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May 29, 2014

Finally, Got It Covered?

Coach Richt looks to his defenders, and their 
coaches, to finally get some coverage on a long-
time team strength that has turned dismal.
I recently interviewed Mark Richt and asked him what seemingly everyone else who has had the chance to speak to the UGA head coach has inquired about: the Bulldogs' recent not-so-special special teams. 
Beginning in 2011, Georgia's special teams unit went from subpar overall to downright dreadful a year ago.  However, during the three-season stretch, there was actually just one facet of special teams play, albeit a mighty important one, which remained horrific all along: I'll call it ST coverage, representing coverage on opposing kickoff returns and coverage on punt returns, which includes keeping the opposition from blocking punts.  Yet, I soon discovered what was originally believed to be only a three-year terrible trend had actually been going on for eight seasons at Georgia.
In 2006, or ironically the season Richt stop calling the offensive plays to evidently start concentrating more on other coaching duties, the Bulldogs' ST coverage began to show signs of decline, and has remained unsatisfactory ever since, especially the last three seasons.  Starting in 1970 through 2013, I gathered Georgia's ST coverage statistics, discovering the program actually allowed the same number of, or even more blocked punts, punt returns for touchdowns, and kickoff returns for touchdowns in just the last eight seasons (2006-2013) or less compared to the 36-season period before (1970-2005).  The staggering details regarding the Bulldogs' ST coverage:
  • Had SEVEN punts blocked the last eight seasons; just 6 punts blocked from 1970-2005 (4½ times the number of punts during 1970-2005 than 2006-2013) 
  • Allowed SIX touchdowns via a punt return or a blocked punt the last eight seasons, including FIVE the last three seasons; just 5 touchdowns from punt returns/punts blocked from 1970-2005 (plus, yielded a 9.1 punt return average from 2006-2013; 7.0 average from 1970-2005)
  • Allowed FOUR touchdowns via kickoff return the last eight seasons, including THREE the last three seasons; just 4 touchdowns from kickoff returns from 1970-2005 
When interviewing Richt, I asked besides the addition of co-coordinatorsJohn Lilly (offensive special teams) and Mike Ekeler (defensive)what else was being done to improve the special teams, specifically the coverage units?
"...When your defensive coordinator (Jeremy Pruitt) is excited about coaching the special teams, it usually means that there is going to be a bunch of defensive starters that are going to start on the special teams, as well.  That in itself, is a good sign and something new..."Coach Richt
Yes, having "a bunch" of starters on ST coverage would indeed be something new at Georgia.  From what I recall, the Bulldogs' recent coverage teams have consisted of primarily reserve players and players who otherwise likely wouldn't see the field, plus maybe a defensive starter or two sprinkled in here and there.  
Going way back, according to a Georgia player from the 1970s I contacted who played on coverage teams during the decade, "[ST coverage] was a mixture of backups and starters back then, but primarily backups."
Led by special teamers like Will Muschamp, UGA's
coverage units excelled, comparatively speaking,
until the mid-2000s.  From 1991-1994, the Bulldog-
now-Gator Muschamp, who was primarily a reserve 
safety, tallied an unofficial school-record 36 career
special teams tackles while playing on units which 
never allowed a kickoff or punt returned for a TD.
Starting in 1982 and for nearly the next two decades, Georgia annually featured separate individual special teams tackles statistics instead of including them as part of the normal defensive statistics, or what has been customary beginning in the 2000s.  Notably, from 1982 through 1999, of the 97 instances a Bulldog recorded five or more tackles on special teams in a seasona player  I'd consider a major contributor on ST coverageonly four (of 97!) standout special teamers were starting offensive or defensive players, as well:
Carlo Butler: starting OLB and seven ST tkls in '91
Randall Godfrey: starting WLB and five ST tkls in '92
Larry Brown: starting TE and five ST tkls in '95
Champ Bailey: starting CB and five ST tkls in '97
Therefore, from what I can determine, Georgia's ST coverage unit, like probably most major-college teams', has had more or less the same type of player "arrangement" for at least four decades: mostly backups and some players who otherwise would hardly play, if at all, mixed in with an occasional starter, maybe two.  Accordingly, if this type of arrangement solidly performed for 36 years as the Bulldogs' ST coverage did from 1970 through 2005, why has the same arrangement struggled beginning in 2006?
I'm not sure if playing "a bunch" of starters on ST coverage in 2014 is  necessarily "a good sign," as the head coach said.  I do know that a bad sign is when a particular system works for so long, like for at least 36 years, but it then suddenly begins to fail and steadily worsen.  The system's problem lies not in its player arrangement, but what individual(s) oversaw those players beginning in 2006, led their direction and execution, or lack thereof, and implemented their schemes.  However, that's where Coach Ekeler, who now will oversee the ST coverage, can make a difference in 2014.

