Mailbag: Bye-week concerns, especially on defense

semerson@macon.comSeptember 13, 2013 


Georgia coach Mark Richt leaves the field after a pre-game warm up before the game against South Carolina.


There's no bye week for the mailbag, which checks in at almost exactly 4,000 words this week. So settle in for a long (but informative) read, or skip to the questions you care about, or just read in between commercials on Saturday.

Seth, as you've commented on several times, it seems that Todd Grantham's strategy through two games has been to bank on the defense forcing some turnovers. The problem is, we haven't forced many. Does it seem to you his gamble is backfiring a little? Do you see any kind of change in strategy moving forward?
- Rob, Johnson City, TN

If anything, I’d expect the defense to double-down on the strategy. Grantham’s main criticism of his defense after the Clemson game was not forcing a turnover, and the win over South Carolina turned when the defense finally forced its first one, the fumble on Connor Shaw. That doesn’t mean you’ll see every defensive back gambling Bacarri-Rambo style on passes and everybody eschewing a tackle for an attempted strip. But there will be an emphasis on getting to the ball (as there normally is anyway), and a continuation of the approach this defense has taken thus far.

Georgia’s defensive players are saying the things you’d expect, that it’s just a matter of missed assignments, tweaking, fixing some small things, etc. But really, this defense is playing about the way I expected it. This is a talented but young and inexperienced group, and I said all offseason that it should be better as the season goes on, but potentially rough at the outset, especially considering the competition. So things are playing out the way they were supposed to play out.

On a similar vein:

First positive I am really impressed with our offense and the play calling (I have never been on the blame Bobo bandwagon anyway), especially how we used Keith Marshall this week. However, our defense needs much improvement. I saw poor tackling, bad angles and bad coverage all over the field. Have you heard anything about giving other players an opportunity to play?
- Jimmy White

Strong safety and inside linebacker are a couple spots where the North Texas game could serve as open tryouts. Otherwise, you’re just looking at a unit that needs some time to gain experience and confidence.

A few reasons for optimism going forward: Jordan Jenkins doesn’t have a sack yet, but has come close. Josh Harvey-Clemons had a quiet game vs. South Carolina, so he has room to improve. Leonard Floyd and Tray Matthews have also been pretty quiet so far, and that figures to change too.

And the biggest reason for optimism, which doesn't get emphasized enough: Look at who Georgia played the first two weeks. Now if the defense struggles against North Texas, the same way it struggled at times last year against Buffalo and Florida Atlantic, then yeah, time to worry.

Like you, I watched the replay of the SCAR game with a particular emphasis on our linebacker play. Ramik Wilson was repeatedly out of position and did not show the blazing speed needed to make up for it. Perhaps he was "thinking" too much instead of playing fast and reacting ? Or is he just not at the level we have become accustomed to from the middle lb spot...I remember Danell Ellerbee, Tony Taylor, et al .having great "make-up" speed. Overall, the pursuit angles and actual TACKLING when arriving upon the scene really need to improve. I think with a young group like this it is certainly is possible, up to staff and players to make it happen.

There’s no doubt Wilson had a rough South Carolina game, after a somewhat encouraging starting debut at Clemson. So this week Richt said he wanted to see more subbing at inside linebacker, and then a few days later Grantham bluntly said Amarlo Herrera wasn’t coming off the field. So what’s that tell you?

Reggie Carter figures to get a lot of playing time against North Texas, though Wilson could still be the starter. But that second inside linebacker spot will be up for grabs over the next few weeks. Long-term, Carter is going to be a key part of this defense. The question is how long the more experienced (and slightly bigger) Wilson can fight him off.

Given that Patrick Beless has been perfect, shouldn’t Marshall Morgan be required to earn his job back?
- James Colvin

You make a good point, but Richt addressed that Sunday by saying that had Morgan been eligible, he would have won the preseason kicking competition between himself, Beless and Adam Erickson. Therefore now that Morgan’s eligible, he gets the job back.

