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Friday, April 2, 2010

With One Week Left, What's Actually Changed?

Hey, it's Friday, Georgia has what is likely its most important scrimmage of the spring tomorrow, and the weather is absolutely beautiful. So... let's end the week on some high notes, eh?

Spring practice is generally a time in which we reporters blather on and add credence to any number of preseason memes that don't add up to much once the games get started. It's often tough to avoid when you need to write about news, but nothing is really happening -- at least nothing measurable anyway.

So that leads to a question in readers' minds, and it's one that AppleDawg managed to verbalize: "Do we notice anything different about this year? Like, anything ACTUALLY different"

The short answer is yes, there's a lot that's different, and that comes mostly from bringing in a new staff. What we don't know, however, is just how different things are or how significant those changes will be when the season comes along.

But while plenty of mystery remains, the more I've talked to players and coaches, the more it seems like Mark Richt and his staff have almost gone down a checklist of fan complaints over the past few years and worked to address them all. To wit...

ISSUE #1 -- Problems in the secondary.

From Day 1, Scott Lakatos started turning this around. We learned that he was working on better footwork right off the bat.

“It’s a whole lot different, especially with the footwork that Coach Lakatos is teaching us," Bacarri Rambo said before spring practice began. "Most of the people in the NFL run the same thing as Coach Lakatos is teaching us. It’s a whole different footwork thing from Coach Martinez.”

At the line of scrimmage, Lakatos has his guys pressing more, hoping to disrupt receivers' timing.

“Get as much contact as you can before they get leverage on you," Brandon Boykin said. "You’ve got to turn your hips to get contact on them to knock the timing off between him and the quarterback.”

And what about the awful coverage when the ball was in the air? That was addressed, too.

“When the ball’s in the air, he teaches to get your head around and look for the ball,” corner Jordan Love said. “Last year we were playing hands to the receiver, and that’s an adjustment we’ve had to make.”

And should a receiver actually catch a pass, Lakatos is preaching some good lessons on that, too.

“He’s big on putting your face in and striking people,” Nick Williams said. “He’s a very aggressive coach. He’s about being aggressive. He’s about setting the edge, setting the tone. It isn’t about laying back. If you’re going to catch a touchdown pass on us, you’re going to pay for it. I love that about him.”

ISSUE #2 -- Bad tackling.

I read a comment from a reader a few weeks ago that said he thought fundamentals would be this year's leadership -- the thing that gets talked about all spring but doesn't really change much.

Maybe. But every second of practice I've watched this year has been focused on learning the little things. Much of that is because when a new scheme is being installed, they pretty much have to go back to basics. But whatever the reason, the fact remains that Todd Grantham and his defense have made fundamentals like proper tackling technique a cornerstone of their work so far.

The other thing I can say about this spring that is truly different is the interactions we've had with the coaches, and Grantham in particular. I don't know how much this translates to what happens on the field or how the staff interacts with the players, but every time I talk to these guys, I'm struck by how specific and detailed their answers are.

No offense to Willie Martinez or any of the former coaches, but our questions usually met with some pretty bland, generic responses that never really provided any deep insight into the problems. Willie would give his standard, "bottom line is we've just got to execute" or Jon Fabris would answer a question about kickoff coverage with a speech on the significance of walk-ons that, while potentially true, was one I'd heard plenty of times before.

Grantham is the exact opposite. You can't listen to him talk Xs and Os without being in awe of his knowledge, and he has an enthusiasm about what he does that is infectious. Perhaps it's just a difference in how the two staffs deal with the media, but if I walk away from an interview feeling like I learned something and feeling like I'm excited about the game of football -- wouldn't it stand to reason the players are getting even more of this?

ISSUE #3 -- Penalties.

Check out my notes from after practice yesterday for an example of how seriously they're taking penalties this spring.

Perhaps it's all a lot of talk, but I had one commenter mention that he was at practice Thursday and the rolls were the single most grueling thing he's ever seen players have to do on a practice field. It may not make a bit of difference this fall, but it at least shows that everyone is taking the issue seriously.

ISSUE #4 -- Kickoffs.

I wrote about that this morning. Blair Walsh said directional kicking won't be the default setting any longer, and his rationale for why that's good is exactly what I've been saying all along -- it's not that directional kicking is a flawed philosophy, it's that it doesn't play to the strengths of the guys on this team.

“It’s not like it was here the past two years directional-wise," Walsh said. "It’s a lot more use of my talent I would say. I was fine doing what they wanted me to do. I’m a team player, and I can go along with it. But it’s a lot more use of my talent, and I’m happy about it. I don’t feel like there’s a restraint on me anymore. Without giving too much away, it’s different.”

Add to that the notion that the fastest guys will be on kick coverage and Warren Belin has a simplified, knock-the-other-guy's-head-off philosophy to coverage and you get a recipe for exactly what fans have been clamoring to see for the past few years.

(And by the way, despite Mark Richt's comments earlier this spring indicating otherwise, Logan Gray tells us he hasn't fielded a punt since the fall.)

ISSUE #5 -- Play calling.

I've criticized Mike Bobo's play calling when it was called for, and I've also written on several occasions that he's done a far better job than most people want to give him credit for. But wherever you fall on the spectrum of appreciation for Georgia's offensive coordinator, you have to think that adding Mark Richt's expertise back to the offensive meeting rooms is a bonus, and that's exactly what's happening this spring.

Moreover, fans have critiqued both the offense and defense for being too vanilla in years past. We know big changes have been made on the defensive side with the switch to the 3-4, and that means opponents will be forced to expect the unexpected.

“It’s definitely going to be frustrating, especially at the beginning of the year when those first few teams don’t have a lot of film on us and see all the things we can do," quarterback Aaron Murray said of the 3-4. "With that defense you have guys coming from all different directions. You have safeties coming, linebackers, and a lot of times you don’t know where they’re coming from."

