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Post Happy NIL Day

Thursday July 1, 2021

Like it or not, the landscape of college athletics changed overnight. Laws in several states went into effect protecting the right of college athletes to earn money from their name, image, or likeness. The NCAA, pushed to the limit, adopted their own interim policy which will serve as a stopgap until legislation catches up. That day may never come – Congress is finding it difficult to find consensus, and we might just be left with a patchwork of state laws.

NIL is perhaps the cleanest solution the schools could hope for: NIL money isn’t paid by the schools, there aren’t employment issues, and there should be fewer Title IX issues. Athletes are now allowed to get what they can get from their personal brands just like any other person. Direct payments from the schools would have been much messier, brought along all sorts of regulatory questions, and cut out a large share of the NCAA membership who are barely solvent. The “Olympic model,” which is basically NIL, has been circulated for well over a decade. Schools and the NCAA could have been out ahead of this issue, but instead we have a last-minute acquiescence to look the other way while an inconsistent framework of state laws kicks in.

Georgia fans have been especially tuned into the NIL issue since the suspensions of A.J. Green and Todd Gurley. The draconian NCAA regulations and Georgia’s passive willingness to accept them had many of us beating the drum for NIL reform years ago. This new era won’t remove the bad taste left by those episodes; all we can do is say that it’s about time.

It will be fascinating to see what comes of this change. There will be an early rush as the market shakes out and determines value. Some will do well; others won’t. Some will build successful brands and set themselves up for a secure future, and others will squander the opportunity. Some will build brands that only tangentially have to do with their sport, and now they can monetize that following. Will there be locker room dynamics? Maybe – who knows? There will be some hilariously bad and cringe-y endorsements and branding. We’re here for all of it. That’s the way markets work, and none of it is reason enough to delay these rights to student-athletes.

Since there’s money involved, there’s also bound to be plenty of fraud and shady characters ready to prey on under-informed players and their families. Schools might not be facilitating the deals, but it’s in their interests to have a supporting role. Resources should be available to student-athletes to help them identify legitimate endorsement deals and stay within legal and regulatory guardrails. Many schools, including Georgia, have introduced such partnerships and programs, and hopefully more will follow. Businessman and NFL veteran Marshall Newhouse tweeted some good advice: get help to understand the state laws and school/NCAA rules that apply, thoroughly vet anyone who approaches you with a deal, and don’t lose focus. “The opportunities will come the more you shine.”

I’m particularly interested to see if and how recruiting changes. Do prospects have more incentive to remain closer to home where name recognition and brand value might be higher? Will prospects play fan bases off of each other to determine the most enthusiasm for their personal brand? Will we eventually see a decision based on what amounts to a legal bidding war? Fans are admonished to avoid communicating with or interacting with prospects on social media, but would it be a different story if they knew that buying that 5* prospect’s merchandise might tilt the scales? None of these prospects are beholden to a specific school’s compliance department yet – will this market be even more unregulated?

There are a million angles to NIL because it really is a fundamental change to the model of college athletics. Schools and the NCAA will still make a ton of money – these deals aren’t coming out of their vaults. Now, finally, the people who generate much of that revenue will get a taste of it and begin to realize the value that’s been there all along.


Post Framing the preseason Heisman hype

Thursday June 24, 2021

Excitement about the potential for the 2021 Georgia offense can only mean one thing: offseason talk about J.T. Daniels’ Heisman chances. The strong finish by Daniels and the Georgia offense, the number of weapons returning, and a full and normal offseason with Todd Monken have generated tremendous anticipation. With record-shattering offenses at LSU and Alabama in recent years, the hope is that Daniels could lead Georgia’s transformation into the next powerhouse offense. But would that mean a Heisman for Georgia’s QB1?

I can probably just link to this post from 2019 when we were having similar discussions about Jake Fromm’s Heisman chances as a senior. Things didn’t go well for Fromm or the offense in 2019, but the larger points stand. If you’re not a dual-threat quarterback, you must put up ridiculous numbers to be considered for, much less win, the Heisman.

How ridiculous? Not many pocket passers have won the Heisman over the past 15 years. Sam Bradford won in 2008 with only 47 rushing yards. Were Baker Mayfield and Jameis Winston considered pocket passers? Neither put up big rushing numbers but had decent enough mobility to make plays on the ground. In their Heisman seasons, those quarterbacks threw for over 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. Bradford and Winston won before the RPO era and the unreal offensive production we’ve seen in recent years. Joe Burrow threw for nearly 5,700 yards and 60 TD in 2019. Mac Jones threw for 4,500 yards in 2020 in a shortened season – and didn’t win the Heisman.

The gold standard for quarterback production at Georgia remains Aaron Murray’s 2012 season: nearly 3,900 passing yards, 10.1 yards per attempt, and 36 TD. That was a productive and balanced offense that took Georgia to the cusp of the national title game.

Back to Daniels: Brent Rollins of UGASports.com framed the answer correctly in this video: “yes, but.” When you look at the stats of recent Heisman winners (or even those invited to New York) and compare them against Murray’s Georgia-best 2012 season, you realize what has to happen. Daniels would have to obliterate the Georgia record book and do things never before seen in Athens. As Rollins observes, it would also require Georgia to run a lot more plays, and a higher percentage of plays must be passes. The deep and talented backfield is going to put an upper limit on how pass-happy Georgia becomes. That’s not to say Georgia can’t and won’t air it out – we saw that evolution begin to take place last season. But if an opponent presents a soft rushing defense, Smart and Monken are just as happy winning with 16 pass attempts and 332 rushing yards as they did at South Carolina last year. They’d be foolish not to, and it would take an intentional shift in offensive philosophy to blow past Murray’s benchmark and put up modern Heisman numbers.

Rollins notes that the Clemson game could swing how the nation views Daniels. A big performance and perhaps a game-defining moment on that stage would make Daniels (or Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei) an early favorite, and it might be possible to maintain that edge with a consistently solid showing the rest of the year. After all, Trevor Lawrence never cracked 4,000 yards in a season and finished second in the 2020 Heisman voting. An unremarkable showing against Clemson, even with a Georgia win, would mean that Daniels would have to stand out in games against lesser opponents with fewer people watching. He’d either have to make it up with volume (outrageous stats) or with a defining performance in the few marquee games left on Georgia’s schedule (Florida.)

