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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Big Questions of 2010

Well, we're in the heart of speculation season, which means plenty of questions about the future. But I'm not a big fan of making blind guesses as to what will happen, so instead, let's take a closer look at 10 key questions Georgia will face between now and the start of the 2010 season that will have a major effect on what kind of season the Bulldogs can have next year.

1. Can Georgia close strong on the recruiting trail?

The Bulldogs already have a top-five class, but the job is far from done. Georgia has 18 commitments for 2010, headlined by five-star wideout Da'Rick Rogers, defensive back Alec Ogletree and defensive linemen Garrison Smith and T.J. Stripling. That appeared to be a pretty full class a few months ago, but the departures of Bryce Ros, Neland Ball, Kevin Perez and Ricardo Crawford free up additional scholarships, and certainly further attrition could (and likely will) occur. With a good number of top recruits, like linebacker Jeff Luc, still considering the Dawgs, there's plenty of chance to close with some flair the way Georgia did last season, landing Marlon Brown on Signing Day and Kwame Geathers and Orson Charles afterward.

2. What will the coaching staff look like?

This is the question of the hour (and seemingly a never-ending stretch of hours) but even if Mark Richt announces a change at defensive coordinator today, that may not be the whole story. Should Willie Martinez leave -- voluntarily or otherwise -- the question then becomes, what happens to the rest of the defensive staff? Will other coaches follow Willie out the door? Will a new DC decide he wants to make further changes? And while Georgia fans may not love all of the Bulldogs' coaches, there may be a few other programs around the country who do. It certainly wouldn't be surprising to see teams come after Rodney Garner and Stacy Searels yet again, and even Bryan McClendon had a nice season this year and could probably earn a hefty raise from a team that sees him as a bargain hire. And if changes do happen, there's always the question of how much Georgia will spend to bring in top-notch replacements or who would be interested in the job.

3. Will Rennie Curran and Reshad Jones stick around?

Neither player has stated a decision yet, but even optimistic fans seem to be preparing for life without both players. Jones flirted with the NFL last year, and he has clearly improved his game dramatically in the past season. He hasn't been perfect, but he's been among Georgia's most consistent performers, and Mel Kiper currently has him listed as his No. 5 junior safety in the country. Curran isn't likely to be a first-round pick, but that will have little to do with his ability and everything to do with his size. He won't get any taller by playing his senior season. If both players leave, there is talent waiting in the wings, but Jakar Hamilton, Christian Robinson and others will have high standards to live up to.

4. Will Georgia be able to stop the run?

There could be a lot of shake-ups on defense with as many as seven starters leaving Athens. But of that list, the toughest to replace will be Curran and Georgia's trio of senior defensive tackles. Coincidentally, those players have also been Georgia's best assets at stopping the run this season. Jeff Owens and Kade Weston have been a brick wall up the middle and Curran is Georgia's best tackler when it comes to lateral pursuit. The Dawgs have been solid against the run this season -- third in the SEC at 127 yards per game and they haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season -- which is a big improvement over last year. Owens' return and Weston's development have been a big part of that, but that job will fall to DeAngelo Tyson and Abry Jones next season. Tyson and Jones are immensely talented, but neither has much experience. In fact, five of Georgia's seven experienced DTs will be moving on. Considering Georgia may be replacing three-quarters of its secondary, the Dawgs can't afford to be soft up the middle against the run.

5. Who's going to lead this team?

Joe Cox, Owens, Curran, Bryan Evans and Michael Moore have really been the most vocal leaders this season and are widely credited for keeping this team together despite a ton of turmoil. There's a good chance all five will be gone next season. It's great for Georgia to have played so many youngsters this year because they'll be experienced and will know what to expect next season, but it's not exactly clear who, if anyone, has stepped up into the leadership roles that will be necessary throughout this offseason and into next year.

