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Thursday, October 23, 2008

10 Players: UGA vs. LSU

This is usually the spot every week where I offer 10 key questions we'll need answers to in the upcoming game, but considering this is really a fork in the road of Georgia's season, I decided to do something a little different.

The Bulldogs sit at 6-1 right now with their next four games all away from home. Their next two will be against the past two national champions and will likely define their season.

If Georgia can return to Sanford Stadium next month at 10-1, they'll definitely be playing for an SEC title, and I think they'll be playing for a national championship, too. But getting to that point won't be any easy task, so I came up with a list of my 10 players who need to step up if Georgia hopes to maneuver through its next four games without a loss.

Keep in mind, this isn't a list of Georgia's "key" players. The truth is, it would be hard for guys like A.J. Green, Knowshon Moreno and Rennie Curran to play much better than they already have. This list is 10 players who might be having decent years, but need to take things to the next level for Georgia to win out.

10.) Brandon Boykin

Clearly the Bulldogs have had problems finding a reliable third cornerback. Not to throw Bryan Evans completely under the bus -- the guy has had some good games and some nice plays, but the bad ones have been really bad -- but it's clear Georgia needs someone consistent to step into the role. The ideal situation is for Evans, who has tons of speed and experience, to step up his game. Against spread teams -- like Florida -- Georgia will have a third corner on the field often, and Evans knows what to do. Problem is, too often he hasn't done it.

So who else can the Bulldogs look to? Against Vandy, it was Vance Cuff, the sophomore corner who has shown flashes throughout his two years at Georgia. But the rest of the way, it may just be Boykin who can take the biggest leap forward. Obviously the last thing Georgia needs is another freshman to rely on, so Boykin probably won't be on the field for 40 or 50 snaps, but if he can add some quality depth to a rotation at the position, that would be a nice step forward for the secondary. When the Albany Herald's Paul Dehner polled players a few weeks ago for the young player most likely to have a breakout second half, every one of them mentioned Boykin's name -- even the offensive guys.

9.) Kris Durham

Durham worked hard during the offseason to add some speed and strength, and the results showed early in the season. His blocking had improved tremendously, and he and quarterback Matthew Stafford have a great relationship on and off the field. Durham's size makes him an inviting target as well, and he has shown a willingness to go over the middle and take a hit.

The problem for Durham has been an injured ankle, which has cost him the past two games. Without him in the slot, Stafford has basically been reduced to throwing to Mo Massaquoi or A.J. Green on almost every passing play. In the two weeks since Durham's absence, 70 percent of the passes thrown to wide receivers have gone to Massaquoi or Green. Prior to Durham's injury, that number was just a shade over 50 percent. Part of that increase has been Green's continued development, but Stafford's lack of a consistent third option has been obvious.

8.) Brian Mimbs

OK, well maybe not just Mimbs, but really all of Georgia's special teams, which have been erratic throughout the season. Mimbs has mixed great kicks with awful ones, punted balls short and out of bounds and long with no hang time. He was brutal against Alabama, but astonishingly good against South Carolina. What Georgia would probably prefer is to be consistent if not great.

The rest of the special teams have been all over the map, too. Blair Walsh has dramatically improved on kickoffs, but he still needs to get better. There has been a revolving door in the return game, and Prince Miller and Richard Samuel are perfect examples of guys who have made spectacular returns and then completely bungled others. More over, the blocking has really needed work the past two games, as Mark Richt mentioned earlier this week.

"I felt like we were just one block away around game 3, 4, 5," Richt said. "Right around there I felt we were very close to breaking a big one. Quite frankly, we quit blocking as well. We didn t feel like Richard was really hitting it where it ought to be hit, too. So we are keeping Ramarcus there and right now Ramarcus will be the man to return kicks."

7.) Brannan Southerland

Perhaps the biggest blow to the Bulldogs' offense so far was the absence of Southerland, the four-year starter at fullback. On most teams, the loss of the fullback is minor setback, but given what Southerland has meant to Georgia over the past four years, it was darn near a catastrophe.

Sophomore Shaun Chapas played admirably in Southerland's absence for the first six games of the season, but since the senior's return to the lineup, the offense has had a different swagger. Southerland has pass protected with precision, opened holes for the running game and even played a little tight end. He scored a touchdown at the goal line in his first game back, and even Chapas has taken a big step forward with Southerland back in the lineup.

While Southerland's injury appears to have healed nicely, the senior still has to deal with a good bit of soreness, and he's not completely back to 100 percent. When he is, he'll be even better, but for now, just having him on the field consistently is a major plus for the Dawgs' offense.

