This post is for all of you who think I’ve been too dour of late about the football program.
I’m not the only one who’s had a reaction to the news that, for the first time since 1990, Georgia failed to place a single player on either the first or second coaches’ All-SEC teams. In particular, Dean Legge and Chip Towers have made the effort to determine the cause or causes behind the omission.
As you might expect, between those two, I find Legge’s case the less convincing. Not just because he spends the first part of his post making the argument that Georgia really wasn’t that talented — something that is both highly amusing, considering that he runs a recruiting site that’s pumped out happy talk about Georgia’s classes on a recurring basis, but also misleading in that he’s conflating overall program talent with having an individual player on a given roster who’s sufficiently talented to gain the coaches’ approval. (See, for example, Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham.)
The better argument to make, and Legge sort of beats around the bush making it, is not that there’s a total omission, but that as a whole Georgia’s numbers lag behind the top programs in the conference. Sharing the distinction with South Carolina of being the only schools shut out is one thing; being light years away from Alabama’s eleven named and LSU’s seven is the real structural problem.
And, yes, some of the blame for that can rightfully be placed on Richt’s roster management practices and the fall out from the vaporization of the 2013 class. But not all of it can. Legge points to how young Georgia’s roster is as an explanation.
But another consideration to consider is that of the 43 Scout 300 players on campus in Athens right now, 28 (or 65%) are sophomores, true freshmen or redshirt freshmen. In addition, in Kirby’s one recruiting cycle he’s signed 33% of the Scout 300 players on the roster. Needless to say that’s a disproportional amount of the roster. That number should be closer to 20%, or one in five; i.e. how many classes Kirby has recruited to UGA.
It’s true that the All-SEC teams skew towards upperclassmen, and that’s to be expected. But skewing isn’t the same thing as totality. By my count, there are a dozen freshmen and sophomores populating that list and none of them wear red and black. That ain’t on the class of 2013, y’all.
Towers’ take, while noting that the overall talent level wasn’t all it could be, is more nuanced.
Georgia didn’t have any players included on the postseason All-SEC team this year for the first time since 1990, or 26 years. Kind of mind-boggling, isn’t it?
But I argue that the Bulldogs had some all-conference players. They just weren’t recognized — or utilized — depending on your perspective.
I got into a pretty good debate about this with a couple gentlemen in the football business for whom I have great respect. They’ll nameless here but, suffice it to say, both have been in the game and I value their opinions greatly.
One pointed to the fact that Georgia didn’t have any players on All-SEC team as evidence that the Bulldogs didn’t have any talent on the roster this year. The other pointed out that there was all-conference-caliber talent on the roster but that it was overlooked because of the crappy overall season and/or because of deficiencies in other areas.
As always, I’d say the truth lay somewhere in between. Personally, I believe Georgia had six or seven players with all-conference talent. Those either didn’t get the recognition they deserved this season or will eventually.
I think that’s closer to a good explanation. As an example, here’s what Towers has to say about Isaiah McKenzie:
… Isaiah McKenzie probably should have been this season, if not as a receiver but as a returner/all-purpose player.
Think about how McKenzie’s season started? He had 18 catches for 305 yards and five touchdowns in Georgia’s first three games. Now it’s probably unreasonable to think he could have maintained that pace for the whole season. But if he could have, he would’ve finished with 1,220 yards receiving and 20 touchdowns, not including his return numbers.
As it was, the Bulldogs simply got away from feeding McKenzie. He had no touches against Florida, and only four against Ole Miss, four against South Carolina, three against Kentucky and three against Georgia Tech. Again, it’s always a challenge for play-callers to distribute the ball to all the weapons at their disposal. But McKenzie was curiously absent in the gameplan a few times.
That “challenge” was a problem all season. Just ask Chubb and Michel.
But even that doesn’t explain all. I thought Georgia’s two best players on defense this year were Trent Thompson and Roquan Smith. Pro Football Focus named the latter to its All-SEC team, saying, “Smith rounds out the top three, after a season where he impressed against the run and in coverage, and finished the year as our 11th-highest-graded linebacker.”
Yet here’s the thing about both: neither of them started all season. Regarding Thompson,
The nation’s No. 1 prospect in the 2015 signing class according to 247Sports.com, Thompson has racked up 48 tackles this season after making 25 as a freshman. Yet his six starts at defensive tackle match his number from a year ago, with his inability to increase that total largely due to the emergence of freshman Julian Rochester.
