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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Under Pressure: 10 Players to Watch This Spring

Today marks the first day of Georgia's spring practice, and the popular thing to do seems to be to write about five big storylines to watch. But when everyone else zigs, I try to zag (or at least, zig at a slightly different angle), so here's a bit of a different approach to previewing the spring. After reviewing Georgia's pre-spring depth chart, I came up with the 10 players who have the most to prove during the next month, counting them down in order...

(Note: Class designation is as of the start of the 2009 season)

10. Bryan Evans (Sr., S)

Evans might have made this list last year, too, as he battled to earn the starting corner job. As it turned out, his time at corner was so disastrous, he moved to safety midway through last season. The change of position paid off, however, and by Georgia's bowl game, Evans was making an impact at safety.

Now that CJ Byrd is gone, Evans is among the top candidates to fill the vacant spot at free safety. There will be plenty of competition from Quintin Banks, who sat out most of last season with various injuries, and John Knox, who earned plenty of playing time but was slow to develop in 2008, but it would clearly be a huge benefit to the Georgia defense if Evans can land the gig.

Evans has size and speed -- he's probably the fastest player on the team -- and likes to play physical. He says the move to safety has helped him see the field better and allows him to use his physical skills to their maximum effect. During mat drills, Evans was a clear locker-room leader, and his wealth of experience -- albeit not at safety -- would be a major asset on the field for a defense that is likely to have a fair amount of fresh faces getting major playing time.

Freshmen Baccari Rambo and Makiri Pugh could be in the running for playing time, too, but if Evans can prove this spring that he's learned the intricacies of the position, the job is his to lose.

9. Aron White (So., TE)

As a redshirt freshman, White was an afterthought for much of the 2008 season until injuries to Tripp Chandler and Bruce Figgins left the Georgia coaches with few alternatives at tight end.

Undersized for a typical tight end at just 230 pounds, White wasn't the ideal blocker, but when he made it onto the field, he made his opportunities count. He caught three passes last season, two of which went for touchdowns.

"It really served as a motivator for me making those couple of plays," White said. "I kind of proved to myself that I can get out here and play with these guys and not just get in and play a couple snaps in two tights or something like that."

That's a trend White wants to continue this season, and he'll have his chance this spring thanks to Figgins' continued recovery from shoulder surgery. White is hoping to add another 10 pounds to bulk up for more blocking duty, and he'll face plenty of competition from Figgins and newcomers Orson Charles and Arthur Lynch in the fall, but he has a great shot over the next month to prove he's more than a change-of-pace guy at tight end and instead establish himself as a go-to playmaker on offense.

8. Jeremy Longo (RFr., DE)

It was one of Georgia's biggest weaknesses in 2008, but the pass rush isn't likely to improve a lot this spring. The Bulldogs will have just four healthy scholarship players at defensive end for the spring, and they pretty much know what they have in Justin Houston and Demarcus Dobbs, who both earned significant playing time a year ago with mixed results.

Longo, on the other hand, remains a bit of a mystery. He's earned plenty of praise from his fellow D linemen for his work on the practice field, but a mix of injuries and inexperience left him with a redshirt last year. The upside is that he's healthy now, and he'll have his shot to show what he can do as part of a depth chart that bottoms out at two deep this spring. He won't likely land a starting spot -- although nothing's out of the question given Georgia's desperation for sacks -- but plenty of playing time is available if he can prove he's up to the task.

7. Israel Troupe (So., WR)

This year, it was Marlon Brown who stole the headlines as the big-name wide receiver recruit at Georgia. Last year, it was A.J. Green. That duo could be the stars of Georgia's passing game in 2009, but the big name receiver from the Bulldogs' 2007 signing class would like to find a niche for himself, too.

Troupe arrived in Athens with a pretty hefty bit of fanfare, but he has yet to develop into a consistent target. He redshirted his first season at Georgia, then rarely saw the field a year ago. He finished 2008 with just four catches for 39 yards. That means he has some work to do if he wants to up his production in 2009.

"I look at it as I've got to work harder than the next guy, come out with a different attitude that I've got to work and nothing's going to be given to me," Troupe said.

