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Michaux: Georgia's loss doesn't discourage Douglas

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 2:52pm

ATHENS, Ga. — Brendan Douglas admits things have gotten “kinda weird” at Georgia.

“We’ve always been able to move the ball pretty well with the run game,” said the senior backup tailback from Aquinas.

Douglas showed up four years ago in a program that already had elite rushers Todd Gurley and Keith Mitchell and would soon add Nick Chubb and Sony Michel a year later. There has never been any question that a team facing the Bulldogs is going to be fed a steady diet of running the football.

Yet Georgia’s offense has struggled so far this season to do what it has always done routinely. Since Chubb piled up 222 yards in the season-opening win against North Carolina, no Bulldog runner has exceeded 80 yards in three subsequent games. Georgia rushed for only 101 yards in a narrow escape at Missouri two weeks ago and couldn’t establish an effective ground attack in falling behind 31-0 in the first half of a blowout loss at Ole Miss on Saturday.

With Chubb suffering an ankle injury and leaving his status for this week’s SEC East showdown with Tennessee up in the air, questions about the Bulldogs’ always reliable running game are in overdrive.

“It’s tough but everybody is working hard and everybody wants to get those yards and everybody wants to see the running backs score touchdowns,” Douglas said. “It’s disappointing for all of us but you’ve just got to keep working throughout the week and learn from the past games. I think we’re moving the ball pretty well at times and running it well at times. We’ve just got to be a little bit more consistent with it. I think we’ll be fine.”

When Douglas made a late decision to back out of his original commitment to Georgia Tech and come to Georgia in 2013, nobody could have foreseen the significance of the role he’d end up regularly playing. A three-star recruit as a fullback from Aquinas, he might have become a featured B-back for the Yellow Jackets, but Douglas’ heart led him to accept a late offer from Georgia.

“I got some hate tweets and stuff like that,” he said of his decision to switch between rivals. “You know how it goes. It was a tough decision but I’m happy where I’m at now and happy to be a Dawg.”

With the Bulldogs so stacked in the backfield, it was hard to see much room for Douglas on the depth chart. But he came into his first training camp and made a huge impression on his teammates and coaching staff with his effort.

As fate would have it, Douglas has been thrust into more substantial roles in the running game every season as the featured backs have struggled to stay healthy.

“Running back is a physical position and it seems like every year somebody is going to go down at some point and the other guys just have to be ready to step up and play,” Douglas said. “There’s always a lot of good running backs at Georgia so I think we’ll be fine.”

Douglas played in 12 games each of the previous three seasons, missing only the season-opener against Clemson as a freshman, the Georgia Tech game as a sophomore and last season’s bowl game while recovering from surgery. Through four games this season, his career offensive contributions are approaching the 1,000-yard mark – 743 rushing (4.15 average per carry), 216 receiving and six total touchdowns.

“I always kind of knew in the back of my head if I just come here and keep working as hard as I can that eventually I’m going to get an opportunity,” Douglas said. “I’ve been blessed with some.”

With a new coaching staff, including his third offensive coordinator in four seasons, Douglas keeps having to re-earn his chances.

“You just try hard to make an impression and that’s all you can really do,” he said. “You’ve got to practice like you’re the starter no matter what. So nothing’s going to change for me.”

His lone touch against Ole Miss was a pass that deflected off his hands to tight end Jeb Blazevich. He once again is competing with two heralded new additions in the backfield as Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield got the workload when the game got out of hand at Ole Miss.

“With Nick’s injury, we didn’t know at the time whether or not if he was going to be able to play this week,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “We still really don’t. So we were sitting there going, ‘We better get Elijah ready.’”

Douglas has always done the tasks that don’t get all the attention. He’s a reliable blocker in passing situations and is the off returner responsible for keeping Reggie Davis from trying to take the ball out from too deep in the end zone or picking up the deepest coverage threat when Davis takes off.

Whether Douglas might have been a featured star at Georgia Tech is irrelevant to him as he enjoys his final season as a Bulldog.

“I’m just trying to take advantage of every opportunity and embrace all of it,” he said. “It’s the last time, the last go-round, so I’m just trying to realize how much of a blessing it is to play here and be a football player here and try to embrace it and enjoy it as much as possible.”

Big home games between the hedges like Saturday’s against Tennessee make it worth all the effort. Douglas and his teammates had 24 hours to flush last week’s bitter result form their heads and get ready for the preseason division favorites coming in 4-0 and ranked No. 11.

“I think we can bounce back for sure,” said Douglas, who takes seriously his role as a senior leader by the example he sets in the wake of a tough defeat. “I recall my senior year of high school when Georgia lost to South Carolina at South Carolina and got blown out and then ended up winning the East. So you never know.

“It starts at practice and how you approach practice. Work hard and show the guys that the season’s not over yet. It’s a long season and the SEC’s a tough conference and we’re going to be fine.”

As for those “weird” running woes, Douglas believes that won’t be how his last season is defined when it’s over.

“I still think that we’re going to be able to run the ball,” he said. “We had a rough game this past weekend but I felt like we were still moving the ball good at times. There’s some improvement to do and guys will learn from it, but I think we’ll just keep getting better as the season goes on.”

Michaux: We should all thank Palmer

Sun, 09/25/2016 - 9:59pm

Golf will never be the same for two reasons. First, that Arnold Palmer lived. Second, that Arnold Palmer has died.

The single most important figure in the history of the game – you can argue with me about this if you want, but you’d be wrong – passed away Sunday at the age of 87. It’s disorienting thinking about a world without him.

Golf – actually, all of sports – as we know it today owes everything to Palmer. It was Palmer who created the modern image of sporting celebrity. It was Palmer who invented the concept of sports marketing with a handshake deal with Mark McCormack. It was Palmer who made golf a viable television entity. It was Palmer who invented the idea of the modern Grand Slam. It was Palmer who set the bar for civility and grace and manners that every athlete today can only aspire to achieve.

And closer to home here in Augusta, it was Arnold Palmer who made the Masters Tournament the Masters.

“He’s done so much for us,” said three-time major winner Nick Price. “He made the Masters. I’m telling you, he made the Masters. There’s no doubt. When he won in 1958, the tournament was only 24 years old.”

Arnie was born in Latrobe, Pa., on Sept. 10, 1929, but Arnie’s Army was born in 1958 at Augusta. The soldiers from nearby Camp Gordon were offered free admission to the Masters for the first time and the club recruited them to run the leaderboards. The servicemen quickly embraced the charismatic Coast Guard veteran, swarming in his wake as he charged to a one-shot victory over Ken Venturi.

By the next year, “Arnie’s Army” showed up on one of the Masters boards, and his legion swelled everywhere golf is played as he won four green jackets every even-numbered year between 1958-64. His era of dominance happened to coincide with the advent of golf on television, and his magnetism came through on camera.

“When he came on, and television came on, it was a mix made in heaven,” Price said. “Arnold Palmer, television and golf. Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus obviously did a lot, but it was Arnold who had that magnetism that brought everyone together.”

Palmer connected with the golfing public like no player ever had. You were simply drawn to his energy and charisma and bravado. He was a pin-up idol in a buttoned-up sport. Only Seve Ballesteros from a European perspective had a similar kind of impact on the sport. Even Tiger Woods as the biggest sports celebrity in the world could not match Palmer’s universal appeal.

Ask any player – past or present – what Arnie meant to the game and they will wax on. Chances are, every one of them received a signed letter from Palmer at some point congratulating them on a victory or milestone achievement in their own careers and lives.

“I would say what hasn’t he done for the game would be easier to explain,” said former PGA Tour winner Billy Kratzert, an eight-time Masters participant. “He might have been looking at the whole crowd, but when he looked over there you kind of felt he was looking at you directly. To have that sense connecting to the people, that was huge. You connect to the people, you win major championships, you win other golf tournaments, you’re friends with presidents, celebrities like Bob Hope, club companies, first guy with a jet. What hasn’t he done? Everyone said Tiger (Woods) made golf cool, well that’s probably true. But the guy who piqued the interest of everyone about the game and brought it to where the golf is pretty cool (was Arnie). I’m watching this guy hit from under the tree and making birdie, he’s got that Pall Mall hanging out of his mouth and he’s hanging around Jackie Gleason and Bob Hope, that’s pretty cool.”

There’s a reason Palmer is still one of the top paid golfers decades after he stopped competing.

“He made the modern game,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North. “He’s the man that put us on the map. We said for every dollar we make, we should give twenty-five cents to Arnold.”

We were blessed to have Palmer grace the game in the most public fashion for nearly seven decades. Long after he stopped being competitive, his mere presence at a tournament or in a pro-am drew us to him like moths to a flame. Even the most cynical media members stood up and applauded him as he tearfully exited the U.S. Open at his hometown Oakmont in 1994.

In 1988 in Richmond, Va., I went and saw Arnold Palmer win his last tournament at a Senior Tour event called the Crestar Classic. That was a year before I became a professional sports writer and had never met him, but I knew if The King was leading a golf tournament in your hometown you damn sure better show up and watch him.

Like so many of us who’ve been blessed to see him year after year in places like Augusta and Bay Hill and St. Andrews, Palmer’s stature grew every time he showed up. He never treated anyone with anything but respect and dignity. Old sportswriting friends like Ron Green Sr. might have traced their relationships with Palmer back to having breakfast with him at their hotel before the 1958 Masters, but he treated even his newest acquaintances with the same warm smile and thoughtfulness.

It’s already hard trying to comprehend an April without Arnie at the Champions Dinner or on that first tee at Augusta. Many of us have made a point of getting in place early on Thursday morning just to see him make that familiar lash at the golf ball. When he wasn’t fit enough to hit a tee shot this year, we still flocked to the first tee to see him just sitting there. I stood not more than 10 feet from his chair and he looked over toward the ropes and stared me straight in the eyes and gave a thumbs up. He might have been looking at anyone around me, but that image will forever burn in our memories as a last precious gift from The King.

It’s another personal story that stands out on a Sunday night when the reality that Mr. Palmer is no longer with us. It was at a reception on the eve of the 2006 Ryder Cup in Ireland introducing some already forgotten golf course his company designed. Palmer stood up to give a little speech, and as was often the case his emotions got the better of him. He was already tearing up as he toasted his late wife, Winnie, and his new bride, Kit. Then for some reason he thanked all of us.

“I’ve been lucky to live the best life any man could wish for,” Palmer said as we all had something in our eyes.

Palmer indeed lived a blessed life. He didn’t win as many majors as his Big Three mates Nicklaus or Player, but he won more hearts than any golfer who’s ever lived.

Yet we are the ones who were blessed to have Arnold Palmer around for so long as the game’s greatest ambassador. No one can ever replace him, but every lesson he left behind will live forever in our hearts and in the game.

Instead of saying goodbye, we should simply say “Thank you Arnold Palmer.”

Michaux: Davis Love III needs to choose Bubba Watson with final wild-card pick

Sat, 09/24/2016 - 7:23pm

ATLANTA – Davis Love III’s “best golf team, maybe, ever assembled” is still missing a piece, and it’s creating quite a mess.

The U.S. Ryder Cup captain will announce his 12th man during a taped segment to air at halftime of NBC’s Sunday Night Football game between the Cowboys and Bears. There are a few ways Love could go, but only one of them is the proper answer.

The choices are ...

NUCLEAR OPTION: Tiger Woods. If Love wants to make the biggest splash and create the largest possible buzz for NBC. he’d unveil the dormant Woods to make his long-awaited return to competitive golf on a stage where all he’d need to do is contribute a few birdies in a better ball match and scare the heck out of whichever poor European got matched up against him in singles. After all, triple bogeys can only lose one hole in match play. Woods would be an inspired choice, but the odds of it happening are beyond remote. He’ll likely keep driving a cart as one of Love’s assistants.

NEW BLOOD: Justin Thomas. With only one rookie already on the team (Brooks Koepka), the task force leaders are eager to get some fresh blood in the mix to change American fortunes and build some experience for the future. Both Thomas and Daniel Berger were invited to a team practice session at Hazeltine last week, and it’s no secret that Love loves Thomas, who played with his son, Dru, at Alabama. Love may already have taped his Thomas pick yesterday.

AWKWARD CHOICE: Bubba Watson. The No. 7 player in the world who finished ninth in points remains stewing on the bench like Jeremy Tunsil in the NFL Draft room. Love’s bizarre refusal to even mention Bubba’s name when repeatedly questioned directly about him during the press conference announcing his first three captain’s picks was revealing. It’s not the choice Love wants to make, but it’s the choice he needs to make.

