Georgia Mailbag: Feeling good, feeling bad, feeling mad

semerson@macon.comAugust 13, 2013 

Sometimes the mailbag is less about answering reader questions, as it is gauging the relative angst or optimism of the fan base. There's a little of both this week, along with some very big questions (about the NCAA and amateurism) and more nuts and bolts. Let's dive in.

Greetings Seth. Am I that much of a homer to believe we will be 14-0 this season? I feel as young and untested our defense is, they will hold any team on the schedule to 28 or under. I also feel there is not a team on the schedule that can hold our explosive offense to under 28. Barring injury, to me, that adds up to an undefeated season. Maybe it is just a dream I have had for about 32 years, what do you think, am I practicing at being a homer too hard?
- Rick Nelson

Feel free to merely call yourself an optimist, rather than a homer. If you were actually a homer, you wouldn’t be asking other people whether you were. (General rule: Homers don’t realize they're homers.)

I do think you might need to temper expectations a bit on the defense. There is talent and depth there, but with all the youth and inexperience, there’s likely to be some games where it gets ugly. As for the offense, the expectations should remain high, but I do think there are some good defenses out there. Mr. Clowney and South Carolina will have something to say about that. So will LSU and its typically loaded defense. Florida should be good too. The key on offense will be avoiding mistakes. Aaron Murray and company will be hard to stop overall, but as we know there have been some moments where the team (Murray) is prone to turnovers. If that happens in a game where the defense isn’t playing well, then there goes the unbeaten season.

Okay, here we go, it seems like every year we hear about how everybody has bought into a winning team and we also find out that last year's team didn't, even though last year they did and they were so much better than the year before. So that being said, it is just hard to buy into to all the hype that is being reported.

I am really concerned about the first two games. They can really make or break this team. Clemson is a team that if they were in the SEC, they would be in the top five of the conference. They beat a decent LSU team's last year and would love to knock off another SEC opponent. The next week is South Carolina who will have two extra days to prepare for us. We could easily start out 0-2 and have no hope of beating LSU. We have so many young guys playing on defense that it scares me to think what Clemson and South Carolina's offense could do to us. I just hope that they can learn fast and our offense can keep us in it.

With all that said, I would still rather start the season this way than to play a Buffalo. I just hope all the preseason hype lives up to its billing. If we get through September without a loss, then this team could do something special. We have recruited well and we should have better athletes thanks Clemson or South Carolina. So I think it's time for our coaches to show us why they all got raises and extensions.

What are your thoughts on all the preseason hype and the first month of the schedule?
- Larry W. Tucker

It depends on what hype that means. Georgia came in at No. 5 in the preseason coaches poll, which is about where I expect it to be when the AP poll is released Saturday. And the media also picked the Bulldogs to win the SEC East. In other words, everyone's expecting the team to be about where it was last year. I think that's reasonable, don't you?

The first month will probably tell the story. That's potentially the three toughest games, all in the first four weeks. (And a bye.) Keep in mind, the Bulldogs may not actually have to run the table in order to reach either the SEC championship or the BCS championship. Alabama has lost one game each of the past two seasons. So if Georgia escapes the first month at 3-1, that might still be OK, while 4-0 would be fantastic. But 2-2 or 1-3, well, then that means it's probably time to adjust expectations.

The problem with the front-loaded schedule is that it doesn't give Georgia's young defense any time to get into gear. I think the defense will be a lot better by the end of the year, barring injuries. But there will be growing pains. For that reason, I'm pretty sure Mark Richt and Todd Grantham would love to flip that schedule on its head.

Many of the questions I have will be answered August 31 at Clemson and Sept. 7th against SC. However, can you provide some insight into which freshmen are unlikely to redshirt and therefore play a good bit this season? Also, just watching practice, does the 'D' seem to be playing more as a cohesive unit this year (last year I felt like they played like a Pro-Bowl defense, lots of stars, little working together as one).
- Grant J., Tallahassee, FL

P.S. - Go Reggie Davis!! (He graduated from Lincoln High last year with my daughter and she is also now attending UGA)

Well, Davis is one of those guys that’s on the fence. He’s had a very good preseason and at any other position he may have played right away. But they’re so deep at receiver they may hold off on playing him unless there are injuries.

I would say 15 newcomers are pretty much certain to play: John Atkins (DL), Reggie Carter (ILB), Jordan Davis (TE), Brendan Douglas (RB), Leonard Floyd (OLB), Shaquille Fluker (S), J.J. Green (RB), Toby Johnson (DL), Brendan Langley (CB), Tray Matthews (S), Chris Mayes (DL), Jonathon Rumph (WR), Tramel Terry (WR, if healthy), A.J. Turman (RB), Shaq Wiggins (CB).