Lawrence’s career reminds us of another development to watch. After the Clemson game, Georgia should be favored in its remaining games. Any SEC game could be competitive, but you’d still expect some big leads and lopsided wins. If Georgia is in a number of tightly-contested games this year, Daniels probably isn’t having a Heisman type of season. If the Georgia offense does click, you can expect to see the playcalling shift towards the capable backfield in the second half. What’s more, the trio of Beck, Bennett, and Vandagriff could be doing the handing off late in games. Clemson so dominated the ACC that Lawrence watched his backups close out a lot of games. That hurt his numbers in terms of the gaudy stats Heisman voters like, but it kept him fresh and available for multiple runs into the playoff. I think that’s a tradeoff most Georgia fans would accept.


Post Impressive track and field hire focuses attention on Georgia’s facilities

Wednesday June 16, 2021

Marc Weiszer outlines the process and events that aligned to announce the accomplished Caryl Smith Gilbert as Georgia’s new track and field coach last weekend. The importance of the move isn’t lost on anyone – she’s Josh Brooks’s first hire, and she’ll be the first female head coach of a male team at Georgia. Smith Gilbert is looking for a step up in competition in the SEC, but it had to take more than just a new challenge to entice a championship-winning coach to leave one successful program for another.

Yes, Georgia – or most any SEC school – has the resources to outspend other programs for staff and facilities. But the trick is actually committing to put those resources to work. All of the parties in Smith Gilbert’s hire downplayed the facilities concerns that led to friction with the outgoing coach, but I think we can be certain that there were more than vague assurances made about Georgia’s future investment in the track program.

How can we be so sure? To get an idea of what Smith Gilbert was used to in terms of support, have a look at this. That’s a $16 million track renovation spearheaded by Smith Gilbert involving a significant private fundraising effort. The Spec Towns Track might be a nice neighborhood gathering place in Five Points, but it isn’t the showpiece of a multi-million dollar capital campaign. The common constraint at both USC and Georgia is the “landlocked” nature of their existing track facilities leaving little room for expansion. Georgia, though, does have options outside of the central athletics complex. It’s reasonable that a coach of Smith Gilbert’s standing would have to feel confident in Georgia’s willingness to put its resources to work.

We know that Georgia lacks a master plan for facilities, and Brooks revealed that developing such a roadmap is a priority this summer. “We’re going to take a deep look this summer into the next five to seven year plan for…all facilities,” Brooks said. “Softball, baseball, everything.” (It’s interesting and encouraging that baseball – another “landlocked” facility – would receive attention just a few years after a $12 million renovation to Foley Field.) Brooks was caught in a tough spot by not inheriting a long-term facilities vision, and that reportedly strained the relationship with Petros Kyprianou. But Brooks had to anticipate that the facilities question would come up while trying to attract a replacement for Kyprianou. Even if a more comprehensive master plan isn’t ready yet, Brooks knew about the pending change long enough to at least come up with a coherent and acceptable answer. The hiring of Smith Gilbert indicates that he was able to do so.

The hiring of Smith Gilbert was a strong first move by Brooks. She’d be an impressive addition under any circumstances, but it was especially noteworthy after the messy PR that followed the inability to retain Kyprianou. In a way, it strikes the same tone as Kirby Smart’s knack of having a bit of good news ready to go on the heels of a setback. The facilities issues raised by Kyprianou were legitimate (and, to be fair, were mostly out of Brooks’s control), but this announcement has done a lot in a short time to change the conversation. If a title-winning coach in a good spot has faith enough in Brooks’s vision and leadership to move across the country, maybe there’s hope.


Post “It’s crazy to think we could make a living out of this.”

Friday June 4, 2021

When most of us over a certain age think about NLI endorsements, we think of the star quarterback doing ads for the local car dealership. Those types of deals will surely come, but Blutarsky highlights a vector for income that might be more appealing (and effective) for college athletes: social media.

Just as social media has disintermediated so many other industries, individuals on social media can build and monetize a large number of followers on their own. Simply allowing student-athletes to share in the opportunities realized by others in their peer group will be a major benefit of NLI policies and laws. Sponsorships and endorsements are part of that, but some have even built their own personal brands. For many, the opportunity to cash in on that brand might be during college. To take an extremely local and specific example, think about Rodrigo Blankenship being able to cash in on the “respect the specs” brand during his time in Athens.

The social media vector could be especially important for female student-athletes. Gender inequity has been a concern raised (whether in good faith or not) about NLI income, but often that’s viewing it through the lens of the QB/car dealership endorsement. Several female student-athletes have large social media followings, and those followings are often independent of the success or revenue potential of the woman’s sport.

David Hale wrote a piece earlier this spring illustrating how this might work.

A new study from Temple University’s School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management found the potential for NIL revenue, on average, was actually greater for female college athletes than men, and athletes outside the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball could still cultivate valuable brands.

He features twin sisters on the Fresno State women’s basketball team. Their team went 17-11 last season and makes about $2 million in revenue. But the twins have over 2 million followers on TikTok, and they alone “could have a potential combined income of more than a half-million dollars annually.” Hale also mentions Olivia Dunne, “a freshman gymnast at LSU, whose nearly 5 million combined followers on Instagram, Twitter and TikTok make her one of the most potentially valuable brands in college sports.”

Every student-athlete won’t have millions of social media followers just as every member of the football team won’t get the car dealership deal. NLI is a wide-open market, and schools are quick to shy away from proposals to pool NLI income. You get what you can get, and some will be left out or limited to smaller “in kind” deal. It’s still better than what’s allowed now, and services are already popping up to help student-athletes establish and cultivate their personal brands. Access to the opportunities is what NLI is about and what has been denied student-athletes under the current system.


Post Jacksonville: pardon our dust

Friday June 4, 2021

It kind of went under the radar yesterday, but the Jacksonville Jaguars and owner Shad Khan announced plans for a $441 million development around TIAA Bank Field. The project would include a $120 million football facility requested by new coach Urban Meyer as well as indoor/outdoor practice fields. Currently the team’s facilities are co-located inside the stadium with an indoor practice field on the south (river) end of the stadium. The new facility would be on the opposite northwest end of the stadium (Lot R area).

The ambitious plan would also include “a Four Seasons hotel and residences, office space and renovations to the city-owned marina.” The plan must still face scrutiny from a labyrinth of city agencies and political bodies, and a similar proposal was tabled not long ago. If the plan survives the process, “the team and its affiliated real estate development company hope construction could begin by the end of the year and be completed in 2023.”

