The Allstate Sugar Bowl was just a few minutes old when the discussion turned to the 2008 prospects for the Georgia Bulldogs.
The talk of a national championship run was understandable. The Bulldogs finished with an 11-2 record, closing as one of the nation’s hottest teams, and wound up ranked No. 2 in the final AP poll and third in the final USA Today/Coaches poll. Moreover, the Bulldogs will be returning 16 of the 22 starters from the Sugar Bowl squad that rolled up a 31-point victory over No. 10 Hawai’i.
Georgia coach Mark Richt doesn’t mind having his team mentioned among the nation’s elite. In fact, he welcomes it.
“If guys want to start talking about it out in the open, then they have to understand there is a lot of responsibility that goes with it,” Richt said. “They have to understand that those type of seasons don’t happen by accident. They happen because you pay the price.”
Georgia got off to a slow start in 2007, losing twice (both in the SEC) in its first six games. But similar to the end of the 2006 campaign, the Bulldogs righted the ship with seven straight wins. Included in that run was an emotional victory over No. 9 Florida and the Sanford Stadium “blackout” game in which they knocked off No. 18 Auburn. Georgia also sported black jerseys in the Sugar Bowl win.
“We hit our stride at the halfway point of the season,” Richt said. “The players responded to the things we asked them to do, and I responded to the things they asked me to do. There was a lot of drama, a lot of excitement and a lot of passion. It was an emotional year, but it was a fun year. I think (2007) was exciting for our fans and our players. I think we got a taste of just how close we might be toward getting that ultimate goal. I do think that we’re going to have a more veteran team than we’ve had in awhile, and I think we’ll have some good depth. We hope we’re ranked fairly high preseason. I think we’re going to return a very good team.”
The following is a position-by-position look at the Bulldogs heading into fall camp:
The Bulldogs check into the fall with talent, experience and potential among their signal-callers.
Matthew Stafford (6-3, 237, Jr.) entrenched himself as Georgia’s quarterback and as a team leader, triggering the powerful offense last season that averaged more than 375 yards and 32 points. Stafford hit on 194-of-348 passes for 2,523 yards and 19 touchdowns, bouncing back from a rookie campaign in which he had seven touchdowns and was picked off 13 times.
Joe Cox (6-1, 208, Jr.) has been a valuable reserve, showing the ability to come off the bench and keep the offense clicking. Coaches remember his fourth-quarter, two-TD-drive performance as a reserve to beat Colorado in 2006. Coming this fall will be the first live-action look at Logan Gray (6-2, 180, RFr.) after his redshirt season. Jonathan deLaureal (6-2, 213, RSo.) also returns.
The return of one of the nation’s most explosive tailbacks in 2007 has Bulldogs fans recalling why Georgia has been called “Tailback U.”
Knowshon Moreno (5-11, 207, RSo.) burst on the scene last year, rolling up 1,334 yards and scoring 14 touchdowns. His yardage figure was second-best among freshmen in school history (trailing only Herschel Walker’s 1,616) and ranked fourth-best in SEC annals. He had a five-game span in the middle of the season in which he rushed for 766 yards and nine touchdowns. Moreno was chosen as the SEC Freshman of the Year, named First-Team All-SEC and was a consensus Freshman All-American.
Highly touted Caleb King (5-11, 212, RFr.) will enter the mix this fall and should complement Moreno. The Bulldogs also will take a look at early enrollees Richard Samuel (6-0, 215, Fr.) and Dontavius Jackson (5-10, 190, Fr.) and Kalvin Daniels (5-10, 182, So.).
Helping pave the way for the tailbacks will be a veteran group of fullbacks. Brannan Southerland (6-0, 240, Sr.) scored five touchdowns last year on just 17 carries, was automatic on short-yardage plays and was a punishing blocker. Shaun Chapas (6-2, 236, RSo.) and Fred Munzenmaier (6-2, 233, RSo.) each saw valuable time on offense and on special teams. Josh Sailors (5-11, 220, RFr.) and Josh Bagby (6-2, 235, Fr.) provide additional depth.
Traditionally, this has been a strength for the Bulldogs – and 2008 appears to be no different. First-year tight ends coach John Lilly will be surrounded by players who have taken plenty of snaps. Tripp Chandler (6-6, 263, Sr.) ranked third on the team last year with 21 catches for 283 yards and two touchdowns. Bruce Figgins (6-4, 254, So.) had a touchdown among his three catches. Aron White (6-4, 228, RFr.) will enter the mix after his redshirt season and should add more depth.