There are all kinds of reasons why Watson isn’t a popular choice. He can be a bit moody and quirky, which may not play particularly well in the team room. Brandt Snedeker vigorously disputed that theory earlier this week.

“I want that out there for everybody to hear – Bubba Watson is a great teammate,” Snedeker said. “So I don’t know why everybody keeps making this diversion of the truth, making Bubba out to be this bad guy. He is a great teammate. ... And we would be lucky to have him on the team as a teammate, period, end of story.”

The real reason Watson isn’t the first choice was revealed by anonymous comments from Ryder Cup veterans in a recent Golf Digest confidential story: he’s not a grinder prone to giving up after getting behind. That’s the single worst trait a golfer can have in match play.

“I wonder how much fight he has in him when he’s 2 down after five,” one Euro said. “Is he coming back? Probably not. He’ll more than likely fold up.”

“He’s easily upset, too,” said another Euro. “The crowd can get to him. He doesn’t like being touched. So he has so much vulnerability.”

From an American teammate: “Attitude is everything with Bubba, because he has all the shots. If I’m Europe, I’m pointing out all the trouble at Hazeltine and letting Bubba chew on that.”

Watson has never won a singles match on five international teams. But he’s pretty good to have on your side in a better-ball match, where he’s 5-5 combined in the Ryder and Presidents Cups. He has his strengths, and he doesn’t need to play every session.

The uncomfortable spotlight Watson has been put in has his peers feeling sorry for him.

“I couldn’t imagine being in his position, wondering why at (No.) 7 in the world,” said Jordan Spieth. “So it’s an awkward position to be in.”

While his sensitive feelings have certainly been hurt, Watson has been saying and doing all the right things. He participated in last week’s “tryout” at Hazeltine and performed admirably.

“He didn’t seem upset about anything,” Spieth said. “He didn’t seem like he was entitled to any position or any advantage over anybody else.”

Watson was an outspoken supporter as a member of the U.S. Olympics team, electing to go to Rio when others sat it out. He wants badly to play again next week.

“It’s everything,” he said. “The only two things that were important this year were making the Olympics and making the Ryder Cup team. ... There’s going to be one year, hopefully before I pass away, that we actually win, and I want to be a part of it.”

Players seem to believe Love and his advisors already had their minds made up on the last pick before the Tour Championship ever started. It’s about strategies and matchups and chemistry, the players have said.

At some point you cross the line into overthinking everything. Bubba Watson is the third highest ranked American in the world. He’s won the Masters twice. He won at Riviera in February. He’s missed one cut since July of 2015. He hits the ball further than anybody in Europe and more greens in regulation than most.

Bubba Watson is the right pick even if he’s not the popular one. Thomas needs to earn his place as Watson has three times. If the world No. 7 is snubbed, Team USA risks destroying the spirit and confidence of a player destined to qualify for future teams whether they want him or not.

Michaux: Questions still must be answered about Clemson, Georgia Tech

Thu, 09/22/2016 - 11:28pm

ATLANTA — Two weeks shy of the 100th anniversary of the greatest mismatch in collegiate football history, the ghosts of Cumberland’s players were probably having a good laugh for most of Thursday night.

On Oct. 7, 1916, Georgia Tech buried Cumberland 222-0 on the not-yet-historic Grant Field. On Thursday night, No. 5 Clemson exacted a modest measure of revenge in a no-contest Atlantic Coast Conference matchup between two teams that shared 3-0 records and little else.

The 26-7 score was misleading, as the impression was just as one-sided.

After a first half in which the Tigers outgained the Jackets 347 yards to 22, it was merely 23-0. It could have – perhaps should have – been much worse.

Clemson hadn’t won at historic Grant Field in since 2003, a fact that provided an element of mystery as to what might be the outcome before Georgia Tech kicked off and removed all doubt that it isn’t that far removed from its 3-9 ways of a year ago.

Clemson, meanwhile, looked a little bit closer to the team that came within five points of a perfect record and national title last year than it did in its first three starts of 2016. Not remotely close to full stride by any means, but better by a lot than its opposition.

It’s defense, however, has obviously figured out Paul Johnson’s triple-option tricks. It had to be a grave embarrassment to the ninth-year Jackets coach that his offense was spinning its wheels in reverse through the first half against Brent Venable’s defense. Quarterback Justin Thomas was running for his life from a Tigers rush that seemed to be in the Ramblin’ Wreck’s huddle from the first play when Christian Wilkins blew through the line for 6-yard sack of Thomas. The Jackets finished with fewer than 100 rushing yards for the first time since last year against Clemson.

This was a game that was supposed to uncover the true nature of these unbeaten programs. Georgia Tech hadn’t played anybody of note to provide any real answers. Clemson hadn’t played anything close to its full potential on offense.

Georgia Tech revealed the most in its exposure as it was ultimately outgained 442-124 in total yards. The point when it officially turned into a comedy sketch came with exactly two minutes left in the first half. That’s when the first positive thing the Jackets did all night turned into Clemson points.

Lance Austin – the player who returned the miracle blocked punt that beat Florida State last year – caught a Deshaun Watson pass that was thrown right to him in the end zone as the Tigers appeared poised to take a three-touchdown lead. Austin returned it just outside the goal line before teammate Corey Griffin leapt into him and dislodged the ball back into the end zone. Georgia Tech recovered the loose ball for a safety and a 16-0 Tigers lead.

All Clemson did was get the ball back and drive 72 yards for an easy 9-yard Watson-to-Jordan Leggett touchdown with four seconds left in the half.

To that point, Clemson had outgained Georgia Tech 347-8. That’s right – eight. Cumulative. On five possessions. It wasn’t the 978 yards to minus-28 that afternoon in 1916 against Cumberland, but surely it felt that bad from Johnson’s perspective. Not to mention freshly announced director of athletics Todd Stansbury was in the house watching the program he once played for get embarrassed on national TV.

Things sort of devolved into a sloppy equilibrium during a second half when Clemson seemed to lose its motivation to score any more and Georgia Tech piled up some garbage yardage against the Tigers’ sagging defense, but at no point was the final in jeopardy.

An 89-yard Georgia Tech touchdown drive spanning the third and fourth quarters that took 6:04 – kept alive by a pass interference call that nullified a Clemson interception – was little consolation for a Jackets team that in nine days has to welcome No. 15 Miami to The Flats. New Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt has never lost to Georgia Tech as a head coach at Georgia or assistant at Florida State in Atlanta.

But Clemson and coach Dabo Swinney shouldn’t feel too comfortable on the bus ride home up I-85. With No. 3 Louisville coming to Death Valley next weekend, Watson and his loaded offense still seem to be stuck in third gear. Watson threw for 304 yards and two touchdowns, but he overthrew a few open receivers and seemed a little out of sync at times.

There’s no mystery why Louisville has jumped the Tigers in the polls and its new quarterback, Lamar Jackson, has supplanted Watson as the Heisman Trophy front-runner at quarterback. Next week needs a complete performance for any chance to keep Clemson’s title hopes on track.

This no-contest was lopsided and ugly all night. While it might have made Cumberland folks living and dead feel better seeing the Yellow Jackets get humiliated by the Tigers, Thursday ultimately didn’t answer all the questions it presented for either side.

Michaux: Kevin Kisner is down to one final shot to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team

Tue, 09/20/2016 - 8:16pm

ATLANTA — Kevin Kisner and Phil Mickelson were paired the first two rounds in Boston last month, when the five-time major winner offered a sheepish apology for damaging the Aiken native’s Ryder Cup chances.

“He said sorry to me on that because they call it the Phil rule,” Kisner said of the retooled U.S. points system that ignored the fall swing where he won at Sea Island. “I would have been close, for sure. It is what it is. We knew what it was and it’s not like they changed it overnight.”

When the American Ryder Cup task force redrew the rules after its latest failure against Europe in 2014, it was Mickelson who spoke out most forcefully against counting events at the start of the PGA Tour’s wrap-around season. That meant Kisner’s strong 2015-16 start – including his runaway victory in the RSM Classic in November – didn’t exist at all in the Ryder Cup chase. Had those events counted, he would have been among the top 12 in Ryder Cup points instead of a relatively distant 24th.

“If you count money for those last three or four months, you’re giving the bottom half of the tour a three-month head start over ultimately the top guys,” Mickelson said in 2015.

Kisner hardly qualifies as a “bottom half” player as he prepares for his second consecutive Tour Championship at East Lake. The Ryder Cup was a realistic goal for the former Georgia Bulldog when he embarked on his full 2016 campaign, and he still harbors hope that he could make captain Davis Love III rethink his plan on Sunday when the final wild-card slot is filled on the U.S. roster.

“That was a big goal to make the team and play,” Kisner said Tuesday. “I think I’ve got a great personality and great game for that type of atmosphere. Wouldn’t ever be scared of any type of situation. I kind of live for that stuff. So hopefully I’ll play well this week and make their minds swirl a little bit before the pick.”

It will take a dramatic improvement for Kisner contend this week. A year ago he finished last among the 28 people who started at East Lake, never shooting better than 2-over and finishing 27 strokes behind winner Jordan Spieth. But he has bigger hopes the second time around on a course still shrouded in thick Bermuda rough.

“It’s still hard, that’s for sure,” he said of East Lake. “I have a little better mindset coming into it. I came up last year and the rough’s terrible and I drive it a few times into the rough and can’t get to the green and don’t understand that type of golf. Kind of put me in a bad place to start out. I feel like I’m in a better place this time and looking forward to getting out. Just like anything else, experience helps. Second time around is going to be way easier.”

It’s difficult to criticize Kisner’s current season considering he entered the FedEx Cup playoff comfortably in 11th place compared to 17th a year ago.

But based on the calendar year instead of the season, his 2016 has been a little more frustrating than 2015 when he finished runner-up four times before breaking his maiden at Sea Island. He hasn’t missed a cut since June, played the weekend at every major but just wasn’t the same kind of factor on Sundays this year.

In recent events he finished tied for 10th at Colonial and Greensboro and tied for 18th at the PGA Championship, but it doesn’t compare to being involved in three playoffs a year ago or closing out a six-shot victory.

“I think the consistency was there all year, just not enough edge to get into the hunt,” Kisner said in assessing his year. “Struggled with a lot of 20th- to 40th-place finishes, which is only three or four shots from being in the hunt. That’s where it happened last year. Every round I got the most out of it and this year I’m not. That’s the most frustrating part because I only play to get in the hunt and I just struggled to be in that position all year. Finishing 10th is great, or 15th, but that’s not the same feeling as being first or second coming down the stretch.”

That said, returning to East Lake ensures he’ll get to play again in all the 2016 majors including his “hometown” Masters, and that only motivates him to get back into his 2015 groove.

“This year’s kind of left a sour taste in my mouth,” he said. “I played great and made a ton of points and made it back to the Tour Championship. I’m never gonna be disappointed if I’m standing here on this range. But the bad taste is not having enough chances to win because that’s what I really want to do is win or at least have a chance. So that’s going to keep the drive going heading into next year and propelling me to work hard to get back into that winner’s circle.”

Should he be the winner this week, Kisner hopes he might be Love’s 12th man introduced during halftime of the NFL’s Sunday Night Football.

“I sure would hope so,” he said. “Because I feel like I’ve shown a lot in the last two years and I think they would respect the finishes and my personality in that type of position.”

Former Eagle star to be inducted into Georgia Southern Athletics Hall of Fame

Thu, 09/15/2016 - 10:24pm

 

A lot of players who get inducted into any hall of fame claim they never imagined achieving such an honor. Voncellies Allen is more surprised than most.

“If you’d have told me back in 1994-95 that I’d even be playing football I’d have said, ‘Yeah right,’” Allen said. “ I would have laughed at you and not bet anything on it.”
Allen took up football as a high school senior on a bet. On Saturday, he will be inducted into the Georgia Southern Athletics Hall of Fame.

“Probably the best bet I ever made,” said Allen, who runs several business ventures in Augusta since his playing days ended for various arena football teams. “I never got paid on the bet, but I guess I turned out to be a winner on that bet hundred-fold or thousand-fold when you look at it.”

When Allen was a junior at Coffee High School in Douglas, Ga., all he cared about were academics and basketball. Football was only something he ribbed his friends about when they suffered annual heartache to region rival Colquitt County.

That’s until one of his classmates challenged him and he took up the dare.

“I was like, ‘I’ll come out and start,’” Allen said. “I was just being boastful in an argument and debate.”

