Saturday represented one of the most anticipated season openers in recent memory for the University of Georgia. Between the hire of Jeremy Pruitt and the revamping of the defensive staff, to the return of Todd Gurley and a whole stable of wide receivers, Georgia fans are right to be optimistic about 2014.
For me personally, the roughly three and a half hours I spent at Sanford Stadium on Saturday became the most enjoyable time that I’ve spent there since the Auburn win 2011.
Walking into the stadium, I figured that I only knew for sure that we’d play five players on defense: Damian Swann, Corey Moore, Jordan Jenkins, Leonard Floyd, and Amarlo Herrera. The rest of the depth chart was certainly kept under wraps through August. Maybe Shattle Fenteng, Malkom Parrish, Rico Johnson, and Dominick Sanders would play virtually all of our meaningful snaps. Maybe they would play none. For me personally, that level of intrigue over who all would be on the field added to the excitement in the minutes leading up to the kick.
Offensively, I didn’t hate the lack of usage of Todd Gurley in the first half as much as some fans that I’ve heard. Sure, I was frustrated with it at the time, but it was a very hot day, and I liked the prospect of having a fresh Todd Gurley in the 2nd half. Besides, had Gurley not returned that kickoff for a TD, he probably would have had 7-9 first half carries, which seems a lot more reasonable than the 4 he ended up with.
I was surprised at the early and often usage of Isaiah McKenzie on offense. I figured that he was going to be a receiver in name only, similar to Devin Hester’s years with the Bears, but with a few guys banged up I found it encouraging that McKenzie apparently knows enough of the offense to get on the field. His explosiveness is evident and I expect that he’ll eventually take over the punt returning duties.
Sony Michel appears to be our second best running back at this time. I really like Michel’s fluidity, and he seems to have an awesome first step. Also, it looks like his vision is easily the second best behind Gurley, as well. Michel’s first game action saw his line up as a wide receiver and I’d imagine that we’ll see him line up there from time to time. Periodically, we would split Danny Ware out wide in 2005, so it would hardly be unprecedented to use Michel that way.
At this point, I’m not sure what to make of Keith Marshall. If there was a negative spot with the offense, it was probably #4. To be fair, after missing the latter half of last season, I’m sure that Marshall was over-eager to make a play Saturday. And also, we probably didn’t use him in the best manner either. He’s not an inside runner and won’t ever be. Nor is he interchangeable with Todd Gurley, but we seem to use him (sometimes) as if he is. I have no doubt that Keith Marshall is going to help us win a game at some point this year, but Saturday was disappointing.
Also, I think it’s fair to question whether we can really throw the football down the field. We seemed to have an “east/west” passing game on Saturday and didn’t really attempt any shots down the field. With Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley on the shelf, we didn’t have much of a “deep threat” on the field Saturday, but still, I would feel better about the offense knowing that we can throw down the field. I don’t believe that it’s hyperbole to claim to that Todd Gurley is the best player in America, nor do I think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that this is our deepest stable of tailbacks to play together under Richt. Defensive coordinators in this league are paid a lot of money to stop opposing offenses, and their job is only going to be easier if we demonstrate that we lack a vertical passing game.
On the defensive side, Saturday was as big of a 180 as I can recall from one season to the next. Even with Clemson scoring three times in the first half, you could still see plenty of encouraging signs. Players taking good angles, players tackling well, and most importantly, forcing the other guy to make a real feat of athleticism to move the football. Think about Clemson’s big plays in the first half. None of them appeared to happen because we were confused or didn’t get the call in enough time. We made Clemson earn what they got. That was very pleasing.
I’ll confess that I don’t know a great deal about Aaron Davis, but I understand that he was being recruited by several schools in high school prior to sustaining a knee injury that caused everyone to back off. I don’t view him as a prototypical “walk-on”, and I think Saturday demonstrated that he has SEC level talent. Interestingly, this was the third consecutive game against Clemson that we started a walk-on at safety (Tra Battle in 2003 and Conor Norman in 2013). I have a very hard time imagining Tray Matthews making the interception on the play where Davis did, Davis simply read the ball better and had much better burst to it than I ever saw from Matthews.
Last year, on a historically bad defense with the weakest link being the secondary, Devin Bowman was apparently still not talented enough to see the field for a meaningful snap until the bowl game. I’d estimate that he played 80% of the snaps Saturday and I thought he played very well. He was “beaten” on one pass down the visitor sideline, but I thought that he had good position and defended it as well as possible. Sometimes I wonder if the previous defensive coordinator had an “agenda” against certain players, and I see Bowman as a good case in support.
Without watching the replay or combing over the play by play chart, I thought that our defense generally performed better with Reggie Carter or Tim Kimbrough playing in place of Ramik Wilson. I thought that Amarlo Herrera played a fantastic game as well and was happy to see him win SEC Defensive Player of the Week today.
Our usage of Damian Swann was very interesting. We started lining him up at safety or even what looked to be a deep linebacker spot on 3rd downs. That made a lot of sense to me. You’ve acknowledged Swann as the most instinctual player on your defense. I like the idea of putting him in the middle of field and simply allowing him to read the play, on 3rd down.
Finally, I loved seeing our corners play up on Clemson’s wide receivers. No more 8 yard cushions.
The second half reminded me of the Kentucky game in 2002. In that one, we went into halftime down 24-21. The 2nd half was one of the most dominant displays of Mark Richt’s career as we outscored the Cats 31-0 to nail down a 52-24 win. As the bell rang on that one, you almost forgot how close it was in the first half.
The game Saturday also reminded me of the opener in 2007 against Oklahoma State, where we traded touchdowns early before pulling away and winning 35-14. That was the last “pretty” win (or last win, in general) that we had against a legitimate opponent to open the season.
Both 2002 and 2007 were “special” seasons in Athens. Based on what I saw Saturday, it’s absolutely reasonable to expect 2014 to be a “special” campaign as well.