MACON — The heat of fall camp for the Georgia Bulldogs football team may not be a direct byproduct of the competition for the starting quarterback job. That stands to generate plenty of reaction on its own.
The Bulldogs go into the preseason camp without a clear-cut favorite at starting quarterback. There are plenty of contestants, too, from holdovers Brice Ramsey and Faton Bauta to newcomer Greyson Lambert, the former Wayne County star who transferred from Virginia.
Mark Richt has been looking for his quarterback contingent to display during the summer some of the qualities that hopefully will transfer to fall.
“The big key this summer for our quarterbacks is to collectively lead the team through all the offseason throwing and catching and all the things you have to do to be successful,” he said. “Those quarterbacks have to do a good job of leading the offensive team and cooperating with the defensive side to organize for the drills the coaches aren’t allowed to be at.”
Experience for Ramsey and Bauta has been limited. Ramsey, a redshirt sophomore, was 24-for-39 passing with three touchdowns and two interceptions in eight games last season. Bauta, a junior, played in just three games, going 4 for 5.
Lambert, a junior, was 154-of-261 for 1,632 yards and 10 touchdowns, leading the Cavaliers in all four categories last season.
Whoever emerges as the Bulldogs’ No. 1 quarterback has to follow Hutson Mason, who finished his career by throwing for 2,168 yards and 21 touchdowns in his one year as a full-time starter. Richt is looking for capabilities beyond arm strength in selecting his starter.
“They have to report to camp with a great knowledge of what we’re doing and to be able to execute what we’re doing,” he said. “I’m looking for a guy who will get us in the right play, get us in the right protection. Who’s he throwing to, can he do it accurately, under pressure, can he hit his target when he goes through his progression and will he go through his progression properly? Will he throw it up for grabs or will he throw it away in safe spot or hit a checkdown?”
In finding Mason’s successor, Richt is searching for a quarterback who also has Mason’s penchant for avoiding turnovers. Mason threw just four interceptions last year, the fewest by a Bulldogs starting quarterback since David Greene’s four picks in 2004.
Richt said he wants someone who isn’t trying to turn every play into a gamebreaker — he prefers to have a quarterback who isn’t afraid to take a loss over risking turning the football over to the defense.
“I’m not interested in someone trying to be a hero,” he said. “It’s hard sometimes — when you’re competing for that quarterback job not to want to make a big play and do something that has everybody ooh-ing and ahh-ing. You can do that but if every fourth or fifth play you’re throwing a ball that easily can get picked off, the guy is not going to win the job.
“The bottom line is we have a certain way of doing things,” the coach continued. “They have to learn how to do it that way and create habits that help us under pressure. And then when things don’t go well, don’t turn a bad play into a catastrophe. Sometimes it’s just a bad play. Don’t make it worse.”
Georgia was fourth in turnover margin last year, a statistic Richt was quick to point out during the annual Pigskin Preview last month.
“We protected the ball very well last year,” he said.
Help for the QBs
Georgia’s starting quarterback will have the luxury of a veteran offensive line in front and a host of talented running backs next to them. Senior tackles John Theus and Kolton Houston anchor an offensive line that also returns guard Greg Pyke and junior Brandon Kublanow, who has been moved to center.
Sophomore Nick Chubb ran for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns, taking over the starting running back spot after Todd Gurley went down with a season-ending knee injury midway through the 2014 campaign. Sony Michel added 410 yards and five TDs. Keith Marshall also returns after another injury-plagued season.
Richt acknowledged the Bulldogs may lean on their running attack even more, especially early in the season as the quarterbacks get acclimated.
“Our running game will be critical,” he said. “Four of our five linemen are back. We’ve got some outstanding runners back. Our receivers and tight ends understand the importance of value on the perimeter. So I think we’ll run the ball well, and there’s no question it will help any quarterback. A great running back, a great running game, will help any quarterback.”
And Richt isn’t worried about the running backs complaining about not getting the ball enough. In fact, he sees the trend going away from one featured ballcarrier to many backs lightening the load.
“I think running backs nowadays don’t mind sharing the load,” he said. “I think they think it’s wise. I don’t think any one of them want to carry it 35 times a game for a whole career. It’s just not very smart. They like staying fresh and healthy throughout a game and throughout a season.”
Chubb and Michel also got acquainted with each other before they reported to campus last summer, having gotten to know each other during the recruiting process and at all-star games, Richt pointed out, so there’s no problem sharing the football and the attention.
“They embraced it, rather than ran from it,” he said.
On the other side of the ball
Incoming freshman defensive tackle Trenton Thompson, one of the top prizes in Georgia’s 2015 signing class, may get plenty of notice early on. The Bulldogs lost the bulk of their front line. They also lost their top two tacklers, Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson, but have the very highly-touted Lorenzo Carter, Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd back.
“I think Trenton is going to have to get into a position to help us,” Richt said. “We lost some big men up front. Trenton will help us in that spot. We lost our two starting linebackers. I’ve said it for years, most people remember who your seniors and they think about the incoming class, but they forget about who’s been there for a year or two or three years preparing for his moment. There are a lot of guys in that category.”
Richt, the dean of SEC coaches, now in his 15th season at Georgia, also approaches the job with an open mind, he said. “I’m definitely learning new stuff,” Richt said. “I’ve never been afraid to listen to everybody’s ideas and try to put forth the best plan. If somebody is doing well, find out what they’re doing. If it’s worth emulating, emulate it. I’ve always watched what other people do, the NFL, people we play against. I think everybody does that to some degree. If you see something that is successful, it’s worthy of looking. You can’t be so stubborn you’re not willing to change.”
Longtime quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo left to become head coach at Colorado State, and Richt went into the pro ranks for Bobo’s replacement, tapping veteran coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brian Schottenheimer.
“If you see something new offensively, it probably has a lot to do with our new coordinator,” Richt said. “He probably knows more football than we can execute right now. We have to make sure we’re putting in enough where we can keep people off balance but not so much that we can’t execute it.”
The Bulldogs haven’t won the Southeastern Conference championship since 2005, and the Bulldogs face a couple of critical stretches in this year’s schedule. They host Alabama, visit Tennessee and host two-time defending SEC East champ Missouri in three straight weeks, before an open date. Of the last three games, only one — a trip to Auburn — has an impact on the conference race. But Georgia hosts Georgia Southern and visits Georgia Tech in back-to-back weeks that put pride and bragging rights on the line and potentially have more at stake.
Richt laid out the preseason plans — and postseason aspirations — for his team.
“The outlook is to get in the best physical condition we can get in, get to executing the best we can and get after everybody we play and get back to Atlanta and beyond,” he said. “That’s our goal.”