This guy must be 180-degrees, night-and-day different on the recruiting trail and the locker room. It is well known that players adore him and he is one of the very best recruiters in the country. But, you struggle to see how; he is always the most painful public speaker outside of Butch Jones. Fully half of his 40 minutes on the main stage were throwaway coachspeak -- I was drooling on my legal pad. That said, here’s what Coach Smart said of note:
- The team has significant depth, with 10 starters on defense and 7 on offense. The significant losses were on the offensive line, where the Bulldogs lost three senior starters. However, there is a balancing act of managing expectations: embracing them, while still understanding their shortcomings as an SEC East favorites. Unlike Butch, Kirby did not shy away from calling last year’s 8-5 season a disappointment. The expectation at Georgia is to win titles. Notes that the SEC East has a lot of parity, and with two weeks of playing
- Last year was a transition year of getting players familiar with the system. This year players in all three phases are becoming more immersed in the playbooks. Part of that has been integrating the freshmen with returning veterans. Every player on every unit has to get better -- particularly the passing game and running game working with one another in tandem: The passing game needs to be more efficient and improve its percentage with more manageable throws. That in turn opens up running lanes. An effective running game, better decision-making, and the competition with incoming freshman QB Jake Fromm, will help improve Jacob Eason’s development.
- Acknowledges that everyone in the league is chasing Alabama, but, like Orgeron, thinks that the gap is narrowing across the league (He conveniently ignores the fact that Alabama has won its conference games the last two seasons by nearly 23 points per game.) Kirby did have an interesting answer to closing the “Alabama gap:” He doesn’t believe it’s a matter of recruiting or developing great players; you have to follow Alabama’s formula -- recruit great athletes and then develop into great players. It has to be both. It’s hard to argue with that assessment. We frequently discuss what a great job he does developing elite talent; it’s one of Saban’s least-discussed talents. But, that’s a tough task for most staffs. Whether Mel Tucker and Jim Chaney are the coordinators to do that is an open question.
Last year we raved about Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, and we may as well copy and paste that assessment, because the classy Mason took everything from last year’s performance and turned the knob to 11. I was ready to run through a brick wall for this guy.
Mason finally looked like a head coach yesterday. He was passionate, enthusiastic, addressed recruiting (always the bugbear at Vandy.)
- In Mason’s third year he’s no longer selling promise: the theme this year was capitalizing because, “the future is now.” And, he has every reason to be bullish in an SEC East where the second tier is still very much unsettled. Vanderbilt finished the season 6-7, but it became bowl eligible by knocking off the Volunteers in the season-closing rivalry (heh.) Also, the team had several losses decided by one touchdown or less. It could have been a 10-win sqaud. The staff returns mostly intact too, and that coaching continuity has helped Mason’s recruits develop. He believes that Vandy is on the cusp of doing special things.
- The ‘Dores are going to play sound fundamental defense; that’s a given. And despite the loss of All-American LB Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt returns 7 of 10 leading tacklers. The bigger losses, though downplayed somewhat, were the loss of some veteran linemen. In the 3-4, the defensive line is tailored to let the linebackers make plays, and this is still a running league.
- On offense, the Commodores may have the most settled situation in the East with their skills players. Long-time running back Ralph Webb returns with an older, more experienced QB Kyle Shurmer. There are veterans on the outside too. In fact, thinking about it, only Alabama, Mississippi State and LSU are settled as the ‘Dores are on offense. The only real questions are replacing some losses on the offensive line and whether Shurmur’s development will allow the offense to open up somewhat and finally put some points on the board. Ralph Webb did let it slip that he’s working on moving into the slot and being more involved in the passing game. I’m sure the Tide staff circled that one. As we’ve seen with Kenyan Drake, a dangerous pass-catching running back can be dangerous in opening up an offense.
- Mason would not be baited into a question about Alabama, the SEC opener for both teams. He did say he likes how Saban coaches, handles his business, and runs a program, but, by and large, he was emphasizing being focused for a dangerous Middle Tennessee team.
Strip out all of Saban’s occasional humor, but retain the ironclad dedication to process-minded football and what are you left with? A very humorless Jim McElwain and a 9- or 10-win season. Look, we love Coach Mac here, but he does need to lighten up a bit. If I weren’t lactose intolerant, his speech would have curdled my milk.
- You knew it was coming, someone was going to ask Coach Mac about the naked man hugging the shark photo. McElwain was decidedly unamused. Rather than taking it in stride, he gave some hot-headed reply about how it was personal and involved his family (huh?) Damn, Jim, the first rule is to not let people know it bothers you -- particularly, as here, when it does not involve your family. Dragging them up to be a human shield because of his humorlessness was not the highlight of his career. He also was not the most lighthearted guy about the notion of divisional realignment.
- The biggest thing on everyone’s mind (besides quarterback,) was the status of the Gators’ only real receiving threat, WR Antonio Callaway. He was cited for weed possession in May, and the Gators have been very mum about discipline -- if any. You very clearly walked away thinking that short of injury, AC will start the season opener versus Michigan.
- While not going into greater specifics, McElwain is very pleased with the speed on the outside. Florida has been in a receiving funk the last several years; that’s surely not helped the parade of mediocrities UF has dragged out on the field under center.
- The biggie: Quarterback --- says “we will play a quarterback,” but doesn’t offer much insight into the competition. When it comes to new alleged/hopeful transfer savior, Malik Zaire, “He didn’t come here to hold a clipboard.” then challenged everyone’s manhood in stepping up to compete for the job. Although the specific question was in regard to Zaire, you got the impression that was a unit-wide message.
- The defense has some obvious losses to the NFL, but the Gators have several key players that have seen significant snaps.