A few more are on the fence: Davin Bellamy (OLB), Davis, Kennar Johnson (DB), Tim Kimbrough (ILB), Brandon Kublanow (G-C), Shaun McGee (OLB), Johnny O’Neal (ILB), Ryne Rankin (ILB).

Brice Ramsey has made a move on the No. 3 quarterback job, but I still think he’ll redshirt unless there’s a rash of injuries.

I'm excited about the recent developments on Kolton Houston. However, I'm a bit concerned reading some of your recent articles. Initially everything coming out of camp was how long he had been out of football, his rust, and his hopes to play at some point in the season. Now I am reading he is fighting for a starting role but is definitely one of the top guys we've got. I know he was a good player out of HS and was a projected starter a couple springs ago, but it sounded to me like it would be midyear or so before he was even in good playing shape. I guess with all the Theus talk, and the emergence of Houston so quickly is making me very concerned about our o-line. We've returned all of our starters from last year and actually have depth this year; should Dawg Nation be concerned? Calm my fears.
- Ash

This question is related to the following one:

If Theus is ultra talented why has he not locked down a starting position?
- Sam Callan, via Twitter

It’s surprising, no doubt. But before jumping to any conclusions on Theus, I’d prefer to wait until the opener and see who’s out there at right tackle. This all could very well be a motivational tool. When push comes to shove in a real game, let’s see if Will Friend and the coaches don’t put Theus out there among the top five.

Let’s also not forget, Theus did start every game last year, and improved as the season went on. So while it’s notable he hasn’t locked down the starting job yet, I’m being careful not to overreact to a preseason event.

Can you give us any tangible "hope" that our run defense will be better this year? I don't really buy in to the improved depth argument -- as we were gashed by both pedestrian and good teams early in games last year (i.e., a gazzilion yards by Bama in the 2nd quarter). Question: At fall practices, do you see anything noticeably different in things like DL schemes or techniques being taught compared to last year?
- Steve

Honestly, we aren’t permitted to see enough of practice to know if they’re doing much different schematically. I’m sure Chris Wilson is teaching some different techniques, and he has a different approach than the “thug love” approach of Rodney Garner. But whether the results are better or worse are impossible to predict.

If you’re looking for hope on the defensive line, I really do believe, as do other team insiders, that they’ll substitute a lot more this year. They almost have to now: There are hardly any proven players, other than senior Garrison Smith. So it’s not like the past two years, when you had John Jenkins, Kwame Geathers, Abry Jones and Cornelius Washington, and it was hard to take any of them off the field.

The problem last year is that Garner and Grantham (it was a shared responsibility) did not play enough guys early in the season, thus establishing depth. And they had the schedule to do that early on, unlike this year. By the end of the season, by the second half of that Alabama game, it was too late. Smith and Geathers have both said that looking back there was fatigue on the line. But in the heat of the SEC championship, Garner and Grantham weren’t going to shuttle in Mike Thornton, Ray Drew and/or Sterling Bailey, because those guys didn’t have enough the game experience. That experience, however, could have come earlier in the season.

This season, that will happen. And then the question will be whether there’s enough talent, and whether that talent can be effective immediately. That’s the key question for the entire defense.

How does the camp portion of fall practice differ from the rest of fall practice? What is a typical camp day like?
- “Biscuit Salad,” via Twitter

What they call “camp” is the period before classes begin. So that’s over. That time is fairly useful because it’s more like the pros: No classes, so you get up early, go to meetings, then go right to practice, then hit the training room, then come back for more meetings. (Shawn Williams, when I was up in Cincinnati a few weeks ago, said it’s very similar to NFL training camp.)

Now that classes have begun, they’re in a routine similar to the season, practicing in the afternoon, and squeezing in meetings before and after. The only difference is that without a game to prepare for, they’re working more on installing plays and schemes. About a week before the Clemson game they’ll really ramp into gameplanning.

The other unofficial mark of preseason is when they decide who will play and who will redshirt. The coaches will hold a meeting after Wednesday’s scrimmage and decide on a plan for that. Then you’ll have a separation between first, second and scout teams, and proceed from there.

What unresolved question from preseason practice thus far needs to be resolved quickest to give us the best chance at Clemson?
- Sean Davidson

It’s not so much any unresolved position battle or question. It’s just whether what’s already been decided will work out, especially on defense.