Troupe may be a bit of a forgotten man right now, but with three seniors departed from last year's team, and Brown yet to arrive on campus, he has a good chance to etch his name into the conscious of wide receivers coach Tony Ball this spring. If he can develop the way the Bulldogs hoped he would when he was recruited, their pass catchers could be an extremely dangerous bunch in 2009.

6. Kiante Tripp (Jr., DE)

Like Evans, Tripp probably would have made this list a year ago, too, only at another position. As it turned out, Tripp played any number of positions last season -- all over the line and at tight end. His roller-coaster career took another twist this offseason when coaches moved him to defensive end -- the position he played in high school.

"In high school, this is what I loved to do, get after the quarterback," Tripp said. "Now I'm here, back at my home position, and that's my intent, to do the same thing."

He'll be one of just four scholarship DEs this spring, but he might offer the most upside. Tripp is lean and athletic, but because of his stint on the offensive line, he's got plenty of size and strength, too. He currently checks in at around 295 pounds, but he's hoping to drop another 10 to 15 before the season starts. He'll also have to show he can adapt quickly to the new position, but his background at DE from high school gives him a leg up. Considering the problems Georgia had getting production from their pass rushers a year ago, Tripp's latest position change could be a huge windfall for the Bulldogs.

5. Blair Walsh (So., K)

By the end of the 2008 season, head coach Mark Richt promised he would go to Poland if he thought it would help him land a kicker who could kick off into the end zone. While Walsh remained solid (although far from spectacular) on field goals, his inability to pin the opponents on kickoffs, often leaving Georgia's defense with bad field position to begin drives.

Now that spring has arrived, Richt didn't have to update his passport or track down a visa for a new kickoff specialist. Walk-ons Jamie Lindley and Andrew Jensen will provide some competition, but once again, Walsh appears to be Richt's guy. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have a lot to prove.

"That probably is the biggest question is kickoffs," Richt said. "I think Blair is a very fine extra-point and field-goal kicker. I think he's got the potential to be a kickoff man also. Some of it could have been that Blair was doing his thing at the college level and maybe getting a little leg weary as the season went on. I think he probably learned some things about staying fresh throughout the year, and hopefully his leg will have the pop to be a kickoff man."

Walsh said he has been spending less time working on strengthening his leg this offseason and more time worrying about the fundamentals of kicking.

"It's all about stability," Walsh said. "You can wow them with your leg strength, but when it comes down to it, it's just about making kicks, doing what you need to be doing."

He'll need to show he's ready to add some stability to Georgia's kicking game this spring or Richt might book that flight to Poland after all.

4. Justin Anderson (So., RT)

A year ago, Anderson appeared set to take over as a regular contributor on the offensive line. Instead, his spring was unspectacular, and his work during fall practice left a bit to be desired. He ended up getting passed on the depth chart by true freshman Cordy Glenn.

Perhaps the snub motivated Anderson, because as the season went along, he came on strong. A month into the season, he had landed the starting right tackle job -- partly due to injuries at other positions on the line, but as much because of his improved work ethic -- and he turned in a solid season until succumbing to a foot injury of his own during the Kentucky game in November.

Anderson returned to action for Georgia's bowl game, but with a number of experienced veterans returning to health this summer, his job is anything but safe. In fact, rumors have even developed among fans that a move to defense could be in store for Anderson if he can't secure a spot in the starting lineup. He'll have ample chance to do just that this spring, however, with Chris Davis, Josh Davis, Vince Vance and Trinton Sturdivant all recovering from injuries.

Whether Anderson takes the opportunity and runs with it or relaxes because of the lack of competition this spring could go a long way toward determining how much playing time he sees once the rest of the big men on the line are back at full speed.

3. Brandon Boykin (So., CB) and Sanders Commings (RFr., CB)

When Asher Allen chose the NFL over his senior season at Georgia, he left the Bulldogs without an experienced corner to pair with Prince Miller, but that doesn't mean there aren't talented candidates to replace him.

The upside to the cornerback battle this spring is that there won't be a loser. Both Boykin and Commings will earn a good bit of playing time, with one landing the role of starting corner and the other handling the majority of nickel duties, but it should nevertheless be fun to watch.

"Brandon Boykin is good," safety Bryan Evans said. "He's going to play this year for sure. It's just a toss up for the starting job right now."

The beauty of this position battle is that -- unlike most of the others this spring -- both candidates for the job are young, hungry and, most importantly, healthy.