The most interesting bit was this:

The Jaguars hope the project is the first step in what they are calling the Stadium of the Future for Jaguars fans, meaning eventual significant renovations — or possibly even a brand-new one — within the next decade.

When we talk about the future of the Georgia-Florida game, the facility in Jacksonville is more or less taken for granted. The game didn’t miss a beat during the last renovation that added the large scoreboard and pool areas in the endzones. A more significant renovation or a rebuilt stadium could take the venue out of play for multiple years as it did in 1994 and 1995. The series returned to the new stadium in 1996 without much fuss. At that time there wasn’t much support for moving the game out of Jacksonville long-term. That’s shifted somewhat in the 25 years since, and Kirby Smart is among those who might welcome a change. Another return to campus (or another neutral site like Atlanta) in the near future could be an opening for those who favor changing the nature of the series.

Additionally, there might be another party at the bargaining table:

The proposal said that the team would sign a long-term lease of the facility and that the team — not the city — would be responsible for ongoing maintenance and operational costs.

The stadium is and will remain city-owned, and Georgia and Florida negotiate the terms of the game with the city. If the Jaguars take a more substantial stake in the operation of the stadium, they could have input on how much of the game’s costs are shouldered by the hosts.


Post Release the hounds

Tuesday June 1, 2021

Most of us have a date or event we’re looking forward to as a personal return to normal. It could be a trip, a family gathering, or even the season opener in Charlotte.

For Kirby Smart that date might be today – June 1, 2021. It’s been 16 months since Georgia and other schools have been able to host prospects. A 2020 post-signing day dead period was extended over and over, eventually spanning the 2020 football season and entire recruiting calendar. Recruiting was done virtually, and decisions were made in some instances without ever setting foot on campus. That all ends today.

Georgia still did well in its 2021 signing class with a consensus top five class with several impact players. But we know the real magic of Kirby Smart’s recruiting happens once kids are on campus, and that hasn’t been possible for the past year. Though Smart adapted as well as he could to the circumstances, it was tough to maintain the national reach and appeal he had cultivated in earlier recruiting classes.

Visits will begin immediately, and Smart is raring to go. There are almost too many visits on tap to keep up with, but suffice it to say that it’s going to be a very busy summer making up for lost time. Plans that have been in development for months will finally become reality as the top prospects of 2022 and beyond experience Athens and all that Georgia football has to offer. Beyond that, Smart will also introduce prospects to the nearly-completed $80 million football facility. It’s the latest improvement to bring Georgia’s facilities on par with the best programs in the nation and should only bolster Smart’s effective recruiting.

If that’s not enough, the one-time transfer exemption will continue until July 1, so we could still see some high-profile transfers for the 2021 team arriving in Athens.

Smart put it plainly last week: “It’s about to go crazy.” June should bring a frenzy of offseason football activity and kickstart a busy summer that leads us into a huge season opener in just three months.


Post How to survive at the bottom of the portal food chain

Thursday May 27, 2021

An interesting development in the world of college basketball:

First, it’s a bit silly to avoid playing a game because it might amount to a “free live evaluation” when extensive game film on just about any player is available with a few clicks. Doug Gottlieb makes a more relevant observation that just practicing at the facilities of a major program amounts to a recruiting visit during which a mid-major player can see how the other half lives. Even if you manage to avoid playing those games, talent will reveal itself. Then what?

Tampering isn’t permitted of course, and a player is off-limits until they enter the transfer portal. But the one-time unrestricted transfer is allowed for most sports, and as Nicole Auerbach explained last year, coaches in those sports have ways of contacting potential transfers through backchannels without making the in-person contact permitted by the portal. You can be sure that your favorite major football or basketball program knows how to gauge the interest of a player who might help them well before that player hits the portal.

One of Auerbach’s coaching sources suggested what might come next. Forget tampering or the portal – just plant the seed of a transfer before the player even enrolls. Call it outsourcing grayshirting:

One scenario I hadn’t considered was suggested by a soccer coach. He “can absolutely envision a world where high-major or elite Power 5 football coaches tell a recruit that he’s not quite good enough to play at School X right now, but he could be after a good season at School Y. Those coaches could maintain the relationship with the recruit and circle back a year later, eventually adding him as an up-transfer.”

This needn’t only be done at the individual player level. You wonder if a mid-major coach will lean into this idea and develop more overt, though still unspoken, relationships with larger programs. We’ve seen this with certain junior colleges for decades: academic non-qualifiers at a major program are “placed” in a favorable JUCO or prep program with the intent to re-recruit the player once grades are no longer an issue. The informal arrangement has risks: the player is under no obligation to sign with his original school, he may never make grades, or he might wash out as a prospect. But the system worked well enough that no explanation was required when a top prospect ended up at a familiar junior college.

Mid-major coaches might bristle at taking on the role of short-term player development. We can go back to Jake Spavital’s lament last week: “I can take the [high school] kid down the street that no one wants and no one offers who, after three years, you develop him into a good player, and he can leave.” But what if that coach becomes a participant in the process rather than a victim of it? Could you get better results if you have a steady stream of players who might be marginal prospects at major programs than you could relying on your usual recruiting pool? If transfers are a fact of life and the window of time for developing talent and winning with that talent is shrinking anyway, why not take a shorter-term outlook?


Post Making Athens a basketball destination

Wednesday May 26, 2021

As I read this piece over at Get the Picture, what struck me is how easy it was to see the Georgia basketball program mirrored in Texas State football. That’s not a cheery thought.

There are differences. Some players like Savhir Wheeler recruited by Tom Crean were certainly sought-after prospects, but, man, if this line didn’t hit close to home: “My whole argument is I can take the [high school] kid down the street that no one wants and no one offers who, after three years, you develop him into a good player, and he can leave.” Again, Wheeler, K.D. Johnson, and Toumani Camara were wanted and offered by good programs, but that doesn’t make it easier to see a player’s development pay off somewhere else. It’s especially tough when that “somewhere else” is a team you’ll be facing next season.

