For a player who has been injured often over the last two years, flanker Fred Gibson seems to be tempting fate with his favorite training drill. The senior wraps up practices by taking on a machine that hurls footballs at speeds up to 50 mph. Starting from 10 yards out, Gibson moves closer to the machine with each catch until he?s grabbing bullets point-blank from five feet. ?A lot of guys try it and jump out of the way,? says receivers coach John Eason. ?It makes me cringe when I see him do it. He could break a finger.?
He already has--and more. In 2001 the lanky 6'4" Waycross, Ga., native raised expectations as a freshman, leading the team with 772 receiving yards on 33 catches (23.4 yards per reception), but various ailments have limited his production since. First there was a thumb injury as a sophomore, when he caught 43 passes for 758 yards. Then last year, after rolling up 185 receiving yards on nine catches in the first two games, he suffered, in succession, a pulled hamstring, a bruised left knee and a fractured ring finger. He finished with 36 catches for 553 yards and three touchdowns. ?I hope it?s all out of my system,? he says of the injuries. ?At the beginning of last season I was dominant, and then nothing made sense. I?ve got a lot to prove this year.?
In doing so he would boost the national championship aspirations of the Bulldogs, who have 10 offensive starters back from last year?s 11?3 squad, including senior Heisman Trophy candidate David Greene at quarterback and 6'4", 348-pound junior All-America hopeful Max Jean-Gilles at right tackle. With the running game in the hands of emerging--but still unproven--sophomore Kregg Lumpkin, Greene and coach Mark Richt need Gibson to stretch opposing defenses. Indeed, with five catches for 129 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game, Gibson appeared ready to live up to his billing as one of the top receivers in the nation. ?Fred?s so natural in the way he runs post patterns,? says Greene. ?He has a natural weave, and he knows just when to break them off. When he?s 100 percent, he can be as good as anybody.?
If Gibson is a better player this year, it might be due in part to his spending the summer working out on campus with teammates for the first time. As a freshman and sophomore, in addition to playing football, he was also a reserve shooting guard on the Georgia basketball team, and he worked on both games at home during the summer. But after riding the bench for two seasons he gave up basketball, and last summer he eschewed the Bulldogs? off-season training programs to work with a personal fitness coach in Atlanta. This year, at Richt?s urging, Gibson stuck around Athens and lifted weights with his teammates, bulking up from 196 pounds to 205. ?I?m looking to be more of a leader this year,? says Gibson.
?He?s much more a part of what we?re doing, and you can see a big difference,? says Richt. ?He didn?t have a lot of strength and stamina to draw on at times last year. Now he?s stronger, more confident, has stamina--everything.?
If Gibson and the rest of the offense put up as many points as expected, the lead will be protected by a defense that last season ranked third in the nation in points allowed per game (14.5) and fourth in yards (276.9), and could be even better this year. Georgia fans were relieved to hear in January that All-America defensive end David Pollack was passing up the NFL draft and returning for his senior season. Joining him up front will be 2002 starter Will Thompson, a 6'3", 240-pound senior end who missed last season with a broken leg. His return should free Pollack to become a dominant pass rusher again. (Pollack?s sack total dropped from 14 in 2002 to 7 1?2 last fall.) The Bulldogs also have all three starters back at linebacker, including All-SEC middle linebacker Odell Thurman, who had a team-high 18 1?2 tackles for loss in ?03. Pressure on the passer by the front seven will help a secondary that has three new starters joining second-team All-America free safety Thomas Davis.
All of that sets up the Oct. 2 game between Georgia and LSU at Sanford Stadium as one of the season?s most important matchups. In 2003 the co?national champion Tigers beat the Bulldogs 17?10 in a September thriller in Baton Rouge and then 34?13 three months later in the SEC championship game. Georgia?s third loss was to Florida, which beat the Dawgs for the sixth time in a row and the 13th time in the last 14 meetings, 16?13. The game was especially difficult for Gibson, who dropped three crucial passes after sitting out practice all week with a bruised knee. ?That game was disheartening for him,? says Eason. ?He hadn?t practiced, and at this level you can?t just turn it on and turn it off. He found that out.?
With Greene vying for the Heisman and the team for No. 1, Gibson should be in line for end-of-season honors as well, if he stays healthy and fulfills his new role as a team leader. He thinks he?s up to the job. ?This year?s team is going to be something special,? he says. ?We just need to stick together, and I need to show them I?m going to go out there and work hard. This year is the one for this team.? -- Mark Beech