WEST ASHLEY, S.C. — I met Ken Burger 25 years ago on a bus and have loved him ever since.
As ridiculous as it seems, Burger and I were fellow “rookies” in 1990 on the Atlantic Coast Conference’s weeklong Operation Football media tour that whistle-stopped preseason camps at every league school. I was in my second year as a professional sports writer for the Lynchburg (Va.) newspaper. Burger was in his second year as the sports columnist for the Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C.
Those were quainter days when an entire major collegiate conference could be reasonably negotiated by bus. In between the requisite ballet clubs and the poolside barbecue with Danny Ford in Clemson, Burger and I spent hours getting to know each other sharing a bus seat from Maryland to Florida and back again.
It only took 10 minutes to already know the synopsis about each other’s lives to date. My half-life story wasn’t much to write about, but Burger’s was an HBO miniseries. He never buried his own flaws – a fact that made it pretty easy for him to dissect any strengths or flaws in others. The gist of it can be gleaned from the one line that wraps up the bio in his books.
“Born and raised in the town of Allendale, S.C., Burger graduated dead last in his class at the University of Georgia, has been married five times, is a gratefully recovering alcoholic, a cancer survivor and a happy man.”
Only one word in that synopsis won’t hold up. The cancer that Burger survived and wrote about in frank detail eight years ago came back with a vengeance. His renewed fight in a recent clinical trial has taken its toll. He hoped to make it to the birth of his eighth grandchild or Christmas – whichever came last. But after needing to be evacuated by boat from his flooded neighborhood this week – because all his story needed was a dramatic water rescue in the closing chapter – Burger’s deadline approaches faster.
In inimitable Burger fashion, he now hopes to live long enough to receive his first Social Security check after his 65th birthday on Oct. 22.
Burger has always been the coolest guy in the room – women loved him and men loved being around him. For years that’s the only Burger I knew, having never read a word he’d written until the Internet came along. Charleston columns weren’t readily available outside the circulation area. But if he wrote half as well as the conversations he had sharing press boxes, golf carts, hotel rooms and restaurant tables, it had to be terrific.
It turns out his writing was even better. Burger could generate and file 500 words on any topic before the rest of us in the press box even touched our keyboards. What really hurt is that it was always better than the prose we spent the extra hours torturing.
He wrote the stories the rest of us missed. He could spend 10 minutes talking to anyone and then deliver their life’s tale with poetic clarity to his readers faster than Domino’s Pizza – only it tasted better. While the rest of us toiled over laptops writing about X’s and O’s, Burger painted stories about life. For 25 of his 40 years in newspapers, sports was just the convenient palette he was assigned to work with.
To try to imitate his lowcountry style – either in print or life – was useless. Only Ken could pull it off so well and so gracefully. But his lessons sunk in – be curious, write about people, find your own voice and use it.
When Burger was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007, he made it his mission to get every man within range of his column to get screened. He didn’t hesitate to write about every detail of his experience as well as others he met along with the way. He convinced his bosses to let him journal his “unexpected journey,” telling them “it’s a great story if I live; even better if I don’t.”
All great stories eventually end the same way. Like Burger’s columns, his ending will get here too soon.
On Tuesday I joined a long line of colleagues, friends and family to go say goodbye to a man who meant so much to so many. Fittingly the back roads to Charleston slip behind what he called the “pine curtain” through the small towns like Allendale where he came from. Passing over swollen rivers that grace the titles of his novels, you try to think about what to say to a friend who’s dying – a friend who insisted you take advantage of his Seabrook Island condo; who keeps up with your children; who names a bit character in one of his novels after you; who generously offered anything you needed.
There wasn’t much to say other than I love him. The flicker in his eye is still there when he flashed a buoyant “Scotty!” greeting from his hospital bed. But the pain meds and antibiotics fighting his infection quickly send him drifting off while Bonnie – the soulmate he took so long to find – filled in all the details.
Before it was time to leave him with his family, Burger perked up when his 21-month-old granddaughter came in. He asked about my kids for a few minutes between sips of sweet tea and cold milk. He never stopped being the one to ask questions.
With a hug and wave, I said goodbye.
“See you later,” Burger said with enthusiastic optimism.
I certainly hope so, my friend.
It didn’t take Georgia Tech long to figure out what people in Washington County have known for a while – A.J. Gray is a natural ball hawk.
“He’s a ball magnet,” senior strong safety Jamal Golden said of the true freshman defensive back. “The ball always seems to find his hands.”
“He’s a guy who just has a nose for the football,” senior cornerback D.J. White said. “That’s something that you can’t really coach and he’s come in with naturally.”
“He’s one of those guys that’s got ‘it,’” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said.
That was pretty obvious to anyone who ever saw Gray play in high school. Gray was named the state player of the year in all classifications largely because he generated big plays as both quarterback and safety. He was responsible for 64 touchdowns his senior season at Washington County. Four of them came via returns on 10 interceptions.
Just in case the Yellow Jackets weren’t sure what they had when Gray arrived intent on playing safety, he showed them immediately. On the team’s first day in full pads during preseason practice, Gray picked off a pass during 7-on-7 drills from freshman Christian Campbell and returned it for a touchdown.
As camp wore on in August, Gray kept making plays in the secondary and on special teams.
“Had to be consistent as a playmaker and maybe they would see it,” Gray said.
“He’s one of the guys people should look out for – he’s had a pretty good camp,” Golden said a week before the regular season started.
Coach Paul Johnson even singled Gray out after the team’s final closed scrimmage.
“A.J. Gray made a couple nice plays in the open field,” Johnson said. “He’s probably going to play.”
Gray has played in all five Yellow Jackets games, involved in every kick return and coverage team as well as senior Demond Smith’s backup at free safety. The amount of playing time he’s already gotten even surprised Gray.
“Yeah, I kind of am,” he admitted. “I feel like I made the adjustment quicker than I expected. I just focused in every day and broke it down piece by piece where I needed to get better.”
Gray’s ball-hawking skills have already been on prominent display. In the season opener against Alcorn State, Gray recovered a fumble in the second quarter to set up Georgia Tech’s last touchdown of the half. He also intercepted a two-point conversion pass after Alcorn State’s only touchdown.
Against Duke two weeks ago, Gray made his first official collegiate interception in the third quarter, which might have been returned for a touchdown had he not slipped down where he caught it at the Duke 32. That led to a field goal keeping the Jackets’ hopes of rallying alive.
“He flies around and is a big physical guy,” Golden said of Gray, who at 6-foot-1, 212 pounds is considerably larger than all of his defensive backfield mates. “He’s in the right place to make plays, and that’s what he does.”
Johnson touted the Jackets’ second-half defense against Duke – with Gray playing a big role – as the biggest highlight of a bleak three-game stretch of losses.
“That’s probably as good as a defense has played since I’ve been here,” Johnson said. “They played great and gave us every chance in the world to win the game.”
Gray’s first pick in only his fourth game came sooner than other recent notable Yellow Jacket safeties. Golden didn’t get one until his 13th game. Current Green Bay Packer safety Morgan Burnett also nabbed his first interception in his fourth game for Tech.
“A.J.’s got a lot of great potential to come in as a true freshman and make the plays he’s made,” White said.
Gray’s hawkish tendencies are tough for him to explain. They just seem to come naturally to him.
“I just look at my man like coaches tell me to and – I don’t know – I just find the ball,” Gray said. “I think it’s just instinct.”
Picked to win the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division, Georgia Tech has fallen off track on a three-game losing streak including a pair of ACC games. Saturday’s showdown at No. 6 Clemson is critical if the Jackets want any hope of remaining in the division race.
“I don’t like to talk about the losses because it’s in the past,” Gray said. “We’re going to get better and going to be prepared for Saturday. It’s going to be a big game with two good teams with great players and it’s going to come down to who wants it more.”
If Clemson wants to stay unbeaten, keeping the ball away from Gray when he’s on the field will be a good start. At the rate he’s going, his time at safety will grow more frequent.
“I’ve been in the game plan a lot and have to keep getting better and better if I want to stay in some more,” Gray said. “I’ll just be ready when my name is called.”
ATHENS, Ga. — Worst-case scenarios are the kind of things first responders routinely prepare to handle every day.
Perhaps it should become part of the Georgia practice protocol.
With yet another opportunity to make a national statement against an elite opponent on a huge stage, Georgia didn’t just fail – it failed miserably.
With a 38-10 defeat to an Alabama team playing for its own habitual playoff life, Georgia endured its worst home defeat in the 15-year tenure of coach Mark Richt. The most significant game of the season was buried under a 35-point Crimson Tide in a span of 13 minutes that left the Bulldogs questioning the meaning of life.
“I would say we have to re-evaluate everything,” said Richt, which isn’t encouraging five games into the season.
Bulldogs fans were somberly streaming for the exits with 10:05 still left in the third quarter Saturday and their team hopelessly behind 38-3. It would be easy to criticize them for bailing early, but in fairness at least they showed up on a melancholy rainy afternoon at Sanford Stadium.
That’s more than you can say for Georgia’s eighth-ranked and previously unbeaten football team.
“They whipped us pretty good, and we didn’t have many counterpunches for them,” Richt said. “We got outcoached and outplayed today.”
Truth is, they were outclassed. It was obvious from the start that – despite all its talent – Georgia simply isn’t as good as Alabama. The most offensive the Bulldogs were was in a pregame jawing match with the Tide players as both teams took the field.
After that, Georgia couldn’t run the ball. It couldn’t throw the ball. Nine of its first 11 possessions lasted three plays or less. By that point, the game was already over.
What went so terribly wrong?
“I’m not sure,” said senior receiver Malcolm Mitchell. “We’ve just got to go back and watch film and see what went wrong, because obviously something did.”
Only a few minutes into the second quarter and the game was still tied at 3. You could make a case that things looked pretty even at that point between these two Southeastern Conference icons.
But things weren’t at all what they seemed. You could sense that things were already slipping inexorably away for the Bulldogs.
There was the first play of the game, when quarterback Greyson Lambert held onto the ball too long and let a wide-open Mitchell get out of range and bounds streaking 5 yards in front of the cornerback. Three-and-out.
There was the recovered fumble at the Alabama 42 on the Tide’s first possession, but the Bulldogs spun wheels on another three-and-out.
There was the roughing penalty on Marshall Morgan’s made field goal that gave the Bulldogs first-and-goal at the Alabama 8 only to have the Bulldogs retreat and settle for a field goal anyway.
You only get so many chances against Nick Saban’s Alabama. You can’t blow them all.
“We just weren’t very opportunistic,” Richt said. “We just didn’t take advantage of the opportunities that we had on the front end, and then momentum got away from us and we just didn’t have a counterpunch.”
From that moment of relative equilibrium, things went south fast for Georgia.
“The dam broke,” Richt said.
Derrick Henry rumbled untouched through a hole big enough to move the team bus for a 30-yard touchdown.
Two Georgia three-and-outs later, Minkah Fitzpatrick went unblocked to swat a punt off of Colin Barber’s foot and scoop it for a short touchdown.
Another three-and-out later, and Saban went for the jugular. Jake Coker delivered a perfect deep strike to a wide-open Calvin Ridley for a 45-yard touchdown and a 24-3 lead.
Good news – that was a touchdown better at halftime than the infamous “Blackout” debacle in 2008. But not for long.
Desperate for “a spark, a momentum change,” Richt yanked Lambert and inserted Brice Ramsey for his long-awaited meaningful chance. On his first pass, Ramsey sorely underthrew Terry Godwin and Alabama’s Eddie Jackson returned the interception 50 yards.