“The rest (of available scholarships) have gone to transfers, 11 of them. That after (Jake) Spavital lost 12 players to the portal. He has not signed a high school prospect at Texas State in his Class of 2021…”

That’s describing a mid-major Sun Belt football team, but it’s not far from the story at Stegeman Coliseum. Crean has at least signed a few high school players, though the current recruiting class is rated near the bottom of the SEC. Like North Texas football, Georgia basketball will remake its roster largely through the transfer portal. For the third straight season, well over half the roster will turn over. Continuity is impossible. The coach’s job now is to assemble a roster with a one-year expiration date and win with it. That might be invigorating for Spavital: “it’s given life to our program.” It’s proving more difficult for Crean though as the top performers from each team leave and are replaced with less-accomplished pieces.

The contrast with what’s happening across Smith Street is glaring. Sure, the Georgia football team has lost players to the transfer portal, and there have even been some highly-rated Georgia players like Brenton Cox to transfer out. On the whole, though, most of Georgia football’s losses to the portal have been typical of transfers in earlier seasons – players with disciplinary issues and players buried on the depth chart who haven’t showed signs of breaking through. Georgia football approaches the portal from a position of strength – as a destination. The portal is used to improve the program and not just fill out numbers.

That’s the age-old problem for Georgia basketball: how to make it a destination. It’s been tough enough over the years just to recruit players to Athens, and now the program is doing someone else’s player development. Players have recently departed Georgia for Arizona, Kentucky, Auburn, Dayton, and of course the NBA. That’s quality talent that could have been a solid core had it held together. The long-term goal is to make Georgia a place at which those players see themselves accomplishing their goals. The short-term imperative is to piece together a roster from transfers and recruits and try to hold it together long enough to accomplish something significant enough to make Georgia that destination. Even that is proving difficult, and even signs of progress like attracting an Edwards or a Wheeler are followed by two steps back and have failed to “give life to our program.”

The fans did their part. Challenged by Tom Crean to show support for the program, Georgia fans set attendance records. The setting for big moments like the 2019 Kentucky game was as good as it gets. Facilities are no longer an anchor holding the program down. What’s left? That’s why Crean gets the big bucks. It’s generally accepted that this will be a decisive season for Crean’s future at Georgia. With the number of decent perimeter shooters coming in, the upcoming roster might actually be more suited to Crean’s style than any roster he’s had at Georgia. But it’s asking a lot for another overhauled roster to come together in the time it takes to have an effective November and December and have enough wins in the bank to survive the SEC slate and deliver Crean to the NCAA tournament. That’s what’s at stake. As Spavital put it, “[if] you don’t win, you get fired. We gotta think outside the box here.”


Post What it takes to get us off the couch

Thursday May 20, 2021

Couldn’t describe my 2020 viewing habits better:

A number of fans were introduced to the pleasure of attending Man Cave Stadium last season and found easy access to things like restrooms and refreshments to be something of a pleasure.

As much as I hated to break my home game streak and go without one of the things I enjoy most, I have to admit that it was nice to set up in the backyard with all of the comforts of home steps away. Can’t even begin to calculate how much money I saved, too.

So why am I so excited to get back? I wrote this about opting out last fall:

For many of us the social element of gameday is as important as the action on the field. It’s an opportunity to bring together friends and groups from around the state (and beyond) and rekindle family bonds and traditions that span generations.

That’s the advantage the in-person experience has over watching at home. With the social aspect of gameday significantly (and necessarily) curtailed last year, it made it a fairly easy decision to watch from home. Now that it’s looking like 100% capacity and a fairly normal experience on tap for the 2021 season, I’m more than ready to be back.

I do agree that Barrett Sallee might be stretching it a bit saying fans will “never take the joy of watching a game in person for granted again.” It might not take that long either – ask me about joy around the second half of a hot September guarantee game against UAB.


Post Georgia’s talent pipeline flowing into the NFL

Monday May 3, 2021

I called last year’s NFL draft results “decent but not great” for Georgia. Georgia did have seven players drafted, but several of the higher-profile draft-eligible Dawgs went later than expected. We saw LSU’s dream season pay off with a record-tying 14 picks, and Alabama had nine picks in the first three rounds. Those were extraordinary results, but those are the programs against which Georgia competes on the field and on the recruiting trail.

Thursday’s first round of the 2021 draft got off to a slow start. It wasn’t a surprise to see Eric Stokes selected in the first round, but it was a little unexpected that he would be the only Dawg who came off the board on Thursday. The news got much better on Friday as Tyson Campbell and Azeez Ojulari were drafted early in the second round, and three more players followed in the third round. By the end of the seventh round on Saturday a program-record nine Bulldogs had been drafted. Six were drafted in the first three rounds. As usual, several undrafted players quickly signed free agent deals and will report to an NFL camp.

With the nine Bulldogs selected in 2021, 29 Georgia players have been drafted in the four drafts held since the national title game appearance. That’s the best four-year run of draft picks ever for the Bulldogs. There have been other clusters of years with strong draft results: 15 players were drafted in 2012-2013 and 2002-2003. No other time period in program history has seen this quantity (29) or consistency (at least 7 each year) of draft picks. That’s what you’d hope for as a string of highly-rated signing classes becomes draft-eligible. We can’t quite close the book on the Mark Richt era yet, but it’s fair to say that the Kirby Smart recruiting machine that kicked into gear in 2017 is now producing its share of draft picks.

I focus on the first three rounds since those players are more likely to make rosters, start, earn more, and have lasting NFL careers. Of course there’s value to be had in later rounds (and even UDFAs) – just ask Tae Crowder. But just as the odds are better for highly-rated recruits to be drafted, you’d rather be drafted earlier. It’s one thing to claim a high number of draft picks, but it’s better to have those picks concentrated higher in the draft. Having a top pick doesn’t guarantee a title (Stafford), but championship teams produce high draft picks. LSU’s remarkable 2020 draft class had five first-round picks. Alabama’s 2020 championship team produced six first-round picks. It was encouraging, then, to see Georgia have twice as many early round picks (6) in 2021 as they had in 2020 (3).

The next step for Georgia is to have more of its players called even earlier in the draft and especially in the first round while maintaining at least seven picks per year. Georgia has recruited as well as anyone over the past four recruiting cycles, and the talent pipeline seems to be just as full for the future. This is what I touched on after the national title game. Then we wondered how very good players become elite Heisman-quality performers. Now we ask how do obviously talented and draftable players become elite high-round draft picks?