Nothing can be done about the absence of Josh Harvey-Clemons, which could loom large. But to me the huge question is whether the secondary can hold Tajh Boyd and company in check.

The only player with experience will be Damian Swann, who seems ticketed to spend most of the time at the star position vacated by Harvey-Clemons. That leaves Sheldon Dawson at one cornerback spot, having never started a college game, and likely freshmen Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins getting a lot of snaps. At safety, Tray Matthews may be a future all-American, but he will also be playing his first college game. The strong safety spot, no matter who is there, will also be a big question mark.

1. I have heard from multiple sources that a good portion of the team stayed in Athens over the summer break doing voluntary drills and work outs. Thus, could you give us an estimated percentage of the team who did stay? Also, do you think that the number who stayed this year was greater then previous years?

2. I think at one point you stated that you had graduated from Clemson. So, from an insider’s perspective, what will the atmosphere be comparable to in Death Valley on the 31st? Will it effect the team as much as it did last year when we played South Carolina?
- Ray Bailey

1. I couldn’t give you anything close to an accurate percentage, but staffers and players have said it was more than ever before. One thing to remember is it’s not like everyone stuck around 100 percent of the time. Also, it's one thing to talk about everyone sticking around, working out, etc., but the question is whether it was productive. You have to assume it didn’t hurt.

2. I did not actually attend Clemson, though I’ve covered a few games there, during my time covering South Carolina. The short version is that Clemson and Florida State are the two ACC schools that most resemble an SEC atmosphere. (Virginia Tech can also be in that conversation.) It’s a big stadium, a rabid fan base, and it will be loud.

In (Richt’s) first 5 years, our road game success was excellent. When we went into any opponent’s stadium, I always felt like we had a extremely good chance of coming home with a victory because we usually did. The team seemed so focused on execution and the game plane and it was obvious they were well prepared. However, in recent years we haven't always played so well on the road. In fact, there have been several occasions we were just plain embarrassed by our opponent. It seemed to start in Knoxville in 2007, and then Oklahoma St 2009, Knoxville 2009, in Atlanta against Boise St 2011, and Columbia, SC 2012. These types of beatings never took place in the earlier years. What has changed in preparation that would explain why we aren't as sharp and focused at times as we were from 2001 to 2005 when it comes to away games?
- Bart Leary

I don’t know that anything has changed at all. They just played good teams, and got their hides handed to them. It happens. Sometimes there isn’t a deeper reason to something. (And I wouldn’t lump that Boise State game in there. That was a very pro-Georgia “neutral” crowd.)

Certainly, there’s no arguing that the games you cite were embarrassing for Georgia. But there have also been some good road performances in front of hostile crowds: I know Missouri didn’t turn out to be that good last year, but that was a very hyped crowd in Columbia, and Georgia pulled it out. And one of the biggest eggs that’s been laid by Georgia the past five years was at home, that loss to Alabama in 2008.

Now if Georgia is defeated soundly at Clemson, I’m sure this will come up again. But I really don't know that it's a road-game problem, or that there's a perfect formula for approaching a game. Being around the team before the Boise State game in 2011 and South Carolina last year, those were two different approaches. And neither ended up working.

If anything, what Georgia may have going for it is the way that SEC championship ended. It was painful, and probably cost the Bulldogs a national championship. But it may have also steeled this team, particularly the offense.

My question is about the offense: with a talented senior quarterback, a stockade of receivers, and two very talented tail backs, I worry about the offense finding and settling into an identify. Are we going to be a power running team? Are we going to throw it 55 times a game and rely on Murray and our receivers? There is only one ball out there, and I worry about us going back and forth and never getting into a rhythm either way. Is this a legitimate concern? Any sense from Bobo on how he sees his offense?
- Brandon, Athens

Honestly, this shouldn’t be too much a concern entering the season. You’re talking about an experienced offense that has already been through this one year, and many of whom have been around for longer. You’ve got a fourth-year starting quarterback and an offensive coordinator who’s been calling the plays even longer than that. They’re not introducing any significant new players, and the offensive staff has been together for three years. (Offensive line coach Will Friend, entering his third year, is the junior man in the offensive coaches meeting.)

In short, these players and coaches know each other, they know the playbook, and they’ve seen what works over a full season already.

They have their identity: They want to be up-tempo, but balanced. Those are the two main themes I’ve been hearing this preseason from the offense. The first scrimmage was a bit rough, but players blamed energy level, and Bobo said that other than the turnovers, it was a good scrimmage.

