Mailbag: Not to get defensive, but ...

semerson@macon.comOctober 9, 2013 

If you just went by my mailbag submissions this week, you'd never know this team was 4-1, ranked No. 7 in the nation, and favored to win Saturday by 10 points.

Then again, you can understand why.

As a result of various sundry issues, there were so many submissions this week that many could not make it in this week. My profuse apologies to everyone who didn't make it in - it's not personal - but hopefully most who missed the cut had their question addressed in some form.

If not, as always I'll be holding a live online chat this Friday at 1 p.m. Please feel free to stop by then. Any question that doesn't include cursing gets answered.

But for now, let's dive right into the dominant (but not sole) concern of the week: That struggling Georgia defense:

I’m generally not one to call for a coaches’ firing, but coming out of Saturday I’m so disappointed with the play of the defense and so utterly disgusted by Grantham’s continued bag of excuses that I’m ready for a new defensive coordinator. I would be much happier if Grantham would just point the finger at himself, say he has to do better, and then go get the job done. Tennessee’s secondary is also very young, starting a freshman and two sophomores, but they found a way to keep Georgia’s passing game in check despite their youth (this is where you’ll be tempted to point out our injuries at wideout, but please resist as you shouldn’t be in the excuse making business either). So my question is this: In your discussions with Grantham, do you get the sense that he is holding himself accountable for the poor defensive play, and how warm is his seat right now?
- Brian Strickland

OK, but I actually AM in the excuse-making business. Or excuse-pointing out. That’s my job!

Grantham is obviously feeling the heat from fans, as I pointed out in my story today, and as can be evidenced by the multiple questions I received on this subject this week. It’s quite a turnabout from two years ago, or even last year. But two things to remember:

a) It’s only five games in, and there’s plenty of time for a young defense to get better this year. So no one around the Butts-Mehre is jumping to any conclusions. b) Hypothetically, if the defense doesn’t get better, I don’t believe Grantham is going anywhere unless he gets an NFL job. (And the chances of getting another defensive coordinator job go down every time his defense gives up another third-and-long.) You never say never, and it’s hard to predict what would happen three months down the line, but we’ve all watched Mark Richt for 13 years now, and he clearly is a man that doesn’t make quick decisions.

Grantham is an interesting study: He doesn’t fall on his sword publicly, but he also doesn’t call out his own players. He talks more in generalities. The offensive coaches at Georgia tend to go the other way: Mike Bobo took blame after the South Carolina game, John Lilly this week put the responsibility on himself for the punt block issues. So no, if you’re looking for anything like that from Grantham, you may have to just keep waiting. In fact, he seems to get more chippy as the season goes on.

But Grantham’s public mood is not the most important thing for fixing the defense. The key is whether behind the scenes he is flexible, whether he is too tied to his own system and calls, or whether he adjusts. This is going to sound like I’m dodging the question, but at this point I think it’s too early to make a call on that. Two years ago his system worked. This year, obviously, things are off to a rough start, but it’s still less than halfway through the season.

Turnovers, especially, interceptions, will we ever get any? Taking away the fluke fumble by Pig Howard, I am hard pressed to think of a memorable/important take away by the defense this season. Surely, things will have to start correcting to the mean, right? And just how bad are the Dawg's turnover numbers compared to the rest of the top 10 or SEC.
- Jason in Asheville, NC.

Connor Shaw’s fumble was key in Georgia’s win over South Carolina. But other than that, yes, the inability to force turnovers has been an underrated issue for the Bulldogs – although not by the coaches. Grantham has been preaching that since the preseason, and I’m pretty sure he’s surprised his unit hasn’t been more effective.

The reason the turnover issue isn’t getting more attention is that Georgia’s offense isn’t committing them either: The Bulldogs are even in turnover margin this year, with five giveaways and five takeaways. And a lot of those have come on special teams. Georgia’s five forced turnovers is tied for the worst in the SEC, but the five turnovers lost is tied for second-best.

So why aren’t the Bulldogs forcing that many? It’s probably just a reflection of what we’ve been saying about the defense overall: Trouble with the pass coverage, not quite enough pressure on third downs, and playing quality opponents. Tajh Boyd, Zach Mettenberger and Connor Shaw have combined for four interceptions this year. Then again, Justin Worley had six interceptions before Saturday, then none against Georgia. So again, it’s a little of both.

My question concerns third down conversions on both sides of the ball. As has been stated, the defense has shown some strides on first and second down, but they have been awful on allowing third and fourth down to gain yards. But our offense has struggled tremendously on third down as well. The LSU game stats are a perfect example of both, and our 4-13 conversion on offense in Knoxville was abysmal. What does Richt plan to do to address this issue?
- Melissa (otherwise known as Dawggirl on Twitter)

Yes, the offensive performance on third downs has been a bit overshadowed: Georgia is converting 37.5 percent of the time, which is only 12th in the SEC. But I’m not sure it’s as dire as the stats indicate: Aaron Murray has completed the big passes when necessary – such as last Saturday – and going 8-for-24 the past two weeks can be due in large part to not having Todd Gurley around. Not only is not there to gain the third-and-short, but it makes it harder to get consistent yardage on first and second down.

