We are rapidly moving through the month of August and approaching one of the greatest parts of the year-the beginning of football season-and just about cannot wait. Every year at this time football fever takes over everyone, including yours truly. We'll try and keep that ball rolling today, but before I get too deep into that topic, I would like to talk about the leading article photo. You, like me, probably saw that picture and asked yourself, "What in the hell is on those guys head?" A closer look and you'll deduce, as I have, that exterior padding has been placed on some of the players' helmets to try and avoid concussions during practice sessions. I haven't seen any sort of release from the CUAD, but I'd assume this is a product called "Guardian" or something similar. NBC put together a piece on this protective gear, so give that article a look if you are interested. As goofy as this looks, if it helps improve safety in practice and reduces the likelihood of a concussion I am all for it. Let's make no bones about it, this is a tough game. This is a potentially dangerous game. Anything that can be done to protect the players without sacrificing the integrity of the game is a good thing. Hopefully advancements in equipment will further reduce risk to head injuries for these players.
Back to the lecture at hand...I'll go ahead and give you my early thoughts on our Tigers' offense then the Dawgs'. I'll caution you, these are opinions and you know what they say about opinions. All we have to go by is what we saw last fall, in Spring drills, and the snippets gathered during practice so far this fall. Despite losing DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Ellington, we all expect fireworks on offense this season. Ryan Norton will likely slide into the spot left open by Dalton Freeman's graduation and the rest of the offensive line consists of returning veterans. Tajh Boyd returns for his final season and still has a lot of firepower around him. Needless to say, receiving spotlight will be squarely placed on Sammy Watkins. After what most consider a disappointing sophomore campaign, we all are eager to see if Sammy can put up '11 Sammy-like or last year's stats from Nuk. This season is starting off on a much better note for Watkins for obvious reasons. If he can avoid the injury bug, there is no doubt in anyone's mind that Sammy will show out in what many believe will be his final season in Tigertown.
I've repeatedly discussed the need for Martavis Bryant to finally break out. Bryant has seemingly been injured his entire time at Clemson and has tweeked a (seemingly) recurring groin injury already this season. Bryant has all the raw skills to be a star...speed, size, ability to find the football. We need him healthy and need his skills to assure our Tigers can stretch the opponent vertically. Likewise, it is time for Charone Peake to show transfer the high school hype into big time performance. Peake has progressed since arriving on campus (and to his defense, was probably under too much pressure/expectations were too high his freshman year). He will be the guy who we will rely on to on 3rd and 8 to get us a key first down. Fortunately, Peake is also a very, very talented athlete and has the capability to turn that simple 3rd and 8 conversion into something big. I've said it before and will say it again, Coach Dabo made an excellent move bringing in Adam Humphries (a decision we really questioned at the time). That young man will do whatever it takes to win and, specifically, whatever it takes to get the extra yard.
At runningback, we will most assuredly employ RB by committee. Roderick McDowell will be the starter but will be spelled by D.J. Howard. We have seen Hot Rod in action and saw Howard do a pretty good job against Auburn a couple years ago though we don't believe he is the feature back. The wildcard of the bunch is Zac Brooks. He is another guy we questioned NOT redshirting last season and was basically thrust into action because Mike Bellamy was dismissed from the team. That is all water under the bridge now, and we are looking forward. Brooks is clearly a great athlete. We anticipate a full offseason in a college weight room will bulk him up enough to take more hits. Brooks should be a viable threat catching the ball as well...which should create favorable matchups for the offense (Brooks vs. a linebacker in open space? I'll take that all day). The critical item we'll be keying on for all these guys is pass protection. This is one of the most difficult items for young runningbacks to pick up. It is also imperative because these guys often either save your quarterback from having his head taken off or cause him to head to the hospital. This was one reason the staff wore out Andre Ellington the last couple years-he was the best at this on the team. Going into this campaign, I expect Rod will come into the season ahead of the others in this area.
