ATHENS — It has been a rough season for Georgia fans, from the team’s opening-week loss to Oklahoma State to last week’s debacle against Kentucky.
Not since the early years of the Jim Donnan era have the Bulldogs appeared so inept, from penalties to turnovers to big plays by opponents to Georgia’s record — the first five-loss campaign of the Mark Richt era in Athens.
But while Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech could potentially send the Bulldogs to a .500 record to end the regular season, a lower-tier bowl game and, worst of all, a second straight loss to their in-state rival, this season has still come with its share of silver linings.
All is not lost in Athens, even if some of the players and coaches from this year’s team might not be around to enjoy the real rewards. Georgia has seen a bevy of young talent take impressive steps forward, even if the team as a whole has taken a step back, which leaves plenty of reasons for excitement for the Bulldogs’ future. So with that, here are five reasons to expect brighter days ahead for Georgia:
Perhaps more than any other reason for optimism, Georgia fans can still take a deep sigh of relief that they’ll get to enjoy another season with star receiver A.J. Green in 2010. But while Green has limped to the finish line this year amid a series of injuries, some of Georgia’s supporting players are finally beginning to show signs of life.
Tight end Orson Charles has 20 catches on the year, doubling the total of all of Georgia’s tight ends a year ago. Tavarres King broke out with a three-catch, 109-yard game last week, the first 100-yard game this year by anyone other than Green. Even Rantavious Wooten got into the act, hauling in two touchdown passes in the game.
“The good news for the future of the program, those are all freshmen,” quarterback Joe Cox said. “Marlon (Brown) hasn’t really gotten a chance to have balls thrown his way, but he can make a lot of plays, too. There is a lot of youth contributing and it is something that people have to look forward to.”
Revived running game
When Knowshon Moreno left two years early for the NFL, fans expected a dropoff in Georgia’s ground attack, but things turned out to be far worse than most had anticipated. The Bulldogs slumped through early season games with little contribution from their tailbacks until, five games into the season, freshman Washaun Ealey made his debut.
With Ealey’s hard-running approach and a healthy Caleb King, the Bulldogs’ backfield was transformed midway through the season, and the pair has accounted for more than 130 yards rushing in each of the past five games.
“I believe it’s going to be a special one-two punch in the future,” King said. “I think we complement each other real well.”
Youth on defense
Georgia figured to have a veteran-heavy defensive unit in 2009, but it has actually been a the younger players who have stepped up.
Sophomore Brandon Boykin has been one of Georgia’s most consistent players in the secondary, freshman Branden Smith has seen his role at corner increase as the year has progressed despite also seeing action on offense, and safety Bacarri Rambo has two interceptions and been a spark off the bench for much of the season.
Add to that the increased playing time for linebackers Christian Robinson and emerging star Marcus Dowtin along with young contributors like Cornelius Washington and Abry Jones on the defensive line, and there is plenty of reason for optimism looking forward.
“I feel like we were put in a situation where we had to play, and it was our responsibility to make the plays,” Boykin said. “If we didn’t do it, nobody would say it was because they’re young. We still had to make the plays, and I feel like we’ve done our job. If we carry that over to next year, I feel we’ll be good.”
Improved pass rush
Georgia opened fall practice with huge question marks at defensive end, but as the season has progressed, many of those questions have been answered.
Justin Houston has developed into one of the SEC’s top pass rushers, while Demarcus Dobbs has improved greatly over his performance a year ago. Washington and Montez Robinson give the Bulldogs some emerging talent among the freshmen class, too.
A year ago, Georgia wrapped up the regular season with just 17 sacks. The Bulldogs have 26 already this year, and still have one more game to play.
There hasn’t been much to cheer at Sanford Stadium this season, but three of Georgia’s special-teams stalwarts have posted tremendous seasons.
Boykin set a school record for returns and return yardage while bringing back two kicks for 100-yard touchdowns this season, another school record.
Place kicker Blair Walsh is a finalist for the Lou Groza Award for the nation’s top kicker after connecting on 16-of-17 field goals, including a perfect 4-for-4 from 50 yards or more.
And in his first year as the starter, punter Drew Butler has set a new standard for distance at Georgia, leading the nation with a 48.8-yard average on 50 punts – more than 3 yards better than the previous high-water mark for the Bulldogs.
“It’s good to help this team as much as we can,” Butler said. “I know we haven’t been on the upside too much this season, we’ve struggled in a few games, but Blair and I have a goal to be consistent every single game and help this team and have the team rely on us. We’ll always be there, we have one job to do, and we’re going to make sure we do it well.”