Now, one could certainly argue that Beless’ performance warranted holding another kicking competition. But Richt reiterated on Wednesday that Morgan will be the kicker, but that it’s nice to know Beless can help out in a pinch.

It seems like Mark Richt and the Dawgs have turned things around after the disappointing/poor seasons of 2008 - 2010. What's different between now and then?

And, by the way, really enjoyed your "At Second Glance" article. Great analysis.
- Stuart

First off, thanks. I’ve enjoyed doing them, and only wish I could roll them out a bit quicker each week, but Sunday and Monday tend to be pretty busy. (Translation: My wife had the screaming baby all of Saturday and there’s no way I’m getting away with not helping after that.)

The question about the difference between these two mini-eras would make for a good, but much longer story. I do think this program reached a breaking point after the 2010 season, which resulted in an overhaul of both the strength and conditioning program and the culture of the team. (A culture that has overall been productive under Richt, but endured a bad run.)

But quality of players matter too, and in the past three seasons you’ve had Jarvis Jones, Todd Gurley, Malcolm Mitchell, as well as Aaron Murray gradually improving, and the final two years of Alec Ogletree’s career.

In the past few years, we have experienced some close wins versus teams like Vandy (2011), Kentucky (2011, 2012), and even Tennessee (2011, 2012). Have we just been playing down to them, or do these teams see us as their best chance to knock down a SEC heavyweight? Also, do you see any of these teams keeping it close with us this year?
- Robert, in Ringgold

The guess here is that every top 10 program has had a similar amount of close calls. Georgia has also managed some blowouts the previous two years: Auburn both years, Vanderbilt last year, Ole Miss last year, Georgia Tech last year, and convincing wins two years ago over Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Georgia Tech.

So what do you expect this year? The trips to Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Auburn could potentially be interesting, particularly the Auburn game if Gus Malzahn has his offense rolling. (The situation at quarterback leaves that a question mark.) Missouri and Kentucky should be games that Georgia is heavily favored to win.

Why is Damian Swann returning punts? He is our most valuable and experienced corner and arguable the best player in the secondary. Why are we putting him at risk for the most dangerous play in football? It seems to me that we have other capable returners available.
- Blue Bryan

This is actually the opposite of the complaint I’ve been hearing from some fans over the past few years: Last year when Rhett McGowan was getting most of the returns, or a few years ago when Logan Gray was doing it, there were a lot of complaints about sending them back to fair-catch, rather than using someone who could make hay out of it.

So now Swann is doing it, but he’s also doing a lot of fair-catching, for reasons I’ve explained before: Georgia has such a prolific offense the coaches prefer having someone they think is a low risk to fumble or make a mistake. A speedster like Reggie Davis or Justin Scott-Wesley would be intriguing, but evidently they haven’t shown enough dependability in practices or scrimmages.

As for the injury risk, it might be overstated. Swann is already on the field for 70-80 plays a game, and while there’s some risk on punt returns, it’s not exactly commonplace. LSU didn’t have any problem putting Tyrann Mathieu back for punts, although he was a gamebreaker back there, while Swann hasn’t shown that ability yet. If Georgia did have a guy they felt was a gamebreaker for returns, I’m sure they’d be using him. Malcolm Mitchell had that potential, but his decision-making on punt returns was a bit of an issue last year, and now he’s injured – when celebrating with a teammate.

I feel like Chris Conley was a big piece of our 2012 offense and played well in the Clemson game, but I feel like he kinda took a back seat against South Carolina. I know our WR plan may have been juggled around with Mitchell's injury. It looked like Wooten and McGowan played sparingly against Clemson and then got a lot of snaps against South Carolina. Am I reading too much into this? I feel like JSW has cemented himself as the #2 behind Bennett, but I'm curious how the #3 and #4 WR's shake out (Conley, McGowan, Wooten, etc.)
- Patrick Crouch

I wouldn’t put Scott-Wesley ahead of Conley in the pecking order just yet. Before Mitchell’s injury I considered Conley and Bennett to be co-starters, along with Mitchell, and now I slide Scott-Wesley into that spot. In fact, when Scott-Wesley was announced as a starter prior to the South Carolina game it was in Bennett’s place. (But then all three ended up starting, because Georgia’s first place was three-wides without a tight end.)