6.) Cordy Glenn

The offensive line has actually played surprisingly well this season, giving up just eight sacks all year. I say surprisingly because consistency isn't usually something you find on a unit that starts three freshmen and two sophomores, each of whom have bounced around from position to position throughout the season. In fact, their performance has really been the only thing consistent on the line all year.

It was about this time last year, however, that Richt said the line took its biggest step forward. That line had a couple veterans in Chester Adams and Fernando Valasco to push the group forward, but the signs of an emergence from rookies to veterans have been there for this year's line, too.

While none of the linemen can be considered a completely safe bet at this point, the one that provides perhaps the biggest risk and the biggest upside is Glenn, the true freshman who forced his way into the starting lineup with a tremendous fall camp, lost his job at the start of SEC play, then forced his way back into the lineup again.

Glenn's confidence and work ethic are very encouraging, but he is still a true freshman. He has a big frame, and he's willing to play physically, so he can use his natural ability to make up for some typical freshman mistakes. His big step forward, however, will come when he no longer has to think about each nuance of his game. Once he can step up to the line of scrimmage without worrying about what he's supposed to do, Richt said, the sky is the limit. That moment may not come soon enough, but if it does, the line could go from being a major question mark to a major strength for the Bulldogs.

5.) Tripp Chandler

Chandler has missed two straight games, but the truth is, he hadn't done much the first five anyway. Against South Carolina, the senior tight end dropped two passes on third down that would have kept drives going for the Dawgs, and he pretty much disappeared from the offense after that.

That has been a problem for the Bulldogs. In 2005, more than a quarter of Georgia's completions went to tight ends. That number declined after Leonard Pope left, but even last season, Stafford still hit his tight ends for more than 12 percent of his completions. This year? Only three of Georgia's 133 pass receptions have been made by a tight end, and for the past two weeks, the position hasn't been targeted once.

While this limits the weapons in the passing game -- and issue already discussed regarding Durham -- it also makes the job of opposing linebackers a lot easier, letting them instead concentrate on playing the run or bringing pressure on a blitz package without worrying about leaving the tight end open. Knowshon Moreno's inability to find yards between the tackle is in part based on youth on the line, but the lack of the tight ends' presence in the passing game sure isn't helping.

Chandler should be back by the Florida game (though there's an outside chance he'll play against LSU), but he needs to do more than simply be on the field. He doesn't need to be a bigger version of A.J. Green by any stretch, but he does need to remind defenses that Georgia still has a few weapons at tight end when it needs them.

4.) Reshad Jones

With all due respect to Rennie Curran, who had another brilliant outing against Vanderbilt last week, Reshad Jones was probably the best player on the field against the Commodores. The third-year sophomore tied for the team lead in tackles with eight, was in on at least a dozen more plays, was a stalwart in pass defense, and recorded his second interception of the year -- the only two by any member of the Georgia secondary.

Among Georgia's DBs, Jones is usually the least talked about. Asher Allen and CJ Byrd have been around a while and are clearly the leaders of the group. Prince Miller and Bryan Evans grab headlines, too -- although not usually for the right things. But Jones has quietly developed into a strong all-around player.

The beauty of his game, however, is that he still has more to learn. He'll get better. He hasn't reached his potential yet, but he has done enough to get fans excited about where that peak may be. If Jones can string together more games like the one against Vandy, he could easily develop into one of the conference's best defensive backs and his ability to make the big play in pass defense could give quarterbacks a bit of hesitation before throwing his way, which helps out the big boys up front, too.

3.) Justin Houston and Demarcus Dobbs

None of the defensive ends have really had a huge impact so far this season, but Houston and Dobbs are the two with the most upside. Both looked good against Arizona State, but have failed to produce the same results in SEC games. Meanwhile, opposing quarterbacks have been able to get far too comfortable when throwing the ball, putting the onus on the defensive backs to shut down the passing game.

Neither Houston nor Dobbs played significant roles last year, and both have been hampered by injuries at various times since fall camp opened, but seven games into the season, most fans thought they would have seen more from the pair of pass rushers. Georgia has just four combined sacks from its DEs all season (Dobbs and Houston account for 2.5 of them), and none have come in SEC play.

Bringing the blitz is all well and good, and Georgia may want to consider doing more of it, but the defense won't be consistently successful until the three- and four-man rush can pressure the quarterback, and Houston and Dobbs are the best candidates to make that happen.

2.) Dannell Ellerbe

It's hard to completely fault Ellerbe for what has been a relatively disappointing season. For one, he was the most known quantity on Georgia's defense early in the year, and opposing coaches spent a good amount of time figuring out ways to keep Ellerbe from hurting them. Secondly, it's Ellerbe who has ended up getting hurt -- he sprained his knee against Alabama and has missed two games.

