ATHENS -- When Marshall Morgan talks about this freshman class at Georgia, and how much its doing so far, he harkens back to those days in January when he personally lobbied a fellow recruit.
It was the Semper Fi All-Star game in Phoenix. Morgan was the kicker for the West Team, which also had a tailback named Todd Gurley. Morgan was already committed to Georgia, while Gurley was still deciding.
Todd was either here or Clemson, and I was always putting it in his head to go here, Morgan said. So once were finally here, Im so proud to see him doing so well. And all the freshmen that are playing are helping out the team.
Gurley, the SEC leading rusher until a week ago, has been the most spectacular of Georgias freshmen. But hes far from the only one who is contributing in a big way for the Bulldogs, who will rely on many first-year talents down the stretch.
Put another way, maybe the defense has been disappointing. There are many veterans who have under-performed so far. But the freshman class is living up to the billing.
Very good class, head coach Mark Richt said. The talent base is great, really.
The tailbacks, Gurley and Keith Marshall, have gotten most of the attention and deservedly so. The Gurshall tandem each ranks in the top 10 in the SEC in rushing yards; combine them, and they lead the nation with 173.3 rushing yards per game.
Then theres right tackle John Theus, who has shown a marked improvement from his second game. When he was asked about a few bad plays at Missouri, Theus interrupts.
It was more than a few bad plays in that game. Ill admit that, Theus said with a laugh. It was a rough game. But Ill agree, its been slow and steady improvement. ... Ive said it before, the best way to get better at something is by doing it. The more Im able to play, the more experience Ive got, the better Ive got, week by week.
That has indeed been the case. While the offensive line struggled in general at South Carolina two weeks ago, Theus might have been the strongest link, for what its worth. Most of the time he was matched up with Gamecocks senior Devin Taylor, who was held without a sack.
The two kickers -- Morgan and punter Collin Barber -- came in with a lot of attention. They had to replace Blair Walsh and Drew Butler, each now starting as rookies in the NFL.
Morgan has had some rough moments on extra points, missing a couple and having another blocked. But otherwise he has been excellent, making two field goals of 50 yards or more, and he has been solid on his kickoffs. Barber also has quietly been effective, with coverage troubles obscuring the quality of his punts.
Defensively, not many rookies were expected to contribute. The Bulldogs returned 10 starters from the team that lost the Outback Bowl.
But Jordan Jenkins, a freshman outside linebacker, has made an impact despite limited playing time. He has three sacks, ranking behind only All-American Jarvis Jones on the team, and had the game-clinching sack and forced fumble against Tennessee.
Josh Harvey-Clemons might have been the highest-rated freshman, but he hardly phas layed on defense. Still, Harvey-Clemons has excelled on special teams; his being named a captain for the Kentucky game is a very rare honor for a freshman.
I was kind of down at first when I got here, about not playing. Because you know in recruiting theyll tell you, Youre gonna come in here and play and all that, Harvey-Clemons said. But they (his family) told me, Youre out there, youre on special teams, youre not redshirting, so take advantage of that, play hard on that. ... Its really working out.
Certainly, Harvey-Clemons destiny isnt to be a special teams standout. The strength staff has been encouraging him to put on weight, in a sign he might eventually move from safety to linebacker -- just as Alec Ogletree did after his freshman season in 2010.
Last year, Georgias signing class gained the Dream Team moniker, but it has been a mixed bag for that group after a season-and-a-half. Only three of those players are listed as starters on the current depth chart.
This years team called itself the Ring Team, because it hoped to be the topping for Georgias run to a BCS or SEC championship. That road got much more difficult after the South Carolina loss.
But the performance of the freshmen is providing hope for the next few years.
We came in to a team that was ready to get some big things done, Jenkins said. So we had to get ready to be a part of that, and get ready for the next season when well be playing more.