It’s safe to say, he’s not the answer after going 1-of-6 for 20 yards and two interceptions.
It was 31-3 and the exit trickle started.
Another three-and-out later (pattern alert), and all Alabama had to do was drive 38 yards for a 38-3 and the exodus was full on.
Those who left for the dryness and peace of their cars missed the lone Bulldog highlight of the day. After being bottled up by Alabama’s dominant defense, Nick Chubb finally burst through a hole and sprinted 83 yards for Georgia only touchdown. The run put Chubb over 100 yards rushing for the 13th consecutive game – tying Herschel Walker’s school record.
Presumably, Herschel was still one of the few left in Sanford Stadium to see it happen. He started the day leading pregame cheers when hope was still a Bulldog emotion.
Chubb shrugged at the significance of his feat on a day of defeat.
“I’ll probably be happy when I’m older – look back at it when I’m older and can brag about stuff,” Chubb said. “Right now, we lost.”
If there’s one thing Georgia is painfully equipped to deal with, it’s the aftermath of a catastrophic loss. It’s a semi-annual theme. The SEC East isn’t lost yet, and neither are championship hopes.
But experiences like Saturday burn in the psyche and brand a program hoping to one day impress a playoff selection committee.
“Every loss hurts,” Mitchell said. “Knowing how hard this team worked in the offseason to prepare for moments like this probably makes it hurt a little worse.”
It was a big Thursday night performance for Cordrea Tankersley at Louisville, with six solo tackles, an interception and two pass breakups to help Clemson survive 20-17 at Louisville and stay unbeaten.
With such a productive game, the junior cornerback from Silver Bluff was approached by the team’s media relations officials to do postgame interviews. Tankersley politely declined.
In fact, the Tigers’ starting junior corner always politely declines. “Media shy” was the way Clemson described it when asked if Tankersley might do a phone interview with his hometown paper leading up to the biggest game of the season.
“He’s not an outgoing person,” said Al Lown, Tankersley’s coach at Silver Bluff. “He’s always been quiet, even when he played here and played quarterback for us. He’s not an outspoken kid.”
Tankersley’s shyness, however, should not make a difference on the field Saturday when the spotlight turns up as brightly as possible for a primetime national showdown with Notre Dame. The No. 12 Tigers meet the No. 6 Fighting Irish in a game so big that ESPN is sending its College GameDay crew to Death Valley for the fourth time since 2006.
At stake is a significant boost in the conversation for the college football playoff a month before the first selection committee rankings are released on Nov. 3.
Lown thinks Tankersley is ready.
“Having played quarterback and been in some big games for us – which is not to compare that with what they’re getting ready for up at Clemson – he’s had some responsibility under his belt two years as a quarterback,” Lown said. “So I think he’ll be comfortable. I don’t think the moment will be too big for him.
Tankersley’s uncle is former Silver Bluff and NFL player D’Wayne Bates, who had his own coming out party against Notre Dame 20 years ago. Playing his first game as a freshman receiver for Northwestern, Bates caught a touchdown pass in the third quarter to give his Wildcats a 17-9 lead. Northwestern, which was a 28-point underdog, held on to beat the No. 9 Irish 17-15 and eventually qualify for the Rose Bowl for the first time in 47 years.
Saturday’s heavyweight game could have the same launching effect for the Tigers. Notre Dame hasn’t visited Death Valley since their lone appearance 38 years ago. A quarterback named Joe Montana led a fourth-quarter comeback as the No. 5 Irish beat No. 15 Clemson 21-17 in a game featuring 36 future NFL players, including Montana’s eventual 49ers teammate Dwight Clark for the Tigers. That victory propelled Notre Dame to the 1977 national championship.
While this is familiar territory for Notre Dame, Clemson has had its share of spotlight games since ESPN started taking its hype machine on the road. The Tigers are 2-6 overall when GameDay is in town. Both of those victories came at home – 2006 vs. Georgia Tech (31-7) and 2013 vs. Georgia (38-35).
The last home experience, however, wasn’t as pleasant. In a top-five showdown with Florida State in 2013, the Tigers fumbled on the first play and got blown away 51-14 by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston as the Seminoles went on to win the last BCS title. Tankersley played special teams that night after being switched that week from backup safety to backup cornerback.
The Clemson secondary will have a big challenge on Saturday night – not just against Notre Dame’s talented receivers but a forecast that could include torrential downpours from Hurricane Joaquin. There’s been lockerroom material posted from the Irish’s star receiver Will Fuller, but Tankersley hasn’t engaged.
“He sends texts every now and then in the mornings about how he’s ready and how hyped it is,” said Cordarius Tankersley, Cordrea’s older brother who was a year ahead of him at Silver Bluff. “But he’s just more humble and preparing himself, really.”
Coming off his best career performance against Louisville, Tankersley is finally proving his potential that he’s mostly had to flash as a special teams player for two seasons. As perhaps the fastest player on the team, the 6-foot-1 Tankersley has the tools to be special.
Lown can see the improvement in the player who compiled 650 rushing yards and 708 passing yards as a senior at Silver Bluff. The long-standing high school coach got to watch the second half of Clemson’s game against Louisville, when Tankersley picked off a pass on the first snap after the Tigers had gone ahead 17-10 late in the third quarter.
“We knew coming out of high school they wanted to turn him into a corner because he was a tall-ish guy,” Lown said. “I look at his hips, because in high school he was more of a straight-away, pure speed runner. He didn’t really have a lot of moves and at corner obviously you’ve got to turn your hips and adjust more. From a technical standpoint, that’s what I look at as far as the improvements he’s made to be able to turn his body more than he did here.”
That adjustment took Tankersley some time. He spent a season at Hargrave Military Academy getting academically prepared for college and two seasons working his way into the starting lineup after coming close to earning that role a year ago.
“The past couple of years he played special teams some, but I knew in spring practice when I watched him up there that he was going to get the chance to play a lot this year,” Lown said.
His responsibilities as quarterback in high school translate well for a boundary cornerback in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“He’ll take on any challenge,” Cordarius said. “I can honestly say he hasn’t backed down from any challenge given to him – even going to Hargrave in Virginia. He’s never backed down.”
Tankersley joins a long line of Silver Bluff success stories, including current Colorado defensive end Blake Robbins and Dallas Cowboys first-round draft pick DeMarcus Lawrence.
Tankersley doesn’t have to say anything to have an impact at home.
“For our kids and our community it’s a big plus to have kids like Cordrea and the other kids we’ve had going to the NFL and D-1 places,” Lown said. “It’s a big inspiration to our kids to see if they do work hard enough what can happen.”
ATHENS, Ga. — Considering this is the biggest week on the Georgia football calendar – Alabama week – it was a nice gesture that Mark Richt started off his news conference with his heart and mind somewhere else.
Last week would be considered the smallest on Georgia’s football schedule playing Division I-AA Southern University, but it turned out to be the biggest day in the life of Southern’s Devon Gales. The sophomore wide receiver broke his neck during a kickoff return when he collided with Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan.
Gales is recovering from surgery at Athens Regional Hospital, and the Georgia program is treating him as a surrogate son. Richt is leading the way for people to help Gales’ family cover the cost of what will be a long rehabilitation.
“We’ll do everything in our power as the Bulldog Nation to bless Devon and his family going through this time,” Richt said. “And looking forward to seeing his progress.”
Sanford Stadium will be packed with nearly 93,000 fans for Saturday afternoon’s showdown between the No. 8 Bulldogs and No. 13 Crimson Tide. If every one of those fans contributed the cost of a concession Coke to the Devon Gales Fund, that would raise nearly a half million dollars. If everyone who cares enough to watch the broadcast on CBS gave as well, the young man who injured his body for a game would have his best chance to recover.
It all puts Saturday’s Alabama game into perspective. Two teams of other young men will put their bodies on the line in the most anticipated game of the season.
“A lot of people have been excited about this for a while, at least that’s what I hear,” Richt said.
These are two of the Southeastern Conference’s most iconic programs clashing in a rare duel that rarely fails to deliver. The Bulldogs have faced the Crimson Tide only five times in Richt’s 14 previous seasons, with Georgia holding a 3-2 edge. While every year there are one or two big games that define a team’s season, Alabama – whenever it crops up – always seems to be that game.
Highlights of those three Georgia wins include Billy Bennett’s 32-yard field goal in the final minute in 2002 that proved the Bulldogs were “man enough” to win their first SEC championship in 20 years. Then there was Matthew Stafford’s overtime touchdown pass to Mikey Henderson in 2007. Both of those wins in Tuscaloosa, Ala., eventually led to Georgia’s highest final rankings (3rd and 2nd) in the Richt era.
But it’s the two most recent losses that stand out even more than the dramatic triumphs. There was the 2009 “Blackout” game between the hedges when the Tide inundated No. 3 Georgia 31-0 by halftime, signaling the arrival of Nick Saban’s reign. Alabama lost in the SEC Championship game that season but followed with three BCS titles in the next four years.
The last meeting was the biggest of them all – the 2012 SEC Championship game that basically served as a de facto national semifinal to determine which team would go on to beat an overmatched Notre Dame for the BCS title. It ended in heartbreak for the Bulldogs, as Aaron Murray’s pass intended for Malcolm Mitchell in the end zone was deflected and caught by Chris Conley at the 5 as the last seconds on the clock ran out leaving Alabama a 32-28 victor.
With his own injury issues the intervening years, Mitchell hasn’t dwelled on what might have been had Murray’s pass reached him in the end zone in 2012.
“It’s amazing the things that have taken place in life since then and I’ve dealt with several things that have taken my mind off that,” Mitchell said. “That season would have ended really well if we won that game. But we didn’t so now we’re where we’re at today. ... If for some reason I’m placed in that predicament again and the ball gets there, I’ll do everything in my power to catch it.”
Mitchell and his emerging quarterback Greyson Lambert might have the biggest say in the end Saturday with the passing game against a secondary where the Tide is most vulnerable. Everyone is bracing for the showdown between the game’s dominant running backs on both sides and the defenses challenged to stop them.
“The best seven in America,” Georgia’s Nick Chubb said of Alabama’s defensive front. “They haven’t allowed anyone to rush for 100 yards on them this year.”
Chubb needs one more 100-yard game to tie Herschel Walker’s school record of 13 consecutive games.
“I think it’ll be a great challenge for us,” Chubb said.
Alabama is a 2.5-point underdog – ending a streak of 72 consecutive games as the favorite dating back to the 2009 SEC Championship game against No. 1 Florida (which the Tide won).
“I don’t really have a reaction to that,” said Richt, refusing to take any bait suggesting the Tide’s dominance is waning. “They’re as good or better than they’ve ever been in my opinion. So I don’t know what the talk might be out there. But they’re as good or better than anybody in our league and as good or better than anybody in the country.”
Facing that challenge Saturday could produce a defining moment and launch something special for a Georgia program whose heart is already in the right place.
Laying an offensive egg against a top-10 Notre Dame defense last week was one thing, but repeating against Duke should raise the alarm at Georgia Tech.
The preseason Coastal Division favorites are off to a bad start in the Atlantic Coast Conference after a 34-20 loss in Durham, N.C., on Saturday. It’s looking like those excessive offensive efforts against early cupcakes were merely a mirage.