Boykin earned some playing time in a backup role last season, playing mostly nickel. He said the experience helped him get a good feel for playing corner and should give him a leg up in the competition this spring.

Commings brings his own upside to the competition, too. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Commings is huge by cornerback standards, and the guy can hit. While Allen was nowhere near the same size, he established a physical precedent at Georgia's short corner position, and Commings seems to be the heir apparent in terms of big hitters.

"I always think playing short corner, you go on a lot of blitzes, they like to do a lot of crack plays on the short side, and I think a bigger body is always helpful, and with Sanders being physical, I think that's a big advantage to him," Evans said.

Of course, Boykin has some size of his own. In his first year, he added 18 pounds to his frame and now checks in at 185. He might add a few more before the offseason comes to an end, too. After all, with a position battle like this, it's all about staying one step ahead of the other guy.

The payoff to this competition is the crucial starting short corner job this fall -- a position that will be a big key to Georgia's success in the year ahead. So for the Bulldogs, the stiff competition between Boykin and Commings is a big plus on the field. At the end of the day, however, Boykin said the two have never been closer off the field.

"He's like my best friend on the team, but it's going to be pretty intense," Boykin said. "I know we're going to compete against each other, and whatever the outcome is, we'll still be friends. He's going to be on the field regardless, and so am I."

2. Logan Gray (So., QB)

The 2009 season marks Gray's third in Athens, but he has nevertheless fallen under the label of "that other quarterback" in most discussions of the position. When Matthew Stafford announced he was leaving for the NFL, Joe Cox was named the starter before Gray had much chance to prove himself. Then came freshmen Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray, two highly recruited quarterbacks who both enrolled early. Now Gray is caught between the grizzled veteran and the exciting young kids, and this spring might be his best chance to re-establish himself as the quarterback of the future at Georgia.

"I don't know if I feel forgotten," Gray said. "It's easy when we've got two big quarterbacks coming in as freshmen. I feel like I was getting a lot of questions my freshman year, and we still had Matthew Stafford and Joe Cox. I don't mind it. I know what I've got to do and I'm just going to stay focused on that."

What may have hindered Gray more than anything is his role on last year's team. He played extensively on all special teams units and was one of Georgia's top two punt returners. That meant Gray spent significant practice time with special teams while his fellow quarterbacks were concentrating on passing schemes and drop-back drills.

This spring, Gray will be playing a bit of catch-up, which unfortunately means he won't be nearly as far ahead of the two freshmen as a typical third-year player should be. Should Mettenberger and Murray prove they're ready, Gray didn't even rule out a potential position change.

"No matter what I want to play, I just want to get on the field and contribute," he said. "I want to be the best quarterback I can be, but if for some reason it doesn't work out down the road, if it's not in the cards, I might look at playing another position, but I haven't really thought about it much right now."

Of course, if Gray does have a strong spring, there's plenty of upside for him. For one, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has said he would love to include some designed plays in the playbook to exploit Gray's tremendous speed and athleticism this season, meaning the sophomore could find himself under center in key situations throughout the season despite Cox's presence as the clear starter.

But looking ahead, it's 2010 that Gray -- and Murray and Mettenberger -- are focused on. The starting job could be Gray's for the next two seasons if he can establish enough distance between his game and that of his freshmen teammates. If not, he could easily be passed over, with a season of special teams work standing as the lone tribute to his athleticism at Georgia.

1. Caleb King (So., RB)

For two years, King has waited for his shot. The highly recruited tailback spent his first season at Georgia as a redshirt, his second as the occasional backup to Knowshon Moreno. Throughout 2008, he struggled when his chances came and sulked when they didn't. By the end of the year, he had been passed on the depth chart by true freshman Richard Samuel.

This spring, however, Moreno is prepping for the NFL draft and Samuel is recovering from a wrist injury that will keep him out of practice. The excuses are gone for King. The stage is all his. The opportunity couldn't be bigger, the pressure couldn't be more intense and need for him to blossom into the player coaches thought he could be when they recruited him has never been greater.

"It's a gift and a curse," King said. "I know I'm going to get beat on and get tired, but I'm going to get a lot of reps and a lot of time to shine."

