Blue Ribbon Preview: Georgia
Editor's Note: ESPN Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook to provide a comprehensive look at all 122 FBS teams. To order the complete 2012 edition of Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, visit www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857 Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern. This information is up to date as of June 25.
Two games into 2012, the situation looked pretty bleak for Georgia coach Mark Richt. As one of the coaches who entered the season on the proverbial "hot seat" after a 6-7 record the previous year, Richt hadn't exactly helped his shaky status with a disappointing opening defeat to Boise State in Atlanta and a hard-fought home loss to South Carolina the following weekend.
Losing to the Gamecocks meant the Bulldogs would have to face a string of must-win games in order to stay afloat in the SEC East. It seemed each week brought constant pressure onto a team looking to save the job of its long-time head coach, but behind a rapidly improving defense, Georgia responded. Ten consecutive victories included a timely result in Knoxville to trigger Tennessee's slide, a harrowing escape at Vanderbilt, a monumental win in Jacksonville that snapped a four-game losing streak to rival Florida and a surprisingly thorough blowout home victory over Auburn.
By the time Georgia finished its conference run by beating Kentucky, the Bulldogs had done enough to edge the Gamecocks atop the division and clinch their first SEC championship game appearance since 2005, ending all hot seat talk right there. Richt celebrated on the field after the Kentucky game with an extended kiss for his wife, a poignant moment that encapsulated the survival of an embattled coach who battled back to lead a proud program back within reach of previous glory.
But it wasn't a completely happy ending.
Georgia returned to Atlanta as heavy underdogs for the SEC title game against LSU, and though the Bulldogs actually led at halftime, the Tigers broke free in the final 30 minutes to win the conference crown in a rout. Georgia then blew a 16-point halftime lead in the Outback Bowl against Michigan State, losing a thrilling game in triple overtime.
Consecutive losses to bookend last season left an unsatisfying taste around a program that had already started to peek ahead toward what set up as a very promising 2012.
Richt summarized it after the bowl game as "a good year, not a great year."
"I'm really proud of our team, proud of our coaches and the effort they gave all year long," Richt said. "It's kind of an old story now, but we were certainly fighting a lot of adversity in the offseason and early in the season, going 0-2. For everybody to just keep staying together, keep believing, and making a 10-win run that was great. Ten wins is great. Eleven would have been better, but we didn't get it."
So now a Georgia program that took a large step back toward relevancy is expected to take another one in 2012. With a very favorable schedule and key players back on both sides of the football, the Bulldogs can be considered a legitimate top 10 preseason team.
The team's motto for 2012 -- "Our Team. Our Time. No regrets" -- reflects a sense of urgency toward claiming Georgia's first SEC title since 2005 and perhaps even more.
"It's everywhere. We talk about it," linebacker Christian Robinson said. "It's motivation to keep that in the back of your mind, what we're playing for and this unique opportunity. We have the tools to do it. We can compete at that high level."
There have been positive signs. The Bulldogs exited spring healthy without one player in danger of missing summer conditioning. Richt also retained his entire coaching staff during the offseason and made notable upgrades in the strength and conditioning department, hiring a speed coach in Sherman Armstrong and John Thomas, Joe Paterno's head strength coach for 20 years at Penn State.
The biggest hurdles since January have involved players off the field, with arrests, reports of failed drug tests and subsequent suspensions that will hit the Bulldogs hard to start the upcoming season, particularly in the secondary.
Nonetheless, the Bulldogs return nine starters from a defense that ranked fifth nationally in coordinator Todd Grantham's second season installing his 3-4 system. As would be expected, Grantham's seasoned defense largely got the better of the offense during spring and tossed out some hints at what could be coming in the fall.
"We have a chance to be really good on defense period, in my opinion," Richt said. "I've seen enough of us when we're all healthy and rocking and rolling. We're going to be a tough defense to deal with. So everybody has just got to get in the best condition they possibly can. Everybody has got to stay focused, and everybody has got to get to the gate. Once everybody is up and running, I think we'll be very stout. But you've got to prove it. You've got to get there, and you've got to prove it."
