The 2010 season opener for the Georgia Bulldogs is nearly seven months away but it is not too early to begin considering what it will take for the Dawgs to be successful next fall.
Personally, I believe Georgia can vastly improve upon its five-loss campaign from a year ago and strongly contend for the SEC East title. However, to reach the SEC Championship Game, the team will need several inexperienced and/or young players and even a brand new Bulldog to promptly step up their game.
If the majority of these Bulldogs raise their performance levels this season, Georgia should improve upon its 8-5 mark from 2009. If all five of these Dawgs do so, we’ll likely see them in the Georgia Dome on Dec. 4.
5) TODD GRANTHAM
The 43-year-old Grantham, the third-highest paid assistant in college football, arrives in Athens from the Dallas Cowboys with a fat wallet and a plan to switch Georgia from the 4-3 to a 3-4 defensive scheme.
Many of the Bulldog Nation remember the last time Georgia ran a 3-4 defense. Prior to Grantham, it was also the last time the Bulldogs welcomed a new defensive coordinator whose previous job had been in the NFL.
Marion “Swamp Fox” Campbell, a coach in the NFL for 28 seasons, came to Georgia in 1994 and installed a 3-4 base defense. The result for the Bulldogs was arguably their worst defensive performance in modern history.
The 394 yards it allowed per game in ’94 still ranks as the second highest yielded by Georgia since yardage totals started being recorded at the school in 1946. Campbell resigned after just one season.
Granted, a fair comparison cannot be made between the new and former defensive coordinators. Campbell was 65 years old when he came to Georgia and five years removed from his last coaching position.
On the other hand, while Grantham was in Dallas, there were those in the NFL who often wondered why he was simply a position coach, indicating it was only a matter of time until he landed a distinguished job in football. That time has come.
Grantham exhibits a fiery and hard-nosed personality on the sidelines similarly to Georgia’s two most celebrated defensive coordinators in recent memory—Erk Russell (1964-80) and Brian VanGorder (2001-04).
Grantham, the Bulldogs’ tenth defensive coordinator in 31 years, will hopefully attempt to instill discipline and intensity—characteristics the Georgia defense, which allowed an average of more than 25 points per game during the 2008-2009 seasons, has rarely demonstrated of late.
Georgia fans expect Grantham to turnaround a defense that was known for committing penalties, not forcing turnovers, and giving up lots of points the past two years.
Also expected are defensive performances not resembling those once coached by the newly-departed Willie Martinez or, even worse, the Swamp Fox. Instead, desired is a defense reminiscent of the units under Erk and VanGorder.
4) TAVARRES KING
When contemplating which Georgia receiver needs to step up the most this upcoming season, I, like other Dawg fans, immediately think of sophomore Marlon Brown.
However, on second thought, how much room is there for Brown to show significant improvement?
Brown, the top prospect out of the state of Tennessee a year ago, played sparingly for the Bulldogs in ’09 as a true freshman. Entering the spring, the 6’5”, 200 lb sophomore will likely be listed on only Georgia’s third team.
At wide receiver, the Bulldogs also return Kris Durham, who was redshirted last season after finishing fifth on the team in receiving in 2008, Rantavious Wooten, Israel Troupe, and, of course, A.J. Green, who will get some preseason Heisman Trophy hype entering the upcoming season.
Last year, Green easily was the team leader with 53 catches for 808 yards and eight touchdowns. His receptions and yardage were more than twice that of Georgia’s second-leading receiver. Notably, Green’s impressive numbers were achieved while missing nearly four entire games in November.
Yet, the wideout of the entire bunch who’ll need to step up the most is sophomore Tavarres King.
In 2010, the Dawgs need a wide receiver to fully compliment the dynamic Green—one who can play a much bigger role for Georgia than the Bulldogs’ so-called secondary receivers from a year ago, especially considering Green has shown to be prone to injury.
For Brown, the Bulldogs’ sixth-best receiver, maybe fifth, what is there to “step up” to? Second team on Georgia’s depth chart?
Instead, the focus should be on another sophomore receiver in King.
As only a freshman last season, King finished second on the team in receiving yardage and first in starts at wide receiver with nine. Similar production, if not more, should be expected in 2010.
3) DeANGELO TYSON
In Georgia’s move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, the Bulldogs will need just one tackle, instead of the previous two, in their starting lineup. The switch cannot come at a better time as Georgia loses three defensive tackles—Gino Atkins, Jeff Owens, and Kade Weston—who combined for 83 career starts and all could possibly be selected in this year’s NFL Draft.
Junior DeAngelo Tyson is the early favorite to fill Georgia’s lone starting tackle spot on the defensive line, just ahead of sophomore Abry Jones, who has actually indicated he would rather play at end.
Tyson recorded only 12 tackles a year ago but four of them came in Georgia’s upset of seventh-ranked Georgia Tech. He also blocked a critical PAT attempt by South Carolina kicker Spencer Lanning, preserving a 38-37 fourth-quarter lead in the Bulldogs’ 41-37 win over the Gamecocks last September. With the block, Tyson became only the seventh Dawg since 1982 to block a PAT.
