Mailbag: Football questions as summer beckons

semerson@macon.comMay 9, 2013 

The last mailbag for awhile. How long? That's up to my wife. In the meantime, I hope this is insightful, and for everyone's sake I hope there isn't enough news to require more immediate mailbags.

1. I am sure you have gotten a ton of these in the past day, but what is the latest on Matthew Thomas?

2. What is the latest on the offensive line? Are they still looking to shake things up?
- Chad Manus, Newnan, Ala.

1. It was revealed on Monday that Thomas is looking to get out of his letter-of-intent with Florida State, and is interested in Georgia, as well as Southern California. My inclination upon hearing the news, and it was backed up by talking to a few people, was that Thomas had been telling FSU about his doubts for awhile, and went public to try to force the issue. You can understand FSU not wanting to let Thomas go without a fight, as he’s a five-star linebacker, and most people would be surprised if FSU released Thomas from his LOI, allowing him to play right away at another school.

The situation bears watching for Georgia, which surely would take Thomas if he became available. But first he has to be released. There can be no direct contact before that. And even if he’s released, Georgia isn’t the only school Thomas is interested in. The chances that Thomas suits up for Georgia in 2013 are close to nil. The chances he transfers to Georgia at all, well, it’s probably under 50 percent. But were the Bulldogs to get him, that would be QUITE the coup.

2. I spoke to Mark Richt about the offensive line recently, and he had what I thought were some interesting comments. Richt said they could succeed with five good players, rather than a bunch of “superstars” on the line, which indicates he knows this group doesn’t have superstars. John Theus is probably the one player who has a chance to be a high NFL draft pick some day. But with everyone back from last year, Richt thinks this group can succeed if it is cohesive. That seems a fair assessment.

As far as shaking things up, I never really bought into the idea that the starting lineup for the Clemson game would truly be a lot different than expected. Maybe Xzavier Ward can win the right tackle job, but I’m skeptical. If he did, then Theus will be the left tackle, barring something shocking, moving Kenarious Gates to guard. There are a lot of possibilities, but ultimately I think the starting five will look very similar to last year. What will be different will be the depth.

Last year even with high draft choice players we couldn't stop the run. It was especially evident against BAMA where I saw +300 lb. linemen just mauling our LBs. In the pro game you see big space-eater DLs allowing the LBs get to the runner. Question: Should the Dawgs just ditch the 3-4 and use a 4-3 scheme? Wouldn't this year's smaller (but supposedly quicker) DLs fit a 4-3 better?
- Steve, Dunwoody

Yes, which is why they’re actually going to play a lot of four-man fronts – and have in the past. Remember, they actually play in a 4-2-5 about 70 percent of the time, according to various players. (Grantham tends to just confirm they play it more than half of the time.) That’s why it’s kind of a misnomer to call this just a 3-4 defense. It is in the sense that the base defense is a traditional 3-4, rather than a traditional 4-3. But they’re not in the base defense most of the time.

And especially this year, when they open against Clemson’s spread offense, they’re going to be in the 4-2-5 a lot. Hence my emphasis on Josh Harvey-Clemons playing the nickel-back position, the fifth member of the secondary. That puts four men on the line, one of whom could be an outside linebacker, or it could be four down-linemen. It also puts Harvey-Clemons close to the line, ready to rush the QB, spy for the run, or drop back into pass coverage.

You mentioned the Alabama game, and other instances of poor run defense. That happened very often against four-man fronts. Kwame Geathers and John Jenkins played together a lot, with Garrison Smith and Cornelius Washington often next to them. In a 3-4 look, sometimes it was Smith or Washington moving inside to the nose, sandwiched in between an end and an outside linebacker. The trick this year is going to be who to include in those four-man fronts – a couple nose tackles, a defensive end and an outside linebacker? A nose tackle, two ends and an outside linebacker? Two noses and two defensive ends? They at least have lots of options this year.

Should we really be drinking the Kool Aid about this defense? Really? Despite being smaller (that can't be good--we still play in the SEC, right?) we've got faster, talented, super smart players not to mention some braniac recruits who came early because they're extra special and they'll start and so we'll be a better defense than in 2012. Really? REALLY? I mean, I wanna believe. I suppose I gotta believe. But my conscience says, "Not so fast, Optimism Boy" while my broken heart says, "I've fallen and I can't get up." Come on. Our D is gonna be tentative at best. Too young. Too small. Not near enough experience.

Let's get real. The truth is the offense will be very good until we meet a defensive line with some man-children (Clowney alone would cover for the entire Gamecock defense) and a linebacking corps with some stick to them (see Clemson). I'm freaked out about our first two games and I don't subscribe to the, "We went 0-2 two years ago and rattled off 10 straight wins so all will be well" lobotomy juice. Heck, most of those wins in 2011 were against finishing schools!