Head Coach: Mark Richt (Miami '82)
Record at school: 106-34 (11 years)
Career record: 106-34 (11 years)
• Rodney Garner (Auburn '90) ASSISTANT HEAD COACH/DEFENSIVE LINE/RECRUITING COORDINATOR
• Mike Bobo (Georgia '97) OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR/QUARTERBACKS
• Todd Grantham (Virginia Tech '89) DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR/OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS
• Tony Ball (UT-Chattanooga '83) WIDE RECEIVERS
• Bryan McClendon (Georgia '05) RUNNING BACKS
• Will Friend (Alabama '98) OFFENSIVE LINE
• John Lilly (Guilford '90) TIGHT ENDS
• Kirk Olivadotti (Purdue '96) INSIDE LINEBACKERS
• Scott Lakatos (Western Connecticut '88) SECONDARY
After two 3,000-yard passing seasons, junior Aaron Murray (6-1, 211) returns as an unquestioned starter who is being viewed as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate and one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC, if not all of college football. Murray is mobile, a hard-worker and proven team leader who hasn't missed a meaningful snap in two years.
"A quarterback that prepares the way he does," Richt said, "it gives everybody the confidence that he's taking it seriously and he knows exactly what to do and exactly the way he's supposed to do it. There's such a tremendous responsibility for him in our offense to get us out of a bad play to a good one. Now he's going to want to get from a good [quarterback] to a great one."
While Murray tossed a school record 35 touchdowns in 2011, his second season statistically was a small step back from his freshman campaign. His completion percentage dipped from 61.1 percent in 2010 to 59.1 last year, while his total number of interceptions grew from eight to 14. While Murray generally shredded the lesser defenses on Georgia's schedule, the better ones were able to pressure an inconsistent offensive line and force key mistakes. Along those lines, ball security became the main problem for Murray in 2011. He fired pick-sixes in three of Georgia's four losses.
The bigger question at quarterback for UGA right now is how the depth chart will shake out behind Murray. Junior Hutson Mason (6-3, 196), Murray's backup for two years running, seriously considered transferring in January before coaches convinced him to stay by promising they'll make every attempt to redshirt Mason in 2012 and thus get some class separation with Murray.
"I was almost 100 percent leaving until I went and talked to them and they said they were pretty interested in redshirting me," Mason said. Richt has been clear that if Murray were to suffer a serious injury, Mason would still be an option to shed the redshirt and play at any time.
Otherwise, the backup role is expected to go to redshirt freshman Christian LeMay (6-2, 198), who capped spring by leading all passers with 154 yards during the G-Day Game.
"This was Christian's best scrimmage," UGA offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said after the spring game. "I thought he looked poised out there. The one thing we've got to continue to work on with him is being more consistent in the scrimmage situations. He's improved tremendously in just throwing the ball."
Editor's note: Isaiah Crowell was dismissed from the team on June 29 following felony arrest charges.
It was a roller-coaster freshman year for Isaiah Crowell (5-11, 215), who was the nation's top tailback prospect in 2011. He signed with much fanfare and immediately worked his way into the starting role last season. The numbers were strong. Crowell more than doubled any other rusher on the team with 850 yards, good enough to earn SEC Freshman-of-the-Year honors by vote of the league's media.
But off-the-field issues, a lack of fitness and various injuries plagued Crowell all season. He had reported run-ins at practice, routinely took himself out of games, was suspended on two different occasions and was limited during the final four games by an ankle injury, a combination that meant he failed to reach the vast potential he showed in flashes.
Because of this, Crowell entered spring determined to show better accountability. Teammates have spoken to his improving maturity, while Crowell did not miss any practice time this spring because of injury.
"I need to be more accountable and being able for my teammates to trust me. I know there were a lot of improvements I could have made, and I tried my best to make that," Crowell said. "I think it went well, and I'm going to keep giving it my all."
Despite what was a strong spring for Crowell, coaches are still proceeding cautiously and leaving the competition open at a crowded position where there will be multiple options and probably shared carries.
