ATHENS – OK, so yesterday was a little unusual in terms of practice coverage. Normally Georgia would conduct a workout, I’d attend the media observation period early on along with other reporters and file a quick report afterward based on what I’d seen, then write some stories based on post-practice interviews.
As coach Mark Richt said, the Bulldogs “tried something different” yesterday. They practiced at Sanford Stadium and invited the UGA student body to come to watch. Thankfully, they invited the media to come as well, but that came with several preconditions. We could not take pictures or video, we could not put what we were seeing on Twitter or other social media and we couldn’t write about what we’d seen until after we met with Richt.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to meet with Richt until about 8:30 last night. UGA had us conduct pre-requested player interviews before we met with Richt, and that delayed further getting the news of the day out to you guys quicker and put me firmly on deadline to get something filed for print.
That’s probably more than you care to know about the behind-the-scenes workings in the sports communications business. I just wanted to share it to explain the lack of information flow late yesterday afternoon.
So now, let me share some more of the observations from yesterday’s rare opportunity to see some extensive 11-on-11 work by the Bulldogs:
- First, with regard to the student participation, I was surprised there weren’t more there. Of course, it was just the second day of fall semester, and Georgia didn’t give them much notice. The Bulldogs sent out an invitation via email blast Tuesday morning. They enticed them with the promise of t-shirts water and pizza. I can’t vouch all that was delivered but I assume it was. … Based on crude estimates, I would say several hundred to 1,000 students came out. But it was hard to tell. Most of the students wisely sat in the shadows at the top of the sun-scorched lower-level stands on the north side. And a relatively small crowd like that gets swallowed in a 92,000-seat facility.
- After the practice, Richt was handed a microphone. He thanked the students for coming out and encouraged them to come early and be rowdy for the Aug. 30 season opener against Clemson. “Let’s give Clemson the same kind of welcome they gave us last year,” he said, referring to last year’s 38-35 loss at raucous Memorial Stadium. Then they watched a highlight video on the jumbo-tron.
- The obvious news of the day was Georgia’s defensive personnel and the makeup of the secondary in particular. As I detailed in yesterday’s report, the Bulldogs’ had three rookies and a walk-on in their starting lineup.
- Aaron Davis, a redshirt freshman walkon from Locust Grove, lined up at free safety with the No. 1 defense. Davis has been one of Georgia’s big stories for 2014 and is not your ordinary walkon. He exited spring practice as the starter at boundary corner, moved to safety early in preseason camp and presently is a starter there.
- Shattle Fenteng was the starter at the boundary corner. This is less of a surprise. Fenteng, a graduate of Grayson High School, was rated the No. 1 cornerback in junior college when he was at Hutchinson Community College last year. There was some question if he was going to come through when he was sidelined for a week with a shoulder injury the second week of camp. But the 6-foot-2, 187-pound athlete appears to have rebounded nicely and certainly looks the part of an SEC cornerback.
- The big surprise, certainly for me, was the presence of Dominick Sanders as the starter at the “Star,” or nickelback, position. Sanders was probably the least heralded of Georgia’s four defensive back signees. He came from Tucker as a 3-star prospect and was actually rated the 73rd-best recruit in the state of Georgia by 247Sports.com. But the buzz about this 6-foot, 187-pound athlete began back in the summer and has continued throughout camp. Interestingly, he has emerged at a position that at one time appeared to be locked down by converted tailback J.J. Green. Green’s now working at second-team safety, while also getting some work at Star.
- To no one’s surprise, seniors Damian Swann and Corey Moore hold down the other two secondary positions. Freshmen Rico Johnson and Malkom Parrish were working with the second-string defense at cornerback and appear slated for playing time. In fact, Johnson, a converted wideout, had a pick-six late in the practice.
- Sophomore Leonard Floyd was one of very few players in a green non-contact jersey but still participated in most of the practice. Normally the starting outside linebacker opposite of Jordan Jenkins, Floyd was instead replaced on the No. 1 defense by the Lorenzo Carter. Carter is, of course, the 6-6, 237-pound 5-star signee out of Norcross. Floyd’s backup this season was expected to be Davin Bellamy and may still be. But Bellamy will miss the first two games due to a suspension for a DUI arrest this summer. However, Richt said, “either way Lorenzo is going to play. He’s had a good camp.”
