SEC: Kyle Karempelis

ATHENS, Ga. -- Even when his unit lost player after player to injury, Mike Bobo insisted Georgia would keep running its offense as it always had.

There was one problem: over time, that became an impossible proposition.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
AP Photo/Butch DillGeorgia tailback Todd Gurley is expected to return from injury against Florida on Nov. 2.
Here were the Georgia offensive coordinator's top personnel options when the season started:

Tailback: Todd Gurley (1,385 rushing yards, 17 TDs in 2012), Keith Marshall (759-8).

Receiver: Malcolm Mitchell (40 catches for 572 yards last season), Michael Bennett (24-345 in five games last fall), Chris Conley (20-342), Justin Scott-Wesley (made win-clinching touchdown catches against South Carolina and LSU early this season).

After season-ending injuries to Mitchell, Marshall and Scott-Wesley and ailments that kept Gurley and Bennett out for three and two games, respectively, here's the travel roster Bobo was working with on Saturday against Vanderbilt, when he called an ultra-conservative game in hopes of slipping out of Nashville with a win:

Tailback: Freshmen J.J. Green (313 rushing yards, 6.7 yards per carry this season) and Brendan Douglas (218, 4.2), walk-ons Brandon Harton and Kyle Karempelis (no carries between them), Gurley (who is still injured and watched from the sideline).

Receiver: Conley (team-high 30-418 this season), Rantavious Wooten (14-174), true freshman Reggie Davis (7-189), Rhett McGowan (7-70), Jonathon Rumph (who just returned from a hamstring injury that has sidelined him for nearly the entire season, but did not play against Vandy), walk-ons Kenneth Towns (no catches) and Michael Erdman (1-6).

That's everybody.

With a full complement of skill players, Bobo has certainly never been afraid to call for the deep ball, and quarterback Aaron Murray hasn't been afraid to throw it. Georgia was actually one of the nation's most successful teams at generating big plays last season when Gurley and Marshall were breaking long runs and the Bulldogs' assortment of wideouts was getting behind the secondary for long completions.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Georgia led the nation last season with 31 touchdowns that covered 20 yards or more and ranked fifth with 63 completions of at least 20-plus yards. And this season initially looked to be more of the same, with 37 plays of 20-plus, six touchdowns of 20-plus and 27 completions of 20-plus through the first five games.

It has been a completely different story over the last two weeks, however. The explosive play did not exist in the 31-27 loss to Vandy -- Georgia's longest play of the game was a 17-yard completion to Green -- and the offense mustered only a paltry 221 yards against a Commodores defense that gave up 51 points to Missouri its last time out.

Murray completed 16 passes for 114 yards, just five more completions than his career low, and attempted only two throws that covered at least 15 yards. Both were incompletions.

The previous week's loss against Missouri was not as underwhelming. The Bulldogs finished with 454 total yards and Murray was 25-for-45 for 290 yards, but nearly half of his completions (11) came on dump-off passes to Green and Douglas, as Bobo and his quarterback elected to dink and dunk to their checkdown receiving options against Missouri's zone defense.

Green broke a 57-yard run and Wooten made a 48-yard reception, but explosive play and aggression was largely lacking in that loss, as well.

The long ball was a key element in the offense in the first five games, with Murray going 21 for 37 on throws of 15 yards or more, averaging 17.8 yards per attempt and connecting for five touchdowns versus no interceptions. He was 4-for-11 on such throws against Vandy (0-2) and Missouri (4-9), but averaged just 8.7 yards per attempt with no touchdowns and two picks.

Georgia still has only six touchdowns that covered 20 yards or more, leaving the Bulldogs in a tie for 74th nationally after leading in that category last fall.

The good news for Georgia is that Gurley and Bennett are expected back for the Bulldogs' next game, Nov. 2 against Florida. Perhaps more than any other player on the roster, even Murray, Gurley is the linchpin in Georgia's offensive explosiveness -- and his presence allows Bobo to call a completely different game than what we just witnessed in Nashville.

The sophomore back's ability to run physically between the tackles forces opponents to funnel defenders into the box to slow him down. And his formidable speed makes Gurley a threat to break a run for a big gain at any time.

The sophomore already has seven touchdowns of 20 yards or more in 18 career games.

Aside from their occasional case of fumble-itis, Green and Douglas have done a fine job in Gurley and Marshall's absence, but they can't replace what Gurley brings to the lineup. If another running back anywhere in the country is capable of that, he's on a mighty short list.