After a streak of 15 consecutive games rushing for at least 250 yards, the Yellow Jackets failed to hit that mark for the second consecutive game. The 173 rushing yards against Duke is the worst Georgia Tech effort since gaining only 151 in the 2013 Music City Bowl against Ole Miss. The Yellow Jackets triple-option rushing committee hasn’t produce a 100-yard rusher since the opener against Division I-AA Alcorn State.
What’s worse, Georgia Tech couldn’t get 1 yard on fourth down at the Duke 26 with under five minutes left and trailing by six (though a Duke player lined up in neutral zone wasn’t called by the refs). That’s the kind of thing that keeps coach Paul Johnson awake at night.
The ACC opening loss doesn’t bode well for the Jackets with Clemson, Florida State and Virginia Tech still looming on the schedule.
Chasing Herschel: Georgia tailback Nick Chubb broke off a 49-yard touchdown in the third quarter Saturday to reach 131 rushing yards against Southern. It was the 12th consecutive 100-yard game for Chubb, just one shy of Herschel Walker’s school-record 13 set spanning his prime seasons of 1980-81 including the national-title winning Sugar Bowl.
“It is truly an honor to be mentioned with him,” Chubb said. “Herschel Walker – that’s what you hear about when you think Georgia football.”
Chubb will face his biggest challenge yet with Alabama coming to Sanford Stadium on Saturday. Another big game could boost Chubb’s and Georgia’s efforts to reprise other Herschel standards in the Heisman Trophy and national championship categories.
His offensive linemen stepped up after Chubb only had 31 rush yards at halftime.
“Coming into the half, (offensive linemen) were like, ‘How many do you need Nick?’” Chubb said. “And I was like, ‘Y’all care more about it than I do.’ When somebody said I only needed 25 yards they started saying, ‘Let’s get it; let’s get it,’ and I said, ‘Okay, let’s go.’”
Homecoming court: It’s hard to fathom a better fortnight than the one Georgia quarterback Greyson Lambert is enjoying.
Last Saturday against the Gamecocks, Lambert set an NCAA record for passing accuracy by completing 24-of-25 passes (96 percent), breaking the UGA game record for consecutive completions (20) in the process. A few days earlier, Lambert’s girlfriend and Georgia senior – Adeline Kenerly – was promoted to Miss Georgia after the former title holder, Betty Cantrell, won the Miss America pageant. Kenerly will officially be presented the crown and sash at halftime of next week’s game at Sanford Stadium.
Meanwhile, the guy who beat Lambert out of the quarterbacking job in spring practice at Virginia – prompting Lambert’s transfer to Athens – had one of the most miserable night’s possible on national TV Friday night. Matt Johns went 12-of-25 with three interceptions (including two returned for touchdowns) and spent a rainy night running for his life in a 56-14 annihilation by Boise State.
I somehow think Lambert and his girlfriend aren’t regretting his decision to come home to Georgia.
Irish Stew: Veteran Clemson sports information director Tim Bourret is both a Notre Dame alumnus (1977) and a curator of artisanal facts. So he’s in his element as the Tigers await an Irish invasion of Death Valley on Oct. 3. Here are two early gems from Bourret, whose been at Clemson since he left South Bend, Ind., in 1978.
It’s a good thing Clemson took an off week before hosting Notre Dame, because the Irish are now lifetime 5-0 when the Pope is visiting on U.S. soil. Appropriately, Saturday’s victim was “Mass.”
Also, next week marks Notre Dame’s first appearance in Clemson since Joe Montana led the Irish to a 21-17 victory en route to a national title in 1977. The number of weeks since that last visit – 1,977.
Spurs and Feherty: Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier talked football, golf and life from his vacation home in Crescent Beach, Fla., with David Feherty on the host’s Golf Channel show this week. Love him or hate him, seek out a repeat and watch it, because it was illuminating.
The highlight, however, was discussing the evolution of the head ball coach’s trademark visor and his familiar fits of tossing it. Spurrier gave up tradition baseball hats when he went from Duke to Florida for three reasons: too hot and muggy in The Swamp; caps collected too many grass stains when he skimmed it across the turf in anger; and visors or more aerodynamic and less prone to drift when he opts to toss it high and catch it.
NFC South showdown: Vegas odds suggest the Falcons (facing the Tony Romo/Dex Bryant-less Cowboys) and Panthers (playing the Drew Brees-free and winless Saints) should both be 3-0 after Sunday. It could all come down to a pair of head-to-head meetings in a three-week span in December for the division title.
While their common NFC East opponents have been generous to the Falcons so far, the difference might come down to the fact the Panthers must face the Packers and Seahawks along the way while the Falcons draw the 49ers and Vikings instead.
ATLANTA — Until the human elements hiding within Jason Day caused his ball to sail out of bounds on the fifth hole at East Lake, it was hard not to start feeling sorry for Jordan Spieth.
The man who stole the world No. 1 label from the man who chased the Grand Slam has had a pattern of demoralizing his immediate competition of late.
On Thursday in the Tour Championship, Day started birdie-birdie-birdie. That’s not unlike how he started the BMW Championship last week with two birdies, or the Deutsche Bank the event before with three birdies, or the Barclays before that with two birdies after a par, or the PGA Championship’s final round with four birdies in the first seven holes.
When Day started fast again Thursday, Spieth was quoted muttering, “it’s weird when he makes a par.”
Spieth has had a front-row view of Day’s ascension, playing 11 rounds with Day starting at the U.S. Open through the first round of the Tour Championship. But it was seven consecutive rounds from Sunday at the PGA through the first two days of the BMW Championship where Spieth must have felt like he was getting pummeled by Ronda Rousey.
In those seven consecutive rounds together, Day was 33-under – 31 strokes better than Spieth. At the BMW, Spieth was 11-under through two rounds and still trailing the eventual winner by seven shots.
“It’s also hard to play with somebody who is 18-under through two rounds and feel like you are 11-under and not playing well,” Spieth said. “When in truth, you’re really playing some good solid golf. It’s tough to play with.
“It’s very motivating to see that. … What he did, I mean he destroyed my score in those rounds, for lack of a better term. It is very motivating, because my personality, I don’t like getting beat in anything and I’m very stubborn. And I don’t enjoy that. And it wasn’t fun to watch. But when it’s not fun, it motivates me. It doesn’t make me angry. It makes me want to get back to the level I was playing at this whole year, to get on top of my game and see if the top of my game can beat the top of anybody else’s game when they’re at their best.”
Even after a relatively ordinary 69 on Thursday, Day’s newfound dominance must be a little intimidating to everyone. Since enduring a bout of vertigo while playing with Spieth in the middle of contending at the U.S. Open, Day’s game has hit another gear. He was 101-under par in seven events since experiencing vertigo at Chambers Bay. He set the all-time major scoring record at 20-under par in the PGA at Whistling Straits.
“He’s the best player in the world right now,” Rory McIlroy said Wednesday. “I don’t think anyone can argue with that, with the way that he’s played.”
Spieth isn’t arguing, even when his presumed dominion over the Player of the Year ballot with four wins including the Masters and U.S. Open was thrown open to debate with Day’s late hot streak.
“It’s interesting how quickly things can certainly change based on what you’ve done recently,” Spieth said. “It just took a matter of time of him closing out the PGA to kind of unleash the beast. And so there is no doubt that he is the No. 1 player in the world right now. In order to dethrone him, we have got to be the person that’s the now.”
There’s little doubt Spieth will win his peers’ votes in the Player of the Year race. The universal sentiment is “majors trump everything else” and he wins that category 2-1.
But the real winner in all this is the game. Regardless of which one is sitting in the rotating No. 1 chair, Spieth, Day and McIlory have stirred up a youthful energy.
“The back and forth is fantastic,” Day said of the game of hot potato they’ve been playing with No. 1. “I’m enjoying myself, those guys are enjoying themselves and it’s been great.”
They’ve been dubbed the New Big Three – which fits well considering they’re all in their 20s, all fearless of the competition and all as likeable as any superstars on Earth and seem to like each other.
They don’t shrink at the comparison to the original Big Three – Hall of Famers Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player who accumulated 34 major titles between them from 1958-86 while being the most friendly of rivals.
“If we had to put it in words these days it’s like Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy had a baby and I was it,” Day said with a laugh as all three of them readied to compete for $10 million and the title of world No. 1 at the Tour Championship. “Because I’ve got Rory’s length and I’m hoping that I’ve got Jordan’s touch.”
Day’s rise on the heels of Spieth’s accomplishments in the wake of McIlroy’s dominance has energized the tour. Throw in 26-year-old fan favorite Rickie Fowler, who won the Players Championship, and it’s easy to argue that the game’s future is its present.
“It’s probably a little too early to talk that way (of a new Big Three), but it’s certainly looking like you could even add Rickie into that equation,” McIlroy said. “He hasn’t quite won a major yet, but he’s certainly trending towards that. It’s a nice conversation to be a part of.”
McIlroy (26 years old), Spieth (22) and Day (27) have hoarded five of the last six majors and show every sign of being the favorites to collect more in the coming years. But if the last 14 months have proven anything, it’s how quickly things can change.
“I think that the ‘big’ number – whatever it is – changes, I’ve seen it change week-to-week out here,” Spieth said. “There was Big One, there was Big Two, there was Big Three, there was Big Four. I mean, Brooks Koepka wins this week, it’s the Big Five. You know?
“I think it’s cool to be a part of that conversation and as long as I can stay a part of the Big Whatever, then I’m doing my job on the course. I wouldn’t say this is what golf needs, because everything was going fine before all this talk came up, I felt like. But I think it’s cool to have guys battle it out in the biggest stages and not be scared of each other.”
ATLANTA — With an opportunity to win $10 million on the table this week, Kevin Kisner has a lot to play for at East Lake.
But the money isn’t the first thing Kisner thinks about should he win the Tour Championship.
“Hopefully we can get some Dogs out there barking and get rid of that Gator chomp that happened on the 18th green last year,” Kisner said.
The former Georgia All-American was referring to ex-Florida Gator Billy Horschel’s antics after winning last year’s FedEx Cup in the heart of Bulldog country. It was not an image Kisner wants repeated – and Horschel didn’t make the top 30 to get a chance.
“He can watch me bark,” the Aiken resident said.
Unlike many of the stars in the 29-man field, Kisner has almost no experience at East Lake. The only time he’d ever been to the club before Tuesday was a brief recruiting visit to Georgia Tech.
“Just for lunch. Didn’t even play,” he said. “First time playing any golf here was (Tuesday). But I love it. It fits my eye.”
It will take a series of results for Kisner to win the FedEx Cup. He has to win the tournament first. Then Jason Day can’t finished better than tied for 11th, Jordan Spieth must finish fifth or worse, Rickie Fowler in a three-way tie for third or worse, Henrik
Stenson third or worse and Bubba Watson no better than a three-way tie for second.
Which is more unlikely – Kisner winning his first PGA Tour event or Day finishing worse than 40 percent of the field?
“Probably him finishing outside the top 11,” Kisner said. “Odds wise, you would think this would be the easiest tournament to win all year but then you have the 29 best players in the world playing the way they’re playing right now.”
Kisner is already a winner just getting here. The biggest prize associated with reaching the Tour Championship is being exempted into the majors next season plus the World Golf Championship at Doral.
For Kisner, that means finally playing in the Masters Tournament where he has attended more times than he can remember going back to when he was a kid in Aiken.
“So I grew up right in the middle of it, and I know how big it is,” he said. “Just excited to go play. ... So, I can’t wait. Looking forward to getting that invitation right around Christmas, that will be the coolest Christmas present.”
