Even as Georgia was closing out the 2011 regular season on a 10-game winning streak and chartering buses for a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game, Bulldog Nation and rival fans alike were asking: What are the Dawgs' chances of repeating that feat in 2012 -- and maybe winning the conference title next time?
With a second straight top-notch recruiting class, a month of spring practice and the G-Day game in the books, the answer to that question is . . . pretty much the same as it was when people first started asking it about five months ago: "Decent."
On paper, Georgia's talent level can match that of any team in the conference, and the scheduling gods have once again laid out a pretty manageable path back to the Georgia Dome for the Dawgs. But spring practice held surprises both pleasant and less-than-pleasant for the Dawgs, and left a few questions unanswered.
Impressive unit we knew would be impressive: The defensive front seven. With D-linemen John Jenkins and Abry Jones and linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree all coming back, we knew the defensive front would be good -- but now we know it'll also be deep. With Cornelius Washington and Ray Drew looking superb for most of the spring, Georgia now has a backup defensive line that would start at 90 percent of the schools in Division I-A, including more than a few SEC programs. The depth situation isn't quite as definite at linebacker, but Georgia has recruited considerable raw talent at that position over the past couple years, and with that talent beginning to develop nicely,Todd Grantham has the luxury of being able to fine-tune personnel combinations over the summer rather than having to hunt desperately for warm bodies. Last year Georgia set a milestone by finishing in the top 15 nationally in total defense -- a stratum they regularly occupied under Brian VanGorder but achieved only once in the six seasons following his departure; there's no reason to think they won't repeat that feat in 2012.
Impressive unit that was a pleasant surprise: The RB corps. One way of describing this unit last season was "inconsistent"; a more colorful way might perhaps be "careened between 'awe-inspiring' and 'hot mess.'" Uber-freshman Isaiah Crowell was gimpy for a good part of the season, Richard Samuel was lost for the season after the Florida game, and nearly everybody got suspended for rule violations at some point. By the end of spring, though, Crowell was being lauded both for his maturity and his improved pass-blocking skills -- something the retooled offensive line will definitely need -- while backup Ken Malcome, who was flirting with a transfer last September, appears to finally be staking his claim on meaningful playing time. Samuel, meanwhile, has bounced back enough from his injury to lead the team with 43 rushing yards on G-Day. The one disappointment from the day was that highly touted 2012 recruit Keith Marshall didn't play -- he was out with a hamstring injury -- but when Marshall returns to full strength and is joined by fellow blue-chipper Todd Gurley this summer, it looks like the Dawgs will have a stable of running backs that can compete with any team in the country.
Struggling unit we knew would struggle: The offensive line. The graduation of Ben Jones and Cordy Glenn dealt a blow to a unit that had already been dealing with depth issues for what felt like eons, and as expected, neither offensive line looked like it'd fully gelled yet on G-Day. Part of that, of course, had to do with the fact that a couple of the first-teamers (Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette) played on both the Red and the Black squads and were surely worn out by the time the game ended. And, of course, they were playing one of the better defenses they'll face all year long. Still, nine sacks -- even if they were only of the "tag" variety -- and three forced fumbles were a pretty clear indication that this unit has a ways to go.
The punting game was a bit of a disaster as well. Which we knew it might be, given that the team is stuck using walk-ons while it waits for 2012 recruit Collin Barber to arrive and fill Drew Butler's considerable shoes at that position, but otherwise a 33.6-yard average on eight punts is hard to spin positively.
Struggling unit that was a bit of a surprise. There weren't any huge shockers from G-Day -- none you could draw major conclusions from, at least -- though both the receiving corps and the defensive backs looked somewhat inconsistent. In the secondary's case, that had a lot to do with the fact that backups were getting plenty of playing time in anticipation of the first few weeks of the season, in which nearly the entire starting DB corps will be suspended for one reason or another. Interestingly enough, though, a guy who could've made major contributions at both positions -- two-way player Malcolm Mitchell -- could only watch from the sidelines as he nursed a tweaked hamstring. Think there'll be a major battle between coaches for his services over the summer?
THE THREE BIGGEST QUESTIONS HEADING INTO SUMMER
1. Can John Theus step into the left tackle spot right away? The Dawgs pursued the five-star OL recruit out of Jacksonville knowing they'd need him sooner rather than later. The recruitniks all described Theus as one of those rare players with the physical gifts and mental maturity to contribute as a true freshman -- if that turns out to be true, it wouldn't instantly solve all of Georgia's offensive line issues, but it'd fill the most important position in the unit and give line coach Will Friend some much-needed breathing room from a personnel standpoint.
2. Who will step in to spell the defensive backs? Of the four presumptive starters in Georgia's secondary, only one of them -- safety Shawn Williams -- will be available for the Dawgs' conference opener at Missouri on Sept. 8. Only one of those suspended players, cornerback Sanders Commings, is assured of being back by the time the Dawgs welcome a rapidly improving Vanderbilt squad to Sanford Stadium two weeks later. Malcolm Mitchell might be part of the answer, but until someone can magically replicate his field-stretching skills in the WR corps, he can't be all of it. Someone else is going to have to step up to carry the unit through that first month of the season, and it looks like the coaches are still searching for that person.
3. What's it going to be like with two true-freshman kickers? The punting game couldn't be much worse than what we saw on G-Day, but the fact remains Georgia will more than likely head into the 2012 season with true freshmen at both punter and place-kicker, and that's naturally going to make some folks nervous. We won't know until the start of the season whether Richt has enough confidence in his rookie special-teamers to not go for it on every single fourth down.