strong was the bane of Georgia's existence for a long time. Now he's at Louisville. What's been different on the defensive side of the ball with Teryl Austin in as DC now? And what's the dynamic between Austin and co-defensive coordinator Chuck Heater?

JF: Strong is a huge loss, and the Gators will have a new identity under Austin. Not so much with formations -- the Gators will mix 4-3 and nickel package like last year -- but with utilizing talents. Florida's defense will be faster this year, especially at linebacker. The Gators are trying to teach all the young LBs how to play numerous positions in order to maximize speed. Florida can't rely on the sacks that Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham used to produce, so the key is letting LBs and DBs play free. Heater coaches safeties but also oversees the secondary and serves as a second pair of eyes for Austin, who also coaches cornerbacks. They seem to work well together.

DH: Aaron Hernandez, Riley Cooper, Brandon Spikes, Joe Haden, Carlos Dunlap... the list of other big-name Gators moving on to the NFL goes well beyond Tebow. So who have been some of the younger players to step up this spring that might be able to fill in those gaps?

JF: Linebackers Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic, both sophomores, look ready to contribute early and often. Great combination of speed and size. Look out for Jaye Howard, a combo DE/DT, to flourish on the defensive line along with DT Omar Hunter, who's very powerful. Receivers with nice springs include Deonte Thompson, arguably the team's MVP over the last four weeks, Frankie Hammond and Omarius Hines. Mike Gillislee is a young running back who's been overshadowed by Jeff Demps, Rainey and Emmanuel Moody, but he's ready to contribute mightily next season. Could thrust himself into the second spot in the rotation since Moody's always hurt. Tight end will be the biggest question mark -- Jordan Reed and Gerald Christian have zero experience, though both are talented.

DH: From the Urban Meyer fake-retirement to the hiring of a new DC that bolted a month later to all the hubbub over Tebow being unprepared for the NFL to the minor tussle between Meyer and some hack reporter from Orlando... it seems like most of the headlines at Florida lately have had little to do with what's going on with the players themselves. So will all of this turmoil have an affect this fall? How have the players reacted to all the fuss over Meyer and his status?

JF: Meyer's off-field issues would be a major problem if Meyer appeared uninterested, but he's been pretty fiery this spring. I think his confrontation with a reporter fueled his team, showed he will stick up for his guys under any circumstance. To be honest, the Meyer situation has been so confusing from day one that I don't know if anyone save Jeremy Foley and Meyer's family knows what's really going on. Just puzzling from start to finish. But Meyer seems to be affecting his team as normal, and recruiting obviously hasn't suffered.

I don't think any of the headlines will affect Florida this fall unless more drama happens during the season. For example, the Carlos Dunlap DUI days before the SEC title game was hard to overcome. Last year there was so much drama. This team should be able to avoid some of that, partly because the microscope isn't hovering over its every move. Tebow takes with him much of the attention.

The Gators should be a little better on offense but not as polished on defense, resulting in what I think will be a 10-2 season.

***

Many thanks to Jeremy for the great insight into the Gators' spring. You can read his Florida coverage HERE, check out his blog HERE or follow him on Twitter HERE.

So, do you agree with Fowler's 10-2 prediction? Or do you see Florida having more trouble overcoming the departures of Tebow, Strong, and company?

And don't forget, we'll be wrapping up Two-A-Days with an in-depth look at Georgia, so if you have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments section here or send me an email at dhale@macon.com.

NEXT UP: Ole Miss this afternoon.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Thursday Links (4/29)

One of our regular readers, Kathleen, finds it amusing to email me predicting disaster every time I say I'm going to take a couple of days off. She's right, of course. If I'm expecting a little bit of relaxation, that essentially guarantees all hell will break loose.

So it is with great trepidation that I inform you that I'm taking the next few days off from the blog. I'm heading to New Orleans for the second weekend of Jazz Fest, and my plan (for now) is to leave my laptop at home. (I admit, I'm a junkie, and the only way I can quit is to not have access to the blog.)

So what does this mean?

Well, for one, it means you'll be limited to just the two-a-days posts for the next few days and no other blog postings from me.

It also means some key player is going to get arrested or transfer or bare-knuckle box Mark Richt on Broad Street in a fight to the death. Because there's no way I actually get to take a legitimate weekend off.

But I'm still going to try, so cross your fingers and hope you don't have to hear from me again until next week.

In the meantime, here's a brief links post to help please the blogging gods...

-- With all the draft hype about A.J. Green starting already, Marc Weiszer notes that next year should end a long drought in the draft for Georgia receivers.

-- Chip Towers writes about Georgia's aggressiveness on the recruiting trail -- particularly in the state. The press release UGA sent out yesterday about recruiting was definitely a bit out of character.

-- Tim Tucker talks turnovers. (That was your winner for most alliterative sentence of the day.)

-- I'm guessing you've already seen this column from the Red & Black taking on Aron White's letter which questioned the merits of another column in the newspaper. Really, it's little more than red meat for easily perturbed Georgia fans (and players by the sounds of some of their Tweets).

My advice to the young journalists practicing their craft at the Red & Black would be this: You print the papers, so you can always have the last word. But if your argument was written and researched well enough in the first place, you won't need to employ that advantage so often.

I might also add that the paper might want to reconsider how quickly they criticize when they're not always the best at editorial decision making.

-- It was only Western Carolina, but at least Georgia has a win on the diamond for a change.

-- Macon native and Georgia golfer Russell Henley will be playing in this weekend's Nationwide event in Athens.

-- Chris Low has some interesting thoughts on the potential of SEC expansion. This whole debate reminds me of the words of a very wise man by the name of Ron Burgundy: "That really escalated quickly! I mean, that really got out of hand fast." (Note: There were horses, and a man on fire, and Jim Delany killed a guy with a trident!)

-- And more from Low: The SEC's likely first-round picks in the 2011 draft doesn't include Clint Boling.

-- Bloomberg has an interesting story on how college football seems to be recession-proof, with 51 public schools studied showing an 11 percent increase in revenue from 2007 through 2009. (h/t Matt T.)

-- Construction on the fire-damaged Georgia Theater is set to begin next month, but they're still looking for some donations to ensure the project is completed.

-- Spin has its list of the 125 best albums of the last 25 years. I'll be honest, I didn't have time to read through them all, but I looked at the top 25 and I don't have many serious problems. These lists are always about mixing hipster intelligence about under-appreciated and little known works with an even greater hipster appreciation in an ironic way about albums that were well received. In other words, I usually feel these lists are more about making the magazine look cool than anything else. That said, I was surprised by what was No. 1 -- and while it probably wouldn't top my list, it would be awfully close. In fact, I was just discussing that album -- and why it's my favorite from that band -- with Fletcher Page the other day.

-- Steve Carrell says he might be leaving "The Office" after next season. I'd be OK with that. Love the show, but I can't help but feel like it's running on fumes.

-- This might be the ultimate "I'm not sure how I feel about this" sequel. On one hand, I'd be utterly excited about it, but the rational side of me knows it's probably not going to end well.

-- OK, that's it for me for a few days. I know I have a few dozen emails to respond to from readers dating back at least a month, and I promise, getting to them is going to be at the top of my priority list upon my return. And in the meantime, if you have questions for our final UGA installment of two-a-days, send them in to dhale@macon.com.

Have a great weekend, folks.

Richt on Logan, Recruiting & Expansion

Some highlights from today's SEC coaches teleconference call with Mark Richt...

On Logan's decision...
“He wants to play, and right now he’s not sure that he can. I made it real clear – clear as a bell – that we just had a post-spring depth chart that did not name anybody the starter at any position, including quarterback. So the way it is, he’s No. 2 behind (Aaron) Murray, so I’m sure that’s what triggered it. So he’s trying to decide what he wants to do – whether he wants to stay here, and if he stays, what position he wants to play and all that kind of stuff. If he wants to be at Georgia, I’ll work with him on what position he plays. But this type of thing actually happens a whole lot more than anybody knows. It usually doesn’t become a public issue, but I guess nowadays with the way news travels, somebody caught wind that he’d come see me about discussing what to do. Usually those things are done in private, and those kids have a chance to think about it without everybody hammering them on it and wondering what everybody’s opinion of it is, but the bottom line is if he wants to be at Georgia, we’re glad to have him and we certainly are a better team with him than without him.”