The most important position in a 3-4 defense could be the man in the middle of the line. Coach Grantham has indicated he wants that man to quickly come off the ball, get through blocking, and swiftly penetrate. Although somewhat inexperienced, the 6’2” 294 lb Tyson fits that role better than any other Bulldog.
Prior to arriving to Georgia, Grantham was responsible for coaching Dallas’ defensive line during the 2008 and 2009 seasons. He was perhaps the main reason why Jay Ratliff, the Cowboys’ starting nose tackle, was transformed from a sixth-round selection in 2005 that recorded just 52 tackles and eight sacks his first three seasons in Dallas to an NFL All-Pro, registering 91 tackles and 13½ sacks in the two years under Grantham.
Tyson and Ratliff are approximately the same size and, although Ratliff attended Auburn, both hail from south Georgia. For now, the similarities may stop there.
When Grantham shows Tyson tape of Ratliff leading up to the 2010 season, the Bulldog nose tackle should be able to pick up a few pointers from the Dallas All-Pro. It will be just one of the many steps Tyson will need to take to fill a pivotal position in Georgia’s new defensive scheme.
2) BRANDEN SMITH
Georgia returns only four starters on defense in 2010, including just one in its secondary (cornerback Brandon Boykin). However, that may not be a bad thing as the Bulldogs ranked 73rd in the nation and next-to-last in the SEC last season in pass efficiency defense.
The defensive backfield does return several players with plenty of talent, who’ll need to improve the Bulldogs’ prowess against the pass, including Vance Cuff, Bacarri Rambo, Quintin Banks, Makiri Pugh, Sanders Commings, and above all, Branden Smith.
Smith, who’ll start at the weak-side corner position, made 14 tackles last year and broke up two passes in a reserve role. The lone start he made was actually on the other side of the ball, starting at running back against Florida. It was on offense where the multi-talented, true freshman made an immediate impact for the Bulldogs.
Smith finished the 2009 campaign with 208 rushing yards (fourth-highest on the team), a whopping 12.2 yards per carry (a Georgia single-season record for players rushing for at least 150 yards), and two touchdowns. In addition, he caught two passes, was second on the team in kick returns (279 yards), and had three plays (two rushes, one kickoff return) of 48 yards or more.
Unfortunately, along with Caleb King, Smith also led the Bulldogs in fumbles lost with two. The difference between the teammates was King had 124 touches, Smith only 35.
Smith also lost a sure touchdown in the Independence Bowl against Texas A&M when it appeared he had intercepted a fourth-quarter pass and had a clear running path for the endzone. Instead, the ball bounced off his chest and fell to the ground incomplete.
Clearly, the youngster mistakenly was thinking touchdown first, making the interception second.
The last two years, the Bulldogs have landed just one five-star recruit according to Rivals—Booker T. Washington High’s Branden Smith of Atlanta. After a brilliant high school career and a promising freshman season at Georgia, it seems Smith undoubtedly has the potential to help lead an inexperienced secondary.
If the triple threat can step up his game defensively and hold onto the football as well, Smith could be a viable weapon for the Bulldogs in all three phases of the game.
1) THE STARTING QUARTERBACK
It is the only position of the 11 on Georgia’s offense not returning the starter from last season and the biggest concern the Bulldogs have entering 2010—their quarterback.
Three signal callers are vying for the starting position—junior Logan Gray and redshirt freshmen Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray. Murray is the overwhelming favorite to lead the Dawgs’ offense this fall.
Georgia’s quarterbacks have combined for just 23 total offensive plays (all by Gray, two in 2008 and 21 in 2009) in their entire collegiate careers heading into this year. This total is the fewest by returning Bulldog quarterbacks going into a season since 1977. Talk about inexperience!
Nevertheless, there are many confident in Murray’s potential. The highly-touted Florida native passed for over 4,000 yards and 51 touchdowns in 2007 at Plant High in Tampa. Murray can also run the ball a little, rushing for over 900 yards that same season while averaging more than 10 yards per carry.
Besides D.J. Shockley, Murray would be the biggest running threat for a Georgia starting quarterback since Quincy Carter 10 years ago.
For the Bulldogs’ offense to be productive, Murray will need to play mostly mistake-free football—a definite challenge for a quarterback never having taken a snap in college and something Joe Cox and Gray had a difficult time achieving in 2009. Last season, the 17 interceptions thrown by Georgia was its most since 1984 and one reason for the Dawgs’ worst campaign since 1996.
In the final five games of 2009, the Bulldogs’ offensive line finally gelled and the running game, led by freshman Washaun Ealey and sophomore Caleb King, flourished. During that span, Georgia’s offense averaged 243 rushing yards and 5.9 yards per carry, only 21 pass attempts, and just 1.4 turnovers per game, compared to only 110 yards and 3.6 per carry, 30 passes, and 2.6 turnovers their first eight games.
Georgia was only 4-4 in their first eight games of the season but 4-1 in its final five.
With the return of Ealey and King and seven offensive linemen totaling 155 career starts, Georgia’s rushing attack is expected to be considerably strong. Thus, Murray should be only asked to manage the offense and not win games without much of a supporting cast, like Cox often attempted to do in 2009.
As was the case a year ago, if Georgia’s quarterback is able to merely manage while making few mistakes, the Bulldogs’ offense will be hard to stop and their team extremely difficult to defeat in 2010.