Those 48 tackles were good for fifth on the team, which is a remarkable amount, considering what interior defensive linemen are asked to do in Georgia’s defense.
Roquan Smith led the team in tackles, despite coming off a knee injury that kept him out of spring practice. His official resume for this season reads pretty impressively.
2016: Has appeared in 12 games, making nine starts…team’s leading tackler with 82 total stops…also has 5.0 tackles for loss, five QB pressures and one pass breakup…career-high 13 tackles came vs. Georgia Tech…also forced at GT fumble in the game…had 11 tackles (7+4) in win at South Carolina, adding a forced fumble and a fumble recovery…in addition to six stops vs. Vanderbilt, he assisted on a QB sack and broke up one pass…has led team in tackles in each of the past two games: 7 stops vs. Auburn and 7 vs. Louisiana…had 7 tackles in win at Kentucky…made a then-career-high 6 tackles (5 solo, 1 assisted) with 2 TFL against UNC…had five tackles vs. Tennessee…made 4 tackles against Nicholls…added four tackles (all solo) at Missouri…recipient of the Tommy Lyons Football Scholarship.
Yeah, that’s someone who’s worthy of a little more attention. So maybe a mediocre team season did hurt some individual guys’ chances.
But maybe there’s a further explanation worth considering. (WARNING: I’m about to get optimistic on some of your asses.)
Maybe there’s a bigger point being made in Athens… purposefully. Go back to that Smart comment about why Thompson didn’t start all season.
“Trenton has worked really hard,” Bulldogs first-year coach Kirby Smart said. “He had a spell in the middle of the season there where we thought Julian was practicing better and playing a little better than him, so Julian was playing a little more. Trenton went back to work and outworked him, and we thought he played and practiced well the Auburn week.
“We actually started him in the second half of the Auburn game, but there is competition at certain positions every week, and they know they’ve got to go out and earn it.”
That’s a sentiment John Atkins echoed.
“It just shows you how everyone has to work,” Bulldogs junior nose tackle John Atkins said. “No one spot is safe, and a lot of the younger guys have challenged me, too. Julian and Trent have gone back and forth, but Trent can be very disruptive in the backfield, and you need someone like Trent on your team.”
What that sounds like to me is akin to what Nick Saban’s preached in Tuscaloosa ever since he showed up there.
As for Alabama, its structure doesn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary. But there does appear to be a level of expectation in Tuscaloosa that’s greater than other top programs. At a place that replaces senior five-star talent with junior five-star talent in most years, offensive tackle Jonah Williams, a former five-star from Folsom, California, stepped into a starting role this year as a freshman.
It didn’t take Jonah Williams long to realize the kind of work that’s required to win at the level Alabama has, which is 118 games over the past 10 years.
“I think Coach Saban is the greatest coach of all time,” he said. “Being a part of that program and the process, if you just buy in you’re going to be successful. They’ve always been successful. All you have to do is buy in. It’s certainly not an easy path but it’s laid out for you. You know it’s going to be hard but if you buy in you’ll be successful.”
Jonah Williams added that while there is plenty of star player, egos don’t accompany the players on the roster. He said there isn’t a spot at Alabama for those looking to be flashy. With that in mind, it would explain why so many five-star athletes choose the Crimson Tide, even when they know there is a chance they may not play right away.
“You need to be willing to grind harder than anyone – because that’s what everyone else did,” Jonah Williams said. “It’s not some magical recipe we made up.”
Said Tim Williams: “There’s no individual person on this team playing for stats. We got guys going to the league next year but we’re just a team. We’re not even worried about that. We’re worried about playing the next game. It’s amazing.”
If you’re a Georgia fan, it’s not just amazing. It’s totally foreign. And while that’s something Jason Butt writes the Georgia athletics department is looking for, it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight, a nicety that was perhaps brushed aside a little too conveniently by those folks before the start of the season. Remember, Kirby spoke of turning a battleship back then, not a speedboat.
Can he do it? Well, that’s the $64000 question. I have no doubt his time on Saban’s staff gave him all the reference points he needed for charting a course. That being said, let’s not forget he’s hardly the first bird to have flown from that particular nest and none of the other chickadees have yet managed to come near, let alone meet, what Saban’s accomplished.
Still, I have hope. The success on the recruiting front gives me a lot of that, not only because that’s an example of learning from Saban what matters in program building, but because Smart appears well on his way to implementing the lesson. That’s all I can ask at this point. Give me talent and attitude and I’ll be more than patient watching the rest of the details fill in. That’s being optimistic, right?