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July 25, 2013

'13 Defense: Actually Better than Before?

Grantham and Garrison are pumped for 2013 
... and based on the Bulldogs' inexperienced 
defensive past, they should be.
One of my writing assignments for the newly-released DAWGTIME preseason magazine was to preview Georgia's upcoming defense—a unit deeply depleted from a year ago (as we are all fully aware).  Still, the Bulldogs' school-record seven defenders drafted into the NFL did not seem to daunt my four interviewees for the article—Garrison Smith, Ray Drew, Damian Swann, and Todd Grantham.
"We actually have eight guys on this year’s team who have started on defense before," Grantham was quick to point out when I brought up the fact Georgia returns just four starters from last year's unit (and really just three if you consider the top 11 defenders as far as their number of starts in 2012).  Yes, the coach is correct—eight guys return who have starting experience on the defensive side of the ball.  However, that includes Devin Bowman (1 career start), Connor Norman (2), and Malcolm Mitchell, who started three games at cornerback last year, but will presumably play only wide receiver in 2013.  
The bottom line is that Georgia returns just 59 career defensive starts, and from what I discovered, that is the Bulldogs' lowest returning total in 35 years since the 1978 team.
An additional telling statistic measuring a team's returning experience on defense, and another which is Georgia's lowest since 1978, is one utilized by the acclaimed Phil Steele in his forecasting: percentage of the returning number of tackles from the previous year.  In returning tackles from 2011, Georgia ranks 126th in the FBS, or dead last, returning players who totaled just 34.0 percent of the team's tackles a year ago.
How indicative is a team's percentage of tackles returning?  Well, in the FBS from 2011 to 2012, rather revealing.  I found that 16 FBS schools entered 2012 returning 48 percent or less of their tackles from the previous season.  Of these 16 teams, 10 would allow more points in 2012 than 2011, 11 yielded more offensive yards, and most importantly, just three of the 16 bettered their record from 2011.  Makes sense to me: the less tackles a team has returning, the less tacklers are coming back, rendering a more inexperienced defense which causes most defenses to be in decline from the previous season.  However, as I've presented on this blog a number of times before, Georgia is not like most teams, and its historical trending patterns seem to often go against the norm.
No longer the Junkyard Dogs, the inexperienced 
Wonderdog defense of '78 seemingly improved
from Georgia's defensive unit the year before.  
I soon recalled Georgia's 1978 team returning just three defensive starters from the year before, and then calculated that only 31.9 percent of the team's tackles from '77 returned.  Defensively, things looked bleak for the Bulldogs entering that season and such despair was following a losing 5-6 campaign the year before.  However, as a preseason forecast stated, "Defensive Coach Erk Russell has been known to work miracles," and miracles were indeed worked that year.  Led by an opportune defense, which allowed less than 15 points per game, the '78 "Wonderdogs" shocked the nation with a 9-1-1 regular-season mark.
Entering the last 38 seasons beginning in 1976, I discovered just seven instances, including 1978 and 2013, the Bulldogs returned roughly 50 percent or less of their number of tackles from the year before:
1978- 31.9 percent
2013- 34.0
1989- 46.1
1992- 47.1
2007- 48.3
2002- 49.5
2010- 50.6
Interestingly, four of the six listed campaigns above (excluding 2013) were outstanding years at Georgia—four top-11 finishes in the final AP regular-season poll.  And, for all six seasons, the Bulldogs had admirable defensive units.  I compared these six—the 1978, 1989, 1992, 2002, 2007, and 2010 at-or-less-than-50-percent-returning-tackles seasons—to their previous campaigns, and both sets averaged the exact same number of yards yielded per game (324).  Curiously, Georgia's at-or-less-than-50-percent-returning-tackles set allowed nearly less points per game (17.0 to 19.4) and most significant, averaged a better record of more than a one-game increase from the previous season (6½ games better for the six seasons combined).
In short, most college football defenses go into a decline in seasons when the unit would be regarded as inexperienced compared to its previous year, and rightfully so.  However, on the whole, this hasn't been the case at Georgia.  In fact, the Bulldogs' defense, and the team's overall record, tends to actually get better than before when featuring a depleted defensive unit. 
Historical trends aside, the Bulldogs' talent-filled defense allowed nearly 20 points and 360 yards per game last year.  Against the run specifically, Georgia gave up a staggering 182.1 yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry—both the highest averages for a Bulldog defense since 1994.  Therefore, one could argue Georgia's NFL-laden defense of 2012 was actually the most yielding of the Coach Richt era.

