Georgia’s four quarterbacks during spring practice. From left-to-right: Brice Ramsey, Jacob Park (who has since transferred), Faton Bauta and walk-on Sam Vaughn.
No time for dilly-dallying. We’ll leave the background info and other note for the end of this post. First we get right to it and proclaim that the most important player for Georgia’s 2015 season is …
1. THE QUARTERBACK
Is this a cop-out? Well yes, it is. But a defensible one.
If anyone could say with something approaching certainty who the starting quarterback will be, and their names were not Mark Richt or Brian Schottenheimer, then they would just be bloviating. It’s still a legitimate question.
Yes, there is a favorite: Brice Ramsey. The only question is whether he’s the clear or slight favorite. The events of the spring and summer indicate it’s the latter.
Prior to the spring, Ramsey not being named the starter by now would have been seen as just a ploy to keep the competition going, and keep the other quarterbacks from transferring. But by all accounts, Faton Bauta made it a real competition. His leadership qualities, mobility and accuracy offer something to think about.
So, if we had been doing this series after spring practice Georgia’s most important player would have been “Brice Ramsey or Faton Bauta.”
And then came the summer, and Greyson Lambert.
Greyson Lambert of Wayne County has decided to transfer to Georgia. (AJC photo by Jason Getz)
There was a perception that Lambert, the transfer from Virginia, was coming to Georgia just to provide depth, and Lambert would be happy to just be home. Both perceptions appear to be wrong. Lambert actually grew up an Alabama fan, as he told me when I visited with him in Charlottesville last month, and he's coming to Georgia trying to win the job. And while Georgia's coaches haven't been able to comment on Lambert yet – he doesn't officially enroll until Monday – all indications are they really, really like Lambert's potential.
So, in case it wasn’t apparent already, August will be very interesting. This is back to a three-man competition, and none of the three choices would be a shock.
Now with that as a backdrop, we come to …
WHY IT'S VITAL: We can dispense with the obvious first. It's the quarterback. He's almost always the most important player on his team.
But why, given the uncertainty, is the quarterback on this team more important than Nick Chubb, potentially one of the best players in the country? There are several reasons that tip the importance meter slightly towards Georgia's yet-to-be-named quarterback.
Obviously, a good passing game will make things much easier for Chubb and the other tailbacks. That doesn’t mean a good downfield game, but an accurate overall passing attack. Maybe Hutson Mason didn’t force the safeties to sit all the way back last year, but he didn’t make many mistakes either, which kept Chubb, Todd Gurley and company on the field. Mason was also a good game manager, in the best sense of the term, and with the change in offensive coordinator, it’s an open question whether Georgia will have that this year.
Also, as David Greene points out, the game of college football has changed. Georgia can have the best tailback in the country, but that’s not enough.
“That is a very, very important position,” Greene said. “If you want to win games in the SEC your quarterback has gotta play extremely well, especially now, because teams are having to score so many points. If you’re not scoring 30 points a game now your chances of winning are down drastically. It wasn’t like that 10, 15 years ago, when games were decided in the teens.”
But ultimately the deciding factor was the depth chart. As good as Chubb as, and as much of a difference-maker as he is, Georgia can also turn to Sony Michel, Keith Marshall and others. Yes, that run a bit contrary to what we said in this series' previous post, but that was explaining why Chubb, despite the talent behind him, was more important than everyone else except the quarterback. Last year Todd Gurley was No. 2 on this list, and Mason was No. 1. So this year we've gone the same way, the only difference being we don't know who is replacing Mason.
New Georgia offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer (L) inherits an uncertain quarterback situation with the Bulldogs. (UGA photo by John Kelley)
QUOTABLE: "It's gonna take all these guys showing the hunger, the drive, to want to be great, to want to win the job. They're all kind of slotted there together right now in the same area. We're looking to see who's around the building a lot. We're looking to see who's leading the run groups out there. We're looking to see who's kind of grabbing the scripts and taking those things out there that they do. Somebody will grab the reins. That's what we expect to happen from the group." – Schottenheimer.
