"Any time any young guy is playing it certainly bodes well for the future, but any decision I make or we make as a staff is going to be based on what gives us the best chance to win this year. We owe that to our seniors, we owe that to our fans, we owe that to everybody who busts their tail every day." -- Mark Richt, during his weekly Sunday teleconference this week.
The news came down Monday that Joe Cox would be the starter at quarterback yet again this week. That's not surprising, and the logic that Cox gives Georgia its best chance to win is probably correct. But why use that logic?
I guess if I were a coach, I'd probably want to do whatever I could to end this season on a high note, too. But I'm not a coach. I'm a reporter and blogger, and I'm ready to look ahead.
So with this week's grades, we're taking a little different approach. I'll hand out grades for the Florida game, but I think that mess is sort of secondary now. Besides, what new topics could we explore? Georgia's problems last week were essentially the same problems from the first seven weeks.
So what we're really going to focus on is what lies ahead. What are the issues at hand? What can be done this year to solve them? What might 2010 look like?
Here's what I came up with...
QUARTERBACKS: If you've been reading this blog all season, you know that I've defended Joe Cox's role as the starting quarterback as emphatically as anyone.
I pointed to the youth around him, but eight games into the season, those guys aren't rookies anymore. And even if Cox wasn't on the field, how many more mistakes could they make at this point?
I pointed to the lack of a running game, but Georgia actually ran the ball pretty well against Florida and Cox still had three INTs.
I pointed to drops by his receivers, but it was Cox whose ball placement was brutal throughout the game against the Gators, with the high pass over the middle that got A.J. Green hurt being the most egregious example.
I pointed to some lackluster play calling, but Mike Bobo's game plan Saturday wasn't anywhere close to being the problem.
I'm not a Georgia fan, but I'll echo what I've already heard so many of you say: Joe Cox is a great kid, a loyal Bulldog and is more accountable than probably any 22-year-old I've ever met. And in the grand game of life, those things are far more commendable than anything he could have accomplished on the football field.
But the game we're talking about isn't life, it's football. And sometimes the virtues that you hold in the highest esteem the other six days a week don't mean much on Saturday. There's a reason Brandon Spikes can play dirty and be a first-round draft pick, and there's a reason that Cox can be a truly great kid and probably deserve a seat on the bench.
It doesn't look like that will happen this week, at least not to start the game. Logan Gray certainly hasn't looked ready to take over the offense either, although to be fair, his opportunities have hardly come at optimal times. At the very least, he probably deserves to at least show what he can do for a few series in the first half, before things have gotten out of hand.
Maybe Gray could perform well. Maybe he'll put himself in position to win the job next year. Maybe. But from virtually everyone I've spoken to -- and no, I don't mean coaches or players, but rather the people on the periphery of the program -- it's Aaron Murray that is the quarterback of the future.
I don't know whether that future will become reality in 2010. We probably won't have a firm answer on that until after spring practice. If Gray performs well enough, Murray's future might not be until 2011 or 2012. But I also thinks it's at least worth asking the question of whether or not the future should be 2009. Namely, this week.
When discussing Washaun Ealey after Week 4, Richt said his opinion on burning a redshirt has changed in recent years. It used to be that if a player hadn't seen action in the first four games, he wasn't going to play at all. Now, he said, Week 6 is probably a break-even point, and even after Week 7, 8 or 9, he said, there could be merit in giving a guy playing time if he was ready to perform.
Maybe Murray isn't ready. He missed two weeks and was limited for two more due to tendinitis in his elbow earlier this season, and he was slowed throughout the spring and summer as he continued to recover from a broken leg he suffered as a senior at Plant High School. The coaches know far better than I do where he's at on the learning curve.
But the reports I've heard on Murray say that he has all the physical tools he'll need to succeed, and elbow or leg problems don't keep you from learning the playbook. And as for how healthy he is right now, Richt says that's not an issue.
"He's very healthy even with his arm right now," Richt said. "We went about two weeks monitoring the amount of throws he had for a while, but the last few weeks, he's off the injury list completely. He's 100 percent as far as throwing, and I think he's moving better than he has in a while."
Again, I don't see what the coaches see, and I don't know what the coaches know. But I look ahead to next year's lineup and it's hard not to see a world of possibility there if only Georgia has a quarterback who can match the talent around him.
