Mailbag: A new year, a new quarterback, some old concerns

semerson@macon.comJanuary 9, 2014 

This will be the biggest year of quarterback Hutson Mason's football career, but it's not make-or-break for head coach Mark Richt, at least it doesn't appear that way now.

JOHN KELLEY — John Kelley

A few readers wrote in with a similar concern. We start there:

Does Hutson Mason have the arm strength to stretch the field? Screens to Gurley are a great addition to the playbook, but Georgia's returning receivers will need someone who can get the ball 40 yards downfield.
- Bob Ho, Tucker

I don't know if it was nerves, or the sloppy field conditions, or maybe he was just afraid that his line protection would break down, but I didn't think Hutson Mason played a good game at all against Nebraska. Very, very few downfield passes (could that be the bad conditions?), for instance. But even more, to me it looked like Mason was aiming the ball when he threw many of his passes, especially short ones, instead of passing the ball.
- Scott Rollins

Mason looked really jittery in the pocket during the Gator Bowl and held on to the ball for waaaaay too long. It was difficult to figure out why by watching the broadcast. Did you notice anything in person? Protection wasn’t bad, but it was decent. Did he not have any faith in the receivers? Were they not open downfield? Murray was always great at spreading the ball around, but the Gator Bowl was the Gurley and Lynch show. The whole thing had the feeling that Georgia was playing offense with one hand tied behind their backs.
- Aubrey Neeley, Fort Payne, Ala.

I do so wish I could re-print the emails I was getting in 2011 and 2012, wondering why Mason wasn’t getting a chance because Murray wasn’t good enough. I know it wasn’t you three guys, but just sayin’, it’s funny how quickly that meme’ has been forgotten.

I think Mason will be fine next season. He did throw for 299 yards and two touchdowns against Georgia Tech, and 320 yards and a touchdown against Nebraska. It's legit to be concerned about the interceptions (one in each start), occasional jitteriness in the pocket and fluttering of some passes. But now Mason has eight months to work with the first-teamers, and knows what real game-action is going to look like (he never really got it before Kentucky). Plus, remember when Tyler Murphy looked like the real deal when initially replacing Jeff Driskel? Sometimes you can’t judge a quarterback on his first few starts.

That said, Mike Bobo said earlier in the season that he thinks fans took Murray for granted. His arm strength was always underrated, and watching the Gator Bowl I couldn’t help but think that certain passes would have been completed by Murray. That’s not a knock on Mason, but a credit to Murray. But Mason is good in his own right, and if he has a full compliment of receivers, he could replicate Murray’s numbers from this season.

Now onto a somewhat related question:

I know I wasn't the only one disappointed in the passing game in the Gator Bowl... There was virtually no downfield vertical threat at all. I've heard various reasons for it (wet conditions, dropped passes, injured players, etc) but it made me wonder about this element of Mason's skill-set. My question is, how much do you think we need to be concerned about this next season?
- Rob, Johnson City, Tenn.

It will be an open question. The wet conditions were a part of it - other than the 99-yard bomb, Nebraska didn't throw much downfield either - but Mason obviously wasn't comfortable throwing deep. But even when Murray was in there, the downfield passing game was an issue this season once Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley went down. That left Rantavious Wooten and Reggie Davis as the team's best deep threats. Davis was a freshman still learning the routes. Wooten could have been sent on a few more deep routes, especially in the Vanderbilt game, but sometimes that's easier said than done. Wooten’s 5-foot-10, and is easier to jam at the line.

Freak injuries, horrible officiating, (leading with helmet, etc), inexperience, and player suspensions were a large part in another down year for UGA. However, other SEC teams face the same things and find ways to win. I'm willing to give this year a pass, but do you believe that the 2014 season is a make or break year for Richt and the coaching staff?
- Glenn Schaztzel

Short answer: No, I don’t believe next season is make or break for Richt. But it probably is for one of his top assistants, and it goes without saying which one.

To your point about the injuries: No one in the SEC faced the same injuries this year, other than Florida, and you saw what happened there. Too many people this year are glossing over the injuries as a factor. Yes, 8-5 is very disappointing. But if you went back to August and said that the team would essentially never have Malcolm Mitchell, would lose Todd Gurley for three games (and big chunks of two more), Michael Bennett and Chris Conley for two each, Justin Scott-Wesley and Keith Marshall for the final eight … OK, that’s a mouthful.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure most people would have said: Yeah, 8-5 sounds about right.