Now will Gurley make a big enough difference against Florida? We shall see. He has been on the shelf since Sept. 28 and hasn't been able to practice for three weeks. But if he returns with fresh legs and his injured ankle has healed to the point that the Gurley of old takes the field in Jacksonville, Georgia's chances of victory -- and its chances of generating big plays on offense -- will increase exponentially.

What to watch from regrouping offense

October, 8, 2013
10/08/13
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt delivered the bad news on Sunday when he confirmed that tailback Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley would join wideout Malcolm Mitchell on the season-ending injury list.

With receiver Michael Bennett (knee) out and All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley (ankle) questionable for Saturday's game against No. 25 Missouri (5-0, 1-0 SEC), No. 7 Georgia (4-1, 3-0) has little time to identify the personnel who must play larger roles in order to hang with a Tigers offense that ranks among the nation's most productive units.

Here are four groups/trends to watch as the Bulldogs move forward:

Freshman tailbacks: With Georgia's two star backs both possibly out Saturday, it's certainly possible we will see another heavy dose of true freshmen J.J. Green -- who rushed for 129 yards last Saturday against Tennessee -- and Brendan Douglas at tailback.

[+] EnlargeBrendan Douglas
Jim Brown/USA TODAY SportsBrendan Douglas and fellow freshman J.J. Green likely will be asked to shoulder more of the load.
That isn't necessarily a scary proposition for the Bulldogs, who have seen the young duo perform well in practice and in spot duty up until last Saturday's overtime win.

“We see those guys in practice, and they do a great job of breaking tackles or shaking guys or breaking loose for touchdowns against a great defense,” offensive guard Chris Burnette said. “Seeing them do that in practice, we know they're capable of doing that in a game.”

The larger question is what happens if Gurley is unable to play Saturday. If one of the top running backs in the nation remains unable to go as the week progresses -- and he once again did not practice on Monday -- Georgia's coaches might have to take a longer look this week at freshman A.J. Turman.

He seemed like a certain redshirt candidate a week ago, but Richt's staff must determine whether the two freshmen who already have played and walk-ons Kyle Karempelis and Brandon Harton would be enough to carry the load without Gurley and Marshall.

“A lot may depend on how Gurley's doing,” Richt said. “If Gurley comes back and you've got the other two, you don't normally have to go three backs. But if Gurley can't go, then we've got to try to figure out what we're going to do. We've got Harton and Karempelis that have played for us before, so those are possibilities. We've just got to kind of try to figure that out.

Wild cards: Speaking of Turman, he's not the only newcomer who has not played yet and still might or might not make an impact this fall.

Receivers Tramel Terry and Jonathon Rumph -- Georgia's second- and sixth-highest-rated 2013 signees in ESPN's player rankings -- have not played to date but still could factor into offensive coordinator Mike Bobo's plans ... eventually.

Richt said "it's very doubtful that [Rumph would] be ready" for the Missouri game while still dealing with a left hamstring strain, but "after that, we're going to definitely try to get him ready."

Meanwhile, Terry struggled during preseason practice while still recovering from offseason ACL surgery and seemed set to redshirt this season. But because of the receiver attrition, the freshman might be someone the coaches eventually consider.

“I just think the longer he practices coming back from his injury, the better he'll be,” Richt said. “Is he really ready for this type of competition? I don't know.

“And the fact that he hasn't had a lot of reps with our offensive unit, he's been working mainly scout team reps, and he's a freshman, so it's hard to really be ready in all the ways that you have to be ready -- not only physically, but knowing the game plan and just having experience running the routes and playing in games like that. So I'm not counting him out, but I really don't know the answer right now.”

More tight ends: Considering the level of in-game attrition that occurred at Tennessee, perhaps the most surprising statistic from that game was that neither Arthur Lynch nor Jay Rome made a reception.

Expect that to rank as a statistical anomaly moving forward.

When Georgia's receivers encountered a number of injury issues last season, Lynch and Rome were two of the top pass-catching beneficiaries. The two tight ends combined for 25 catches for 367 yards -- 251 by Lynch and 116 by Rome – over the final six games last season. In the first eight games of 2012, they combined for 10 catches and 216 yards.

Lynch and Rome have 212 yards -- 169 by Lynch and 43 by Rome -- this season.

[+] EnlargeRantavious Wooten
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesWith injuries mounting, senior Rantavious Wooten might be counted on to play a much larger role.
Replacement receivers: Junior Chris Conley -- who led Georgia with 64 receiving yards and made a tremendous one-handed touchdown catch against Tennessee -- is nearly the only known quantity in the Bulldogs' receiving corps for the time being.