As I said earlier, the offensive line is finally returning some seasoned veterans. The efforts made here-most significantly hiring Caldwell and building a bit of depth-should pay dividends this football season. Clemson gave up a lot of sacks last season but, as we pointed out, Tajh walked into approximately 1/3 of them. We'll be particularly interested in the shape of these guys. We've moaned and complained for years about our linemen often looking like they were a couple of weeks away from delivering twins. Winning the line of scrimmage is largely won or lost in the weight room and through conditioning drills prior to the season. The weight room should create functional strength and conditioning obviously should create (A) stamina and (B) versatility/range. We get very little push up front and it has been that way for some time. We believe this is a deficiency in the functional strength training aspect of our S&C program and, to save a big tyrade/argument on the subject, I'll leave it at that. After the LSU game, it would be tough for me to question stamina but I still think a few of last season's starters need to work on agility. This deficiency resulted in fewer plays that involved a pulling lineman or two than we would have liked to have seen. All that in the bucket, I expect a good year out of the line this year. With the players returning and a bit of depth, this area should not keep us from winning.
The quarterback position is Tajh all day. He has really evolved into a savvy leader who has honed technical skills. The only real concerns are him walking into sacks and holding onto the ball a little long. Based on the entire portfolio of his play these concerns are very minute. Boyd is obviously one heck of a player and I look forward to seeing him in action this year. Cole Stoudt, I believe, is a decent backup who has shown that he can lead this offense. He is no Tajh and he won't be asked to be. Stoudt looked poised against Boston College a few years ago but hasn't really been pressured since. It is a shame that Chad Kelly got hurt because he, at the very least, would have pushed Stoudt this fall. Competition is always a good thing and there is none for the backup role.
Gawga is an interesting offensive team no doubt. The Dawgs return a boatload of players including a stellar backfield consisting of Aaron Murray, Todd Gurley, and Keith Marshall. Georgia spread the ball around to multiple receivers and, despite not having a 1000 yard pass catcher last season, is very capable of moving the ball through the air. UGa offensive line coach Will Friend openly praised his guys (by the way, the Bulldogs are returning all their scholarship linemen from a year ago).
The Todd Gurley/Keith Marshall combination behind this veteran offensive line is certainly a source of concern for all teams playing them this season. Gurley is sick and took a lot of pressure off the passing game (nearly 1400 yards on the ground by a freshman tends to do that). Marshall is no slouch either...receiving 100 carries less than Gurley last year he had around 760 yards on the ground. Remember that these guys are just sophomores...though very, very good second year players.
The Georgia receiving corps loses its most prolific weapon from a year ago, Tavarres King. King accounted for 950 of Murray's 3900 passing yards last year. What does that mean for the Georgia passing attack? I think less than most would expect. Murray spread the ball around very well a year ago and I suspect he'll do the same this season. Many considered him NFL-ready last year and he is the real deal. Murray will put up his numbers this season, there is no doubt about that point.
I am very concerned about the Georgia offense at the end of this month. Clemson has improved greatly since the beginning of last season up front and at the linebacker position. The concern is the defensive backfield. All indications I've received point to the secondary getting lit up all day everyday so far this August. This presents issues for a couple reasons. First and foremost, if the Clemson defensive backfield is in the poor shape mentioned earlier, a quarterback as good as Aaron Murray could have a career game. Second, it will force Clemson to move men out of the box and will allow Gurley/Marshall and that offensive line advantages in the box.
The great question for this Georgia offense is offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. If you've been around here long enough, you've probably heard us criticize Bobo a time or two. Bobo has been the OC in Athens since 2006 I believe. Over the first half decade in his current job, criticism was high for the former Georgia signal caller. We saw Georgia line up and physically manhandle a team methodically moving the ball for a long score. The next series, they become pass-happy. Georgia had issues creating continuity and flow with the football. Georgia fans were particularly tough on the fellow and for very good reason. Last season, and particularly down the stretch, Bobo got into a better playcalling groove. I cannot deny that having Gurley/Marshall as your backs won't help your ability to move the football. Still, Georgia has a tradition of bringing in very talented runningbacks (and have them eventually kicked off the team). Maybe it was the maturation of quarterback Aaron Murray. He was impressive last season. I simply hope that the playcaller from 2011 shows up in Death Valley, not the guy who looked like a genius in the SEC Championship against Bama last December.