- I honestly wish I could say more about his football team, but with the nitwits pressing him repeatedly on Sharkgate and other ancillary distractions, we just didn’t learn very much about the team. That is a shame. This team may not have the talent on paper that the ‘Dawgs do, but is every bit the co-favorite to reach Atlanta. Detestable job all around today with respect to Florida.
Mullen probably spoke more about the dynamics of the team more than anyone. We got learned substantive things about the 2017 Bulldogs from him.
- As expected, Nick Fitzgerald was the main topic in relation to the offense. Fitzgerald is working on becoming a more consistent passer. Part of his problem is the same with many young players: they go for the deep shot down the field, rather than taking the defense gives him or settling for a dump down -- being smarter when he takes his shots, in other words. (Let’s call this the Blake Barnett) Like Smart, Coach Mullen emphasized getting his completion percentage up to not only improve as a quarterback but to assist the offense.
- In that respect, the last few questions of the day seems to tie into those goals: The Bulldogs have experienced TEs and want to work on integrating those players in the passing game more. Likewise, Donald Gray, the one legitimate star receiver, has worked to improve even more in the offseason. I would expect a more prudent passing game and Gray’s numbers to improve.
- Mullen did hit on recruiting being positively impacted by the success of Dak Prescott and some other MSU players in the NFL, but his main emphasis was on developing players once they get on campus. Few areas are harder to recruit than quarterback, and managing the expectations of immediately starting has to be tempered by stressing the importance of career growth and development. He thinks that emphasizing career development rather than immediate playing time helps diminish the high trasnfer rate/turnover situation at the position.
- The defense is a much dicier situation. There is almost no returning quality on an already-iffy defensive line. Making matters worse, the back end is exceptionally young and had to go the JUCO route to plug the hole in the dike. While Mullen is very pleased to bring Todd Grantham in to coach the defense, experience has shown that the transition to that kind of 3-4 is a bumpy one. Grantham’s defense further has a propensity to allow huge plays in the passing game. As we discussed a few months ago, this is a team that may put up some points, but (for this year at least) is really going to struggle to get anyone off the field.
The league’s head referee gave a really crisp prepared statement recapping some things from last year and directions for rule changes going forward
- It is an “off year,” meaning all rule changes must relate to player safety. In that regard, the biggest new rule has been the prohibition of leaping over the line of scrimmage to block kicks and punts. Players cannot take a running start and then try to leapfrog over the LOS; it does not apply to stationary players and players on the line. The rule reads a little more vaguely than it should, but the video clip shown at the Wynfrey showed what they’re looking for (think the deep safety taking a running start and trying to hop over both sets of linemen.) Too often, players are winding up landing on their heads rather than making an athletic highlight play. If I’m reading this rule right, and understanding its application, A’Shawn Robinson’s block in 2015 would not be penalized.
- Last year there was an in-season clarification of the “crown” of the helmet for targeting purposes. It is not, as many thought, the very top of the helmet; it is roughly a “halo” that encompasses the area from the top of the facemask, across the width of the helmet and proceeds up the top 1/3rd of the helmet -- this area as shown on his helmet demonstration roughly corresponds to the frontal cortex, like so.
- Horse collars have also been clarified. Previously, the rule provided that you had to have your hand in the collar area and make a downward jerking motion. Now, it will be a horse collar penalty if you do the same with the ball carrier’s nameplate area on the jersey. The impression I got was that the officials would look for the distinctive downward-jerking motion. So, while Laquon Treadwell’s injury in 2014 was not flagged, it would likely be a penalty under this interpretation.
- Shaw again made noises about decreasing game length. In 2016, the SEC’s average game ran 3’26”. Four games went over four hours; two went under three hours. In order to decrease the running time, the 20-minute halftime will be zealously enforced. The second the final play is over, the officials will ensure there is no penalty on the play, will declare an end to the half and then immediately wind the 20-minute clock. Networks have already been informed, so your cherished angry-coach-at-halftime sideline interviews are about to be greatly truncated.
- Targeting accuracy did not get nearly the attention it deserves. Shaw provided a breakdown of the 26 targeting calls in 2016. Of those 26, five were initiated by the booth. But 16 were confirmed. As my buddy, Vineyard Dawg of Dawgsports notes, a meager 61% accuracy rating for one of the most game-changing calls an official can make is insufficient; they have to get better. In other words, all of these fights we have over whether or not a play is targeting is warranted. Even trained professionals are barely above 50-50 getting that call right on the field.
- There is a national rule taking effect this year that is absolutely going to get Coach Saban in trouble. In order to improve the game’s image, if any coach leaves the sideline box and enters the playing field without permission, it is an automatic 15-yard personal foul. These count as one of the two misconduct penalties you may receive before being tossed from the game. Scott Cochran, Alabama’s “Get back, Coach” -coach, will have his work cut out for him.
- Shaw and the league are really promoting the success of “collaborative replay” with officials in the conference office. While acknowledging that the process does slow the game down some, the length of replays shortened every week until season’s end, and in 2016 averaged just 1’26”. There were 226 replay stops last season in 103 games. Collaborative replays identified and corrected stoppage of play errors 2.7% of the time, and it identified and corrected 8% of all plays. That latter is a remarkable number — about one to two plays a game.
- Finally, since next year in an “on” year with regard to rule changes, officials are already receiving coach input on two other issues: blocking below the waist and the loathed three-yard/ineligible downfield receivers. We’ll keep an eye on these as they wind their way through the committee process over the coming calendar year.
That’s it for today. Tomorrow is another full slate, including Coach Saban kicking everything off at 8:30 a.m. central.
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