The defensive struggles on third downs bear more mention. Grantham and Richt have been asked (by me) whether it has more to do with coverage or not getting enough pressure, and they both kind of dance around it, not wanting to pin blame anywhere specifically. Watching film, there is plenty of blame to go around: For as good as the overall sack numbers are, on those third-and-longs the pressure has been inconsistent.

If I were Grantham – and clearly I’m not, judging by my 401k – I would sell out a bit more on those obvious passing downs. Maybe I’m just a football lunkhead, but to this lunkhead’s eyes the defense has been splitting the difference a bit too much on third-and-long. I would either blitz two or three guys (or run a safety or cornerback blitz), or play everyone back. On a lot of these third downs there’s been one man blitzing, or just a four-down linemen rush, and it’s not resulted in much pressure at all.

There are a million things I could ask you about after this weekend, but my question is regarding the cornerback position at UGA. I remember hearing early on that Coach Grantham and Coach Lakatos preferred big-bodied CBs, but it seems like we haven't really stuck to that philosophy. I do think that Langley and Wiggins will be good soon, but neither of them are going to be mistaken for being Richard Sherman-esque. With scrambling QBs and sweeps this season, it seems like our CBs have a hard time getting off blocks, and a couple of times, Wiggins has been there at the ball, but simply got boxed out or bounced off of the WR -- granted, I think that was against one of the All-Everything LSU WRs. Most of the guys we have available at CB are around 5'11" and came in as "ATH" - some of the groups we've brought in since 2011 (besides being aggressive to get Langley) have seemed like afterthoughts. I know a lot of people criticize our OL recruitment, but it seems like our CB recruiting is the most haphazard approach of all of the units.

Is this just a result of a misses in recruiting? Have the coaches not really emphasized this position? Having you been seeing/hearing anything in practice or interviews that will give this bummed-out Bulldog a glimmer of hope?
- Erich Paul Bilal

If Grantham had his choice, I’m sure every cornerback he signed would be built like Sanders Commings, who was probably the most effective cornerback of his tenure. (And was signed by the previous staff.) A big cornerback helps jam a receiver at the line, something else that has been plaguing the secondary this year – just watch replays of other team’s big plays. Those guys are getting free right at the jump.

I haven’t asked Grantham specifically about signing smaller cornerbacks – it’s on my to-do list – but I suspect the answer would be that if someone (like Wiggins) is fast and athletic, he can make up for not being as big. It’s also not like the big defensive backs are plentiful, and even a program like Georgia has to react in recruiting, specifically react to the best recruits available in your area. Lately those have included Wiggins (5-10, 165), Reggie Wilkerson (5-11, 171), Sheldon Dawson (5-11, 190) and Damian Swann (5-11, 178).

Malcolm Mitchell (6-1, 210) is a guy that Grantham badly wanted at cornerback. But Mitchell preferred receiver.

You’ll probably get a lot of questions about this during the week, but the number of injuries opens up a question regarding conditioning. Is this just bad luck, or is there something more to it? Obviously Marshall just got teed up (any blame to Murray, there?) but watching the Scott-Wesley and Bennet injuries (add Malcolm Mitchell to that fray, if you like) looked like freak/fluke injuries…..until you start looking at them all together. Probably just bad luck, but should our team be doing more to strengthen knees/mitigate potential damage to knees? Also, with the targeting rules in place/being inforced, do you see more knee injuries coming as a result, since players are coached to avoid the noggin?
- Zach in Atlanta

There were several questions about this, and specifically mentioning the hit on Marshall. And Chris Conley, a receiver and also a member of the NCAA student-athlete advisory committee, was asked about it this week. Conley is smarter than me, so I thought I’d just quote his answer when asked if defenders are being taught to go low:

“Yeah. And that’s just naturally has to happen or you risk being thrown out of the game, and risk your team not winning the game that week. It’s just the nature of the rules, the nature of the league we play in right now. And for defensive players to be aggressive, they have to hit low.”

Then Conley was asked smartly (by a Red and Black reporter) whether it was almost trading one injury for another.

“In some instances it is. And it’s definitely was not the intention of the rule.. If there was foresight and we knew this was happening maybe it would have been implemented in a different way. But as of right now we really can’t do anything about it. This is the rule that we have, and this is the league that we play in. We have to be prepared.