Coach Richt confidently concluded his answer to my special teams question with "...we’ll be better on special teams than we were a year ago."  As far as the ST coverage being better this season, there's really nowhere for Ekeler's covering crew to go but up.  But ultimately, regardless of its player arrangement, it'd be nice to see Georgia's ST coverage return to back when it consistently shined, and not steadily declined.  

May 20, 2014

It's A Wonder...

There's a new deputy sheriff in town, and
he's all about embracing championships,
not personalities.
Although the likelihood Shaq Wiggins will be heading 500 miles North to join the two other prominent Bulldog departees is not surprising, it remains somewhat of a wonder to me exactly why the would-be sophomore cornerback decided to leave the program in the first place.  Whether Wiggins' departure primarily centers around a different defensive scheme, a change in general coaching philosophy, the idea that he was not going to play as much as when he was a freshman, and/or that his "free spirit" clashed with our new defensive coordinator, Wiggins becomes one of the top first-year Bulldog players ever, who unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) promptly left the program following his noteworthy freshman campaign.
More than four years ago, I ranked the Bulldogs' top five "One-Hit Wonders" of all time; I've done similar below but with a significant twist.  Excluding the number of Georgia freshman players who departed school to enter WWII, here's my ranking of the top UGA newcomers who willingly, or not so much, left the Bulldogs just prior to a second season in Athensmy top five Freshmen Wonders-turned-Wanderers:  
5) JOE DUPREE (1990)
Joe Dupree wasn't much of a drop-back
passer, but in his short time at UGA, he 
achieved a rushing feat equaled by just
one other Bulldog QB the last 37 seasons.
Considered the "top drop-back passer in the state" coming out of SW Macon High, Dupree stood on the sidelines for the majority of his true freshman season of 1990 as the Bulldogs struggled through arguably their worst campaign of the modern era.  Finally, in the seventh game of the year and after quarterbacks Greg Talley and Preston Jones had proved ineffective, Dupree came into relief against Vanderbilt, passing for a touchdown and rushing for another.  Four weeks later at Auburn, he rushed for 119 yards, which notably remains one of only two 100-yard rushing performances by a Georgia quarterback since 1976.  However, Dupree was 1-of-14 throwing the ball in the 33-10 loss to the Tigers, and a combined 4-of-29 since the Vanderbilt game.  Still, the "drop-back passer," who was evidently more like a run-no pass quarterback, was given the starting nod in the season finale against Georgia Tech.  Despite a loss to the Yellow Jackets, where Dupree was sacked six times before being injured and taken out in the third quarter, the freshman signal caller was No. 1 on the depth chart entering the spring of '91.  However, with the emergence of who had been the ensuing top drop-back passer in the state, true freshman Eric Zeier, and a brand new offense, Dupree had slipped to fourth string by the end of the summer and was asked to redshirt.  Instead of redshirting, just two days prior to the 1991 season opener, Dupree decided to transfer to Georgia Southern.       
4) SHAQ WIGGINS (2013)
After sub-par play from another true freshman, Brendan Langley, through the first four games of the 2013 season, Wiggins stepped in at a cornerback position, starting each of the eight games he would appear in for the rest of the year.  His eight starts were the most by a Bulldog freshman defensive back in more than 30 years (Tony Flack, 1982).  And, although Wiggins totaled just two interceptions, he toted one back 39 yards for a touchdown at Vanderbilt, and he actually led the Bulldogs in the categorythe first true freshman in Georgia's modern era to lead the team in annual interceptions.  Entering this past spring, Wiggins appeared to be maybe the only Bulldog in the secondary to have a starting position secured.
3) ARMIN LOVE (1995)
