Saturday marked the end of preseason practices for the 2011 Bulldogs, meaning we're now entering "Game Week" preparation. I'll give you a moment to let that soak in.
Thankfully, the guesswork of what this team will look like is mainly over. The stories have been many over the past three weeks, so let's dive in and see what the 10 biggest headlines were:
► The Dream Team arrives. At the conclusion of 2010, you could tell there was a noticeable talent gap in certain positions. In some instances, it wasn't even a question of talent, as much as it was getting guys in their natural spots. In February, the Dream Team was signed, adding talent at running back, nose guard, outside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver, along with much-needed depth at other positions as well. A few months later, they all (well, most) made it to campus and began preparations for the upcoming season.
In some places, like at running back and nose guard, the changes were immediate and noticeable. At others, like cornerback and wide receiver, it provided much needed depth and brought the Bulldog Nation some new names for which to keep out an eye. Either way, the addition of the Dream Team has been a much needed boost to a team and a fan base looking for answers to the questions left after 2010.
► Crowell Watch 2011. Not since the days of Jasper Sanks has a recruit come in with as much fanfare as Isaiah Crowell. Widely considered to be the top running back in the nation, and one of the top ten overall players as well, Crowell sprinted into the hearts of Dawg fans by holding up an English Bulldog on Signing Day to announce his decision to sign with Georgia. Ever since then, Dawg fans have been holding their breath in the hopes that Crowell with take it away with one of his trademark runs.
So far, the returns have been positive. Initially, some reported that Crowell showed up to summer workouts out of shape and with a poor attitude. However, when preseason practice began, he put all that to rest. Photos from practice sessions showed him looking strong and word from the media was that he was just as explosive on the practice field as he was in his YouTube highlights.
Recently, the media was able to watch pass protection drills and the word was that Crowell held up well in those, meaning that there's really nothing holding him back from getting a lot of playing time in the opener against Boise State. Part of the reason Richard Samuel was moved over from linebacker was because he was so great in pass protection, but now with Crowell showing that he can also protect #11, Samuel's spot as the top ball carrier may be in serious jeopardy.
► Reinventing the "Wheel." One of the biggest question marks going from 2010 to 2011 was the secondary and how Scott Lakatos' unit would stack up compared the the one he had the year prior. 2010 was maddening for the deeper levels of the defense, as they had trouble with assignment responsibilities while learning the new 3-4 defense. On top of that, just saying the word "wheel" would send them into a panic, and usually result in seven points if that "wheel" was combined with the word "route."
There are still a lot of question marks that won't be answered until Gameday, but the confidence is certainly up. A few injuries have hit the unit as well, such as reserve safety Jakar Hamilton being lost for the season with a broken ankle. Recently, starting cornerback Branden Smith, who regained his starting position after a very strong preseason,was hobbled with a foot ailment after having it stepped on during a special teams session. Smith is also the Bulldogs' starting punt returner.
However, the ressurrection of Smith, along with the emergence of Sanders Commings at the safety position, have added much needed depth to a unit that was razor thin at the end of 2010. Damien Swann (cornerback), Corey Moore (safety) and Connor Norman (safety) are names to watch as well this upcoming year. Swann and Moore are both freshmen who have practiced their way into playing time this year.
Probably the most bizarre development of preseason practice in the secondary is the disappearance of Bacarri Rambo, 2010's starting safety and its leading tackler. Rambo has been noticeably absent from all media sessions after being repeatedly requested, and when prompted by the media, the coaches have answered that "he's in there doing as much as anybody." Vague to say the least, but it makes many folks wonder if Rambo is losing his grip (or has already lost it) on his starting job, or if there'smore to it than that. With apologies to Paul Harvey, it won't be until September 3rd when we'll find out "the rest of the story."
► John Jenkins, meet Kwame Geathers. Many Bulldogs, including myself, thought that the moment John Jenkins set foot on campus, he was a lock to start at nose guard. However, what many folks didn't plan on was how the combination of Joe T's workouts plus a renewed motivation would propel Geathers into the starting position, and he hasn't relenquished it...yet.That's not to say it's inevitable for a "changing of the guard." I'm of the mindset that competition is always good at any position, and to see so much at a needed spot in order to make the 3-4 work, it makes my heart smile. Plus, if both players are giving their all, and are able to stay healthy (Jenkins is hobbled at the moment, but should be fine by Gameday according to coaches), then it's a position with good players and good depth. That's never a bad thing.