King had his chances last season, too. While Moreno was the clear starter, earning the vast majority of the snaps, King failed to step up when his number was called. In fall practice, he couldn't beat out Samuel for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart. When Samuel struggled early in the year and King was given more playing time, he failed to respond. A crucial missed block against Florida that killed a Georgia drive ended up being the last straw. King barely saw the field again the rest of the season.

This offseason, King has tried hard to remedy the problems that plagued him last season, particularly in the blocking game.

"I'm trying to get my strength up so I can be a better blocker," King said. "I believe the coaches know I can run, so I just need to work on my pass blocking."

With Moreno in front of him on the depth chart, King knew his place was on the bench most of the time, and he didn't put in a starter's level of effort when he wasn't occupying the starting job. That was a sign of immaturity, former running backs coach Tony Ball said.

This spring, however, the job is King's to lose, and the spotlight will be squarely on him.

"He's reached a turning point," wide receiver Kris Durham said. "He knew he had Knowshon to help him out, but he knows he has an opportunity to come in and start, and I think his focus is going to be toward that. He's going to get more and more reps and I think that's going to help his confidence."

King said he felt he improved as the season went on last year, and academically, he had his best semester. But Ball, who is now coaching receivers, said he's not so sure King has turned any corners just yet.

"To me, I think the jury is still out," Ball said. "You hope that he has, you pray that he has, but I don't know if there was an indication in the latter part of the season in the Georgia Tech week or the bowl week that would make me say he has turned a corner. I don't know. He's got to do it on a consistent basis. That's what you've got to look for you've got to look for consistency."

Developing into another Moreno could be a lot of pressure for a player who hasn't shown he can respond well to it. But King said Moreno taught him a valuable lesson before he left Athens: Just play football, and don't worry about the other stuff. So King isn't listening to criticism from fans or worrying about his failures in the past. He's planning to follow Moreno's advice and just do what comes naturally.

"It's no pressure," King said. "I've been doing this since I was little. I just have to go out there every day and play football and have fun."


OK, so what'd I get wrong? Anyone else you'll be watching closely this spring? Any surprises you think might be in store? I'll be doing a bunch of stories over the next four weeks, but if you have some players you'd like to hear more about, let me know and I'll see what I can put together.


Anonymous said...

Great post, David. I think you hit the nail on the head with all of them. I might add Rashad Jones to that list because, like Bryan Evans, I feel like he has a lot to prove being a senior and all. Here's hoping Caleb King can have that breakout year that we all know he's capable of doing.

David Hale said...

Couldn't agree more on Reshad, except that what he needs to prove has to happen on Saturdays this fall. He can impress all he wants this spring and it won't make a difference unless he makes it happen on game day.

Anonymous said...

Dead on re: Reshad. I am also interested in seeing how the guys behind Caleb do as well as Caleb himself.

Billy Barou said...

I can't argue with this list, David. Bryan Evans and Aron White especially are two sleeper picks that I think could make big impacts this year.

I'm about as interested in how things play out at kick and punt returner as any of the other positions.

I'm a "trust the coaches" 100% kind of guy but it really frustrates me to think that Logan Grey might be a little behind where he would have been if we hadn't decided to put him at punt returner.

Out of curiosity, is Marcus Washington participating in spring drills? He and Quinton Banks are two other guys I expect to make an impact in the fall.

David Hale said...

Washington is practicing. I think he'll play a pretty big role this year, but if everyone stays healthy they're going to be very deep at LB this year.

Dog44 said...

David, this is why you're the best, man. Love your "zag."

At the risk of stating the obvious, I think a lot of eyes are going to be on Cox this spring. I'm looking to see that accuracy we've heard about, how he handles the leadership role that he's stepping into, and what kind of chemistry he's able to establish with A.J. and other receivers.

As far as King goes... we can only hope... but I must say I'm not real optimistic he's going to explode. Come fall, I'm betting we'll see either Samuel step it up and become "the guy," or more likely some combination of King/Samuel/Thomas/Ealey.

Good work.

David Hale said...

Dog44... Thanks! I agree on Cox, but he's sort of like Reshad. I think he has a lot less to prove this spring and a lot more to prove this fall. It was actually pretty funny to see literally 40 media gathered around Cox today... he's a popular guy, for sure.

Anonymous said...