After redshirting in 1994, Love started all but two games for the Bulldogs at strong safety as a redshirt freshman.  In 1995, the prep All-American from the Houston, TX area tallied 61 tackles and was named to the SEC's All-Freshman team.  In addition, after recording no sacks during the regular season, Love had 1½ against Virginia in the Peach Bowl.  However, by the end of the season, he was beginning to demonstrate character issues both on and off the field which would eventually lead to his demise.  In the spring, Love landed in first-year head coach Jim Donnan's doghouse for a poor attitude and was demoted to fourth string; however, he was battling for his old starting safety spot by the end of summer camp.  Love, who by this time was recognized as having a  history of discipline problems, was practicing with the team through the first few games of 1996 but never played.  In mid-October, he was suspended indefinitely for violating unspecified team rules and was dismissed about a week later after being charged with battery for hitting a bouncer at the club Oxygen in Athens.  Love transferred to Stephen F. Austin, where he lettered in 1997 and 1998.
2) W.F. McCLELLAND (1910)
In 1910, UGA's incoming freshman class consisted of 145 students: 138 Georgians, four Floridians, one Californian, Hsung-ting Hwang from China, and W.F. McClelland from Freeville, New York.  The unique northerner went out for the school's football squad and starred on what I consider one of Georgia's greatest teams of all time.  As the Red and Black's starting fullback, freshman McClelland scored eight touchdowns in the team's first three games; only legendary Bob McWhorter scored more (13).  The quick and at times unstoppable back also had quite an arm, passing for a 30-yard touchdown against Mercer during the season's fifth game.  However, following the next contest and with three games still remaining on the schedule, McClelland was dismissed from the University "for conditions in his studies," thus becoming the first in a somewhat substantial line of standout Bulldogs whose poor grades abruptly halted an aspiring athletic career.      
Crowell, one of the most highly-touted recruits the Bulldogs have ever landed, began his Georgia career with a bang, rushing for more than 100 yards in three of his first five games.  However, after the freshman tailback scored two touchdowns at Tennessee, his disciplinary issues really began to surface.  Crowell was benched for the beginning of the Vanderbilt game and suspended altogether two games later for reportedly failing a drug test.  He reemerged to rush for 132 yards on 24 carries against Auburn, but totaled just 29 yards on 15 carries in the final four games of the 2011 season while hampered by a so-called ankle injury.  Two days after being booed by Georgia fans as he limped off the field during the SEC title game loss to LSU, Crowell was named the conference's freshman of the year.  Finally, the one-time 5-star recruit's problems as a Bulldog came to a head, and an end, that summer when he was arrested on weapon charges.  Crowell was promptly dismissed from the team and transferred to Alabama State within a week of his arrest.
A Few Others Worthy of Mention:
CLEVELAND GARY (1984): transferred to Miami (Fla) because of lack of playing time; All-American running back for the Hurricanes in 1988, a 1st round pick, and a 1,000-yard rusher for the LA Rams in 1992.
ANDRE WASHINGTON (1990): after playing extensively as a freshman and slated to start in 1991, left program reportedly to be closer to home in Florida; following time at Florida Community College, efforts to graduate in order to play for the University of Florida beginning in 1992 failed.
TYRONE ROBERTSON (1999): after 26 tackles, 5½ for loss, 1½ sacks, and 9 hurries as a backup, the highly-touted defensive lineman was dismissed for academic reasons; attended Hinds Community College and was drafted by the Buffalo Bills, where he played for one season. 
MONTEZ ROBINSON (2009): the Freshman All-SEC defensive lineman was dismissed in the spring 2010 after a few arrests; currently plays in the Indoor Football League.
The main point of this post isn't to simply recall the what-could've-been careers of the top one-and-done Bulldog freshmen.  Rather, I find it intriguing when comparing the most recent "Freshman Wonder-turned-Wanderer" when compared to the others.
Why would a standout player transfer from a major program after just a single season?  It's rather clear: disciplinary issues, flunking out, desiring more playing time, and maybe a case of homesickness here and there.  However, in the case of Shaq Wiggins, none of these is solely the case. 
It's truly a wonder Wiggins is leaving Georgia because his departure is the first of its kind in the program's history.  Whereas W.F. McClelland's circumstances of being a standout-turned-academic casualty more than a century ago was a first in UGA football history, Wiggins leaving Georgia for a team who'll "embrace [his] personality" is also a program first, resulting after the school has played football for more than 120 years. 