What are your thoughts here, oh Wise Beyond Your Years Sage of Athens? You know the real scoop. Give it to me straight and dark, like it might actually unfold come August 31 and again on September 7th. After those games I must admit I actually like our chances--even against LSU and Florida. So maybe we could run the table. But probably not. The key to 2013 in my eyes is due east of the Georgia state line, and since I live there I'd really like to purchase a T-shirt on September 8th with a big G juxtaposed against the outline of the state of South Carolina that says, "We run this state!!!" That would be nice.

Have a good vacation. We expect 10 columns daily upon your return.
- Paul "Low Country Dawg In Exile" Sparrow

If only it were a vacation. It’s going to be a rewarding time off, but trust me, not a vacation.

I’m flattered you think I would be able to look in my crystal ball, but I’m afraid as curious as you are about what will really happen. I’ve thought for awhile that this team could be very similar to last year’s team, which means it should have similar expectations: Not quite national championship-or-bust, but certainly a top 10 team, and perhaps top 5.

For awhile, I’ve thought the defense would be better than expected. But so many people have now adjusted expectations up for the defense that it might be disappointing to some if it doesn’t end up a top 10-nationally rated defense. Don’t be disappointed. As long as this offense is as good as expected, the defense will just need to do enough to keep the team in games, and I think the talent is there to do that.

And yes, I do think the offense should be as good as last year, if not better, despite your concerns. There was a ton of talent on that Alabama defense and Aaron Murray, Todd Gurley and company were able to move the ball and put up points. The line is a concern, but it was last year. The key is whether the Bulldogs will avoid beating themselves. And when that’s the key, then that’s a good thing.

The main difference between last year and this year is the schedule. In some cases it should help Georgia: I really think that with South Carolina coming to Athens, the Bulldogs should be favorites in that game. I’d call it a toss-up if it were in Columbia. Ditto for the LSU game. The key will be Clemson. I see the boys in Vegas have already made that a toss-up game – Clemson by 1.5, which is negligible – and that sounds about right.

What's your opinion on Ramik Wilson? Season long-starter? Can he possibly push for top 3 in the SEC in his position? Will he rotate on and off a lot (i.e. 2012 where we used one backer for 1st and 2nd down and Christian Robinson would step in on 3rd).
- Meansonny

Wilson has good size for the spot, and it was a good move to put him there rather than keep dithering between inside and outside. But I think his hold on the spot is a bit tenuous, and depends largely on Reggie Carter, the freshman behind him. Carter is smaller, but he seems to be that typical football guy that just has a nose for making plays.

Wilson is very likely the starter for the Clemson game, but I can’t forecast with any certainty he’ll go the whole way, and I’d be pretty surprised if he were among the SEC’s top inside linebackers. But I think Wilson can be a very solid performer, similar to Amarlo Herrera’s role last year. Carter will play, I’m pretty confident of that, and Ryne Rankin very well could as well. They found a way to play four inside linebackers the past two years, so I’d have to think they will again, assuming Rankin is ready to be that fourth guy.

1. Just based on appearance, Corey Moore looks like he could be one of the better defensive backs in the SEC. He's big and physical, and coaches and players have talked about his big hit ability in the past. So why isn't he a clear cut starter at safety when JHC moves to nickel? Is he struggling that much with the playbook?

2. Is the nine-game conference schedule in UGA's interest? In addition to adding a tough SEC game to the schedule, we would likely lose high profile match ups like Clemson and Boise State. Georgia Tech would be our only real non-conference opponent (if you consider Tech a real football program).
- Will, Atlanta

1. Well, I don’t know that Moore is an all-SEC guy, but I’m almost as surprised Moore hasn’t yet locked down that strong safety spot. I remember two years ago, when he was a freshman, Shawn Williams pointing at Moore and saying he was ready to replace either himself or Bacarri Rambo, if either turned pro. But here we are with Connor Norman still even or perhaps even ahead of Moore at strong safety – and both behind Harvey-Clemons in the base defense. After two years on campus I have a hard time believing it’s not picking up the playbook. It just has to be that in opportunities during practices and scrimmages, he hasn’t shown enough – at least not yet – to be handed a starting spot. You can look the part, but you also have to show the coverage and tackling ability.

2. For the record, I do consider Georgia Tech to be a real football program. In any event, you are very correct that adding a ninth SEC game will likely mean an end to a second challenging non-conference game. Or at least a matchup with Clemson, Boise State or someone like that will be very rare. It’s not just the desire to have two “non-challenging games,” it’s having as many home games as possible. Greg McGarity talks about that a lot, that a home game in Athens means a lot of money not only to the school but to the city.