How do you think we will manage against a pass happy, mobile QB having, Mizzou team? (Henry Josey is no slouch either).They seem to be good in the areas we lack at on defense. They handled Vanderbilt with ease by a scoreboard's standards and everything points to another shootout and that makes me nervous considering our injury issues on offense.
- Kevin Williams

Stopping James Franklin’s running ability would seem to be the key to me. At this point you almost expect a quarterback will be able to pass against Georgia’s secondary, but if Franklin is able to extend plays with his feet, just think how long a day it could be for Georgia. Last year Grantham managed to contain Franklin, making that a focus of the gameplan, and it worked. Then again, back then he had Jarvis Jones. (Though not Alec Ogletree, Bacarri Rambo or Sanders Commings.)

1- Tennessee repeatedly attacked Georgia on the edge, a little surprising given their imposing o-line. Perhaps that's a testament to our play inside, but it seems to be more of a realization that our corners are suspect and the defense hasn't shown an ability/maturity to hold the edge. Here comes a spread team. Is there a realistic chance that Georgia can hold this team under 40 points?

2- Is there a clamor at other schools whenever they have a big game to wear different jerseys, pants, helmets, etc as there seems to be at Georgia? I love the red shirts, helmets and silver britches. Yet inevitably there's a story in the media when we have a big game that Georgia's not going to wear black, or they will wear this, or maybe they'll do that. Dead horse has been beaten. Can't we just enjoy what we have, simply the best home uniforms in the country?
- Bob Ho, Tucker, Ga.

1-It’s not just realistic that Missouri will score less than 40. It’s likely, considering Georgia has limited everyone except LSU under 40, and Missouri is still probably facing the best defense it has to date. (That’s a sad testament on the Tigers’ schedule, which is why they didn’t get my AP vote this week.) However, I also don’t think it’s realistic that Missouri will be held under 21 points. This one has all the looks of another shoot-out.

2-Amen.

Why do we continue to use the spread punt formation? It seems like it is inviting 4-5 guys to try to block the punt.
- Clint Thomason

Mark Richt and Lilly have been asked about this several times this week. Lilly pointed out to me that four of the five teams they’ve faced this year also use the same formation. And you’ll notice Georgia hasn’t blocked any punts. So logic would dictate that it’s an execution, not schematic, issue. Lilly also says that most of the country is doing it that way.

Richt, asked about it on his radio show, said they liked the spread punt because it allows guys to get downfield quicker to cover it. That part seems to be working: Georgia’s punt unit has allowed 35 return yards this year, but 22 of those came on the two blocked punts.

Lost in the talk about injuries and excitement over the end of the UT game is how dominant Ray Drew was. He was constantly in the backfield and seemingly unblockable. Do you think that's due to UT's oline or can we expect more of this for the rest of the season?
- Brad Kay

The most impressive thing about Drew’s performance was he got one sack each from the inside and outside, and almost had another coming from the outside. Defensive linemen haven’t racked up too many sacks in Grantham’s defense, but Drew has three in five games. He’s also been credited with six QB pressures, third on the team behind Leonard Floyd (10) and Jordan Jenkins (9).

Drew is in the process of proving that the crock-pot approach can work.

Why should we be hopeful for the offense to rebound after losing such explosive weapons across the board? More tight end action? Any younger players with the potential to step up?
- Bruce Taylor Burns Jr., Macon

Aaron Murray, the eventual return of Todd Gurley, the tight ends and the improved offensive line should provide enough hope. Even without all the injured players, Murray was able to lead two touchdown-scoring drives. Granted, it was against Tennessee, but with the exception of Florida, the rest of the defenses Georgia will face the rest of the regular season aren’t that great.

It’ll be interesting to see how they use the tight ends. Lynch and Rome already flex out on certain plays, so you may see that more. At receiver … well, the next guy asked about that:

Who do you are stepping up as the #2 receiver Davis or Wooten? Do you see the offense using Lynch a lot more now and possibly more two tight end sets? ... I would have asked a defensive question but no one has answers for them.
- David, Augusta

I tried earlier on the defensive questions. But … touche’.

This gives Reggie Davis a chance to build on some spectacular moments early in the season and become a breakout player. Wooten can be a weapon too, as he showed on Saturday. I still tend to think of Georgia having three starting receivers, so I’d include those two with Conley. Then Rhett McGowan will continue to get a lot of snaps. The question is who will fill the opportunity after them, and how liberally Tony Ball will use them. Does he have enough confidence in Blake Tibbs, Michael Erdman and Kenneth Towns? (I won’t even mention Jonathan Rumph until he’s a real possibility to play.)

What's up with Quavon Hicks? After LSU I thought he was the man. Reports seem to indicate the coaches are unhappy with his play since the LSU game. Is this a preparation thing at practice or what? I just don't see Merritt Hall as the better of the two.

