I am an optimist. Always have been. It works for me. I have friends who are pessimists. Seems fairly miserable, but to each his own. In the past few days, my stolid skepticism from the off-season is magically morphing into guarded optimism. I am not prone to irrational exuberance, but I am pleased with this emerging optimism which will, of course, on Saturday afternoon explode into an indestructible runaway freight train of bullet-proof invincibility. But for the next 48 hours or so, it will remain as reasonable, logic oriented guarded optimism. Here are 10 points that give me optimism (go elsewhere if you want to find a list of reasons for pessimism):
1. Aaron Murray was pushing the 70% completion mark last season and has benefited from another spring and fall camp. It is reasonable to assume that he has a better grasp of our offense and is better at reading defenses than he was last year. If the game continues to "slow down" for him, then his personal goal of breaking the 70% mark is within reach which would bode very well for our ability to sustain drives and open up the running game.
2. Orson Charles will see more balls this year and will continue to create mismatches for opposing defenders. Despite the fact that AJ Green is gone, I believe that Orson will continue to get open and catch balls in space with room to run.
The same is true for Aron White. Then, as a semi-secret weapon, Arthur Lynch can also catch and run and will likely be overlooked by defenders assuming that he is in the game to block with his imposing 275 pound frame. Lastly, Bruce Figgins can haul in passes on fullback routes, especially screens, and will be a load to tackle at 275 pounds. I have always been partial to tight ends and we have an embarrassment of riches with these four talented guys.
3. Ben Jones. When your center is likely the meanest SOB on the team, it's a good thing.
4. Jarvis Jones has the potential to help ease to pain of losing Justin Houston to the NFL. Justin led the team in tackles for loss (19.5) and sacks (11) and Jarvis steps into his shoes at outside linebacker. With his dreadlocks, Jarvis resembles Marcus Howard. Let's hope is play is comparable to either Howard or Houston and if it is, opposing QBs are in the crosshairs. (Side note - am I the only one that keeps inadvertently saying Jarvis Jackson instead of Jarvis Jones?)
5. Alec Ogletree. If you are blind, but not deaf, you will know when Alec makes the tackle. The thud can be heard in the stands or through the television. Think Rennie Curran, only taller.
6. The Brandon/Branden tandem. Speed kills. Speed on the turf kills faster. Boise may not kick it deep to Brandon Boykin, but any time they do, he is a legitimate threat to go coast to coast. Hopefully Branden Smith will be close to 100% recovered from his foot injury. We will need him. I think that the odds are good that one of these guys comes up with a pick six sometime this season, the sooner the better.
7. Strength and Conditioning. Coach Joe Tereshinski can be a scary dude. When players would rather practice with nagging injuries than spend the practice in "The Pit" with Joe T... your S&C program has improved. Plus we added a nutritionist and team tables which means a lot less McDonald's and Waffle House, presumably.
8. Tavarres King averaged 18.67 yards per catch last season with 27 receptions. In his freshman season he averaged 20.94 with 18 receptions. This year he is relishing the opportunity to be the top receiving threat. It isn't possible to replace the impact of having AJ Green on the field, but Tavarres is a legitimate deep threat and Murray can work on his 70% goal by hitting TK in stride on some deep balls.
9. Coach Todd Grantham. You want fiery, you got it. You want intensity, you got it. You want Erk Russell back? Come on, get real. But, if you want a return to the defensive success we had under Brian Van Gorder... stand by because there is enough talent on this defense to make it happen.
(Image by Jim Hipple)
10. You didn't think I would leave him out did you? "Jaws will drop." If you don't know what that means, you soon will.
You know, I think I could begin the analysis of every team, every season starting with this post. The bottom line is, if you don't have talent in the Big Ugly department, you aren't going to win any championships.
I have said it many times and I will continue to say it as long as it remains relevant... a winning season begins in the middle of the defensive line. Boom. That is not novel but it is indisputable. For best evidence please see: Glenn Dorsey, LSU National Champs 2007; Terrence Cody, Alabama, 2009 National Champs; Nick Fairley, Auburn, 2010 National Champs. If you can wreak havoc from the nose guard position, every other position on defense becomes more productive. It comes down to this basic tenet... if you can get a serious push from the nose and draw two blockers there, you will have an end, linebacker or safety running free to make a stop at or behind the line of scrimmage. It's not rocket science... it's not even economics (which apparently is harder than rocket science). The outside rush and the ability to have a safety free in run support both come down to solid nose guard play. We struggled at this position last year, but this year we have two bonafide 350 pound players sharing snaps at this position, Kwame Geathers and John Jenkins. And that will be the starting point of the turnaround for this defense.