Allen showed up at spring practice before his senior year, during a time when he grew considerably thanks to some bad late-night eating habits. He’d never put on pads before.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing but one day coach pulled me aside and asked ‘Do you want to play football after high school?’” Allen said. “I thought he was just blowing smoke up me. He showed me some film. I was just trying to get to the ball like the Waterboy in the movie, not realizing who was in front of me. And I was tossing around guys who were all-region and all-state.”

After playing only one season at Coffee, Allen suddenly had offers from schools including Mississippi State, Southern Miss, Troy and Georgia Southern. He chose nearby Statesboro, Ga., and enrolled in 1996.

His basketball athleticism combined with his size – 6-foot and ranging anywhere from 280 to 305 pounds – made him a force on the Eagles’ defensive front. He played tackle for three seasons before converting to nose guard as a senior, amassing what still stands as a school record in tackles for loss including 30 his last season. His stats would be larger, but they didn’t count playoff games back then.

Now Allen, who became a three-time All-American, is hailed along with guys like Freddy Pesquiera, Alex “Monster” Mash and Giff Smith as the greatest defensive linemen in Georgia Southern history.

“To turn out to be an All-American and now in the hall of fame, football has taken me far when I never thought I’d be playing football in the first place,” Allen said. “So it’s quite humbling. I played with some great guys. I played alongside Freddy. Alex Mash was always an idol of mine. That’s why I wore No. 99 because I’d heard about Mash and wanted to try to duplicate some of the things that he did and bring a championship back to Georgia Southern. But that was just wishful thinking at the time.”

Allen was motivated to turn that wishful thinking into reality.

“We always talked about getting Georgia Southern football back to the glory days,” he said of a program that had won four Division I-AA national titles but none since 1990.

In 1998 under head coach Paul Johnson, the Eagles were 14-0 before losing the Division I-AA national title game in a frustrating shootout with UMass. The next year, with Allen as senior captain starting every game, the Eagles won the first of two consecutive national titles and led the Southern Conference in total defense.

Johnson, now the coach at Georgia Tech, called Allen “the heart and soul of our defense” lauding his ability to “make everyone around him better.”

“Being captain of that 1999 football championship, that means the most to me,” Allen said. “Losing against UMass the year before with probably the best team we ever had ... we fumbled the game away. Next year they voted me team captain with unfinished business. To be a leader on that team and go out and win a national championship meant a lot to me.”

At 305 pounds as a nose guard, Johnson often used Allen as a blocking fullback in goal-line situations for star running back Adrian Peterson – who established NCAA rushing records in Statesboro before playing in the NFL with the Chicago Bears. Allen hopes Peterson is among his former teammates who will be on hand for Saturday’s induction ceremony.

“AP better be there – he ran for enough touchdowns behind me, though he probably didn’t need the blocking,” Allen said, laughing when asked if they ever handed him the ball to try to score a la William “Refrigerator” Perry. “Why would they give it to me when you’ve got Adrian Peterson?”

Allen always appreciated the faith his coaches at Coffee and Georgia Southern put in him.

“It was up to me to fulfill what they saw in me,” he said. “I tried real hard and started working on my own outside of practice to be a guy they could count on. It felt good and demanding at times that those guys were counting on my play to establish how we were going to be that year. I took on that challenge week by week and was glad they believed in me.”

Allen was an easy leader to follow. He excelled in the classroom, earning a 3.5 average as a chemistry major to become a three-time academic all-American and was twice named Georgia Southern’s student-athlete of the year. He came to Augusta originally to attend medical school, but ended up pursuing other career options.

“My mother always gets mad at me for not finishing medical school,” Allen admits. “I just have my own businesses now. I think I wasted taking those hard classes.”

After college, Allen started playing for the Augusta Stallions in AF2 – an offshoot arena football league. He played both ways and developed into a journeyman for various arena teams from Orlando to Spokane, Wash. He won two “world championships” in arena ball.

In 2006, his Spokane Shock won the ArenaCup after they signed him days before the title game to replace a lineman who attended his own wedding instead. In 2007, Allen won the inaugural World Indoor Bowl with the Augusta Spartans.

Back in Augusta, Allen met his wife, Jasmine – a Cross Creek graduate. They, along with their three young children, will attend Saturday’s induction during the Eagles’ game against Louisiana-Monroe.

“I’m looking forward to it and being with a bunch friends and family who support me,” Allen said. “I feel it’s not just me but my family as well as Coffee County going into the hall of fame because they say it takes a village to raise a kid. My mother was my first superhero but a lot of people in Coffee County made me who I am.”

That his unique road led him to become only the 29th Georgia Southern football player inducted into its athletics hall remains a pleasant surprise.

“It still really hasn’t hit me yet,” Allen said. “I’m humble and honored that they would even consider me to be in the hall of fame.”

Three local golfers from First Tee selected to play in Pebble Beach event

Mon, 09/12/2016 - 8:45pm

Pebble Beach Golf Links is on pretty much every golfer’s bucket list, and attainable provided you’re willing to save up the small fortune required to purchase a tee time.

Two local kids not yet old enough to vote and another not old enough to drive will get to realize that dream this week. Brette Bryant and Madison Harwell, from The First Tee of Augusta ,and Brice Smoker, of The First Tee of Aiken, were among the 81 juniors selected to compete with Champions Tour players in this week’s Nature Valley First Tee Open at Pebble Beach.

It’s pretty much the most prestigious opportunity any First Tee member can aspire to, and the trio was elated to be chosen.

“This is basically the cream of the crop at The First Tee,” said Bryant, a senior at Davidson Fine Arts.

“You’re playing a world-renowned course in an actual tournament with Champions Tour players,” said Harwell, from Evans. “I don’t know any other tournament or event like that you can play when you’re 15 years old.”

“I’m just thankful to be able to go, honestly,” said Smoker, a senior at North Augusta.

Getting chosen among the final 81 young women and men culled from among every First Tee chapter in America goes well beyond just golf skills. There is of course a handicap requirement of no higher than 6.0 for boys and 8.0 for girls, since they will be competing alongside the likes of former Masters champions Bernhard Langer, Tom Watson, Vijay Singh, Mark O’Meara, Craig Stadler and Larry Mize.

But there are also application essays and multiple interviews that all get considered before granting invitations.

The process makes the reward all the more meaningful and makes the participants role models in their home First Tee communities.

“It gives me a chance to be able to show others what I was able to experience and achieve,” said Smoker, who is one of the first two members of the Aiken chapter to achieve the program’s top Ace certification and the first chosen for the Pebble Beach event. “Just being able to encourage others to go out and follow the same path.”

Smoker is a prime example of how the First Tee is about more than golf. He’s good enough to be selected to compete in events like the First Tee National Par-3 Championship in Richmond, Va., earlier this year, but he sees lessons he’s learned in golf taking him down a different path outside the game.

“I used to think I would (play college golf),” Smoker said, “but I’ve decided I’d rather go to medical school and golf in college is a very big time commitment. But golf is definitely something I’ll never give up.”

Bryant is getting recruited by places like Newberry College, but she too sees the benefits from The First Tee extending beyond the sport. She participated in the First Tee’s week-long Life Skills & Leadership Academy in Minnesota this summer and was invited along with Harwell and six other Augusta chapter juniors to go to Portland for a tour of Nike’s headquarters and to play Pumpkin Ridge.

“The First Tee has not only taught me the golf skills that have gotten me to participate in these events, it’s gotten me things that I can use and take throughout my whole entire life,” Bryant said.

Harwell is already taking online college classes in addition to her accelerated Georgia Cyber Academy curriculum and believes the First Tee has helped motivate her success on and off the course.

“I love First Tee so much,” she said. “It’s done so much for me not only providing all the opportunities but I’ve definitely grown as a person there through the nine core values.”

This week, all three just get to focus on a lifetime experience. They will each be paired with a Champions Tour player and two amateurs for tournament rounds at Pebble Beach and Poppy Hills. The top 22 pro-junior teams make the cut for Sunday’s final round at Pebble Beach.

It’s a daunting proposition for kids not used to playing in front of galleries or potentially on television.

“At first I was really nervous, like this is so huge,” Bryant said of getting picked back in July. “As it’s getting closer I’m so excited because not only will you get to play an amazing course but you get to ask partners questions about their careers and how they got started. I just can’t wait.”

Said Smoker: “Tiger Woods once said if you’re not nervous you don’t care. You’ve got to be a little nervous. … I want to play well, obviously, but I really want to capture the experience and come away from it knowing what I’ve done and see all the Champions Tour players and play one of the best courses in the nation.”

Harwell is the only one of the three to have seen Pebble Beach before, putting briefly on the practice green and visiting the gift shop during a family trip in 2010.

“We took her and her brother to Pebble Beach hoping to inspire them in golf,” said Harwell’s mother, Mary Ellen. “I told them to work hard and someday they would be taking me back there to watch them play. We all had a good laugh at that time but now it is truly a dream come true.”

Harwell is pinching herself that she gets to go back and play this time.

“Oh my gosh, probably each golf experience I get I say this is going to be my favorite,” Harwell said. “But I think this one is definitely gonna be my favorite.”

Michaux: Georgia's weaknesses are exposed

Sat, 09/10/2016 - 9:39pm

ATHENS, Ga. — That was uncomfortable.

Between the efficient opening touchdown drive and the clutch killing of the final 3:42, there was a lot of football Saturday that will be hard to digest for Georgia. The 49-point favorites were staring down the barrel of potentially the worst loss in Bulldogs history that very nearly spoiled the between-the-hedges debut of football coach Kirby Smart.

“Very disappointing performance and it starts with me and my staff,” said Smart of a 26-24 escape by a top-10 team over a Division I-AA Nicholls program that amassed a 9-48 record over the last five seasons. “We did not play with the intangibles, enthusiasm, passion or relentless energy.”

A week after a feel-good victory over No. 22 North Carolina that vaulted the Bulldogs nine spots to No. 9 in the nation, Saturday very nearly turned into a disaster. Smart was “concerned” long before kickoff when he saw the Bulldogs jump into the top 10 after a season-opening win he deemed “fortunate.” He felt the focus wasn’t there in practice all week.

“We can’t let somebody moving us up in the rankings go to our head, because to be honest, I told them, that’s what’s been done before,” Smart said.

It certainly seemed like the Bulldogs weren’t ready to handle a presumed cupcake game that was supposed to iron out the kinks and establish rhythm before the Southeastern Conference schedule starts next week in Missouri. Instead, Nichols exposed weaknesses on Georgia’s offensive line and had Sanford Stadium humming with concerned murmurs as it became readily apparent that trying to cover the seven-touchdown spread that the most conservative oddsmakers forecast was going to be the least of Georgia’s troubles.

Nichols led midway through the third quarter and refused to submit even after the Bulldogs seemed to right the balance of power with a 66-yard touchdown reception by Isaiah McKenzie and a fumble return touchdown by Lorenzo Carter to go up 12 in a 53-second span of the third quarter.

When the Bulldogs drove inside the Colonels’ 10 on the first possession of the third quarter, it was taken for granted that the outcome would soon be salted away.

That’s when true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason made the wrong throw and things got dicey fast. Smart had elected to give Eason his first start, which looked pretty brilliant on a perfectly executed five-play opening drive that fooled everyone into thinking a rout was in the making. For the most part, Eason acquitted himself well until a tipped second-down pass with under 10 minutes remaining was intercepted near the goal-line and returned 91 yards to set up a field goal that drew Nicholls within 26-17.

With 7:50 left, Smart pulled Eason and put graduate senior Greyson Lambert in.

“It wasn’t anything Jacob was or wasn’t doing,” Smart insisted. “Decision to go with Greyson was more of a change-up. Get him in there and show a little confidence in him with the four-minute offense.”

With just more than four minutes remaining, it appeared Nicholls was content to settle for a moral victory when it punted the ball away still trailing by nine points. But McKenzie muffed the kick and the Colonels recovered at the Bulldogs 9 and scored two plays later to make it a two-point game with 3:42 remaining. (That it was only two points instead of three was courtesy of Smart’s curious decision to go for two – and failing – while leading by 12 with 20 minutes left in the game.)

To say that the mood was unsettled for the fragment of grumbling Bulldogs fans still in Sanford Stadium would be an understatement.

Despite a three-and-out on his first possession, it was Lambert who went back onto the field with the Bulldogs inside their own 10 and needing first downs nursing a tenuous edge. Lambert delivered with a critical third-and-7 conversion pass to Michael Chigbu with 2:42 left. A few plays later, Nick Chubb powered through the line for seven yards on third-and-3 to allow the Bulldogs to run out the clock.