- Paul Sparrow, Mt. Pleasant, SC

Hicks has been inconsistent the past few games. On some runs he looks like a star, leading the way with a key downfield block. On others, he misses, the punt block being the big example. But it’s happened on some offensive plays too. The coaches say Hicks and Hall will continue to both play, but if Hicks becomes consistent, he’ll play most of the time. As an aside, Hicks seems like the kind of kid who gets it, describing his play against North Texas as “horrible.” So that’s a hopeful sign for the Bulldogs.

So I'm sure you're going to get this a lot in the mailbag this week, but the simple fact is the team is not going to be able to keep overcoming these special teams meltdowns. In the first few years of the Richt era, Georgia's special teams blocked punts and field goals and ran them back for field position and touchdowns. Now, it's such a hot mess that it's hard to figure out just how it got so bad.

My question is this: Do you think Richt would ever consider spending an off-season with some NFL special teams coaches and whoever in college is best at it (which as much as it makes me want to puke, is probably Urban, so that might not happen) and name himself special teams coach? Obviously the attention needed to be successful at it is not being put forth, so maybe if the HC is coaching it, the importance would be stressed more. No matter what, he CANNOT continue to do what he's been doing--teams have figured it out and know that's an area of the game they can exploit.
- Stephen Rushing

First off, I like that you used the term “hot mess.” My wife loves that, and now I say it all the time too.

If presented the opportunity, and if thinks it would be worth it, I’m sure Richt would spend some time with coaches who specialize in special teams. (But I wouldn’t hold my breath on it being Urban Meyer.) That said, Richt has to reach a point where he deems it worth it. To hear him talk about the punt team, which has given up those two blocks for a touchdown, and the muffed snap, Richt genuinely believes that they’re scheming it right, it just comes down to execution.

(I’m writing the word “execution” too much today, aren’t I?)

Now, I do wonder if the success of Marshall Morgan, after Richt took a more active role in the kicking game, will make Richt more inclined to get more involved in other units during the offseason. Richt’s involvement with Morgan wasn’t quite extensive enough to be the credit for Morgan’s improvement, but it showed Richt that he could at least have a bit of a positive effect.

If you’re wondering about the whole “hire a special teams coach” angle, I’m addressing that in a story to be posted later. But one thing I can’t make clear enough is that it’s not as simple as going out and hiring someone else. There’s an NCAA limit on assistant coaches, and hardly anybody in college football has someone who just coaches special teams.

If Todd Gurley comes back full strength and can tote rock 20 carries per game why not move J.J. Green to receiver? Gurley’s backups could be Douglas and Kyle Karempelis or burn AJ Turman’s redshirt. We need receivers worse than tailbacks if Gurley comes back full strength. This couldn’t happen before VAndy game but why not then? Check performance of receivers in Missouri game and if great fine but if needed why not? Green could also switch back between receiver and TB.
- Wayne

I just don’t see that happening, Wayne. They felt they needed Green at tailback even before Keith Marshall’s injury, and now that ensures it. Green offers some breakaway ability at tailback that frankly they just don’t have other than Gurley. And while receiving depth has taken a huge hit, this staff also believes strongly in tailback depth. Turman is getting some reps this week, but so far there’s no indication they plan on lifting that redshirt. Also keep in mind that Michael Bennett should return at some point this season.

You’re right that Green came to Georgia as a receiver or a cornerback, as I wrote earlier this week. So there’s always a chance he could move back to receiver eventually, especially with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel on the way. But this year they need Green at tailback.

Does UGA/Bobo/Richt have any ties to the offensive coaching staff at the New England Patriots? I feel UGA could study what N.E. has accomplished on offense the last 2 years utilizing a two-tight end offense and incorporate some of that into the upcoming game plans. By the time the UF game gets here we could be in big time with Rome and Lynch on the field together. Plus we will have Chris Conley and hopefully a healthy Gurley. Is it prolific/dynamic enough to win it all? Probably not, but it most likely makes getting to Atlanta a realistic goal. If UGA gets there with the Clemson loss being the only blemish on the record, history shows there's a good shot if you win in ATL then you have a chance to play for it all. Either way I think we are all in for a wild ride the next eight weeks. Survive and advance through a series of 1 week playoffs.
- John, Thomasville Ga.

I don’t know of any firm ties or conversations, but Bobo, Richt and company watch the NFL as much as you and me, so they’re aware of what the Patriots have done with their tight ends – before they got hurt and put in jail. There already have been some two tight-end sets in the playbook. But will they do it? Well, they’re not going to volunteer their plans.

In fact, Bobo started his media session Tuesday by saying: “I like you guys, but I’m not gonna discuss personnel, players or plans.”

So I asked him what he thought of the government shutdown.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Bobo said, smiling. “I tried to watch that the other night and figure it out, but I don’t know what’s going on.”

That seems like a good note to end on.

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