This might seem like a secondary concern for Kirby Smart since job #1 is winning football games getting whatever production he can out of these players while they’re in Athens. Two things are true though: first, Georgia promotes not only the number of players playing in the NFL but also their earnings. Higher draft picks earn more at first but also have a better shot at sticking around in the league long enough to sign higher-paying contracts once they prove themselves. Second, while a single elite pick might not say much about a team’s success, a slew of such picks probably means you had a pretty good season. LSU and Alabama are the extreme examples, but it’s also not much of a coincidence that the most Georgia first-round picks (3) came after they played for the 2017 national title. More early draft picks will be a lagging indicator that Smart got it done on the field.

This is a discussion at the margins, but marginal differences distinguish championship programs. Once you get to the point at which talent and resources are no longer roadblocks, so much time and energy is spent coaxing out the fractional improvements that matter against the best opponents. Entire fields of study using terms like “Pareto analysis” and “80/20” have been built around all that goes into getting that last bit of improvement out of a system. If you look at the final SP+ rankings of 2020, you see that the margin between the #25 team and the #10 team is as wide as it is between the #10 team and the top four.

That’s where we are with draft picks. It’s difficult and a tremendous accomplishment to be drafted at all. We’re thrilled to see a record number of Bulldogs drafted, and the year-over-year continuity shows what we all know to be true: Georgia is a consistently strong program with consistently strong recruiting. It already produces draft picks at a clip better than all but a handful of programs. Just as the Georgia program is trying to make the difficult incremental improvements to move from a perennial top 10 program to a regular playoff participant, those efforts will pay off with Georgia’s draft picks coming in earlier rounds in better and higher-paying situations for those players. Six early-round picks in 2021 is a good start. If Georgia puts together another title run, the results on draft day could be even better.

Georgia’s 2021 NFL Draft Selections

  • DB Eric Stokes: Green Bay Packers (1st rd, 29th overall)
  • DB Tyson Campbell: Jacksonville Jaguars (2nd rd, 33rd overall)
  • LB Azeez Ojulari: New York Giants (2nd rd, 50th overall)
  • LB Monty Rice: Tennessee Titans (3rd rd, 92nd overall)
  • OL Ben Cleveland: Baltimore Ravens (3rd rd, 94th overall)
  • TE Tre’ McKitty: Los Angeles Chargers (3rd rd, 97th overall)
  • DB Richard LeCounte: Cleveland Browns (5th rd, 169th overall)
  • C Trey Hill: Cincinnati Bengals (6th rd, 190th overall)
  • DB Mark Webb: Los Angeles Chargers (7th rd, 241st overall)

Post SEC takes a prudent step forward

Wednesday April 28, 2021

From ESPN:

The SEC will not require fully vaccinated individuals who are asymptomatic to participate in the league’s surveillance testing program, according to an updated version of its COVID-19 protocols. As long as they have approval from their local health authority, fully vaccinated SEC staff and players also will no longer have to quarantine following an exposure to someone with COVID-19.

This is good news and a strong message from the SEC. Vaccination is our best path out of the pandemic, and there need to be clear benefits for those who choose to get a vaccine. This updated policy reflects the reality of what it means to be vaccinated and recognizes the growing understanding that vaccinated individuals are at much lower risk of contracting or transmitting the virus. It’s also an incentive for those who might be hesitant about getting the vaccine. Any temporary and minor effects of the shot pale next to constant testing and lost time due to quarantine.

Of course any vaccine isn’t 100% effective, hence the allowance for “asymptomatic” individuals. It does mean, though, that a rare positive and symptomatic infection won’t cause vaccinated teammates to have to quarantine. Those quarantined close contacts, many of whom didn’t test positive themselves, wiped out entire position groups and were a big driver of reduced roster numbers and canceled games in 2020.

Hopefully other conferences adopt this policy change soon while continuing their diligence. Though not all will be able or willing to receive the vaccine, the goal is for near-universal coverage to prevent a single case from becoming a larger outbreak. Widespread vaccination will not only mean full stands this fall, it will also protect student-athletes, staff members, support personnel, and others who come in contact with the program. It will reduce, and hopefully eliminate, the weekly uncertainty and disruptions that ruled the 2020 season and ensure the likelihood of a full season.


Post G-Day airs it out

Monday April 19, 2021

Georgia’s search for a fairly routine spring practice successfully wrapped up with the G-Day scrimmage in front of a limited crowd. It was an entertaining game on a perfect afternoon showcasing Georgia’s depth at quarterback, and no major injuries were reported. That would be welcome in any year, but it was an especially enjoyable return to normalcy after the 2020 season. Some key storylines that came from spring practice:

  • George Pickens’s ACL injury left fans wondering whether Georgia now lacked the big play receiver that would allow the offense to realize its full potential. Hope remains that Pickens might return before the end of the regular season, though he might elect to focus on preparation for the 2022 NFL draft.
  • Jermaine Burton had a scare with a knee injury, and the injury situation began to look like a repeat of the carnage of 2013. Fortunately Burton’s injury wasn’t season-ending, but it did keep him out for the rest of the spring.
  • Other receivers Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint and Dominick Blaylock look to be on track to return for 2021.
  • The unsettled secondary should be aided by the transfer of Tykee Smith from West Vriginia. Smith didn’t go through spring practice but should arrive in Athens soon.
  • A record 16 early enrollees went through spring practice. It’s a complete 180 from the offseason of 2020 when there was a new offensive coordinator, an unknown at quarterback, and spring practice was canceled. Almost the entire 2021 team was in Athens for this spring’s organized workouts.
  • The team was far from complete, though. Over a dozen players, including starters like Nakobe Dean, missed some or all of spring practice with injuries. All but Pickens are on track to be ready for the season.

G-Day did little to change the narrative that the offensive line and secondary are the areas to watch heading into the season. That’s good in a way – you don’t want unforeseen problems popping up while addressing the obvious issues that have been front and center for months. Georgia’s strengths looked like strengths: a diversified offense with weapons at quarterback and tailback, promising depth at receiver especially considering those recovering from injuries, and a defensive front that’s going to wreck shop.

QB1

JT Daniels wasn’t even a member of the team at this point a year ago. Since last May, he’s transferred in from USC, took over the starting job in November, and lived up to the massive expectations placed on him after Jamie Newman and D’Wan Mathis didn’t or couldn’t claim the starting job. Georgia needed a big performance from the passing game to beat Mississippi State, and Daniels delivered. He wasn’t perfect in his progressions and showed some odd mechanics, but that’s understandable for a guy coming off knee surgery and who didn’t have much of an offseason with his teammates or a new playcaller. He’s had that experience now, and he looked very much in control of an offense that’s expected to carry Georgia far this season. Daniels showed great arm strength and placement on a touchdown strike to Adonai Mitchell right before halftime. But he was just as comfortable checking down to tailbacks and finding tight ends, displaying more command and comfort in the system than he did in 2020.