At least defensively, a change in discipline and direction is seemingly taking place.  And, it appears new DC Jeremy Pruitt is primarily responsible for the much-needed transformation.  To me, what's clear is the no-nonsense Pruitt has already started to make a tremendous impact on UGA football, not tolerating players who believe they're above the programnot conforming to any individual wanting his personality embraced. 

May 10, 2014

One Tough Hombre/Draftee

Basketball standout-turned-NFL draftee
Jeffords was someone you wouldn't
want to fool with.
There's been the notion for some time that the Atlanta Falcons don't draft Georgia Bulldogs, although if you check out one of the most recent posts on my UGA Football Facebook page, I somewhat dispel the idea.  Nevertheless, whether the state of Georgia's lone NFL organization has avoided picking players from the state's flagship university or not, one of the league's most unusual draft selections of all time happened to be when the Falcons did indeed draft a BulldogMr. Bulldog, to be exact. 
In the eighth round of the 1968 NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons chose Georgia's Ray Jeffords.  Jeffords, the 194th overall selection in late January of that year, was taken nearly 100 spots earlier than Bulldog Jimmy Orr, an eventual two-time Pro Bowler, in the 1957 draft, and even higher than UGA's Terrell Davis, a Hall of Fame semi-finalist the last eight years, would be picked in 1995.  Notwithstanding, where Jeffords was picked wasn't the most unusual aspect of his selection, but the fact that he was picked in the first place, considering he didn't play a down of football at UGA.
The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Jeffords had played basketball at Georgia, and basketball only.  Still, the Falcons selected him as a tight end and because of his "good hands," which he possessed on the gridiron, but more than six years earlier, or the last time he had played organized football as a first-team all-state end for Ware County High School.
After lettering in four sports at Ware County, Jeffords earned a basketball scholarship to UGA, where he would go on to become one of the Bulldogs' greatest roundball players of the 1960s.  In three seasons on Georgia's varsity, Jeffords averaged 10.6 career points per game and 8.4 rebounds, which remains the sixth-best career average in school history.  Known for his defensive and competitive play, Jeffords was recognized as an honorable mention All-SEC player as a junior in 1965-66.  The following year, he was chosen captain of the 1966-67 squad, but suffered a knee injury, forcing him to sit out the entire season. 
Believing Georgia's basketball squad was finally on the verge of a winning year after 16 consecutive losing campaigns, Jeffords decided to return for the 1967-68 season back when it was routine for players to not come back for a fifth year.  Good thing for Jeffords' return.  Elected team captain for a second time, he was an integral part of a remarkable 17-8 season, which included an improbable victory over 5th-ranked Tennessee, snapping the Bulldogs' 11-game losing streak to ranked opponents.  Averaging 12.6 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, "Mr. Bulldog," as he was known by some on campus, was a consensus second-team All-SEC forward.
On January 29th of his final season, or the day before the NFL's annual draft, Jeffords broke his nose in a blowout win over Alabama.  Two days later, or the day he was chosen by the Falcons, Jeffords not only played at Auburn with a broken nose, but led the Bulldogs with 14 points.
Jeffords, who was apparently just as rugged off
the court as on, hits the deck during a victory
over Auburn in 1966.
"Ray Jeffords was one tough hombre," a UGA football player of that time informed me in an interview a couple of years ago.  "He was someone you wouldn't want to fool with."
Maintaining to have no first-hand knowledge, the former football player continued to describe Jefford's ruggedness.  The player claimed that dorm life at UGA back then could involve literally paying off certain athletes not to "fool with" you, or paying certain athletes for protection from those who did the foolin'.  "He was one of those," stated the former player while not indicating which specific group Jeffords was a part of.  "He was an enforcer on the basketball court and in the dormitory."
The Falcons and their rough and tough Bulldog enforcer, who would fail to survive the first week of training camp, will forever be linked for one of the most bizarre transactions in the history of sports.  But, for the selector, was it really all that unusual at the time to pick a basketball player?
In the 1967 draft, or the year prior to Jeffords being chosen, the Falcons picked Texas A&M's Randy Matson in the 5th round with the 120th overall selection.  Matson, who had been on the track and field team at A&M, and the track and field team only, had not played football since the 11th grade.  Matson had won a silver metal in the shot put at the 1964 Olympics, and would capture gold in 1968, but as for football, he wouldn't even report to camp for the Falcons.
As for Jeffords, was it really all that bizarre for Mr. Bulldog to be considered a football player?  Evidently not, as for the very next season in 1969, the tough hombre earned another NFL tryout with the old St. Louis Cardinals.