“I thought it was a great job by Greyson to make a pressure throw on third down,” Smart said. “Shows his leadership. He’s been sitting over there all game and he goes in there and makes a great decision and converts for us.”

What are we supposed to read into the decision to sit Eason with the game on the line?

“Nothing, except we thought that Greyson could handle that situation better,” Smart said.

Frankly, Smart has bigger things to worry about than his quarterback. That was apparent even before what will be a very uncomfortable week in the film room.

The gravest concern is the offensive line, which was dominated much of the afternoon by Nicholls’ defensive front. Georgia was unable to muster the rushing dominance that helped close out a 33-24 win over North Carolina.

“They outhit us for the entire game almost,” said Chubb, who rushed 20 times for 91 yards after going for 222 last week.

“They don’t have dominant inside guys, just whipped us,” Smart said. “We’re not a big massive offensive line that can push you around all the time. We’ve got to figure out some ways to run the ball.”

That is not a quick fix, and Smart knows it as Ole Miss and Tennessee loom on the near horizon.

“They need to get better,” Smart said. “We can’t go change the guys out. We’ve got no free agency. We’ve got no cuts. So we have to take what we’ve got and we’ve got to get those guys better. They’ve GOT to play better.”

Players insist that Smart and the coaches didn’t rip into them too hard after taking only a 10-7 halftime lead or falling behind.

“He’s been louder,” McKenzie said of Smart’s emotional tendencies.

But Smart said he made it abundantly clear that what was happening on Saturday was unacceptable.

“I tried to make the guy’s understand that we can’t have these kind of performances,” he said.

Maybe it will all go down as just a hard lesson that could have been a lot harder to swallow. After all, Smart’s mentor, Nick Saban, actually lost to Louisiana-Monroe in his first season at the helm in Alabama. That’s turned out okay.

Whatever bad habits that prompted Georgia to make a coaching change in the first place haven’t just disappeared because a new coach took the helm. Smart likened it to turning around a battleship, which seems a bit harsh for a No. 9 program off consecutive 10-win seasons.

However, as Lorenzo Carter said, “We need work.”

Smart knows that all too well if he wants to enjoy better days in his new home.

“We didn’t play up to the level of my expectations nor any Dog fan out there,” he said. “I respect that. I know that and our kids know that. It’s very evident that we’ve got some improving to do and we’ve got a great wake-up call to do it.”

Michaux: Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp can build on "positive result"

Thu, 09/08/2016 - 7:28pm

Will Muschamp wasn’t biting. With seven Southeastern Conference teams losing season openers, the South Carolina coach refused to quantify the meaning of being the only program already with a conference victory.

“I don’t worry about anybody else,” Muschamp said Tuesday of the humbling start the nation’s most elite collegiate conference endured. “I just worry about South Carolina.”

Not that South Carolina’s victory last Thursday night in Nashville was any work of art to boast about. The Gamecocks had to rally from a 10-0 halftime deficit to win 13-10 at Vanderbilt on Elliott Fry’s career-long 55-yard field goal with 35 seconds left.

However, the value of any victory – especially a conference one – cannot not be underestimated for a new coach at a school that won only three times the year before. Muschamp wasn’t worried about style points – just the most points.

“We won ... that’s really all we look for,” he said. “We have a goal for our special teams every week, and our offensive goal board and our defensive goal board, and it all starts with this – win. Whatever is necessary, we need to win the game. So if we win 51-50, we did something defensively to help us win. Maybe not many things, but we did something. If we win 3-0, offensively, we did do something to help us win the game. Obviously, on special teams, we had some sort of positive contribution throughout the game, regardless of the score. The number one thing you want to do is win.”

With another SEC game on tap at Mississippi State this weekend, this is a huge opportunity for the Gamecocks to start building up a little confidence muscle on top of the scar tissue from last season. The Bulldogs suffered the conference’s most jarring loss to the Sun Belt’s South Alabama last week, yet they are still favored by a touchdown at home over the Gamecocks coming off 10 days rest. That says a lot about the uphill climb South Carolina needs to make to regain respectability in the wider collegiate football world.

Muschamp, however, believes his team can make progress with baby steps. On deck after Mississippi State is East Carolina and then SEC East foe Kentucky, which blew a 25-point lead in losing to Southern Miss on Saturday.

While it may not be favored each week, the potential is certainly there to be 3-0 in the SEC – all on the road – by the end of September before ranked foes Texas A&M and Georgia come strutting into Williams Brice. That’s the kind of foundation Muschamp hopes he has the opportunity to build upon. Vanderbilt was a good start – warts and all.

“Anytime you have positive results, it makes it much easier to believe and have some belief in what you’re trying to do,” Muschamp said. “You’ve got to have some positive feedback regardless of whether it’s football, the business world or whatever you’re doing. You’ve got to have something positive happen for you. In our profession, the result of winning is what you look for. You’ve got to be able to see the fruits of your labor. Mature guys understand it anyway. They see themselves getting stronger. They see themselves improving as a player. The young guys especially, they need that as much as anything.”

While Muschamp said he isn’t worried about what’s happening outside of South Carolina, nothing that went down last weekend in the SEC East should make the Gamecocks think they aren’t competitive. Favorite Tennessee had to rally and barely escaped on a fortunate fumble in overtime against Appalachian State. Georgia benefitted from some fortuitous officiating to turn things around against North Carolina. Florida didn’t exactly lay waste to an inferior Massachusetts. Missouri looks to be a long way from its back-to-back title days.

By no means is South Carolina ready to compete with Alabama for an SEC title, but it shouldn’t go into any regular-season game this season thinking it doesn’t have at least a puncher’s chance of pulling it out. If enough positive bricks build up, that could even include No. 2 Clemson in a rivalry game where emotion can play funny tricks.

It will take more than it did to beat Vanderbilt, but South Carolina can grow under Muschamp. Especially if he can get his defense to rise to the caliber his background would suggest.

“We’re going to face better offenses as the year moves forward,” he said. “We understand that. But we need to continue to improve and I think we will through the year. We need to stay healthy in the secondary. We need to stay healthy at linebacker. We don’t have a lot of options after some of the guys that we’ve got playing right now, so we’ve got a lot of ‘ifs’ that we’ve got to continue to work through as the season goes.”

If he can get another “positive result” Saturday, the famously volatile Muschamp might just earn a reputation as a nurturer this time around for a program seeking one confidence boost at a time.

Michaux: Georgia has room for quarterbacks Greyson Lambert and Jacob Eason for the time being

Tue, 09/06/2016 - 10:30pm

Armchair Georgia coaches have it all figured out after Saturday’s weighty win over North Carolina.

If you polled Bulldogs fans, the vast majority would say it’s obvious – based purely on talent – that freshman Jacob Eason should be the starting quarterback over graduate senior Greyson Lambert. Seeing the two of them at work against the Tar Heels was like comparing mint chocolate chip to vanilla. One of them clearly has more flavor than the other.

But going all in on flavor may not be the right answer for Georgia right now. More than clarifying the situation, Saturday may have proven that there’s room for both quarterbacks in Kirby Smart’s gameplan for the foreseeable future.

“We’re going to continue to rep both of those guys, give those guys a lot of work, and make a decision as to what we’re going to do, whether it’s later in the week, or game time,” Smart said Monday after reviewing tape of the Bulldogs’ 33-24 season-opening win at the Georgia Dome. “Both those guys will continue to work, and that’s the most important thing that they can continue to grow and get better and develop so that our offense can grow and develop and get better.”

It’s not like Georgia’s offense under Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was a dramatic departure from what it was under the previous regime. With a healthy Nick Chubb in the backfield, the primary job of the quarterback is to get the ball in his hands and let Chubb and his blockers do their thing. Chubb carried the ball on 32 of Georgia’s 48 called running plays and accounted for 222 yards and two of three rushing touchdowns.

The two quarterbacks combined on 24 called passes – exactly half the number of running plays. Four of them ended in sacks and the lone touchdown “pass” was basically a glorified inside handoff from Eason to Isaiah McKenzie.

Both quarterbacks led effective scoring drives, with each under center for two touchdowns and both setting up field goal tries. Eason also had them in the red zone a fourth time before a lost fumble ended that chance.

So was there enough evidence to decide on just one quarterback going forward or did both players earn future considerations?

The latter seems the more viable option for the Bulldogs.

Not all two-quarterback situations are alike. The last week certainly proved that.

South Carolina is searching for the right fit between the different styles of Perry Orth and Brandon McIlwain. Neither excelled against Vanderbilt but the more conventional Orth got the job done in the end.

It was hard to figure out what Auburn was trying to do with Sean White, Jeremy Johnson and others against Clemson. None of it worked.

Texas had very distinct roles for freshman Shane Buechele and freight-train senior Tyrone Swoopes, and they both delivered the goods in a shootout with Notre Dame.

None of what anybody else is doing matters to Georgia.

“We’re trying to get the best unit we can get out there,” Smart said of his rotating choices. “We’re trying to do what each one of these quarterbacks can do. It’ll be based on exactly that – what they can do and what’s going to be good for the people around them. It won’t be based on what’s going on in college football, it’ll be based on what’s best for us.”

The best QB shares have some kind of change-of-pace element. That’s why it never worked for Mark Richt last year trying to get weekly reps for Brice Ramsey. You were basically throwing another version of the same guy into the same offense and all you got was someone trying to do too much in an effort to impress and expand his role.

The dynamic between Lambert and Eason is different. While both are traditional pocket passers, Eason adds a different gear. He certainly showed it with his perfectly placed deep strike to McKenzie. It looked effortless – which is not a word often used regarding Lambert even though he’s certainly capable of making some quality throws himself. That play was a taste of Eason’s potential, and it’s tantalizing to want to jump all in and see the whole package at work rather than a simple but effective 8 of 12 for 131 yards passing line.

But that discounts the value that Lambert brings to this equation. Lambert didn’t do much wrong in his modest 5 of 8 for 54 yards night. That’s really the gist of his role – he rarely does much wrong. In 12 starts last year he threw only two interceptions in leading the Bulldogs to a 10-2 record in those starts. Some slingers you’d be happy if they only threw two INTs a game, much less a whole season.

With Georgia’s run-first offense, Lambert is a nice guy to have as a game manager to take the pressure off Eason trying to do it all as a freshman. It’s not like Lambert is incapable of making plays with his arm as well, but you can rely on him not to make too many errors when he tries.

Lambert’s steadiness allows Eason to ease in to the saddle while providing a different kind of spark when he’s in the game. The day will soon come when he’s ready to handle it all, but there doesn’t need to be a rush when you have another guy just as capable of handling the system. Both will develop the confidence of teammates, and should anything happen to one of them the other will already be up to full speed.

Georgia has bigger things to worry about than its quarterback situation. It needs to get other bodies healthy to conserve Chubb. It needs to get its pass blocking ironed out. It needs to shore up some defensive deficiencies. It needs to improve all aspects of its special teams.

“You went to sleep thinking you played well, you watch the tape and you’re sick to your stomach because there are so many things we did wrong that we need to improve on,” Smart said before listing off a litany of problems he saw “everywhere.” “We’ve all got a lot of improving to do.”

The least of Georgia’s worries right now is who plays quarterback. Both guys have that covered for now.

Michaux: Kirby Smart's path has pointed him to Saturday's opener as a head coach

Fri, 09/02/2016 - 7:41pm

Technically, Kirby Smart has been on the job for nine months. But the first real “head coach” decision in the eyes of the Georgia Bulldog fans who will judge him happened Thursday.

Smart tapped graduate senior Greyson Lambert to be the starting quarterback in today’s season opener instead of heralded freshman Jacob Eason. It was the kind of decision no coach would argue with, siding with experience over promise. It’s the safe play, offering the least potential damage to both the gameplan and the psyche of a player who has logged less time out of high school than Smart has clocked in as head coach.

Today at the Georgia Dome, it gets real when No. 18 Georgia takes on No. 22 North Carolina. Smart wasn’t even born the last time these programs met in 1971. But he’s been working towards this moment as long as he can remember.

“I’ve thought about this day all of my life,” Smart said when he was introduced as Georgia’s coach on Dec. 6. “As the son of a high school coach and the best English teacher in the world, I’ve always aspired to be a head coach.”

The three decades of grooming from his father through more than 10 years with Nick Saban have Smart as prepared as any rookie head coach can possibly hope to be.