That’s not to say there won’t be problems this year. That offensive line is still the main concern. But the skill position players, run-pass balance and chemistry? Those should be strengths.

When AJ Green sold his jersey a few years ago, I realized he broke the rules and therefore was going to be penalized accordingly. However, I never thought he actually did anything ethically wrong and shouldn't have been penalized. After all, he merely sold what was then his own private property (the jersey he sold had been gifted over to him by UGA). I realize the buyer in this case was an "agent," but am don't see how much this really mattered since it was still a market exchange of comparable goods (i.e. he didn't just take the money for nothing).

The point is that there was a bad taste left in my mouth by the whole incident and I thought then that the NCAA was being too heavy handed. Now, there's a lot of agreement in the national press with this perspective, with Jay Bilas and others making a good point about the hypocrisy of jersey sales. This combined with the intense scrutiny over Johnny Manziel's alleged autographs-for-cash incident (Jadeveon Clowney too) and the ongoing O'bannon lawsuit has produced a ubiquitous anti-NCAA movement. So my question is what happens next in the debate over player compensation? What should happen? Personally, I don't want college football to become the minor league of the NFL (with the SEC being AAA ball), but that doesn't meet these athletes should have more freedom to be compensated for at least some of the revenue they're directly bringing to their respective universities. Anyways, it seems to me like we could be in for some historic changes over the next 6-12 months and am curious what you think.

PS- sorry for a particularly long question.
- Lucas Puente

Long question, but important subject, so you're forgiven.

My thoughts on this are too lengthy to offer up here, so I'll winnow it to your specific question of what comes next. I wrote earlier this summer about the possibility that the major schools (those in the soon-to-be-former BCS) would pull away from the NCAA so they can make their own rules. The chance of that happening has gone from remote to perhaps 50-50. If that happens that means athletes would receive at least a $2,000 cost-of-attendance, and perhaps more.

The Ed O'Bannon case is also still looming out there. If the NCAA loses it - and frankly, it should - then that may open up a lot more chances for athletes to be compensated. The case isn't about autographs, but maybe that also becomes legal (in the NCAA sense).

But my biggest problem with the NCAA remains this: Whether you agree or disagree with the rules, they should be enforced consistently. And they're not right now, because the enforcement is weak, and the investigatory powers are even weaker. I'm skeptical of what will come out of the Manziel case. The solution, assuming the NCAA even stays together, is for the investigatory powers to be outsourced to someone that can actually do the job right. There are legal firms out there that can do that. There are people who would be willing to serve as independent prosecutors. Those firms or people would then bring their findings to the NCAA, which would then make its ruling.

That change can happen right now, and it should. And the other change that should happen is telling Mark Emmert thank you, and sending him on his way. He's just been a tone-deaf leader in a time that requires more. Put Jay Bilas or someone else in charge. And I'm only half-kidding about that.

Earlier this year, Coach Richt said: “If you look at the years I’ve been at Georgia, this is really how I’ve done it [meaning announce suspensions] for years,” Richt said. “Last year was a little bit different, but I didn't like it much that way. If there’s a decision that needs to be made I think everybody needs to know, I’ll let everybody know. If I don’t think everybody needs to know, I won’t. So this time I thought it was a good plan.”

Yet and still, he is handling Marshall Morgan the exact same way as Rambo and Tree. Do you think Georgia should just do like LSU and let the team vote on Morgan? Or maybe UGA should hire a PR coach to explain the importance of getting out in front of these stories as opposed to letting them fester.
-Bryan Grantham

Bless you, Bryan. Sometimes I don't know if the whole issue of announcing suspensions is just a media thing, so it's nice to see the same befuddlement from fans. Frankly, it just doesn't make any sense. Whatever competitive advantage is gleaned by not letting Clemson know whether Morgan will play would seem to be outweighed by the negative publicity of having this issue linger. That was the case last year with Ogletree and Rambo, and it was the case before the Boise State game with Rambo. (People tend to forget about that one.)

When Richt went ahead and announced the Harvey-Clemons suspension, it was a sign that there would be no more of this game. Instead ... oh well.

In defense of Georgia, I would point out that it has a superb communications team, led by Claude Felton - and that's not butt-kissing, because that crew wins award every year and has a great national reputation. Felton has never told me whether he agrees or disagrees with Richt's tact on these suspensions. But I don't think UGA needs a P.R. coach. (Plus, the athletics director was a journalism major.) For whatever reason, Richt is handling it this way. And the way I feel about that is ...

It's time to end the mailbag. Everyone have a good day!

Follow Seth Emerson at @sethemerson.

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