May 3, 2014

Well, the Stadium Fell Down

Photo from the 1934 Georgia-Furman game, 
presumably prior to the most chaotic moment
in UGA football history. 
Similarly to what I'm sure some of you experienced Wednesday, my house just outside of Athens that morning seemed like it was going to completely fall in at any moment as it rained and 40-mile-per-hour winds rattled the windows.  Soon, I was informed on the radio that a wet ground increases the chances of a tree being uprooted in a storm, whereupon I noticed the extremely tall and swaying pine trees in my backyard.  If one of them was to fall the wrong way, I thought to myself, it could come crashing through the very window I was staring out of, taking me out as well.
A semi-chaotic scene, especially since I had to get two kids ready for school with the power out, and my son asking if our house's "girders are bending," made me reflect upon perhaps the biggest clamor in UGA football history, resulting 80 years ago this season.

On the eve of Georgia's meeting at Furman in early October 1934, head coach Harry Mehre nearly foretold of what was to result the next afternoon.  Although the Purple Hurricane, or Hurricane, as Furman was nicknamed back then, had suffered just one loss in their previous 17 games while Georgia would be missing six key players because of injuries, Furman was still, well, Furman.  The Bulldogs were substantial favorites.  Nevertheless, as the sound of a tumultuous storm outside could easily be heard inside a Greenville, SC hotel, the witty Mehre remarked to reporters, "I'm not at all a selfish man and now that it has started raining, I'd be delighted to win by a safety and go on back to Athens."

In front of approximately 3,000 spectators braving the elements at Furman's Manly Field, Georgia was seemingly dominating the Hurricane on a surface that had been transformed to a muddy quagmire.  However, primarily because of the Bulldogs losing their footing to the lousy field conditions, the game was scoreless late in the second quarter.  Finally, just before halftime, Georgia quarterback Jack Griffith scored a touchdown on a short sneak. 

Leading 7-0 midway through the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs had possession of the ball following a 79-yard Furman punt downed at Georgia's 1-yard line.  Back when football was certainly a game of field position, the Bulldogs elected to immediately punt the ball back to the opposition.  Cy Grant's punt was blocked in the end zone, whereupon the punter fell on the ball, scoring Mehre's desired safety not for his team, but for host Furman.

Then, just after the safety making the score 7 to 2, it happenedManly's "girders" bending, then breaking.

Furman's Manly Field--with all stands intact
Like wet-rooted trees, timber supporting wooden stands in rain-soaked ground can become unstable, as well.  Suddenly, two sections of stands containing 16 rows of people folded "like an accordion," as it was described.  Six hundred spectators, some falling as high as 20 feet above ground, tumbled to the field in a big scrambling heap.

Forty feet above the field, the press box also trembled and swayed.  Several writers literally grabbed their typewriters and were prepared to jump before their seats stopped rocking.  Fortunately for the media, Manly's press box was supported by extra braces. 

Despite the chaos, some in the media continued to report.  "Screaming women and cries of men urging them to be calm turned the section into a bedlam," declared the Atlanta Constitution.  "As this is written, the spectators are lifting one another out of the debris and hunting for purses and valuables under the stands."

Despite a bedlam, the game was never halted.  Georgia finished with a 15-3 advantage in first downs and 285-80 in total yards, but barely escaped with a 7-2 victory.  As far as the fallen spectators and shaken media, all were lucky to escape with their lives.  Although six fans were hospitalized, including one with internal injuries, there were no casualties.  In regards to Mehre, he was indeed delighted to win and go on back to Athens, but not before being shaken himself.  "I thought I was having an attack of delirium tremens and seeing things," the head coach recalled upon the stands collapsing.

In Jacksonville's Gator Bowl in 1980, legendary Larry Munson famously blurted, "The stadium... well the stadium fell down, now they do have to renovate this place... they'll have to rebuild it now."  Forty-six years before the Belue-to-Scott miracle which defeated the Gators, the Bulldogs had appeared in a game where the stadium literally did fall down.  Also against Furman in 1934, Georgia learned a valuable lesson: don't overlook the Hurricane, especially while playing in Hurricane-like conditions.  As far as the Hurricane, they learned against Georgia that "they'll have to rebuild it now" as Furman trustees would vote that year to begin seeking funds to build a new stadium.