Early departures to the NFL are never great news for a college program, but the last few years have been particularly unkind to the Georgia Bulldogs. In 2009, the early departures of Matt Stafford and Knowshon Moreno set Georgia's offense back at square one. A year later, linebacker Rennie Curran and safety Reshad Jones left early, and with them went passion and leadership Georgia really could've used in a transitional year under new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. And last year, of course, the Dawgs lost perhaps the most talented receiver in the program's history in A.J. Green -- without whom the offense ground to a virtual halt during the 2010 season.
But there's a distinctly different mood around Butts-Mehre this January, one you might even call "relief." For the first time in several years, the Dawgs aren't losing their heart and soul on one side of the ball or the other to the NFL Draft. Sure, there is one notable early departure, along with the usual class of graduating seniors, but for the most part, it looks like Mark Richt will be getting the band back together to build on a turnaround 2011 season.
WHO'S GOING EARLY
Bulldog Nation will certainly be sad to see the 6-foot-3-inch, 241-pound junior head off to the pros -- he was an integral part of Georgia's offense both as a receiver and a run-blocker, and with 996 yards and seven TDs over the last two seasons, he was a reliable safety valve for Aaron Murray as the young QB found his footing.
Fortunately, Charles is being plucked from what's been one of Georgia's deepest units for a few years now. It'd be deeper still if Aron White hadn't graduated, but the Dawgs still have Arthur Lynch (6'5", 272), a four-star recruit out of Massachusetts in 2009. And there should be brisk competition for the starting job between Lynch and redshirt freshman Jay Rome (6'6", 254), who was probably the most highly prized offensive commitment of Georgia's 2011 "Dream Team" recruiting class before Isaiah Crowell chose the Dawgs on Signing Day. It'd be nice to have Charles around for one more season, but Georgia's reputation as a producer of elite tight ends under Mark Richt will not crumble in the wake of his departure.
C Ben Jones
LT Cordy Glenn
RT Justin Anderson
FB Bruce Figgins
This list will be the biggest ulcer-producer for Georgia's coaches right up until opening day -- three starting offensive linemen gone, including a Rimington Trophy finalist (Jones) and an AP/coaches' All-SEC first-teamer (Glenn), along with a fine blocking fullback for good measure. The "Dream Team" brought in promising recruits such as Watts Dantzler, Zach DeBell and Hunter Long, and this year's recruiting class will add John Theus, considered by many to be the top O-line recruit in the country, to that group. But this has still been a frustratingly thin unit for some time, and it looks like Georgia's coaches have at least one more recruiting class to go before they can start breathing easier about it.
CB Brandon Boykin
DE DeAngelo Tyson
The losses on defense are much more manageable, though the Dawgs will certainly miss the versatility of Boykin, who scored on offense, defense and special teams in the Outback Bowl and who will graduate both as Georgia's all-time kickoff-return leader and as the only player in SEC history with three 100-yard plays of any kind.
Special teams were mostly a dumpster fire for the Dawgs last year, but 2009 Ray Guy Award winner Butler was one of the few consistent pieces, and replacing him will not be easy. Walsh leaves behind a more mixed legacy following an inexplicably awful 2011; whoever replaces him, rising senior Jamie Lindley or incoming recruit Collin Barber, the Dawgs hope that kicker's performance will be closer to Walsh's superb first three years than his subpar senior season.
WHO COULD LEAVE, BUT WON'T
OLB Jarvis Jones
NT John Jenkins
DE Abry Jones
OLB Cornelius Washington
If you start hearing pundits tout Georgia as a top-10 or even top-five team heading into the 2012 season, you can thank these four guys. Georgia's front seven made a huge leap forward in its second year under Todd Grantham's 3-4 system -- from 23rd in the nation in total defense to fourth, and from 56th to 11th against the run -- and with all but one player from this past season's two-deep coming back, the Dawgs should be able to maintain that lofty performance. Jarvis Jones and John Jenkins were two guys in particular who passed up potential NFL paydays to return for another shot at an SEC title.
FS Bacarri Rambo
CB Branden Smith
SS Shawn Williams
CB Sanders Commings
The secondary improved dramatically from 2010 to '11, too, and should be just as secure as the front seven, with every significant contributor other than Brandon Boykin sticking around. Biggest victory: hanging on to Bacarri Rambo, who rebounded from a frustrating 2010 to finish second in the nation in interceptions (eight) this past season.
So the Dawgs look like they'll escape January with a single early departure to the NFL, and with a bare minimum of losses on defense even after all the graduating seniors wave goodbye to Athens -- all but two guys on 2011's defensive two-deep will be back. The skill-position losses on offense are negligible, too -- yardage-wise, the top five rushers and top seven wide receivers from 2011 are all returning. Offensive line and the kicking game, it appears, will be the margin between another good season and a potentially great one.
But what might be most heartening in all of this is what it says about the stability the players sense in the program. Players with lucrative NFL careers in their future only stick around when they feel like they've got something to stick around for, and apparently, guys like Jarvis Jones, Johnathan Jenkins and Bacarri Rambo all feel like they've got that. If that means a cohesive team spirit has returned to the Georgia program after a few years of wandering around in the relative wilderness, then 2012 is shaping up to be a special season indeed.