Conley remains one of the team’s top receivers, and should only be helped by the emergence of Scott-Wesley. That will give defenses one more guy to worry about, particularly on the deep routes, keeping the other parts of the field open for Conley and Bennett.

Subject line: Mike Bobo’s replacement.

You've probably had questions in the past with a similar subject, but my question is not that we should replace him, but what the Dawgs will do should he be offered a head coaching position. Although there is a minority of our fan base who would never admit it, he is a very good developer of quarterbacks and has directed some of the finest offenses in the country over the last couple of seasons. Are there times you can question his play calls? No doubt, but you can say the same for any OC in the country. In my book, he's done a fine job and we are lucky to have him. So my question is, do we have anyone on staff who is being developed as a future play caller? When Richt was calling plays, he was grooming Bobo to one day take over those duties. There are no signs that he is looking to go anywhere and sure Richt could take back over the play calling duties if he does, but do we have any young coaches on staff who could fill this role or would we have to go outside the program?
- Taylor Clark

That’s an excellent question, and it seems only a matter of when, not if, it becomes an issue. Bobo received nibbles this past offseason, and with the offense on track for another big year his name will be bandied about even more. Greg McGarity and Richt stepped up to give him a long-term deal, and Bobo is generally happy at his alma mater, but if he gets offered the right head coaching job, he will go.

My sense is that Richt would look outside the program, but also consider at least one in-house replacement: Receivers coach Tony Ball, who Richt said last season (after Ball interviewed at Tennessee) would make a good coordinator. Things is, Ball hasn’t ever been a coordinator and called plays. But he has coached both receivers and running backs, so that would help. As for the other offensive assistants, Will Friend and Bryan McClendon also don’t have any playcalling experience and are much younger.

But first there has to be an opening for an offensive coordinator, and it’s no telling when that will happen.

There's lots of talk about Murray's abilities or lack thereof, depending on who you talk to. From a person like yourself, what's your thoughts or thoughts from other beat writers?
- Jimmy White

I’ll let the other beat writers speak for themselves, but if you haven’t been able to tell from my writings the past few years I’ve always rolled my eyes at the Murray-in-big games meme. The year I took over the beat was 2010, when Murray was the big question on offense, but when the team started 1-4, Murray actually played well, with the lack of a running game and a struggling offensive line being blamed. Then, in retrospect a few years later, Murray became the problem? Please.

As I pointed out in a column after the Clemson game, Murray has never had the luxury of a good offensive line. He also didn’t have a consistent running game until last year. Murray now has two wins over top-five ranked teams (Florida last year and South Carolina this year) since Todd Gurley arrived on campus, and he nearly beat another one in last year’s SEC championship.

Plus, as blogger Patrick Garbin pointed out this week., Murray’s record vs. teams ranked in the top 10 really isn’t that much different from other Georgia quarterbacks.

I get it that TV wants lots of scoring and therefore lots of commercial breaks, but I kind of hate it that even when championship calibre teams play, the scoring is like a pinball machine. Defenses don't have a chance anymore .... except for creating turnovers. And that may work out well for us this year.

LSU may prove me wrong, but I don't think anyone in the SEC can run the ball like we can, and that includes Alabama. Our D doesn't seem up to stuffing anyone unless they try to run a lot of inside option-type stuff, but I think our athleticism will produce lots of turnovers. And then Mr. Murray and company take over. So don't worry about defense. Just score, baby! And you still win if you can run the ball, so Ha!

I still hate it. And get off of my lawn.
- Frank Arnold, McDonough

Ha. I appreciate your thoughts and perspective.