Daniels’s comfort goes along with a quarterback room that’s much deeper and and more stable than it was when Daniels arrived. Stetson Bennett, a veteran with SEC starting experience and wins over Auburn, Tennessee, and Kentucky, finds himself in a tough competition to remain the backup. Carson Beck, almost forgotten between last season’s drama and the incoming 5* prospects, began to show the development and maturity coaches hoped to see. This depth will give the coaches the luxury of developing Brock Vandagriff, the touted true freshman, who showed both the rawness and potential that coaches will attempt to hone this season before a likely quarterback competition next year.

Defensive evolution

One name I was especially glad to see called was Devonte Wyatt. It’s not only because he chose to come back; it’s because his role could be a key to defensive success. With so much attention paid to Jordan Davis, other defensive linemen like Wyatt (and Walker and Carter…) will need to come up big, and they’ll have the matchups to do so. Wyatt got good penetration, and he and Walker were credited with two sacks each.

The roles of Wyatt, Walker, Carter, and the other linemen are coupled with how defenses are adjusting to more open and pass-happy offenses. With more nickel and dime personnel on the field, there will be fewer linebackers – especially the outside linebackers who are traditionally the pass rush specialists in a 3-4 base defense. The OLB position is still important; Nolan Smith had a fantastic G-Day. Adam Anderson was less conspicuous, but this scrimmage really wasn’t the setting in which to feature the blitz packages where Anderson’s versatility shines. The point though is that the role of the down linemen in pressure and disruption will increase. We’re used to them absorbing blocks, clogging lanes, and letting the linebackers clean up – contributions that might not show up in the stat sheet.

We should expect to see those linemen become less anonymous going forward. Their talent alone makes them tough to ignore, but their role and the nature of the defense means they could start making as many plays as they help set up for those behind them. Wyatt, Walker, and Zion Logue were right up there with Nolan Smith as G-Day’s sack leaders. With quick-release passes common in RPO-heavy offenses, you often don’t have time to wait for the pass rush to get home. The line of scrimmage has to be disrupted before the quarterback can make a comfortable run/pass decision. Georgia has the personnel to cause that disruption, and we saw on G-Day that it’s not just Jordan Davis.

Work to do

The most positive thing about the situations on the offensive line and in the secondary is that they’re still in flux. That’s to say that Georgia isn’t locked into a certain set of personnel and without options. There’s still time for offseason development and for individuals to make moves before the season. That’s a byproduct of and an advantage from consistently strong recruiting. But at some point coaches will have to make decisions, and G-Day didn’t offer a ton of clarity.

At defensive back Jalen Kimber might have looked more at ease than newcomers Kelee Ringo and Lovasea Carroll, and Nyland Green didn’t see the field. Ringo showed the speed to keep up with some of Georgia’s quicker receivers, and he laid what might have been the biggest hit of the day on Ladd McConkey. We can expect Tykee Smith to be plugged into a big role, and he should provide some stability and experience. Speed, Poole, and especially Brini reminded us last season that there are some experienced seniors who shouldn’t be counted out. The takeaway is that no one player came out of spring as the obvious answer at cornerback.

Georgia has recruited well on the offensive line since 2017, and five years ago we’d be salivating over guys currently running with the second team. What hasn’t happened yet is that talent coalescing into a confident whole. Some of that has to do with coaches still trying various combinations. That might be frustrating to fans watching the process play out in plain sight but is illuminating and useful for coaches. But it might also have to do with some players not making satisfactory progress to lock down their starting role. That leaves a couple of known starters, like Salyer, in limbo as we know he’ll start somewhere but exactly where will depend how other positions shake out. Ideally Salyer would play inside, but coaches would have to feel comfortable with Xavier Truss (or someone else) at left tackle. Truss has made visible progress since the Peach Bowl, but he’s not yet to the point of securing the job. The situation isn’t much more clear inside, and interior run blocking and pass protection wasn’t stellar at G-Day. Salyer could shore that up, but, again, we don’t know if he’ll be needed more at left tackle.

More…

  • You feel for Dan Jackson getting trucked by Washington and blocked into the endzone by Broderick Jones, but Jackson rebounded with a nice ball-hawking interception and showed why coaches have been positive about his future.
  • Again, this wasn’t the day to show off a power running game, but a healthy Kendall Milton makes this an incredibly deep backfield once McIntosh returns. The battle for that third tailback spot will be intense, and the depth gives coaches the option to feature multiple tailbacks if Cook’s role evolves.
  • Cook’s reception on the wheel route was the highlight of a prolific receiving day for the backs. On the other hand, there was some PTSD for seeing Georgia’s defense burned on another wheel route with an OLB in coverage.
  • Adonai Mitchell was a favored target and delivered a big game. He doesn’t have to lead Georgia in receiving; if he has an impact similar to Burton’s impact in 2020, that will go a long way towards easing the loss of Pickens.
  • Darnell Washington might not be 100% yet, but we’re witnessing him going supernova. The unexpected story at TE though might be the debut of Brock Bowers. The QB position has come a long way since last season, but the TE position has also transformed quite a bit since 2019 when Charlie Woerner was the only returning scholarship TE. FitzPatrick, Washington, and Bowers are talented enough to allow coaches a lot of flexibility with the position.
  • Special teams never gets much attention in these scrimmages. It was unfortunate that Zirkel was unable to participate. Camarda filled in as the second-team placekicker and showed good leg strength but not much accuracy. No concern about Camarda’s punting though. Kearis Jackson will be the return man, but McConkey seemed to be someone coaches wanted to get a look at.

Post Taylor’s next challenge: doing it all over again

Saturday April 10, 2021

It was a much-needed season of vindication for Joni Taylor. The canceled 2020 NCAA tournament spared Georgia the ignominy of missing consecutive tournaments for the first time in program history. The 2021 squad was picked to finish where it ended 2020: ninth in the SEC.

The 2021 team, led by a strong senior class, blew past those expectations. The team finished 4th in the SEC, reached the finals of the SEC tournament for the first time since 2004, and received the program’s best NCAA tournament seed since 2007. Taylor, for her part, was named SEC Coach of the Year and earned a contract extension and increase.

