ATHENS, GA - NOVEMBER 19: Aaron Murray #11 of the Georgia Bulldogs rushes for a first down against the Kentucky Wildcats at Sanford Stadium on November 19, 2011 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The Dawgs bounced back part of the way in 2011. Now, with spring practice on the horizon and another class of blue-chippers headed to Athens, it's time to see whether the table has been set for another leap in 2012.
Georgia's 2012 football season technically begins with a home tuneup against Buffalo on Sept. 1, but some would say it starts less than four weeks from now -- March 20, when players report for spring practice. Others say it began on National Signing Day, when the Dawgs brought in a second straight elite recruiting class. Still others will tell you it began about 7 in the evening Saturday, Dec. 3, when LSU's 42-10 shellacking of the Dawgs in the SEC Championship Game came to a merciful end -- showing Bulldog Nation that despite how far their team had come in shrugging off an 0-2 start to win 10 straight, there was still plenty of progress left to be made.
Whichever of those dates you have marked on your calendar, they all point to expectations for the 2012 Dawgs being sky-high. Over the next few weeks, we'll go unit by unit in previewing the depth-chart battles that will shape the Bulldogs into either an SEC championship contender or an also-ran still trying to get back the mojo that was lost in the program's 2008-10 decline.
We'll start off with an easy one -- the quarterback position. Everyone knows Aaron Murray, a 2011 All-SEC second-teamer, will hold on to the starting job for his junior year; behind him, blue-chip recruit Christian LeMay, who redshirted last year, is ready for his shot in 2012. What he does with that shot, though, will be the topic of plenty of discussion over the next six months.
1. Aaron Murray, RJr. (6'1", 211)
2. Christian LeMay, RFr. (6'2", 198)
3. Parker Welch, RSo. (6'3", 204)
4. Hutson Mason, Jr. (6'3", 196)
Never mind the small (but disproportionately vocal) minority of Georgia fans who groan to the heavens and call for Hutson Mason anytime Aaron Murray makes a bad decision on the fly and throws the ball to an opposing player: Murray is as entrenched at the starting job as any QB in America. (As well he should be with a career 150 QB rating.) And barring some Biblical catastrophe, Mason won't see the field at all in 2012 -- he agreed to take a redshirt year after flirting with the idea of transferring due to a lack of playing time.
So now the spotlight lands on Christian LeMay, who was a four-star prospect when he committed to the Dawgs in 2010, enrolled early and has had a year and a half to marinate in the Georgia system. He was going to get a look this season regardless of what Mason decided to do, and that scrutiny will only increase now that Mason has temporarily taken himself out of the picture. The 2012 schedule certainly sets up well in terms of getting LeMay some early playing time, as the first two home games are tune-ups against Buffalo and Florida Atlantic. Don't expect to see a David Greene/D.J. Shockley dichotomy when LeMay takes the field -- his skill set is too similar to Murray's for that -- but if the in-game transition from Murray to LeMay proves to be a smooth one, that'll give the coaches the green light to use him in more situations (and in bigger games) as the season progresses.
Of course, there's the question of what happens if LeMay doesn't pan out -- behind him, the only options are burning Mason's redshirt or putting in a walk-on (only one of whom, Parker Welch, threw a single pass last season). Mark Richt and the rest of Bulldog Nation can only hope they don't end up having to worry about that.
Rookie prospects: The Dawgs did sign a QB in their 2012 recruiting class -- 6'3", 225-pound Faton Bauta out of West Palm Beach. He's not going to push either Murray or LeMay for playing time at QB, but (extremely) early reports out of Athens say his diverse skill set -- he also played tight end, fullback and linebacker in high school -- could earn him some looks in special situations, particularly in short yardage or near the goal line.