What an amazing game! I am so proud of my GA Bulldogs! (I can now go and get all my UGA gear from the pile in the backyard and put it all back up! FAITH RESTORED). Overall, the special teams and O did a spectacular job! However, there are a lot of questions bouncing up in my head, mostly for the D, but I think most of those will be answered or addressed in the coming weeks. (LSU here we come!). So, I want like to get your journalistic opinion on the Ron Morris issue that is going on at South Carolina. Did Ron Morris step over the line, or does a coach have too much power to "banish" a beat reporter for asking the "hard" questions?
- Ray Bailey

Ray, I’ll have to largely sidestep this one, because of my friendship with Ron – who I shared some long car rides with during my five years at The State – and also my continued employment at a McClatchy newspaper. (The company owns and runs The State, The Telegraph and The Ledger-Enquirer.)

In addition, I haven’t worked at The State for more than three years. So I can only speak for my current situation and say my publisher and executive editor have never pressured me to write anything (and have been wonderful to deal with), and no one around Athens thinks Mark Richt would ever try to dictate who covers his program. Occasionally I’ve knocked heads with him, but no more than any other coach I’ve covered, and I can say with the utmost confidence that he has much thicker skin than his counterpart at South Carolina.

1) At this point do you see Blake Tibbs or Sheldon Dawson ever playing significant snaps barring injuries? Is Shaq Wiggins being redshirted? 2) The offense has run the ball a lot out of the pistol, but what formation do you think has had the most success in the ground game?
- Gordon, Austin, Texas

1) Wiggins played in the first two games on special teams, so no redshirt. He could see the field at cornerback in the North Texas game, but he’s a true freshman, so there’s no grand rush. Tibbs is a redshirt freshman at a very deep position, so no surprise there either. Dawson is the one that surprises me. He was the entrenched starter entering preseason, but now can’t get off the bench, even with Langley struggling at South Carolina. And Grantham gave every indication Langley is holding onto the job. The fact that Harvey-Clemons is at the star (in the nickel package) is also squeezing the cornerbacks.

2) That I-formation has been pretty successful, with Quayvon Hicks leading blocks for Gurley and Marshall. They’ll keep sprinkling in the pistol too.

My question is ill-timed because I think Bobo just called the greatest game of his career. Still ... We seem to have this tendency to 'forget' plays we've run with success. I recall a cool counter play we ran against Clemson - screens that seemingly work 80% of the time are another example. It seems to be a mark of this team that we'll often run some very creative plays with tremendous success only to never run the plays again. Am I way off base here? I contrast that with Spurrier and the way he finds something that works and keeps running it. The option (ironic, again, I know), throwing the ball wherever #4 was on the field. It's a good thing to avoid predictability, but it's another thing to run something that seems to work whether they know it's coming or not. Since we just played a beautiful game, I suppose I'm more curious than anything else. And wondering if anyone has noticed the same tendency.
- Thomas Heaton

Yeah, I think it’s a tad off-base. (Sorry, don't hate me.) First, I have seen Bobo go back to the well: During one drive against South Carolina last Saturday, they ran Gurley to the right side four straight times, and only stopped after the fourth run gained less yardage. I don’t know if it was the same exact play four times, but it looked pretty similar.

The counter run you cite at Clemson was successful, but that’s the kind of play you can only run a certain amount of times per game if you want to fool the defense and make it work. Growing up a Washington Redskins fan in the 1980s, I remember how they made the counter trey famously successful. Other teams knew it would be coming, but they didn’t know when, and choosing the right time is what made it successful. It’s the same thinking as play-action, which Georgia has had a lot of success with over the past few years, but only when it was picking its spots.

Finally, I don’t know if you meant the screen pass specifically at Clemson, but that play didn’t actually work very well, other than one to Marshall and one to Hicks. Otherwise, Gurley was stopped on the game’s first play, and another one was nearly intercepted.