The trick though is sustaining that success and progress. Taylor wasn’t able to build on Georgia’s last trip to the NCAA tournament in 2018, and two disappointing seasons followed. Her contract extension says more about belief in Taylor for the future than it does about rewarding recent accomplishments. This can’t be as good as it gets, and no one in the program should feel that Georgia basketball is finally back. To be fair, the fact that we’re mentioning dates like 2004, 2007, 2001 (the last conference title), or even 2013 (the last Sweet 16 and Elite 8 appearances) suggests that the program hasn’t met its own standard for some time. Taylor took over a weakened program, but embracing Georgia’s legacy and making it her own has been a big part of her message. She deserves credit for a season that reminded Georgia fans of past greatness, but these successful seasons can’t be the exceptions.

Sustaining success begins with personnel, and there’s been great news on that front. Two of Georgia’s four key seniors have elected to return for an additional season as allowed by the NCAA. Jenna Staiti and Que Morrison were named honorable-mention All-Americans. Staiti was second team All-SEC, and Morrison was the SEC’s co-defensive player of the year. The return of a dominant post player and the team’s best defender will go a long way towards stability and success in 2022. These two returning post-graduates will join a top-15 recruiting class – the best incoming group since the 2017 class that featured Morrison.

With the return of Staiti and Morrison, Georgia will lose only two of their four key seniors. Maya Caldwell was a capable wing who showed good versatility later in the season dropping down to a more interior role. Georgia has options there: Mikayla Coombs and Sarah Ashlee Barker should see more playing time. The remaining hole is at point guard. Gabby Connally was an extension of Joni Taylor on the court and ran the offense for the better part of her four seasons. There isn’t an obvious replacement lined up, and the solution could come from one of four possibilities:

  • Next man up. Chloe Chapman was recruited as a five-star point guard, but she’s struggled to find playing time while splitting attention between basketball and soccer. There’s no questioning her athleticism, speed, and stamina, but her development as an offensive weapon has been slow. If she’s ever going to become a regular member of the rotation, this seems to be the window of opportunity.
  • The committee approach. Georgia might not have an obvious heir to the point guard position, but they do return several experienced guards. Even incoming freshman Reigan Richardson could contribute to the role.
  • Position change. Georgia’s assists leader last season wasn’t Connally; it was Que Morrison. Mikayla Coombs also had more assists than Connally. That might speak more to the nature of the Georgia offense – Connally often got Georgia into its halfcourt offense, but Georgia’s other guards were more keen to attack the basket. Morrison and Coombs did have issues with turnovers. An offseason dedicated to the nuances of point guard could help either Coombs or Morrison reduce turnovers and make better decisions with the ball.
  • Look for a transfer. The transfer portal is flush with players, and several have point guard experience. Georgia hasn’t been shy about taking an impact transfer (Coombs, Staiti, and Davenport.) Morrison and Staiti won’t count against scholarship limits, so there should be room to bring someone on if there’s a good fit out there. Georgia’s scholarship numbers might be fine, but adding another player creates a very crowded bench. Who comes off the court?

Georgia will enter the offseason with the same staff it’s had since Taylor became head coach. The continuity and stability of Georgia’s coaching staff is almost contrarian and refreshing in a very fluid profession, but it means that fresh ideas and improvement will have to come from within. The SEC won’t stand still, and changes will take place aimed at Georgia’s spot in the standings and their Coach of the Year. Georgia’s position is fragile; a handful of points separated them from an outcome more in line with modest preseason expectations. To their credit, they won those games, and there are plenty of players returning who understand how to compete and win in the SEC. Expectations will be much higher now than they were even a year ago, and exceeding them will be much more difficult. This is an inflection point for Taylor and the program: will the success of the 2021 season be the foundation for growth, or was it another peak in a series of valleys?


Post Smith transfers in: the sequel

Wednesday April 7, 2021

One of Kirby Smart’s first roster moves as Georgia’s head coach was securing the transfer of Alabama defensive back Maurice Smith. While graduate transfer rules had been around for a while, Smith’s desire to move within the conference developed into a dispute between Georgia, Alabama, and the SEC. The Bulldogs eventually prevailed, and Smith joined the Bulldog secondary in time for the 2016 season. Smith only played at Georgia for that one season, but he was an important piece of that 2016 defense and helped ease the unit’s transition into its dominant 2017 form. If that’s not enough, he made the play that turned around the 2016 upset win over Auburn.

Smith was successful at Georgia in large part due to his familiarity with the defensive system Kirby Smart and Mel Tucker brought with them from Alabama. That familiarity allowed him to step right in without much learning curve and make the most of his limited remaining eligibility. What’s more, he was able to help teammates understand what the coaches were trying to communicate and expect as those teammates got up to speed in a complex new defensive scheme. For his contributions on the field and as a leader, Smith was named one of the 2016 team’s four permanent captains despite spending less than a year as a member of the team.

Georgia again finds itself thin in the secondary heading into 2021. And as in 2016 Kirby Smart is banking on an experienced transfer named Smith to make a difference. West Virginia defensive back Tykee Smith announced that he’ll transfer to Georgia. Smith was a two-year starter for the Mountaineers and earned third team All-American honors in 2020 when he had two interceptions and 61 tackles (eight for loss.) Should the NCAA approve a blanket one-time transfer exemption for 2021 as expected, Smith would be immediately eligible at Georgia.

Like Maurice Smith, Tykee Smith projects as a Star (or nickel) defensive back at Georgia. The Bulldogs have questions and inexperience all over the secondary, but Star is a particular need. Mark Webb graduated and Tyrique Stevenson transferred, and the situation was dire enough that coaches were giving outside linebacker Adam Anderson a look at the position. Anderson is a gifted athlete, but covering slot receivers might not be his optimal role. We know that defense is evolving to feature more nickel looks to counter modern offenses heavy on the pass and RPOs. Being able to plug in a proven defensive back makes that evolution a little easier for Georgia without putting them in awkward personnel situations.

There’s another parallel to 2016: Georgia isn’t bringing in a new staff and scheme, but they are welcoming a new defensive backs coach. Jahmile Addae was Smith’s position coach at West Virginia, and their history together made Georgia a logical landing spot for Smith. Though Addae won’t be installing a new scheme, he’ll likely have his tweaks to technique and how he coaches his players. Smith can help his teammates anticipate what Addae expects. At the same time, Addae will understand how to coach Smith and should make Smith’s transition to Georgia’s system easier than it would be for a player arriving without a rapport with his position coach.