"A year ago, there was some talent playing behind that NFL talent; it's just that some of us didn't get to play a whole lot," Drew told me.  "Considering that, plus the depth we'll have this season, I think our defense will be just fine." 

Considering that—what Drew says—plus the fact the Bulldogs tend to buck certain trends which inhibit other teams, instead of inexperienced, Georgia's defense may very well be distinguished by another "I" word in 2013—improved.

July 20, 2013

Diary of a Dawg Night Wait-lister

As I've mentioned here a number of times before, I have limited interest in high school football recruiting.  I tend to follow a player upon him becoming a Georgia Bulldog, and not before so.  Nevertheless, I found myself intrigued a week ago with UGA's "Dawg Night," and the desire of a young man -- a Dawg Night "wait-lister," so to speak -- to perhaps become one of the fortunate ones to eventually sign with Georgia.
Last week, I knew little regarding UGA's Dawg Night, but was interested in what exactly a prospect experienced at the event.  The articles I discovered primarily dealt with which recruits committed to Georgia during the night, but not what they actually encountered.  I did discover a few articles with supposed inside information on some recruits' thoughts on Dawg Night, but those particular pay-site pieces were for "insiders" only -- no pay, no insight.   
As fate would have it, I was put in touch with the father of Shiloh High School's Cameron Stewart a few days following Dawg Night.  Cameron and his father didn't know it, but I was quite familiar with the soon-to-be junior wide receiver.  I lived in Snellville from 2003 to 2012, including covering high school sports as a correspondent for the Gwinnett Daily Post for several years.  I might know little about high school recruiting, but I still follow football in Gwinnett County rather closely.
I was first familiarized with the 6-foot-3, 180-pound Stewart following his defender's-hand-under-facemask, leaping catch against Meadowcreek as a mere sophomore a year ago (photo).  Cameron finished the 2012 season with 26 catches for 615 yards and 9 touchdowns.  His receiving yards were nearly half that of his entire team's; the rest of the Shiloh squad combined for less than half (four) his number of receiving touchdowns.  Nicknamed "Calvin Johnson Jr.," Stewart also runs a 4.5 in the 40, and maintains a 3.0 GPA.
Some sophomore highlights of Cameron:

A number of schools have come calling for Stewart, including Auburn, Oklahoma State, Vanderbilt, and Virginia Tech.  The receiver, who still has two years remaining of high school ball, has been given offers from Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Louisville.  But, so far, nothing has come from Georgia -- a school located less than an hour from his home.

This summer, Cameron has been invited to his fair share of collegiate football camps.  At one camp just prior to Dawg Night, Kipp Adams of ESPN/Dawg Nation felt compelled to tweet, "Remember this name Cameron Stewart 6'3" WR Shiloh HS."  Regardless, a few days later as far as an invite to Dawg Night, again, nothing came from Georgia.

Cameron's father, Randy, visited Georgia's "2013 Coach Richt's Football Camps" webpage and was confronted with the following: 2013 Dawg Night registration has met capacity. If you are interested in being placed on a waiting list for this camp, please call 706-542-1515 for details.  Randy called for details and was greeted with an automated message, declaring Dawg Night was filled, but if the recruit's contact information was given, he'd be placed on a waiting list.  If spots came available, Georgia would reach out to the most deserving recruits. 

A spot must have become available rather quickly because Georgia was soon in touch with Cameron, asking him to attend its Dawg Night.  The wait-lister had turned invitee in less than two hours.

