TideFans.com has picked Georgia to finish with an undefeated regular-season record in 2014, but it only works if the Bulldog defense is for real and not just more smoke and mirrors. Georgia could ruin it all early by losing to Clemson in the opener, but the Tigers have just as many questions or more than do the Bulldogs. Georgia has changed defensive coordinators and is expected to have some of the best skill position talent in the conference, plus strong special teams. But Mark Richt’s teams seem to find a way to implode when expectations are at their highest.
Returning Offensive Starters: 5 (SE, FL, LT, C, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 10 (RDE, NT, LDE, ROLB, RILB, LILB, LOLB, RCB, LCB, FS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (PK, P)
Georgia runs a pure pro-style attack, without a lot of flash. In 2014, they’ll be doing it without a lot of returning experience, either. A new quarterback and mostly-new offensive line are the hurdles Georgia must overcome in order to stay on a championship path.
Aaron Murray is gone, and in his place is Hutson Mason, who filled in while Murray was injured for part of the 2013 season. Mason was acceptable under center, but was certainly no playmaker, and he’ll need to be more dynamic in order for the Bulldogs to take a step up. Sophomore Faton Bauta is listed as the backup for now, but he isn’t considered an ideal fit for Richt’s offense. Brice Ramsey is in the mix, but if something goes haywire for Georgia down the stretch, look for true freshman Jacob Park to get some attention if the Bulldogs feel they must shift to building for the future.
No one has a better tandem than Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, provided both are healthy. Before Gurley got nicked up last year and Marshall lost for the season with a torn ACL, there wasn’t a defense in the league that could effectively stop Georgia’s balanced attack. Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman are expected to provide depth along with true freshman Nick Chubb. Georgia is one of the few teams that employs a traditional fullback, but the Dawgs suffered a big blow when Merritt Hall was lost for the year due to severe concussion-related issues. That leaves Quayvon Hicks as the likely starter, with Cameron Faulkner the probable backup. Hicks is a 260-pound jackhammer, but the quality drops off significantly behind him.
Chris Conley and Michael Bennett return as starters, and erstwhile next-big-thing Malcolm Mitchell will compete for playing time after he fully mends. Justin Scott-Wesley will offer depth once he clears up a disciplinary issue, while Reggie Davis and Jonathon Rumph will look to add depth. Georgia signed several players at the position in the spring, with slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie having the best resume. Tight end is always a key part of Georgia’s offense, and Jay Rome looks like the next big thing. Depth there, however, is thin, with a freshman, Jordan Davis, expected to be Rome’s top backup. Jeb Blazevich, a signee, will probably have to play.
In years in which Georgia is expected to have a dominating line, the Bulldogs typically underachieve, whereas they tend to exceed expectations when the question marks are at their largest. This year is an example of the latter case. Center David Andrews and left tackle John Theus are both solid players – and that’s the end of it. Three little-used seniors, Kolton Houston, Watts Dantzler and Mark Beard, will compete at the right tackle and left guard slots. A pair of sophomores, Greg Pyke and Brandon Kublanow, are in the mix at guard. True freshman Dyshon Sims could work his way onto the field somewhere. If Andrews goes down – and Georgia, unfortunately, seems to be able to count on at least one crippling injury a year from this unit – the Dawgs are in trouble, as freshman Josh Cardiello isn’t ready yet.
The pressure is on Jeremy Pruitt to show that he’s more than just another Nick Saban understudy and that he can replicate his results from Florida State here in Athens. Georgia was all over the map as a defense in 2013, with the most troubling stat being the ranking of 78th the Bulldogs put up in the scoring defense column. Pruitt’s 3-4 scheme could look a bit different than Alabama’s base set, as he leverages his talent advantage at linebacker. Overall results will hinge mostly on whether Pruitt can craft a decent secondary from a handful of high-athleticism, low-production players.
If there was a bright spot to the 2013 defense, it was a defensive line that ended up being better than most anyone expected. Chris Mayes returns at nosetackle, flanked by ends Sterling Bailey and Ray Drew. Drew and Mayes will get the most attention. There are plenty of upperclassmen ready to provide depth, with Mike Thornton available at nose and Toby Johnson and James DeLoach at the end positions. Redshirt tackle John Atkins has potential, as does signee Lamont Gaillard. The big name to watch, though, is DE Lorenzo Carter, who could challenge Bailey for a starting job. But he’ll need to add weight quickly to play with his hand down.
The inside duo of Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera are as solid as they come in the SEC. Herrera is a tackle vacuum, and Wilson is a smart player who can go one-on-one with most running backs. The outside pair of Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins are deft pass rushers, making this the undisputed strength of the defense. Depth, however, could be better. In addition to the aforementioned Lorenzo Carter being an option as a situational pass rusher, freshmen were expected to fill at least one other spot and possibly two. One of those, Davin Bellamy, was suspended for at least two games to start the year. The other, Keyon Brown, is in the same boat as Carter, needing either seasoning, or some weight for a potential move to the line. Reggie Carter and Tim Kimbrough will back up the middle positions.
Senior Damian Swann is getting plenty of award watch-list attention. The rest? Trouble. Safeties Quincy Mauger and Corey Moore are nothing special. There is a big hole at backup safety, where Tray Matthews was sent packing. JUCO transfer Shattle Fenteng will be called upon to back up both positions, but he’ll need to play better than his recruiting ranking in order to make an impact. Converted running back J.J. Green could end up being the answer. Sheldon Dawson, Reggie Wilkerson, Kennar Daniels-Johnson and Aaron Davis, a walk-on, figure to be the other options at cornerback, and someone has to step into the starting role vacated by Shaq Wiggins, who transferred to Louisville.
Marshall Morgan gives Georgia a reliable weapon at placekicker. He has a strong leg and missed only two kicks in 2013. The punting situation is – pun not intended – up in the air, with Collin Barber fighting to hold onto the job under pressure from senior walk-on Adam Erickson. The kick-return and punt-return jobs are yet to be nailed down, with several players under consideration.
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