Redshirt sophomore Ken Malcome (6-0, 226) actually exited spring as Georgia's No. 1 tailback after earning in-house most improved player honors this spring. Malcome, too, had a rocky 2011, even leaving the team in late September citing a lack of playing time before returning the next day.
True freshman Keith Marshall (5-11, 202), another highly touted prospect, enrolled for the spring semester and impressed in practices before missing the spring game with a hamstring injury. He'll be joined in the summer by fellow 2012 signee Todd Gurley (6-1, 215), who also figures to compete for playing time and carries this season along with speedy junior Brandon Harton (5-6, 174), a former walk-on receiver who wound up playing serious minutes late last season.
Not to be overlooked is senior Richard Samuel (6-2, 243), a bruising tailback who went down with a serious ankle injury after scoring the game-winning touchdown against Florida last season. Samuel could still be a factor at tailback, but the Georgia coaches moved him to fullback during the spring, and it's more likely he'll be the eventual starter there ahead of junior Zander Ogletree (5-10, 224).
The biggest loss for Georgia's receiving corps this spring came not through graduation but a position change. Deep-ball threat Malcolm Mitchell (6-1, 184), who totaled 665 yards on 45 catches as a freshman, almost certainly would have led Georgia's team in both categories last season had it not been for a midseason hamstring injury. But rather than continue on a promising path at receiver, Mitchell switched over to cornerback full-time this spring.
Mitchell said he liked the idea, but really it was a move born out of necessity for the Bulldogs, who already know they'll have to deal with multiple suspensions to starting players in the secondary to open the 2012 season. So at the very least, Mitchell is expected to open the season on defense and appear occasionally on offense.
"Malcolm is expecting to play both ways," Richt said. "As the season goes on, I think he'll play a little more offense. But right now, we need that kid to play defense. And he's excited about it, which is a good thing."
While Mitchell's absence would leave a play-making gap, Georgia does return a full assortment of receivers from a year ago, led by seniors Tavarres King (6-1, 192) and Marlon Brown (6-5, 222). King led the team with 705 receiving yards in 2011, capped by a dazzling 205-yard effort in the Outback Bowl. Meanwhile, Brown has yet to match the five-star reputation he carried out of high school. The potential is there, though Brown wasn't able to showcase it during two seasons behind A.J. Green. Then he suffered a serious ankle injury that set him back to start last season. Now running out of time in his college career, Brown could be a player to watch in 2012.
Other experienced receivers return in sophomores Michael Bennett (6-3, 208) and Chris Conley (6-3, 202) and junior Rantavious Wooten (5-10, 185), who played three games in 2011 and wound up redshirting after sustaining a serious concussion when he hit his head on the windshield during a September automobile accident.
Redshirt freshman Justin Scott-Wesley (5-11, 218), a former record-setting high school sprinter, is also expected to step into the regular rotation this season and could feel the home-run gap vacated by Mitchell.
Tight end is a more pressing concern given the loss of standout junior Orson Charles to the NFL and senior Aron White to graduation. Arthur Lynch (6-5, 272), a muscular player from Massachusetts, is next in line to be the Bulldogs' starter at tight end. A very formidable blocker, Lynch's skills as a pass-catcher remain in question. That could mean a large role for redshirt freshman tight end Jay Rome (6-6, 254), who was athletic enough to join UGA's basketball team last season. He caught a 66-yard touchdown pass in the spring game.
No area on Georgia's team caused as much concern this spring as an offensive line that must replace three departed seniors, each of whom were selected in the NFL Draft. The Bulldogs' rebuilding effort created a spring where the starting five was shuffled on an almost daily basis, with different linemen cross-training positions to find the right fit.
Amid that growth process, a talented defensive line had its way with the offensive line for much of the spring, so much that the offense struggled to get plays off at times because of it.
"Early on, it was a little bit ugly. I mean, it was ugly," Richt said. "Coach Bobo and coach [Will] Friend and myself, we had our heads down wondering what the heck is going to happen. But little by little, they got better. They gained more confidence. You don't get to see receivers and tight ends and backs make the type of plays that you saw in the spring game unless something good is happening up front.
