Saturday, January 10, 2009

Stafford and Moreno Leave Athens: Georgia Fans Savor Memories, not Trophies

For college football fans, the ultimate experience for each of us is a national championship for our team. To see players wearing the colors you cheer for every Saturday hold up ADT's crystallized football is the reason we get up early each Saturday to head to the tailgate. It is the reason we sit in a stadium filled with thousands of others like us, acting like raving lunatics.

Every victory over an arch rival gets us excited for the fruits to our team's labor. Each win puts us a little closer to that moment our coach brushes away the confetti from his hair and, wearing a shirt very similar to the one we are wearing (minus the gatorade stain), addresses the national audience. 

And each loss makes us rant about having to wait another year.

Wednesday, Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno made official what Georgia fans had long suspected: they will continue their careers professionally. Stafford's last pass between the hedges has been thrown, Knowshon's last leap leapt from its hallowed turf.

The junior quarterback and redshirt sophomore leave behind many wins and few losses, but Georgia fans are undoubtedly conflicted between the highlights of two incredible athletes and the one win they were expecting to relish when the two players stepped on campus three years ago.

Stafford's arm was well discussed before he even arrived in Athens. Most Dawg signees are much ballyhooed and evaluated at great lengths on message boards and over the company water coolers. 

But Stafford was different. His size, talent and big time arm have had him labeled as a future NFL #1 draft choice since before he graduated high school. Georgia fans couldn't wait until that talent translated into victories. Banners. Championships. Even confetti.

And for the victories, they didn't have to wait long.

Stafford was never really in danger of a redshirt. He started eight games as a freshman and played in all 13. By the time he helped engineer a dramatic comeback against Virgina Tech in the 2006 Chick-Fil-A Bowl, fans were sure they would soon be able to hold #7's name up there with the likes of Buck Belue, David Greene and DJ Shockley. 

All SEC Champions. All beloved in the hearts that bleed red and black.

Meanwhile Moreno was finishing his redshirt season and rumors were starting to circulate about his performances on the practice field. A scout team running back did what? The seniors are talking about who? Isn't he the kid that signed from up north somewhere?

But most fans were focused on the upcoming senior season for Thomas Brown and Kregg Lumpkin, not to mention the recruitment of Caleb King. Surely this kid from Jersey would just push for some playing time; maybe hold the position warm until King developed into the next star tailback from Georgia.

So while Moreno was making his Georgia coaches second guess the decision to redshirt him, fans were preparing for the next Worley, Hampton, Hearst, even Walker. But by the end of the 2007 season opener against Oklahoma State, fans would have the same perspective, but for a different player.

From that game on there was an audible gasp in Sanford Stadium every time he touched the ball. Tickets were scalped and seats were sat in just to catch a glimpse at what he might do next.

Moreno only started six games as a redshirt freshman, but he played in all 13. He gained 1,334 yards. Scored 14 touchdowns. He broke defenders' ankles. He hustled, juked and jived. He played as if each play were a gift to be made the most of and never to be taken for granted. 

And in so doing, he endeared himself into the hearts of every Dawg fan.

In August of 2008, as #7 and #24 jerseys were flying off the racks around Athens and the Georgia Bulldogs were being speculated as the best team in the nation, injuries were quickly and indirectly becoming an issue for Stafford, Moreno and the team as a whole. 

Left tackle Trinton Sturdivant went down during two-a-days with a bad knee. Defensive tackle Jeff Owens in the season's first few minutes. The list grew each day it seemed.  

In Sturdivant, suddenly Stafford's blindside insurance policy and Moreno's seal blocker was gone for the season. Although both stars enjoyed success individually during the season, the preseason expectations were grossly unfulfilled. Losses to Alabama and Florida had forced Georgia out of the driver's seat in the SEC bus.

Worse, a loss to in state rival Georgia Tech had left fans bitter and wanting more. Much more. The reality of a decision their star players would soon make was setting in and they felt the window of opportunity for crowns and glory was closing, if not closed.

Could Stafford leave with a losing record against hated Florida? Would Knowshon take his energy, enthusiasm and highlights to some NFL team's field? Where was the crystal football, the SEC Championship appearances, ...the confetti?

On the other hand, could Stafford pass on a possible top pick in the NFL? Could Moreno use another season in the short "lifetime" of a running back as a collegiate player? Could they pass up millions of go to classes?