As a qualifier, Kisner will get privileges to play Augusta National in preparation before the Masters. Living so close, he said he might be waiting outside the gate as soon as the club’s season-opening jamboree ends in October.
“Probably going to get sick of me around there before the tournament,” Kisner said. “Probably going to have to tell me I’ve come enough and my preparation ought to be done.”
Reaching the Masters is an achievement Kisner doesn’t take for granted. Over the past few years he’s watched many of his former teammates and fellow alums at Georgia compete in his own backyard, and he didn’t begrudge their opportunities.
“No, because they earned it,” he said. “The coolest thing about this game is you get what you pay for. ... They outplayed me and so they earned the spot and now I’ve earned my spot it’s time for me to go show them what I have.”
Prior to his breakthrough 2015 season that included three playoff appearances and nearly $3.5 million in earnings, Kisner wondered if he’d ever get to realize his Augusta dreams.
“Yeah, when I was struggling out here to even make a cut there was a lot of doubt that I would ever make it there,” he said. “I have seen my game progress in the last two years and I played (Augusta) last winter a couple times and shot some good scores with just friends that are members and I was like, ‘My game’s improving, I could actually play this course.’”
Kisner played Augusta National two weeks before last year’s Masters with Charley Hoffman, who tied for ninth in the Masters after starting Sunday in fourth place. Kisner “shot a little 68 and took some cash off him.”
“When I was in college I thought there was no way I could compete in the Masters, it was so hard,” Kisner said. “And it’s cool to see my game progress and notice that, yeah, I can play in this tournament and I can compete. So, I’m looking forward to that.”
Before April, Kisner would like to get that elusive first victory. He’d be thrilled if it came this week even if he didn’t win the $10 million bonus.
“I will be happy to win anywhere, anytime, anyplace,” he said.
Should $10 million (plus a five-year PGA Tour exemption) come with it, what would he do with it all?
“I mean, who would know what to do with 10 million bucks?” he said. “Might be able to retire in Aiken, South Carolina. I would have no idea, but it would be a good problem to have and I could find something to do.”
ATHENS, Ga. — Maybe Georgia’s coaches were holding a little something back against the first pair of patsies.
Maybe Greyson Lambert just needed a little time in the system to turn into a passing efficiency machine.
Maybe Malcolm Mitchell’s frustrated comments last week ignited a change in the game planning.
Maybe South Carolina’s defense is simply that bad.
Whatever the impetus, Georgia’s passing offense went from underachieving to unstoppable on Saturday evening between the hedges as the Bulldogs hung “half-a-hundred” on Steve Spurrier’s team with a dominating 52-20 victory over South Carolina.
In the process, a transfer quarterback who had generated little confidence in his Southeastern Conference debut with zero completions in the first half against Vanderbilt turned in an NCAA-record breaking performance.
“That’s pretty good,” said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier when Lambert’s 24 for 25 passing line was pointed out on the stat sheet. “Record-breaking night for Georgia. Not for us.”
Mark Richt certainly felt vindicated for his starting choice that he insisted only needed a little time and patience to deliver.
“I can’t believe he threw an incompletion tonight,” Richt said with a smile. “I’m disappointed in that. But we’ll forgive him.”
Lambert’s lone incompletion came at the end of Georgia’s opening drive when he overshot tight end Jeb Blazevich in the end zone and the Bulldogs settled for a 30-yard field goal. He completed his last 20 consecutive passes after that, breaking Mike Bobo’s record of 19 in the Outback Bowl after the 1997 season.
Lambert’s 96 percent accuracy broke the NCAA record for quarterbacks with at least 20 attempts.
“I’m still trying to comprehend all of it,” Lambert said of his achievements that he was made aware of after the game. “But it’s definitely a blessing.”
It was a statement by Georgia’s offense that had been branded as one-dimensional through two games and invited defenses to crowd between the tackles to stop backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
So the Bulldogs worked on the passing game with a renewed focus Monday and opened the first half with three consecutive pass completions and the second half with two more. Third downs were non-existent until late in the third quarter, with Georgia scoring touchdowns on seven of nine possessions after the opening drive – stopping itself for the first time with a fumbled snap in the third quarter.
“It was great just to show the identity of Georgia’s offense,” said Michel, who scored two of his three touchdowns on receptions. “That’s who we are.”
The unofficial turning point might have come in the locker room after last week’s Vanderbilt showing from the disgruntled words of senior receiver Malcolm Mitchell. He’d earned his opportunity to gripe about a passing game that had been largely dormant.
“Teams are going to stack the box against us,” a frustrated Mitchell said last week. “Vanderbilt stacked the box and we didn’t pass the ball, and you saw what happened. Until we get comfortable throwing the ball – I hope our defense shows up.”
He wasn’t done.
“For me, being a competitor, I see myself as one of the better athletes, and I’m not being cocky,” he added. “But any time I’m singled up and it’s man on man, let me do what I do best.”
The senior’s words seemed to have a major impact on Brian Schottenheimer’s gameplan against the Gamecocks.
Mitchell conceded he shouldn’t have said what he said, but wasn’t unhappy if it helped light a fire. He was as shocked as anyone at Lambert’s achievements after being told he caught the record 20th consecutive pass.
“Really?” Mitchell said. “That’s phenomenal. I’m happy for him.”
Georgia’s offense was happy as a whole to walk away not only with a 3-0 record but a renewed confidence in the all-around effort. Richt knew his quarterback had it in him, but was more impressed with what the accomplishment meant to the offense as a whole.
“As precise as (Lambert) was, you needed protection, you needed good route running, you needed good skills,” Richt said. “You need a lot of things to happen and those did happen. But you’ve got to put it on the money. There were very few balls that weren’t right on the money.”
With Alabama coming to Athens to open October, the Bulldogs were quick not to get too carried away.
“It’s only one night,” Richt said.
But what an incredible night it was for a record to show up and change all the nagging questions about the passing game into definitive answers.
Paul Johnson is probably the least sentimental man in coaching this side of Bill Belichick. Trying to walk down memory lane with him is a reporter’s version of the Green Mile.
So what does the Georgia Tech coach remember of his former Navy team’s historic 2007 triple-overtime victory over Notre Dame?
“That was so long ago I don’t remember,” Johnson said in his favorite defensive alignment as if he was being asked what he had for breakfast on his previous birthday. “I think we broke a really long streak and I think I had a really good bonus in my contract.”
He laughed: “I remember that.”
There is no doubt Johnson remembers a lot more about one of the greatest moments in modern Naval Academy football history. Navy hadn’t beaten Notre Dame since 1963 – before the Beatles came to America and before Roger Staubach had left Annapolis, Md., to make a name for himself in the NFL.
Johnson’s Midshipmen and his vexing triple-option had been posing a semi-annual thorn in Notre Dame’s side – losing an eight-point lead in last six minutes in his first encounter in 2002 and falling on a last-second 40-yard field goal in 2003 – as the losing streak agonizingly grew to an NCAA record 43 games.
On Nov. 5, 2007, Navy led 46-38 in triple overtime after (of all things) two successful pass plays for a touchdown and conversion. Then the Middies had to stop Notre Dame twice on two-point conversion tries (a dubious pass interference penalty allowed the Irish a second chance), and the Middies stuffed a rush attempt from the 1 to win 46-44, snap the streak and spark a delirious celebration back home.
A little more than a month later, Johnson was announced as the new Georgia Tech head coach.
Eight seasons later, Johnson will return to South Bend, Ind., on Saturday for the first time since that victory he can hardly remember. No. 14 Georgia Tech faces No. 8 Notre Dame with the high stakes of bolstering a potential playoff campaign.
Johnson doesn’t get wistful about his return to the scene of a career-defining moment.
“We finally won the game,” Johnson almost grudgingly elaborated on Tuesday. “We had almost beaten them a couple of times before and we just did not get it done. You got a monkey off their back. Then two years later (Navy) beat them again. Anytime you have a long streak like that it is good to win. But, honestly, it was just a game – a regular-season game.”
Granted, that loss to Navy dropped the 2007 Notre Dame team to 1-8 and outcoaching Charlie Weis has subsequently proven to be less impressive than it seemed at the time, but it was a very big deal for Navy and Johnson and made headlines nationwide.
This regular-season game could make headlines for Georgia Tech as well. The Yellow Jackets have been dominant against a pair of patsies – winning 69-6 and 65-10 over Alcorn State and Tulane. Those blowouts made almost no impression on college football observers, with the Jackets climbing only two spots from its 16th place in the preseason poll.
Beating Notre Dame at Notre Dame – even an Irish team that’s lost three injured starters, including quarterback Malik Zaire – will change the conversation.
“Certainly it is a huge step up in competition,” Johnson said. “It is really a tough place to go in there and play. They have a great home-field advantage, a lot of tradition and some really good football players.”
The Yellow Jackets have no reason to feel intimidated by the luster on the Irish’s golden dome helmets even if Notre Dame leads the all-time series with Georgia Tech 27-6-1. That lone tie came in 1980 when a freshman walk-on from Richmond Academy named Ken Whisenhunt went in as an emergency quarterback and led the 1-7 Jackets to a 3-3 deadlock with the 7-0 and No. 1 Irish. Whisenhunt is currently the head coach of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.
“He might as well have been Bart Starr or John Unitas,” coach Bill Curry, in his first year at Georgia Tech, recalled of Whisenhunt in 2006. “Nothing intimidated this guy.”
While that 1980 tie is considered the pinnacle in Georgia Tech’s eyes of a lopsided series that dates back to 1922, the Yellow Jackets have won two of the last three meetings starting with beating Notre Dame in the 1999 Gator Bowl. The last time they played in South Bend, Ind., in that same 2007 season when Navy ended its streak, the Jackets dominated the Irish 33-3 in the opener.
Johnson isn’t playing this up to be some kind of motivational Rudy movie moment.
“We never made a big deal about going there to play,” Johnson said. “It is just like going to Clemson to play or going to somewhere else. You will be playing against good players. But, it ought to be fun. You ought to embrace it – a chance to compete.”
The Yellow Jackets are a 2.5-point favorite over an Irish team that needed a 39-yard touchdown pass from its backup quarterback, DeShone Kizer, with 12 seconds left to rally to beat winless Virginia on Saturday. Georgia Tech is the second of five Atlantic Coast Conference teams that Notre Dame will play this year as part of its agreement to join the conference in its other sports while remaining independent in football. Clemson is on deck for the Irish on Oct. 3 – a week before Georgia Tech shows up in Death Valley for a massive conference showdown of contenders.
So after Saturday there is no letdown for the Yellow Jackets with eight consecutive ACC games before the annual rivalry contest with Georgia.
Johnson won’t miss the comfortable nature of those first two games even as the opportunity to impress the College Football Playoff committee is enhanced with the opposition.
“No, I’d prefer to win 65-10,” Johnson said. “We’re definitely going to be stepping up the competition, but as we play and get into our league it’s going to keep stepping up.”
If things break right starting Saturday, maybe Georgia Tech will do something special enough for Johnson to fondly reminisce about it one day.
ATHENS, Ga. — It’s easy to read too much into little things, but there were no quarterbacks or receivers available for interviews during Georgia’s weekly media gathering Tuesday.
It’s almost as if the Bulldogs didn’t really want anybody talking about their passing game. There’s good reason for that.