Still, given that Ellerbe was considered to be one of the top two or three defensive players in the preseason, his lack of production has been worrisome. He has just 12 tackles in five games (although, to be fair, it's more like four since he was hurt early against Alabama) and just one of his tackles has been for a loss. Meanwhile, his replacement, Darryl Gamble, has looked like the experienced veteran fans expected Ellerbe to be, racking up 32 tackles -- second most on the team -- despite starting only four games.

If Ellerbe can come back -- likely against Florida, possibly this week -- and be just 80 percent of the player he was expected to be before the season, he'll be a huge boost to the Georgia defense. Now Richt just needs to figure out a way to keep Ellerbe and Gamble on the field as much as possible.

1.) Matthew Stafford

I mentioned some of my complaints about Stafford earlier in the week, so I won't get into them again. I will say that I think some people missed my primary point: Stafford has been good compared to average quarterbacks, but his talent level is so high, that it's hard not to expect more. When you compare his output to the expectations, he just hasn't produced at a high enough level. Now, feel free to debate whether those expectations are too high -- I'm willing to admit that might be the case. I'm just saying that I don't think it's utterly unreasonable to think many people were hoping for more from him. Stafford reminds me of the show "24." I watch the show, I enjoy it, but at the end of every episode I think, "there's a lot they could have done better."

The truth is, I think Stafford has played well, and given the style of offense Georgia runs, I wouldn't trade him for another QB in the conference. But the fact of the matter is this: For Georgia to be great, Stafford must be great, and I think it's awfully hard to argue he has been so far. The third-year starter's performance has mirrored the team's performance in almost every way: All the pieces of the puzzle are there, he's done everything right some of the time, now he just needs to put it all together. (And yes, I realize that last sentence was a bit too similar to the "Anchorman" line that "60 percent of the time, it works every time." Of course, in Stafford's case, it's 61.1 percent of the time.)

The next four games are the types of stretches that can define a career. The fact that fans, media and teammates all expect Stafford to make the most of the opportunity proves just how good he can be. What remains to be seen is if he can live up to those lofty expectations.


RobSweet said...

David - This is excellent analysis.

And this gives me another chance to say thank you for the terrific job you've done this year.

You're my "go-to" guy for Bulldogs material right now, and this post reminds me why.

Travis Eckhart said...

very nicely written, and I would agree with your comments.

This 4 game stretch is going to make or break the season. The strength of the next 4 games for UGA is tougher than half the teams in the nations whole season.

Michael A said...

I agree with robsweet.

David Hale said...

Many thanks, guys. Can't tell you how much I appreciate the kind words.

Richard said...

Nice write up. Rashad did play his best game yet IMO against Vandy. Still, he's not nearly as consistent as, my boy, Rennie. And, when Ellerbe was healthy, he was playing very, very well. No drop off from last year at all. They three keys to the LSU game are: 1) Can our OLine play well - particularly when we run; 2) Can we get through the game not giving up big plays on D and Special Teams to the LSU speed guys; 3) can we pass rush like we did to close the '07 season?

Phat Wallet said...

Great write up, although I don't fully agree with your criticism of Stafford. IMO, Staff is at times too good for our receivers. Many of the interceptions and incompletions he throws are due to our wr's not always running quality routes and not knowing when or where to expect to the ball. Don't get me wrong, most of them have played great the majority of the time, but in my estimation, 10% of Matt's incompletions and at least 2 of his interceptions can be directly attributed to poor wr play--be it in drops or poorly run routes. The Tennessee game illustrated this perfectly with Demiko not looking for the ball on a sure fire touchdown seam route, AJ dropping a TD in the end zone, Moore's terrible fade route which resulted in a Eric Berry pick....

I know Matt forces the ball at times, but I believe he has done everything expected of him thus far this year.

Anonymous said...

Well, this is the stretch we've all been waiting for since we took a gander at the schedule back in Jan. Although KY and AU look to be a little more beatable than initially thought, UGA probably looks a little weaker as well. We hear the term 'over-rated' regularly now referring to this team, but I think that's an over/misused term. I think the preseason #1 ranking would look pretty accurate had we not sustained the key injuries we have. The Bama game's outcome would've been different and the AZSt, UT, and Vandy games probably would've ended with 40+ pts on our side of the board, but we are what we are, 6-1.

The next four games will define Stafford and Moreno's career as being "world-beaters" or "over-rated". It's time for this team to step up and hit somebody in the mouth. The talent is there, will the desire and heart be there?

Couldn't agree with Phat Wallet more about Staff. Yeah, he's made some bad throws, but more times than not the rec's have dropped catchable balls.

I have a feeling that Staff, 'shon, Ellerbe, Rennie, Geno, MoMass and Southerland are going to put this team on their backs and do something really special over the remainder of this season.

Let's hope I'm right!