Regardless of the rain and the fact one could tell which recruits were the highly anticipated, and which were the last accepted (by the jerseys the players wore -- evidently, there was a slight difference in the jersey appearance between the recruits Georgia had been expecting for some time compared to the last-minute wait-listers), Cameron had a "great time" at Dawg Night.  Prospects were first weighed and their heights measured.  After being informed about the UGA football program, the players were then divided into groups, where they underwent drills.

I just had to ask what was Cameron's favorite part of Dawg Night...  Apparently, during the drills, Stewart's performance turned the heads of both assistant Tony Ball and Mark Richt.  This wait-lister was taken aside and given unanticipated "special attention" from one who would be his position coach and the head Bulldog of them all.  Not bad for someone who wasn't even invited to the event to begin with...

Again, I might know little about high school football recruiting, but I do know my UGA football history and am quite aware of the numerous local players -- those that would turn out to be standouts for other schools -- the Bulldogs have let slip through their fingers over time.  Of course, with the abundance of talented recruits available seemingly from all over, such unawareness will inevitably result and obviously occurs at every major program. 

As I was ending my call with Randy, I asked if Georgia happened to show Cameron some interest in the near future would the star receiver suddenly be attracted to becoming a Bulldog.  "Then, UGA would definitely be in the mix!" he confirmed.  Randy then bided me farewell speaking from a restaurant in Nashville, where his son had just finished his stay as an invitee to Vanderbilt's Elite Camp IV.

Following the conversation, I was reminded of one of the reasons why I don't follow recruiting closely: it's difficult for me to comprehend why a recruit is considered a wait-lister by some, but an A-lister by others.  Regardless, and as tweeted, remember this name -- Cameron Stewart.  And, it would likely be in Georgia's best interest to remember it as well when the Bulldogs extend their initial invites next time they hold camp. 

July 11, 2013

Pulpwood (Candidly) Spoke

I wanted to announce that my newest UGA football book -- GAME OF MY LIFE Georgia Bulldogs -- has recently been printed and released by my publisher in New York.  For what it's worth, I can honestly say it is my favorite of the six book projects I have completed. 
As mentioned here before, I was granted permission to co-author the book with my father, and that made the project extra special.  Also, I was fortunate enough to sit down and interview 25 standout Bulldog players from the past, whose ages span from 22 to 91 years old, and not only hear about the "game of their life," so to speak, but also simply their life experiences in general, on and off the UGA campus, and on and off the football field.  

Notably, a conscious effort was made by us for the book to be different from the dozens of previous ones on UGA football by revealing the untold stories of a number of great players.  There have been many standout players in history to don the red and black, but unfortunately only a select number of them have been featured in a book.  As I asked my father at the beginning of the project, "Surely, even a punter has a game of his life, right?"   

These stories entertained us, and some made us laugh, while even a couple made us tear up.  Above all, the stories we were told educated and enlightened my father and I.  Our hope is that we were able to convey these accounts in the pages of the manuscript, giving each player their due.

Over the last few months, I've been asked several times which of the 25 interviews was my favorite.  Honestly, they were all so pleasing, but different, it's impossible for me to answer that.  However, thumbing through the book, I just caught a glimpse of what I believe was my favorite and perhaps the most meaningful quote from a player.

Pulpwood today -- no longer
with gasoline drawers on
Speaking of "different," I've blogged about Andre "Pulpwood" Smith before, including just after I interviewed him for the book.  He certainly gave a one-of-a-kind interview, especially in regards to his up-and-down life since flunking out of UGA following his one-hit wonder season of 1984.  Pulpwood was more than straightforward with me, including in explaining his circumstances while recovering in a hospital in 1997 after being shot in the back: "I had been through hell with gasoline drawers on and thought I might die," he declared.

Like the other two dozen accounts, Pulpwood's story has a happy ending.  He became a Christian, escaping his life of crime and drugs, while discovering there were people "out there from my past that really loved me."  Still, he admits, "I've actually had people, including some teammates, recently tell me, 'I thought you were dead!'"

The book is titled "Game of My Life," but it's just as much about the life experiences of those we once cheered for.  Some of these players still remain in the spotlight, whereas you may have not heard the names of others for years.  The experiences they share in the book span from one extreme to the other -- from the customary encounters to going to hell wearing gasoline drawers.