At the end of the Capital One Bowl we gathered close to hear Stafford accept the bowl's MVP trophy. With bated breath we listened intently, hoping that with the swell of emotions at the end of the season the young man would tell his fans he wasn't done at Georgia. We all chanted "One more year!" as if our desires could prompt a momentary loss of reason. He took the microphone, but was working off of a different playbook.

We wanted him to audible, but he stuck to the play. 

On the first of this month we had a chance to watch the first tailback to gain over 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons since Herschel Walker play another game in silver britches. With each yard Moreno gained we inched closer to the edge of our seat. With each signature sprint back to the huddle we smiled a little wider, as if to hide the anxiety at what we might be witnessing.

Six days later the two stars gave us their word. They made it official. Their time on campus was over. They were prepared to take the next step.

Did they, along with their fans regret the opportunites missed? Absolutely. Was it a difficult decision given careful thought? Without question, yes.

But when you have an opportunity to play a game you love and get paid handsomely for it, the choice is made easier. As nice as it would be to finish what they started three years ago, come back and lead their team to more victories, provide fans with more statistics to pore over and give YouTube junkies more sick moves to watch countlessly; the lure of another challenge awaits.

Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno leave Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall with no more SEC Trophies than there were in 2006. But while many fans will say that this tarnishes their exemplary career and legacy, they cannot be judged as any less of a player.

They are Dawgs. 

Stafford engineered a last minute comeback as a freshman, against the engineers of Georgia Tech. Moreno's first touchdown in Jacksonville sparked a celebration both in the stands and on the field. Stafford used just one throw in overtime to beat Bama in Tuscaloosa. Moreno defied gravity once for over five yards in the desert heat of Arizona, finally returning to Earth for a Georgia touchdown. Stafford calmly stood backed against his own end zone and fired a bullet to Massaquoi against the Gators. Moreno once returned a phone call to LSU's student body from
their team's endzone.

Yes, they ARE Dawgs!

How fitting that the Georgia quarterback's last pass as a Dawg was a beautiful spiral that was placed perfectly into the hands of his tailback. And how fitting that Georgia's tailback's last reception as a Dawg was a spectacular catch only outdone by the footwork that made it into a touchdown.

No BCS trophy. No SEC Championship ring to signify the event. No confetti falling from the Orlando sky. Just a signature moment for two talented players.

Two Dawgs their fans will always remember.


Gators vs. Jackets at Talladega

In the interest of full disclosure (and in case this is your first visit to my space), I am a Southeastern Conference football fan. I live and breathe it, in all of its glory.

Like most college football fans in the southeast, I recognize the conference as the best. Others merely play out their games to see who should lose to the SEC champion.

It's pompous I know, but it's how we roll.

From its grills outside the stadium to its gridiron fanfare, the SEC is simply superior.

I will also be honest that during bowl season, I root for just about any team playing against an SEC team. The exception is Georgia, as I have now given them enough money in tuition for my degrees to call myself a rabid Dawg.

Oh, and I also pull for any SEC team playing Georgia Tech. Uh...unless it’s Florida.

If that ever happens I would just succumb to whatever is on Jennifer's to do list. Because that game could only entertain me if it were played on the track of a NASCAR race.

No, maybe you misunderstood. Actually during a race... 

Come to think of it, that might be the first time I watch an oval track with cars travelling at such ridiculous speeds that Rosco P. Coltrane's head would spin and his revolver would discharge Plaxstyle...

I digress.

A large number of SEC fans have this feeling of pride in their conference that somehow requires them to root for the teams that their own team competes against every season. 

The SEC is best and we need to pull for each other. We need to show the country how our boys play football.

Do we? 

Is it really necessary and vital that Coach Spurrier has my support for his chickens to have any shot at beating a Hawkeye?

Bad example. Maybe Darth Visor actually did need my voice. 

See, in my mind, pulling for Florida to win yet another national title only hurts my team's chances at it next year. Or the year beyond...or ever again!

That and it would likely make my head implode

Let's face it, a Georgia fan pulling for a team of reptiles actually does NOT make the gators chomp harder. Tebow doesn't need me cheering heartily to defeat a team of BoomerSooners.

That's what his cape is for.

Why exactly should I hope that South Carolina wins against Iowa when Georgia not only plays the Gamecocks each year, but recruits against their coaches along the same interstates? And does Bama forgetting that their season is 14 games long this year help the Dawgs' chances at securing a commitment, maybe even a signature of a 17 year old?