Georgia’s passing game has been largely non-existent. It’s officially averaging 166.5 yards per game – which is 12 yards more than Heisman Trophy frontrunner Nick Chubb is averaging rushing. It has done nothing to stretch the field with deep threats or force defenses to stop loading up everything in the box to concentrate on limiting Chubb and Sony Michel.
Put it this way – Georgia Tech’s passing game is a bigger threat (with more touchdowns, completion percentage and yards per catch) in a fraction of the attempts.
Coach Mark Richt, however, said starting quarterback Greyson Lambert will be “fine.”
“We’re going to be able to throw and catch well,” said Richt, stressing patience.
“There’s a learning curve and things take time, and you get better as you go. Sometimes you’ve just got to show a little patience and guys will catch on and really play well.”
Georgia has two more games before it plays No. 2 Alabama, so if Georgia wants to try something else the clock is ticking to work out any kinks. This week brings South Carolina, which is not a defense to be trifled with even if the struggling Gamecocks come to town as a 17-point underdog. The Bulldogs can’t afford to lose a game like this and the quarterback is going to have to make plays and not just hand the ball off.
As much as Richt tries to convince everyone that the decision has been made after a three-way preseason battle and Lambert is the starter, nothing feels decided at all. Brice Ramsey has gotten a first-half series each game and proven competent both times. But the coaches have been reluctant to give him any more work despite all the evidence that he’s the most talented of the three quarterbacks on the roster.
It’s what’s behind door No. 3 that seems the most intriguing option. Despite being part of a race that was too close to call until a week before the season opened, Faton Bauta hasn’t been given even a token chance. As odd as it might seem, he could be just what Georgia needs to spice up its offense.
Bauta doesn’t fit the mold of Georgia quarterbacks. The son of Albanian immigrants who grew up in Brooklyn, he lacks the pedigree of Ramsey or Lambert. If you’re familiar with the Cheers song, Albania’s chief export is chrome and not quarterbacks. He wasn’t a four-star prospect out of high school in Florida, where he was likened to the style of Tim Tebow and not Matthew Stafford.
Yet Bauta is probably the most popular among his teammates, who universally call him the “hardest worker” on the team and arguably the toughest. Before he was seriously in the mix to win the role, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Bauta was the only quarterback in spring camp two years ago who the defense was allowed to tackle. He didn’t want to wear the no-contact green jersey in practice this year, either.
That’s the kind of thing teammates respect.
“I can’t say enough good things about him,” tight end Jeb Blazevich told the school newspaper last spring.
Bauta adds a mobile dynamic that neither Lambert nor Ramsey are capable of bringing.
If Richt and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer really want to shake things up and loosen the congestion that South Carolina will create between the tackles, let Bauta take some snaps Saturday and see what he’s capable of doing.
It wasn’t that long ago in Columbia where coaches gave up on their talented but troubled prototype quarterback and inserted an unheralded three-star with a high toughness quotient into the starting role. Connor Shaw won 33 games in three seasons as a starter and is typically referred to now as the best quarterback South Carolina ever had.
Bauta isn’t ever going to be considered that at Georgia. But he might just be the best quarterback for the situation the Bulldogs are in now. They need a game manager who can make some plays and not make mistakes. Richt has called Bauta “a good leader” and says he absolutely trusts him to be able to do those things if called upon.
But he won’t commit to calling his number and letting him lead. Bauta suffers from not winning the eye test that coaches can’t shake when they see guys who “look the part” on the practice field.
“We don’t make any promises early in the week about who’s going to play,” Richt said when asked about Bauta perhaps getting a series to look at. “I’ve been doing it so long that circumstances come up where you may change your mind. You try to tell them to just get ready for your moment and when you’re called upon, just take care of it.
“It’s one of the toughest things in football to be a backup QB and wonder, ‘Am I ever going to get a shot?’ And if you do, will you really be ready? Faton’s a really intelligent guy and really understands what we do well. I have all the faith that if he was called upon, he would play well.”
Unless he gets the call, how will they ever know? If the QB race really was as close as Richt says it was, shouldn’t Bauta at least get a game evaluation?
It’s certainly not time to just give up on any of Georgia’s quarterbacks, and this isn’t suggesting Bauta be handed the starting role. Truth is, he’s an unknown quantity.
But if Bauta could bring the element that the Bulldogs have been missing so far, now would be the time to at least take a look before Alabama comes to town and it’s too late to even try.
ATLANTA — Perhaps there was a moment somewhere between spring practice and preseason camp when things looked a little bleak for Georgia Tech.
Yellow Jackets fans were asking themselves, “Can you actually run a triple-option without any primary option running backs?”
Paul Johnson, the architect of football’s most prolific rushing offense, shared no such concerns. The names have all changed, but the system remains the same.
And the system won’t be denied.
“We’ve done this a long time,” Johnson said after Georgia Tech ran its two-game rushing total to 915 yards and point production to a modern-day record 134 points with a 65-10 victory over Tulane on Saturday. “Now it’s going to change when the competition ratchets up like anything, but we’ve done this a long time and rushed for a lot of yards a lot of years with a lot of different guys.”
After that high-water stretch from beating Georgia to competing for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship to dominating Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl last season, Georgia Tech certainly seemed like a team on the verge of becoming a national contender.
That enthusiasm – and the confidence in Johnson’s spread-option system – was hard to sustain when you looked at the roster after spring practice. Gone were the top three B-backs from last season, including workhorses Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey.
Dennis Andrews, after a promising spring at A-back, got released in June for a violation of team rules. Heralded B-back C.J. Leggett was lost for the season with a torn up knee.
The star of the spring game was a redshirt freshman B-back named Marcus Allen – which would have sounded a lot better in 1980 and ’81.
The leading returning rusher other than junior quarterback Justin Thomas was Broderick Snoddy, a senior A-back who carried all of 28 times for 286 yards last season.
So wasn’t Johnson even the slightest bit concerned where all of that rushing production would come from?
“Not really,” he said.
Good news came in late April when Patrick Skov, a late graduate transfer from Stanford, made the cross-country transition. Preseason camp brought true freshman Marcus Marshall, the little brother of Georgia’s Keith Marshall who arrived on The Flats with none of the fanfare of his older sibling. Marcus came with three stars from the recruiting experts – two fewer than his more heralded brother up the road in Athens who was considered a bigger prize than classmate Todd Gurley.
All Marcus Marshall did in his debut last week against Alcorn State was average 23 yards on eight carries – 184 total yards and two touchdowns including a 49-yarder on his first collegiate carry. The Yellow Jackets B-backs averaged 12.8 yards as a unit.
So Tulane showed up Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium determined to shut down those B-backs between the tackles. Johnson’s system adjusted to unleash the A-backs from the wings with redshirt freshmen Qua Searcy and Clinton Lynch scoring the first touchdowns of each have while Searcy and true freshman Taquon Marshall hauled in touchdown passes as well.
“These kids are doing a good job of making plays and ripping off runs. I’m impressed,” Johnson said. “Today was more of an A-back day, really, rushing the ball because they were going to take the B-backs away and I wasn’t going to force it to them with everybody pinching. Next game may be a B-back/quarterback day.”
It’s hard to get an accurate judgment of the Yellow Jackets talent pool considering the competition (or lack thereof) the first two weeks. But the new names were certainly able to get adjusted comfortably to the system before they make the trip to South Bend, Indiana, to face Notre Dame next week.
Thomas had faith all along that the weapons would be in place around him.
“We just have young guys, but at the same time they’re still just as athletic as last year, if not more,” Thomas said. “They just had to go out there and get the game experience and I think these first two games they did well.”
These first two games they picked right up where last year’s 11-3 team left off. Georgia Tech now has 15 consecutive games with at least 250 yards rushing. According to the stats gurus at ESPN, no other program has an active beat-down rushing streak like that greater than four games.
“Next week the competition will go up even more so they’ll have to play better,” said Thomas, who would have led the Jackets with 71 yards on 10 carries if his backup Matthew Jordan (who played A-back last week) hadn’t ripped off a 65-yard touchdown run to finish with 72 yards.
Eight different rushers gained at least 35 yards Saturday, 10 of them averaged 5 or more yards per carry and six of them
Skov, who rushed 12 times for 72 yards and three touchdowns in his debut, pounded the packed in Tulane front Saturday for 50 yards on 11 carries with one touchdown. The bruising duty felt more familiar to his former roll as fullback in Stanford’s traditional offense, but he loves the options Georgia Tech creates.
“Every defense attacks us differently and that’s what I think makes our offense special,” Skov said. “You can try to take one thing away, but we have other weapons on the field to take advantage of that.”
So eight years into his Georgia Tech tenure, it should be obvious by now that the names on the back of the jerseys don’t really matter.
Paul Johnson’s system will make productive rushers out of anyone – and for the most part defenses are helpless to stop it.
The third edition of the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship is underway, and the odds have never been better for a local representative to reach the final at Augusta National for the first time.
Seven golfers with local ties qualified to compete in the regional final at TPC Sawgrass on Saturday, including two girls – Madison Harwell and Emma Chen – who made it that far last year. Five local boys also made it to the final stage with an invitation to Augusta National at stake.
Kids from Richmond and Columbia counties comprise a quarter of the 28 Georgia residents to reach Saturday’s regional at Sawgrass against competitors from Florida and Alabama.
For Harwell and Chen – friends from getting started at The First Tee of Augusta – advancing in the DC&P has become a habit. Both girls have participated all three years and made it to the regional finals for the second consecutive year. So they already know what to expect with the stakes raised higher.
“Much more confident,” said Harwell, 14, who rallied to finish second in the subregional at Chateau Elan. “My game has gotten a little better but more importantly my mental game has gotten better. I have more experience this year to try to calm my nerves, but it’s the same amount of pressure as last year.”
Harwell’s experience paid off in the subregional when she missed the fairway with the first two of her three drives but didn’t panic. She set the record for the highest chipping score nationally (70 of a possible 75 points) by sinking two 20-yard chips while the third stopped inches from the cup.
“Last year I would have been a wreck, basically,” she said after getting only 15 points in driving. “I was focused and knew I had to do something to come back because that was horrible. I made up for it chipping.”
Chen, 11, is a sixth-grader at Stallings Island Middle School. Nerves got the best of her at last year’s regional at Sugarloaf, but she made it back with consistency to edge out two other girls from Georgia for second place at The Landings in Green Island, Ga., by only one and two points.
“I was really nervous and waiting for all of the other people to finish,” said Chen, who sank her 6-foot putt to clinch a qualifying spot.
Chen, who will turn 12 in March, hopes “a little bit more experience” will help her improve against older girls in the 12-13 age group. Having attended days at the Masters each of the last two years, she hopes to earn her way there this year or keep trying.
“It would mean a lot because I would actually get to play there and see it really up close,” Chen said.
Three boys from Augusta Country Club – Thomas Blanchard IV, William Pipken and Harry Jones – won their respective age divisions in the sub-regional at The Landings.
“It’s really exciting that we have three kids from different ages going down,” said Jones, 13, in eighth grade at Episcopal Day School. “The competition (at ACC) helps a lot.”
Ten-year-old Blanchard, a fifth grader at Westminster, beat out fellow Augustan Brady Bentley in the 10-11 age group. Blanchard and Bentley posted the best two chipping scores to move to the front and closed it out with solid putting performances to sweep both subregional qualifying spots.
“I was really nervous but when they saw my score they told me to stick around,” Blanchard said.