The big disappointment for Georgia fans is that the defense didn’t pick up the slack. It under-performed what should have been modest expectations. (But not modest enough among some fans. I remember a lot of summer talk that the defense would surprise people. Well, never mind.)

If the team struggles again next year – as in 6-to-8 wins - it would likely create another hot-seat year for Richt in 2015. If the team somehow bottomed out, a la Auburn in 2012, then that’s a whole different matter. But with the schedule and everyone coming back that’s hard to see.

How do the players filter out all the negative – “fire so-and-so” comments from people who must base their existence on the performance of young men. For the coaches, it comes with the paycheck, but the kids really don't deserve it. I mean really, is it just our fan base or is the rest of college football loaded with blowhard "the sky is falling" zealots that never rose to the level, in any aspect of there lives. Don't get me wrong, I really want to win and still can't watch the replays of the Auburn game ending without getting sick, but the level of angst gets way out of control.
- Randy Griffin, Gray

The players hear it all these days, thanks to Twitter. From my conversations with them, most only get really ticked off when fans go after them personally or their teammates. They don’t like it when their coaches get attacked, but they seem to understand that, like you said, it comes with the territory.

You can understand the frustration with Georgia fans, who have watched numerous other programs win national titles, and they feel their school has the resources (in-state talent, on-campus facilities, tradition) to win it all too. And the Bulldogs do have all that. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be reasonable, and realize that a) Georgia has had success, just not at the level recently that many want, and b) there were real mitigating factors this season.

Georgia has been pretty damn close three times in the Richt era (2002, 2007, 2012). The debate is not whether Richt can get Georgia in position to win a championship, it’s whether he can win one. It reminds me a lot about the constant debate in the late 1990s, at my alma mater, Maryland, over whether Gary Williams could ever carry the team to the top. And he finally did. I don’t know if Richt will do the same. But the debate ring very similar.

When I talk to people in the business around the country – coaches, administrators, reporters – I never hear people saying Richt doesn’t win enough at Georgia. I just don’t. They have a pretty healthy respect for what Richt has done, and think there’s a pretty decent chance he will one day win a national title at Georgia.

What more needs to be done to convince us to get a dedicated special teams coach? Without major special teams mistakes it seems like we could have had an 11-2 or at least 10-3 year. I know we can only have 9 coaches and four GA’s and we don’t want to let any of our existing ones go, but could we combine WR’s and TE’s under one coach? Or could Grantham coach both inside and outside LBs?
- Eric White

Those are both reasonable suggestions. I do tend to agree that the special teams play calls for something a bit more this offseason than just “tweaking,” or the usual analysis “on what we can do better.” But in Richt’s mind, they’ve done it this way for all of his 13 years, and during his time with Bobby Bowden, and they’ve had good years on special teams, and bad years. Like this past year.

While I don’t think having a dedicated special teams coach would be a cure-all, there is some juggling that could be done. Maybe you have John Lilly and Kirk Olivadotti become co-special teams coordinators, and give each of them one more unit to coach, and relieve special teams responsibilities from Will Friend and Chris Wilson. One thing I wouldn’t do, however, is have Grantham coach all the linebackers. Olivadotti seems to be doing a good job with the inside guys.

Many fans and supporters were all over coach Grantham this past season with regard to the play of the defense, mainly the secondary. After watching the FSU vs Auburn game I was struck by the play of Auburn's D line in the second half and prior season's Dawgs D line play in the second half. Only one season for Garner at Auburn but it looked a lot like many of his past season's at UGA...they wilt in the second half [think back SECCG of 2012]. Then the play of FSU's D line play in second half against Auburn's offense vs coach Wilson's D line play in second half against Auburn on the road this season. Both the play of FSU and Dawgs D line play were big in overcoming substantial Auburn leads. My thoughts in light of the very vocal criticism of Grantham and staff, I think the D line under Wilson is much better. With that prelude what are your thought, any stats, and any projections re this unit going into 2014.
- James Jones

As I wrote in the lead-up to this year's Auburn game, I felt the Garner move to Auburn last year paid off for both teams - at least on the field. Georgia's defensive line benefitted from a new approach, and I don't just mean the subbing. I put some of the non-subbing issues in 2011-12 on Grantham, as Garner expressed a few times he felt he should have subbed more. But a lot of linemen, from Ray Drew to Sterling Bailey, were helped by starting fresh under a new coach. Auburn's D-line this year, meanwhile, also improved under Garner.