“He’s as ready as he’ll ever be,” said Sonny Smart, his father who was a head coach for 16 seasons of high school football.

Nobody is truly “born” to be a coach, but perhaps Smart comes close. He was 7 when his family moved from Montgomery, Ala., to Bainbridge, Ga. His father was the defensive coordinator for the Bainbridge Bearcats before becoming head coach in 1988 when Kirby was 13. Even his closest friends in college – Mike Bobo and Will Muschamp – were coach’s sons. At some point the coaching gene develops through osmosis.

“Just being around it – being around players, other coaches,” his father said. “After games all the coaches would come to our house. He’d go to practices. I can remember when he was 5 years old being on the steps at the practice field. I think it’s just the atmosphere. A lot of times I would come home and he’d ask me about things that were happening on the field and guys that I played. So I knew then that he had a real understanding of what was going on.”

Every generation wants their children to do better than they did, and Sonny Smart can’t imagine the level his son has achieved.

“Me personally, no,” he said of ever thinking about coaching a program the level of Georgia. “It’s overwhelming. I could never be ready. I could never have been where he is. He passed me about the first two years at Valdosta. He called me just about every day about something defensively. That ended real quick.”

That was 16 years ago when Smart went to Valdosta State to coach defensive backs. At that point, he wasn’t entirely sure that he wanted to live a coach’s life. He’d played four years at Georgia and didn’t make it on the NFL roster in Indianapolis. He spent a season working quality control as an administrative assistant for Ray Goff’s Bulldogs and wasn’t sure what kind of professional opportunity he wanted to pursue next.

He was on his way to his last duty with the Bulldogs at the Outback Bowl when his former teammate, Muschamp, called him up and asked him to join the staff at Valdosta State.

“He was unsure, really,” said his father. “He was torn and had some good offers in other areas. Sometime between when he left our house at Christmas and when the bowl game was over, he became a coach. It was not any influence from me.”

That osmosis, however, always had Smart pointed toward coaching. Whether playing football or baseball, he was always the guy on the field barking instructions to teammates about where to line up and what the quarterback or batter was likely to do. He absorbed the lessons he saw from everyone he’s played or worked for – from Goff to Joe Kines to Chris Hatcher to Bobby Bowden to Mark Richt, who he served a Southeastern Conference championship season under as running backs coach in 2005.

But nobody has had more influence on Smart and the coaching style he’s brought to Georgia than Saban – the template for a modern collegiate coach. Smart had a front-row seat to the entire process of Saban rebuilding the Crimson Tide into a championship dynasty.

“I think probably the thing that will help him the most is he came to Alabama in 2007 with Coach Saban when they were coming off probation and down,” Sonny Smart said. “So he was there from the very beginning and instrumentally involved in hiring staff and building that program to where it is now. He was there every step of that. Florida State was kind of the end of Coach Bowden. He’d gone to LSU and they’d already won the national championship so they were already there. To go in there in ’07 and be involved all those years and see how that process went I think is instrumental.”

While Smart and his wife, Mary Beth, are Bulldogs through and through (she played basketball at Georgia and met Smart when she was working after graduation for the UGA athletics department), all of their kids have known nothing but Tuscaloosa and the Tide. As they build their new home in Five Points and become re-immersed in the Athens community, life will never be the same as it was when they started dating. All of their family lives within two hours of Athens, but being the head coach and first lady of Georgia football is a surreal experience.

“I think it’s just overwhelming,” said Mary Beth Smart. “All the emotions and change and we’ve never moved with family. All of our children were born in Tuscaloosa. It’s a lot. But it truly is his dream. He wanted to be a head coach and to realize that dream here at the University of Georgia where he played and where we met is really amazing.”

Taking the reins of an SEC power is a big first step into the head coaching ranks, but Smart believes he’s been groomed for this level.

“A lot of people have said why not take a smaller school head job?” Smart said. “I honestly feel my growth was better being in a large program, being around Coach Saban and learning how to manage a lot of the tough situations you deal with in the media. I waited on a great opportunity which is here at the University of Georgia right now. No better place in the country to be.”

The nine-month honeymoon is over now that the first game kicks off today. This is where his legacy will be judged. Smart believes the hard part for the head coach is already behind him before the game starts.

“The amount of pressure that I’ve put on myself as a defensive coordinator for the last 10, 11 years, I really believe there’s a lot more decisions that go into that position than the head coach,” he said. “There’s 70 plays in a game and you gotta call 70 defenses. It’s a lot different when you’re the head coach and you’re deciding timeouts and to go for it on fourth down or not, you know, the things the head coach has gotta decide. It’s a lot different. When it comes to the game day, yeah. But not week to week, absolutely not. How we practice? Who plays quarterback? All that’s a whole different story. But when it comes to game day I think the confidence in what we’ve done up to this point allows me to be comfortable with where we are.”

Smart spent a lifetime for this moment. Ready or not, here it comes.

Michaux: Plenty at stake in college openers

Tue, 08/30/2016 - 1:35pm

Only three shopping days left until rush-to-judgment day, a.k.a. season-opening Saturday.

There is no more anticipated season debut with so much seemingly at stake than the college football opener. Some count the days until pitchers and catchers report for spring training, but opening day in baseball is just a miniscule sample size in a 162-game process.

College football comes and goes so fast that the beginning takes on an outsized relevance. There are no warm-up games. You’re only guaranteed 12 shots to make your case for a team’s legacy. Championships aren’t won before Labor Day, but many have been lost.

From coaching searches to signing days through summer camps, we have been pointing to this weekend on the calendar for so long that the urgency builds to a crescendo and erupts in full throat on college campuses across the country. That’s the beauty of it.

But what’s really at stake this Saturday? What judgments will we leap to and how might they hold up as the next three months play out?

Clemson risks its No. 2 standing and College Football Playoff aspirations on The Plains at Auburn. A win is an expected step in the process toward title consideration. A loss? It would be a setback, for sure, but hardly catastrophic to the cause.

Georgia introduces its new head coach and probably its new star quarterback in a nationally ranked showcase against North Carolina. The conclusions will be flying with every touchdown or turnover or tackle of Nick Chubb as the world takes measure of the Bulldogs’ unknowns.

These are two of the perhaps the 10 most anticipated games of the first week, but in reality they may be the least significant. Wins would be welcome resume stuffers, but losses are of no consequence in the conference race or the trajectory of each program.

Relative power conference doormats Vanderbilt and Boston College don’t exactly quicken the heart as opening opponents, yet these in-house matchups are potentially of much greater significance to South Carolina and Georgia Tech trying to rebound from seasons they’d rather forget. They might not be sexy starters, but they actually count in the conference ledger.

The Gamecocks have all the same questions about coaching and quarterbacking to answer as the Bulldogs. An arguably soft opening could have hard consequences for Will Muschamp as he tries to right the ship from a 3-9 campaign that was too reminiscent of the bad ol’ days in Columbia. Whether he moves forward with a seasoned game manager in Perry Orth or a young game breaker in Brandon McIlwain (or chooses Door No. 3 and rolls the long-term dice with accelerated freshman Jake Bentley) could hang in the balance of the outcome in Nashville.

The Yellow Jackets have to go all the way to Ireland to reboot against a team that hasn’t won a conference game since 2014. That Euro trip may excite folks in Dublin more than it does on The Flats or Chestnut Hill. Winning might not tell us any more about Georgia Tech than routing Alcorn State and Tulane to open last season on a winning note did, but losing could foretell the beginning of the end for the Paul Johnson era.

Georgia Southern doesn’t face a real challenge for three weeks, giving new coach Tyson Summers a chance to ease into the saddle. Facing local neighbor Savannah State is just an excuse for a party at Paulson Stadium, with fans seeing if the new system can keep up with the 160 points they pinned on the Tigers the last two meetings in 2013-14.

Georgia State can’t wait to get started again, facing Ball State on Friday night. Stepping up in class for three road games places a little more urgency on winning its last home opener in the Georgia Dome. Panthers fans, however, learned last year that how a season ends means more than how it begins.

Our brains tell us all that, but our hearts don’t often listen. The long months of waiting for real football to start has us conditioned to make hot takes on every result. It doesn’t matter what history has taught us, we tend to aggressively jump to conclusions. Eventual playoff champion Ohio State was dead in the water when it lost at home to a bad Virginia Tech team two years ago. Eventual SEC East champ Georgia was compiling coaching candidates in 2011 when it started 0-2 against Boise State and South Carolina. The outcome in Charlotte on an opening Thursday night last season gave little indication that the losing Carolina would win 11 in a row and the winning one would nose-dive into oblivion.

Season openers are emotional, and our interpretations tend to get colored by those passions that boil to the surface in all the pageantry of the kickoff weekend.

That’s fine. That’s what makes it so fun. It’s okay to care about first impressions, just not to get carried away by our rash judgments.

But when it comes to deciphering real meaning in results, the words of a Green Day song ring true: wake me up when September ends.

Michaux: Clemson will win it all this time

Sat, 08/27/2016 - 7:16pm

It’s a new football season in every sense of the word around here.

New standards to live up to at Clemson.

New coaches to leave their marks at Georgia and South Carolina.

New challenges to bounce back from at Georgia Tech.

New horizons after bowl debuts for Georgia Southern and Georgia State.

While all the excitement and energy is focused on the openers this week, it’s time to make the annual educated guesses as to where everything will wind up in the end.

CLEMSON: The bar has been set high and isn’t going to lower just because the defense will has to undergo its annual restocking. The record No. 2 preseason status is proof of that. Deshaun Watson and a loaded, high-powered offense should be more than most opponents can handle. Playoff and all title aspirations will come down to one game in Tallahassee, Fla., on Oct. 29 and you shouldn’t bet against the Tigers. So ... 13-0, Atlantic Coast Conference champs, CFP Peach Bowl.

GEORGIA: National forecasts are treating the Bulldogs as business-as-usual under new coach Kirby Smart. That should be about right, which isn’t really what Georgia fans want. The first strains of the season might show growing pains with tests against North Carolina, Ole Miss and Tennessee. But once this becomes Jacob Eason’s team (which it will eventually if not immediately) and he settles in, we’ll see if Smart can carry the Bulldogs over the Mark Richt hump and into Alabama-level class. Until then ... 9-3, Southeastern Conference East runner-up, Outback Bowl.

SOUTH CAROLINA: Will Muschamp was a better hire than anyone gives credit. He will eventually turn the Gamecocks into what they should be – a consistent competitor in the SEC East with a chance of occasional title threats. He’s got his work cut out restocking the depleted shelves Steve Spurrier left him as the HBC’s interest waned before quitting. But a strong September will build confidence and momentum in Columbia. So ... 7-5, Music City Bowl.

GEORGIA TECH: Last season was a 3-9 nightmare that Paul Johnson never wants to relive. If he does, he’ll be living somewhere other than Atlanta. That won’t happen this year, but don’t expect a worst-to-first reversal either. A healthier offense should resume what it does best, but getting back into bowl territory should be progress enough this season. So ... 7-5, St. Pete Bowl.

GEORGIA SOUTHERN: Among words that make people nervous in Statesboro, “tweaking” may be at the top of the list. New head coach Tyson Summers is a defensive coach, and even though the original program architect was Erk Russell its identity is its option offense. Summers served a season under failed Southern coach Brian VanGorder, so he knows what happens to men who try to mess with the system. With the exception of Appalachian State, the Eagles’ brief home schedule is abysmal. But ... 9-3, Sun Belt runner-up, New Orleans Bowl.

GEORGIA STATE: The Panthers shocked everyone with a late surge including a blowout over Georgia Southern to qualify for their first bowl. Pretty soon they’ll have a mint condition former Olympic/MLB stadium to call home. The day is soon coming when Georgia State will be a formidable program. But ... 6-6 at best, Camelia Bowl.

ACC: The Coastal Division is there for the taking, and Mark Richt and Miami are just the team to do it if it can survive a brutal October. Beat UNC and Pitt and they’ll probably own the key tiebreakers to finally fulfil divisional potential. That said, the Canes ain’t beating Clemson. It’s Tiger time for at least one more year.

SEC: Not Alabama. The reason is simple. The Tide’s three hardest SEC games are all on the road – Ole Miss, Tennessee and LSU. That last one on Death Valley will be decisive. The Saints won an emotional Super Bowl after Katrina and the flooding disasters in Baton Rouge, La., will be a similar emotional rallying point for the Tigers. LSU will prevail over East champ Tennessee in the title-game goodbye to the Georgia Dome.