I don't know what the right decision is on who should start the rest of the way, but I do know it would be a big mistake if the coaching staff didn't at least ask whether or not the benefit of giving five games of playing time to Murray is worth the cost.
(*One final note: Should I even mention that Cox threw for as many TDs against Florida on Saturday as the Gators' previous seven opponents have combined?)
Final Grade (this week): D
Final Grade (future): Incomplete
RUNNING BACKS: Remember when Urban Meyer complained that Tennessee was running the ball too much against Florida, not really trying to win the game but rather to run out the clock?
Well, in that game, the Vols -- complete with future NFL-er Montario Hardesty and former No. 1 overall recruit Bryce Brown -- netted a grand total of 117 yards on the ground against that vaunted Florida defense.
Saturday, Georgia's beleaguered running game racked up 121.
The Bulldogs averaged just 3.7 yards per carry, but if you don't factor in sacks (which the final stats do), Georgia's running game actually accounted for nearly five yards per carry. The same running game that struggled to get to 3 ypc all season posted nearly 5 ypc against the best defense in the country.
And they did it despite being down 14 points early and effectively playing catch-up throughout the game.
We don't need to peer into the future to determine what the running game will look like next year. We don't need to worry about changes to the tailback rotation right now. The future was on display Saturday.
Washaun Ealey has all the natural instincts to be a great running back. He hits the hole as hard as Knowshon Moreno ever did, he just needs to learn some of the subtleties of running at this level. His future is bright.
Caleb King continues to look good, too, despite limited action. He runs harder after first contact than any of Georgia's tailbacks and his pass blocking has been exceptional. At this point, it may be too late for him to nail down an every-down job, but considering how bad this unit looked just a few weeks ago, it's not hard to be encouraged about a 60-40 or 70-30 split between Ealey and King going forward.
I should note, too, that Richard Samuel picked up 40 yards on six carries -- mostly in the fourth quarter -- and look pretty decent doing it. So that remains the biggest question regarding the tailbacks -- where will Samuel be next year? A lot probably depends on whether Georgia can land another solid RB recruit for this year's class. If they can, there's really no reason to allow Samuel's immense natural ability to remain relegated to mop-up duty.
Final Grade (this week): B+
Final Grade (future): B
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: Here's a trivia question for you: Who was the last Georgia player NOT named A.J. Green to have both three catches and 50 yards receiving in the same game?
I'll let you stew over that for a moment while I ask another question: While everyone is up in arms about a QB change and planning for the future, why has the talk of finding snaps for Marlon Brown suddenly disappeared?
Georgia has six scholarship receivers, and at this point, it's probably fair to stop including Israel Troupe in the discussion. After three years in the program, if he can't get on the field this season, he's at best hovering just above the "lost cause" plateau.
Of those five scholarship guys, only Tavarres King has really established himself by any real standard. Rantavious Wooten has had some nice moments, but his playing time has been limited and his role in the offense has yet to be really determined.
Michael Moore has been a disappointment for much of this season, and he'll be gone next year regardless. Kris Durham will return from injury in 2010 to provide Georgia with another senior, but the fact is, the receiving corps isn't likely to have much more experience next year than it had this year, and this year has been just shy of a disaster.
At this point, there is no reason not to get Brown and Wooten more time, throw them some more passes and help them build up their confidence for next season. Both came to Georgia with a boatload of talent, and at this point, the Bulldogs have absolutely wasted Brown. If this was all the playing time he was going to get, they should have redshirted him. What they've done, instead, is far more atrocious than burning Aaron Murray's redshirt with four games left would be.
As it stands, the WR lineup for next year will probably look like this:
Flanker: Kris Durham, Da'Rick Rogers
Slot: Tavarres King, Rantavious Wooten
Split End: A.J. Green, Marlon Brown
Others: Troupe, Michael Bennett
Da'Rick Rogers has tons of talent and could be a star immediately, but that's what we thought about Brown this year, too. So like this year, there will be potential in the receiving corps, but there's a good chance that aside from Green, that entire unit will have accounted for fewer than 25 receptions in 2009.
Oh, and to answer the original question -- the last player to record at least three catches and 50 receiving yards in the same game was Michael Moore, all the way back in Week 3 against Arkansas.
