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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Little Lebowski Athens Achievers

My original plan for this post was to get together with a bunch of the other writers and bloggers for UGA and come up with a consensus on some end of season awards, but if there's one thing this season has taught me, it's that the higher your aspirations, the easier they are to dash. (Well, that and driving in Orlando sucks.)

Anyway, the original plan didn't really pan out.

What you're going to get instead is simply my opinions on the highlights and lowlights of this season for the Bulldogs. I state my case after each selection, but I'm certainly willing to debate. So read through, give it some thought, and let me know what you think. What were your favorite moments, favorite plays and favorite players this season? Hey, we've got a whole offseason to kill after all. Might as well talk about something.

Anyway, on to the awards...

(NOTE: I couldn't think of a good name for the awards. "The Daveys" and "The Haleys" sounded stupid, but I figured you can't go wrong with a Lebowski reference.)

Offensive MVP: Knowshon Moreno

This was a toss-up decision between Knowshon and Matthew Stafford, but while Stafford's season benefited greatly from break-out years by A.J. Green and Mo Massaquoi, virtually all of Knowshon's success came through his own hard work. While Moreno didn't turn in a Herschel Walker-esque season, his numbers added up to one of the best offensive performances by a UGA running back in years, all behind an offensive line that was in shambles throughout the year. While Moreno had his fair share of highlights -- the leap, the dive into the end zone against Arizona State, the tip-toe touchdown in the Cap One Bowl -- it was those tough 3-yard runs in which he bounced off approximately 306 defenders along the way that really showed why his season was so brilliant.

RUNNER UP: Stafford

Defensive MVP: Rennie Curran

In a year in which there wasn't much on the defensive side of the ball to celebrate, it was Curran that might have been one of Georgia's best stories. The sophomore from Snellville was a revelation both on and off the field. His 115 tackles were the most by a Georgia player since Thomas Davis in 2003. He added three sacks, too, and his forced fumble at the Bulldogs' 2-yard line against South Carolina was among the most important plays of the year for UGA. Add to that his development as one of the most respected voices in the locker room, and you've got a player that not only was one of Georgia's MVPs, but one of the top defensive players in the SEC.

RUNNER UP: Corvey Irvin

Special Teams MVP: Zach Renner

The list of candidates for this award isn't a long one, but Renner's two blocked punts this season were among the most memorable plays of the season on special teams. Renner is the quintessential special teamer, a kid who plays hard all the time but never earns much spotlight. His blocked punt in the Arizona State game, however, was a highlight of the Georgia season, so he gets the nod here.

RUNNERS UP: Prince Miller, Brian Mimbs

Overall MVP: Mohamed Massaquoi

From the time Mo Mass stepped onto the field at Sanford Stadium as a true freshman, fans had to love his potential, but for three years, his career was a study in consistency without stardom. This year, however, all that changed. Massaquoi led Georgia with 58 catches -- 20 more than his previous best -- and 920 yards receiving. He added eight touchdowns, which matched the total he had in his three previous seasons as a starting wideout. His astonishing 11-catch, 180-yard, 3-TD game against Georgia Tech might have been the best single-player performance of the season. All of that, however, only underscores his true significance on the team. His influence on freshman A.J. Green helped turn a talented wideout into one of the most dangerous players in the league, and his voice as the lone senior on offense to start every game was invaluable.

RUNNER UP: Curran, Irvin

Play of the Year (offense): Stafford's TD pass to Green against Kentucky.

I can think of at least a dozen candidates for this award, but while this one may not be the flashiest or most impressive, it was probably the most significant. Georgia's season was already in shambles after a blowout loss to Florida, and the Bulldogs were on the verge of an embarrassing loss to Kentucky the following week. Trailing by 3 in the final minutes of the game, however, Stafford avoided pressure, rolled out of the pocket and whipped a laser to the back of the end zone, where Green leapt over three defenders to haul in the touchdown. Georgia survived the game, won the next week at Auburn and salvaged an adequate -- if not impressive -- season.