CFP: Clemson and LSU are locks as the top two seeds if they win their respective conference titles. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh will be the loudest guy in the playoff room when Big Blue knocks off rival Spartans and Buckeyes to get there. This time the Big 12 and Pac-12 will both be left out as Notre Dame rides a favorable schedule into a wildcard spot. Clemson beats Michigan to win it all.

HEISMAN: There’s no way that the quarterback on consecutive undefeated regular-season teams gets beaten out by any running back, even Leonard Fournette. Sentiment for Stanford all-purpose star Christian McCaffrey won’t be enough either. Assuming he stays healthy, Deshaun Watson will bring the Heisman Trophy to Clemson for the first time and they’ll eventually rename Perimeter Road in his honor – especially if he decides to stay a fourth season to avoid becoming a Cleveland Brown.

Michaux: Lincoln County looks to restore order

Thu, 08/25/2016 - 1:56pm

There is a new sci-fi series filmed in Georgia called “Stranger Things,” where kids try to find their friend who’s stuck in a parallel dimension they call “the upside down.”

It is not a show about Lincoln County football, but it could be.

The Red Devils have been stuck in a relative rut that has folks in Lincolnton feeling out of sorts. For three consecutive seasons Lincoln County has failed to beat Aquinas in the battle to win Region 7-A. Those same three seasons, the Red Devils have failed to advance past the first round of the Class A playoffs.

For a program that measures itself in state championships (14) and considers region titles a foregone conclusion (33 in a 39-year span), it’s a bit disorienting to keep looking up at the competition.

Third-year head coach Kevin Banks believes this year’s team can restore balance in the Lincoln County universe.

“We’re real close,” Banks said of the Red Devils, who open the 2016 season across the lake at McCormick tonight. “We’re moving in that direction. We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but if we can stay healthy and work hard, we should be able to win some playoff games this year.”

A year ago Banks believed the Red Devils were “a year away” from being the caliber of team that Lincoln County fans had become accustomed to in four decades of dominance under legendary coach Larry Campbell. Lincolnton, however, isn’t the kind of place where the phrase “wait ’til next year” is readily accepted.

But the bulk of last season’s 9-2 team returns with a renewed sense of hunger to reclaim the mantle as the class of Region 7-A. Pretty much every member of the offense is back behind an all-senior offensive line – Jaquez Kennebrew, Trajan Crawford, Jackson Wheeler and Mitch Matthews – that Banks believes will be the strength of the team.

There’s so much offensive talent, in fact, that Banks switched up to a spread system to take advantage of all the skill including running backs Quay Hartfield, Jamal Norman, Tydarius Elam and quarterback Javon Reid.

“We’ve got a lot of athletes so instead of running them in and off the field we’re going to put them all on the field at the same time,” Banks said. “Spread them out and see what we can do with it. It will be real exciting.”

That offense should offset any growing pains on the defensive side – though the Red Devils have rarely suffered from any defensive deficiencies.

Recent years, however, have dispensed with any presumptions of Lincoln County’s Class A authority. It’s been a decade since the Red Devils last advanced to the state championship game – winning consecutive state titles in 2005-06. In four years since the GHSA split the postseason into public and private, Lincoln County has only advanced in the postseason in 2012, when they reached the semifinals.

Meanwhile, Aquinas has shed any fears it might have once had of the Red Devils and fashioned itself into a private power with three consecutive region titles and two state championship appearances in the Georgia Dome in the last three years.

Making matters more interesting this year is the aspect of arch rival Washington-Wilkes dropping down a classification (along with Greene County) to rejoin Lincoln County in Region 7-A.

“Whether they are in the region or not it’s almost like a town war between us and Wilkes County,” Banks said. “It adds a bit more fuel to the fire with them being in the region with us.”

The goals and expectations remain the same as they’ve always been in Lincolnton. The only difference is the pressure will be even higher to deliver on the “year away” promises of last fall.

“When we come into a season the first thing is to beat Washington-Wilkes and the next thing is to win a region title,” Banks said. “That region title is a big one for us. That’s very, very important to us. We want to secure one of those spots in the playoffs up top. We don’t want to be playing down in the middle. We want to play up top so we can get a couple home games.”

Just making the playoffs for a record 43rd consecutive year won’t be enough this time. When the postseason winds down with the last championships played in the Georgia Dome before it’s demolished in 2017, the Red Devils intend to be counted with Clinch County and Macon County as favorites rather than just a historical footnote of Class A excellence.

“It’s very important for us to win not only one playoff game but we need to win two or three playoff games,” Banks said. “That’s been our focus the whole time, to not only win the region but to get in the playoffs and make some noise.”

Only then will the Red Devils have escaped the upside down and restored order.

Michaux: Rio Games will evoke great performances, not Ugly American act by Ryan Lochte

Tue, 08/23/2016 - 8:31pm

For the past two weeks, Team USA and host city Rio de Janeiro put on a pretty dazzling Olympics show.

And it might have been just about perfect for both had it not been for that meddling pest, Ryan Lochte.

The silver bleach job that the American swimmer got before the Games apparently seeped through his thick skull and plunged him to new depths of idiocy. His ugly American act besmirched the most sensitive fears of Brazilians and hijacked the last week of the Olympics. He dragged down three American teammates with his unnecessary lies and left them holding the bag while he jetted home ahead of the posse.

There’s no telling why he made up a story about being robbed, cast himself as the hero and felt compelled to share it with the world. All he had to do was never say anything and nobody would have ever known about their drunken gas station vandalism escapade and he’d still have his lucrative sponsorships with Speedo and Ralph Lauren and could drift into oblivion with a nice income that he’ll never be able to accumulate with his intellect.

But for all Lochte’s foolishness, his stupidity shouldn’t overshadow all of the tremendous performances we were treated to from Rio. It’s the images of Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Usain Bolt and Katie Ledecky and so many more that will resonate long after Lochte is forgotten.

His last relevance is providing the negative measure for a special Olympics-themed edition of Birdies & Bogeys:

GOLD: SI cover. Michael Phelps with his arms draped around Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles – all donning 12 of the 16 medals (13 gold) they collected in Rio – and simply headlined “The Greatests.” No argument there. We were blessed to see them perform at the highest level.

GOLD: Usain Bolt. It wasn’t just his unprecedented triple-triple in winning golds in the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay at Beijing, London and Rio, it’s the incomparable style in which he did it that will linger with us forever. That shot of him flashing a smile as he looks back at his vanquished rivals perfectly summed up the greatest sprinter of all time.

GOLD: Team USA. Americans won the first (Ginny Thrasher, shooting) and last (men’s basketball) gold medals of the Rio Games. In all, the 121 medals broke the American record of 110 in a non-boycotted games and it swept up the most medals of every hue for the first time by any nation in 40 years.

LOCHTE: Hope Solo. The only American who welcomed Lochte’s idiocy for taking the spotlight off her American ugliness. She called Sweden “cowards” for daring to employ a strategy to beat the unbeatable U.S. women’s soccer team. Perhaps if she’d stopped a couple more shots. Here’s hoping she disappears with Lochte.

GOLD: Simone Manuel. The look on her face when she realized she tied for gold in the 100-meter freestyle – thus earning the first individual medal by an African-American swimmer – was priceless. She added another gold and a pair of silvers, dismantling stereotypes and providing inspiration all the way.

SILVER: University of Georgia. Nine Bulldogs won a total of 10 medals (five of them gold) for three different countries. If UGA (not Uganda) was its own nation, it would have tied Cuba and Croatia in 17th place for gold and equalled the likes of South Africa and the Czech Republic in total haul. It seems Athens was meant for the Olympics.

BRONZE: Pita Taufatofua. The shirtless and oiled-up Tonga flag bearer – who competed in Taekwondo – was such an international hit he served up an encore at the closing ceremony.

LOCHTE: Egyptian judoka. One of the worst displays of sportsmanship came when Islam El Shehaby was sent home and reprimanded by the IOC for refusing to shake hands after losing to Israel’s Or Sasson. Even worse was the shameful messages he received from hard-line countrymen for even participating in the match.

GOLD: Title IX. A total of 214 Americans brought home 267 medals (141 of them gold) from Rio, Of that group, 120 of them (56.1 percent) were women accounting for 152 medals (56.9 percent), 87 golds (61.7 percent) in 21 different disciplines. “Title IX paved the way and created so many opportunities for women in sport,” said Allyson Felix, the most decorated female track and field Olympian.

GOLD: Kristin Armstrong. Five years after a headline to my story about her at the USA Cycling National Championship time trials at Clarks Hill Lake read “Ex-Olympian’s dream likely over,” Armstrong won her third consecutive Olympics gold medal a day before turning 43. What do I know?

LOCHTE: Green pools. After everything written about Rio’s befouled waterways, it didn’t help that the diving pool suddenly turned the color of the Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day, forcing a temporary halt until things cleared up.

GOLD: Ashton Eaton. The first U.S. decathlete to repeat as Olympic champion since Bob Mathias (1948/1952). Bravo.

BRONZE: Penalty kicks. Of course a shootout is not a perfect way to decide soccer matches, but you have to admit it makes for great drama. The dominant U.S. women were eliminated that way by Sweden and the Brazilian men ignited a national party by winning on hero Neymar’s final kick.

LOCHTE: NBC. Nothing can ever be done to change the shameless manner in which the network packages its broadcast to maximize profit. That ship has sailed. But tape-delay when knowing the outcome is inescapable in today’s world still stinks.

GOLD: Rowdy Gaines. Would that we all could have the most eventful moments of our lives announced with Gaines’ fever-pitched enthusiasm.

LOCHTE: Elliotte Friedman. One of Canada’s most accomplished broadcasters blew the international call of Phelps’ last individual gold medal, mistaking his lane for Lochte’s. He was gutted by his error, which in hindsight was the best thing that never happened to Lochte all week.

BRONZE: Phillip Dutton. The 52-year-old Aussie-turned-American who winters in Aiken got his first individual medal in six Olympics participating in three-day eventing on his horse Mighty Nice.

LOCHTE: Under Armour. It’s bad enough that its top athletes Steph Curry and Jordan Spieth didn’t even show up to Rio, but its marquee Olympian, Phelps, is displaying a Swoosh prominently on the collector’s cover of SI.

SILVER: Golf. It wasn’t perfect with too many stars staying away, but the top men and women who showed up delivered on what looked like a terrific course and made golf feel like it belonged in the Olympics after a 112-year hiatus. With genuine enthusiasm and emotion – epitomized by American Gerina Piller’s uncontrolled tears after failing to medal – the golfers made a strong case for sticking around beyond 2020 in Tokyo.

BRONZE: Matt Kuchar. Before the golf event even started, folks on Twitter had taken to dubbing Kooch with the hashtag #BackdoorBronze. He lived up to it with a final-round 63 to vault onto the podium and left the Yellow Jacket with “an amazing sense of pride.”

LOCHTE: No shows. Seeing gold medalist Justin Rose, silver medalist Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler and Martin Kaymer take part in the Opening Ceremony; Bubba Watson and friends soaking up every sport they could fit in; and all the male and female golfers embrace the full Olympic experience had to elicit at least some pang of regret in the guys who elected to stay home.

GOLD: Fiji. The small island nation finally got two sports into the Olympics that it could fare well in. While Vijay Singh chose not to compete in golf, the men’s rugby sevens team stole the show in winning gold to account for Fiji’s first Olympic medal.

GOLD: Team handball. Why is this most awesome sport not an American staple? Along with water polo and now rugby sevens, handball ranks as the coolest thing we only get to see every four years.

BRONZE: Kerri Walsh Jennings. It wasn’t a fourth gold this time with Misty May-Treanor, but her rally for beach volleyball bronze against Brazil with new partner April Ross was just as dramatic.

LOCHTE: Zika. The only headlines this generated the last fortnight came out of Miami.

GOLD: Rio. For all its many faults, there has never been a more beautiful backdrop to an Olympics. It certainly delivered a great show in spite of everything.

SILVER: Jordan Burroughs. Perhaps the greatest American wrestler illustrated the raw agony of defeat when he left the arena sobbing after losing twice on the same day and not even taking bronze. “I missed a lot of important milestones in my children’s lives to pursue this sport,” he said through tears. The sacrifices of being an Olympian takes a toll that we should all respect regardless of how they finish.