BEST CASE: Rather than pick sides, we'll break it down by skill sets. If it's Ramsey or Lambert (the purely pocket quarterbacks), then Georgia's vertical passing game is ignited, and the mistakes are kept to a minimum. The latter is the key for both Ramsey and Lambert, whose arm strengths are well-established. If the choice is Bauta, then at his best his blend of mobility and passing accuracy would make Georgia's offense a huge headache for opposing defensive coordinators.
Last year Georgia averaged 199.9 passing yards per game, which was 90th in the nation. But to be fair to Mason, Georgia didn’t emphasize the pass that much becaue of the running game, and Mason also was 10th in the nation in pass efficiency rating, which takes into account completion percentage and interceptions.
The best-case scenario for Ramsey or Lambert is coming close to Mason’s game managing ability, while opening up the downfield game. The best case for Bauta is replicating Mason’s efficiency rating, while adding the running dimension.
WORST CASE: Much like Georgia fans last year gained an appreciation for Aaron Murray, this year they gain a new appreciation for Mason. If Georgia's quarterbacks aren't dependable and are turning the ball over, it will likely be too much for a great running game to overcome. In fact it would likely mean no more great running game, as the offense is on the field less, and the running backs are getting the full attention of the linebackers and safeties.
Georgia’s offense averaged 457.8 yards per game last year, which was 30th in the nation. Poor quarterback play will see that ranking plummet. And never mind getting back to Atlanta, as Georgia would drop into the second tier of the SEC East.
FINAL WORD: A good quarterback alone won't determine the fate of Georgia's season. But it will be the most determinant factor. If Ramsey/Lambert/Bauta is great, or even just good, a lot else will have to go wrong for Georgia not to be playing for the SEC championship. If Ramsey/Lambert/Bauta is only average, then a lot else has to go well, and if the quarterback play is below-average, then any hopes for a special season are doomed.
Here was how the full list went this year:
No. 12 was freshman receiver Terry Godwin.
No. 11 was senior kicker Marshall Morgan.
No. 10 were junior inside linebackers Tim Kimbrough and Reggie Carter.
No. 9 was sophomore receiver and return specialist Isaiah McKenzie.
No. 8 was senior left tackle John Theus.
No. 7 was the outside linebacking trio of Jordan Jenkins, Leonard Floyd and Lorenzo Carter.
No. 6 was sophomore offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn.
No. 5 was sophomore defensive back Dominick Sanders.
No. 4 was freshman defensive lineman Trent Thompson.
No. 3 was senior receiver Malcolm Mitchell.
No. 2 was sophomore tailback Nick Chubb.
No. 1 was, well, you just read it.
Before last season, when I was doing the list for my previous employers, the list went this way (along with hindsight comments):
12. WR-KR Isaiah McKenzie (probably should have been higher, based on his positive impact on Georgia’s special teams).
11. S Corey Moore (didn’t end up being as much of a factor as expected).
10. K Marshall Morgan (had about the impact as expected, which is to say the normal amount for a kicker).
9. OLB Jordan Jenkins (didn’t quite have a breakout season, but came close).
8. ILB Ramik Wilson/Amarlo Herrera (they were once again solid, so like Jenkins their ranking on the list ended up being fair).
7. OLB Leonard Floyd (see Jenkins).
6. C David Andrews (should have been higher on this list, given his emotional impact on the offense).
5. OT John Theus (this ranking was right, as his ability to lock down the left tackle spot was big for the offense).
4. WR Malcolm Mitchell (too high, but only because Mitchell re-injured his knee after this list came out, and didn’t end up playing until five games into the season).
3. CB Damian Swann (he came through with the season the secondary needed).
2. TB Todd Gurley (you know how this turned out).
1. QB Hutson Mason (that too).
It’ll be interesting to see how this year’s list looks in the summer of 2016. In the meantime, I hope everyone enjoyed this series, if for no other reason than to pass the time before things start happening. Next week is SEC media days. So it’s all drawing near, folks.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com