6. Will the Dawgs stay out of trouble?

Yes, there have been a few in-season arrests, but emerging from an alley and drinking as a freshman aren't exactly in the same ballpark with knocking over a convenience store. Still, two years ago the off-field incidents were a constant distraction and probably played a big role in the team's disappointing season. The seniors (and Rennie) did a great job of making last offseason all about business, and the result was an arrest-free spring and summer. But without that leadership in the locker room and fresh off a season in which the off-field trouble disappeared, will the lessons of 2008 still be fresh in the Bulldogs' minds or could the focus start to slip a bit?

7. How good can Aaron Murray be?

Yes, Zach Mettenberger could win the starting job, but most fans' attention is squarely on Murray, and for good reason. Coaches have raved about Murray's attitude, enthusiasm and work ethic, and the decision to move Logan Gray to wide receiver ($$$) speaks volumes to their confidence in Murray's ability to handle the job. Fans should be confident, too, but history is not on Murray's side if he hopes to take Georgia to the ultimate heights. No freshman quarterback has led a team to an SEC title since Danny Wuerffel in 1993 and Bernie Kosar is the only freshman quarterback to lead a team to a national title, way back in 1983. That would be some elite company for Murray to join.

8. Will special teams be special?

Please. Kick. Deep. OK, there's a lot more to it than that, but it would be a nice start. Yes, Georgia had a key PAT block and a key FG block, both of which had a big effect on winning games. Georgia also had a kick returner that had two 100-yard TDs and set a school record for kick-return yardage. And the punter and kicker both were finalists for national awards. All of that, and Georgia's special teams still cost them games this year. First, those turnovers haven't been relegated to offense. Three have come on special teams (including two Branden Smith fumbles). Second, the kick coverage has been disastrous. Again. Third, the Logan Gray experience on punt returns. You know the story, and you know it needs to be better next year.

9. What will Georgia's offense look like?

Since Mark Richt arrived in Athens in 2001, he has almost exclusively employed a similar pro-style offensive attack. Aaron Murray certainly has the arm that can handle that type of offense, but he also has the athleticism to do much more. While Georgia has dabbled in elements of the spread and Richt allowed D.J. Shockley to exploit his athleticism during his career with the Bulldogs, the 2010 team will feature so much multi-dimensional talent on offense -- from Branden Smith to Orson Charles to Murray -- there's room to add a number of wrinkles to the playbook that Richt hasn't used before. It would be a departure from the past decade at Georgia, but it wouldn't necessarily be a departure for Richt or the SEC. Looking back through the past decade of championship offenses, the vast majority have had running QBs, and Richt helped make Charlie Ward a Heisman winner at Florida State.

10. Will Mark Richt ask the tough questions?

Let's face it -- a lot of the signs of this year's struggles were evident last year. We all saw a few, and we all ignored others. No doubt, Richt did, too. But rather than address some of the ongoing issues, he routinely went back to his standard response about the defensive failures in 2008: The injuries prevented the team from tackling in practice, and the fundamentals fell apart. He was right, but that was hardly the only -- or the biggest -- problem, and what we've seen unfold this year has been a result of overlooking those other issues. As this season has progressed, Richt seems to have latched onto the turnovers as this year's biggest problem, and indeed, they have been an issue. But wondering what might have happened if Georgia hadn't gone through a season with a minus-17 turnover margin does no one any favors. The truth is, the turnovers aren't the problem -- they're a symptom of other problems. Richt needs to realize that and make some essential changes in terms of culture, preparation and execution -- and that goes well beyond simply changing a coach.

So, what other questions are at the forefront of your thoughts? Which of these are you the most concerned about? How well do you think the Bulldogs will do at addressing these concerns?


haney said...

As for leaders on the team next year, I would expect it to be a couple of OL guys, Boling and Ben Jones. Ben will only be a junior but I think he is the fiery type guy that would make the perfect leader. I would also say someone like a Kris Durham could be a leader as could AJ Green. On D, obviously Rennie if he stays but if not, his LB teammates, Dent and Gamble would have to be looked at as leaders.

