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Thursday, January 15, 2009

An Early Look Ahead

The 2008 season began with a preseason No. 1 ranking for Georgia because of the immense talent the Bulldogs returned from a team that had finished the previous year as the No. 2 team in the country. When Georgia opens the 2009 season, the expectations will be lowered quite a bit, and when you look at the roster, that makes sense.

Georgia will have either a first-year starter or a player returning from a season-ending injury at every position grouping on the field in 2009. At least 10 starting jobs will be handled by new players in 2009, and at least eight of those jobs (WR, DE, both safeties, CB, Snapper, Punter and RB) are completely up for grabs. Others could end up open competitions (O line, WLB/MLB, returners) during camp, and a bevy of players won't be active during the spring as they work their way back from injuries.

While the defensive tackles, offensive line and linebackers look to be strong, there are going to be a lot of questions heading into spring practice, many of which won't be answered before the fall.

Here's a quick run-down of where things stand right now, assuming Reshad Jones leaves...

(NOTE: Even if Jones announces, as expected, that he is leaving today, players have until Jan. 17 to change their minds assuming they do not hire an agent.)

Starter: Joe Cox
Status: Replacing Matthew Stafford
Job Security: 8 (out of 10)
Potential Competition: Logan Gray, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger
Analysis: Cox has just one start under his belt, but he's a fifth-year senior, a fiery leader and is an SEC-calliber QB. He won't make as many dazzling throws as Stafford, but he can get the job done. Gray has tons of athleticism and has an outside shot at landing the job in the fall, but he missed a lot of work at QB in 2008 by focusing on special teams. Either Murray or Mettenberger is likely to redshirt.

Starter: Caleb King
Status: First in line to replace Knowshon Moreno
Job Security: 3
Potential Competition: Richard Samuel, Carlton Thomas, Dontavius Jackson, Washaun Ealey
Analysis: There's plenty of talent at the position, but not much experience. King and Samuel battled back and forth for the No. 2 job in 2008 and neither solidified their role. King has an extra year of experience under his belt and is the more natural runner, but Samuel averaged better than 5 yards per carry and finished the season behind Moreno on the depth chart. Thomas could be a good third-down back and maybe more. Jackson will miss spring practice with an injury. Some questions remain about whether Ealey, UGA's top RB recruit, will qualify.

Starter: Shaun Chapas
Status: Second year as starter, first without backup Brannan Southerland
Job Security: 10
Potential Competition: Fred Munzenmaier, Justin Fields, Josh Sailors
Analysis: Chapas was one of 2008's best surprises. Filling in for injured three-year starter Southerland, Chapas proved to be a strong blocker and a good playmaker. He finished the year with 120 receiving yards and a TD was a nice weapon out of the backfield. He could see more use with the departure of Moreno from the running game in 2009.

Wide receivers
Starters: A.J. Green, Michael Moore
Status: Green is in his second year as the starter and Moore will get his first crack at the starting lineup replacing Mohamed Massaquoi
Job Security: Green (10), Moore (5)
Potential Competition: Tavarres King, Kris Durham, Israel Troupe, Tony Wilson, Rontavious Wooten
Analysis: Green returns for his sophomore campaign as the SEC's leading WR. He may see a bit more double coverage without Massaquoi on the field, but with a year of experience under his belt, he only looks to improve. Moore showed flashes of potential last year, including a brilliant Capital One Bowl performance, and will be the nominal starter headed into spring. Durham also has the tools to land the job, while Troupe and King have as much (if not more) talent than anyone, but have to prove they are ready for a bigger role. UGA needs to add at least one more WR commitment before signing day at a position that became awfully thin with the graduation of Kenneth Harris, Demiko Goodman and Massaquoi, the defection of Walter Hill and an injury to Wilson.