Michaux: Georgia Tech's Gray receives high praise from coach, teammates

Sat, 08/20/2016 - 8:22pm

Paul Johnson is an offensive-minded coach not prone to being effusive. His triple-option system is what defines him – as does his generally brusque demeanor. So when the Georgia Tech head coach starts spitting roses about a defensive player who generally works the furthest away from the line of scrimmage, well, you take notice.

“A.J. Gray probably had as good a spring as anybody on our football team,” Johnson told the full contingent of media that showed up in Charlotte for the annual Atlantic Coast Conference football kickoff. “I think he’s got the opportunity to be one of the all-time great players at Georgia Tech.”

He said all-time greats at Georgia Tech, a list that would include the likes of Pat Swilling, Keith Brooking, Eddie Lee Ivery, Calvin Johnson, Marco Coleman and Demaryius Thomas. All this praise for a sophomore safety from Washington County who played in 10 games as a freshman backup who admittedly “didn’t quite know what I was doing out there.”

Johnson expanded on his assessment of Gray when the Yellow Jackets opened preseason camp with the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder already entrenched as the starting free safety.

“A.J.’s a really well-rounded kid,” Johnson said. “He’s got his feet on the ground. He’s got really good athletic ability. He’s got good football awareness and sense. He had to play last year as a freshman before he was ready and he was out there and at times he would get lost but he still made some plays. He had a couple interceptions and seemed to find his way around the ball. This spring he was almost impossible to block. I mean, you’d like to say you teach that but I think some of that is just innate ability that you just have.”

Fair enough, but all-time great?

“Certainly nobody is gonna crown him as all-pro now in his sophomore year of college,” Johnson said. “But I think if he continues to progress and work – which he will because he’s that type of person – then I think he could be really good.”

It’s not just his head coach saying these things about Gray. Asked point blank who would be the breakout star on the 2016 team, defensive back Lawrence Austin didn’t hesitate.

“I think A.J. Gray is going to have a big year,” Austin said. “A.J. is just a natural baller. He finds the ball or the ball finds him. He might do something wrong but still catch an interception or knock the ball out. He does have potential to be one of the greats.”

Senior lineman Patrick Gamble quickly concurred.

“I would say the same thing,” Gamble said of Gray. “Every time I see him he’s making plays on the ball. Every time. No matter where’s he’s at he’s making plays on the ball whether it’s a fumble or interception. He’s just always around the ball and that’s one thing we need.”

How does quarterback Justin Thomas feel about the guy who picks him off in practice?

“Just watching him play last season I think he can be a big contributor,” Thomas said. “Especially being in the system for a year, he’s not just running around looking for the ball. He’s going to know his assignments and I think he’ll put himself in a lot better position and I think he’ll be a great player.”

You won’t hear anything like that coming out of the shy Gray’s mouth. He’s not in the mold of the trash-talking defensive backs that proliferate football. High praise from his coaches and teammates only fuels him to work harder.

“It means a lot to me and just makes me more humble to get better every day,” he said. “Get better on the little things like the details.”

Gray admits the details were largely lost on him a year ago. Even a principal’s son from Sandersville, Ga., can get overwhelmed by the volume of things he had to learn immediately playing football and taking classes at Georgia Tech. It was a lot to process, and mostly Gray survived on instinct that made him the prep player of the year as a senior.

“I was just going off athleticism,” Gray said. “But now I know the plays and know where to line up and it just makes me play faster.”

His coaches have noticed the maturation.

“I think last year it was fast for him – it was just ‘See ball, try and hit ball; see receiver, try and cover receiver,’” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “Whereas now he’s trying to play within the framework of what we’re doing.”

Gray’s teammates already marveled at what he could do at half speed. In 10 games last year – he missed two after an injury late against Florida State – Gray posted 21 tackles plus an interception and fumble recovery.

“It’s just God’s gift,” Austin said of Gray’s innate football instinct. “If I mess up on a play I’ll be nowhere near the ball. If A.J. messes up, he’ll catch an interception. I’ve never seen anything like it. When he first came in as a freshman he’d call the wrong play and run the wrong way but he would catch an interception. You can’t get mad at him. Now coming into his second year and he’s learning more of the defense, so he’s been in the right position and also making plays on the ball. He’s going to be a great player for us this year.”

All four starters are gone from Georgia Tech’s secondary after the graduations of safeties Jamal Golden and Demond Smith and cornerbacks D.J. White and Chris Milton. It will be up to Gray to play “quarterback” again, recognizing opposing offensive formations and instructing his teammates where to line up.

“Major difference,” said Austin. “He’s not only doing what he’s supposed to do but he’s telling the corner what he’s supposed to do and telling the outside linebacker what he’s supposed to do.”

While a battered offense was the biggest reason for Georgia Tech’s 3-9 record last year, the defense didn’t make the necessary contributions to turn things around. After the Jackets scored 137 points off 29 turnovers in 2014, Georgia Tech only mustered 17 takeaways leading to 78 points last season. The primary focus is on changing those numbers this season.

Gray is being counted on to be a big part of that. Considering he intercepted 10 passes his senior season at Washington County and returned four for touchdowns, it’s a role he’s ready to fill.

“I’m looking forward to the opportunity,” Gray said. “We should get a lot of turnovers because we’re really focused on that. I feel like if we’re on the same page, everybody can be an outstanding player.”

Coming from a Washington County team that reached consecutive state championship games to a program coming off an 11th win at the Orange Bowl, Gray wasn’t accustomed to the struggles the Yellow Jackets endured last season. He refuses to dwell on it.

“I wouldn’t talk about last year because that’s over with and done and we can’t do anything about it,” he said. “All I’m doing is focusing on this year. All this (outside negativity) is just building us and making us more motivated. Where’s not listening to none of that. I think everybody is working together. If we communicate like we’re doing we’ll be real good.”

If Gray keeps progressing like he has in one year, “real good” has a chance to develop into “all-time great.”

“I think you’ll be excited to watch him play this fall,” Johnson said.

Michaux: ACC faces scheduling decision

Thu, 08/18/2016 - 11:08pm

Pick a number – eight or nine. Odds are your choice is based on entirely selfish reasons.

The biggest debate in Atlantic Coast Conference football heading into the 2016 season isn’t whether Clemson or Florida State will win the title but whether the league should change to a nine-game conference schedule in the near future.

The 14 member football schools tabled the argument last Friday for a couple extra months, but a decision one way or another is imminent. As part of the fine print in creating a dedicated ACC Network with ESPN by 2019, the schools will have to pick one of two scheduling models designed to augment the football portfolio that the ACC Network will have the rights to air.

The choices are ...

8-PLUS-2: Keep the current arrangement of eight conference games but add two out-of-conference games against other Power 5 programs from the Southeastern, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12.

9-PLUS-1: Add an extra conference game against the opposite division every year while still playing one required game against another Power 5 school.

The league is almost evenly split on which direction to go. The last time a formal vote was held about a nine-game league schedule, the vote was 8-6 against it. If two of the four schools that don’t play traditional rivalry games against the SEC every year change their mind and flip to the 9-plus-1 side, a change will be coming by 2020.

One of those potential flippers is Miami, whose new hire, Mark Richt, is the only coach in the league in favor of nine-game conference schedule.

“If I’m at Georgia, I’d want eight conference games,” Richt said, illustrating the selfish nature of the choice. “If I’m at Florida State, I’d want eight. At Miami, I want nine league games.”

That’s big news for the 9-plus-1 crowd come voting time.

“Majority is going to rule when it’s all said and done,” said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney.

Swinney, Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher are the most vocal opponents of adding another ACC game, and the reasons are obvious. Their schools, along with Louisville, already have one non-conference date set in stone against in-state SEC rivals every year. They’d prefer to have three more options to control, allowing for another marquee Power 5 foe along with a couple of relative patsies to pad the home schedule.

Clemson will play Auburn this year along with Troy and South Carolina State.

“I like the flexibility to go play Georgia, Texas and Notre Dame,” Swinney said. “That’s one of the ways we built our program. With nine conference games, there’s not enough flexibility.”

He reiterated that stance to The Clemson Insider this week.

“We are going to play South Carolina every year and then I love to be able to go play another big boy, if you will, and kind of measure up,” Swinney said. “It has been one of the best parts about the last seven years and allowing us to grow our program. We have had a measuring stick and said let’s just see where we are. Let’s go play some of these teams. And then we have held our own.”

That’s a perfectly reasonable and logical argument. But it’s easy to make for programs with the reputation of Clemson and FSU, with one prominent non-conference already locked in and an attractive reputation to market. It’s not so easy for the programs that don’t already have one game under perpetual contract to have to go find two Power 5 opponents when three of the other major conferences (Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12) are already playing nine conference games a year.

The relative have-nots would be at a distinct disadvantage trying to “grow” their programs to Clemson’s level when they have to settle for finding dates with Vanderbilt, Purdue or Iowa State instead of league powers like the Tigers and Seminoles.

Swinney’s argument discounts his fellow ACC members. The current arrangement means teams play schools that aren’t permanent crossover rivals from the opposite division just once every six years. A nine-game schedule would cut that familiarity rate down to an average of every three years.

Longtime rivals Wake Forest and North Carolina – separated by 77 miles – even had to schedule “non-conference” games against each other just so they could play more often than once every six years.

More often than not that extra league game for Clemson would be a Virginia Tech, Miami, UNC or Pitt while Georgia Tech would more frequently face FSU and Louisville. That’s not exactly a drag on the schedule.

There are only three universal cons to the nine-game plan that every school has issues with. The first is obvious – an unbalanced home/road schedule. There’s nothing you can do about that with an odd number of games.

That leads directly to the second problem every team would have to deal with periodically – a six-game home schedule. Assuming you can’t always stack all three non-conference games at home on the years you have four in-conference home dates, that lucrative seventh game just isn’t going to happen every year. That significant amount of revenue once every four years or so, however, should be more than offset by the bump in TV money that the ACC Network will bring in. It’s a sacrifice every team will have to make for the good of the whole.

The third problem is Notre Dame, a conference member in every sport but football which is contractually obligated to play an average of five games against ACC teams each season. In the years Clemson or Georgia Tech draw the Irish, they would have 11 games already set in stone.

That’s pretty inflexible, indeed, but is it really the worst problem in the world to have? The fans will love it and if the Tigers are College Football Playoff material, they would welcome the challenge.

If the Irish eventually join the ACC in football, a nine-game schedule would be a must anyway and that problem goes away.

From the Clemson standpoint, the ninth game might not seem ideal. But from a league standpoint, the benefits outweigh the negatives. It’s hard to consider yourself brethren when your fan base only gets to see the Tigers come to town once every 12 years.

And it’s only going to get harder to find quality Power 5 opponents when every conference but the SEC plays nine games in-house.

More likely than not, the majority will outweigh the self-interests of the heavyweights at the top. When it does, the rising tide will lift all boats and make for a healthier ACC.

Michaux: Cot Campbell calls latest honor a great thrill

Tue, 08/16/2016 - 8:45pm

Saratoga Springs, N.Y., has been “sort of a second home” for Cot and Anne Campbell for nearly 50 years, so it’s only a natural that a piece of Aiken’s horsing couple will live on there forever.

On Aug. 26 – the eve of the nation’s oldest major stakes race, the Travers – W. Cothran “Cot” Campbell will be inducted in Saratoga’s Walk of Fame by the New York Racing Association. He and trainer Bill Mott will be only the ninth and tenth persons inducted for their significant contributions to the sport of thoroughbred racing and to the advancement of Saratoga Race Course.

Campbell, who founded Dogwood Stable and moved the outfit to Aiken in the mid-1980s, calls it “one of the great thrills of my life.”

“It’s very heady – there’s only eight people in it,” Campbell said. “I’ve had a great life in racing and racing has been nice to me. So I’m delighted with this.”

He will be presented the Walk of Fame’s signature red jacket at a ceremony between races that Friday by storied trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who is one of the eight previous inductees in a club that also includes Saratoga’s all-time leading jockeys John Velazquez, Jerry Bailey and Angel Cordero.

The 88-year-old Campbell says the red jacket will mean as much to him as the famous green jacket presented to Masters Tournament winners.

“Yeah, in my world it’s comparable,” Campbell said. “I’ll put that jacket on and be strutting around.”

The Campbells have been summering in Saratoga Springs since 1971, enjoying the whirlwind of the annual six-week racing meet than began more than 150 years ago and just a month after the Battle of Gettysburg. This year’s sojourn started in mid-July and will end after Labor Day.

“We’ve had some great moments up here and the Dogwood name is well entrenched,” Campbell said. “It’s just great to be here. There’s a whole lot going on – sometimes more than you want.