On the possibility of going into the season with just two freshman QBs...
“That happens in different cycles. Even if Logan’s with us, it’s not like he’s thrown a bunch. He’s thrown maybe 10 or 15 balls. So whether he’s here or whether he’s not here, we have a tremendous amount of inexperience at the quarterback position.”

On Todd Grantham...
“I love his experience. He’s coached with some outstanding people. He coached with (Frank) Beamer and Nick Saban. He coached in the NFL with Dom Capers and Romeo Crennel and with the Cowboys. He’s got a great wealth of knowledge. People talk about football IQs, and this guy is very, very sharp. He gets it not only on the front end as far as the defensive front, which is mainly what he coached his pro career. But he understands what’s happening at the linebacker play and at the perimeter. He does have a great understanding of what’s going on. He’s a guy that a lot of people have gone to over the years to learn how to pressure people and to learn how to maximize their players’ ability to rush the passer and things of that nature. He’s a great communicator. He’s got a very strong presence about him. He’s a guy that has got a high level of intensity and energy, too. All of those things put together are why he’s here.”

On UGA's in-state efforts on the recruiting trail...
“We’ve always wanted to recruit Georgia first. What happens is you have four weeks to recruit, so strategically it might be better to get up north real quick and then come on back and get to our Georgia schools when they might be in spring ball and that kind of thing. But what happens is you end up going out of state before you go in state. One of the biggest differences is regardless of where we wanted to go out of the state, I was making sure within the first two weeks, we’re going to hammer Georgia the way it needs to be hammered, and do it in mass numbers. Usually during the four weeks we would get the same thing accomplished, but this year in particular, there’s maybe one or two days where we are going to sneak out of the borders, but the bottom line is every coach has got to cover his Georgia area within the first two weeks of this recruiting season rather than if it’s a little more convenient in Week 3 or 4. We’re not doing that. We’re saying Georgia is No. 1 as far as our thoughts, and that’s how we’re going to handle that and make sure we do that not only by philosophy but in actuality. The other thing is, we know we’re going to recruit out of state. We must, and we want to. But when we go out of state, he better be special.”

On Trinton Sturdivant...
“I expect him to be ready by the preseason. He’s been rehabbing. He’s been making very good progress. He feels like this repair just feels different to him, feels better to him. Whether that’s psychological or not, I don’t know, but we’re excited he feels that way. It’s just going to be a matter of going back out there and doing it again. I would think that we’re going to take a good pace and take our time and maybe not give him every single rep that he could take just to make sure that he’s healthy. We want him healthy. But he’s really projected to be a go.”

On the possibility of conference expansion...
“In my mind, it’s doubtful, but I don’t know. I haven’t really read it real closely of what’s going on, and I don’t know the possibilities if it’s just a discussion or there’s some kind of movement that’s more serious. But I’d be surprised if it happened any time soon. I could see the other leagues getting to the format we have which I think is a great format with six teams on each side and a championship game. There’s some leagues that might be trying to get to that. That would make more sense to me than trying to get these super conferences because you don’t get to play everybody if you do that. It’s almost like two different leagues when you do that.”

Two-A-Days: LSU Tigers

Two-a-Days rolls on with our sixth installment, in which we take a closer look at the LSU Tigers.

To read previous entries, click HERE.

LSU in a flash:

Head Coach: Les Miles, 6th season
2009 Record: 9-4 (5-3 SEC), lost to Penn State in the Capital One Bowl
2009 Stats: Total offense, 304.54 ypg (12th SEC, 112th nationally), Total defense, 327.62 ypg (6th SEC, 26th nationally)
Coaching Changes: The offensive staff was largely overhauled with former Tennessee assistant Frank Wilson taking over for Larry Porter as running backs coach (and recruiting coordinator), Billy Gonzoles, formerly of Florida, taking over passing game coordinator and WR coach duties from D.J. McCarthy and tight ends coach Don Yanowsky leaving in favor of former LSU QB Steve Ensminger, who had previously worked at Auburn and Georgia.
Starters Returning: Offense (6), Defense (4), Special Teams (2)
Key Player Losses: KR Trindon Holiday, DE Rahim Alem, S Chad Jones, OT Ciron Black, WR Brandon LaFell and RB Charles Scott
Big Games: West Virginia (9/25), @ Florida (10/9), @ Auburn (10/23) and Alabama (11/6)
Non-Conference Slate: North Carolina (9/4, in Atlanta), West Virginia (9/25), McNeese State (10/16), Louisiana-Monroe (11/13)

LSU was probably the third-best team in the SEC last season, yet for many Tigers fans, it still felt like a bit of a disappointment. Les Miles will have his work cut out for him in 2010 with the departure of many key figures on both sides of the ball, but the Bayou Bengals still have some solid parts to work with.

As to how things are going in Baton Rouge, I checked in with LSU beat writer Jim Kleinpeter of the New Orleans Times-Picayune to get some answers…

David Hale:
Without some of those veteran receiver threats and without Charles Scott in the backfield, the pressure will surely be on Jordan Jefferson to take a step forward in 2010. Has he embraced that role this spring, and what are your expectations for him going forward?

Jim Kleinpeter: Actually Jefferson has not progressed as much as the coaching staff had hoped. He still seems to struggle making decisions in the pocket and is much better on rollouts. Some insiders say Jarrett Lee outperformed Jefferson throughout the spring and that was the case in the spring game, which is the only time the media saw the players in scrimmage situations.

DH: Despite having an All-SEC performer in Ciron Black last year, LSU's offensive line was among the worst in the league. Has the line shown signs of improvement this spring? And has Les Miles' emphasis on improving the running game helped build some momentum for the guys up front?

JK: The offensive line should be a case of addition by subtraction. Ciron Black was the unit's best player but simply had a bad year. He was overweight and battled sore knees. The other senior Lyle Hitt probably should have been benched but Les Miles is loyal to his seniors. This year's line should be more athletic, better able to get downfield and move laterally. Running the ball was heavily emphasized during spring and two backs went over 100 yards in the spring game. There was a general emphasis on being more physical.

DH: I'm guessing a few more LSU fans will be clamoring for Russell Shepard to see plenty of action this season. How is Les Miles planning to use him this year?

JK: Shepard is anchored at wide receiver but will still get the ball as a running back and occasionally run the wildcat. He's going to be on the field more rather than coming in and out as the situation dictates. Miles said this will make it more difficult for the defense to know from play to play how he's going to be used. He looked great in the spring game. LSU is hoping he can become its version of Percy Harvin.

DH: John Chavis did a nice job of turning around the defense in 2009, but he'll need to find some replacements for departed stars like Rahim Alem and Chad Jones. Who stood out this spring that might be ready to step into a bigger role this season?

JK: LSU's defense should be better overall from being in the second year under John Chavis. His defense was new and significantly different. The biggest standout has been redshirt freshman DE Sam Montgomery, who was constantly in the backfield in the spring game. Also, Stefoin Francois takes over at the hybrid linebacker spot, where the player is actually a safety. Harry Coleman played there last year to great effect. Jai Eugene, who started at cornerback last year, has been moved to free safety, giving LSU two former cornerbacks at the safety position and better overall speed on defense. That move was made possible by the emergence of CB Morris Claiborne.

DH: Generally I consider the "hot seat" talk surrounding coaches who are proven winners as more bluster than reality, but Les Miles certainly heard a good bit of it a year ago, despite the 9-4 record. Miles has overhauled both his offensive and defensive staff in the last couple of years. He made some serious tweaks to spring practice in terms of competition and physicality. And while there's still lots of talent in Baton Rouge, he will need to replace some accomplished veterans. So, is it fair to ask if Miles might be feeling some heat?