Tight ends
Starter: Bruce Figgins
Status: Figgins took over as the starter midway through 2008 in place of injured senior Tripp Chandler
Job Security: 9
Potential Competition: Aron White, Arthur Lynch
Analysis: Figgins played hurt all year and ended up not being a factor in the passing game. He underwent offseason surgery and will miss spring practice, but should be 100 percent in time for the fall and will likely begin the year as the starter. He does have competition from White, however, who is undersized for the position but is the better offensive weapon, catching three TDs in 2008. Lynch is one of the most impressive TE recruits in the nation, too, and could play a big role immediately. Regardless of who starts, Georgia needs to involve the position in the offense more this year than it did last season.

Offensive line
Starters: Trinton Sturdivant, Chris Davis, Ben Jones, Clint Boling, Justin Anderson
Status: Sturdivant is coming off a season-ending injury, and Davis had offseason hip surgery that will keep him out of spring practice. Jones, Boling and Anderson were all starters in 2008.
Job Security: Sturdivant (7), Davis (6), Jones (9), Boling (10), Anderson (8)
Potential Competition: Vince Vance, Cordy Glenn, Josh Davis, Tanner Strickland, Ben Harden, AJ Harmon, Kiante Tripp, Kevin Perez, Dallas Lee, Austin Long, Chris Burnette
Analysis: 2008 was all about piecing a line together, but all the problems of last season should provide a wealth of riches in 2009. Sturdivant appears to be progressing back from a season-ending knee injury quickly and should be ready to go. Sturdivant, Vince Vance and Chris Davis will all miss spring practice, however. Cordy Glenn and Josh Davis each earned significant starting time in '08, but so much talent on the line, they'll have to battle to regain their jobs. Vance could land a starting role too if he can prove his is fully recovered from a knee injury, and there is still some hope for Tripp and Strickland, who have failed to pan out despite immense talent. Harmon was moved from the DL midyear in '08 and provides a nice wild card possibility. Coach Stacy Searels has shown he is willing to play whoever practices best, so even the incoming freshman will get a shot.

Defensive ends
Starters: DeMarcus Dobbs, Rod Battle
Status: Battle has been a starter for two seasons, while Dobbs' four starts are the most among other returning players
Job Security: Dobbs (6), Battle (6)
Potential Competition: Justin Houston, Neland Ball, Jeremy Longo, Cornelius Washington, Toby Jackson, Montez Robinson
Analysis: Georgia's D ends showed improvement when Battle was in the lineup in 2008, but that wasn't a regular occurrence. Dobbs had some nice plays, including two interceptions, and Houston showed flashes of potential, too, but overall, the defensive ends were the biggest disappointment of the '08 season. Fans are putting a lot of hope into Washington and Jackson, who both have immense talent as pass rushers and could inject some life into the Georgia rush. Regardless, Houston and Dobbs need to live up to their potential in 2009 for the Dawgs' D to take a step forward.

Defensive tackles
Starters: Jeff Owens, Geno Atkins
Status: Both are returning starters, but Owens will be coming off a season-ending injury in 2008
Job Security: Owens (8), Atkins (10)
Potential Competition: Kade Weston, DeAngelo Tyson, Brandon Wood, Ricardo Crawford, Abry Jones, Derrick Lott
Analysis: This should easily be Georgia's biggest strength in 2009. Owens and Atkins both have the potential to be first-day NFL picks in the 2010 draft, and if Owens is completely healthy following a season-ending knee injury, the duo could provide a huge boost to what now looks like a fairly inexperienced defense. Weston battled injuries throughout 2008 and could be in line for a breakout senior season, while Tyson was named to the SEC's All-Freshman team. Jones looks like a beast and could get immediate playing time.