Pipken, 12, won the 12-13 age group by seven points. He posted the highest chipping score to share a three-way tie for the lead and locked up the win with 60 points in putting. It was Pipken’s first attempt in the DC&P after seeing his friend Sam Means reach the subregional last year.
“I’m just trying to be kind of calm about it,” Pipken said of the regional. “Just not worry so much or practice way too much.”
Jones will be 14 by April, so he’s competing with older kids. A year after not making it out of local qualifying, he breezed through the subregional by 11 points, winning the putting while posting second in the driving and chipping.
“I’m really excited. I didn’t think I would make it this far,” he said. “It’s going to be tough. My gameplan is don’t worry about it really. All I’ve got to do is hit nine shots.”
Jones will have some local competition in his age group from 15-year-old Tucker Meyer of Evans. Meyer will be making his third trip to Florida for the competition, having gotten through the local and subregional qualifiers in Brooksville and St. Augustine already.
He won his age group at the World Golf Village’s Slammer and Squire by 11 points with the highest cumulative score (152) for any of the local kids – scoring at least 50 points in every discipline.
“It would be an unbelievable experience,” Meyer said of the chance to compete at Augusta National where he’s been attending the Masters since he was 5.
Sawgrass, where the Players Championship is played every year, is one of 10 iconic sites hosting regional finals this month along with Oakmont, Medinah, Congressional, Brookline, Torrey Pines, Hazeltine, Chambers Bay, Valhalla and Houston Golf Club. Only the winners in each age group will comprise the 80 finalists who compete at Augusta National on the eve of Masters week, Sunday, April 3.
As many as five of them could advance and become the first local favorite in their own hometown.
“It’s just right down the road and easy to get there,” said Jones. “Being the first one would be very exciting.”
“I would love to be the first one to do that,” said Blanchard before noting he’d be just as happy if one or more of his Augusta Country Club mates made it as well. “We’re all really good friends.”
“I would be really happy about it,” Pipken said.
Harwell – who attended last year’s DC&P Finals to “see my competition” – hopes to be the first as well, but realizes that the talent pool locally gets stronger every year as the tradition grows.
“Augusta National has inspired so many kids,” she said. “I’ve seen so many kids doing drive, chip and putt out at The First Tee. That’s a great feeling.
“It would definitely be the best thing that’s happened to me in my life and I’d feel like all the time that I’ve worked out here on the golf course has paid off. I’ve set my goals and that’s the goal I’ve worked for all year and could really accomplish.”
Vaughn Taylor delivered the tag line for his 2015 season six weeks ago.
“It’s been kind of a crazy year,” Taylor said during the Canadian Open, where he was playing on a top-10 exemption for his finish the week before in Alabama.
Unfortunately, it hadn’t reached the craziest point yet. Taylor’s disjointed campaign has been marked by an accumulation of two steps forward and one step back that reached a frustrating climax in Greensboro, N.C., last month. As he starts out the four-week Web.com Tour Finals in Indiana on Thursday, Taylor is simultaneously one of the hottest yet snakebit players in the field.
The Wyndham Championship three weeks ago marked the conclusion of the PGA Tour’s regular season and its points accrual that determines the 125 players who qualify for the playoff series leading up to the Tour Championship at East Lake.
More importantly, it determines which 125 players will get their full tour cards and 25 more who will hold conditional status for the ensuing year.
One of the slogans for the FedEx Cup is that “every shot counts.” Taylor learned that lesson the hardest way imaginable.
With bogeys on 15, 16 and 17 on Sunday, Taylor slipped to a tie for 47th in Greensboro. Worse, however, was that he failed to earn enough points to move up the one spot he needed to finish in the top 150.
How close was he? A tenth of a point – .106 to be exact.
Cameron Percy claimed the 150th spot – plus the $32,000 bonus, conditional status and full-time Web.com Tour status that came with it – with 360.773 points. Taylor had 360.667.
That means that just one stroke in any of the 12 PGA Tour events Taylor played this season and he would have secured at least conditional status for 2016 on the world’s richest golf tour. One fewer of 3,200 strokes he played in 2015.
Golf can be a cruel way to make a living.
That Taylor came so close at all was remarkable testament to the caliber of golf he’s playing. Only three other players with as many or fewer than Taylor’s 12 starts made more points than he did – Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson and Tim Clark. Tiger Woods made 11 starts and finished 146 points behind his 2006 Ryder Cup teammate.
Trying to gain his card via infrequent PGA Tour starts instead of through his full-time exemption on the Web.com Tour was a calculated gamble that Taylor stumbled into.
“I was going to play Web.com this year, and I got into Mississippi last fall off past-champion status, and I finished 20th and kind of moved me up in the reshuffle,” he said. “That got me into Pebble (Beach), and I finished 10th at Pebble. So I got in the next week at Northern Trust and played well there.
“In the next month or so I decided to just kind of abandon the Web tour. I felt like I was high enough on the money list out here to get into the finals. Just felt odd going back and forth to both tours. I wanted to feel like I belonged out here (on the PGA Tour). Just felt like committing to it and when I didn’t get in, just rest. I felt like that was a better path for me.”
It’s hard to argue with the results. In many ways, Taylor made the most of his at-bats. He earned $533,036 on the PGA Tour – an average of almost $45,000 per start and $15,000 more than Web.com money leader Patton Kizzire earned in a remarkable season. Taylor missed only one cut (by one shot), posted two top-10s, six top-25s and had only one finish worse than 47th.
Yet as good as it was, it could have been so much better. His late slip in Greensboro was an extension of a season-long pattern of not getting into the clubhouse soon enough on Sundays. The precious strokes he let slip on closing holes added up.
Taylor was sitting fourth with four holes to play at Pebble Beach before bogeyed two of the last four to finish T10. The next week at Riviera, he was vying for the lead when he made the Sunday turn before making triple on the devilish 10th hole as part of a six-over run on the last 10 holes that left him T22.
In August at the Quicken Loans National, he was sitting 10-under with eight to play and poised for another top-10 when he went bogey-triple-bogey on 11-13 and ended up T30.
Taylor bogeyed the par-5 finishing hole in the Canadian Open as well as the final hole in the Barbasol to drop him from T6 to T10. He bogeyed the 15th on Sunday in Memphis to slip from T12 to T18.
Half of these late strokes were the difference in a few hundred thousand dollars. All of them made enough difference in FedEx Cup points to have comfortably reached the top 125. Just one of them would have earn him conditional status.
This illustrates how hard it is to live outside of the bubble on the PGA Tour and the pressure it exerts on players trying to make it, including veterans like Taylor. He admitted as much in February after Pebble Beach, knowing what a top-10 finish would mean to someone in his situation.
“Unfortunately (I was) a little too conscious of it,” Taylor said. “It was definitely something I thought about. I was trying to take it one shot at a time and stay in my routine of what I was doing. But it had been a while since I’d been in that situation. I definitely knew the top 10 was going to get me in this week. I wish I hadn’t started thinking about it as much as I was. But it was natural to think about it a little bit.”
Now he’s one of 125 players competing for 25 remaining PGA Tour cards in the Web.com Finals. He’s playing well enough to secure his status, just as he was last fall when he went to the Web.com Tour Championship ranked 49th on the priority list only to fall out of the top 50 with a 74-73 weekend that left him $2,600 short of his goal.
These are the fine lines Taylor spoke about in Canada when asked for advice to players seeking their future in golf.
“It’s all a learning process, and it’s a grind,” he said. “You’ve got to stick at it, and I think some of the toughest guys end up prevailing. So it definitely takes perseverance.”
With any luck in this final stretch, Taylor will prevail and get back to where he clearly belongs on the PGA Tour.
ATHENS, Ga. — There were plenty of popular moments during Saturday’s disjointed Georgia opener – not the least of which when the head coaches, athletics directors and officials agreed to mercifully end it 9:54 early.
A second extended lightning delay in the second half was more than anyone could bear in a 51-14 blowout at Sanford Stadium. Nothing good was going to happen other than risking the health of young reserves trying to gain a little experience against Louisiana-Monroe. Most of the fans were already gone after the first one-hour delay.
That left 50 minutes of game-film to assess the Bulldogs state of readiness as it enters Southeastern Conference play next week against Vanderbilt. With 83 percent of precincts reporting Saturday, there was a lot to be positive about for Georgia.
The new transfer quarterback, Greyson Lambert, looked fine and made no mistakes.
The running backs were as good as advertised behind an offensive line that opened some holes wide enough for buses to drive through untouched.
The defense handled everything except one rogue receiver who scored both Louisiana-Monroe touchdowns while the special teams created points on two punt blocks.
A 323-pound nose tackle, Chris Mayes, squelched the longest Warhawks run of the night by chasing down the quarterback in the open field.
Oft-injured fan favorites Malcolm Mitchell and Keith Marshall scored touchdowns and left as healthy as they were when the game started.
“We had a good day,” Mitchell said. “(Lambert) did well and we did well as a team.”
In a game nobody expected Georgia to be rigorously tested in, all eyes were on the new quarterback who threw more interceptions than touchdowns in nine starts a year ago for Virginia. Lambert was the only real unknown.
The Bulldogs offense under new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer wasn’t asked to do too much early, needing only 67 yards to stake a 14-0 lead thanks to a Lorenzo Carter blocked punt and Aaron Davis interception setting up red-zone starts.
Lambert acquitted himself well. He threw a 15-yard touchdown on his second pass of the day to tight end Jeb Blazevich that helped alleviate any jitters.
After that, Georgia’s rushing committee of Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Marshall and Brendan Douglas took control with 243 yards averaging more than six yards per carry.
“Honestly, what felt just as nice (as throwing two touchdown passes) was being able to hand the ball off to Chubb, Sony, Keith or Brendan and seeing a hole as wide as a Mack truck and watching them do their thing,” Lambert said. “That’s fun, too.”
Lambert’s shakiest possession came right after halftime, when he botched a handoff to Chubb and had consecutive passes batted down at the line.
But after a 61-minute lightning delay, he came back after a blocked punt for safety and threw a deep out in the end zone that Mitchell went up over a defender and caught for a touchdown.
“This is going to be a lot of fun,” Lambert thought when he saw Mitchell’s effort.
Lambert finished a modest 8-of-12 for 141 yards and two touchdowns and threw no interceptions for only the second time in his career as a starter and fortified the confidence of his coaches and teammates.
“He did great. He did everything we asked him to do,” said Chubb, who had 120 yards and two touchdowns in a light role.
“Every ball he threw had a good purpose,” said coach Mark Richt.
Lambert deflected all the attention away from himself.
“I think the team did a great job,” he said. “I don’t really want to talk too much about me. I’m excited to get my first game under my belt, but I think the offense overall did a really good job – the offensive line especially and the running backs and receivers making plays when their number was called.”
It was enough to have confidence that either Lambert or his backup Brice Ramsey can do what’s needed in what will be a run-first offense.
It’s that element that was most promising with a healthy stable of backs. Chubb was his usual churning self, busting through holes if he wasn’t running over defenders to make one.
Michel adds a quick-strike element, slipping through the tightest cracks and turning passes out of the backfield into big plays like the 48-yard catch-and-run that ignited a 96-yard drive or a 31-yard touchdown off a screen pass from Ramsey. His 120 combined yards matched Chubb’s output.
The most popular of all was Marshall, who drew one of the loudest ovations of the day for his first carry of 6 yards. Two runs later he scored his first touchdown since tearing his ACL in October 2013 – adding another TD in the fourth quarter while finishing with 73 yards on 10 carries.
