ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia’s coaching staff proved in the last two seasons that it is more than willing to play a newcomer in order to address glaring needs. And as they prepare to put the finishing touches on their 2013 signing class, the coaches can only hope that the newest Bulldogs can be as effective as their predecessors from that last two years at addressing Georgia’s depth concerns.
Mark Richt’s critics might once have had a point when they observed that his coaching staff gave veterans too much of a benefit of the doubt when it came to playing them over talented young players. The last two seasons have neutralized those criticisms, as it’s hard to imagine Georgia having won the last two SEC East titles without extensive contributions from brand new Bulldogs.
Think back to 2011, when John Jenkins’ emergence at nose guard was one of the leading factors in Georgia’s defensive resurgence that carried the Bulldogs to their first division title since 2005. Or how tailback Isaiah Crowell led the team with 850 rushing yards en route to SEC Freshman of the Year honors. Or how Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Conley both made their share of big plays at receiver, as did Amarlo Herrera at linebacker.
Last season features equally compelling evidence, particularly from the pair of true freshman tailbacks -- Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall -- who combined for 2,144 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns in helping Georgia develop its most effective rushing attack in years.
They were far from the only heavy contributors, either, considering that outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins (who totaled five sacks and eight tackles for a loss), right tackle John Theus (who started all 14 games) and kicking specialists Collin Barber and Marshall Morgan all seized starting jobs on a squad that came ever so close to playing for a BCS championship.
There were only occasional examples of such production from first-year Bulldogs -- and typically they were superprospects such as quarterback Matthew Stafford or receiver A.J. Green -- before 2011 in the Richt era. But it certainly seems to be a developing trend within the program today, and it will almost certainly continue once Richt’s staff locks up this class on Wednesday.
While it appears likely that a receiver such as 6-foot-5 junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph (Cayce, S.C./Holmes Community College) or running backs A.J. Turman (Orlando, Fla./Boone) and Brendan Douglas (Augusta, Ga./Aquinas) might play this fall to address offensive depth-chart needs, Georgia’s greater areas of concern with this class were on defense.
Richt’s staff is still pursuing some high-end defensive talent to complete the class -- Montravius Adams (Vienna, Ga./Dooly County) and Davin Bellamy (Chamblee, Ga./Chamblee) appear to be two of their top uncommitted possibilities -- they have already filled glaring needs at multiple defensive positions.
The Bulldogs lost 12 key defensive contributors from 2012, punctuated by the decisions of All-America outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and All-SEC inside linebacker Alec Ogletree to enter the NFL draft after standout junior seasons. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham must fill voids at every level of the defense, but he believes they already have committed prospects -- and at each position, already have early enrollees on campus -- capable of filling those spots.
After seniors Bacarri Rambo, Shawn Williams, Sanders Commings and Branden Smith completed their careers in 2012, the secondary depth chart looks a bit shallow. Safeties Rambo and Williams played almost every significant snap down the stretch, so Georgia’s coaches are prepared to sign five safeties and three cornerbacks on Wednesday. Safeties Tray Matthews (Newnan, Ga./Newnan) and Quincy Mauger (Marietta, Ga./Kell) and cornerback Reggie Wilkerson (Citra, Fla./North Marion) are already enrolled and will participate in valuable offseason workouts and spring practices.
With Ogletree, Christian Robinson and Michael Gilliard all out of the picture at inside linebacker, Georgia also needed to replenish the depth chart there -- and it will do so with at least four signees who can play the position. Ryne Rankin (Orlando, Fla./East River) and Reggie Carter (Snellville, Ga./South Gwinnett) are already on campus and Johnny O’Neal (Dublin, Ga./West Laurens) and Tim Kimbrough (Indianapolis, Ind./Warren Central) are set to join them this summer.
And perhaps the biggest area of need -- literally -- is on the defensive line, where mammoth nose guards John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers are no longer in the picture. Grantham’s defense needs an oversized player capable of occupying multiple blockers to make his 3-4 function properly and it’s possible that early enrollees John Atkins (Thomson, Ga./Hargrave Military) and Chris Mayes (Griffin, Ga./Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College) will factor into new line coach Chris Wilson’s rotation immediately.
In fact, it’s difficult to imagine Georgia not relying heavily on several of the previously mentioned recruits once the 2013 season begins.
A few years ago, perhaps that might not have been the case. But these are different times, and capable newcomers have the opportunity to make an instant impact at Georgia today.