Starters: Rennie Curran (SLB), Darryl Gamble (MLB), Akeem Dent (WLB)
Status: All three are returning starters, although Gamble's starting time at Mike was in relief of injured senior Dannell Ellerbe
Job Security: Curran (10), Gamble (9), Dent (6)
Potential Competition: Marcus Washington, Charles White, Darius Dewberry, Christian Robinson, Akeem Hebron, Marcus Dowtin, Michael Gillard
Analysis: The starting three will be about as experienced a group as you'll find in the SEC. Curran was among the best defenders in the conference and will be a leader on D for Georgia in '08. Gamble was a pleasant surprise, enjoying a breakout season that included a two Pick-Six game against LSU, but his year ended with a broken leg and he missed the Capital One Bowl. Dent's playing time was cut because of the amount of time UGA spent in the nickel, but he showed good signs of potential and played well when on the field. Among the rest of the crew, only Dowtin is not coming off a season-ending injury, which makes the depth a little thin. Still, this has the potential to be a very impressive group if everyone can return healthy in 2009.

Starters: Bryan Evans, John Knox
Status: Evans started five games at corner before being benched and has less than half-a-season of experience at safety. Knox was the No. 3 player in the safety rotation behind Reshad Jones and CJ Byrd
Job Security: Evans (3), Knox (8)
Potential Competition: Quintin Banks, Baccari Rambo, Nick Williams, Andrew Johnson
Analysis: Jones surprise decision to leave along with the departures of Byrd and sixth-year senior Andrew Williams makes this easily the least experienced position the Bulldogs have. Knox got some good playing time in 2008 by default, but was wildly inconsistent. Banks could be a star at the position, but 2008 was a lost year for him thanks to a series of injuries. Evans moved from corner, where he struggled badly, midway through the season, and said he expects to be the starter. That seemed a long shot a few weeks ago, but with Jones leaving, Evans could be a key player. His speed makes him extremely dangerous and he likes playing physical. Williams played a lot of special teams in 2008, but has little experience at safety. Rambo was redshirted, but managed to make quite a few fans among his teammates.

Starters: Vance Cuff, Prince Miller
Status: Miller has been the starter for two seasons now but could move to the short side in place of Asher Allen. Cuff has the most experience of anyone to replace Allen, who is leaving for the NFL.
Job Security: Miller (10), Cuff (5)
Potential Competition: Brandon Boykin, Sanders Commings, Makiri Pugh, Branden Smith
Analysis: Miller really solidified his role as a starter last season, but he has yet to prove he can play the short corner position Allen handled for two years. The other corner position is wide open. Cuff earned the most playing time in '08, but he's far from guaranteed the job. Boykin earned rave reviews from players and coaches and could easily take over, while Smith -- the highly touted recruit -- has the talent to start right away if he can prove he's ready mentally. For his part, Allen gave a ringing endorsement to Commings to land his vacated job. Given the number of spread teams UGA will play, the Dawgs will run the nickel package often, meaning they'll need to identify more than one new starter here.

Special teams
Starters: Blair Walsh (K), Drew Butler (P), Ty Frix (Sn), Prince Miller (PR), Richard Samuel (KR)
Status: Walsh returns for his second season as starter. Butler and Frix take over for Brian Mimbs and Bo Fowler, respectively. Miller and Samuel finished '08 as the starters in the return game.
Job Security: Walsh (10), Butler (7), Frix (6), Miller (7), Samuel (4)
Potential Competition: Carlton Thomas (KR/PR), TBD
Analysis: Georgia desperately needs to turn around its special teams in 2009. Walsh struggled down the stretch kicking field goals and was a disaster on kickoffs. Head coach Mark Richt said he would look into bringing in a pure kickoffs man, but has yet to do so. Butler is the nominal starter at punter, but another walk-on could emerge. Frix barely made the team last year, but received several nice endorsements from the coaching staff throughout the year as a reserve. He probably needs to put on some weight if he wants to land the full-time gig though. The returners could change quickly, as no one truly settled into the role in '08. Thomas would be a great candidate to take over a Mikey Henderson-type role with the team in '09.

QUESTION FOR THE READERS: What position worries you the most heading into spring? Which injured players from '08 could play the biggest role in 2009? Which freshmen are you most excited to see?


