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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Help Wanted: 5 Players Who Need to Step Up

Yesterday, I ran down my list of the five Bulldogs I think have the best chance at breaking out this season. You guys added a few more suggestions of your own in the comments. Today, I figured it made sense to take a minute to look at who the biggest question marks might be.

(Now, before anyone jumps all over me for criticizing these guys, let me clarify what I mean here: These are the guys I think are both a.) question marks heading into fall practice and b.) vital to Georgia's success in 2009. None of that is saying they won't be great this season, just that there are question marks now.)

Mark Richt has made a point of not singling out a lot of individuals this year. It's all part of his "the star of the team is the team" mantra that seems to have become the unofficial motto of the 2009 team (just take a look at the cover of this year's media guide for further proof). But that doesn't mean that there aren't a few individual players who have a rather hefty burden on their shoulders this season.

The obvious first response would be to point to the running backs. With Knowshon Moreno gone to the NFL, there will be a lot of carries up for grabs in the Georgia backfield, but no one has used the opportunity to prove they are ready to provide the same type of production Moreno did.

While I'll admit, Caleb King, Richard Samuel and company definitely have some work to do, I tend to agree with Richt's assessment of the situation:

"I could probably blindly grab two or three of them, just pick 'em up, and I would have confidence whatever three I picked out, we will have success with them," he said. "Sometimes when you say no one has separated themselves from the pack, sometimes that's bad if your pack isn't very good. But if you got a pack of good ones, it's hard to separate also because you have some talented guys around you. I think it's more a situation of that than not having anybody outstanding. I think they're all pretty outstanding."

OK, "outstanding" may be a strong term, but there is definitely talent there, and I'm pretty sure the coaches will find a system that works, whether one guys stands out and gets the bulk of the carries or a handful of them share the load. The upside, too, is that King, Samuel and Carlton Thomas all offer somewhat different skills and could each compliment one another nicely.

"If it's one guy carrying the load, the majority of the load, I'm fine with that," Richt said. "If it's three guys sharing it, I'm okay with that, too. But we're gonna run the ball."

So who is Richt concerned about? Well, we pretty much agree on that, too.

"We need pressure off the edge," Richt said. "Defensive ends, I feel like they're hungry. They feel like they've got something to prove. Historically, since I've been at Georgia, our defensive end position has been highly productive. We've had many first- and second-team All-SEC performers. We've had guys lead the league in sacks. Last year we fell short of what was normal for us."

Well, that's an understatement, as I discussed in this post earlier this month.

But I'm not sure I like Richt's rationale for confidence. Yes, historically Georgia's defensive ends have been solid, but if anything, historical precedent says this year's group won't be. Essentially, the Bulldogs are using the same group as last season, and only Justin Houston has had a chance to show much progress. He'll be suspended for the first two games, by the way.

So that's my first two entries on the list of players who need to step up:

Justin Houston (So./DE) and Demarcus Dobbs (Jr./DE)

Houston had an impressive spring, but his suspension is problematic. For one, he'll miss two important games. Oklahoma State may be completely overrated, but that doesn't mean you can give the Cowboys' QB time to survey the field from the comfort of the pocket. Secondly, Houston's suspension certainly could hinder the growth he had made during the spring. It's sort of like going to the gym -- it takes a long time to get in shape and only a few days off to completely get out of the habit (a story I know all too well). But most importantly, the suspension -- particularly during an offseason when the pressure to stay out of trouble was so intense -- shows a lack of discipline on Houston's part that he'll have to prove he has overcome.

Dobbs had two of Georgia's most memorable defensive plays last season -- an interception he returned for a long touchdown against Central Michigan and a game-saving pick in the fourth quarter against Kentucky -- but he'll need to do more in 2009. With Houston out early and Rod Battle injury prone, Dobbs will need to be a steadying force at defensive end this season. Unfortunately, consistency has been his biggest problem during his career so far, and his spring injuries haven't helped. He has lots of potential, but he needs to play up to that potential more often this season.

Moving on, Richt says he's confident in Blair Walsh as his kicker, but Drew Butler's punting is a bit more worrisome.