In fact, the only players other than A.J. to have three catches or more in any game since then are Moore (6 vs. Tennessee), Shaun Chapas (4 vs. Arizona State) and Fred Munzenmaier (3 vs. Vandy). Um, what does it say that two of those guys are fullbacks?
I guess we'll find out a bit more about these guys this week as Green is not expected to play against Tennessee Tech.Final Grade (this week): C- (mostly because Cox gets the blame for the passing-game woes, but he sure didn't get a ton of help)
Final Grade (future): B- (Hey, they'll still have A.J.)
ADDENDUM: I sort of glossed over the tight ends originally, but obviously Georgia has a ton of talent there. Orson Charles and Aron White still need to improve in their blocking, but overall both have a lot of potential. Bruce Figgins' return and another year of development for Arthur Lynch make tight end a real strength looking forward. Future Grade: A
OFFENSIVE LINE: So for the fifth time in eight games, Georgia trotted out a new starting lineup on the offensive line.
The good news: It helped the running game, which looked much improved.
The bad news: Georgia allowed three sacks Saturday after allowing just six all season before that.
On one hand, the line did seem to play a bit better overall, but boy were there some bad moments.
Cox's first INT was a direct result of A.J. Jones being in the backfield before the QB could finish his drop. Cox's second INT, which was an absolutely awful throw, came as a result of pressure, too, when he was flushed out of the pocket and made an ill-advised pass on a third-down play.
Even when the pressure didn't necessarily cause a turnover, it created other problems. Here's an intriguing note from The Senator:
"Everyone no doubt has his or her key moment of the game. Mine was Dunlap’s sack of Cox during that disastrous series late in the second quarter. Joe’s stats before the sack: 6 of 9 passing for 101 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT. Afterwards: 5 of 11 passing for 64 yards, 1 TD, 3 INTs."If you'll recall, the same was true after Cox was hit against Tennessee, and Richt even alluded to the fact that his QB was shaken up a bit.
Perhaps Cox's biggest problem is he simply isn't able to shake off a particularly big hit.
Either way, it remains baffling as to why a veteran O line can't seem to pass protect and run block in the same game.
I'm a little hesitant to put too much blame on Josh Davis for retaliating against Spikes on the opening drive then knocking off Spikes' helmet, which wasn't strapped on in the first place, but the bottom line is that 15-yard flag killed a good drive and may have changed the complexion of the entire game after that. It may not have been all Davis' fault, but it was a huge play.
Looking ahead, the key to the remainder of this season is to find some continuity on the line. With the exception of Vince Vance, every one of these guys will be back next year, and Georgia cannot afford to let this unit fall apart once again. If Justin Anderson is going to be an answer long-term, he needs to play. If he's not, maybe it's time to see what someone like A.J. Harmon can do. Chris Davis is a warrior, but at some point that hip injury isn't just limiting him, but it's limiting the whole offense.
Ideally Trinton Sturdivant comes back strong next year, too, but the coaches certainly can't rely on that. The best approach is to assume Sturdivant will not be the same player he was before, and if it turns out that he makes a full recovery, then it will be a pleasant surprise. But as Vance showed after just one ACL surgery -- a far less invasive one than Sturdivant's first -- it takes a lot of time to return to where you were before the injury.
As for fresh blood, Chris Burnette will be ready next year, and I think there's reason to be excited about his future. But Dallas Lee hasn't exactly earned any rave reviews, and Austin Long remains a mystery after back surgery. For the most part, what we've seen this year is what we'll get next year in terms of personnel. That could be a very good thing or, like this season, it could be another kick in the face.
Final Grade (this week): C
Final Grade (future): B
DEFENSIVE LINE: No position will take a harder hit in 2010 than defensive tackle, where the top three players on the depth chart will all move on -- perhaps all three to the NFL.
Kade Weston, Jeff Owens and Geno Atkins have all been fixtures on the D line for the better part of four years now, and replacing them -- even if they haven't lived up to high expectations this year -- won't be easy. Brandon Wheeling, also a senior, has been part of a six-DT rotation this season and will be gone next year, too.