Whether Jarvis Jones or Sanders Commings has a great season depends greatly on the play at nose guard. A disruptive force in the middle creates opportunities for the rest of the defense. This is true whether we are playing a wide open passing offense like Boise State or the triple option of Georgia Tech. In passing situations, if we get a sufficient push from the middle then the QB can't step up in the pocket... which means he can't easily step into the throw, has to throw early or has to move. If we get a strong rush from the edge, moving is not much of an option so that leaves a hurried throw as the alternative to a sack. Naturally, hurried throws lead to less accurate throws. The progression doesn't happen as described if the push from the middle is weak. We should see marked improvement in our 3rd down pass defense based on this position alone. On run defense, it comes down to hats on hats and if they need two men to block the nose, we have an extra hat running free. Stopping a guy like Marcus Lattimore begins with solid play at nose guard.
Conversely, the success of our offense can reliably be linked to the soundness of our center. If our center is solid and he can communicate effectively down the line of scrimmage, we are in the best position as an offensive unit. A strong center makes the guards and tackles better. We are going to need that this year. This translates to both our running game and passing game.
Based on the guy we have snapping the football and the two behemoths at nose guard, I am optimistic about our chances to win the SEC East this season. Obviously four year starter, Ben Jones, is a beast at center. He performed exceptionally well against Terrence Cody as a true freshman and has only gotten better. As such, he is currently viewed as the top NFL prospect at center in the nation. We couldn't ask for more from this position and we will receive a great effort this season from one of this team's most ardent leaders.And on the defensive front, the emergence of Kwame Geathers and the addition of John Jenkins has added a dimension that was wholly absent from last year's squad. This addition will be more than enough to elevate the play of our ends, linebackers and safeties. These improvements will be the hallmark of our success on defense in 2011.
In my narrow view... if you want some reason for optimism about the 2011 season, look no farther than the middle of both lines. Exceptional play there equates to exceptional results on the scoreboard. Every time.
In 2005, Boise State came to Athens as the underdog and fashionable upset pick among the football talking heads. D.J. Shockley and company sent the Broncos home looking more like minidonks after a 48-13 woodshedding. However, you can toss that piece of information out with the morning coffee grounds because the 2011 Boise State team is coming to Atlanta as favorites and again they are the fashionable pick among the football talking heads. So Georgia is the underDawg in this contest and nobody but nobody expects Little Georgia to beat Mighty Boise. Do you realize how utterly ridiculous that last statement is and yet it is true. And you can even imagine Larry Munson saying it with a straight face.
Boise comes in ranked #5 in the AP Poll while Georgia is at #19. Las Vegas has Boise as a 3.5 point favorite despite the game being played 2172 miles from Boise in the Georgia Dome. Since their embarrassing loss to Georgia in 2005, the Broncos have fared very well in openers against major conference foes like Oregon (twice) and Virginia Tech. Meanwhile, since the Dawgs dominated Boise in 2005, Georgia has managed to lose to Oklahoma State, Colorado and Central Florida. The roles are clearly reversed from that game 6 years ago.
If you will recall, when Oklahoma State came to Athens in 2007, the Dawgs handled them fairly easily. But when we went to Stillwater in 2009, we had a lackluster performance and lost. I believe that our team felt that by just showing up, they could beat the Cowboys and after marching the length of the field for a touchdown on the first possession, they mailed it in and failed to play much for the remainder of the game. I bring this up because I think that particular reversal of fortunes should be instructive for our team as we prepare for Boise. Though none of our current roster was on the team when Boise came to Athens, the memory of that game is still fresh in the minds of Dawgnation. It may create a tendency for fans to be overconfident or to underestimate Boise State, but there can be no way that our team is taking them lightly or will be overconfident. There should not be another Oklahoma State (2009) or Colorado performance this coming Saturday. By the same logic, however, all Boise State's Coach Chris Petersen has to do to get his player's attention is to point to the results of the 2005 game. I do not believe we can expect that team to come into the Dome overconfident and under-prepared. No, this will be a game in which both teams have tons of motivation and much to prove. Georgia wants to show that they have gotten the ox out of the ditch and Boise wants to show yet again that they can compete with teams from the automatic qualifier conferences.
I think the 3.5 point spread in favor of Boise State is fair. I am glad we are playing them in the Georgia Dome. This is the perfect opportunity for the Dawgs to announce that they are back... if in fact, the Dawgs are back. Are these underdogs WonderDawgs?
On Game Day, I will be visiting a couple of tailgates. One is the TweetGate being organized by Ludakrisi for our Dawg Tweeps. And the other is the Shepherd Spinal Center S.H.A.R.E. tailgate with proceeds benefiting a program that provides rehabilitation and community-based care to U.S. military service members who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. I look forward to seeing my fellow Dawgs before, during and after the game. Between now and Saturday, I will have more to say about our team and the game. But for now, I am fired up that we are merely days away from live action. Remember to Spread-the-Red this Saturday. Go DAWGS. GATA!