"And that was the problem early in the spring. Those guys didn't even get a chance to get the ball off without some kind of pressure. We did make a lot of improvement, and I think we'll get even better by the time the season starts."
The offensive line will remain a work in progress into the fall. After spring, the unit was composed of junior Kenarious Gates (6-5, 328) at left tackle, junior Dallas Lee (6-4, 300) at left guard, sophomore David Andrews (6-2, 280) at center, junior Chris Burnette (6-2, 313) at right guard and sophomore Kolton Houston (6-5, 291) at right tackle, though that doesn't mean much yet. This remains a fluid situation with very little settled heading into the first game.
Burnette is a proven starter who'll be there somewhere, either at center or guard. The same goes for Lee. And Gates, who switched this spring from guard to his old high school position, is likely set to replace second-round draft pick Cordy Glenn at left tackle.
The main questions seem to revolve around the center and right tackle positions, with much hinging on whether the inexperienced Andrews can hold on to the starting center job during the preseason. If he can't, dominos will fall at other spots.
"It would be good for us if [Andrews] was the guy that ended up becoming the center," Richt said, "because I think Lee and Burnette would be outstanding guards, and Kolton really could play guard or tackle."
If there is another factor that could shake up the starting five in August, it will be the arrival of freshman signee John Theus (6-6, 292), a tackle who was widely viewed as one of the nation's top overall prospects in 2012. While offensive line is considered the most difficult place for a freshman to start immediately, Richt has said Theus will be given every opportunity to try to claim a spot during the preseason.
Second-string linemen like tackle Austin Long (6-5, 304), tackle Watts Dantzler (6-7, 310) and recent JUCO transfer guard Mark Beard (6-5, 300) could also still have a say in the starting five by performing well this preseason.
One of the overriding themes to Georgia's spring practice was the dominance of its defense, particularly against the run and particularly up front. There are signs that the Bulldogs will be formidable there in 2012.
Georgia's defensive line coach Rodney Garner tends to be known as the grumpy sort, a man notoriously difficult to please. So what Garner said this spring about big nose guards John Jenkins (6-3, 351) and Kwame Geathers (6-6, 350) was worth underlining.
"Both are really, really coming on," Garner said. "My thing is I've just got to really stay on them about fundamentals, just being hard on them about steps, pad level, hand placement, just little things. I don't want them to get any false sense of 'We're here,' and we may not be quite there. But I've been very, very, very pleased with both kids."
Perhaps the biggest difference in Georgia's 3-4 defense in year one under Todd Grantham to last year's second season was the impact of two big nose guards to eat up space, swallow blockers, force double-teams and stuff opposing runs. Geathers' improvement as a sophomore and Jenkins' arrival from junior college moved the Bulldogs from 56th nationally against the run in 2010 to 11th last season. That improvement should continue in 2012. Jenkins was chosen co-defensive MVP for spring, and Geathers wasn't far behind him.
Georgia is now tinkering with ways to get both big men on the field at the same time, with Jenkins -- a player athletic enough to have been a running back in high school -- occasionally sliding out to defensive end with Geathers at nose.
That potential ploy should be enough to cause concern for the best offensive lines, and even without it, the Bulldogs grew stronger at defensive end this spring. Returning veterans Abry Jones (6-3, 309) and Garrison Smith (6-3, 294) were joined by Cornelius Washington (6-4, 269) and Ray Drew (6-5, 263), outside linebackers who gave full-time defensive end a shot this spring. Washington especially excelled in the new role, earning a starting role alongside Jones and ahead of Smith.
"They're multiple," Grantham said of Washington and Drew. "They're playing end and outside 'backer. They put their hand in the dirt. They do stand up at times. But my whole thing is you've got to put your best 11 out there. However you've got to do that, you've got to move guys."
The one negative on the line in recent months was the abrupt transfer of junior Derrick Lott, who left mid-spring in search of playing time. His absence thins depth a bit up front, but barring a rash of injuries, this year's group has a chance to be one of Garner's best UGA defensive lines in quite a while.
