ATHENS – Nick Chubb was great. The defense and special teams were improved. There was one area, however, that Georgia was truly excellent last year, and it’s often overlooked.
The Bulldogs had a plus-16 turnover margin last year, the program’s best since 1982. It was the best margin in the SEC, the fourth-best in the nation.
Can it be maintained, or even improved upon, in 2015? Perhaps, given a few returning factors, but it also goes back to the central subject of Georgia’s preseason: Quarterback.
Last year’s starter, Hutson Mason, may not have been able to stretch the field, but he only threw four interceptions, out of 277 pass attempts, the lowest such ratio for a Georgia starter since David Greene in 2004. Mason’s ability to move the chains and hold onto the ball was a big reason Chubb and Todd Gurley had the chances to carry the offense.
But Georgia’s defense, under then-new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, was also quite the ball-hawking group, especially in spurts: Five turnovers gained at Missouri, four of those interceptions. Four at Arkansas, two of those picks. There were 13 fumble recoveries last year, and 12 more that were forced but recovered by the other team.
“There’s not a day, not a rep that goes by that we don’t emphasize turnovers, getting the ball out, INTs, everything,” sophomore cornerback Malkom Parrish said. “Every rep we go out and that is our main goal, to go get that ball.”
It was just as much an emphasis for Mason and company to hold onto the ball. Now, with a new offensive coordinator and quarterback, the question is where it will lead.
Brian Schottenheimer’s history in the NFL showed a preference for quarterbacks who could take care of the ball. But he didn’t harp on that Monday, when asked if his quarterback preference would lean in one direction: Ability to stretch the field vs. taking care of the ball.
“You want to see a guy that can move the team,” Schottenheimer said. “Obviously we feel very good (that) we’re gonna be able to run the football. We want guys that can throw completions but also when the opportunity presents itself to push it down the field (and) make plays.
“We have good skill players. So certainly they don’t have to make the perfect throw every time. But again, what I’m used to is consistent play at quarterback. That’s what they’ve certainly had here, is a guy that goes out and takes care of the football.”
Many around the program believe that Ramsey, the sophomore with the golden arm, would have separated himself by now if the coaches were confident in his decision-making. The last thing the offense wants to do is waste the ability of Chubb and the tailbacks by handing the ball over to the other team.
“That is the emphasis. They want someone who doesn’t turn the ball over,” Ramsey said earlier this month, on the first day of camp. “At the same time, (they want) someone who’s not afraid to let the ball go. So there’s kind of a happy medium there, and you’ve gotta take what the defense gives you, and try not to force anything, and just throw incompletions.”
Ramsey threw two interceptions last year in 39 pass attempts, one against Louisville in relief of the injured Mason, and the other against Charleston Southern, when he had 12 passes in mop-up duty.
“You can’t throw a touchdown on one play and then run into a blitz on another play. You’ve gotta be consistent in all aspects of the game,” Ramsey said.
What the quarterback, whoever it is, has going for them is Georgia’s offensive line: Four starters back, and the new starter (sophomore Isaiah Wynn) is a rising star.
Good protection means more time for the quarterback to make his reads, and less chance of rushing throws and being picked off.
“I think we’ll be fine, whichever quarterback goes back there and starts, or plays, or if we play all three, it doesn’t matter to us. We’re still the same five guys blocking for whoever’s behind us,” junior right guard Greg Pyke said. “That definitely builds a challenge on us that whoever’s back there, whether it’s one of the new guys or whoever, kind of make him feel confident so he can step up in the pocket and throw those deep balls, or check-downs. He doesn’t have to worry about coaching us up on where we need to slide the protection or something.”
Georgia’s skill position players also tended to take care of the ball; there were only fumbled it away seven times last year. But it got a bit lucky, putting it on the ground 14 other times without losing possession. And two of the fumbles were the most critical: Overlooked in the hub-bub of the squip kick decision at Georgia Tech is the fact that Chubb and Sony Michel both fumbled it away near the goal-line.
As for the defense, Georgia’s 16 interceptions last year tied for third-most in the SEC, a year after having only seven picks, the second-least in the SEC. You can’t really blame the Todd Grantham era: Georgia averaged 16 interceptions his first three years, including an SEC-best 20 in 2011. Georgia also recovered an SEC-best 17 fumbles in 2012.
So it’s always been an emphasis at Georgia. The difference is the players: That interception drought in 2013 came after the massive run of attrition in the secondary, coupled with the graduation of Bacarri Rambo, Shawn Williams and Sanders Commings.
That’s where the hope lies for maintaining it this year: Mauger (four interceptions), Dominick Sanders (three), Aaron Davis and Devin Bowman (one each) are all back. So re leading sackers Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Lorenzo Carter, and sacks sometimes lead to fumbles.
“We owe it all to effort, and flying to the ball,” Mauger said. “It’s not a single guy making a play, like myself. I didn’t make those plays by myself. It goes from defensive linemen to linebackers, outside linebackers, to star, to the safeties, we all work together. I feel like when we all give effort everything comes easy.”