The top two performers to return will be DeAngelo Tyson and Abry Jones, and neither had so much as a tackle against Florida. Both are immensely talented, and it would probably be tough to get them much more playing time than they're getting already, so the situation is what it is.
It will be interesting to see what happens with Jones and Tyson next season. They'll get some help, possibly from Kwame Geathers and Derrick Lott, possibly from incoming freshman Garrison Smith. Either way, this will be an ongoing work in progress until 2010 kicks off.
The silver lining of the D line this season, however, has clearly been Justin Houston. The line has made marked improvements in terms of pass rush since Houston returned from a two-game suspension, and Saturday he finished with three tackles, two for a loss, and one sack. He's been a beast for more than a month, and he's provided some hope for the pass rush going forward. (Of course, he'll miss the Tennesse Tech game, and who knows how serious his knee injury might be going forward.)
It was frustrating, no doubt, watching Tim Tebow run up the middle for one first down after another on Saturday, but there aren't a lot of players like Tebow. By and large, the run D has been strong this year, the pass rush has improved, and with five freshmen D-ends committed for next year, there's got to be a lot more hope for the D line as 2010 gets set to kick off than there was to start 2009.
Final Grade (this week): C
Final Grade (future): C+ (with potential for much higher if the young DTs develop)
LINEBACKERS: Perhaps the most frustrating thing about watching Saturday's debacle against Florida was seeing how overmatched Georgia's linebackers appeared.
On lateral plays, they looked obviously slow compared to the Gators' fleet-footed running backs like Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey.
On power plays, Tebow and Emmanuel Moody looked stronger, breaking tackles and picking up big plays.
If you're not stronger and you're not faster, you're not going to win a lot of battles.
The first down catch-and-run by Aaron Hernandez on a third-and-16 was an absolute back-breaker. While the D held after that, Caleb Sturgis booted a 56-yard field goal that really was a turning point in the game. Had Florida punted there, Georgia would have gotten the ball back down four with a chance to take the lead late in the second quarter. Instead, the Gators iced Georgia momentum, and once again, it was a tight end that was the thorn in the Bulldogs' side.
Assuming Rennie Curran eschews the NFL, all of Georgia's key linebackers, save Darius Dewberry and little-used Marcus Washington, will be back next year. That's good news, most likely. Heck, Akeem Dent has to be more productive in 2010 than he has been in 2009, right?
But the underperformance of the linebacking corps this season has been almost as striking as the lack of production from the O line. This was supposed to be the strength of the defense, and even Curran has missed some key tackles while the others have been, for the most part, utter non-factors (unless you count bad plays as "factors").
There are some bright spots, however. Nick Williams got his first start of the season against Florida. He hasn't had a huge impact this year, but his potential is there. Christian Robinson has seen his playing time skyrocket in recent weeks, and he finished Saturday's game with three tackles. His production could grow by leaps and bounds if he can stack on a few more pounds to his frame next season. Marcus Dowtin returned from a two-game absence due to an injured finger and posted three tackles and half-a-sack, too. He's got star status written all over him.
What will be interesting next season, however, is seeing how well the three younger guys mix with the three older guys at the position. Who starts? How much will the younger guys play? How will the seniors react if their jobs are usurped by younger players?
This season, John Jancek has been fanatical about rotating players, some moves of which I haven't exactly understood. But next year, finding playing time for Robinson, Dowtin and Williams may be even more important.
Final Grade (this week): D
Final Grade (future): B
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Another worthy note from The Senator following the Florida game:
Indeed, the lack of a starting job for Baccari Rambo has gone from perplexing to absurd, and Saturday's performance only underscored that.Florida's first two drives against Georgia may have been the worst two-drive performance I've seen from this defense all year. Yes, Arkansas hit some big plays and Johnathan Crompton made some good throws, but what Florida did on 92- and 80-yard drives was merciless. They made it look easy -- probably because it was.
Mark Richt made the point yesterday that Georgia hasn't created enough turnovers. But think about what might have happened had Brandon James bobbled a reception like he did on Florida's second drive, but this time put any Georgia defender within 10 yards of him. The bobble very well may have become an interception, and the complexion of the game may have been completely different.
Instead, with two weeks to prepare, Georgia's secondary was so bad that James could bobble the ball five or six times and still not come close to being touched by a Bulldogs player. It takes a lot for a receiver to drop a pass like that and not have it be the most embarrassing part of that play.