By now, everyone has surely seen the wonderful video recently released that will serve as an advertisement for UGA. In the song that accompanies the video, REM sing that "This place is the beat of my heart" while the text reads "You may leave, but it never leaves you."
There are three places in the world where these words ring truly nostalgic in my heart: my parents' home in Douglas; the classic city of Athens; and the U.S. Naval Academy.
All three are inextricably woven into the fabric of my life. My parents met in Athens and I grew up listening to their stories about their time at UGA. Some of my favorite childhood memories are from cool fall Saturdays in Athens tailgating with my family, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends and friends of friends. My grandfather's brother, Howell Hollis, who coached golf at UGA for many years, provided us with some of the best seats in Sanford Stadium. I usually sat next to my mom's younger brothers, Howell Hollis (named after our Uncle Howell of course) and Bo Hollis. They were in high school then and were essentially de facto babysitters. During halftime, they would take my brother and me to go slide down the hills adjacent to the end zone under the railroad tracks. For you young folks, that last line made no sense. Haha. The games were always the highlight of the trip but the entire experience of tailgating, seeing family, playing on the hills, throwing those little plastic footballs and barking for the Dawgs combined for my bred-in-the-bone connection to Athens, Sanford Stadium and the team I love.
On Thanksgiving weekends we would stay in Atlanta at my grandparents' home and go to the UGA vs Ga Tech freshmen game that was linked the Scottish Rite Hospital in some fund-raising capacity I believe. That is another sentence that will make no sense to the young ones. We would also go to the varsity game. On Thanksgiving Day we would enjoy the Dallas-Washington game on TV while I pulled for my favorite pro football player, Roger Staubach (USNA grad incidentally - see how this starts coming together?)
But... perhaps the most memorable game every Thanksgiving was the family Turkey Bowl. In Atlanta, we would play on this unusual triangular patch of grass that was nestled between three streets in front of my grandparents' home. My mom and dad, brother, sister, uncles and some of their friends would join the game which somehow always ended in a tie (to prevent 364 days of trash talking.)
In 1975 my Uncle Howell enrolled at the Naval Academy (see a pattern?) while Uncle Bo enrolled at Ga Tech (please hold the boos and hisses.) After my grandfather passed away in 1978, our Thanksgiving tradition moved to Douglas where the Turkey Bowl Game continued and thrived. By the mid '80's Uncle Howell's wife and three kids were on the field.
By 1984, both My brother Drew and I were Midshipmen at the Naval Academy (see what I mean?) and coming home for Thanksgiving was one of the highlights of every year. Sadly, Uncle Howell passed away a few years ago, but the Turkey Bowl Game still includes my mom and dad, Uncle Bo and his wife and son, my brother and his wife and 5 children, my sister and her husband and 3 children and my wife and our two children, and me, and usually some friends and occasionally some stragglers. In my 45 years, I have been away from family on Thanksgiving twice: in 1990 I was in Subic Bay Philippines after 92 consecutive days at sea in the Persian Gulf and in 1991 I was stationed in San Diego and unable to get home. When I was in the Gulf, my aunt videotaped the Turkey Bowl game and mailed me a copy in a care package - so I didn't miss the game completely.
Important note... after blistering the Ga Tech curriculum for 4 years, Uncle Bo finally got his butt over to Athens for Law School and his 3 years of law school coincided with the three years that #34 stalked the goal line - and coincided with my high school years.
On many weekends during this era, I would play my HS football game on Friday night and leave Douglas at 5:00 am Saturday to get into Athens by 9:00 to meet Uncle Bo to watch Herschel run over people. And for the past 15 years, Uncle Bo and I have sat together in section 127.
Because I was wise, I became a Navy Supply Officer and got to spend the 1988 football season, Vince Dooley's twilight season, as a student at the Navy Supply School in Athens. Then I came back in 1992 to be an instructor. In 1993 I started law school in Athens and in 1994 my brother started law school in Athens. I met my wife in Athens and proposed to her on the steps of the beautiful Chapel on North Campus. And now my kids love the Athens game day experience and so it goes.
I know this post rambled on, which is appropriate because I am a rambling man, but here is the clincher. My heart swells with pride and my eyes tear up every single time I hear the Redcoat Marching Band playing the first notes of Fanfare on a game day and then again when the Dawgs run onto the field. The same thing happens when I watch the Midshipmen march onto the field before a game and when the players and the brigade sing Blue and Gold at the end of the game.
It also happens when I walk through the main gate at the Naval Academy after being away too long. It happens when I hear the national anthem. It even happens when Zsu Zsu hears the bell ring. And it happens every time I think about my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving and how much the family tradition means to me and our family and how it has evolved over the past 45 years. Without question, home, Athens and Annapolis are places that I have left, but they will never leave me. Oh my heart, oh my heart indeed.