New-look Dawgs hope to escape shadow of Moreno/Stafford era
Georgia must replace two first-round draft picks in RB Moreno, QB Stafford
Look for a conservative offensive approach behind fifth-year Sr. QB Joe Cox
Best asset: experienced O-line; Biggest question: running-back-by-committee
There Georgia was, playing in front of a national audience on the worldwide leader, making its first public attempt between the hedges to usher in the post Knowshon Moreno/Matthew Stafford era. Only, there a certain pair of future first-round draft picks stood, working the sidelines, serving as "assistant" coaches for the G-Day spring game, earning nearly as much camera time as coach Mark Richt or anyone on the current roster.
As the Bulldogs completed Phase 1 of the transitional era, one thing was abundantly clear to those watching the spring practice-ending scrimmage from Sanford Stadium or afar: It's going to be awfully hard for Georgia to emerge from Moreno's and Stafford's shadows this season.
This spring, it wasn't hard to understand why. Watching Joe Cox step in for Stafford at quarterback, it was unfair but all too easy to knock Cox for not possessing the same arm strength that allowed Stafford to throw for more than 7,700 yards and 51 touchdowns. Watch Cox hand off the ball, it was unfair but all too easy to pick apart the committee of running backs vying to fill Moreno's spot for not possessing the same "Did you see that?" moves that made Moreno a two-time all-SEC first-teamer.
There's simply not a Moreno or Stafford among this year's Dawgs, but maybe that's OK. Georgia earned the preseason No. 1 ranking last season thanks to its surplus of prime talent, but wound up getting embarrassed against fellow SEC contenders Alabama (thanks to a 31-0 halftime deficit) and Florida (in a 38-point loss).
The team that takes the field this fall won't face anywhere near the pressures the 2008 team did. These Dawgs rank 14th-18th in most preseason polls and seem to be getting lost in the SEC East discussion along with every team save the Gators. Those tempered expectations could be exactly what the Bulldogs need.
"You couldn't talk about Georgia without talking about Matthew, you couldn't talk about Georgia without talking about Moreno," Richt said. "I think now that those guys are gone, the media doesn't really have any names to hold onto and talk about, and it's more of a team situation here. Because those two guys are gone, everyone, including in the media, is in agreement that the only chance Georgia has is to play together, and I think that's real healthy for our team."
There is, of course, a constant among the changes, a veteran hand at the controls.
Cox, a fifth-year senior, has been biding his time. He appeared in four games in 2006, leading the Dawgs to a come-from-behind win over Colorado with two fourth-quarter touchdowns. But after Stafford cemented himself as the starter, Cox attempted just 15 passes in the next year and a half. Now, the ball is his. Cox won't wow like Stafford did, but he'll stay within the offense and won't press. Case in point: his relatively efficient 9-for-16, 105-yard effort in the spring game that would have been better if not for some dropped passes.
"[Cox] understands [the offense] extremely well," Richt said. "He was a fantastic No. 2 quarterback because he was prepared as if he was No. 1, so he's used to preparing like he's the No .1 guy. Now that he's out on the top of the depth chart it's not an uncomfortable thing for him or the team. Our guys have the ultimate confidence in Joe and our staff does too."
Plus, history's on his side. D.J. Shockley was the last Georgia quarterback to take over for a four-year starter, and he was also a fifth-year senior. Shockley, who led the Bulldogs to an SEC title after finally grabbing the reins, has been texting and calling Cox to offer guidance as Cox tries to replicate Shockley's success.
Though the Athens brass seems confident with Cox under center, numerous questions remain regarding Moreno's old spot. With sophomore Richard Samuel out with a wrist injury, redshirt sophomore Caleb King entered the spring as the No. 1 back. But redshirt freshman Carlton Thomas impressed in the spring game, racking up 59 yards on eight carries and the game's only touchdown. Thomas has joined King at the top of the depth chart, but the competition will surely define preseason camp as Samuel returns from injury and Kalvin Daniels, Dontavius Jackson and Fred Munzenmaier vie for carries.
King, the most experienced back on the roster, ran for 247 yards and a touchdown on 61 carries last season. Though he's the closest to locking up the gig, Richt has reiterated the competition is still "wide open."
No matter who emerges from the crowded pool, it appears Georgia's going back to the running-back-by-committee system it employed with Thomas Brown and Kregg Lumpkin before Moreno's emergence. Considering Moreno took more than half the Bulldogs' carries the last two seasons, that approach could be a culture shock.
Georgia does boast some star power on offense in wide receiver A.J. Green, the returning SEC Freshman of the Year, who caught 56 balls for 963 yards and eight touchdowns last season. After Kris Durham's season-ending injury, however, it's unclear who will fill the third receiver spot alongside Green and Michael Moore.
Most important, Georgia's line, which plagued the team last season, could be its biggest offensive asset this year. In '08, the Bulldogs lost starting left tackle Trinton Sturdivant to a torn ACL in preseason camp, Kiante Tripp to a bum ankle three weeks into the season and Vince Vance to a torn ACL and injured MCL in Week 6. Georgia's longest streak with an intact line was four games.
The shuffling resulted in Clint Boling playing every position but center, freshmen Cordy Glenn and Ben Jones starting 10 games and fellow frosh Justin Anderson seven. Thanks to that unanticipated experience, Georgia's offensive line should be among the best in the SEC, barring another streak of bad luck. Eight players have started at least four games, and the toughest assignment for offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and O-line coach Stacy Searels could be figuring out which five guys to feature.
That luxury up front, coupled with Cox's relative inexperience, could spell a more conservative offensive game plan for a Georgia team that piled up 31.5 points per game last season. It won't be a surprise to see Georgia play it close to the vest and run the ball more than the 32.7 attempts it averaged in 2008, especially considering freshman Aaron Murray's 43-yard completion ended up being the spring game's longest (Cox longest pass was a 35-yard flea flicker).
A lack of high-powered offense won't necessarily be a problem, though. Back in 2002, Georgia won its first SEC title in 20 years with a 49th-ranked offense and a top-15 defense. If the spring is any indication, this defense could actually be better than last year's group, which ranked 22nd nationally. The Bulldogs managed 10 sacks in the G-Day game, nearly half their 2008 season total, but it's unclear if they'll be able to bring that same pass rush in a stiff Week 1 challenge against a likely top 10 Oklahoma State squad.
One thing's certain with this Georgia team, though: The expectations won't be anything like those previously heaped on the shoulders of two future first-round picks, and to hear Richt, that's an almost welcome change.
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