Finally, the emergence of a true nose guard allows DeAngelo Tyson to slide back to his more natural position of end. If the nose position can stay settled, then the front three of Tyson, Geathers and Abry Jones will be a true strength of the defense in 2011.
► Running backs? We don't need no stinking running backs! Dawg fans knew after the 2010 season that running back was a position of need, but I don't think anyone knew exactly how much it would REALLY BE A POSITION OF NEED.
The top rusher from 2010, Washaun Ealey, was dismissed in May, followed by Caleb King being ruled academically ineligible in July. That meant Georgia was going to start the 2011 season with their most experienced back being Carlton Thomas, who is suspended for the opener.
So coaches moved Richard Samuel from linebacker over to running back, after he sat out 2010 while learning his new position. Samuel immediately vaulted to the top spot at running back due to game experience, his ability to pass block and redshirt freshman Kendrum Malcome's inability to get healthy enough to separate himself from the pack. However, as we talked about above, Crowell is nipping at Samuel's heels, and may take over the top spot soon.
Needless to say, the position in general is thin on able and experienced bodies, so there is very little time for these young guys to grow into the position. It's really now or...nevermind, it just needs to be now.
► We only need five healthy bodies. Depth at running back wasn't the only concern this preseason. On the offensive line, not only did UGA have to deal with the departure of Stacy Searels and the hiring of Will Friend, but Trinton Sturdivant went down with another potential career-ending knee injury, A.J. Harmon left for "personal reasons" and Brent Benedict transferred after "disagreeing" with his workout regimine.
In the wake of all that, one would think that WIll Friend had to be wondering exactly what he signed up for, but since then, the line has been one of the better stories out of camp. Not only has Dallas Lee stepped up and earned some quality snaps after suffering from some sort of breathing issue that kept him out of the spring, but Watts Dantzler, David Andrews, Zach DeBell and Austin Long should all provide much needed depth.
► It's Aaron Murray's world and everyone knows it. Remember back in February when Murray hurt his ankle playing a pickup game of soccer and everyone freaked out? That's because there's no question about who will be starting for UGA this year, or whether that person should be the starter.
Last year about this time, fans were worried about Aaron Murray's glove, our lack of depth at the QB position after Zach Mettenberger's dismissal and whether Mettenberger would've been the starter had he not been kicked off the team. This time around, Dawg fans know what they have in Murray; a proven leader, a proven playmaker and a Mark Richt team with a returning QB, which has historically fared well in terms of wins and losses.
Quarterback controversies take a lot of wind out of the sails of a team. Thankfully, there's no question who the guy is anymore. Not only does the team know it, but the fans know it and the rest of the SEC knows it as well.
► Free as a bird. For the first time in what feels like forever, the best headlines to come out of camp were the lack thereof. No UGA players were arrested over the summer when coaches were not keeping a watchful eye over them, meaning our players have stopped jaywalking, driving the wrong way down alleys and began using proper traffic signals whenever possible.
In all seriousness, it's encouraging to see the players put the effort in to keep their noses clean during a tumultuous time in Butts-Mehre. Certainly Mark Richt has his hands full trying to make sure this team is going to be as competitive as possible when 2011 kicks off, and it only helps matters when he's not worried about guys making court dates or suspending them for DUIs. Not doing the wrong thing is just as important as doing the right thing.
► Mr. Jones and me. Jarvis Jones has been one of the bigger stories this offseason, just because the Dawgs think they have an emerging top playmaker on their hands, but all that seemed to be in jeopardy when a story broke in the Columbus-Ledger Enquirer about some possibly improper benefits Jones received while in high school.
Jones was eventually cleared by the NCAA, who cited that he had a long-standing relationship with the person who provided the benefits, meaning he was good to go. For a brief moment though, it wasn't looking good and depth at Jones' position isn't exactly ideal. Nevertheless, Jones will suit up against Boise State, and the Georgia defense is better for it.
► THAT'S the big question. The one constant headline from the end of 2010 all the way to today has been: "What kind of team does UGA have on their hands for 2011?" The answer? No one knows.
The coaches and AP pollsters seem to think that the Dawgs are a Top 25 team, but even fans remain mixed when projecting wins and losses throughout the season. I've read (and said myself) that we could be looking at a 12 win team or a six win team. We just don't know what we have until we kick this thing off a week from now.
All other headlines aside, THIS is the one that will keep people up at night until 8:01 on September 3rd. Until then, your guess is as good as mine.
Ok, so there's my list of the biggest headlines this preseason (in which days have seemingly taken years to go by). What are yours?
Until next time kids.