Where Garner leaving hurt Georgia was in recruiting. The Bulldogs wheezed to the finish on signing day in 2013 in large part because Garner was gone. Montravius Adams might have ended up a Bulldog. In the long run, Georgia should recover, but it did a bit of a short-term hit.

Where was Trey Matthews in the bowl game? Was he banged up? I feel like he has a ton of potential, and although this season wasn’t stellar for him, I think he has a lot to add, if coached up well.
- Zach it Atlanta.

Grantham’s explanation after the game was that Matthews’ hamstring was still bothering him during bowl practice, so he didn’t practice as much, and thus didn’t play as much in the game. But Matthews did play on special teams, according to the participation chart. Grantham’s explanation had the ring of protecting Matthews, and not calling him out publicly.

Matthews not emerging as the force that many expected this season is yet another reason the secondary, and the defense as a whole, struggled. And they weren’t really unreasonable expectations, considering the things that were being said in the spring.

This is more of a request vs. something you can answer: Can you or one of our colleagues please ask the question as to why we have decided to not even try to set up a return any more? I am sick of the excuse that we are defending against the fake punt. There are situations where we need to do that, but not every single time. PLEASE PLEASE ASK THE QUESTION. I beg you because I would love to hear the response. And if the response is that we don't have somebody that can consistently catch and return punts then who are we recruiting or is currently waiting in the wings to change this.
- Carlton Kitchens, Jacksonville

It wasn’t really a matter of never trying – Georgia returned 22 punts – it was of being miserable in getting any return yards. How miserable? Very miserable:

Georgia ranked second-to-last nationally this year with 2.92 yards per punt return. California was the worst. Nebraska was one spot ahead.

To me, the problem was that very rarely did the punt returner have room for a long return. Something was amiss in the downfield blocking.

But one point you’re missing: Malcolm Mitchell was going to be one of the top punt returners. So there’s your answer on who’s waiting in the wings.

Are Mitchell and Scott-Wesley expected to participate in Spring practice? One of Murray’s many attributes was his ability to read his receivers and anticipate routes. If Mason is more of an anticipatory passer, then he and each receiver need as much time as possible to develop this same type of relationship.
- Fielding Troutman

I’d expect both of them to be held out of spring practice. Michael Bennett was held out last year after tearing his ACL the previous October. Mason can start forming a rapport with Mitchell and Scott-Wesley during summer workouts and preseason.

Seth - I'll buy the continuity argument on the defensive side of the football along with the experience excuse. However, I just can't understand where Scott Lakatos fits in the continued growth and improvement of this defensive secondary. It seems quite clear his guys made no improvement as the year went on, regression seems a more fitting description. There were more than ample teaching opportunities as they gained experience throughout the year but the same mistakes were made in game 13 that were made in game 1. The comments about not knowing how to approach receivers over the middle with the new targeting rule (after LSU) and the fact a guy like Connor Norman saw so much time due to his 'ability to communicate' (Clemson) point to significant shortcomings in the teaching these guys are receiving. The finger pointing after every pass play was an absolutely miserable sight. I can't be certain that we don't have good athletes back there because there wasn't a single game this season during which they appeared to have enough confidence in their assignments to play loose and show what they can do. Help me understand how this unit improves.

Lakatos’ unit came up very short this year, and he’s accountable for that. The belief, or at least fervent hope, among Georgia coaches is that one year of experience, and perhaps some better health (Matthews) will result in better things. As Damian Swann told me last month: “It can only get better.”

Seth, do you think that Mark Richt's loyalty to his coaching staff is greater than his loyalty to the Bulldog nation? It seems that some head coaches are willing to make changes in their staff if the desired results are not being achieved. I think Willie Martinez was kept on staff as long as he was because of loyalty and the same appears to be happening now.
- Mike, Catula

I can understand why people think that. I don’t have any way of jumping into Richt’s mind and knowing whether or not that figures into it, but here are a couple points:

- After firing Willie Martinez a few years ago, my sense is Richt realizes that changes need to be made sometimes. So he would make the move if he genuinely felt it had to be made. Richt went back decades with Martinez, and doesn’t have that history with any of the current defensive coaches.

- A lot of people may not realize this, but Richt keeps a pretty tight personal circle, and it’s probably fair to say that the assistant coaches aren’t part of it. They get along, and in some cases – especially John Lilly – are very tight. But Richt’s personal circle is more his family members. It’s not like he goes vacationing, fishing or golfing with the assistants. (In fact, he doesn’t golf at all.) Point is, if there’s any loyalty going on, it’s on a professional basis, not personal.

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