April 10, 2006

Defense shines as QB battle rages on at UGA

ATHENS, Ga. One brilliant pass by Matthew Stafford and six errant ones from Joe Tereshinski and Joe Cox might have settled the quarterback issue that has been the hottest topic of discussion at Georgia this spring.

Well, it might have in the minds of 18,530 who ignored Saturday morning storms and filed into Sanford Stadium for the G-Day spring football game.

But the only opinion that matters Georgia coach Mark Richt's remained undecided despite Stafford's 64-yard touchdown strike on his first play and the two interceptions thrown by Tereshinski and four by Cox, two of which were returned for long touchdowns in the Red's 14-10 victory over the Black.

"I'll study the film of the spring (practices) and the spring game with Coach (Mike) Bobo and Coach (Neil) Callaway," Richt said. "I doubt anything will change going into the fall.

"I'm not worried about it. I'm certainly not going to write off Joe Cox. He also threw some beautiful passes and hit guys on the move. He's a freshman."

So is Stafford, ranked by Rivals.com as the nation's top quarterback prospect in 2006, and ever since he announced his commitment a year ago, Georgia football fans have eagerly waited to see what the strong-armed Texan could do.

They did not have to wait long on Saturday.

On his first play of the G-Day spring football game, Stafford faked a handoff to Danny Ware and threw deep for Mikey Henderson, who was uncovered down the left sideline, for a 64-yard touchdown that proved to be one of the few offensive highlights.

An Inside Look
Old reliable: Running backs. So, nobody will confuse Thomas Brown for Herschel Walker, Garrison Hearst, Robert Evans, Frank Sinkwich or Charlie Trippi, but the Bulldogs remain solid there. Jason Johnson rushed for 97 yards, and he may be a fourth-stringer. Kregg Lumpkin was characteristically elusive.
Promising newcomer: You're kidding, right? Matthew Stafford throws a long touchdown on his first play. That pretty much fills the criteria.
Solid unit: The secondary. Tra Battle is the only returning starter, but there's obviously plenty of ability back there. Four interceptions and two touchdowns are irrefutable evidence.
Unit that needs work: Special-teams miscues included a missed extra point and two fumbled punts. And that was without a rush or coverage. What happens when the return man is under pressure?
In good hands?: Maybe, maybe not. Tight end has been a reliable position for the Bulldogs, who lost Leonard Pope as an early entry to NFL draft. Martrez Milner, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound senior, and Tripp Chandler, a 6-6, 253-pound sophomore, both look the part but dropped the first four passes thrown their way.
"Coach Bobo told us before the game we were going to run that play first," said Henderson, who appeared to bobble the ball before making the catch. "I tried to get my mind ready to catch that first play. I guess the cornerback (freshman Asher Allen) bit on the play fake and I was wide open. I was so open I was worried about the ball and I almost lost my footing. It was a great throw by Stafford."

Stafford finished with five completions on 12 attempts for 102 yards. He showed a strong arm and touch, but on his second series he also threw behind wide-open tight end Tripp Chandler. But at least he was throwing to the right guy.

"I started off pretty good and then I tapered off," Stafford said. "I tried to relax and have fun."

He had much more fun than his competition for the designation as D.J. Shockley's successor as the Bulldogs' starting quarterback.

Tereshinski, a senior who backed up Shockley last season, was 2-of-7 for 45 yards and the two interceptions. Cox, a redshirt freshman, completed 12 of 21 attempts for 162 yards, but one interception was returned 80 yards for a touchdown by Ramarcus Brown and another went for a 104-yard touchdown return by Allen.

"That was not indicative of how those guys can play," Stafford said.

Cox tried to remain positive.

"I feel I hurt myself today," he said. "I know I did some good things, too. Maybe (the coaches) will look at that."

Richt said they will.

"I'm not too worried about (the interceptions) now," he said. "I'd rather it happen now than in the first ball game. That's why I like the spring game.

"Write that so Joe will know it's OK."