There are five people whose fingerprints are most represented in Georgia's terrible, 73rd-ranked pass defense this season: Bryan Evans, Reshad Jones, Prince Miller, Brandon Boykin and Willie Martinez.
There's a good chance that four of those five will be gone next year.
We'll get to Martinez in a bit. Evans and Miller are seniors, and Branden Smith and Rambo have already shown they'll be adequate and likely superior replacements. Between Makiri Pugh, Shawn Williams and incoming recruit Jakar Hamilton, a replacement for Jones, should he decide to turn pro, shouldn't be too hard to find either.
The lone returner from The Big Five is Boykin, who has taken his lumps this season and has certainly been picked on quite a bit by opposing offensive coordinators, but he's held his own throughout. He hasn't been great, and he hasn't lived up to Asher Allen's work the past two years, but for a first-year starter, he's done a nice job and has made a few particularly impressive plays. His future looks bright even if his present has been erratic.
Of course, what might help the secondary the most is a change is scheme, from a soft zone that even mediocre QBs have exploited at will to something that allows defensive players to make plays.
I'm not sure that we can look at next year and definitively say that addition by subtraction will lead to a resurgence in the secondary, but I think it is safe to say it would be hard for things to get much worse.
Final Grade (this week): D
Final Grade (future): B
SPECIAL TEAMS: Let's add one more to "The List."
Joe Cox connects with Aron White for the Bulldogs' first touchdown of the day. The team celebrates on the sideline. The score is now 14-10 and the Bulldogs have life after a dismal start. What comes next? You guessed it!
Blair Walsh, now a master of the touchback, kicks off directionally, Brandon James returns it 19 yards to the Florida 21, then Mike Gilliard hits James out of bounds and is flagged for a 15-yard penalty, giving the Gators the ball at their own 36 instead. Aside from the ugly tackling on Hernandez's 17-yard reception, the defense held firm, but that extra field position was enough to give Florida a shot at a long field goal, which Sturgis hit to put the Gators back up by 7.
A few other notes of interest:
-- As best I could tell, Georgia felt no need to have 11 men on the field for Sturgis' second field goal of the day.
-- Florida has still not allowed a punt-return yard all season.
-- Brandon Boykin set the school record for kick-return yards and is close to breaking the record for overall return yards, and he did it with very little room to run Saturday. He's already a star as a kick returner.
-- Blair Walsh booted yet another 50-yarder. There's been a lot of talk about the year Drew Butler is having, but Walsh has flown under the radar to have one of the best seasons by a UGA kicker in a while.
-- And speaking of Butler, he averaged 52.5 yards per punt, upping his lead nationally in that category. He booted two of four punts that were downed inside the 20, too. But his long -- a 61-yarder -- severely outkicked its coverage and James returned it 20 yards.
As for the future of the special teams, that's hard to say. Boykin may have impressed to the extent that few teams kick to him next year. Butler and Walsh will both be back, so that's encouraging, assuming Walsh isn't asked to keep directional kicking. And if Aaron Murray wins the starting QB job in 2010, we may even be treated to more Logan Gray punt returns.
The bulk of the special teams, however, are dictated by the guys on the coverage teams, and those fluctuate greatly from year to year, so there's really no telling just how good these units might be next season.
Final Grade (this week): B
Final Grade (future): Incomplete, but with potential
COACHING: And now we get to the crux of it all. The real questions about next year all begin here, right?
Who will be back on the staff? Who might replace those who depart? Will anyone leave at all? And regardless of any shakeups, will there be a real, noticeable, meaningful difference in the culture of the team?
I'd love to tell you I have a ton of inside sources giving me the scoop on what will happen, but that's not the case. In truth, I don't think even Mark Richt knows for sure what will happen yet. I honestly don't believe he'd even consider the decisions he'll have to make until the season is over and he has a full year of information to base those decisions upon. Maybe I'm wrong, but I know how he operates, and it would be out of character for any major overhaul to be decided upon, much less acted upon, at this point.
But before we get too far into that, let's talk about this week's game, since it is particularly relevant to the discussion.
For the better part of a decade, we've heard about how important that open date before the Cocktail Party is to both teams. Something tells me we won't hear that again any time soon.