I agree about the offense and how diverse it truly could be next year. If Da'Rick is as good as advertised, along with the WR's we already have on hand, bringing back the senior Durham, having two very solid looking running backs, really 3 solid tight ends, a veteran and deep OL, there is no reason why this offense can't be pretty dominant next year. Obviously the D will be the question mark regardless of who the coordinator or coaches are. Replacing those 3 future NFL DL, that is going to be tough. I love Rennie and he will be missed but we have more depth and ability there, and as far as the secondary, I think it is addition by substraction to be honest. Starting Boykin and Smith at the corners, Rambo and Hamilton/Banks/Ogletree at safety to me is an upgrade over our secondary this year.

Unknown said...

Jamelle Holieway at OU won the national championship as a true (I think) freshman at OU in 1985. Later that year, Troy Aikman transferred to another college.

Still, most people today don't seem to understand how rare it is for a freshman QB to do well. Even our very own David Greene lost several games his redshirt freshman year.

RFizzle said...

Here's a question: Will UGA establish itself as a running football team from Day 1? While there will be an abundance of weapons to catch the ball I wouldn't expect to get a whole lot more out of Aaron Murray as a Freshman than we got from Cox this year. But if Georgia's rushing for 175+ a game that would certainly make his job a lot easier. Regardless of who the DC will be, the offense will have to score points and take care of the football to win 10 in 2010.

stan p said...

I'm curious to see if the strength & conditioning program improves...look at Alabama's lines compared to UGA's; they're huge. Even Arenas is pretty thick, and he's a DB.

Anonymous said...

david, how about other folks leaving the program like jon owens (for his recent run-in with the ACC Nazis). Are there other guys like Ben Harden who could leave the program and open up ships?

Anonymous said...

Dont forget big Quame Geathers to stop the run!

Matt said...

I agree Ben Jones has looked like a leader the 2nd have of the season, he has started every game since he got to UGA right? That alone gets some respect form young guys. I think Caleb has stepped up as a leader also. On defense if Rennie leaves you have to look to Houston I think, don't know about his personality but he plays hard.

I just hope the program returns to some sort of discipline on the field. You hear some of the guys who played early on in the Ricth era and they seem to think much of the discipline they had then is gone. Even if they go to more of a spread look I want to see the power running game continue. With a young defense next year they need the same strategy used in the Tech game- Keep the ball away from the other team. Also if there are play makers on the team I want to see them play no matter what class they are. Banks made a couple plays last week in just a short time on the field. The competition for playing time needs to be fierce, no upper class man advantage, just the best players play! Competition breeds excellence.

WT said...

One wrinkle on points 1 and 2 above: If any coaches (especially Martinez) leave, then I'd bet we lose at least 1-2 recruits from that top-five class.

Anonymous said...

If Coach Richt has started emphasizing turnovers, then is that a strategy to say our problems weren't on defense? Is that a step in the process of keeping Coach Martinez?

I think it is true that turnovers are the most important statistic, and I think a range of 8-12 a year is normal (just a guess). So why are we having so many? Certainly not because of Coach Martinez. So who's coaching the units responsible for the most fumbles?

Last thought/question: How do you recapture a lost culture. We saw at UT that once Coach Fulmer lost that team during the Kelly Washington (I'm the Future) era he never fully regained control of it or restored it to it's previous state. Not an encourging thought.

Anonymous said...

Warren T, you are probably right but if Martinez stays I fear he want get the talent out of those high-end recruits either, so we might as well lose them and get a good defensive coordinator.

ecdawg said...

My feeble answers @ Leather Helmet Blog

David Hale said...

Mark -- you're right on Holieway, though I didn't include him because he did not start every game for Oklahoma that year. Aikman, as you mention, was the starter but got hurt in mid October.

Stan P -- that's a good question. I meant to include a note about that on my point about the coaching staff. Thanks for bringing it up.

Anon 9:57 -- I'm guessing there will be one or two at least who decide to leave. That happens every year.

Matt -- Good points on Ben and Caleb. I agree with you.

Warren -- From what I've been told, a change on the staff would not necessarily mean a loss of any of the recruits. There may be a little more selling that needs to be done, but make no mistake, those kids are coming for Mark Richt. The rest is gravy.