Hard to say, but I'll take my chances. Go Utes! 

So as this year's bowl season began, all of the attention was focused squarely on the Big 12. And it turns out there are actually 12 teams in the conference, unlike the Big Ten that actually has 11.

No wonder their teams can't win at football, they can't count to 11! 

Yet again I stray...

Anyway, this attention was newsworthy because the SEC had won the previous two BCS Championships, but had taken some lumps from the media during the regular season. It seems Auburn, Tennessee and LSU had disappointed them.

Altogether now...Awww!

The Big 12 was sexy, high powered, offensive...and full of controversy. While Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma argued over who should play Florida (or Bama...remember they were that close) the SEC was going about their business. 

Practicing. Scheming. Concocting new formations. Having dinner with agents. Come to think of it, maybe Andre Smith knew what was coming in the Sugar Bowl.

And while I was looking at the schedule of bowls and wondering how the SEC would manage just four wins, Rich Brooks had his coaches watching film. Bobby Johnson had his players practicing 45 yard field goal attempts that would erase 53 years of post season misery. Coach Nutt had his Rebels running some sprints.

Coach Fulmer ate another pie.

This all went on behind my back; therefore I picked my beloved conference to finish the post season at .500. And I smiled at the thought that they might do worse.

Now it's no wonder my bowl pool left me at the shallow end before Santa even returned to the North Pole. Not only did Brooks' Wildcats and Johnson's 'Dores win, so did the Rebels and even LSU. WAHOO!

While the national media was setting the stage for a ceremony in which college football's torch would be passed to the sexy new neighbor with the shiny new Heisman and the ever subjective tie-breaker system, the SEC was setting the table.

And cleaning their plates.

Even before Florida won (everybody with me...) ANOTHER national title Thursday night, an argument could be made that the SEC still reigned supreme.

Now, in the words of our favorite Friend Joey Tribbiani, the point is moo.

Three pretty crystal footballs in three years. Six wins and two losses in the bowl season. And not one respectable coach fired in over a month.

The SEC is not back. It never left. The torch it carries is not petering out; it is burning brighter than ever.

Big 12, your case for supremacy has been dismissed. And not by some 1996 OJ Simpson trial judge in LA named Ito. Closer to one like Judge Jackie Glass in Las Vegas.

Oklahoma, Texas, others - you can ask for a retrial in August. But if Tebow and Sanchez return like they should, my vote would be for the Gators to defend their title(s) against the Men of Troy next January in Pasadena.

And this Dawg fan says, Go Trojans!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Coaching Changes For Richt's Staff

...and no, not the changes you may have been thinking about at the end of last season.

Bryan McClendon has been promoted from graduate assistant to running backs coach. The move was made after Steve Greer retired from his position as Director of Football Operations. John Eason assumes that role and former RBs coach Tony Ball will now coach receivers.

Just a little more Dawg flair for CMR's staff. McClendon is of course the son of Willie McClendon, who is eighth on the Dawgs' career rushing list. The younger McClendon played receiver under Richt for four seasons.

Greer, a former Bulldog All-American, served as a coach under Dooley and Goff. He coached at Georgia for 27 seasons. Beginning in 1996 he assumed the role of Director of Football Operations. 

His son Michael you may remember was a receiver and kick returned under Donnan.

Full Story at GeorgiaDogs

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Stafford and Moreno Have Returned To Athens... hang up their red and black gear.

Both players have reportedly made their decisions and will announce their intentions to turn pro today at afternoon press conferences. 

Spring practice may have just gotten a whole lot more interesting.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Garner Stays...exhale.

In an off-season that has many Georgia Bulldog fans blue in the face, the average barker is once again breathing a sigh of relief.

Georgia assistant head coach and defensive line coach Rodney Garner has announced that he will remain on Coach Mark Richt’s staff despite being courted heavily by Tennessee as their new offensive line coach.

“Certainly I'm flattered and am sincerely appreciative of the interest shown by Tennessee,"  Garner explained. "But in the final analysis the positives at Georgia were the determining factors.”

The positives Garner spoke of were being able to coach the defensive side of the ball, raise a family in the Athens community, and work for a head coach who is potty trained. Garner also took the time to mention that he is eager to work with Georgia’s returning linemen and the 2009 recruiting class.

Garner is the lone holdover from Jim Donnan’s staff and has gained a reputation as a solid recruiter and exemplary line coach. His resume includes four NFL first-round draft picks from his defensive line: Marcus Stroud, Richard Seymour, Charles Grant and Jonathan Sullivan.

