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July 30, 2009
THE SCHEME: Though more and more college football teams have gone to the spread, Mark Richt has remained steadfast with a pro-set offense that includes a tight end. He will also use a fullback, a position that has almost become obsolete. The Bulldogs have averaged more than 30 points per game the past two seasons.
STAR POWER: A.J. Green proved to be something special last season with 56 catches for nearly 1,000 yards. That was as a freshman and not necessarily as the first option for the quarterback. No doubt, he'll be the top target this year. He has great size, excellent speed and good hands. His numbers could spike significantly this year. That is, if Georgia's quarterbacks get him the ball consistently.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The tight end has been frequently used in Richt's offense, although that wasn't the case last year. More production from the tight end is needed. True freshman Orson Charles could provide it. Heavily recruited, Charles has great speed, size and big-play ability.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Caleb King arrived in Athens two years ago as a small but highly regarded and elusive running back with great speed. He has bulked up to 210 pounds, but he didn't gain many more yards than that as a backup to Knowshon Moreno. It's King's time to get the bulk of the carries. He could be the Bulldogs' next 1,000-yard rusher, which is no small accomplishment under Richt, who frequently has chosen to divide carries among multiple runners.
STRONGEST AREA: Georgia returns five players who started at least seven games in the offensive line last year. That does not include tackles Trinton Sturdivant and Vince Vance, who were wracked by injuries. With their return, Georgia's line is upgraded in talent and is ridiculously deep, especially at tackle, where junior Clint Boling patrols. Somebody figures to move inside to guard, but who? The Bulldogs could be as good up front in '09 as Alabama was in '08.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Remember the old line that potential means you haven't done it yet? That sums up the situation in the Georgia backfield. The replacements for first-round draft choices Matthew Stafford and Moreno have ability but are unproven. Senior QB Joe Cox has passed for 432 yards and five touchdowns, primarily as a career backup to Stafford. Meanwhile, King rushed for just 247 yards while spelling Moreno last season. King and sophomore Richard Samuel may be used in tandem at running back, but together they've produced 380 career yards. That was a month's work for Moreno. Optimism abounds that the quarterback and running back positions will be in good hands. But there will be some angst until Cox, King and Samuel show they can excel in larger roles.
THE SCHEME: Georgia uses a traditional four-man front with three linebackers. The Bulldogs have ranked no lower than 22nd in total defense every year since 2002.
STAR POWER: At 5-11 and 228 pounds, junior LB Rennie Curran isn't the biggest linebacker around, but he's among the most productive. He's fast, tough and instinctive, and he used those qualities to accumulate 115 tackles last season - second most in the SEC.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Look for five-star CB Branden Smith to play right away as a true freshman. He has phenomenal speed and has already been compared to Georgia legend Champ Bailey. Smith might not start immediately, but he's too good of an athlete not to be on the field. He'll likely show up in nickel packages. He might get some work at wide receiver, too.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Sophomore DE Justin Houston was a solid backup last season when he posted 19 tackles, 2½ sacks and was credited with 17 quarterback hurries. He had a strong spring and was named the most improved defensive end. The Bulldogs are hoping he can carry that momentum into the season and provide a much-needed pass rush from the edge.
STRONGEST AREA: Running inside won't come easily against the Bulldogs. A three-man rotation of Jeff Owens, who is coming back from injury, Geno Atkins and Kade Weston all have NFL potential. Last year, Atkins posted 34 tackles and 7½ tackles for loss. He should be even better with Owens playing beside him.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Bulldogs managed only 24 sacks last season - that's 18 fewer than in 2007. More than half of those sacks last season came in just three games. Georgia obviously needs a more consistent rush, but Curran is the returning leader in sacks with just three. DE Demarcus Dobbs and Houston combined for just 4½ in '08. The Bulldogs need to develop an outside rush quickly with Oklahoma State, South Carolina and Arkansas on the early schedule.
Some work needs to be done here. K Blair Walsh can connect from beyond 50 yards, but he isn't that reliable inside 40. He converted just 15-of-23 attempts last season, though two were blocked. Drew Butler will take over the punting chores after averaging 35.7 yards in a backup role last season. The Bulldogs were mediocre at best last year in kick coverage. They figure to get some help on kickoff coverage with the arrival of Brandon Bogotay, who has the ability to reach the end zone on kickoffs. On the plus side, Prince Miller is dangerous on punt returns.
Georgia has captured at least eight victories in eight seasons under Richt. In fact, the Bulldogs have posted double-digit victory totals in six of the last seven seasons. His .788 winning percentage is among the best for active coaches. Former Georgia quarterback Mike Bobo took over as offensive coordinator in 2007, and Georgia has averaged more than 30 points per game both seasons. He benefits from working with offensive line coach Stacy Searels, who is one of the best. Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez has fielded consistently strong units, but has been under fire after the Bulldogs allowed 38 or more points in five games last season.
Not since falling to Southern Miss in 1996 has Georgia lost its first game. That 12-year streak is in serious jeopardy. The Bulldogs open on the road against explosive Oklahoma State, which is a strong championship contender in the Big 12. That sets up a demanding first month with Georgia also facing South Carolina, Arkansas and Arizona State - all expected to be significantly improved - to finish up September. The schedule doesn't end much easier with a road game against state rival Georgia Tech. There could be a benefit with an open date prior to the annual Jacksonville grudge match against defending national champion Florida.
Any apprehension concerning Georgia's outlook this year is understandable. Stafford, Moreno and DB Asher Allen departed early for the NFL, leaving some big holes to fill. Yet, there is much reason for cautious optimism in Athens. The injury-riddled offensive line of a year ago is now healthy and deep with Sturdivant and Vance returning. Georgia's offensive line should be among the best in the country and will help ease the loss of Moreno. King and Samuel are talented enough to take advantage of the running lanes the line will provide. Cox hasn't gotten a lot of playing time at quarterback, but he knows the system, should be well protected and can throw to Green, one of the best receivers in the SEC. Improvement is needed defensively, and Owens' return from injury should ensure it. However, more production from the defensive ends and better play in the secondary is needed. Although Georgia isn't likely to topple Florida in the SEC East, the Bulldogs still have a chance to reach 10 victories for the seventh time in Richt's tenure.