ATHENS -- Halfway through a season that should be pivotal to the program’s future, the Georgia football team could best be summed up as above average.
The Bulldogs beat the four teams it should have -- one from the FCS, three from the SEC that are winless in the conference. They did this after failing in two chances to get a signature win against Boise State and South Carolina, teams that are now a combined 10-1.
It hasn’t been enough to resolve either way the job status of head coach Mark Richt. It hasn’t put the Bulldogs back in the top 25 rankings, but they are in good shape to win the mediocre SEC East.
But along the way, some areas of improvement and deficiencies have emerged.
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Quarterback: Aaron Murray (1,327 passing yards, 13 touchdowns, six interceptions) hasn’t been better than last year, but how could he given that he’s not throwing to A.J. Green anymore? Murray’s throws have been erratic at times, but he has been solid overall given inexperienced wideouts and a patchwork offensive line. Grade: B-.
Running backs: Isaiah Crowell (573 rushing yards, four touchdowns) has lived up to the hype and become the unquestioned starter. Richard Samuel (129 yards, no touchdowns) has been slowed by injuries while Carlton Thomas (180 yards, two touchdowns) has done well as a speedy complement to Crowell. Led by Crowell, with an assist from new fullbacks Bruce Figgins and Zander Ogletree, the backfield has been the upgrade the offense desperately needed. Grade: A-.
Receivers: Freshman Malcolm Mitchell didn’t have quite the hype as Crowell, but his impact has been nearly as important. The Valdosta native who will miss Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt with a hamstring injury has helped fill the void left by Green and Kris Durham (both in the NFL now) and arrives at the halfway mark leading the team in catches (25) and receiving yards (438). He has become a critical downfield threat with his speed, while his pass-catching has been reliable. Junior Tavarres King (17 catches for 189 yards and three touchdowns) has been steady, while redshirt freshman Michael Bennett (11 catches for 101 yards and a touchdown) has shown good catching ability. The one disappointment is that junior Marlon Brown (five catches for 40 yards) hasn’t lived up to the preseason talk. Grade: B
Tight ends: The Bulldogs have done a much better job of getting their talented tight ends involved this year, with Orson Charles (17 catches, 266 yards and four touchdowns) serving as a major threat. Aron White (five catches for 71 yards and a touchdown) has had his moments, and even third-string Arthur Lynch has provided good blocking. Grade: A-.
Offensive line: This has been the weak point of the offense, which isn’t much of a surprise. Senior center Ben Jones was the only player returning to start at the same position, with senior Cordy Glenn shifting over to left tackle. The guards have been a rotation, and right tackle Justin Anderson has struggled, especially with false starts. The bright spot has been sophomore Dallas Lee, who wasn’t a starter when the season began. Still, the line has given up 13 sacks, and the team’s running offense (3.9 yards per rush) would probably be worse if not for Crowell’s skill. Grade: C-.
Defensive line: The individual stats aren’t much, but they don’t tell the full story. During the offseason the coaches said the addition of a sizable nose guard would make a big difference, and they’ve been proven accurate. Junior college transfer John Jenkins and sophomore Kwame Geathers have helped clog the middle so much that opponents get nothing up the middle or don’t try at all. Ends DeAngelo Tyson and Abry Jones have played well also, and Georgia’s front three is doing a great job drawing blockers, even if the tackles and sacks haven’t quite shown it. Grade: A-.
Outside linebackers: Jarvis Jones has also lived up to the hype, albeit more quietly than fellow Columbus native Crowell. The transfer from Southern California ranks second on the team in tackles (33) and sacks (three). Before his arrest and subsequent suspension, Cornelius Washington was becoming the pass-rushing force (3.5 sacks) that many envisioned when he signed. He will return after one more game, in time for the showdown with Florida. Grade: A-.
Inside linebackers: Mike Gilliard, who won the SEC defensive player of the week award on Monday, has been a revelation. Before the season began, it would have been laughable to predict the defense could thrive despite early injuries to Alec Ogletree and Christian Robinson. But after Ogletree broke his foot in the opener and Robinson missed two games with a foot injury, Gilliard and freshman Amarlo Herrera stepped in to help. (Safety Shawn Williams also moved down for a game.) Gilliard leads the team with 40 tackles, and in the 3-4 defense when an inside linebacker is the top tackler, that’s a good sign. (Last year, it was safety Bacarri Rambo). Grade: A+
Defensive backs: Georgia ranks eighth nationally in pass efficiency defense and 11th in passing yards allowed. The team has also turned around its third-down defense, going from last in the SEC last year to first this season. Coaches said they expected to be better in the secondary this year because of experience -- one senior and four juniors see the most time -- and that prediction has proved accurate, as well. Grade: A.
Place-kicking: Senior Blair Walsh won SEC special teams player of the week on Monday, but his struggles before that -- only going 6-for-12 -- were well-documented. His missed field goal against South Carolina would have gone a long way to turn around what was a three-point loss. Still, Walsh’s history means the coaching staff will retain confidence in him until his college career ends. Grade: D+
Punting: Drew Butler is so effective it’s almost taken for granted by now. The senior is averaging 4.608 punts per game, which ranks 12th in the country, and one-third of his punts have been downed inside the 20. Grade: A.
Kick returns: Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith have been about as expected bringing back kickoffs and punts, respectively. Although neither has a touchdown yet, Boykin has had several long kick returns, and each has returned a punt at least 30 yards. Grade: B+.
Coaching: Todd Grantham’s defense has shown the expected improvement in Year 2, and his mid-game adjustments at Tennessee helped seal the win. The offense, accused by fans and some media as being too vanilla, still has room for improvement. But those calling for offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s scalp have to remember the line’s woes. As for head coach Mark Richt, his steadiness paid off as the team didn’t panic after the 0-2 start. Grade: B-.