Despite the graduation of 2007 leading receiver Sean Bailey, the Bulldogs return six lettermen and a wealth of experience among the wideouts.
At flanker, Mohamed Massaquoi (6-2, 198, Sr.) is back after hauling in 32 passes for 491 yards and four touchdowns last year. Backing him up this fall will be Tony Wilson (5-11, 198, RSo.), Michael Moore (6-2, 188, Jr.), Israel Troupe (6-1, 215, RFr.) and Vernon Spellman (6-1, 184, Jr.). Moore had a touchdown catch among his three receptions in 2007, while Wilson hauled in 14 passes for 124 yards. Moore also had two touchdown grabs in the G-Day Game.
Kenneth Harris (6-3, 215, Sr.) moved to the top of the depth chart among the split ends with a strong spring. Kris Durham (6-5, 200, Jr.) is coming off a season in which he caught 11 balls for 169 yards. Early enrollee Tavarres King (6-1, 172, Fr.), Demiko Goodman (6-2, 190, Sr.) and Walter Hill (6-4, 214, RFr.) round out the Bulldogs’ rotation.
In 2007, most of Georgia’s players in the trenches got on-the-job training as three freshmen were regular starters and rookies served as the primary backups. But their progress was unmistakable throughout the year, making them offensive leaders this season.
Left tackle Trinton Sturdivant (6-5, 293, So.) earned Freshman All-America and Freshman All-SEC honors last season. In camp, he will be backed up by Josh Davis (6-6, 293, RSo.).
Vince Vance (6-8, 320, Jr.) will begin the fall at the top of the depth chart at left guard. Tanner Strickland (6-5, 328, RFr.) and Chris Little (6-6, 330, RFr.) also will get work.
Chris Davis (6-4, 292, RSo.) was Georgia’s starter at left guard last season, but he also logged time as team captain Fernando Velasco’s backup at center. Davis, a 2007 Freshman All-America Honorable Mention selection, will open the fall No. 1 on the depth chart at center, with early enrollee Ben Jones (6-3, 300, Fr.) and Kevin Perez (6-3, 274, RSo.) spelling him.
Clint Boling (6-5, 290, So.) started the final 10 games of 2007 at right guard, earning Freshman All-America and Freshman All-SEC honors. Justin Anderson (6-5, 328, RFr.), Ben Harden (6-6, 310, RFr.) and Micky White (6-3, 331, RSo.) will vie for playing time.
Kiante Tripp (6-6, 270, RSo.) made strides after converting from defensive end during 2007 preseason camp. He will open the fall atop the depth chart at right tackle, succeeding 2007 starter and NFL draft pick Chester Adams. John Potts (6-3, 285, RFr.) and Casey Nickels (6-4, 240, RSo.) will back up Tripp.
Georgia has a tradition of excellence in the trenches, and it appears the Bulldogs have the players in place to continue that tradition.
Geno Atkins (6-1, 290, Jr.), a member of the 2008 Outland Trophy and Nagurski Watch Lists, had a breakout season in 2007, rolling up 41 tackles, including 7.5 sacks, and a team-best 37 quarterback hurries, and garnering First-Team All-SEC honors. Outland Trophy, Lott Trophy and Nagurski Award Watch List member Jeff Owens (6-3, 298, Sr.) will man the other tackle spot after posting 27 stops, including 4.5 for loss. Part-time starter Kade Weston (6-5, 316, Jr.) and Corvey Irvin (6-4, 286, Sr.) also give Georgia a veteran presence, combining for 32 tackles and 8.5 tackles-for-loss a year ago. Ricardo Crawford (6-1, 297, RSo.) and Brandon Wood (6-1, 280, RSo.) saw their first action last season and should contribute even more this year. Andrew Gully (6-4, 245, Sr.) will provide additional depth.
Even with the departure of Sugar Bowl MVP and NFL draft pick Marcus Howard, the Bulldogs have some talented players on the edges.
Roderick Battle (6-4, 261, Jr.) started all 13 games last season, recording 24 tackles, including 2.5 sacks, and he will enter the fall No. 1 at one end. Jarius Wynn (6-5, 273, Sr.) had nine tackles and nine hurries as a reserve in 2007. Demarcus Dobbs (6-2, 266, RSo.), who played in every game last season primarily on special teams, is back, along with Wes Jacobs (6-2, 245, Sr.).