On the offensive side of the ball, there were obviously some strides made during the bye week. I thought the play calling was strong for the most part, and I commend Mike Bobo for sticking with what he believed would work, even when Georgia fell behind by 14 early. The running game was much improved, and Bobo's decision to keep Ealey as the featured back for most of the game proved to be the right call and may pay even greater dividends moving forward.
Having said that, here's what Brandon Spikes had to say about his fourth-quarter interception that effectively ended the game: "I knew what that play was before the ball was snapped, so I was able to make the play. The coaching staff put us in great position to make plays, so I was able to step in front of the ball."
So let's clarify...
Weeks to prepare: Georgia 2, Florida 1
Number of interceptions that came because players knew what to expect: Georgia 0, Florida 1 (and maybe more)
But again, I thought Bobo did a decent enough job. Was it a perfect performance? No. But he crafted a game plan that had success against a very good defense, and that's praiseworthy. There were times when Georgia moved the ball better against the Gators than anyone has all year. That's a credit to Bobo. He didn't throw any of the four interceptions and he didn't tell Josh Davis to get flagged for a personal foul or tell Orson Charles to jump offsides twice or force Joe Cox to stare down a covered receiver while another ran wide open. In fact, I'd be willing to bet Bobo spent the last two weeks coaching those guys to do the exact opposite of those things.
On the defensive side of the ball, however, it's fair to ask what went on the past two weeks. In fact, that's exactly what Paul Westerdawg does:
If that question is too inflammatory for someone to ask Coach Richt, then my question would be...why did Arkansas and Mississippi State have a better game plan defensively than we did? They have far less defensive talent on their respective teams than Georgia does, and they each had half as much time to prepare."
I hate to break it to Paul, who's a fine blogger and a loyal Georgia fan, but he probably should have seen this coming. In fact, Willie Martinez told us this was coming.
As I mentioned above, Georgia's D looked clueless on Florida's opening two drives. Tebow, on the other hand, looked like someone had handed him Georgia's playbook a week ago and told him to memorize it. There was nothing new here, and Tebow beat the UGA defense like I used to beat the first three levels of "Super Mario Brothers." I could do it with my eyes closed because I knew it so well.
There's really not much that can be said positive about the defensive performance, although I've heard people try. But here are the facts:
-- Florida rushed for 210 yards against Georgia -- 70 more than Georgia was allowing on average this season.
-- Tebow completed 15-of-21 passes (72 percent), his second-highest completion percentage of the season. And that's counting that throw to James as an incompletion, which it certainly shouldn't have been.
-- Having watched Tebow barrel over Georgia defenders for three years now, the Florida QB still ran for 91 yards on 16 carries (not including sacks).
-- Tebow became the fourth quarterback to account for four touchdowns against Georgia this season. In eight games.
-- The defense has now allowed 37 or more points in nine of its past 17 games. Against its top rivals/competition -- Auburn, Georgia Tech, Alabama, LSU, Tennessee and Florida -- Georgia has allowed an average of 34 points and 380 total yards in nine games. And those stats include games against Tennessee and Auburn last year, when both offenses were brutal.
-- In those games, Georgia is 3-6 overall and has created just eight turnovers on defense, three of which came in one game against LSU last year.
-- And while some fans may want to point to Georgia's improved defensive stats on Saturday after those first two drives, don't forget that when Georgia was within four and the Dawgs had Florida pinned on a third-and-16, Hernandez broke one tackle after another for a first down and Florida earned a field goal on the drive. When Georgia was within seven with just 2:23 left in the first half and desperately needed to go into the locker room with some momentum, the defense surrendered a 65-yard drive on just four plays that took just 51 seconds to let Florida go up by 14. Those were the two most important drives of the day for Florida, and the defense failed to hold in either case.
The bottom line is that, yes, there are extenuating circumstances in every game that have made life tough for the defense. But when the unit had a chance to show it used the extra week wisely, it looked dreadful. And when the offense made things close, the defense couldn't hold. Adversity strikes everyone. It can't be an excuse for Georgia's defensive performance any more.
Final Grade (this week): F (with extra negative points for uni's that looked like Grambling)
Final Grade (future): Well, that's the big question now, isn't it? I wish I knew.