“Saratoga is like taking a year of your life and cramming it into six weeks – socially, business-wise and civically. It wears you out, but you love it 90 percent of the time while 10 percent of the time you wish you were somewhere else. It’s an exciting thing and I would not want to do without it.”

One of those 90-percent moments came Monday night, when Anne Campbell was the guest of honor at the Blue Spangled Gala benefitting the Saratoga WarHorse foundation. She fell in love with the organization that provides equine therapy to veterans suffering from invisible wounds such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other war traumas.

In 2014, Anne Campbell helped establish a satellite Saratoga WarHorse facility at the Equine Rescue of Aiken, providing a second place for veterans to experience bonding with retired thoroughbreds that is instrumental in helping them emotionally reconnect with themselves and their lives back home.

The Campbells have been married for 57 years and Anne was called “the wind beneath Dogwood Stable’s wings” at Monday’s gala – a distinction Cot endorses. For her service to Saratoga WarHorse, they named a foal from famed Preakness champion, Curlin, after her – Anne Dupree.

“It was a great affair attended by 8,300 people and she deserved it,” Cot said.

The Campbells have certainly left their mark in racing – which has been the center of the second half of their lives together. Cot Campbell is lauded as a raconteur and visionary, whose biggest contribution to the sport was the introduction of the concept of limited partnerships for horse owners. It was a simple idea that changed the industry, with Campbell estimating that about 60 percent of horses racing in America today are owned by some sort of partnership.

“It was just a logical idea,” Campbell said. “Racing is not quick to embrace new procedures but I thought of this and it made sense and I went ahead and did it. Somebody would have done it eventually. ... I am proud of it. I just sort of stumbled into it but I had sense enough to know I’d stumbled into something good. I was able to fan the flames and make it work. It’s created a niche and an important slot up here in this Walk of Fame. So good for me.”

The success of his system has brought Campbell plenty of accolades through the years, including Eclipse Awards for the top steeplechaser (1987, Inlander), 2-year-old filly (1996, Storm Song) and an Order of Merit for himself (2012). Dogwood Stable’s colors have also been carried by 1990 Preakness Stakes winner Summer Squall and 2013 Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice.

“It has provided us with an exciting, unconventional and bizarre sort of life,” Campbell said. “I’m a resilient, optimistic person and it has treated me well and I have thrived on it. While there’ve been a lot of lows, there’s been some highs and I’m of a temperament where I’ve been able to live with that. I’ve had a wonderful life and racing’s been fabulous and taken us all over the world and put us with some interesting people. We’ve won some of the biggest races in the world and had some of the greatest horses of the last 30 years.”

Even though Dogwood Stables merged with Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners in 2013, Campbell still personally owns four horses now in what he calls his “semi-retirement.” Two of those horses have already fared well at Saratoga this season. Money Changer won a race on July 23 and finished second on Sunday while a filly named Aikenetta, from Aikenite, finished second by a nose on July 27.

Campbell is content with his place in the racing community as he approaches his 89th birthday in September.

“I don’t think of accomplishing anything other than to enjoy the sport and keep my hand in it,” he said. “I’m going to buy some horses every year, I’m going to go to the races, I’m going to live the good life in Aiken and hope to come up with another good horse. I’ve got enough residuals to keep me busy and I would be unhappy if I were not busy.”

Michaux: Three Jaguar golfers gear up for U.S. Amateur

Sat, 08/13/2016 - 4:57pm

It’s been a nice year of golf already for Augusta University, with former players Vaughn Taylor winning at Pebble Beach and Patrick Reed competing at the Rio Olympics.

Now three Jaguars from the 2016 team will be among 312 competing in this week’s U.S. Amateur at Oakland Hills.

Freshly minted graduate Robin Petersson, rising senior Jake Marriott and junior Broc Everett will tee it up Monday and Tuesday with hopes of being among the 64 players to advance the match play after 36 holes. They planned to spend the weekend practicing together on both the North and South courses in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

“It will make it a comforting experience, I think,” said Marriott of having teammates present at his first U.S. Amateur.

“It’s be great to have them both here in the practice rounds,” said Everett, who qualified for last year’s U.S. Amateur at Olympia Fields. “In a tournament with so many good players it’s good to have people where you know how your games stack up and you can help each other get ready for the course.”

It certainly says something about the Augusta golf program as it tries to get back among the collegiate elite after winning consecutive NCAA titles in 2010-11. The Jaguars haven’t made it past the NCAA Regionals since and missed out on a return to the championship in May by two strokes.

“It’s big,” said Petersson, a Swede who played for the winning European team in this summer’s Palmer Cup. “I was in Sweden when I found out they both qualified for it. It’s great for the program and great for the school. It shows that hard work will get you to the top. We’re a small school with limited resources, but we put a lot of effort into it.”

They’ll be cheered on in Michigan by their Jaguars coach, Jack O’Keefe, who will return to the scene of one of his most memorable competitive moments. In the 1996 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, O’Keefe made the cut and was paired on Saturday with world No. 1 Tom Lehman. While Lehman shot 65 to vault into the lead and eventually finish runner-up to Steve Jones, O’Keefe shot a pair of 76s on the weekend to finish tied for 90th.

Petersson had never tried qualifying for the U.S. Amateur before, always going home to Sweden during the summer and playing abroad. But the Jaguars’ top golfer last season is getting ready to embark on a professional career and has been enjoying a summer of elite amateur tests including the Palmer Cup, British Amateur, European Amateur team championship, Western Amateur and the upcoming Eisenhower Trophy World Amateur team championship in September.

“I had a great year
last year in school which made it possible for me
this year to play in the best tournaments in the world,” Petersson said. “Had I turned professional straight out of school I wouldn’t have had anywhere to play. Might have gotten an exemption into a couple of events. I’ve had a great schedule this summer as an amateur, which I don’t think I would have had as a professional. It’s been great preparation for Q school.”

Petersson plans to enter the qualifying school for the European Tour this fall as an amateur, leaving his options open if he doesn’t make it through all three stages to earn his card.

“I think it’s good to start over in Europe,” he said. “It is competitive but not as competitive as over here in the states.”

Everett made it back to the U.S. Amateur by qualifying at Hillcrest Golf Club in Minnesota. He believes his experience last year at Olympia Fields will help him this time around.

“I pretty excited to get back out there and give it another crack,” Everett said. “The first time I went there I was kind of starry-eyed and didn’t really know what I was getting myself into especially with how tough the courses were. It’s good to know I have a whole year of college under my belt playing against guys who are going to be in this tournament an I can kind of have a better understanding of what I need to do against these kind of people on this kind of course.”

Marriott reached Oakland Hills by being the medalist in his qualifier at Old Hickory Golf Club in Missouri.

“I’m obviously really excited about the opportunity,” Marriott said. “It’s the highest level of amateur golf and probably the biggest amateur tournament in the world.”

Marriott and Everett drove to Oakland Hills together on Thursday after missing the cut in the Canadian Amateur in Ottawa, Ontario. Petersson spent the week in Augusta honing his game after missing the cut in the Western Am.

They all have the same goal at Oakland Hills – compete for medalist in two rounds of stroke play and get into the match play.

“In match play anything can happen so it comes down to getting hot when you need to and not catching the wrong guy when he’s on fire,” Marriott said.

“I’m heading up there with the mindset of playing two great rounds of golf and then anything can happen,” Petersson said.

“If you get to match play you have the same chance of winning the tournament as the guy who is the No. 1 seed,” Everett said.

Whatever happens, the trio believes that having three Jaguars in the U.S. Amateur field – two of them returning in the fall after being the Jags’ top finishers in the NCAA Stillwater regional – bodes well for the Augusta program.

“I think there’s no better preparation for the college season than finishing the summer at the U.S. Amateur playing against the best competition,” said Marriott.

“Getting two guys coming back who played in the U.S. Am will be huge for us,” Everett said. “It kind of just sets that precedent and can be a snowball effect for the whole team to have a couple guys playing in this. And if we play good it could be good for our whole team next year.”

Michaux: Bronze medal 'personal' for Olympian with Aiken ties

Wed, 08/10/2016 - 2:07pm

Phillip Dutton has been selected to ride in every Olympics and World Equestrian Games since 1994, so he’s known his share of success including two team gold medals with Australia in the Atlanta and Sydney Games.

Dutton, however, called Tuesday’s bronze medal for three-day eventing as an American in Rio “personal,” and not just because it was his first individual medal in six Olympics.

“Every Olympics has something about it that is unique, but this is more of an emotional time for me,” Dutton said. “It’s great for American equestrian but it’s also a very personal achievement as well.”

Personal doesn’t mean in a selfish way. Dutton dearly wished he could have celebrated Tuesday’s podium honors with another person – Bruce Duchossois, the Aiken Horse Park benefactor and the owner of Mighty Nice, the 12-year-old gelding Dutton rode in Rio.

Dutton first befriended Duchossois 20 years ago when the Australian eventing team trained at Bruce’s farm in Aiken before Dutton’s debut at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Duchossois, who died in 2014, imported the horse Dutton calls “Happy” in 2010 from Ireland. It was the first of the late owner’s horses to win an Olympic medal.

“It’s pretty hard to believe and great to do it with a pretty special horse that was owned by Bruce,” Dutton said of his third place in Rio. “A lot of emotion involved with everything that’s happened. I feel so proud of the horse to have done this. We wish Bruce could have been here to see Happy win a bronze medal at the Olympics, but we know he is watching over him.”

It was certainly a mighty nice turn of events over three days in Vila Militar outside Rio during a competition that Dutton said was “probably one of the toughest Olympic three-day events ever.”

It started with Mighty Nice posting a personal best 43.6 in dressage to start out in 15th place.

Dutton and fellow Australian-turned-American teammate and friend, Boyd Martin, both made nearly flawless runs over the gruelling cross country course to climb into fifth and sixth place, respectively, heading into the show jumping phase.

Martin, who also trains in Aiken during the winter, entered the final individual jumping run in seventh and needed a clear run on Blackfoot Mystery to have any chance of sneaking onto the medal stand, but his 12 penalty points dropped him to 16th.

Dutton, however, guided Mighty Nice through two jumping runs on Tuesday with only a one-point time penalty in the morning and a four-point fault in the afternoon to rally for the bronze. Mighty Nice only knocked down one rail on the last of the three-jump sequence to take the “clubhouse” lead at 51.80 with the three leaders remaining. Christopher Burton of Australia, however, knocked down a block and a rail on the last two jumps for eight penalty points to fall to fifth and guarantee Dutton the bronze behind repeat gold medalist Michael Jung of Germany and Astier Nicholas of France.

“Obviously got a bit quick through the triple and had the one down, so that was a bit disappointing,” Dutton said. “I was kind of happy with fourth and now I’m quite ecstatic with third.”

While Dutton, who trains every winter at Red Oak Farm in Aiken, is a regular on the international stage, he deflects all credit to the horse Duchossois brought over from Ireland.

“The horse showed his guts and just worked his way up after the cross country and show jumping,” Dutton said. “It was a huge effort on his behalf and all credit to him. Fortunately for everybody it turned out and especially for everybody who’s believed in Happy because he is a special horse. He’s had a few injuries here and there and hadn’t been able to get to this international stage in a really good place. So pleased for the horse.

“I’ve had better gallopers in my time but I don’t think I’ve had a better horse with a bigger heart. He just keeps trying even if he’s beat up or tired. He’s really maturing as a horse and really loves the sport.”

The only disappointment from Dutton’s third Olympics as a member of the American team is that they got eliminated from competing for a team eventing medal after Clark Montgomery retired and Lauren Keiffer fell in the cross country.

“A lot of people in America worked hard, not just the riders, so it’s pretty gutting,” Dutton said. “Lauren had a pretty unlucky fall while having a great round with not much left to do in cross country. That would have put us in a team medal as well. That’s sport and that’s the way it goes. Hopefully we can retool and do better next time.”

Dutton and Mighty Nice will return home from Rio this week, though he doesn’t know when they’ll get back down to Aiken to celebrate with everyone who has supported them along the way.

Despite being the oldest member of Team USA at age 52, Dutton doesn’t rule out a seventh Olympics when it goes to Tokyo in 2020.

“I’ve got no plans to retire,” he said. “I’ve got a good string of horses and I’m trying to stay in shape. We’re fortunate in this sport that age is not a limiting factor. You just have to have good horses and stay current with the sport. I’m doing that. Four years is a long way away but I’ve got no plans to retire yet.”

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