The Georgia Bulldog football team will hit the practice field beginnning this Thursday in preparation for the 2011 football season. As practice picks up steam, we here at Dawg Sports will be taking a position-by-position look at the players who Mark Richt will be counting on to deliver this fall. We begin with the quarterbacks.
It seems like forever since the Georgia Bulldogs began the season with a returning starter at the quarterback position. In reality, that last occurred heading into the 2008 campaign, when Matthew Stafford returned for his second year as the fulltime QB1 after wrangling the job from a gang of challengers during 2006. Stafford led the 'Dawgs to a 10-3 slate, which at the time seemed disappointing for a squad ranked as a consensus preseason #1. In the harsh light of subsequent events, our collective disappointment seems quaint. If Aaron Murray leads the Georgia Bulldogs to a 10-3 season in 2011 I think the reaction of Bulldog fans would be decidedly different. That's because the upcoming season is one of questions. Including . . .
If Aaron Murray's numbers fall and A.J. Green's not around to stop it, is it really a sophomore slump?
There's been some discussion in the blogosphere about the potential for Aaron Murray to endure a sophomore slump. To be fair, he wouldn't be the first signalcaller to endure such an outcome. And with A.J. Green set to be snagging passes for the Cincinnati Bengals come September, one would hardly be surprised if Murray found himself desperately seeking targets.
And when you get right down to it, Aaron Murray doesn't lack targets. He lacks proven targets. Once or twice last year I mentioned my belief that concerns over Georgia's receiving corps outside of Green and Kris Durham were misplaced. To recap, it's like this. There are really only so many times you can throw the ball. And when Mike Bobo had A.J. Green and Kris Durham, soon to be first day NFL draft picks, to throw to he would be nuts to throw elsewhere. That's probably why those two receivers accounted for 42.5% of Aaron Murray's 209 completions.
And while A.J. Green is truly a singular talent, he's not irreplaceable. Green's talent can't be duplicated in one guy, but his production can be split among a variety of receivers. Tavarres King reminds me a little of Sean Bailey in terms of his speed/skill combination. Marlon Brown has earned consistent praise from coaches. Rantavious Wooten has been incredibly effective when he's been healthy. And that's before we consider the logjam of tight end targets. In other words, Aaron Murray is going to have plenty of people to throw the ball to. That's not the thing to worry about.
Rather, the greatest danger to Aaron Murray's health and sanity this fall will not be the absence of A.J. Green. It will be the danger that Mike Bobo, Will Friend and a thin offensive line can't engineer a rushing attack. It's this simple: The Bulldogs were 6-2 during 2010 in games in which they rushed for 130+ yards. The two losses were to Arkansas and Colorado in losses directly attributable to untimely sprained cerebrums in the running back corps*. They were 0-5 when rushing for fewer than 130. Obviously correlation does not equal causation. Except when the correlation holds true over and over and over again, week in and week out.
One would hope that the relationship works in reverse and that a renewed, consistent Bulldog running game would equate to wins. One thing we know for certain is that in Georgia's pro-style, play action based passing game. the lack of a credible running threat makes throwing the ball tougher. The lack of a consistent running game in 2010 was also likely responsible for Aaron Murray's 342 passing attempts in 2010, more than senior Joe Cox had in 2009 and certainly more than coaches would have preferred to ask from a freshman signalcaller. Aaron Murray also spent more time in the shotgun in 2009 than any Georgia QB of recent vintage, probably to give hima better view of the field, and some cover against an offensive line that rarely looked the same from week to week. All of which is to say that if the running game comes along as I hope, Aaron Murray may have fewer pass attempts, fewer yards passing and more wins.
Walking The Mason-Fixin' Line
I anticipate that Hutson Mason will remain the #2 quarterback on the depth chart and that Christian LeMay will redshirt to create some class separation. I am a little concerned about Mason's remarks during the offseason that he will have to figure out what to do if he's not redshirted to gain some class separation from Murray. I would truly hate to see us lose a guy who I think has a lot of potential to be a solid #2 for the next 3 seasons.
However, I also know that Hutson Mason is unlikely to have the opportunity that Joe Cox did to start as a senior when his classmate leaves early to accept a sackful of money from an NFL owner. Aaron Murray may ultimately be even more effective as a collegiate quarterback than Matt Stafford was (and the early numbers are clearly promising). However unless he hits an unusual growth spurt he'll never be the 6'3-6'4, rocket-armed prototype quarterback that pro football personnel-types covet. That's good for you and I because it means that Aaron Murray's not likely to enter the NFL Draft until he runs out of college eligibility. It's bad news for Hutson Mason because as things stand now, he'll run out of collegiate eligibility on the same day as Murray, and without having his day in the sun.
Ideally, Christian LeMay will use his early enrollment to gain a handle on the playbook and be ready to play this season, allowing the coaches the option of letting Mason redshirt if he wants to. Of course if that occurs the coaches will merely shift the dilemma from a Murray/Mason problem to a LeMay/Mason problem (as playing LeMay would make he and Mason each redshirt sophomores in 2012). LeMay came to Athens as highly touted a high school quarterback as Aaron Murray. It will be interesting to see exactly how patient he is to play. However after skipping his last season of high school football, LeMay might be well-served with a redshirt season. As long as Aaron Murray stays healthy most of this drama is irrelevant for the present. Interesting, but not relevant. However, if (perish the thought) something happens to Murray, the Mason/LeMay battle will become high stakes drama in a hurry.
The bottom line is that when you recruit a talented high school quarterback every year some of them are just going to have to wait their turns to play, and if they're the kind of competitors you hope they are, none of them will really like it. Some will never get their chance, and them's the breaks. Trying to figure out which of our talented quarterbacks to play is a good problem to have, and this is one of the few personnel grouping where this sort of problem exists. Let's enjoy it.
And Then There Was One (More Quarterback On The Roster)
Remember that redshirt freshman and Wayne County product Parker Welch is waiting in the wings as the 4th string quarterback. I point him out principally because as a fan I appreciate his hard work and sacrifice for the good of the team every day in practice, and because I hope to later see him on the field a couple of times this season and be able to link back to this post when that time comes. A blogger can dream, after all. Unti next time . . .
*Spoiler: When we preview the running backs I'll be asking why Bryan McClendon isn't buying Mike Bobo lunch every day for creating a distraction on his behalf Stay tuned.