JK: There is absolutely heat on Miles and it may get hotter early. LSU plays a North Carolina team with 19 returning starters in the season opener in Atlanta. Losing that game will increase the scrutiny. LSU also has to play West Virginia non-conference and travel to Florida, Auburn and Arkansas. On the other hand, Les made some great assistant coach hires for the second straight season and I think some of the seniors who are gone took some baggage with them that dragged the team down the last two seasons.

***

Is it just me, or does that last part sound a lot like what was said at Georgia last spring? For Miles' sake, he should hope things go better in Baton Rouge in 2010 than they went in Athens in 2009. In any case, many thanks to Jim for all his insight into the Tigers. You can read his LSU coverage for the Times-Picayune HERE, check out his blog HERE or follow him on Twitter HERE.

So, do you think Miles will be getting his walking papers in 2010 or will the addition by subtraction keep LSU in BCS contention?

And don't forget, we'll be wrapping up Two-A-Days with an in-depth look at Georgia, so if you have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments section here or send me an email at dhale@macon.com.

NEXT UP: Florida on Friday morning.

Two-A-Days: Vanderbilt Commodores

Two-a-Days rolls on with our fifth installment, in which we take a closer look at the Vanderbilt Commodores.

To read previous entries, click HERE.

Vanderbilt in a flash:

Head Coach: Bobby Johnson, 9th season
2009 Record: 2-10 (0-8 SEC)
2009 Stats: Total offense, 306.33 ypg (11th SEC, 110th nationally), Total defense, 362.75 (9th SEC, 56th nationally)
Coaching Changes: Jimmy Kiser takes over playcalling and offensive coordinator duties, while Ted Cain remains on the staff as tight ends coach. Linebackers coach Warren Belin left for the same job at Georgia. DC Bruce Fowler takes over LB duties, while former Auburn standout Mike Pelton takes over as D ends coach.
Starters Returning: Offense (5), Defense (5), Special Teams (1)
Key Player Losses: CB Myron Lewis, C Vradley Vierling, OL Thomas Welch
Big Games: LSU (9/11), @ Georgia (10/16), Florida (11/6) and Tennessee (11/20)
Non-Conference Slate: Northwestern (9/4), @ Connecticut (10/2), Eastern Michigan (10/9), Wake Forest (11/27)

After years of consistent progress, it was back to the Vandy of years past in 2009 as Bobby Johnson's crew failed to win an SEC game. While the defense had its moments, the offense was a train wreck, and neither Larry Smith or Mackenzie Adams could get things going. So, has Johnson and his staff been able to find some answers this spring?

To find out, I checked in with Vandy beat writer Jeff Lockridge of The Tennessean, and here's what he had to offer…

David Hale: After years of steady progress, things unraveled quickly last year at Vandy, including a winless season in the SEC. What was the mood this spring? Were players upbeat and resilient or is there some lingering effects of last year's disappointing finish?

Jeff Lockridge: The mood was fairly upbeat. As the spring went along, I think the defensive players became more upbeat and the offensive players less so given how things went on the field. Of course, everyone at Vandy was extremely upbeat last spring after the 2008 Music City Bowl win, and that didn't translate to much good in the fall.

Overall, it was a rocky offseason at Vandy: the murder of four-star RB signee Rajaan Bennett in Georgia; linebackers coach Warren Belin leaving for Georgia; redshirt freshman RB Wesley Tate breaking his foot. Several projected starters (OT James Williams, LB Tristan Strong, TE Austin Monahan) couldn't go this spring due to ACLs or broken bones sustained last season. Couple that with the fact DT Adam Smotherman (ACL) and OT Ryan Seymour (shoulder) went down early in the spring, and it wasn't a best-case scenario playing out here.

DH: As bad as the offense was for Vandy a year ago, things may have looked even worse during the spring game. Was it as ugly as it sounded, and how much of the offensive problems stem from the question marks at the QB position?

JL: It was ugly. The defense looked very strong, but that doesn't excuse a complete absence of offense. There are concerns at quarterback. There also are concerns with who the QBs will throw to and whether they will get enough protection from a young, revamped line. The only sure thing about this offense is sophomore RBs Warren Norman and Zac Stacy.

It's fair to say the coaches would love to see Larry Smith become more comfortable, accurate and consistent in the pocket and really take the starting QB job by force. That didn't happen this spring. Backup Jared Funk had a nice spring, but it's tough to envision him winning the job given his lack of game experience. That leaves junior-college transfer Jordan Rodgers, brother of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, who is still learning the system. He was sharp toward the end of the spring. Ideally the coaches would prefer to redshirt him. That, however, may depend on Smith.

DH: While offense wasn't a plus for Vandy, the silver lining was the impressive freshman campaign of Warren Norman. Has he continued to improve this spring, and has anyone else stepped up that could provide a spark to complement Norman?

JL: Norman looked fine this spring. The coaches didn't overwork him. They know what they have in him. Stacy looks healthy after a bad ankle sprain last season. Keeping both of those guys healthy will be a key to Vandy sustaining drives. The duo was on the field together at times this spring, flanking the QB in the shotgun, with one running routes and the other staying in to block.

As far as other sparks, that's what this staff is searching high and low for. TE Brandon Barden, who may line up in the slot some to create mismatch problems, is probably the next best bet.

DH: Some key injuries this spring for Vandy, including Ryan Seymour (shoulder), Adam Smotherman (ACL) and Chris Marve (shoulder). What's their status for the season, and what kind of impact could this have on the Commodores going forward?

JL: Marve had his shoulder scoped and should be fine within a month or so. Seymour should be healed up some time this summer. Smo is the question mark. If you go by the six-month rehab timetable, he'll miss a good portion of the season. He intends to rehab the knee and be back for the season opener, but that's unlikely. I'm told linemen often take longer to heal ACLs, and if that's the case he could miss the whole season. Smo's absence hurts the team, but fortunately defensive tackle is one of the deepest spots on this team in terms of talent.

DH: For all the on-field stories this spring, the biggest news for Vandy was sadly the death of recruit Rajaan Bennett. How much did that affect the team this spring, and is it a rallying point the players are embracing or a tragic story they're hoping to put behind them?

JL: It's hard to say how the current players are affected because they had very little contact with Rajaan. A good number of the signees are affected by it, particularly the players Vandy signed out of Georgia. Many of them knew Rajaan, played against him and befriended him. Without question, the group most affected by his death here is the coaching staff. Bobby Johnson was torn up when he heard the news. You could see in his face that he had come to care for this young man.

BONUS QUESTION: Georgia fans are liking what they've seen from former Vandy assistant Warren Belin so far. What can you tell the UGA folks about what they can expect from Belin this season?

JL: Belin's track record speaks for itself. He had a hand in the development of many superb linebacker at Vandy, some now in the NFL. Vandy's LBs were surprised and sad to see him go. I suspect he'll do well with the Bulldogs.

Are there any door prizes for answering the bonus question? A mint, a balloon, a temporary tattoo of the new UGA VIII? Only kidding.

***

We'll be sure to put at least a "Russ" tattoo in the mail for Jeff for helping us out with some great insight. You can read his Vandy coverage for The Tennessean HERE or check out his blog HERE.

So, what say you? Can Vandy be competitive this season or will it be a return to the dregs of the SEC for the Commodores?

And don't forget, we'll be wrapping up Two-A-Days with an in-depth look at Georgia, so if you have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments section here or send me an email at dhale@macon.com.

NEXT UP: LSU this afternoon.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Coaches on Recruiting Trail

From UGA release...

Spring practice might be over, but Georgia’s football coaches are still hard at work.

The Georgia coaches are on the road recruiting prospects during the NCAA’s designated evaluation period. The coaches began their work earlier this week and will continue recruiting throughout the month of May.