Oh, and a special thanks to ole Tom Bowden, who is (allegedly) out there prophesizing a double digit Clemson win in the season opener. I am superstitious and not impressed with Tom's work, therefore concerned that this is a jinx and that Tom will once again prove incorrect. In light of Tom's later years in coaching, he couldn't foresee his teams quitting on him at Wake Forest nor in a similar season opener against Gawga in 2003. Long and short, I wouldn't be asking him about five team parleys or such. However, I also wouldn't want to be at a poker table with that joker either. He absolutely worked TDP, leveraging an Arkansas bluff into one of the stupidest contracts Clemson has ever given a coach. We all wanted to call his bluff but not TDP...half a season later and Tom gets a boatload of cheddar NOT to show up at work. Then again, TDP may have been late to the 4 PM Golden Coral early bird special and would do anything just to get Tom to quit bugging him about annoyances such as contract negotiations.
On the golf front, I would be amiss if I didn't give props to Jason Dufner and his 63 on Friday. I like how he spins the ball back on two for the fairway eagle and barely cracks a smile. While his outing was impressive, I am just thankful this golf tournament is being televised on CBS instead of NBC. Could you imagine how old it would get listening to Johnny Miller (with the assistance of Rog) recreate his 63 in the final round of the '73 US Open then explain how it was the greatest single accomplishment in the history of man...then do it all again on Sunday.
Sunday should be a fun day to catch the end of this tournament. Will Jim Furyk pull through for this second major championship (US Open, 2003). Or will Furyk falter as he has several times in the past. He left several shots on the course yesterday, missing very makeable putts and you have to wonder if those will come back to haunt him. 63 man Jason Dufner is seeking his first major win. Dufner himself is no stranger to near misses in majors, finishing runner up in '11. That final round, however, Dufner had a huge lead coming down the stretch but simply fell apart-so pressure will be a factor here as well I'd suspect. Don't count out Adam Scott. The Aussie has game and already has a major this year. I'll point out the obvious that the announcers will likely emphasize...Rory McIlroy is under par and only 6 off the pace. Unfortunately for Rory, this looks to be a little too little too late. The guy that I am intrigued with is Steve Stricker. The man is 46 years old and just said screw it, I want to hang out at home, fish a little more, and only want to play the majors and a handful of other tournaments. Yet here he sits in the third to last group to tee off today. Dude is nails and I am very surprised he has never won a major. How has his strategy worked? So far he has a top 20 at Augusta, 8th place finish at the US Open, skipped the Open Championship, and is in the top 5 heading into today's round. Pretty stout if you ask me.
One final note on the season ending major. The PGA Championship is, by far, everyone's least favorite major by a mile. A couple items really make this a tournament that the average golf fan really doesn't plan his year around. First and foremost, play begins a mere three weeks after the Open Championship. It seems as though those two tournaments are on top of each other compared to the others (Masters in April followed by the U.S. Open Father's Day weekend in June then five weeks later the Open Championship). I understand why they don't move this one deeper into the Fall (CBS has coverage rights and there is no way they will ever conflict a major golf tournament with football coverage). I know, I know, the Ryder Cup is played every other fall to riling success. The difference here is that ESPN provides weekday coverage and NBC the weekend. Knowing this date ahead of time, all NBC has to do is assure Notre Dame schedules a road game that week and they are done. CBS, on the other hand, would need to work around the 3:30 SEC game of the week on Saturday and a full slate of NFL games on Sunday...that ain't happening.
Everyone, get out your cigarette lighters and point them to the sky...