The book can be found at local bookstores and via online dealers, but your best bet, avoiding paying sales tax and inflated shipping charges, is to purchase the book directly from me at my online bookstore -- PatrickGarbin.org.  I sell my books at retail price and will ship all orders, whether you buy 1 or say 1,000 books, for 99 cents.  Plus, my co-author and I will happily throw in our complimentary signatures (especially if you were to purchase 1,000...).

July 5, 2013

Wrong Call! Wrong Call!

 If not for a couple of "gifts," (pictured L to R in '47 Sugar Bowl) Charley Trippi, Joe Geri,
"Rabbit" Smith, and their teammates perhaps would've been withheld from a perfect 1946 season.
I hope everyone had a Happy July 4th!  My holiday began yesterday with an unexpected, mid-morning phone call from an 85-year-old gentleman from Dacula, whom I'd never spoken with before.  The man said he hated to bother me on the holiday morning, but he was wondering where he could get a copy of my newest book on UGA football. (Well, with that being said, you're no bother at all, and for anyone else interested, the book can be purchased at a discount directly from me beginning early next week, but more on that, well, early next week...)
During our conversation, I inquired with my new friend what I often ask from those I meet who have been following the Bulldogs for many moons: What are some of your greatest memories of Georgia football?
The man was filled with a number of compelling stories from yesteryear, including one of assistant coach Ralph "Shug" Jordan serving as his instructor for a P.E. class at UGA during the late-40s.  "But one in particular really sticks out in my mind after all these years," he told me.  "You know, Patrick, we really got outplayed by UNC in Charley Trippi's last game for Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.  We won 20-10, but it seemed the officials were really on our side.  Afterwards, UNC raised Cain!"
My friend detailed the 1947 Sugar Bowl between the undefeated Bulldogs and the North Carolina Tar Heels, featuring Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice, and two questionable rulings by officials, which made a drastic difference in the bowl's scoring.  I had never heard or read of such lore, so I was all ears as the man recalled himself listening to the radio while distressing over what had been a rather one-sided affair.  That is, until Georgia caught a break, or two.
Midway through the third quarter, UNC led 7-0 and was looking for more before Georgia's Joe Tereshinski intercepted a pass, lateraled the ball to Dick McPhee, who sprinted more than 60 yards, nearly scoring a touchdown.  "Wrong call!  Wrong call!" evidently the unbiased national radio announcer proclaimed.  Apparently, Tereshinski's pitch was an illegal forward lateral and instead of Georgia possessing the ball deep in UNC territory, the Bulldogs should have taken over deep inside their own.  Georgia tied the score three plays later.  
In the fourth quarter, UNC's Ken Powell caught a 20-yard touchdown before falling into Georgia's Charles "Rabbit" Smith in the end zone.  Curiously, Powell was called for pass interference and the touchdown was negated.  With that, and for a second time, the radio announcer declared, "Wrong call!  Wrong call!"  and the Tar Heels would come away with no points.  To this day, there are a handful of UNC old timers who still wonder how a receiver can interfere with a defender, when he is in front of the defender while facing the oncoming ball.
The man's story of how Georgia apparently was on the "good" side of a couple of bad calls, which helped the Bulldogs capture the Sugar Bowl and, thus, complete a perfect 11-0 season, compelled me to list my opinion (and gather a few video clips) of Georgia's all-time most questionable game-deciding rulings -- official calls, whether they went against the Bulldogs or in their favor,  that likely wouldn't be made today because of instant replay or other rule changes.  