Travis Eckhart said...

I'm anticipating seeing our D play this upcoming year. With a slew of younger players in the secondary, and proven players on the line and at LB, I have a feeling this will be a dawg defense of old.

I think a lot of people were right about the attitude of the secondary, which is why a lot of them left early for the draft. Like you said David, they saw the writing on the wall.

Everyone knows the offense wont be the most explosive having to replace starters in almost every skill position. But if our defense gets bing in the trenches, i have a feeling our offense will fall into place and put the points on the bard to get us in the W column.

Anonymous said...

David, one more potential name to add to the special teams list is Branden Smith. He's supposed to be a beast on punt and kick-off returns. In fact, he said that special teams was actually what he was best at. I would love for someone to step up as a Mikey Henderson type; we reeeally missed him this year. The safety position worries me and I'm not completely sold on the running back position yet. I think Jeff Owens returning from injury will be the senior leadership we need and I can't wait to see joe Cox out there.

The Cuatro said...

Nice write up. I'm saying the position that sees the biggest shake up is by season's end is DE. I think Toby Jackson is starting by game 5 or so. I also think Marcus Washington is the starter at MLB ahead of Gamble. I also think Boykin gets the nod ahead of Cuff. Oh, and I hear Reshad is coming back now...

Billy Ocean said...

The two guys I'd keep an eye on, both of whom we really missed this year, are Marcus Washington and Quinton Banks.

I think Washington will seriously push Gamble for the starting spot. Gamble looks good, but Washington is a senior. He's a big, physical linebacker that will HIT YOU, which we were lacking in the middle this past year.

Banks played a good bit in '07. '08 was a total waste for him of course, but I'd have to think he'd have a leg up on Knox and Evans. We missed his physicality and hard hitting too this past year.

Those two guys will add some hard-hitting attitude to a defense that really needs it.

Also, while I can certainly see how special teams would garner a 'D' heading into the season, I expect a HUGE improvement next year. I have no doubt we'll find someone that can kick it close to, or into the endzone, in bounds. Meanwhile, Walsh can focus on field goals. Butler already has some experience punting in big games. I expect the return game to improve too. Perhaps Branden Smith and Carlton Thomas will be big game-breakers for us, though honestly Prince Miller looked very good at punt return when he wasn't muffing it- I think if we gave him more reps we wouldn't have to worry about that and he could be a Brandon James-like weapon.

The position that worries me the most heading into spring is defensive end, though without Asher, cornerback is suddenly a concern as well.

The injured player(s) from 2008 I expect to play the biggest roles in 2009 are Owens and Sturdivant, honorable mention to Washington and Banks...all of those guys were sorely missed this past year.

The freshman I'm most excited to see is probably Branden Smith, with Toby Jackson a close second. I hate to put too much pressure on a guy, but Smith just sounds like he has "it."

Anonymous said...

Just want to say that I am a huge fan of your blog. I really enjoy reading it every day and think your articles are much better than anything that appears in the AJC. Thanks so much for all of the Bulldog scoop!

hinesacl said...

You probably should revisit this since Jones is now back at safety. The overall potential,imo, in the secondary is MUCH greater than I think you are giving it credit for. I can understand that it is definitely a concern, but D and D+ just seem a little harsh, at least if we are talking about potential. It'll be interesting to see next year if those positions have a "D" at year's end. I wonder what kind of season you feel like Staff had this year when comparing it to his potential? I would give him a "C" in that he only lived up to his potential in an average way (way too many int's that put a banged up Defense in bad situations). Putting the OL and it's youth, though, I'd probably have to bump it up to a "B", though. My thinking is that you can be in bad positions and still make good decisions, though. He made some really bad decisions imo.

Anonymous said...

This column was absolutely awesome. Love Coach Richt and the Dawgs but we absolutely had the worst special teams in the country last year!