That alone is reason for all of the interest in Garner, who has also recently interviewed with Auburn for their head coaching position. But a closer look reveals a deeper reason Tennessee’s new regime came after the Georgia coach.

Garner served at Tennessee before joining Donnan’s Georgia staff in 1998. At the time Fulmer and Tennessee were regularly taking recruits from the state of Georgia, specifically the Atlanta area. However, since Garner left Knoxville the only top recruit the Bulldogs have lost to Tennessee has been Eric Berry of Fairburn, Ga.

The common denominator in the equation is Garner. The coach has not only helped develop NFL-worthy prospects, but has helped build the fence around the state of Georgia.  Fulmer and staff no longer had an easy drive down I-75 into Atlanta to evaluate talent and talk to mamas.

Since 1998, Fulmer and Tennessee enjoyed seasons of success, and countless buffets. But not success to the tune of the teams that included Tee Martin and Jamal Lewis. As seasons came and went, the wins became more and more difficult.

Enter Lane Kiffin.

Tennessee’s new head guy is known as a recruiter, but not necessarily in the Southeast. The decision to hire the young Kiffin was not an immediate threat to Georgia, but set in motion a series of other decisions that could have led to a piece being missing in Richt’s staff.

Tennessee also hired the esteemed NFL defensive mind and head coach’s dad, Monte Kiffin, as their new defensive coordinator. The salary agreed upon is a whopping seven figures.

Garner, who very much wants a coordinator and eventually a head position, undoubtedly took notice.

Then late last week, Tennessee also signed Ed Orgeron as their defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator. Many Georgia fans who had already lived through the courtship from Auburn of not just Garner but offensive line coach Stacy Searels, may have felt Richt’s staff was safe from being cherry picked.

But then the University of Tennessee jets started flying across the border. And the occupants of the planes were not in the Peach state just to call upon 18-year-old recruits.

Garner was listening. He was even flying back with them to Knoxville.

Even as the state of Georgia’s top football prospect was announcing on national television that he would play ‘tween the hedges next year, the two schools were vying for Garner’s services. Offers were trumped by counter offers.

In a way, Branden Smith is a prime example of how things have changed in the state of Georgia leading up to National Signing Day. He will graduate from Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta and had a stellar game in the Under Armour All-American game.

Historically, Georgia has had difficulty recruiting in Atlanta. Champ Bailey, Garrison Hearst and even Herschel Walker all came from rural areas of the state. It seems Georgia coaches had trouble getting into high school coaches’ offices…and bleachers.

In Mark Richt’s press conference after being hired in late December 2000, he quickly mentioned the importance of recruiting within the state. He firmly acknowledged that he felt championships could be won with the talent being developed within the state.

Within two years he had added an SEC trophy to Butts-Mehre’s collection and his staff was turning in travel receipts that were easier on the recruiting budget. Atlanta had opened its doors to the new Georgia regime and players like DJ Shockley, Thomas Brown and Thomas Davis had traveled down highway 316 towards Athens.

Last week, when Orgeron signed as a position coach in Knoxville he inked a deal that will pay him more than most coordinators. This potentially put Georgia in a hardship to keep their man as they could not match figures with Tennessee.

Willie Martinez, Georgia’s defensive coordinator, had drawn the ire of many fans for the defensive performances in its three losses and a couple of its wins. So the timing was not right to give their own defensive coordinator a lucrative raise given the Bulldog Nation’s discontent. And to give Garner a raise over Martinez’s compensation was inconceivable.

It seemed Tennessee was in a position of power.

But Coach Richt had an audience with his assistant coach last and Garner made a decision he felt he could live with. His family has spent 11 years in Athens.

Georgia fans are glad they will spend at least one more.

Bleacher Version

David Hale's CMR Teleconference Transcript

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Greek Literature, Anthropology....

...or NFL Combines...??

Decisions, decisions. Tick, tock...

We gotta start with the defense. We all realize that this match up set up well for Coach Willie Martinez's unit. There wasn't much mystery in what the Dawgs would do to combat Ringer.

But my oh MY!

I'm very well aware that I have hopped over the fence a few times on the Dawgs' DC, but the Capital One Bowl was a prime example of how the beleaguered defense has been the scapegoat this year.