“By the end of next week, our assistant coaches will have been to more than 350 schools in the state of Georgia,” Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt said. “Our coaches are really pounding the state of Georgia. The focus of our staff is to make sure we recruit the state of Georgia first.”

Coaches may use one evaluation session to assess a prospective student-athlete’s athletics ability and another evaluation session to assess his academic qualifications.

“As we all know, recruiting is the lifeblood of any program and our state is a hotbed for talent,” Richt said. “It’s our job to do everything we can to show these young men the academic and athletic merits of the University of Georgia. I know if we get the best players in our state to come to the University of Georgia, we will win championships. When we do go out of state, it's always been our philosophy to only sign great players who are great people.”

The eventual signees among the prospective student-athletes being evaluated by Georgia’s coaches now will be the first freshman class to benefit from the ongoing $40 million expansion of the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall. The expansion, targeted for completion in January 2011, will include a 12,000-square-feet strength and conditioning area, an 8,500-square-feet training room, new coaches offices and a multipurpose room with a turf field that can be used for drills, walkthroughs and receptions.

“We are committed to providing the academic and athletic resources necessary for our football program to be among the very best in the country,” Richt said. “Our coaches are equally committed to winning championships on the field and to helping our players become the leaders of tomorrow. That is our message as we are on the road recruiting.”

42 UGA Athletes Earn Winter Honors

Hey, how about some good news?

From UGA athletics release...

A total of 42 University of Georgia student-athletes have been named to the 2009-10 SEC Winter Academic Honor Roll, according to an announcement Tuesday by SEC Commissioner Mike Slive.

The honor is based on grades from the 2009 Spring, Summer and Fall terms.

The Georgia women’s swimming team had 17 student-athletes named to the honor roll, followed by men’s swimming with 13, gymnastics with eight, men’s basketball with three and women’s basketball with one. Georgia’s 42 total was third best in the Southeastern Conference.

The UGA student-athletes named to the SEC Winter Academic Honor Roll are:

Women’s Swimming: Anne-Marie Botek, Marketing, Elicott City, Md.; Anne Broome, Marketing, Knoxville, Tenn.; Lisa Caprioglio, Marketing, Highlands Ranch, Colo.; Lauren Cartwright, Exercise & Sport Science, Fayetteville; Lauren English, Consumer Science, Lincoln Park, N.J.; Abbie Fish, Exercise & Sport Science, Louisville, Ky.; Erica Malag√≥n, Cellular Biology, Athens; Michelle McKeehan, Speech Communication, Greenwood, Ind.; Kelly McNichols, Advertising, Naperville, Ill.; Hannah Moore, Landscape Architecture, Moultrie; Chelsea Nauta, Biology, Tampa, Fla.; Allison Schmitt, Unspecified, Canton, Mich.; Kelsey Scott, Early Childhood Education, Duluth; Morgan Scroggy, Agriculture Engineering, Aurora, Ore.; Kristen Shickora, Management, Tamaqua, Penn.; Wendy Trott, International Affairs, Capetown, S. Africa; Landon Watters, Exercise & Sport Science, Rome

Men’s Swimming: Michael Arnold, Business, Marietta; Tim Barrett, Telecommunication Arts, Evans; Tom Beeri, Business, Yagur, Israel; Bill Cregar, Biology, Sewell, N.J.; Mark Dylla, Finance, Littleton, Colo.; Kevin Frankenfeld, Economics, Austin, Tex.; Richmond Green, Finance, Atlanta; Shane Hall, Business, Cumming; Hunter Lainhart, Finance, Jupiter, Fla.; Todd McGraw, Business, Vinton, Va.; Adam Parker, Biology, Maryville, Tenn.; Stephen Swan, Computer Science, Snellville; Chris Thompson, Consumer Economics, Kennesaw

Gymnastics: Mariel Box, Chemistry, Calhoun; Kathryn Ding, Fashion Merchandising, Sparks, Nev.; Lauren Johnson, Spanish, Cartersville; Marcia Newby, Biological Science, Virginia Beach, Va.; Gina Nuccio, Consumer Journalism, Naperville, Ill.; Lauren Sessler, Advertising, Snellville; Grace Taylor, Health Promotion, Aiken, S.C.; Amber Trani, Journalism, Richlandtown, Pa.

Men’s Basketball: Matthew Bucklin, Business, Marietta; Ricky McPhee, Sociology, Lawrenceville; Tyler Whatley, Religion, Auburn

Women’s Basketball: Meredith Mitchell, Management, Midfield, Ala.

Two-A-Days: Auburn Tigers

Two-a-Days rolls on with our second installment, in which we take a closer look at the Auburn Tigers.

To read previous entries, click HERE.

Auburn in a flash:

Head Coach: Gene Chizik, second year
2009 Record: 8-5 (3-5 SEC), beat Northwestern in Outback Bowl
2009 Stats: Total offense, 431.77 ypg (2nd SEC, 12th nationally); Total defense, 374.08 ypg (11th SEC, 68th nationally)
Coaching Changes: None
Starters Returning: Offense (7), Defense (8), Special Teams (1)
Key Player Losses: QB Chris Todd, RB Ben Tate, DE Antonio Coleman
Big Games: Arkansas (10/16), LSU (10/23), Georgia (11/13), at Alabama (11/26)
Non-Conference Slate: Arkansas State (9/4), Clemson (9/18), Louisiana-Monroe (10/2) and Chattanooga (11/6)

Auburn rebounded in its first year under Gene Chizik to earn a berth in the Outback Bowl, and with the arrival of JuCo transfer QB Cam Newton and a schedule that is particularly favorable leading up to the annual Iron Bowl, there's every reason to think further progress will be made in 2010.

To get more on the Tigers, however, I checked in with Auburn beat writer Andy Bitter of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer to get some details on spring practice…

David Hale: Given all the turmoil of last offseason, it's ironic that Auburn is the lone SEC team that entered the spring with its full coaching staff still intact. Were things feeling a good bit more comfortable for the Tigers and for Gene Chizik this spring than last?

Andy Bitter: There was definitely a sense of continuity this spring and more than one coach remarked about how much ahead of last year the players were, both in their comfort with the coaches and in the system. It was especially noticeable in the quarterbacks. Although presumed frontrunner Cam Newton is new to the system, both Neil Caudle and Barrett Trotter are in their second year under offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's tutelage. It showed in the A-Day scrimmage, where Caudle and Trotter combined for 353 passing yards and three touchdowns (albeit against watered-down coverages).

DH: The quarterback battle probably grabbed the most headlines, and it sounds like Cam Newton is most people's favorite to land the job. Who stood out to you this spring and how do you see this process playing out into the fall?

AB: Despite the coaches' reluctance to name a starter, it is 99 percent sure to be Newton. The No. 1 junior college prospect in the country didn't transfer to Auburn to sit on the bench, not when opportunities to play were plentiful around the country. At 6-foot-6, 247 pounds, he certainly passes the eye test. Now it's a matter of him getting to know the offense (he has four more months to wade through the playbook) and settle into a groove (he was jumpy at A-Day, overthrowing a couple of passes in the end zone that should have been touchdowns).

As for the rest, Caudle had an OK spring, but nothing special enough to make you think he's made the leap from backup to major player. Trotter bounced back from an ACL injury that cost him last year to show enough that he could be a quarterback of the future, and redshirt freshman Clint Moseley, while fourth in the race, at least got his first taste of working with the team after performing a scout team role last year. Still, there's no doubt in my mind that Newton's going to be the starter.

DH: Ben Tate was the cornerstone of Auburn's offense last year, but he's gone now. Has Mario Fannin seized the job? How might guys like Onterrio McCalebb or incoming freshman Michael Dyer fit in to that mix?

