When I talk about an "X-Factor" I am talking about a guy on the verge of a break-out season or whose play could really elevate his team to the next level. Last month our Alabama blogger took a look at Bama's "X-Factor" B.J. Scott. For Georgia I see so much potential and promise in Branden Smith. One of the main reasons that I peg Branden as Georgia's X-Factor is that he has the ability to impact the game on defense, on offense and on special teams.
Smith was just a freshman last year but saw action on offense, defense and special teams and his playing time increased as the season went on. Smith's first impact was felt in the South Carolina game (as I outlined in my favorite moments of the UGA 2009 season). He went from fumbling a kickoff and giving the Gamecocks an easy FG to taking a reverse 61 yards for a TD in which he also reached supersonic speeds.
On offense Georgia returns 10 of 11 starters with redshirt freshman Aaron Murray being the lone newcomer. Georgia has strong talent throughout the entire offense but is a little light at WR. Branden Smith has the ability to play WR, RB and QB (in the Wild Dawg formation) if needed. Despite carrying the ball only 12 times last year Branden was the 4th leading rusher on the team as he ran for 208 yards and an average of 12 yards every time he ran the ball. Branden also caught 2 passes for 7 yards (which is not going to break any records but speaks to the fact that the guy is versatile). Smith is the type of guy who can be a game changer on offense because of his blazing speed and who can also serve as a decoy to open up plays for AJ Green, Orson Charles, Washaun Ealey and Caleb King. I've posted this video before but take a look at his ability to turn the ball up field and then just admire his blazing speed as he makes the South Carolina defense look like they are standing still.
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On Special Teams last year Smith helped out return stud Brandon Boykin (3 TD returns) with kick off duties but never really hit his stride returning kicks although he did post a long of 48 yards in 16 attempts. Boykin and Smith should share the kickoff duties again this year with Boykin getting the lions share of the attempts. One area that Smith could be poised to take over is the Punt Return duties. Prince Miller has moved on and is trying to make an NFL squad so that leaves us with no experienced return guys other than fair-catch aficionado Logan Gray. Georgia has a long list of guys who can take over the punt return duties: Smith, Rantavious Wooten, Carlton Thomas, Brandon Boykin, Bacarri Rambo and AJ Green. I think the two guys out of that pack who have the best chance are Smith and Carlton Thomas. With Smith's speed I think it would be hard not to at least put him out there and see how he did.
Willie Martinez's defense really struggled last year and at times Willie struggled with whether to play under-performing veterans or younger players who did not yet have big-game experience. As the season went on Smith got more action at corner and at nickel. This year Smith is on the verge of breaking into the stating line-up and playing opposite of Brandon Boykin in Todd Grantham's new, aggressive 3-4 scheme. Whether or not Smith or Vance Cuff win the starting corner position, Smith should still get a lot of playing time at corner or at nickel. Grantham's new defense will rely on the corners to be physical and to play up on the receivers (versus the 10 yard pad that Martinez often gave the opposing teams). I think this fits Smith well because if he does get beat off the line he has the speed and athleticism to recover and get back into position.
Another guy to keep a close eye on is Justin Anderson. Anderson played offensive tackle last year in 13 games and started 5 of those games but has made the switch to the defense. Because of Georgia's depth on the line and lack of depth/experience on the defensive line the switch was made possible for Anderson. Anderson is 6'5" and 230 pounds and seems like a natural fit for the type of 3-4 defense that Grantham wants to run. Richt says "We think he can do well there because he’s quick and strong, he’s an explosive athlete." Anderson will battle it out with junior DeAngelo Tyson and redshirt freshman Kwame Gathers for playing time at the nose tackle position this fall but I think Anderson could be one to keep an eye on.