I think a nine-game schedule may have to happen if Georgia is going to keep Auburn as an annual rivalry. There’s an emerging consensus that teams shouldn’t go six years without playing each other. But such a nine-game set-up could go badly for Georgia:

Imagine a nine-game SEC schedule that ends up with Georgia only having four designated home games, and one of those is the Florida game. And what if that happens to be in a year where the Georgia Tech game is away. Now, even with two guarantee games, Georgia only has five games in Athens. That would be hard for UGA to stomach.

The easy solution to all of this is to shift Alabama and Auburn to the East, and put Missouri and Vanderbilt in the West. Thus the Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia games become division games. But for some reason this possibility never gets any traction.

OK, now that the SEC network has came out with details from what I've read and seen, does this network mean people like me who can't afford to upgrade their cable package will miss UGA games like UGA vs. Tennessee, UGA vs. Auburn because off the SEC network?
- Chris Pugh

It’s impossible to say right now, Chris. Even U-verse, the only major carrier to announce it will carry the SEC Network, hasn’t said whether they’ll put it on its basic tier. U-Verse, which I have, currently puts the Big Ten Network on a higher tier. My sense is that any carrier that does pick up the SEC Network will at least put it on a higher tier. So you’d have to pay extra.

That said, don’t forget that CBS and ESPN stations will still be carrying plenty of games. You mentioned Georgia’s games against Tennessee and Auburn. If those are really big games, it’s a good bet CBS will grab them, or ESPN will want it for a prime-time broadcast. The SEC Network’s games will be jointly decided by ESPN and the SEC, and I’m sure they’ll try to put a few good games on there in order to drive demand. But they’re not going to overdo it.

Do you think the SEC Network will ultimately limit the access of traditional beat reporters by always being first in line? - Biscuit Salad, via Twitter (as if that needed to be specified).

That’s an interesting question. My inkling is that it won’t, for two reasons:

1. The SEC office is pretty good about media access. The only worry would be ESPN, which will own and operate the network, trying to restrict access to its own reporters. But that’s pretty hard to enforce.

2. The SEC Network, at least right away, can’t be everywhere. I suppose it could hire a beat writer at all 14 schools and station them there, but I’ve not heard of any plans to do that.

The other thing to remember is that ESPN-SEC Network still won’t be the only source of income for the conference. CBS retains a big contract with the network, and it doesn’t want its reporters shifted to the side either.

And finally, Brent Jarnicki weighs in with a couple questions on the Sanford Stadium gameday experience:

1. (I’ve heard) mentioned that a few rows of temporary seats may be added this season in the closed (East) endzone behind the hedges up to where the permanent stands start. There's about 30 feet of wasted empty space from the permanent stands and the 3 rows of temporary seats behind the hedges, and most stadiums (Bryant Denny and Neyland Stadiums added extra endzone seats a few years ago) have tried to put as many seats as close to the field as possible, helping the "intimidation factor," crowd noise, etc. Can you find out if these seats will in fact be added this year, and how many fans they will seat?

They’re not adding seats so much as they’re swapping them: Recruits will be seating in those seats now near the end zone, having moved from a point in the stands. It’s being done for logistical reasons. Athletics director Greg McGarity said that where recruits had previously sat it was hard to “get from point A from point B.” This move allows them easier movement from their seats to the locker room, the Lettermen’s Club, and other places they frequent on visits. It also isolates the recruits a bit more.

“NCAA rules are so technical on who they can interact with and who they can’t interact with. So the more we can keep them out of the general public seating area, the better off we are,” McGarity said.

This does open those 400-500 seats previously used for recruits, and those will now be sold to fans. But the capacity of Sanford Stadium does not change.
2. At the beginning of last season, an SEC rule prohibiting the home team's band from being "piped in" or "mic'd" over the stadium's PA was abolished. The Redcoats were supposed to get amplified over the Sanford Stadium speakers, so the entire stadium could hear them, but there was a problem getting the stadium speakers to work simultaneously with the band, and the band was hoping to fix it during the season. However, this was never resolved last year. If the Redcoats could properly amplify their songs through the stadium PA, it would completely eliminate the ongoing problem of many sections in Sanford not being able to hear them. Can you find out if they will be able to be "mic'd up" this year?

There’s no real change planned this year, according to McGarity.

“There’s always discussion among the game managers on when can bands play and when can they not play. So that’s always sort of ever-evolving, when they can and can’t,” McGarity said. “Right now, the band can play certain times. Right now piped-in music is not permitted at certain times. I think you may see some tweaks there, but I don’t think you’ll see it ramp up to the NFL level, to where they’re playing between plays, and things of that nature. I’m not sure we’re headed in that direction.”

Follow Seth Emerson at @sethemerson.

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