Yes, they have fifth-year seniors Rhett McGowan and Rantavious Wooten available, but both players have been role players throughout their careers. Beyond that, Georgia might need reserves like Reggie Davis, Blake Tibbs, Michael Erdman, Kenny Townes to pick up their production.

“We're deep in the receiver room,” McGowan said. “A lot of people don't know that, because they haven't played, but they're at Georgia for a reason.”

Bennett will undergo arthroscopic surgery today to determine the extent of his knee injury. Even if he receives positive news, the junior will certainly miss the Missouri game and possibly more time after that.

Since they have dealt with regular injuries over the last two seasons, the receivers believe they are well-prepared for their current situation and now must take advantage of this opportunity.

“[Receivers coach Tony] Ball always tells me, 'Prepare like you are the starter, and you never know, because you're one play away from [being] a starter,' ” said Wooten, who caught two touchdowns against Tennessee. “So all the guys know that in the room, and I know that myself, and I always had that in the back of my head. Any guy could be the next man up. The coaches have the final decision on that, but at the end of the day, that's what we do, we practice, and we get ready for those types of situations.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- When Keith Marshall originally signed with Georgia, most expected it to be only a matter of time until he emerged as the Bulldogs' top option at tailback.

[+] EnlargeKeith Marshall
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesKeith Marshall had a career-best game against Tennessee a year ago.
It took 18 games, and it only happened because fellow sophomore Todd Gurley left last week's LSU game with an ankle sprain. But Marshall handled the No. 1 tailback duties well enough -- a career-high 20 carries for 96 yards -- that those around him feel he can handle the job capably for a full game if Gurley is unable to go Saturday against Tennessee.

“I think [Marshall] could easily carry it 15, 20, 25 times if he had to,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said after Wednesday's practice.

Marshall -- the only five-star prospect in Georgia's 2012 recruiting class and the No. 5 overall prospect that year -- had never carried the ball more than 16 times in a game before the LSU game, but said he didn't feel any worse for the wear after the heavier workload against the Tigers.

“You're always sore after a game, especially a big-time, physical football [game], so you always get a little sore,” Marshall said. “But I wasn't too bad.”

In fact, he was dynamic against LSU immediately after taking over for Gurley. On the drive where Gurley suffered the ankle injury at the end of a 23-yard run, Marshall followed with four carries for 41 yards before Marshall Morgan kicked a field goal to put the Bulldogs ahead 17-14.

As the game progressed, however, Marshall grew less effective. He ran 13 times in the rest of the game, but picked up only 35 more yards.

He experienced similar results against Clemson while filling in for an injured Gurley. After Gurley missed nearly a quarter of action with a quadriceps strain following a 75-yard touchdown run, Marshall ran seven times before Gurley returned to the game, picking up only 11 yards.

He struggled picking up yards after contact in both outings -- a clear strength of Gurley's -- and said earlier this week that improving in that area is one of his biggest goals.

If Georgia's offensive line blocks against Tennessee on Saturday like it did a season ago, however, Marshall won't have to worry much about breaking tackles. He exploded through a number of big holes to rush for a career-high 164 yards and two touchdowns on just 10 carries in the Bulldogs' win against the Volunteers last fall.

“Last year, the whole offense had a great game,” Marshall said of Georgia's 51-44 win. “I think the offensive line blocked well and did a good job opening up holes, so I just had a couple of big runs.”

Gurley tested the ankle before practice on Wednesday, but was unable to take the field with his teammates. Richt didn't rule out the All-SEC star, who was leading the league in rushing entering the LSU game and now has a team-high 450 rushing yards, but it was apparent that the No. 6 Bulldogs (3-1, 2-0 SEC) are looking hard at other options in the event that Gurley does not play.

Behind Marshall (51 carries, 213 yards, 1 TD), those options begin with true freshmen J.J. Green (5-65, 1 TD) and Brendan Douglas (11-39).

“J.J. and Brendan had to spot play in the first four games, so they're paying attention this week. Their reps have gone up since Todd hadn't practiced the first two days,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said after Tuesday's practice. “We've just got to get them ready. I'm glad we've got some depth there. It is young, but we've got to get those guys ready to play.”

The Bulldogs also have walk-on Kyle Karempelis available along with another true freshman, A.J. Turman, although Richt said he does not plan to burn Turman's redshirt over what would likely be a short-term absence for Gurley.