AB: Fannin satisfied everything the coaches wanted to see from him by the end of spring, getting the No. 1 tailback blessing from running backs coach Curtis Luper, along with the same 1,000-yard prediction Luper gave Tate. Fannin eliminated his fumbling problems and worked on lowering his pads to better suit running between the tackles. There will be plenty of carries to go around, though. Malzahn has said repeatedly that you need more than one running back to succeed in the SEC. McCalebb has bulked up some, but his game will always be about speed. Luper said he won't hesitate to throw Dyer in the mix immediately, but if history is an indicator, it'll be tough for him to make an immediate impact. I could see him being a factor in the second half of the season, but the beginning of the season, and possibly longer, will be Fannin's time.

DH: On the defensive side of the ball, Auburn finished 11th in the SEC in total defense last year and 10th in rushing defense -- including allowing 25 TDs on the ground. How much has changed in that area this spring? Has anyone stepped up that could help turn that around?

AB: It's hard to tell. Auburn had so many defenders sitting out of spring drills that the feel-good story of the spring was about walk-on safety Ikeem Means, whose performance may or may not have been a mirage.

Three safeties returning from injuries -- Zac Etheridge (neck), Aairon Savage (Achilles', knee) and Mike McNeil (leg) -- still have major question marks. Furthermore, Daren Bates, a freshman All-SEC safety who moved to a hybrid safety/linebacker spot in the offseason, sat out spring drills following shoulder surgery, leaving plenty of question marks.

But one bright spot was cornerback Demond Washington, who moved to safety at the end of last year. If he makes strides, Auburn won't feel the sting of Walt McFadden's graduation as much. Also, defensive end Antoine Carter capped a solid spring with 3.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks in the A-Day scrimmage, giving Auburn hope that he can somewhat replace the production of Antonio Coleman, the departed SEC leader in sacks and TFLs.

The key will be the return of the injured players. If they can come back, Auburn will at the very least shore up the depth problems that troubled it last year. If not, it could be another year of the defense trying to patch up problems on the fly.

DH: Well you mentioned in the secondary, Auburn gets Aairon Savage and Mike McNeil back from injuries. How'd they look this spring, and how much of a difference might they make in the season to come?

AB: Savage didn't participate in contact drills, but coaches were encourage by the way he has moved around. (Of course, they said that last year when he was coming off a knee injury and he ended up tearing his Achilles' in the summer). Although he was a full participant this spring, McNeil still had a noticeable limp a year after breaking his leg in a spring scrimmage. That left plenty of reps for junior Drew Cole and Means, a walk-on who drew universal praise from the coaches for the way he flew to the ball and caused turnovers.

But Auburn will need something from the injured guys -- including Etheridge, who didn't participate in contact this spring but will likely return to the field following a scary neck injury last fall. The coaching staff appears to be banking on them to return if Bates' move to linebacker is an indication. If healthy, the trio of Etheridge, Savage and McNeil would provide bodies and experience to a secondary that was paper thin last year. Of course, expecting all three to get back to their pre-injury form might be wishful thinking.

***

Big thanks to Andy for his input. You can read his work in the Ledger-Enquirer HERE, view his blog HERE or follow him on Twitter HERE.

So, what do you think about Auburn's potential in 2010? More progress from last year or time for a step back in Year 2 under Chizik?

And don't forget, we'll be wrapping up Two-A-Days with an in-depth look at Georgia, so if you have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments section here or send me an email at dhale@macon.com.

NEXT UP:

The Logan Gray Paradox: You Only Need Him When You Need Him

Mark Bradley wrote an interesting piece for the AJC today asking a simple enough question: What's the big deal about Logan Gray potentially leaving?

It's a fair question, really. After all, was anyone particularly enthusiastic about the idea of Gray starting at QB for Georgia at some point during the 2010 season? Chances are, if something happened to Murray and Gray had to step in, most fans would be covering their eyes in anticipation of the worst anyway.

And as Bradley writes, how often does the backup QB play anyway?

He mentions that D.J. Shockley never started a game while David Greene was in Athens. It's a good point. Of course, when Shockley became the starter in 2005, it turned out that his backup ended up playing a pretty vital role in how the Bulldogs' season played out.

That's the thing about backup QBs… you never need them until you need them.

So I agree with Bradley's overriding sentiment here: If Aaron Murray stays healthy in 2010, it doesn't matter if Gray stays, transfers or dons the Hairy Dawg costume and parades through the stands high-fiving small children. Murray is Georgia's future, and this season's success will in large part be measured by his production.

But in 2005, Shockley did everything asked of him, and yet Georgia still had to turn to the backup during a moment of crisis. These things happen from time to time, and while Joe Tereshinski's lone start didn't define Georgia's season, I'm willing to bet a few fans still sit back and think about what might have been had Shockley started against Florida that year instead.

So while Bradley reasonably asks what the big deal about Gray potentially bolting Athens would be, I might offer these 10 relatively reasonable questions, too...

1. What's Logan Gray going to do?

This is, of course, the biggest question. If he transfers, that leaves Georgia with just two scholarship QBs -- one of whom hasn't even arrived on campus yet. If he stays, he still could move to receiver, which would at least make him a viable alternative in an emergency situation -- but if playing receiver is the crux of his decision, does holding down the role of potential QB -- i.e., you can be a receiver until we tell you you're not anymore -- really appeal to him? And will it appeal to the rest of the team?

2. How does the lack of competition affect Aaron Murray?

My thought on this is not at all. Now, we may not be able to take everything coaches say about practice at face value. After all, things always seem a bit rosier when players are only dodging each other and not angry Florida, Alabama or LSU defenders on the field. But every report I got on Murray's preparation and dedication has been glowing, and Mike Bobo told me routinely that Murray prepared last year as if he were the starter, despite the redshirt. Of course, all the preparation in the world is no substitute for experience, and perhaps that's the biggest impact on Murray -- he'll be the elder statesman despite having never played a down on Saturdays.

3. How ready is Hutson Mason?

If you look at his high school stats, there's every reason to be excited about Hutson Mason's future. And at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Mason's probably better than just the upper middle class man's Joe Cox. He's a pro style QB and proved to be reasonably accurate during his days at Lassiter, so all those things work in his favor. Still, he'll be a true freshman, and that's a scary proposition. Matthew Stafford struggled as a true freshman -- 52.7% completions, 7 TDs, 13 INTs -- and he had far more physical tools and all of spring practice to prepare for the job. Mason may be a solid QB in the future (and you have to love the maturity he's displayed thus far), but he's not exactly being called a future No. 1 draft pick by Mel Kiper right now, so the expectations for him shouldn't be too high in the short term.

4. Who would be the third-string QB?


Mark Richt routinely praised Bacarri Rambo for his efforts leading Georgia's scout team offense in 2008 -- notably playing the roles of Josh Nesbitt, Randall Cobb and Tim Tebow to rave reviews. Rambo played QB in high school at Seminole County, so the job wouldn't be entirely unfamiliar to him. Of course, there are two not-so-small problems with that notion. First, Rambo's style doesn't fit what Georgia runs in the least. His arm strength isn't good enough to be a real threat at this level, and Georgia's offense is designed for a QB who can throw, not run the option. Second, Rambo does have some other responsibilities these days. He's perhaps Georgia's best defensive back right now (apologies to Brandon Boykin, who certainly can make a claim to that title, too) and moving him to the offensive side of the ball would be nearly impossible. So, beyond that, who would get the nod? Hard to say. A number of guys played QB in high school, but there's a reason they aren't still there now. No doubt Georgia will try to bring in a walk-on or three, too. But I'm also guessing no one is going to get too excited about a first-year walk on as a potential starting QB in an emergency situation.

5. Does this put a target on Murray's back?

So if teams know Georgia only has two QBs, one of whom is a true freshman, wouldn't that put a thought into the minds of a few defenders that Mr. Murray is the one thing standing between them and enjoying the spoils of tormenting Mason in a crucial SEC game? Perhaps a well-time shot at Murray's knee is just what an SEC defense needs to slow down the UGA offense? I'd like to believe that, at this level, most players and coaches would be above such shenanigans. I'd like to believe that, but I'm not that naive.