And on offense, there won't be dramatic changes, but Richt did say he expects a few more options should Murray or Logan Gray win the QB job.

“I believe those guys are athlete enough to add a little bit of quarterback run, run a little zone read, run a little quarterback draw,” Richt said. “I don’t see us running a true option, but ... we’ll have quarterback run gamed for them, and you would expect them to make plays either crossing the line of scrimmage or scrambling right, left, buying time and finding someone downfield."

ISSUE #6 -- Position changes.

There haven't been a ton, but if I had a quarter for every time I heard a fan suggest Bean Anderson switch to the D line or Richard Samuel move to linebacker, I'd be able to retire early. Well, as of today, both guys are lining up on defense.

ISSUE #7 -- Stubbornness on the coaching staff.

This was an issue that was attributed primarily to two of the departed assistants -- Martinez and Fabris. But Richt was probably the one atop the list of guys fans believed to stick too rigidly to his old notions on coaching.

Certainly he hasn't wiped the blackboard clean and started from scratch this year, but the staff changes, his return to the offensive meeting rooms, and a bevy of other small changes have already taken place.

Richt commented Thursday about a few minor tweaks to the practice routines that Grantham suggested that he said were excellent ideas and the team has already adopted the new, better way of doing things.

Perhaps none of it is life-altering, but Richt has not only shown he was willing to change the personnel on his staff, but he's willing to accept their outside ideas with open arms.

ISSUE #8 -- Turnovers.

This is the one that would still worry me, but Richt and Bobo say they're working on it, and the quarterbacks have all said that making smart decisions with the football has been a top priority.

The bottom line on this one, however, is that we really will have to wait until the season starts to know just how far Georgia has come.

“I don’t think you can say (you’ve turned a corner) until you play the games," Richt said. "I really don’t. We continue to work extremely hard on the fundamentals of securing the ball, and the fundamentals of stripping the ball or punching the ball on defense to create turnovers. But until we start, we can say this, that and the other, but I’m not saying anything until we actually play some games and we can gauge whether we’ve made some improvement or not.”

Not bad for a few weeks of spring practice, right?

Add to that the dramatic turnover at Florida and Tennessee, and it's not hard to be excited about what could be in store for Georgia this season.

But the season is still a long ways away, and while it's easy to be enthusiastic now with a new staff and a new scheme in place, the biggest question still remaining might be how long that enthusiasm will last.


BigMuddyDawg said...

If reading this article doesn't make you smile, you might be dead. Or a Techie.

Anonymous said...

I haven't been keeping up with the Lizards, but who have they gotten as their new D-coord since the last guy jumped ship AFTER those poor kids signed their names?

Kathleen said...

I am making the trip out for G-Day (from half across the country) JUST to see the new defense and the new coaches. Can't wait for fall!!

Anonymous said...

Dave - I know you get plenty of kudos, but this is great work.

If something happens with the print side of things, go out on your own and start this blog up without the paper's support. Get advertising dollars.


IveyLeaguer said...

Nice article, David. FWIW, the following is what I posted on my home forum (linked):

Hale is without a doubt the best beat writer out there. He's progressed up to a level by himself. The sheer volume of work he puts out is remarkable. He also has pretty good insight into the football itself, unusual for a journalist. A Georgia fan could follow Hale alone and not miss very much at all.
Most of the people who have access to the program and write about it are football idiots. They never played the game and have a superficial understanding of it. They are the creators of the ridiculous hype that distracts and misleads the Dawgnation and plagues the players and the program at every opportunity, by its nature.
Hale isn't like that.
I take a shot at media types from time to time, and rightly so. So it's very pleasing to post this, as credit should go where it's deserved. Hale won't be around forever, no doubt he'll move on to greener pastures at some point.
So we should appreciate him while he's here.

Furban8 said...

Great article.

I think too many Dawg fans are "gun-shy" from reading seemingly encouraging pre-season reports from the last two seasons only to get sub-par results once the season started. I'm not one of them.

Its one thing for the team to work hard, bond together and all that jazz. None of that matters on a team with poor fundamentals. Fundamentals (the lack of) has been THE number one problem. And its the thing the new coaches arrive with a strong track record of teaching.

David Hale said...

Many thanks, Ivey. You're far too kind!

Kathleen said...

I think it's too kind, too. That's no way to talk to someone if you want him to keep working. Pretty soon Hale is going to get too cocky and we'll end up with shoddy reporting.. or he'll even leave.

If you want to keep someone around, the trick is to be slightly abusive in a backhanded way.

Next time try this, "I don't care what anyone else says, Hale, I think you're doing alright."

Lou Holtz said...

I'll Thee-ya in tha Thugar Bowl!

Trey said...

David, just post this every day until the season starts. Its all I needed to hear. And it appears you jumped off the negative undertone wagon that I mentioned a few weeks ago pretty quickly. haha

South FL Dawg said...

Great summary David. A small part of me is worried that over time people become complacent. But so far so good.

Stu said...

I think the turnover problem on the defensive side will be solved just by bringing in the scheme.

After all, Bobo said that the offensive team had gotten used to practicing against the same defense for the last nine years. It's obvious that our opponents have, too, so it's no wonder we haven't been getting turnovers for the past few years

Stu said...

Oops. As you probably figured out, I meant to say "new scheme."

Anonymous said...

We hated to see David leave the Albany Herald. While the present reporters are okay, they are not in David's league.

BAdawg said...

Unfortunately we've heard this "concentrating on penalties" before. CMR last year said one of his personal focuses would be to reduce penalties and we all saw the end results, one of the worst in the country. Lets hope he executes a little more this year.