Even if Gurley made enough of a last-minute recovery to play on Saturday, his workload would likely be reduced significantly with some combination of Marshall, Green and Douglas taking the bulk of the snaps. And that's not such a terrible problem with Tennessee's porous run defense -- the Vols rank 11th in the SEC in run defense, allowing 163.2 yards per game -- awaiting them on Saturday.

Nobody knew Gurley would become the force in Georgia's running game that he quickly became after joining the Bulldogs last summer, overshadowing the highest-profile recruit in his signing class, Marshall. The duo emerged as one of the nation's better rushing duos, however, with Marshall (759 yards, 8 TDs last season) playing the complementary role to leading man Gurley (1,385, 17 TDs).

It might very well be Marshall's time to shine alone on Saturday, but that hardly seemed to be a source of concern among the Bulldogs.

“It's awesome having a back like that, especially one who's considered, quotation mark, a backup,” receiver Chris Conley said. “Keith's worked like a starter, he's practiced like a starter and to us he is a starter with Todd. It's good to have two backs who play like that.”
Georgia running backs coach Bryan McClendon has an exact number for the amount of running backs he’d like to use against No. 5 Boise State on Saturday.

“I would like to suit up every stinking one of them,” McClendon said without a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

That would be five -- Richard Samuel, Isaiah Crowell, Ken Malcome, Brandon Harton and Kyle Karempelis. Suspended Carlton Thomas would have made it six.

[+] EnlargeRichard Samuel
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiRichard Samuel, with his six career starts, is the veteran of Georgia's running back corps.
On one hand, it’s nice to have five bodies in the backfield. On the other, those five have a combined six starts in 22 games; all coming courtesy of Samuel, who moved back to running back after a short stint at linebacker. The other four have no game experience.

This isn’t an ideal situation for a team with SEC championship aspirations that must face a Broncos defense that ranked seventh nationally against the run (103.77 yards per game) last year.

The Bulldogs were supposed to return the shifty but troubled Washaun Ealey and senior Caleb King. Ealey left the team in May and King was ruled academically ineligible.

But all is not lost.

Samuel, who will be the Bulldogs’ bruiser at 6-foot-3 and 243 pounds, has become a teacher for Georgia’s young runners, and the indications from Athens are that Crowell, the No. 1 running back coming out of high school last year, is legit.

Samuel said his time at linebacker can help him as a running back because of his ability to read defenses faster and know where holes will form. He’s bestowed that knowledge on Crowell and has seen him pick things up faster than he imagined.

“I feel like I can point out things that people who haven't played in this league or haven't gotten any snaps against an opponent and tell them what to look for,” Samuel said.

What he can’t teach is dealing with hype, something Crowell says he’s ignored, but there’s still some diva in him.

Tuesday, Crowell blew the media off, myself included, for close to three hours before Georgia’s sports communication personnel tracked him down at a tutoring appointment and brought him back for interviews just after 10 p.m.

Crowell admitted his time management is an issue, but feels his nerves won’t be Saturday. He’s ready for his first game to be over “as soon as possible” so he can get into the rhythm of the season.

“That’s what I came here for, really, just to play and play early and do whatever I can do to help my team win,” Crowell said.

Numerous fans greet him more than the media, putting more pressure on his plate. He tries to shut it out, and his coaches feel he’s done a good job of focusing on football.

“He has a very, very good understanding of that,” McClendon said. “We have to make sure we keep preaching that to him.”

While five running backs are available, Samuel and Crowell will get the brunt of the carries.

With their different running styles, Samuel expects that he and Crowell will be dynamic together. He envisions his power and Crowell’s speed and elusiveness complementing each other well, forcing Boise State to adjust more on defense, throwing its rhythm off.

For McClendon, it isn’t so much about using two different types of runners, it’s about finding players who can operate the offense best.

“Styles aside, you want two guys who are going to be productive,“ McClendon said. “You want the production that those guys give you, it doesn’t matter what style it is, whether it’s small or big. You want guys who are going to be productive and running your every-down offense.”

Saturday is almost here and McClendon's group is getting restless. It’s out to prove its doubters wrong, but McClendon has stressed to his players to focus on helping the team before helping their reputations.

The image of the running game won’t matter if the Bulldogs get the victory, McClendon said.

“I’m very excited, but the biggest thing is that we have to get there,” he said. “Everyone around is getting a little itchy and ready to play, but you have to make sure you’re doing all the things in the process right in order to get the result that you want on Saturday.”

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