If Tykee Smith can have the impact Maurice Smith had on Georgia’s defense, it will have been a very worthwhile addition to the roster. Maurice Smith provided stability and leadership while a revamped defense found its stride. If Tykee Smith can do the same, it might be enough to keep a young secondary from holding back a team with championship aspirations.


Post Daring to look forward to an almost-normal spring

Wednesday March 17, 2021

Georgia’s 2021 spring practice began this week. A full spring practice is the first sign of a return to normalcy for the 2021 season, and we hope the team is able to see it through until G-Day. As with any normal spring we’re excited to get a look at the newcomers and how the team will take shape. Georgia should again be favored to take the SEC East, and the schedule sets itself up for the team to be in the playoff discussion. Here are a couple of areas worth watching through the spring and summer as we see if the program can take a step forward.

Keeping the band together. Even before the Sugar Bowl win over Baylor, the program knew that a significant transition was underway. By the time the dust cleared, just about every element of the offense would change from 2019 to 2020. Then came the pandemic. A new coordinator would have to install his offense with a new quarterback (himself new to the program), and it would have to happen without spring practice, over Zoom calls, and then during the limited contact allowed after June. Then shortly before the season, that quarterback opted out. The process started over again, and just one game into the season it started yet again.

Fans welcomed the changes after 2019, but the hope for 2021 is continuity. Georgia has already survived two big challenges to that continuity. First, key draft-eligible players on the offense – among them Daniels, White, Salyer, and Cook – chose to remain in the program. Second, the offensive coaching staff remains intact. It wouldn’t have been unprecedented for Todd Monken to jump back to the NFL after one season (see Joe Brady.) Dell McGee heads up the successful Georgia running game and can recruit with the best. Matt Luke could be tempted at another head coaching offer. Any assistant – offense, defense, or special teams – with experience at a top-level program like Georgia is going to be considered when openings come up. Georgia did well to keep these assistants happy and on board for another season.

So Georgia’s offensive overhaul gets what it didn’t have in 2020: the opportunity for a spring and offseason of work with stable personnel and coaching. There are still threats to that stability: the transfer portal never closes, and injuries could disrupt reps and conditioning work or even cost a season. But those are realities for any team, and Georgia is as well-positioned as any to make the most of a full offseason. We should expect a benefit, but will it show up soon enough to make a difference against Clemson?

How will the defense evolve? For the second straight season, Georgia’s defense finished the season #1 in Bill Connelly’s (ESPN) SP+ metric. But for the second straight season, elite offenses that went on to the postseason gave Georgia plenty of trouble. Is there a defensive response to the explosive offenses that now dominate the top of college football? Focusing in on one position – outside linebacker – might tell us which way that wind is blowing.

The outside linebacker has been the glamour position in the 3-4 defense since Lawrence Taylor terrorized NFL quarterbacks in the 1980s. Since Georgia switched to a 3-4 look in 2010 under Todd Grantham, outside linebackers from Justin Houston to Azeez Ojulari have been some of the standouts of the Bulldog defense and some of its higher draft picks. The position has also been the highlight of Georgia’s top-rated signing classes under Kirby Smart. The question now though is how to get them on the field.

Nolan Smith was considered a top five prospect in the nation two years ago. Adam Anderson was the subject of a fierce recruiting battle between Georgia and LSU. Against Mississippi State, Anderson played on 23% of possible plays. Smith played on 18%. Against South Carolina, it was 17% for Smith and 15% for Anderson. That’s not meant as a criticism of Smart’s scheme or substitution patterns; depth allows you to use players in situations that play to their strengths. It’s tough to argue with the results: Georgia was again at the top of the SP+ defensive rankings in 2020.

As Seth Emerson wrote in December (via Blutarsky), “the snaps have in fact gone down for outside linebackers because of the prevalence of passing attacks in the SEC, necessitating more nickel and dime formations by Georgia.” Georgia’s base defense even on standard downs might only have one outside linebacker on the field. Obvious passing situations allow for a sub package with multiple OLBs, but that comes with its own tradeoffs and isn’t a three-down strategy.

Of course attention will be on the secondary due to uncertain personnel and numbers. But the secondary and OLB questions go hand-in-hand. The trend might be towards more nickel and dime at the expense of outside linebackers, but that might not suit Georgia’s strengths. If tight numbers strain Georgia’s secondary, how might it dip in to its deep pool of talent at other positions? Can the pass rush help to compensate for inexperience at other levels? While the offense will use the spring to reinforce the changes introduced last season, the defense will try to find its best groups of personnel to adapt to modern offenses.

Who will be available? Not many people expected the 2020 quarterback situation to play out as it did. We knew about J.T. Daniels’ knee injury but assumed a normal recovery timetable. As the season wore on, impatient fans questioned why each week came and went without Daniels making his debut. The answer, as much as we didn’t like it, was that he just wasn’t ready yet. The starting quarterback is the highest-profile position on the team, so a constant Daniels Watch was unavoidable. Other positions receive less scrutiny. Players simply don’t see the field – or see it much less than we might expect. Arian Smith flew under the radar until his own November debut. Players like Monty Rice played as much as they could through lingering injuries that never quite healed up.

Anthony Dasher counts about 10 Bulldogs who will miss or be limited during spring including a few starters like Nakobe Dean. Most of these injuries will clear up, and some might even clear up during spring. Coaches might favor caution and keep others out of contact until preseason practice. And still others will linger on into the season, disrespecting the calendar of the season. Every so often these injuries become chronic, like Jonathan Ledbetter’s Achilles, and hamper the player for several seasons.

With the questions surrounding the secondary this offseason, the defense is counting on Kelee Ringo to provide some answers. Ringo was a gem in the 2020 signing class but missed the season due to preseason labrum surgery. He’s not quite cleared for spring practice, though he’s among those who might make it back before G-Day. Ringo might or might not have an immediate impact, but right now his availability for the season could be as important for the secondary as Daniels’ availability was for the offense last year. It’s not just what Ringo brings to the position. Ringo’s availability will determine what happens with the other unsettled positions in the secondary. If his recovery drags beyond spring and closer to preseason camp, it could begin to affect the outlook for the season.