RUNNERS UP: Knowshon's leap against Central Michigan, Knowshon's diving TD against Arizona State

Play of the Year (defense): Demarcus Dobbs' INT vs. Kentucky

Again, there are plenty of candidates for this honor, but Dobbs takes the cake for both significance of the play -- it preserved Georgia's win after Stafford's impressive TD to Green -- and required more than a bit of skill. With Kentucky driving inside the red zone in the game's final seconds, Dobbs jumped up to tip Randall Cobb's pass, then hauled it in one-handed for the interception. Adding a degree of difficulty to the play, Dobbs had both hands taped heavily, but it made little difference. It was Dobbs' second INT of the season -- the first going for a TD against Central Michigan -- causing Dobbs to claim he had the best hands of anyone on the team.

RUNNER UP: Curran's forced fumble against South Carolina, Darryl Gamble's two INT returns for touchdowns vs. LSU

Most Improved Player (offense): Shaun Chapas

When senior fullback Brannan Southerland underwent his second foot surgery of the offseason, his job fell to Chapas, a sophomore who had seen limited playing time in 2007. While Southerland's veteran influence was lacking, Chapas never missed a beat on the field. He proved a solid blocker -- something that was critical given Georgia's offensive line woes -- and was a playmaker on offense, particularly in the passing game. While he had just one touchdown this season, he was the king of getting the ball to the 3 and letting someone else finish the job.

RUNNER UP: Clint Boling

Most Improved Player (defense): Darryl Gamble

Like Chapas, Gamble's opportunity came only after one of Georgia's senior leaders went down with an injury. Gamble started out the season strong in a limited role, but after Dannell Ellerbe suffered a knee injury against Alabama that cost him three games, Gamble exploded. He turned in two strong performances against Tennessee and Vandy -- helping lead a rush defense that allowed just 1 yard on the ground to the Vols -- but it was his two interceptions against LSU that truly cemented this award for him. Gamble's first pick came on LSU's first play of the game, which he returned for a TD to set the tone for a Georgia victory. In the fourth quarter, he repeated the feat, tying an NCAA record in the process, to seal the win. He finished the season with 60 tackles -- third most on the team -- despite missing Georgia's bowl game with a broken leg.

RUNNER UP: Corvey Irvin

Biggest Disappointment (offense): Kiante Tripp

Big things were expected of the athletic sophomore even before Georgia's offensive linemen started dropping like flies. He began fall camp as the nominal starter at right tackle, but was moved to the left side after Trinton Sturdivant went down with a knee injury. Tripp never seemed comfortable, however, and lost his starting gig after three weeks. He ended up being moved to tight end, then moved back again after his replacement at left tackle, Vince Vance, also suffered a season-ending injury. He never managed to work his way back into any serious playing time, and even when Justin Anderson was forced out of the lineup at right tackle late in the year, Tripp was treated as an afterthought. Since coming to Georgia, Tripp has played four different positions, and the Bulldogs would be thrilled if next year he could managed to find a home at just one.

RUNNER UP: Tripp Chandler

Biggest Disappointment (defense): Dannell Ellerbe

It can't all be blamed on a lack of performance, as Ellerbe battled injuries for nearly the entire season, but for a player widely considered the top defender in the SEC in the preseason, it was pretty much a lost year. The senior linebacker missed three games and most of two others, but even when he was on the field, he was hardly a factor. He finished the season with just 33 tackles -- 10th most on the team -- and watched his draft stock tumble.

RUNNER UP: The defensive ends (all of 'em)

Freshman of the Year: A.J. Green

Do I even need to explain this one? Green was a phenomenon in his first full season, leading the SEC in receiving and opening up the passing game for Georgia with his breakaway speed and lanky frame that made for an appealing target for quarterback Matthew Stafford. Green finished the year with 56 catches and eight touchdowns and came up just 37 yards shy of becoming only the second 1,000-yard receiver in Georgia history.