6. Wasn't Murray hurt the past two years anyway?

Indeed he was. His senior season at Plant High School, he broke his leg and missed the latter half of the season before returning in the playoffs and leading his team to a state championship. A broken leg is hardly an indication that a player is injury prone -- these things just happen in football -- but he does like to pull the ball down and run a bit more than some other QBs, which will invariably put him in the line of fire more often, too. (Which leads to a Question 6a. -- If Murray and Mason are all Georgia has, does this affect playcalling in terms of allowing Murray to run with the football?) Last season, Murray may have had a real shot at playing time as Joe Cox struggled midway through the season. Unfortunately for Murray (and perhaps for Georgia fans, too), Cox's struggles coincided with yet another injury for the freshman QB. Arm problems developed, likely as a result of throwing more often than he had in the past, and it cost Murray several weeks of practice time and any shot at avoiding a redshirt. So, do two injuries in two seasons offer enough to label a guy as an injury risk? Hard to say, but three in three years probably would, and that's not a question Georgia is looking to answer.

7. What happens if there's a longterm injury to one of the QBs?

This is perhaps the most important question if Gray should end up leaving because there really is no solution. If Murray went down, Mason would have to step in, which would likely mean a very watered-down version of Georgia's offense would be in place. Moreover, Georgia couldn't risk Mason getting hurt, too, meaning the Bulldogs would be facing playing out the season -- to use a basketball metaphor here -- with four fouls. The Dawgs would essentially be one play away from flushing their season down the drain, and at this point, there's really nothing Georgia can do other than hope and pray that the QBs stay healthy.

8. Does this really matter all that much?

Hey, Georgia returns 10 offensive starters, has a veteran offensive line and a stable of running backs that should be able to run early and often, right? So who cares about the QB situation? I can understand that mentality from fans who remember the Herschel Walker era so fondly, but it's a foolhardy notion. First off, as much as I like Caleb King and Washaun Ealey, neither of them are Herschel Walker. Secondly, the SEC has changed a lot in the last 30 years, and teams cannot win by simply running, running and running some more. Yes, Alabama won a national championship last season with a foundation of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, but the Tide had a better defense than UGA is likely to have, which kept scores low, and even then, Greg McElroy had to step up and lead Alabama to wins on more than one occasion. (Without McElroy, Alabama almost certainly would have lost to Virginia Tech and Auburn.) The fact is, Georgia can probably win six or seven or eight games this year by minimizing the role of the QB if the running game and defense play up to their potential. But if the Dawgs want to get to nine or 10 wins and have a chance at an SEC title, eventually the QB is going to have to win a game or two for them. And as The Senator pointed out earlier this week, Joe Cox's shoes might be a little harder to fill than most fans think.

9. How does this affect the 2011 recruiting?

It was Gray's flirtations with a move to wide receiver back in November that caused Georgia to change its recruiting strategy at QB last year, remember. Had he not discussed the idea then, Mason likely wouldn't be wearing a Georgia uniform this season… so at least there's that silver lining. But if Gray were to leave now, with Zach Mettenberger out the door, odds are the Dawgs would be looking to ink two quarterbacks in the upcoming class, and with Christian LeMay and Nick Marshall on their list of potential gets, people may not be too sad to see Gray and Mett hit the bricks.

I'm not sure it's that simple an equation though. First off, odds are if Georgia signs two QBs, one of them is not going to be a stud in waiting. The fact that Murray and Mettenberger arrived in the same class met with questions about potential transfers from Day 1. It's a rare occasion that two top talents are willing to sign up for the same recruiting class. And then there's Murray. No one likes the idea of not having a solid backup for Georgia's top QB, but at the same time, no one should be too worried about Murray's long-term potential either. Odds are, he's going to be a very good QB for a long time. And while Stafford had NFL written all over him from Day 1 in Athens, Murray's road to the next level will be a bit tougher due to his smaller stature. So, while there was always a good chance that Stafford would be gone in three years, Murray's just as likely to be around through the 2013 season. The question then becomes, does a top-flight QB want to come to Georgia and sit behind Murray for the next three seasons? Maybe. Mark Richt has certainly convinced QBs to ride the pine before. But as Gray has shown us, watching from the sidelines isn't everyone's idea of a fun way to spent a Saturday in the fall.

10. How did this happen… again?

Once is a problem. Twice might be a sign of some chinks in the armor. Three times though? It's probably fair to ask Mark Richt (and Rodney Garner and Mike Bobo) some questions about how the QB situation in Athens has become so desperate yet again. In 2005, when Shockley got hurt, Georgia's national championship hopes rested on the notion that Joe Tereshinski could beat Florida in his first career start (and first significant playing time). As such, Georgia lost the game and Thomas Brown had the only TD pass of the day. Last season, Joe Cox played with a bum shoulder and struggled mightily at the midpoint of the year, and yet, there seemed to be no clear backup plan. (Of course, the caveat here -- and it's no small one -- is that Gray would have been the backup plan then, but obviously the coaches weren't thrilled with that option, so how does he become a more viable Plan B now?) And now, if Georgia hadn't changed its recruiting strategy at the last minute when Gray began discussing a position change, the Dawgs might have found themselves with just one scholarship QB in the fall. (And is it worth a side note here that the indecision on recruiting a QB played a role in Da'Rick Rogers bolting for Tennessee?)

In his career -- both at Georgia and at Florida State -- Richt has coached some of the best quarterbacks in college football and has rightfully gained a reputation for being one of the best in the business at preparing a QB. No one is arguing with that -- and given what he did with Shockley, Stafford and Greene (and heck, given what he got out of the limited resources of Cox), he deserves credit.

But that begs the question: If he's so good with QBs, why have there been so many times when he doesn't seem to have enough of them? In '05, Tereshinski was ill prepared to step in for Shockley. A year later, Tereshinski was still Georgia's best option until the coaching staff threw up their hands and decided to let Stafford take his lumps. When Stafford left early -- a move that surprised no one -- Georgia was left with Cox and little else. And now, here we are, on the precipice of entering the 2010 season -- a year in which Georgia returns 10 offensive starters and should be thrilled about its prospects for moving the football -- without a QB on the roster who has taken a snap in a game situation. It's hard to fault Richt & Co. for what happened with Mettenberger, but this has still been a precarious situation for a long time.

I've made the argument enough times throughout the past few years (and I'll continue to do so) that Georgia's lack of a national title has been as much about luck as it has been about talent. In 2002 and 2007, Georgia was as close as anyone, but things just didn't fall into place.

But sometimes you have to make your own luck. And if Georgia enjoys a 2010 season in which A.J. Green is an All-American and Orson Charles torments SEC defenders the way he's capable of doing and the tailbacks really do look a lot like Herschel and the defense really does turn around under Todd Grantham -- but the Dawgs still fall short of an SEC title because they had to play with a true freshman QB down the stretch, that will be more than just some bad luck.

So what say you? How big of a deal would a Logan Gray transfer really be in your opinion? How much of this situation should be blamed on Georgia's recruiting strategy? And how many of you have some years of eligibility left in case you're needed in November?

Two-A-Days: Mississippi State Bulldogs

Two-a-Days rolls on with our third installment, in which we take a closer look at the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

To read previous entries, click HERE.

Mississippi State in a flash:

Head Coach: Dan Mullen, second year
2009 Record: 5-7 (3-5 SEC)
2009 Stats: Total offense, 371.92 ypg (7th SEC, 65th nationally); Total defense, 366.00 ypg (10th SEC, 58th nationally)
Coaching Changes: Former MTSU DC Manny Diaz replaces Carl Torbush as defensive coordinator and LBs coach; Chris Wilson serves as co-DC and takes over the D line from David Turner after serving as line coach at Oklahoma previously.
Starters Returning: Offense (7), Defense (8), Special Teams (2)
Key Player Losses: RB Anthony Dixon, QB Tyson Lee, LB Jamar Chaney
Big Games: at LSU (9/18), Georgia (9/25), @ Florida (10/16) and @ Alabama (11/13)
Non-Conference Slate: Memphis (9/4), Alcorn State (10/2), @ Houston (10/9), UAB (10/23)

Dan Mullen had a solid rookie campaign as head coach at Mississippi State, winning five games and coming close to knocking off LSU and Florida. But the schedule gets tough in 2010, and Mullen will have to replace his starting quarterback and the school's all-time rushing leader to boot.