“To come back and be healthy and play like that, it helps him enjoy it even more,” Richt said of Mitchell. “Once you lose it and understand there’s a good chance that football can be taken away from you pretty quick, you enjoy those moments. So I was happy for Keith.”
The only disappointment from Georgia’s perspective was that Douglas, the fourth-string back from Aquinas, didn’t get those last 10 minutes of game time to make his own mark on the game.
“I wanted Brendan to get some touches,” Chubb said. “If he would have scored, all our backs would have scored, and that would have been a great feeling for us in that running backs room.”
If that’s the most the Bulldogs can complain about, they can consider the shortened workday a rousing success.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was slow developing, as if the ol’ ball coach was testing recipes on a simmering late-summer night.
Five different Gamecocks took snaps in Steve Spurrier’s offensive bouillabaisse – not counting punter Sean Kelly whose 17-yard fake punt rush from deep near their own end zone was the offensive highlight for much of the first half.
Eventually something was bound to work out.
Once South Carolina’s defense adjusted just enough and wrangled North Carolina’s intermittently hurry-up offense to a scoreless second half, the experimenting discovered a weakness off right end. Shon Carson – completely fresh after 47 minutes of watching from the sidelines – took a handoff from Connor Mitch and rocketed around the right corner of the line for an untouched 48-yard touchdown and the first lead of the night for the Gamecocks at 17-13 with 12:45 remaining.
Not even a snuffed red-zone drive or a late Tar Heels counter attack could keep South Carolina from being 1-0. Three clutch takeaways in the red zone can make up for a lot of sins and turn 440 Tar Heel yards into 13 harmless points.
“The football gods smiled on the Gamecocks tonight,” Spurrier said, shaking his head in bemused relief at the outcome. “I think I called a lousy game.”
Better lousy and lucky than 0-1 and facing an upstream swim in a sea of negativity. Skai Moore had bookend end-zone interceptions on the first and last UNC drives – the second with 3:29 remaining to make sure Spurrier remained a perfect 6-0 in his career against the Tar Heels.
There was nothing pretty at all about it, but the final score at Bank of America Stadium was a beautiful sight after last year’s 52-28 opening night debacle at home against Texas A&M.
This is something the Gamecocks can work with – a defense that’s functional and opportunistic lifting up an offense that at the very least was able to rush for two first downs to run out of the final three-and-a-half minutes to secure a precious victory.
“Hopefully we can learn a whole lot from this game,” Spurrier said. “Our passing game was not very good. We’ve got figure out some way to get some passes down the field, but we’ll work on it.”
Starting red-shirt sophomore quarterback Connor Mitch had his moments, including a 9-yard touchdown pass to Pharoh Cooper. But he made his share of mistakes as well, including a taunting penalty after a big first-down completion that pushed the offense out of field goal range before bogging down.
“We’d have probably found a way to go backwards off that anyway,” Spurrier said.
The self-deprecation is a coping mechanism for a 70-year-old coach with a Heisman Trophy on his shelf collecting dust for nearly 50 yards. But Spurrier walked off the field with some legitimate offensive concerns.
“What did we have? 394? Gee, felt like about 200,” Spurrier said of his offense. “I guess we had a lot of rushing yards.”
By the third quarter, Spurrier had ordered snaps to five different players.
That’s the thing about Spurrier. He keeps trying different things until something sticks.
As long as the Gamecocks have a defense that can limit the opposing damage, he can find a way to make it work.
Thursday night the remedy was a hand-off sweep around the right behind tight end Jerell Adams that hit for big gains on consecutive plays for Wilds and then Carson’s game-breaking run.
“We should’ve just kept running there,” Spurrier said. “Then we would get stupid and go somewhere else.”
On a night that began with a delay-of-game penalty on the first snap, to come out with a victory was a welcome bonus in a game Spurrier conceded could have gotten out of hand early when North Carolina never punted in the first half yet led only 13-10 at intermission.
“We’re not strutting out of here because we’re hot stuff,” Spurrier said. “We know we’re very fortunate. ... We’ve learned we’ve got a long way to go.”
ATHENS, Ga. — There is not a shred of evidence as to his existence in the 216-page Georgia football media guide. No bio. No roster line. Nothing.
Greyson Lambert didn’t decide to transfer to Georgia until June. He didn’t show up on campus until July. He didn’t start practicing with his new teammates until August.
On Sept. 5, the 21-year-old with a degree from Virginia in anthropology will start at quarterback between the hedges for the Bulldogs against Louisiana-Monroe. It is a shockingly meteoric rise at the game’s most critical position on a team with Southeastern Conference championship aspirations for a guy who lost his starting job in spring practice on the worst team in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division.
Neither Richt nor any of Georgia’s players either could or would say what distinguished Lambert over incumbent backups Brice Ramsey and Faton Bauta that made him the first choice. Experience – even relatively bad experience – at an inferior program is the biggest difference weighing in Lambert’s favor.
“It was an extremely tight race,” Georgia coach Mark Richt conceded. “The competitors were all outstanding and they are all very capable. It’s just hard to say one guy.”
The players aren’t convinced it’s entirely settled.
“I don’t think the competition is over,” tailback Nick Chubb said. “I think we just needed a starter before the season.”
A fluctuating quarterback situation – as Lambert can attest – is a recipe for failure, so Richt and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer made a commitment to go with Lambert to start and see what happens.
The decision to pick the newcomer marks a pretty significant departure from Richt’s previous modus operandi. Generally, there was a little more sense of earned loyalty to the player he recruited out of high school and apprenticed on campus.
D.J. Shockley was rewarded for his patience in 2005 after David Greene graduated. When Shockley’s year was done, Richt picked fifth-year veteran Joe Tereshinski as the opening day starter rather than hand the reins over immediately to freshman superstar Matthew Stafford. When Stafford left to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, veteran backup Joe Cox got a season at the helm rather than turn immediately to heralded true freshmen Aaron Murray or Zach Mettenberger. When Murray graduated with all the Georgia records, his longtime backup Hutson Mason earned the role last season.
So it was generally assumed that Brice Ramsey would at least get the opening nod this year after two seasons working inside the system. But with former offensive coordinator Mike Bobo gone and Ramsey not distinguishing himself enough in spring practice, Georgia went the unusual mercenary route for reinforcement after Jacob Park left the program with only two scholarship quarterbacks.
“The reality is that we bring in new guys every year,” Richt said. “I mean, we recruit. When we have needs we recruit and we sign guys when we have a need. This is a little bit different because it is a transfer and the timing of it is a little bit different. ... I think the bottom line is that everybody understands we are going to go recruit guys and try to do what is in the best interest of the team.”
Richt brushed off any idea that bypassing Ramsey and Bauta in the presumed heirarchy will create any disruption in the lockerroom among friends.
“I’m not concerned about the chemistry issue,” he said. “I think Greyson is a guy who is a team guy and a guy that worked his tail off. I think he gained the respect of the team, just as the other quarterbacks have over time.”
Lambert certainly has more experience, even if not all of it was particularly positive. He was only 3-6 as a starter last year for a 5-7 Virginia team – caught in an unsettled quarterback situation that led to more confusion than success. His highlight wins over Louisville and Miami were largely overshadowed by lowlight efforts against UCLA, BYU and Virginia Tech – games that at least somewhat hinged on his mistakes. In his first start against No. 7 UCLA a year ago, Lambert threw a pair of gruesome pick-sixes in the second quarter of a 28-20 defeat where the Cavaliers otherwise dominated the favored Bruins.
“What we might have seen on film at Virginia from the Virginia tape, that was certainly part of the reason we brought him in, but whatever we saw on the Virginia tape had nothing to do with him winning the job,” Richt said. “Everything is based on what has happened at Georgia since day one of practice in the fall. That’s how the decision was made. He covered a lot of ground in a pretty short time as far as figuring things out, so you have to give him credit for that.”
None of the quarterbacks who competed for the job was made available for interviews this week. Whatever blows to the confidence of Ramsey or Fauta won’t get picked over for now. Richt’s only message to them was an open-ended “be ready” with no guarantee of seeing the field Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe.
“We’re not having a rotation – not game one, anyway,” Richt said. “We are not going to make any promises on that, but we would like to get some of that done.”
Their teammates seemed relatively unfazed by the news. No player offered anything concrete that made Lambert standout over Ramsey or Fauta.
“I don’t think I would have been surprised regardless of who we picked,” senior receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. “They did such a good job rotating them, you could have picked any of the three and I feel like everything would have been in sync.”
Ultimately, this will reflect on Richt. He needs to have gotten this choice right. The Bulldogs can’t afford another throwaway season in the underwhelming SEC East.
It’s been a decade since the Bulldogs last won an SEC title. Other than Shockley’s standout year at QB in 2005, the most trying seasons in Richt’s 15 years have been when bringing along a new quarterback. Superstar recruit Jacob Eason arrives next year, but Richt is in no position to suffer growing pains and let another season slip away.
Time will tell if Lambert can do for Georgia what he couldn’t at Virginia. If not, there might be a whole lot of names omitted from next year’s media guide.
For all the faults the game of football has – and they are numerous – there is nothing better than this time of season on the sports calendar.
We love the anticipation. We love the promise. We love the hope.
These last days before the opening kickoff are all about hope.
Hope that South Carolina bows up and proves last season was an aberration, not an omen.
Hope that Georgia can find a quarterback and finally fulfill its ubiquitous potential.
Hope that Georgia Tech has fresh talent to build on last year and take the next step.
Hope that Clemson can keep its stars healthy and perhaps achieve something special.
Hope that Georgia Southern shows up in Sanford Stadium undefeated and earns a significant bowl bid.
Hope that I’m not nearly as wrong about my preseason predictions as I was last year – but maybe a little bit wrong in the less optimistic guesses.
In the interest of full disclosure, last year was a relative disaster on the crystal ball front. The lesson is one should always stick with first instincts when it comes to meaningless predictions.
In a pre-training camp blog, I wrote this: “If I had to make a complete guess based on nothing but historical evidence and perception, I think the final four teams will end up being Alabama, Florida State, Oregon and Ohio State.”
Perfect ... then the thinking started and players got injured and by the end of August I came up with Louisiana State and Oklahoma replacing Alabama and Ohio State in the playoffs. I went with eventual 7-6 teams South Carolina and Virginia Tech winning their respective conference divisions. I had Georgia’s Todd Gurley winning the Heisman Trophy – which might have happened if a pile of mistakes and misfortune hadn’t fallen down on him.
So here’s to hoping for a better 2015 college football season all-around, starting with these picks:
GEORGIA: The biggest hurdle the Bulldogs have isn’t filling the quarterback role – it’s October. The team’s fortunes will be made or broken in a taxing month that includes Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri and Florida in succession. The middling Southeastern Conference East can be had, but the playoffs won’t happen again this year, which will start the irrational howling about Mark Richt again. Survey says: 10-3, Outback Bowl.
SOUTH CAROLINA: The Gamecocks will be better but not great. Losses to Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and Clemson will dampen enthusiasm and raise the chorus about Steve Spurrier’s longevity. Verdict: 8-5, Gator Bowl.
GEORGIA TECH: There’s a lot to like about this team, especially Justin Thomas running the triple option. Jackets should be the class of the weak Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal. But I don’t like them winning at Notre Dame, at Clemson, on Thursday night against Virginia Tech or against rival Georgia. In conclusion: 9-4, Gator Bowl.