On the other side, the Bulldogs have Jeremy Lomax (6-4, 247, Sr.), who recorded 4.5 sacks among his 16 tackles. Neland Ball (6-6, 232, RFr.) and Justin Houston (6-3, 240, RFr.) are expected to be factors as they come off redshirt campaigns. Michael DeGenova (6-1, 210, RFr.) gives Georgia additional depth.
Highlighted by the return of its leading tackler from 2007, Georgia again looks strong at the linebacker slots.
All-SEC performer Dannell Ellerbe (6-1, 232, Sr.), a Nagurski Watch List member, had a team-best 93 tackles last season, including 12 for loss and 4.5 sacks, and will anchor the defense at Mike linebacker. Charles White (6-1, 217, RFr.) consistently improved during his redshirt season.
At Will linebacker, the Bulldogs are bolstered by the return of Rennie Curran (5-11, 220, So.), who ranked fourth on the team in 2007 with 53 tackles, including 13 against Kentucky, and earned Freshman All-America honors. Darryl Gamble (6-2, 237, RSo.) had 13 tackles last year, and it was his forced fumble that led to the game-winning field goal against Vanderbilt kick-starting the Bulldogs’ seven-game win streak. Akeem Hebron (6-1, 225, RSo.) is back with the program after a year at Georgia Military College, and the Bulldogs also return special teams ace Benjamin Boyd (6-1, 210, Sr.).
Akeem Dent (6-2, 218, RSo.) leads the way for Georgia at Sam linebacker. Dent became a late-season starter in 2007 and finished with 36 tackles. Darius Dewberry (6-3, 236, Jr.), who also has starting experience, rolled up 24 stops last season. Georgia gets additional depth from Justin Fields (6-1, 244, RSo.).
Three of Georgia’s top returning tacklers come from the secondary, making it a potential strength in 2008.
At one cornerback slot, Asher Allen (5-10, 198, Jr.) followed Ellerbe with 64 tackles and is the Bulldogs’ leading returning interceptor after snatching three last year. Ramarcus Brown (5-11, 170, Sr.) added 10 tackles in 2007, and the Bulldogs also return Chad Gloer (6-0, 191, RSo.).
Prince Miller (5-8, 190, Jr.) will open the fall No. 1 at the other cornerback slot. Miller had 24 tackles and made a key interception in the Sugar Bowl. Bryan Evans (5-11, 188, Jr.) had 17 tackles and an interception in 2007, while Vance Cuff (5-11, 170, So.) picked up valuable playing time. Christian Norton (5-7, 160, RSo.) will provide additional depth this fall.
At free safety, Reshad Jones (6-2, 203, RSo.) is atop the depth chart after ranking third last year with 57 tackles and picking off two passes as he earned Honorable Mention Freshman All-America honors. John Knox (6-2, 194, RFr.), who had an interception in the G-Day Game, Donavon Baldwin (6-2, 204, Jr.) and Andrew Johnson (6-0, 195, RSo.) will back up Jones.
Returning starter CJ Byrd (6-2, 193, Sr.) came into his own at strong safety last year, making 44 tackles with one interception and one fumble recovery. Quintin Banks (6-2, 210, RSo.) contributed eight tackles in 2007 and special teams standout Andrew Williams (6-0, 197, Sr.) is back.
Georgia must identify a place-kicker in camp, but veterans will man the other areas on special teams.
Brian Mimbs (5-11, 205, Sr.) took over the punting duties last season and responded with a 42.4-yard average. Sixteen of his 57 punts pinned opponents inside the 20 and he had a long punt of 66 yards. Drew Butler (6-2, 205, RFr.), the son of ex-Bulldog and Hall of Fame kicker Kevin Butler, will challenge Mimbs this fall.
The Bulldogs said goodbye to NFL draft pick Brandon Coutu as well as Andy Bailey and Ben Wilson, so finding the place-kicker will be critical in camp. Blair Walsh (5-10, 175, Fr.) is an incoming freshman with impressive credentials. Andrew Jensen (6-3, 210, RSo.) and Brian Behr (5-11, 165, RFr.) handled the kicking duties in the spring and both had field goals longer than 45 yards during the G-Day game.
Mimbs is the Bulldogs’ top candidate at holder, and delivering those snaps again will be Jeff Henson (6-3, 258, Sr.) and Bo Fowler (6-2, 215, Sr.).
Allen again will handle kickoff returns after averaging 24.6 yards last season and he will get a look as the punt returner. Brown, Miller and Caleb King are additional candidates on returns.