"Butler is unproven as a punter," he said. "Butler has proved to me he can punt well enough to be outstanding in our league, just by observing him, but he hasn't proved that he can be consistent enough. So I guess what I'm saying is maybe last year he's five or six out of 10 that were outstanding. We got to get him to where he's nine out of 10, 10 out of 10, which he's been working diligently to be that."

I'll second that, which leads me to No. 3 on my list.

Drew Butler (So./P)

Butler's often gets overlooked, and since punters and kickers aren't a big part of spring practice, his new role replacing Brian Mimbs hasn't been the biggest topic of discussion. It should. Mimbs was consistently strong throughout most of the season last year, and given all the problems the Dawgs had on special teams, he was a lone bright spot. Considering Georgia's offense is likely to take a step back -- particularly in terms of big-play potential -- having a consistent punter that can help change field position could be crucial, and Butler needs to show he can be that guy.

So, who else?

"We need guys that can cover people outside," Richt said. "If you're weak in the middle, you got problems. I'm not disappointed by any stretch about our corner play or anything like that. I'm confident in them."

That doesn't exactly sound like a ringing endorsement, but I'm actually confident in them, too. As I wrote in yesterday's post, I expect big things from Brandon Boykin this season, and Georgia could certainly do a lot worse than Prince Miller at the other corner.

But No. 4 on my list does come from Georgia's secondary, and I'm guessing most people will agree with me.

Reshad Jones (Jr/S)

I think we all know what Jones' problems were last year. It's been discussed enough. After the season, Jones was literally a few hours away from declaring for the NFL draft before reconsidering. Yes, Jones has NFL ability. But at no point in his career has he shown he's ready to be a star at the next level. He needs to make that leap this season, and if he does, it would be a huge boost to the Georgia D.

Any final concerns from Richt?

"It just dawned on me, I think we only have three seniors on offense -- Joe Cox and Vince Vance and Michael Moore. I didn't realize that," Richt said.

Sure, that might be a bit concerning, but guess how many seniors Georgia had starting on offense last year. The answer: One. Mo Massaquoi was the lone senior starter, and there really wasn't another senior who was both consistently healthy and consistently contributing even in a back-up role.

So having three seniors this year should be a nice upgrade, and of the rest of the group, only the tight end depth chart lacks significant experience. Which leads me to my final entry on the list...

Aron White (So./TE)

White actually showed some nice flashes of potential last season (hey, White and Cox were Georgia's best offense against Florida) when pushed into duty due to injuries, so there's a lot of reasons for hope this year. But there are still concerns.

Bruce Figgins will miss the first six games, Arthur Lynch is a true freshman and Orson Charles isn't a prototypical tight end by any means. All of that means that White is likely to get the bulk of the early work in traditional sets, and he hasn't exactly shown he's ready to be a successful blocker.

"He has his moments where he does great, but most of the time, he's just battling his tail off," Richt said.

The good news is White has added some serious bulk this offseason and figures to be at around 240 pounds by the start of the season. He'll need it, and he'll need to show he can be more than simply a receiving threat in the passing game, particularly early on until Charles and Lynch have gotten a taste of life in the SEC.

Again, I'm hardly saying these players won't be good this year. All five could blossom into stars. But all are crucial to Georgia's success this year, and I still have serious questions about each.

So... what players will you be watching the closest this fall? What worries you? Am I crazy for being concerned about any of these guys?


William said...

I'm mainly interested in the CB position. I feel like, while Martinez usually has done a great job with this position (hey, that's a compliment!), last year was slightly disappointing from everyone except Asher. Brandon Smith interests me, but so do a number of the other players who will be taking over in the next year or so. We need to start getting better CB play due to the lack of pressure from the DEs. When the DEs are rocking, we can do with mediocre CBs, but that doesn't seem to be where we're headed. The CB's are going to have to step up and lock it down this year until the DEs can get their sea legs.

Anonymous said...

Caleb King is my nominee. Richt didn't endorse him, saying it will be decided in Fall camp who starts. This isn't just a running the ball thing, but his blocking has been a problem, too, and in our offense that won't cut it.