The game itself was billed for its offensive stars. Javon Ringer and Knowshon Moreno as the Doak finalists, Matt Stafford as the star quarterback, and AJ Green and MoMass as the Georgia receiving duo that could become the second and third receiver in Dawg history to surpass 1000 yards in a season.
All that offensive pub and it was 6-3 at halftime.

The Dawg O turned it over twice, Mimbs gulped a Slurpee too quick before a 4th down and had a brain freeze, and the Spartan offense continually punched the Dawg D in the mouth (as predicted by their tight end, more later). And yet CWM's crew kept fighting.

Spartans take over on the Dawg 6 yard line, no problem. Completely irresponsible roughing the passer call, sobeit! 

The defensive responses came in the form of passion and intensity. Given the opportunity to tuck tail and make plans for the week leading up to Spring classes, Allen, Atkins, Ellerbe, Jones and Curran snapped the strap a little tighter and went to work.

Sacks, brutal hits, jarring blows and relentless pressure. The only reason Stafford was awarded the CapOne MVP was because the officials didn't have enough hardware for the entire defensive unit.

In fact, so inspired was the Georgia QB by his defensive compadres' level of play that his best play of the first half was...a tackle. It saved a Spartan touchdown after a tipped pass and interception. The Dawg D took over from there. They forced a field goal.

Coach Mark Richt admitted that it was probably not a good decision to scale back the tackling during practices earlier this season as the injuries mounted. Looking at a sideline Thursday that was littered with black wind pants in lieu of silver britches, I'm not sure he had much of a choice. However, the defense clearly tackled better after more physical bowl preparations. 

That and they played a whale of a game for their coaches. 

And speaking of coaches, it appears Garner is seriously considering heading to Knoxville to join young Kiffin's staff. I hate to see him go, but CMR is in a position where he really can't ask Evans to compete with the serious coin being thrown around up there. 

The elder Kiffin will make seven a coordinator. Their d line coach and recruiting guru(you remember Ed Obegone!) will make more than most coordinators. It appears as if the decision will come soon.

If Garner does fly, look for Coach Lilly to take over recruiting duties. As far as the position coach position, Garner has interviewed enough lately that I would think Richt has a well developed short list.

Shout outs
  • Ol' Willie, for reasons already stated.
  • the Capital One Bowl for the gift bags that included the thunder sticks; somehow Conner and Ainsley's both disappeared before our 8 hour trip home...??
  • section 327 for representin' down in Orlando.
  • the nine teams in my pool of picks this year who covered for me (Bama - that obviously excludes you). Safe to say I'm not winning the dough this year. It's all yours Brenda.
  • An anonymous blogger somewhere out there (I've forgotten where I read it) that submitted this joke for the blogosphere's enjoyment: What's the difference between Alabama football and a dollar bill? You can still get four quarters from a dollar. 
  • All of the seniors (and any juniors that choose to declare next week) for another 10 win season and four (or so) years of dedication. You're welcome back anytime.
  • Coach Mark Richt for 82 wins in eight seasons. ReMARKable. Anyone who doesn't appreciate what you have done for UGA Athletics is either too young to remember the Goff years or too ignorant to complete a coherent thought.
  • And lastly, my reader. Go ahead and give your own shout out to your first grade teacher.

Trivia Roundup

T. Namaman correctly answered Bernie's Burning Question last week. MSU tight end Charlie Gantt commented that the Dawgs would back up a little bit when they were hit in the mouth every play. You're obviously dying to see it Trivia Master. Here are Bernie's angels, fretting a sweat...

So another victory (seventh in as many tries) over a Big Ten team in a bowl caps off a weird, yet successful season for our beloved Dawgs. We started out on top and will finish...somewhere lower. We average two season ending injuries a week and still manage ten wins.

Ron Courson deserves some time off don'tcha think?

We'll see how much potentially losing Garner would hurt what is shaping up to be another great recruiting class for the Dawgs, especially Marlon Brown. Coach Kiffy has quite the man-crush on the star receiver. Lilly you may recall accomplished quite a lot at FSU coordinating recruiting and Bobo has quickly established himself as a force in mama's living room.

And speaking of recruiting, Branden Smith is scheduled to announce his college choice in tonight's Under Armour All-America game. And a smattering of 2009's early enrollees are arriving on campus as we speak, including Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger.

Check back early and often Dawg fans, and others that are so inclined. There's coaching and recruiting news/analysis to follow. We'll call it BDB's version of mat drills.

Peace and goodwill to men.