To learn more about the West's Bulldogs, I checked in with Mississippi State beat writer Brad Locke of Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal to get some details on spring practice…

David Hale: Quarterback Chris Relf had a solid spring game, and from the looks of it, a good spring overall. Is he settled as the starter now or might we see a bit more to this battle with Tyler Russell in the fall?

Brad Locke: Relf, a junior, has the upper hand right now, but the battle is far from over. For one thing, coach Dan Mullen believes in keeping the competition open as long as he needs to. Secondly, Russell, a redshirt freshman, is too talented not to be in the mix. He's a better pure passer than Relf, and he can run the ball well enough to allow Mullen to use a good bit of the playbook. Likely, both will see playing time this fall, and their differing styles could give defenses trouble.

DH: Anthony Dixon was the foundation of Mississippi State's offense last year, but he's gone now. Who are some of the playmakers on that side of the ball that appeared ready to step in to fill the void this spring?

BL: Running back is a wide-open position right now, with JuCo transfer Vick Ballard, redshirt freshman Montrell Conner and junior Robert Elliott the leading candidates. Ballard and Conner had a better spring game than Elliott, but throughout the spring, Elliott got a ton of first-team snaps and might finally be coming into his own. When you say "playmaker," though, you think of sophomore receiver Chad Bumphis. He was SEC all-freshman last year and led the team in receiving. He's got speed and moves and can hold onto the ball. He should be the Bulldogs' best offensive player, but another guy who can make things happen is athletic tight end Marcus Green, who was second on the team in receiving.

DH: The defense was problematic for much of last season at MSU. That meant changes on the coaching staff, with Manny Diaz coming in from Middle Tennessee and Chris Wilson arriving from Oklahoma to overhaul the unit. What changes have they implemented, and who seems to be benefiting the most from the new blood?

BL: Diaz brings with him a reputation for fielding aggressive but well-balanced defenses. Cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith compared Diaz's schemes to what Joe Lee Dunn used to run at MSU, only a more "modern" version. By that, Smith means that Diaz doesn't put all the "stress" on one group, like Dunn did with his cornerbacks. MSU has a legit sack master in senior Pernell McPhee and is beefier up front, and the addition of Wilson should make them better, if you look at the stats his units put up at OU. And linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright are big enough and fast enough to get into backfields via an array of blitzes Diaz will call.

DH: Between James Carmon, Pernell McPhee, Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd -- does Wilson have a bit more to work with on the defensive line than most people around the SEC realize? Seems like it could be a pretty scary group.

BL: The potential is certainly there. McPhee had five sacks last year, but he'll have better help this year with Carmon (6'7", 345) and the promising sophomores, Boyd and Cox, who combined for 46 tackles last season. Also, Wilson should be able to get the most out of Nick Bell and Sean Ferguson at the right end spot.

DH: Mississippi State drew more than 34,000 to its spring game, and obviously the Bulldogs made some nice strides in Dan Mullen's first year that has fans excited. How was this spring different than last year? Is Mullen's plan coming together with Mississippi State ready to take the next step, or is this still very much a work in progress?

BL: Spring was different mainly regarding the installation process, for obvious reasons. Except for a handful of early enrollees and walk-ons, everybody knew the system pretty well. Plus, there was the added buzz of a quarterback competition with two viable candidates (sorry, Tyson Lee). As to your second question, yes on both counts. The Bulldogs seemed poised to take a step forward from last year's 5-7 finish, but a lot of needs must be addressed, mainly depth.

***

Big thanks to Brad for all the great info. You can read his MSU coverage for the Daily Journal HERE, check out his excellent Bulldogs blog HERE and follow him on Twitter HERE .

So, what do you think is in store for Mississippi State in 2010? Can the Bulldogs be a player in the West with a bowl bid in sight or the rebuilding project going to last at least another year?

And don't forget, we'll be wrapping up Two-A-Days with an in-depth look at Georgia, so if you have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments section here or send me an email at dhale@macon.com.

NEXT UP: Auburn this afternoon.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Two-A-Days: South Carolina Gamecocks

Two-a-Days rolls on with our fourth installment, in which we take a closer look at the South Carolina Gamecocks.

To read previous entries, click HERE.

South Carolina in a flash:

Head Coach: Steve Spurrier, sixth year
2009 Record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC), lost to Connecticut in the PapaJohns.com Bowl
2009 Stats: Total offense, 347.38 ypg (9th SEC, 82nd nationally); Total defense, 300.69 ypg (3rd SEC, 15th nationally)
Coaching Changes: Former Appalachian State assistant Shawn Elliott takes over for departed O line coach/running game coordinator Eric Wolford, who left to head up Youngstown State's program. Spurrier will also be more involved this season, calling 100 percent of South Carolina's offensive plays.
Starters Returning: Offense (8), Defense (7), Special Teams (2)
Key Player Losses: LB Eric Norwood, DE Clifton Geathers, WR Moe Brown
Big Games: Georgia (9/11), Alabama (10/9), @ Florida (11/13) and @ Clemson (11/27)
Non-Conference Slate: Southern Miss (9/2), Furman (9/18), Troy (11/20) and @ Clemson (11/27)

The late-season trials and tribulations continued for South Carolina in 2009 and after five full seasons on the job, Steve Spurrier hasn't been able to get the Gamecocks over the hump. But with one of the calmer offseasons among its Eastern Division rivals -- QB complaints aside -- South Carolina has become a chic pick to earn its first trip the the SEC title game in 2010.

To get the low-down on how serious a contender the Gamecocks really are, I checked in with South Carolina beat writer Seth Emerson of The State. Here's what he had to say...

David Hale: So it sounds like Steve Spurrier isn't the biggest Stephen Garcia fan in the world. What is the potential impact of Spurrier's public flogging of his QB, and is there any chance we might see Connor Shaw as the starting QB at some point this season?

Seth Emerson: Yeah, it emerged as the storyline of camp, partly because there weren't any better stories, but also because it moved a bit beyond the normal Spurrier carping about his quarterback. In a nutshell, Garcia isn't getting it quite done off the field - still misses some meetings, things like that - and on the field still makes what the coaches think are dumb mistakes - like the wrong read on a route - which the coaches trace back to not being as committed off the field.

Garcia didn't take the public criticism too lightly, saying it "upset" him but would make him more committed to prove Spurrier wrong. Will he? That's anyone's guess.

When push comes to shove, I don't think we'll see Connor Shaw starting against Southern Miss, unless Spurrier really wants to send a message. The kid's still a true freshman. That said, Shaw impressed me in camp, a dual-threat quarterback who seemed a pretty heady kid. So you never know, especially with Spurrier.

DH: How much better has Stephon Gilmore gotten since Georgia last saw him, and where might we seem him on the field come September? Will he be a regular part of the offense in addition to his CB duties?

SE: He's gotten better as a cornerback, but he wasn't that bad to begin with. He was hardly a true freshman, having enrolled early, and the coaches raved about him. He'll cover the boundary side of the field for the Gamecocks for the foreseeable future.

As for quarterback, we'll see. The results were mixed for that, especially throwing, but he gives them an added dimension running wise. He didn't do too great in the spring game in the one series he got - he was picked off. It'll be interesting to see in August how much they take a true look at him there, but with Garcia and Shaw both being mobile quarterbacks, that kind of takes away the pressing need to put him in there.

DH: Bigger issue at this point: How good the D line might be or how concerning the O line might be? How has new O line coach Shawn Elliott tweaked what was a big problem for the Gamecocks last year?

