Saturday, August 15, 2009

Five Questions: The Offense

Now that the season approaches, it's time to look forward to the task at hand.

A quote attributed to Michael Jordan reads: "If you accept the expectations of others, especially negative ones, then you never will change the outcome." As far as the Patriot League's pre-season poll goes, expectations for Georgetown's 2009 season are not only negative, they're practically nonexistent.

The Hoyas received a last place vote from every one of the 12 voters among the other six schools, which is a de facto prediction for another 0-6 or 1-5 league record, which, frankly will be unacceptable this year. Not only would an 0-fer extend Kevin Kelly's coaching mark to an astounding 1-23 record in PL play, but it would come at the expense of perhaps the deepest returning offensive corps seen at Georgetown in nearly a decade. Put another way, this team is much better than 0-6. Now, can they deliver?

The cynic can rightly say that Georgetown could easily lose every game this year. An optimist would look at the same schedule and make an argument that eight of the 11 games on the schedule are winnable, but with the right mix of talent, teaching, and execution. For the first time in four years, the experience level is there--the Hoyas return eight starters on offense, all taught in the Kelly system. With this in mind, here are five questions on the offense as the season draws closer:

1. Is this the year for stability at quarterback? Looking back at the Georgetown teams of the 1990's, one finds a run of stability and success at quarterback--the Hoyas basically ran just four starters (Aley Demarest, Bill Ring, Bill Ward, and J.J. Mont) over a 10 year run from 1991 through 2000, averaging 20 or more points per game in nine of those seasons.

In the last eight years, there has been a revolving door in the QB position. Since 2001, fans have variously seen starts by Sean Peterson, David Paulus, Morgan Booth, Andrew Crawford, Alondzo Turner, Keith Allan, Nick Cangelosi, Ben Hostetler, Matt Bassuener, Robert Lane, Keerome Lawrence, James Brady, and Scott Darby. Among these 13 quarterbacks over eight seasons, the Hoyas have topped 20 points per game in just one season.

The seven man QB list of 2008 has been trimmed to four entering 2009, with Brady and sophomore Tucker Stafford being the likely two-deep after Keerome Lawrence was moved to slotback (more on him later). Brady was more skilled as a passer than a runner in his debut season, as Georgetown quarterbacks have increasingly become runners versus throwers in the face of a withering line. Stafford, perhaps the best pure quarterback prospect for a Georgetown team since Aley Demarest, saw just three plays against Yale last season before being lost for the season with a hand injury. If Georgetown is to get out of the cellar, it needs consistency from the QB post. Even if someone doesn't go all 11 games, there needs to be a clear leader on the field, and one willing to throw the ball downfield.

2. Is this Charlie Houghton's year at running back? Since being named the Patriot League Rookie of the Year in 2006 on the strength of an end of season flurry, Houghton's impact on the Hoyas has declined heading into his senior season. Averaging 82.3 yards a game in the last four games of 2006, he averaged just half that in 2007, and gained only 32 yards in 2008 before injuries took him out of the lineup.

Houghton is especially valuable as a downfield option--if he can get past the line of scrimmage, as a runner or receiver, his size and speed provide a legitimate option for downfield yardage, something the Hoyas have not proven to be very proficient over the last few years.

With options in the slot, Houghton doesn't have to get the ball for 30 carries a game, but he's capable of it. It's a bit surprising to discover that only one Georgetown runner this decade has carried more than 30 times in one game (Kim Sarin's 31 against VMI in 2004) but then, no surprise that this was the only year Georgetown has ever posted a 1,000 yard rusher.

To borrow an image from the Redskins' teams of the 1980's, the Hoyas need a diesel in the backfield when a quarterback keeper won't do. With a veteran line, this may be the opportunity to finally put Houghton's talents to work.

3. Can we "hold that line"? If one can point to any one group of positions where Georgetown has been considerably deficient relative to their opponents, it's the offensive. Too often, the Hoya lines have been too small, too light, too slow and inexperienced against the defensive sets of other PL schools. There have been games where the defensive lines of some schools were heavier than the Georgetown front line, and that spells trouble.

Of these concerns, inexperience was a common issue. There were always upperclassmen in the starting lineup, but injuries and substitutions always seemed to turn the offensive line into a hug question mark by October. This season's previews report that all five lineman are back for the Hoyas for the first time in a number of years. Are they the 300-pound hogs common in other teams? No, none more than 285. But experience is vital in line work, both for how the game is played and how their teammates react. Georgetown's got a group of five men that know how to play the game. Let's keep them in there right through November.

4. Whither the passing game? Eight starters return for the Hoyas in 2009, not one of them a receiver. Of the top five receivers from 2008, none are back in 2009, accounting for 72 percent of the passing yards from last season. Brent Tomlinson, Colin Meador and Kenny Mitchell (one of the more under-utilized receivers of the last decade relative to talent) graduated, while Mychal Harrison and Keion Wade are no longer on the roster. The Hoyas could really have used the speed off the ball from Harrison and Wade, so what's left?

The leading returning receiver, Rick Cosgrove, caught all of seven passes in 2008, and no other returning receiver had more than two. Ugh. If the Hoyas can't develop a serious threat on the passing game, opponents will drop eight or nine in the box and overwhelm the offense.

The freshman class doesn't contain a lot of big-name stars, but two that might be able to get into the lineup are receivers Kenneth Furlough and Brandon Floyd. Both are 6-2 or taller, both can pick up speed down the field, and one or both may be able to give Georgetown a downfield option it hasn't had since Luke McArdle in 2003, which seems like a generation ago. Seniors Cosgrove, Matt Kinnan, and Zack Barbiasz are all reasonable options at receiver, but none had enough experience to be considered threats at the position. It will be interesting to see if a newcomer can break through and wake up the echoes of when the long ball was a realsitic option for opponents to prepare for against Georgetown.

4. Can Keerome Lawrence be a game changer? Moving a quarterback to the slot is a risky move, but in this situation I think it could be a real given Lawrence's skill set and the ability to introduce something Georgetown hasn't had in the backfield in six years: unpredictability.

In 2003, Bob Benson introduced a lineup that, for the first half of the season, thoroughly confused opponents and led Georgetown to three straight wins by late October, by adding to a freshman quarterback named Alondzo Turner into the lineup. Announced as 6-0, but just barely, the 180 lb. Turner could run, pass, and when in a slot, add some interesting options to the backfield and was named the league's rookie of the week in two consecutive weeks. For 2003, his only season with Georgetown, Turner was third on the team in rushing and threw three touchdowns.

While the experiment with Turner didn't develop, the ability of Lawrence to develop in the backfield is in intriguing one. Lawrence led the team in rushing last season, albeit as a quarterback, and while he wouldn't be expected to do so in 2009, he's capable of big things. His passing game was erratic in 2008, but the simple fact that he could put the ball in the air can open up options to what remains a predictable offense. Absent a huge surprise in the receiver corps, a backfield trip of Houghton, Lawrence and Robert Lane will be the Hoyas' best chance for yardage all season. With his ability, Lawrence could be a great addition to the backfield that enters 2009 ranked among the bottom of I-AA in yardage per game.

And to end this segment, another quote, this one from Thomas Edison: "If we did the things we are capable of, we would astound ourselves." Such is the hope for the 2009 Hoyas and an offense capable not only meeting expectations, but rolling right past them.