While third-year players throughout Georgia's defensive starting lineup toed the NFL waters this past December, sending paperwork for evaluations and considering an early exit, the Bulldog likely to be most coveted by pro teams never flinched.
Last season's SEC sack leader, All-American and Butkus Award finalist Jarvis Jones (6-3, 241) said he was coming back as a redshirt junior, and that's exactly what he did, giving Georgia perhaps the best overall defensive player in the conference in 2012. Jones, a transfer from USC, was lights-out in his first season of eligibility with the Bulldogs, totaling 70 tackles, 13.5 sacks and an astounding 49 quarterback hurries. None of that has satisfied him heading into a new year where he is already being listed as a potential top-five draft pick should he leave in 2013.
"I've definitely got to improve myself and do better than I did last year," Jones said. "Anything less than what I did last year is a fail. I can do better. I've still got a lot to learn."
Jones is technically an outside linebacker, though his role expanded so much for Georgia's defense that he won't have a true position. Grantham moves Jones around play-to-play to take advantage of matchups and make it difficult for an offense to locate him.
Grantham began usually all of his linebackers in such a way last year, playing a chess match by teaching players multiple positions and moving them inside to outside on any given week, quarter or play.
And Grantham will have plenty to work with in 2012. While Jones is the star, Georgia returns a wealth of experience among its linebackers this season. All key players are back. Inside there is talented junior Alec Ogletree (6-3, 236) and sophomore Amarlo Herrera (6-2, 231) at the "Mo" inside position and proven seniors Mike Gilliard (6-2, 220) and Christian Robinson (6-2, 226) at the signal-calling "Mike" role.
Washington or Drew could still play outside despite spring moves to defensive end, while junior Chase Vasser (6-3, 227), sophomore spring standout Ramik Wilson (6-2, 224) and junior T.J. Stripling (6-6, 222), still recovering from a severe knee injury suffered in 2010, appear to be options at the spot opposite Jones. If not the veterans, Herrera can play outside, and incoming blue-chip signee Jordan Jenkins (6-3, 250) figures to have a good shot to step into the rotation as a true freshman.
Early-season suspensions will be a problem in Georgia's secondary. What appeared to be an experienced, strong group in 2012 has already endured a horrid offseason. One issue after another has led to attrition that has progressively thinned depth and caused growing concern.
Two promising freshmen cornerbacks who were expected to provide depth this season, were kicked off the team in February. Two other young cornerbacks, dating back to last September, have transferred.
Among defensive backs still on the team, senior cornerback/safety Sanders Commings (6-2, 217) has been given a two-game suspension to start the season for a January arrest in Athens that stemmed from a public altercation with his girlfriend at the time. Another senior cornerback, Branden Smith (5-11, 176), faces at least a one-game suspension for a marijuana arrest while on the way to the beach for spring break. And All-American safety Bacarri Rambo (6-0, 218) has appealed a four-game suspension handed down for a second violation of the school's drug policy.
These issues prompted the move of Mitchell from wide receiver to cornerback for the time being and will put a great deal of pressure, at least early in the season, on a group of talented youngsters who have yet to attain much game experience. Sophomore Damian Swann (5-11, 177) is next up at cornerback, while hard-hitting sophomore Corey Moore (6-2, 207), who barely played on defense last season, could step into Rambo's large shoes at safety.
As you go down the list, others may be called on early as well, including redshirt freshman cornerback Devin Bowman (6-0, 175) and non-scholarship arrivals like safety Connor Norman (5-10, 208) and cornerback Blake Sailors (5-11, 186), who earned a scholarship last year.
"We'll be fine," secondary coach Scott Lakatos said. "We've got enough guys that know how to do more than one thing. So we'll be fine. Barring any catastrophic rash of injuries, we should be OK. I look at it like this: What would happen if a guy gets injured, and you lose a guy for X amount of time? You've got to line up and play. Someone's got to play. For whatever the reason is, if you have to replace people; that's part of the game. That's why you have depth. That's why you practice and make sure you're covered."