SE: Oh, it's the O-Line by a mile. The D-Line should be fine, the only concern in the spring was that three starters were sitting out, all with precautionary reasons. Cliff Matthews could lead the SEC in sacks, the other end (Devin Taylor) is an athletic specimen, and the two DTs are veterans.

The O-Line, once again, is a work in progress. They were OK in the spring, and add six recruits who arrive this summer. Elliott has done some tweaking, as part of an inside zone running scheme you'll see more of this season. But will this line improve? I'll believe it when I see it.

DH: Most pundits seem to view South Carolina as perhaps the most settled team in the division (which granted, is a rather dubious honor). What do you see as the main concerns after spring practice? Were there any surprises in terms of who really stood out during the spring?

SE: Quarterback shouldn't be a concern, but now it is. The tailback situation is in flux, as stud recruit Marcus Lattimore arrives this summer. The O-Line we discussed. The defensive secondary has a potential issue, with Chris Culliver (formerly a safety, who sat out the spring after shoulder surgery) flipping positions with Akeem Auguste. The two linebackers (Rodney Paulk and Shaq Wilson) are both pretty small for the SEC.

I'd say the biggest surprises to me were Shaw, receiver D.L. Moore, and some of the younger secondary players. But no one stood up and made you say "wow."

DH: From what you saw this spring and the folks you've talked to about the team, how realistic would you say South Carolina's chances of finally grabbing an SEC East title are in 2010?

SE: Realistically, they've got a shot. But given that Florida, and to a certain extent Georgia, are merely reloading with the major talent they've recruited in recent years, the Gamecocks still need to have everything line up right. Garcia needs to have his head on straight, the running backs need to produce, the offensive line needs to at least be serviceable, the defense needs a pass rush and to avoid injuries, the special teams needs to become a plus.

If most or all of that happens, yes South Carolina can win the division. And the fact is, that hasn't been true going into past years.

***

Big thanks to Seth for his insight. You can read his Gamecocks coverage HERE , check out his South Carolina blog HERE and follow him on Twitter HERE.

So, how serious a contender do you view South Carolina as this year? Will you be worried about Georgia's trip to Columbia in Week 2? Or does the public fallout between coach and QB lead you to believe another 7- or 8-win season is the highwater mark for the Cocks?

And don't forget, we'll be wrapping up Two-A-Days with an in-depth look at Georgia, so if you have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments section here or send me an email at dhale@macon.com.

NEXT UP: Mississippi State on Wednesday morning.

Two-A-Days: Alabama Crimson Tide

Last year, we spent two weeks talking with beat writers from around the SEC to get a feel for how Georgia's competition stood at the end of spring.

This year, we're doing it again with an 18-part series looking at each team in the conference along with Georgia's three non-conference FBS opponents and some big-picture analysis on the league in general, the national landscape and recruiting. We'll have two installments each day the rest of this week and next -- hence the "Two-A-Days" moniker -- and, of course, we begin with the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide...

Alabama in a flash:

Head Coach: Nick Saban, 4th year
2009 Record: 14-0 (8-0), defeated Texas in BCS National Championship game
2009 Stats: Total offense, 403.00 ypg (4th SEC, 42nd nationally); Total defense, 244.14 ypg (1st SEC, 2nd nationally)
Coaching Changes: Jeremy Pruitt replaced James Willis as linebackers coach.
Starters Returning: Offense (8), Defense (2), Special Teams (0)
Key Player Losses: LB Rolando McClain, DT Terrance Cody, CB Javier Arenas, CB Kareem Jackson, K Leigh Tiffin
Big Games: Penn State (9/11), Florida (10/2), @ LSU (11/6), Auburn (11/26)
Non-Conference Slate: San Jose State (9/4), Penn State (9/11), @ Duke (9/18), Georgia State (11/20)

Alabama is coming off a national championship and returns the bulk of its offense. The defense, on the other hand, will require a lot of new blood, so despite being the odds-on favorite to repeat as champions of the SEC, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart are going to have their work cut out for them.

How much work did they get done this spring? For that information, I turned to Alabama beat writer Gentry Estes of the Mobile Press-Register. Here's what he had to say...

David Hale: It's not often an incumbent Heisman winner returns to an offense and might be upstaged by another player at the same position, but you did a poll of readers that asked who the first pick on 'Bama's team would be among fans. Mark Ingram finished fourth, behind fellow RB Trent Richardson (who finished second). Is that just an indication of how scary this offense -- particularly the running game -- can be in 2010? And how much progress has Richardson made since his impressive freshman campaign?

Gentry Estes: It's amazing to think that a Heisman winner returns and it is even a debate whether he's the best in his own backfield. But really, this is nothing new for those close to Alabama's team. As durable as Ingram is and as good as he is after contact, Richardson has a bit more break-away speed and is every bit as difficult to corral between the tackles. Now that Richardson is picking up pass protection schemes a lot better, so there's just not a weakness there. I'd look for the carries to be split pretty evenly this season between arguably the two best running backs in the nation.

DH: The Bama offense could be as good as ever this year, but lots of questions on defense after a number of departures last year. Perhaps the two biggest holes -- quite literally in at least one case -- left are from Terrence Cody and Rolando McClain. Who are the top candidates to step in and fill those voids?

GE: Former Hoover High teammates Josh Chapman and Kerry Murphy -- a former five-star prospect who had academic issues -- will split time in Cody's role. Both are quite capable there. As for McClain, Alabama gets Dont'a Hightower back from a season-ending knee injury to step into McClain's "Mike" position, a pivotal role since it calls signals as the QB of the defense. Though there are nine new starters on that defense, there is a lot of talent there as three consecutive top-five recruiting classes come of age.

DH: With Robby Green ruled ineligible by the NCAA and DeQuan Menzie out with an Achilles injury, what's the status of the Alabama secondary? Fair to say that's the chief concern at this point?

GE: Actually, I might call special teams in the chief concern, as Alabama must replace proven players at place-kicker and punter with untested newcomers. But the secondary is an issue as well, if only because Saban uses nickel and dime defenses more than half the time and needs a minimum of six DBs ready to play each week. As with the rest of the defense, though, there is talent to replace experience. The two newcorners -- Dre Kirkpatrick and B.J. Scott -- were both five-star recruits. Another five-star, freshman DeMarcus Milliner, is in the mix, as is LSU transfer Phelon Jones. At safety, Robert Lester is a likely candidate for the spot Green would have played.

DH: While the secondary might be a question, defensive end Marcell Dareus looked like he was ready for an All-American season this spring. Any other standouts this spring that might be ready to take a big leap forward?

GE: Dareus is a beast. I look for him to be among the best in the nation and a high draft pick in 2011. Others to watch are Kirkpatrick, Murphy, linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Jerrell Harris, tight end Mike Williams and new offensive line starters Chance Warmack (from Atlanta) and D.J. Fluker.

DH: Alabama is fresh off a national championship and is the odds-on pick to win another. That can be a heavy burden for a lot of teams to bear -- but then again, Nick Saban isn't one for making excuses. So what's been the mood of the team this spring? Are they as motivated as ever or might there be a danger of a post-national title hangover?

GE: There's always the concern that a championship team can grow complacent, and Saban is well aware of it. But the simple fact is that it's hard to see a drop-off because Alabama will have so much more talent than basically everyone it plays. The offense is loaded. The defense is better than people will think. And those special teams ... Well, if the Tide loses a game in 2011, I think it will be because of weakness at kicker and punter. There simply isn't a real weakness anywhere else.

***

Many thanks to Gentry for all the great information. You can read his Tide coverage HERE, check out his Bama blog HERE or follow him on Twitter HERE.

So what say you guys? Do you think Alabama should be the heavy favorite to take the SEC again or do you have concerns about all the turnover no defense?

Also, we'll be wrapping up Two-A-Days with an in-depth look at Georgia, so if you have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments section here or send me an email at dhale@macon.com.

NEXT UP: South Carolina this afternoon.