1947 Sugar Bowl: On Tereshinski's forward lateral, an official actually ran to the spot of the toss, standing there for a moment, but didn't call the return back.  On the second call in question, Powell not only caught the touchdown in front of Smith, but was then knocked out cold by the "Rabbit" and had to be removed from the field, yet the receiver was called for the interference. 
1965 Alabama: Trailing by a touchdown, Georgia executes one of the greatest plays in school history -- the Moore-to-Hodgson-to-Taylor famous 73-yard flea-flicker.  As noted before, common belief is that the Bulldogs got away with one because Hodgson's knees appeared to be touching the ground when he pitched the lateral to Moore.  However, the officials would claim the Georgia end never had complete control of the ball, therefore Hodgson's lateral was more like a batted ball to Taylor (therefore, his knees were allowed to touch).  Still, to some examiners of the play, Hodgson not only appears to have both knees grounded, but also seems to be in control of the ball...  
1968 Tennessee: Losing by eight points, Tennessee completes a 20-yard touchdown on the game's final play, and then passes for two points to "defeat" Georgia, 17-17.  The touchdown pass caught by Gary Kreis, who appeared to trap the football as he rolled over the Bulldogs' goal line, was later examined by the media, which "conclusively" decided Kreis never had control of the scoring pass. 

1984 Cotton Bowl: Quarterback John Lastinger runs for a 17-yard, game-winning touchdown against second-ranked Texas in the 1984 Cotton Bowl.  Lastinger, who was driven out of bounds while crossing the goal line, informed me for my latest book, "Honestly, I think by today's standards with instant replay, I would have been ruled out just short of the goal line."  Notably, even possessing the ball on the 1-yard line, a touchdown was no certainty for a running game, which had been dismal the entire contest, pitted against arguably the greatest defense in the history of college football.

1992 Auburn: Down by four points, Auburn attempts a running play inside Georgia's 1-yard line, but is stopped short of the goal line.  Chaos ensues as some Bulldog defenders argue for possession, others lay on top of Tiger players, all while officials somehow allow the final 19 valuable seconds to tick off the clock.  In today's sport, the Tigers undoubtedly get to run another play, maybe two.

1993 Florida: Known as "The Timeout," with five seconds remaining, Eric Zeier completes a 12-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Jerman, pulling Georgia within a point of Florida, 33-32.  But, the head linesman rules a Gators' cornerback had called timeout just prior to the snap of the ball.  The Bulldogs wind up losing the game.  Head coach Ray Goff travels to Birmingham to complain at SEC headquarters, where it is explained that as soon as an official sees a player calling timeout, as soon as he "receives it in his mind" (huh?), it's a dead play.
Late-90s GA Tech: The final three meetings of the 1990s between Georgia and Tech feature controversial, game-deciding plays -- two of which go in the Yellow Jackets' favor: A pass interference against Georgia Tech, leading to Georgia's game-winning touchdown in '97; Joe Hamilton's "non-fumble" in 1998; Jasper Sanks' "phantom fumble" in 1999.  Replays of the worst ruling -- Sanks' fumble -- undeniably show the Georgia back down prior to fumbling the football.  The '99 game’s officials, regarded as the best in the conference, were scheduled to officiate the following week’s SEC Championship Game until their blunder; they were suspended by the conference for their mistake.

A few others of note:
  • Florida's stolen "fumble recovery" by Jack Youngblood in 1970, totally turning around a game Georgia appeared to have clinched, coming a year after a tie in '69 when the Gators were granted an additional play resulting in a field goal as officials accused photographers  of being too close to the field. 
  • The Bulldogs' 14-13 lead over 19-point and third-ranked Alabama in '73 with less than three minutes remaining (and Georgia had the ball!) quickly turns for the worse when what should have been pass interference and then roughing the punter are not called on consecutive plays, whereupon the Tide score two touchdowns in the game's final two minutes.
  • Trailing BYU by a touchdown late in '82, a John Lastinger-to-Herschel Walker-to-Mike Weaver maneuver of pushing the ball forward under the pile after the play, barely picking up a critical first down for the Bulldogs, directly leads to a 14-14 tie and later a 17-14 victory for Georgia. 
As indicated, Georgia has certainly experienced a number of game-deciding, curious calls over the years -- some turned out good for the Bulldogs, others bad, and one from 1999 that's difficult to even think about.  Regardless, what's done is done -- "wrong call" or not.  And, as Coach Dooley said while heated debate continued days after his Georgia team was tied by Tennessee in '68 on evidently an incomplete pass, "You don't win college football games on Sunday."