- The defensive line situation was kind of hard to figure. I hardly ever saw the Bulldogs line up in a traditional three- or four-man front, with a nose, tackle and end. Sometimes Jenkins was in a stance at an end position and often an end like Sterling Bailey or Josh Dawson was lineup inside as a 3-technique tackle. The one consistency I saw was senior Mike Thornton was almost always the nose with the No. 1 defense and looked very quick and effective in that role. Big John Atkins also stood out and even came up with an interception off a batted pass at one point. This is going to be a very interesting group to watch under Tracy Rocker’s tutelage.
- Offensively, I didn’t think there were that many revelations. Richt talked afterward out the offensive line still being unsettled, but it appeared pretty settled to me. Junior John Theus was entrenched at left tackle with the No. 1 unit, with sophomore Brandon Kublanow at left guard, David Andrews at center, Greg Pyke at right guard and Kolton Houston at right tackle. Your main subs appeared to be Watts Dantzler at right tackle and Mark Beard at left tackle, with Houston moving over to left guard. To me, Houston at left guard and Dantzler at right tackle looks like a more formidable SEC line. But you can be certain coach Will Friend is going to put the best five on the field.
- Yesterday at least, Quayvon Hicks was the starter at tight end, with Jay Rome running second team and freshmen Jeb Blazevich and Jordan Davis switching in and out after that. Richt made it clear that the Bulldogs have been very pleased with what Hicks, a converted fullback, is bringing to that position as well as the hybrid H-back role they’ve built for him. He also emphasized that Rome is “fighting for playing time.”
- Who the No. 2 quarterback is remains unresolved, based on what I saw. Redshirt sophomore Faton Bauta and redshirt freshman Brice Ramsey were fully alternating reps with the Nos. 2 and 3 offenses and I saw nothing to distinguish one as better than the other. It’ll probably come as no surprise to know that Ramsey throws a very impressive ball, while Bauta looks like he could be a real threat to run the ball.
- I’ll also say this: Don’t sleep on Hutson Mason’s ability to move with the ball in his hands. He looks more comfortable and confident in the pocket and showed some genuine elusiveness, I thought.
- Based on what I saw, Georgia plans to play all those tailbacks. Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, Brendan Douglas, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb — in that order — all got carries with the Nos. 1 and 2 offenses. How that might translate to an in-game rotation, I couldn’t tell you and I’m not sure the coaches could either, at this point. I’m telling you, Michel and Chubb both look really good when it comes to quickness and vision. I can’t vouch for their grasp of the playbook, but they flat out look good carrying a football.
- Marshall looks really good, too, like his old self. He is somebody I’ve requested to talk to the entire preseason. But I’m told he simply doesn’t want to do any interviews as he prepares for the season just eight months after major knee surgery and I respect that. Maybe he won’t have a choice but to talk after having a huge day against Clemson.
- It was evident that kicker Marshall Morgan has improved a lot on kickoffs. He was sending every one I saw high and seven or eight yards deep in the end zone. He’s also had a great camp on placement kicks. He was 9-for-9 in Friday night’s scrimmage, with another plus-50 field goal. Looks to be quite the weapon for the Dogs this year.
- I was not very impressed with Collin Barber’s punting Tuesday, or Adam Erickson, for that matter. Barber had regained his starting job from Erickson after losing it the last half of this past season. But it looks to me like he still has some kinks to work out.
- Freshman Isaiah McKenzie was the first up on kickoff returns but second on punt returns behind sophomore Reggie Davis. Even though the Bulldogs weren’t tackling live on special teams, you could see the electricity everybody refers to when the little guy from Fort Lauderdale starts up the field. He’s going to be a fun one to watch.
So that’s a little bit more of a comprehensive review than I was able to give under last night’s harried conditions. Feel free to ask some questions in the comments section and I’ll try to provide an answer.
On that note, remember that I’ll be conducting a live “UGA Mailbag Chat” — brought to you by Kroger — here on the website tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. And I’ll be doing that every Thursday throughout the season.
See you then.