RUNNER UP: Ben Jones

Best Coaching Decision:
Staying the course

OK, so it wasn't the best year for the coaching staff, but while the fan criticism was enormous, the coaches managed to keep their heads, which kept a disappointing season from becoming a disastrous one. In the wake of all the injuries, all the failures, all the criticism and chaos, cooler heads always prevailed, and in the end, the result was a 10-3 season that easily could have been a 6-6 season. Georgia's staff routinely found players to plug holes created by two dozen season-ending injuries, managed to keep the locker room together when everything else was falling apart, and trusted their system even when everyone else was criticizing. In retrospect, should they have done some things differently? No doubt. But change for the sake of change -- particularly at midseason -- could have left some disappointed Bulldogs fans ready to take a leap off the nearest bridge.

Worst Coaching Decision: The on-side kick against Florida

OK, so I'm sure most fans can come up with about 1,000 bad coaching decisions this season. In fact, Mike Bobo is probably watching film of Matthew Stafford running a QB draw in the red zone right now and thinking, 'Wow, what a call!' There were big-picture flubs -- like reducing the tackling in practice, thus softening the defense -- and there were smaller decisions -- such as not redshirting Richard Samuel -- that may not have directly affected a game but were never the less mistakes. But if you had to find one play call, one mistake this season that sums up the multitude of missteps, it's probably Mark Richt's decision to go for an on-side kick early in the second quarter. Blair Walsh, who had already badly missed a field goal, completely failed to execute, and Florida recovered the ball at the Georgia 41. The Gators marched down the field for a touchdown, turning a close 7-3 game into a 14-3 halftime deficit that Corvey Irvin later said seemed like a 30-point hole in the locker room.

2009 Breakout Candidate (offense):
Michael Moore

Moore had his moments this year, particularly his impressive performance in Georgia's bowl game in which he set a career high in catches and receiving yards. He showed he can be a go-to guy as a slot receiver, but next season, he'll likely be counted on to fill the void left by Mohamed Massaquoi. If his growth this season is any indication, it's a job he's ready to undertake.

RUNNER UP: Caleb King

2009 Breakout Candidate (defense):
Justin Houston

Houston was clearly a big part of the disappointing play of Georgia's defensive ends this year, but in truth, there was probably too much expected of him in the first place. His numbers don't look great, but he did finish with 2.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss, and he was the epitome of the close-but-no-cigar season the DEs had. Another year of experience with a healthier group surrounding him could turn those near-successes into big plays in 2009.

RUNNERS UP: John Knox, Demarcus Dobbs, Cornelius Washington

Favorite Moment of the Season: Too many to count

How do I pick one? There were tons of great plays to watch, from Knowshon's leap to Rennie's forced fumble. There were tons of great press conference moments, like Mark Richt discussing his "two balls" while answering a question about Georgia's bowling nights or virtually any conversation I had with Corvey Irvin this season. There was Halloween at the Landing in Jacksonville, a couple of very long nights out on Bourbon Street, a company-paid trip to Arizona for the game against the Sun Devils and nearly a dozen Tuesday nights at Taco Stand after transcribing about 2,000 words from the day's media sessions with players.

After taking a year off from newspapers, I can say this season was completely entertaining, exhausting, exciting and illuminating. I learned more than I could have imagined, met dozens of great people and had more interesting experiences than I could possibly remember at this point. (Although, those long nights on Bourbon Street may have played a role in my lack of recollection.)

While I'm supposed to remain completely objective, I can say without a doubt that working with players like Corvey, Rennie and Mohamed this season has been rewarding beyond just getting quotes for a good story. Georgia fans are lucky to have some legitimately good people in their locker room.

While I'm supposed to always be working to beat the competition, I can honestly say that I've truly enjoyed sharing the media workroom with some great folks from the AJC, the Banner-Herald, Rivals, the Red & Black, TotalUGA and the Albany Herald this year. While we all have our own agenda, all of those guys have gone out of their way to lend me a hand this season when I was clearly in a bit over my head.

I've had some great interviews with former players (thanks, Matt Stinchcomb). I've had a blast traveling to other campuses (I really should have considered LSU for undergrad). I've LITERALLY come up with a greater wealth of inside jokes that no one besides me and about three other people find funny than I could have ever imagined (on a high Munzen-wire).