Anon 10:18 -- You may be right, but here's the question I keep asking myself: Richt hasn't offered any endorsement for Willie despite knowing how much talk there is. Does he seem like the type of person that would leave a friend twisting in the wind if he had every intention of keeping him around? There almost has to be more to the story.

watcher16 said...

Your last question brings up something good to ask Richt, that being whether or not he believes the TOs are a symptom rather than the disease. I would be very interested in hearing his response

Anonymous said...

A.J. Green is a VERY quiet kid--he may be a leader, but not a vocal one. Look also to Chris and Josh Davis on offense, and Sturdivant if he returns to form. I see Gamble on D having leadership qualities.

And thanks as always to Mr. Hale for his outstanding coverage.

haney said...

It appears Willie is out hitting the recruiting trail hard. I have read that Weis was known to do that very same thing in years past but this year, the AD asked him to return with the Irish after the game at Stanford. Seems to me, if Richt was going to replace Willie, he would not be visiting prospects at this point.

The way Richt is in offering kids only if there is a spot for them, honesty seems to be something he truly goes by when recruiting-unlike most of his competitors. If he knows Willie is going to be fired, which only he would know, I can't imagine him allowing the man to still recruit kids for UGA. Of course this could mean that Willie IS staying but just will remain on staff as DB coach.

haney said...

As for AJ being a leader, I think some leaders can be leaders without being the fiesty or outgoing guys. These are the type guys that go about their work in the classroom and on the field with great character and work ethic. Kids like AJ, whether or not he speaks out, his teammates are ALWAYS watching him and following his lead. Thus, if he provides them with a strong work ethic, takes the younger guys under his wings and hangs with them, staying out of trouble, working out hard I see that as every bit the leader as a kid that screams or is the designated team spokesman.

Sam said...

David, are there any legs to what Joe Schad is reporting?

Anonymous said...

I agree with the subtraction by addition in the secondary. I've watched UGA football since 1977 and that is the worst pair of safeties (including R.Jones) I've ever seen play together in the red and black.

I think it's highly possible Martinez steps down to a position coach at UGA. Let's face it, Athens is a great town to live in and a position football coach at UGA is still a pretty good living.

Richt's team in his head coaching career have really played according to the QB play. The offense Richt employs requires a great deal of talent and decision making on the QB position. When that position has been it's worse (2006 & 2009) Georgia's record has suffered the most. That is also a direct result of turnovers.

With that as history of Richt's era and one of the best offensive lines coming back next year with two competent backs, my question would be are we going to play to our strength and overpower teams as we did Tech or are we going to employ the "Balanced Offense" that has been preached since 2001. Different years and personel call for different schemes. Our upcoming starting freshman QB in 2010 could be effective if UGA averaged 250 yards a game rushing. If we repeat our offensive scheme history, a year of freshman QB mistakes and short fields for an inexperienced defense look to be the most logical prognostication. I'm not a coach but it will be interesting to see what our team identity will be in 2010.

haney said...

Just after I post my thoughts on Willie, I read about the twitter stuff with Joe Schad. Course Pollack was doing the twitter stuff on Saturday night as well. Usually where there is smoke, there is fire. I just can't believe Willie would be hitting the recruiting trail like he is-unless he is doing it as a favor to his buddy Richt, trying to help keep the class together maybe telling the kids that UGA is a great place whether he is there or not??

DawgDaze said...

This is an oversimplification to be sure, but can't you chalk up a lot of the turnover issues on the offensive side of the ball to inexperienced players? Joe was starting for the first time and was very suspect in his decision making most of the year. He was inconsistent at best and when he made good decisions he didn't always make good passes. I do believe he was our best option, but i also believe that sitting on the bench for 4 years was a symptom - to borrow your word - of a bigger issue. . . he just isn't that good. Great guy, great leader, not a great QB. Secondly, the defense not getting any turnovers was partly - and maybe mostly - b/c of the scheme we played. We were not aggressive after the ball, really until the last few games. We played the bend and then break defense and gave 10 yard cushions most of the time, so i think with the better talent we'll have next year we'll be able to resolve a lot of those issues by playing a more aggressive scheme. . .your thoughts?