There is room to improve here, as Georgia was expected to have one of the nation's best special teams units in 2011 and instead had one of the worst. Field goals were an issue all season with Walsh. Kickoff coverage endured a mid-season slump. Even with Butler's strong leg, the punt coverage was never very good all year, and the Bulldogs ranked among the lowest nationally in net punting.
To address the problems, Richt pledged to place a renewed emphasis on the special teams this year. He announced it would be "all hands on deck" in 2012, meaning starters on offense and defense would be available for the kicking game rather than the usual assortment of freshmen and bench players. The Bulldogs also worked more on kick coverage techniques this spring rather than actual kick and punts attempts, practicing without a football in many cases.
Meanwhile, the return game must look to replace the multi-talented Brandon Boykin, who exited UGA as one of the school's best all-time kick returners. Branden Smith is the most likely replacement for kickoffs and punts, though coaches are expected to hold a full-blown competition during the preseason with several candidates getting a look.
Blair Walsh's generally successful four-year stint as Georgia's kicker ended with a surprising shaky senior year. Walsh struggled with consistency throughout the 2011 season and missed what would have a game-winning field goal against Michigan State.
So Bulldog fans have become eager to see the reins passed to the program's next kicker. The odds-on favorite for the role appears to be true freshman Marshall Morgan (6-3, 195), a strong-footed product of South Florida who was signed with the idea of his replacing Walsh this season.
Though no competition was held at the place-kicking spot in the spring, Morgan will have to beat out a group of walk-ons that appears to be headed by sophomore Adam Erickson (5-10, 168), who made a 46-yard field goal during the spring game, and senior Jamie Lindley (5-11, 177).
Freshman signee Collin Barber (6-2, 191) is the likely choice to replace former Ray Guy Award winner Drew Butler, who graduated after an accomplished UGA career.
Like Marshall Morgan in the kicking role, Barber will enroll this summer and compete with walk-ons, but out of four different punters during the spring game, none averaged at least 40 yards per attempt. So it will be a surprise if Barber is not Georgia's top punter when the season begins.
It was quality over quantity in Georgia's signing class. The Bulldogs signed only 19 players but addressed their more pressing needs, most notably at punter (Barber) and kicker (Morgan).
As mentioned above, John Theus could be an immediate difference-maker on the offensive line. The same is true on defense for Jordan Jenkins and Josh Harvey-Clemons (6-5, 208), a talented linebacker who could help as a defensive back in nickel and dime packages. Meanwhile, Marshall -- a strong student who had a GPA in high school that was actually higher than his 40-yard dash time -- and Gurley were welcome additions in a backfield where dependability has been a problem for two years running.
Other signees such as cornerback Sheldon Dawson (5-11, 180), fullback Quayvon Hicks (6-2, 245), tight end Ty Smith (6-3, 228) and defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor (6-4, 315) could step into immediate playing roles because of a lack of depth at those positions.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Preseason expectations around Georgia's program are as high this year as they've been since the days of Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno.
And why not?
Last year proved that the days of Georgia's soft, poor-tackling defense are over. Grantham's unit was much improved in 2011, ranking among the nation's best. With nine starters back on that side of the ball, the Bulldogs should again be very good defensively, which is an annual recipe for success in the SEC. Offensively, the line is a question mark, but if Georgia can string together an effective five up front, the skill positions look solid.
With all the returning talent, Georgia has also drawn the good fortune of a post-expansion 2012 SEC schedule where a road game at defending national champ Alabama was replaced by a road game at Missouri the second week. If the Bulldogs can overcome that early test amid the early tumult of suspensions and survive a pivotal October date at South Carolina, the schedule sets up awfully well from that point.
Given these factors, there is no reason Georgia shouldn't be projected to again challenge for division and conference titles and perhaps more on a national scale.
MORE COLLEGE FOOTBALL HEADLINES
- N'western players set for historic union vote
- Texas LB apologizes for calling Baylor 'trash'
- Paterno to have new statue in State College
- Plan would give big conferences more say
MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM
BLUE RIBBON: SEC PREVIEWS
"Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook" previews the 2012 season for each SEC school. Take a look: