For a player who has been injured often over the last two years, flanker Fred Gibson seems to be tempting fate with his favorite training drill. The senior wraps up practices by taking on a machine that hurls footballs at speeds up to 50 mph. Starting from 10 yards out, Gibson moves closer to the machine with each catch until he‚Äôs grabbing bullets point-blank from five feet. ‚ÄúA lot of guys try it and jump out of the way,‚Äù says receivers coach John Eason. ‚ÄúIt makes me cringe when I see him do it. He could break a finger.‚Äù
He already has--and more. In 2001 the lanky 6'4" Waycross, Ga., native raised expectations as a freshman, leading the team with 772 receiving yards on 33 catches (23.4 yards per reception), but various ailments have limited his production since. First there was a thumb injury as a sophomore, when he caught 43 passes for 758 yards. Then last year, after rolling up 185 receiving yards on nine catches in the first two games, he suffered, in succession, a pulled hamstring, a bruised left knee and a fractured ring finger. He finished with 36 catches for 553 yards and three touchdowns. ‚ÄúI hope it‚Äôs all out of my system,‚Äù he says of the injuries. ‚ÄúAt the beginning of last season I was dominant, and then nothing made sense. I‚Äôve got a lot to prove this year.‚Äù
In doing so he would boost the national championship aspirations of the Bulldogs, who have 10 offensive starters back from last year‚Äôs 11‚Äì3 squad, including senior Heisman Trophy candidate David Greene at quarterback and 6'4", 348-pound junior All-America hopeful Max Jean-Gilles at right tackle. With the running game in the hands of emerging--but still unproven--sophomore Kregg Lumpkin, Greene and coach Mark Richt need Gibson to stretch opposing defenses. Indeed, with five catches for 129 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game, Gibson appeared ready to live up to his billing as one of the top receivers in the nation. ‚ÄúFred‚Äôs so natural in the way he runs post patterns,‚Äù says Greene. ‚ÄúHe has a natural weave, and he knows just when to break them off. When he‚Äôs 100 percent, he can be as good as anybody.‚Äù
If Gibson is a better player this year, it might be due in part to his spending the summer working out on campus with teammates for the first time. As a freshman and sophomore, in addition to playing football, he was also a reserve shooting guard on the Georgia basketball team, and he worked on both games at home during the summer. But after riding the bench for two seasons he gave up basketball, and last summer he eschewed the Bulldogs‚Äô off-season training programs to work with a personal fitness coach in Atlanta. This year, at Richt‚Äôs urging, Gibson stuck around Athens and lifted weights with his teammates, bulking up from 196 pounds to 205. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm looking to be more of a leader this year,‚Äù says Gibson.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs much more a part of what we‚Äôre doing, and you can see a big difference,‚Äù says Richt. ‚ÄúHe didn‚Äôt have a lot of strength and stamina to draw on at times last year. Now he‚Äôs stronger, more confident, has stamina--everything.‚Äù
If Gibson and the rest of the offense put up as many points as expected, the lead will be protected by a defense that last season ranked third in the nation in points allowed per game (14.5) and fourth in yards (276.9), and could be even better this year. Georgia fans were relieved to hear in January that All-America defensive end David Pollack was passing up the NFL draft and returning for his senior season. Joining him up front will be 2002 starter Will Thompson, a 6'3", 240-pound senior end who missed last season with a broken leg. His return should free Pollack to become a dominant pass rusher again. (Pollack‚Äôs sack total dropped from 14 in 2002 to 7 1‚ÅÑ2 last fall.) The Bulldogs also have all three starters back at linebacker, including All-SEC middle linebacker Odell Thurman, who had a team-high 18 1‚ÅÑ2 tackles for loss in ‚Äô03. Pressure on the passer by the front seven will help a secondary that has three new starters joining second-team All-America free safety Thomas Davis.
All of that sets up the Oct. 2 game between Georgia and LSU at Sanford Stadium as one of the season‚Äôs most important matchups. In 2003 the co‚Äìnational champion Tigers beat the Bulldogs 17‚Äì10 in a September thriller in Baton Rouge and then 34‚Äì13 three months later in the SEC championship game. Georgia‚Äôs third loss was to Florida, which beat the Dawgs for the sixth time in a row and the 13th time in the last 14 meetings, 16‚Äì13. The game was especially difficult for Gibson, who dropped three crucial passes after sitting out practice all week with a bruised knee. ‚ÄúThat game was disheartening for him,‚Äù says Eason. ‚ÄúHe hadn‚Äôt practiced, and at this level you can‚Äôt just turn it on and turn it off. He found that out.‚Äù
With Greene vying for the Heisman and the team for No. 1, Gibson should be in line for end-of-season honors as well, if he stays healthy and fulfills his new role as a team leader. He thinks he‚Äôs up to the job. ‚ÄúThis year‚Äôs team is going to be something special,‚Äù he says. ‚ÄúWe just need to stick together, and I need to show them I‚Äôm going to go out there and work hard. This year is the one for this team.‚Äù --Mark Beech
2003 RECORD 11‚Äì3 (6‚Äì2, T1 in SEC East)
FINAL AP RANK 7 RETURNING STARTERS 17
KEY RETURNEES (2003 stats)
QB David Greene (Sr.)
Has won 12 of 13 career starts on the road
DE David Pollack (Sr.)
Needs six sacks to break team record of 29
WR Fred Gibson (Sr.)
1,010 receiving yards shy of SEC career mark
S Thomas Davis (Jr.)
Led Dawgs with 89 solo and 138 total tackles
LB Odell Thurman (Jr.)
Returned an interception 99 yards for a TD
Bulldogs who rushed for 100 yards in a game last year, the first time since 1972 that Georgia failed to have a player hit that mark.
Freshman Danny Ware was recruited to play fullback, but the 6'1" 210-pounder, who enrolled early, was so impressive in spring practice that he earned a shot at tailback and was the leading rusher (eight carries for 43 yards) in the spring game. If sophomore Michael Cooper, the No. 2 back, continues to battle migraine headaches that have plagued him this off-season, Ware could see significant action behind starter Kregg Lumpkin.
Sept. 4 GEORGIA SOUTHERN
11 at South Carolina
Oct. 2 LSU
23 at Arkansas
30 vs. Florida*
Nov. 6 at Kentucky
13 at Auburn
27 GEORGIA TECH
WORK TO DO
Georgia is counting on Gibson, who had only 36 catches last year, to pump up his productivity.
JAMES D. SMITH/ICON SMI