It seems like I see "UGA" spelled "UGa" in the media more nowadays. The latter spelling is usually used by angry Tech fans. Do you have any inside knowledge on why some writers use all caps while others don't? This is a good bye week question.
- Abraham Baldwin (not his real name), via Twitter

No, that is a GREAT bye week question. I actually checked with my editor, and he’s not aware of any specific AP Stylebook rule on it. I’ve noticed a lot of out-of-market writers refer to “UGa”, but when I did that my first week on the job in 2010 I got yelled at by fans. Never again. Technically, UGa would work because it’s U for University and Ga for the official abbreviation, while UGA is not actually an acronym for anything. (Unless you’re calling it the University of Georgia at Athens. Which nobody really is.) But the school itself requests it be referred to as UGA, so that’s what most call it.

Did Georgia run a very basic gameplan at Clemson, so we would not show South Carolina our hand? After watching this week's game against South Carolina, I am convinced that Mark Richt pulled a fast one on The Old Ball Coach. Our offensive game plan was so much more aggressive than what we ran against Clemson. I am convinced that Richt was willing to lose to Clemson with the conservative play calling hoping that it would not give South Carolina anything to look at on film. I'm not saying that he threw the game, but if we had of ran the same game plan against Clemson, we would have killed them. I do believe that the game plan we ran against Clemson was one that would have beat them, but we had to many bad things happen to win. Everything that I complained about in the Clemson game was corrected in the Carolina game and we could have done the same thing against Clemson. When we ran the ball straight up the middle 3 plays in a row when Clemson was rushing everybody to middle all 3 plays, we could have threw it to the tight end or pitched it to the outside. We ran shorter passing routes and roll outs away from the pressure and we could have done that against Clemson when they were blitzing off the edge instead of staying in the 3 step drop and longer passing routes.
- Larry W. Tucker

It's an interesting theory, and I'm sure there was a play or two that Bobo saved for the second game. But they also very much wanted to win that Clemson game. The coaching staff knows it could end up having national championship implications, and you're also talking about a game that could have recruiting implications.

The gameplan just looks a lot more astute when a) the offensive line blocked better, and b) Murray was pretty much perfect.

What happened to Sheldon Dawson and the Shaqs? Dawson, Wiggins and Fluker haven't even seen the field yet have they? Certainly with how SC picked on Langley I thought either Dawson or Wiggins was coming onto the field at some point. What's the deal there?
- Kyle Dix

Dawson and Wiggins, as mentioned earlier, will have a chance to play and earn playing time. It was curious that Langley kept getting trotted out there last Saturday, but that’s not unusual for Grantham, who tends to be pretty loyal during games. As for Fluker, he appears a longer way off in terms of contributing. Entering the preseason I thought he had an even chance with Connor Norman and Corey Moore to win the strong safety job. But Moore and Fluker each had injury issues, and Moore had two more years’ experience to get a leg up.

Is Sterling Bailey related to former UGA players Champ, Boss, and Sean Bailey?
- Michael Hartman

I haven’t asked Sterling, but UGA media relations is not aware of any relation. And Sterling has never mentioned any.

Did Brendan Douglas earn himself some more carries against SC? I thought he was impressive in his time on the field. He looked great, I thought.... Would like your insight.
- Trae Marchant

Douglas looked very good, even if you consider that at that point in the game South Carolina’s defense was gassed and playing out the string. Still, Douglas and J.J. Green are both in line for some carries against North Texas – assuming Georgia has the luxury – and they’ll go from there. But I doubt anybody will be taking carries from Gurley or Marshall.

If your interview request for a player has been denied, would you interview him if you see him at the grocery store?
- Biscuit Salad

It would depend on the player and the story. If there’s some sort of breaking news story, then I’d be more likely, and I’ve done that before. Otherwise, it just depends. While the Marshall Morgan/Alec Ogletree/Bacarri Rambo sagas were ongoing the past few years, those players knew not to answer their phones. But if I’d been lucky enough to bump into them in public, I’d obviously ask what was up. But I was not that lucky.

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