By Joe Vitale:
Georgia enters the the spring practice session with a few open questions and potentially heated competition at a few positions.
The Bulldogs return 7 offensive starters from last season’s 8-5 team, that was electric at times, but inconsistent throughout the year. Georgia averaged only 20.5 points per game against conference foes last season, 12th in the SEC, and must greatly increase production in the red zone. On 45 trips inside the 20-yard line, Georgia only converted 55% of those opportunities into touchdowns, which was 12th best in the conference.
We lead off the offensive preview with Georgia’s biggest strength, the running back position.
The unexpected return of junior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, arguably the best tandem in the conference, was indeed a pleasant surprise for Kirby Smart. Chubb showed flashes of brilliance last season after returning from his devastating knee injury. He rushed for 1,130 yards, but his 5.04 yards per carry was well below his career average. Expect more touches for Michel this season. The Fort Lauderdale native can do it all….from the backfield or slot.
Talented rising sophomores Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield will get a lot of work this spring and heralded 2017 signee D’Andre Swift will be in Athens for summer semester. Junior Christian Payne and sophomore Glenn Welch lead a deep fullback pool.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE
From the greatest strength, we move to the greatest question….the offensive line. Starting tackles Tyler Catalina and Greg Pyke and center Brandon Kublanow have all graduated. Georgia signed the greatest collection of offensive line talent in it’s history, but the development time for offensive linemen is a slow process. Redshirt sophomore guard Lamont Gaillard, a converted defensive tackle and who played in all 13 games for Georgia last season, should slide into the center position. Junior Isaiah Wynn, maybe the most talented and versatile lineman, will see time at tackle but we’ll slot him at right guard. At 280 pounds, Wynn is a bit undersized for coach Sam Pittman, but his technique and talent will keep him on the field.
Spring’s most heated competition should be the three remaining positions along the line. There’s a lot of size and talent among the current and incoming players. Redshirt freshmen Chris Barnes and Ben Cleveland will get a long look at one tackle position. Savannah State transfer, Sean Fogarty, a redshirt sophomore, is huge and will be in the mix as well.
At the other tackle position, junior Alden Bynum, sophomore Kendall Baker and 2017 JUCO transfer D’Marcus Hayes, an early enrollee, will battle for playing time.
Look for redshirt freshmen Solomon Kindley and Pat Allen along with junior Dyshon Sims (who has played all 5 positions along the line) to compete for a start at the other guard position.
Then there is the wait for five-star, incoming freshman Isaiah Wilson and a slew of other incoming linemen. Wilson has the size, footwork and talent to make an immediate impact in the SEC. I expect the competition will last long into fall camp before the offensive line is settled.
Rising sophomore Jacob Eason has a lot of pressure on his young shoulders, but the Lake Stevens, Washington gunslinger has all the tools to be one of the great ones. Eason showed many instances of his immense talent as a freshman last season, but at times also showed he was still a freshman. On the money down, Eason led the conference in passing yards (1011 yards) and kept drives alive. However, indecisiveness and bad reads on first and second downs thwarted a lot of other drives.
Early enrollee Jake Fromm comes to Athens with an impressive resume and matching confidence. Fromm will push Eason hard, but Eason starts in 2017. With the possibility of Georgia not signing a top quarterback in 2018 (15 of the nation’s top 20 quarterbacks of the class of 2018 are committed elsewhere), don’t be surprised if Smart redshirts Fromm.
Junior Brice Ramsey is a capable back-up and junior Parker McLeod and sophomore Sam Vaughn return. 2017 preferred walk-on Stetson Bennett IV from Pierce County will open a few eyes.
Leading receiver Isaiah McKenzie declared for the NFL draft and opportunities are open for several underclassmen. Sophomore Terry Godwin has a world of talent and had 38 receptions for 397 yards last year. Rising senior Javon Wims came on strong late in the season and New Orleans’ Michael Chigbu is also a viable option. Don’t forget about the possibility of defensive back early enrollee Richard LeCounte III and rising sophomore defensive back Mecole Hardman, Jr. getting some reps at receiver….they’re both too good not to utilize. Also look for offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to slide tight end Charlie Woerner in the slot, creating match up problems.
Rising sophomore Riley Ridley was banged up a good deal of the year but still had a productive freshman year, averaging 19.8 yards per reception. He was one of the few receivers who was constantly getting separation from defensive backs. Sophomore Jayson Stanley has the big body and talent to compete for a start and is recovered from an aggravating foot injury. Freshman Tyler Simmons has the speed to be a difference maker. Early enrollee Jeremiah Holloman has all the tools and will be joined by talented 2017 signees Mark Webb, Tray Blount and Matt Landers this summer.
Georgia is enjoying a wealth of riches at the tight end position and has the best talent in the country. Each 2016 tight end returns, led by rising seniors Jeb Blazevich and Jordan Davis, rising junior Jackson Harris and rising sophomores Charlie Woerner and Isaac Nauta. The Dawgs are so loaded at the position, their only 2017 signee was preferred walk on Wix Patton. Nauta started five games as a true freshman, catching 29 passes for 361 yards and 3 touchdowns. The competition will be intense but you’ll see plenty of sets with two and three tight ends on the field.
Overall, there’s a tremendous amount of talent and experience on this Georgia team. Can the offensive line gel and get the push off the line to open some holes for Chubb and Michel and pass protect for Eason? Will Eason continue to improve and become the leader of the team? Will the receivers find open space and make the easy catches that they seemed to drop too many times last season? Which newcomer will add that spark to push the Dawgs to an SEC title? There are a lot of questions regarding the offense, but if Smart and Chaney can fine-tune this unit, we may see some fireworks in 2017.
Next week we preview the Bulldogs’ defensive side of the ball and the kicking game. Spring practice begins March 21 with G Day on April 22 in Sanford Stadium.