Notes from between the hedges:
Having converted from safety, Henderson knows all too well that position's responsibilities, so he was expecting the worst when waiting to catch a high, arching pass from Stafford. "It was a mile high, so I snuck a peak at C.J. (Byrd, rover). I thought, 'He's going to get here in time and it's all going to happen at once. He's going to kill me.' But when I caught it nobody was there."

Although the loss of three starters has raised some questions about the secondary, cornerback Ramarcus Brown, who had one of four interceptions by defensive backs, felt those doubts were answered. "We showed we have a lot of talent. Once we begin playing together and know what to expect we'll make plays," he said.

There were six interceptions, but if this had been a real game there might have been seven. Sophomore safety Rowdy Francis broke in front of Thomas Brown and dived to intercept Joe Cox's first pass, but the play was eventually ruled incomplete. In a real game it would have been reviewed. "I thought it was an interception," said Richt, who was up in the press box.

The best catch of the day didn't count. Freshman split end Kris Durham was blanketed by Allen, but fell on the slick turf as Cox's 25-yard pass came his way. Flat on his back, Durham reached up and made the grab. However, defensive tackle Kade Weston had already been credited with a sack, so the play didn't stand.

Richt distributed 2005 SEC championship rings to players in a brief ceremony on the field after the game.

The Bulldogs presented 21 spring football awards. Running back Thomas Brown was cited as the best all-around offensive player and defensive end Charles Johnson was honored as the best all-around defensive player.

Although the scoreboard and stat sheet did not reflect it, kicker Andy Bailey missed an extra point attempt after the game's first touchdown. Allen, however, rushed, which was against G-Day rules and rather than kick again the Black team was awarded the point.

Making the Grade
Quarterback: 6.0
Stafford's first-play touchdown was a gem, but he played like a freshman, albeit a gifted one, the rest of the way. And six interceptions cannot be ignored.
Running back: 7.5
Thomas Brown had a 24-yard run. Jason Johnson had a 46-yarder, and Lumpkin was slippery as a trout and consistent. He had 44 yards on eight carries, but no run longer than 10 yards. "Jason is a talented kid and a tough son of a gun," Richt said of Johnson. "He's going to play. We've always been pleased with him and he's stepped it up."
Wide receiver: 7.0
Mikey Henderson recently converted from safety and showed it was a good move with five catches for 87 yards. Aside from his touchdown grab when Allen fell, no receiver appeared to get much separation. Maybe that's a credit to the defensive backs covering them.
Tight end: 7.0
Although Milner and Chandler both dropped two passes early, Chandler came back to grab four passes for a game-best 98 yards. They both also look the part of the usual big Georgia tight ends. Are they cloning those guys?
Offensive line: 6.0
There were some nice runs, but the defense was credited with six sacks and that's never good. Tackle Daniel Inman (6-7, 319) and center Nick Jones (6-3, 295) are the only returning starters from last season, but Richt said the Bulldogs will have to run effectively next season. "They're better run blockers," he said. "If we can run the ball we'll become better pass protectors."
Defensive line: 8.0
The tackles aren't as dominant as Georgia has grown accustomed to, but the ends are nasty. Finding a better pair than Quentin Moses and Charles Johnson won't be easy. Moses had two tackles and a sack. Johnson had five tackles and two sacks.
Linebacker: 6.0
No real speed there. Tony Taylor and Jarvis Jackson had interceptions (who didn't?), but other than that there were no significant plays.
Defensive back: 8.5
That might be a tad high, but how else do you grade a position that produced four interceptions and two touchdowns? Safety Tra Battle is the only returning starter, but Paul Oliver, Ramarcus Brown and Asher Allen showed they're ready for the spotlight.
Special teams: 4.0
Andy Bailey missed an extra point and Allen fumbled two punts, one of which rolled forward about 10 yards. On the positive side, Bailey did convert a 25-yard field goal, and the long snaps looked OK.

For more coverage of Georgia Spring Practice, check out UGASports.com.

More Spring Practice Report Cards:
Auburn: Speed to burn on defense
LSU: Tigers show off their depth
clemson: Secondary holds key to season
Southern Cal: Who will get deep receiving corps the ball?


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