So forgive me if I can't really nail down one moment that's been the best part of this season. It's all been great, it's all been terrible, and it's all been an experience that has made me a better journalist and a bigger fan of college football. What more could you ask for? (Well, besides a shuttle to bowl practice, I guess.)

But while I can't point to one thing as the top moment for me, I can say that all of you are the reason I've continued to do this. As a reporter, we don't make much money, we work awful hours and -- believe it or not -- girls really aren't that impressed when we tell them what we do for a living.

What makes it worthwhile is having people read what you write and appreciate the work that you do. I can't thank you all enough for the kind words throughout the course of the season. A lot of this blog has been accomplished while learning on the fly, and while I'm hopeful the experience will lead to an even better product next season, I'm incredibly grateful to those of you who have continued to come back and read this year.

Thanks again for a great season!


Watson said...

Thanks for all your hard work this season. Your blog is on my must read list every day and not just because you happen to cover UGA. It's because of the awesome job you do while covering them.

Looking forward to reading more over the next few months and on to next season as spring practice starts.

ChicagoDawg said...

David -- Great work throughout the season. I am glad it was rewarding for you, as it certainly was very much appreciated and enjoyed by those of us in the land of unhealthy obsessions -- especially those of us disconnected by hundreds of miles. It has been clear throughout the last several months that you have a passion for your craft. Your work ethic and dedication does not go unnoticed or unappreciated – as stated previously, this blog and your beat writings are daily must reads. Again, thanks for all of your efforts and best of luck.

Anonymous said...

I agree...I'm not a comment-poster, but I do check your blog every day. Thanks for the good work, and I look forward to next season.

hoodawg said...

David, my only complaint about your performance this season is that you are SO prolific, I can't keep up with all the good stuff you produce. Keep up the great work - you're a Dawg fan's dream correspondent.

DCDawg said...

can't thank you enough. my company, however, has probably wasted at least $10K this year on the amount of time i spend reading your blog/links at work. really hope you find a way to keep the off-season interesting because it's becoming quite obvious that our basketball team isn't going to be too news season isn't too far away i guess. Thanks again.

Chinatown said...

Thanks for your work. I check this blog daily. Hope you're around for next season, but if you move on, good luck with your career!

Anonymous said...

David - thanks for your work. This is the most detailed blog on the Dawgs and I read everything you write!

Anonymous said...

Thank God for all the great blogs, especially this one! They help keep my alive during the "dark" months when there is no UGA football!

Anonymous said...

When David Ching was moved to cover Auburn (before he left the Ledger), I sent the Ledger Sports Editor editor an email letting him know that this new David Hale guy had really big shoes to fill. I have since sent him an email letting him know that your coverage is really the best of the best. Thanks for your professionalism, thoroughness, and dedication in your work. I especially enjoy the notes on your conversations with the players.

ArchDawg said...

You're also a daily read for me, man. Keep up the good work, we appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

Another daily reader.

Thanks DH. You are my inside guy.

Go Dawgs!

Can't wait for G-day!

Anonymous said...

Great job this season David. I have been a big fan of your blog throughout the season and appreciate the hard work and dedication you have put in. I truly thank you for helping me stay informed on a number of issues surrounding UGA athletics. Your insight and research has been very professional and trustworthy. Keep up the good work and Go Dawgs!

Anonymous said...

Great job David - I look forward to next year and your rambling.

One thing missing from your list - Larry Munson

Jason said...

David - I think alot of us got spoiled by Ching last year and were not sure if we would get the opportunity to read the same level of inside scoop...

Well - you did an awesome job this year and from reading some of the comments, I'm not alone. Thanks so much and I hope you continue to enjoy both covering the Dawgs and living in Athens (lucky bastard on the second one).

I'd like to throw a few topics out there to get your take on them...

1 - Play by Play announcing job
2 - Coach Felton's future at UGA
3 - Joe Cox's graduation from back up to starter
4 - Is there a Logan Gray package?
5 - Season ticket renewals based on both the 08 season and the economy
6 - Position changes (Samuel, Dewberry, any others?)