CLEMSON: If DeShaun Watson stays healthy behind a young offensive line, something special could be in store. We’ll know the stakes by mid-October after a Thursday night trip to Louisville followed by home dates with Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. Buckle up because this could get fun. Final answer: 12-2, ACC champs, Orange Bowl.
GEORGIA SOUTHERN: Eagles could not have made the transition to Division I-A and the Sun Belt look any easier, going 8-0 against new conference foes. This year – when they repeat – they’ll be eligible to compete in a bowl. Drumroll please: 11-2, Sun Belt champs, GoDaddy Bowl.
SEC: It’s Auburn’s turn in the Iron Bowl rotation to win the West – and thus the SEC title. The East will be its usual crapshoot of multiple-loss teams, with Tennessee taking a tiebreaker by virtue of a home win over Georgia.
ACC: Oh my goodness have you seen how weak Virginia Tech’s conference schedule is? It’s laughable. Non-division schedule is Boston College and N.C. State while Georgia Tech plays Clemson and Florida State. Hardly seems fair. Gobblers will be no match for Clemson in championship game.
PLAYOFFS: There will be massive shrieking about the four-team playoff limit when the Pac-12 gets shut out this time. High-end parity will have them eating their own out west, while the ACC and Clemson steal the fourth spot in the field with Ohio State, Auburn and Texas Christian.
HEISMAN: As a consolation prize for missing the playoffs, Southern Cal quarterback Cody Kessler will take the trophy in the name of the Pac-12 from a stage that includes Nick Chubb, DeShaun Watson and a Buckeye to be named later.
Perhaps I’ve underestimated the major locals and three of them can reach conference title games. The beauty is, we can always hope.
The great Masters Tournament qualifying series – a.k.a. the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs – gets underway today in Plainfield, N.J., and a few local favorites have their eyes on the Augusta prize.
Aiken’s Kevin Kisner, Augusta’s Charles Howell and North Augusta’s Scott Brown all are within reasonable distance of reaching the Tour Championship at East Lake (and all the major exemptions that go with it) with a couple of good finishes.
For Kisner, a Georgia grad, and Brown, from USC Aiken, the opportunity to compete in their hometown major for the first time is tangible. There are three ways to get into the Masters field by the end of the year – a tour victory, Tour Championship appearance or year-ending top-50 ranking – and any one of them would suit them just fine.
Kisner has lost in three playoffs this season and Brown held a share of the lead on the back nine in Greensboro last Sunday before finishing fourth.
“It’s a lifelong dream and goal of mine to play Augusta,” Kisner said. “I grew up going to the tournament, grew up so close to there. My whole life has been working to play it and tournaments like that. Although it might be the biggest nightmare as far as logistics and people wanting to go watch, it would still be probably the greatest thrill of my career. Hopefully we fulfill one of those three areas to get in and have a great time in April.”
Said Brown: “I’d love to get to East Lake and be able to play at Augusta. That would be a real treat.”
Kisner, currently ranked No. 36 in the world, is in the best position to fulfill a couple of those requirements. He starts the playoff series ranked 17th in points – exactly the same position fellow Georgia golfer Harris English began the series in last year. English, however, wound up falling to 32nd and missing out on the Tour Championship and the perks that came with it after missing the cut in the first two playoff events and finishing 31st in the no-cut BMW.
So Kisner understands it’s no time to breathe easy with the points quadrupled for the first three playoff events in which he’s statistically guaranteed a start in each.
“You’re never safe when they’re adjusting the points,” Kisner said. “I don’t think you can ever look at it like, ‘Oh, I’m good.’ You still have to go out and play well. I’m in a position to have a chance to win, but I’m also in position to have a letdown compared to the rest of the year. So you’ve still got to stick your nose down and keep grinding. Hopefully you pop off a couple of top-10s and have a chance to win and the rest will take care of itself.
“If you get comfortable you’ll be at home in three weeks. I want to go all the way to the end and that’s going to take a couple of good finishes.”
Howell and Brown start the four-event elimination series ranked 70th and 71st in points. That position is likely to get them at least the first two starts before the field gets cut down to 70 for the BMW Championship.
Both players understand how hard it is to make a playoff move. Howell started 2014 in 33rd and ended up treading water with finishes of T22, T35 and T36 in the first three events. He started 27th in 2013 and slipped to 35th. Howell’s seven top-25 finishes this season were his fewest since 2006.
Brown started 53rd last year and faded to 84th after a missed cut in the Barclays and a 77th-place finish in Boston. He said this time around is “no holds barred.”
Howell and Brown will likely need a 12th-place finish or better in one of the first two events to proceed to the BMW and a very high finish in at least one of the events to possibly make it to East Lake.
They can each take incentive from last year’s $10 million FedEx Cup winner Billy Horschel, who won it all despite starting the series in 69th place with a pair of wins and a runner-up that last three weeks. Two other players started off way back in the rankings last year and made it to the Tour Championship – Geoff Ogilvy was 90th and Morgan Hoffman barely squeezed in at 124th before a pair of high finishes moved him up.
“It would be awesome to do something like Billy Horschel did last year,” Brown said after vaulting 28 spots in the standings with his performance last week. “I feel like I’m playing good enough to do something like that if it will all come together. It’s such a week-to-week game anyway.”
Brown certainly proved himself under pressure by playing in the crucible with Tiger Woods on Sunday and electrifying the crowd with an ace on the third hole. While admitting nerves with the overwhelming crowds, he said the experience was both energizing and draining.
“Momentum-wise, it’s good, but it was a big drain playing with Tiger on Sunday,” Brown said. “Not only are you in contention in the golf tournament, but you’re playing with him. It’s like a double whammy. But I felt good about it.”
Kisner, who had never finished inside the top 100 in points before this season, plans to treat the next three weeks like he has the rest of his breakout season.
“You can’t really go out of your normal routine just because it’s the playoffs,” he said. “Just stick to what I’ve done all year and made me successful and see what happens.”
The only playoff course Kisner has played before is the BMW site Conway Farms, where he played in the AJGA Canon Cup as a teenager. But the new territory fits his increased stature on tour.
“The last three months of this year has all been new tournaments,” he said. “Never played Chambers Bay, never played Firestone, never played Whistling Straits. So it’s kind of gone with a theme when you get to these upper-echelon tournaments. It’s kind of like starting as a rookie on the tour, you’re starting as a rookie on this tier of the tour. I’ve got to figure out how to play these courses if I’m going to stay on this tier.”
With any luck, the next step on that tier is Augusta National.
It was a successful yet frustrating U.S. Amateur for the local representatives.
North Augusta’s Matt NeSmith and Georgia Regents’ Maverick Antcliff posted field-low 65s in the first and second rounds, respectively, of the stroke-play qualifying at Olympia Fields to earn them each top-10 seeds in the 64-man match play.
That didn’t exactly buy either of them enviable matchups – like being the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and facing Michigan State or Kentucky in the second-round.
In the round of 32, Antcliff drew world No. 2 amateur Maverick McNealy, of Stanford, while NeSmith got world No. 6 and reigning NCAA individual champion Bryson DeChambeau, of Southern Methodist. Both McNealy and DeChambeau were joined by Georgia’s Lee McCoy among the first five players picked for the U.S. Walker Cup team.
McNealy dispatched Antcliff 5 and 4 on Thursday despite making only one birdie in 14 holes. NeSmith, however, ran into a buzzsaw in DeChambeau, who shot 31 on the front to go 6-up before also winning 5 and 4.
DeChambeau beat McNealy in the next round and is vying today to join Jack Nicklaus (1961), Phil Mickelson (1990), Tiger Woods (1996) and Ryan Moore (2004) as winners of both the NCAA and U.S. Amateur in the same year.
For NeSmith, the early elimination didn’t enhance his chances of joining the Walker Cup roster. The final five selections will be made by captain Spider Miller today, and two of those spots must go to mid-amateurs 25 or older.
That leaves NeSmith – who won the Southeastern Conference Championship and prestigious Player Amateur this season – competing with heavyweights Jordan Niebrugge (former U.S. Public Links champion and low amateur at the British Open), Alabama’s all-American Robby Shelton and last year’s U.S. Amateur semifinalist Denny McCarthy for the last three spots available.
Niebrugge and Shelton are considered shoo-ins and McCarthy also got eliminated in the round of 32. McCarthy is the world’s 10th ranked amateur while NeSmith sits 21st.
“I figured if I could get myself to the (quarterfinals), then I could give myself a really good shot,” NeSmith told the Golf Channel of his Walker Cup hopes. “I didn’t quite get there. It’s been one of my goals. It’s the biggest thing you can achieve in amateur golf, to get to that highest level.”
WELCOME TO AUGUSTA: Whatever happens in today’s 36-hole final is gravy, as the hard part of the U.S. Amateur is over. In Saturday’s nerve-wracking semifinals – a.k.a the Masters qualifying matches – DeChambeau and Virginia golfer Derek Bard booked passage to Augusta National. Congratulations. See you in April.
TIGER STALKING: On the surface and perhaps in any other year, Saturday at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C., looked like a total mismatch.
On one side of the final third-round pairing you had rookie Tom Hoge (pronounced like the sub sandwich) playing his 80th tour round. On the other was Tiger Woods, trying to earn his 80th tour victory.
In his past life, closing out a weekend with any share of the lead was almost a foregone conclusion for Woods (37 of 47 times with 36-hole lead). But this is not any season for a player who’s fallen to 286th in the world and has struggled to sustain his game on the occasions he’s made the cut in 10 prior starts this year. He shot 73 on Sunday at the Masters and had failed to break par on Saturday in four made cuts since.
Woods only came to Greensboro for the first time desperate to win to keep his season alive an qualify for the PGA Tour’s playoffs. He has faithfully snubbed the event ever since turning pro and then winning the Masters in 1997 two weeks before what could have been his first Greensboro start.
The golf-rich community has been starved to see him, buying up every available ticket and giving him standing ovations after his rounds of 64-65 earned him a share of the 36-hole lead. When Woods made eagle on the 15th hole Friday to claim a share of the lead, “the reaction was so sudden, so loud, the water on the lake rippled from the noise” local columnist Ed Hardin wrote.
“It was a great atmosphere. Great to be a part of and lot of fun,” Woods said.
“This is going to get insane Saturday, and you know it. And Tiger knows it. And Tom Hoge knows it,” wrote Hardin.
It looked insane, with sold-out crowds swarming in Woods’ wake while the rest of the course appeared deserted from the blimp shots.
It will only get crazier if Woods keeps it up – and not just in North Carolina. A Woods victory would not only jump start his quest to catch San Snead’s PGA Tour wins record on the same course Snead won his 82nd and last event as a 52-year-old in 1965.
A Tiger victory – even against a relatively weak field – would be a welcome inclusion in what has already been a great season loaded with fresh superstars like Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy.
But as the Sedgefield throngs (and this weekend’s inevitable TV ratings spike) show, nobody in golf moves the needle and raises the pulse rate like a stalking Tiger.
TURNING BACK THE CLOCK: In other comeback news, 51-year-old Davis Love III held the Wyndham Championship lead for most of Friday morning and sat just one off the lead through 36 holes. The Ryder Cup captain could become the third oldest winner in tour history, behind Snead and Art Wall. Love won his 20th event seven years ago and last won in Greensboro in 1992. Perhaps a 21st win – and a U.S. triumph next fall at Hazeltine – would finally get him the World Golf Hall of Fame entry he already deserves. He had 69 on Saturday and four behind leader Jason Gore.