With Signing Day upon us, it will soon be time to start talking about how all of these new pieces will fit into the program. The larger trend – and our own 2015 experience – is for more and more true freshmen to see playing time. The combination of incoming talent and opportunities on the depth chart lead you to think that the trend will continue at Georgia in 2016.
Quarterback is one position where opportunity and talent have fans looking to a newcomer. Now that Jacob Eason has enrolled, the next question seems to be when, not if, he becomes the starter. There’s been some idle offseason talk on the radio and message boards about the best way to proceed – do you throw him to the wolves right away, or do we see a gradual transition (with the obligatory mention of 2006)?
At the same time, we’re all watching the recovery and rehab of Nick Chubb. While we have no indication that the process is anything but on-schedule, Georgia’s coaches might face a similar decision: even if cleared to play, do you ease Chubb back in with someone like Michel getting the bulk of the carries, or is Chubb the workhorse out of the gate?
Whatever your own thoughts on those topics, I think most of us would admit that there is a nonzero chance that Georgia begins 2016 without Eason and Chubb in the starting lineup.
How does that possibility affect your outlook for 2016? If you saw a backfield of Lambert and Michel trot out against UNC, would your expectations change? What if September – with UNC and two SEC road games – came and went before Eason and Chubb were starters?
The Chubb situation seems to be straightforward: if he’s physically able, he’ll be in there. That doesn’t just mean that the knee is sound – he’ll also be playing catch-up with conditioning. It could be, say, the Ole Miss game before he’s able to carry the load of 20+ carries. Knee injuries are unpredictable, and the range of possibilities is everything from a full recovery to the dreaded scenario where he never regains that highest level of performance.
Eason’s path to the starting job could be a little less linear. Fans expect it’s sooner than later. The process will play itself out in spring and summer. Coaches will use the term “best chance to win.” All quarterbacks – Eason, Lambert, and, yes, Ramsey too – will have a chance to impress the new staff.
Why might the coaches hold Eason back? Start with Greyson Lambert throwing just two interceptions in 2015.
If Brian Schottenheimer deserves credit for one thing, it’s this: Lambert went from a 10/11 TD/INT ratio at Virginia to a 12/2 ratio at Georgia. That improvement wasn’t accidental. Now it’s true that this improvement came at the cost of severely limiting the passing offense – Lambert wasn’t asked to make Aaron Murray’s throws, and the passing game wasn’t nearly as productive. He also threw a few suspect passes that would’ve/should’ve/could’ve been picked off, but they weren’t.
Given a good defense, the coaches chose and eventually settled on the quarterback who didn’t make the back-breaking mistake. It wasn’t enough to get Georgia a championship, but it did get them to 10 wins. That approach carried the team through the turmoil of the second half of the season and led to five straight wins to close out 2015.
So if you’re Kirby Smart coming over from the ultimate game-management program, you’re conditioned to appreciate a quarterback who won’t put your defense in a tight spot. (You also appreciate championships and quarterbacks who can make plays.) That’s part of the decision: if you think you can navigate Georgia’s tough early schedule by minimizing mistakes (at the expense of production) in the passing game and get by following the 2015 model, Eason might not be the best choice. If, though, you anticipate that the offense is going to have to win a couple of these games, you might risk the inexperienced gunslinger.
Chubb’s availability could also factor into the quarterback decision. With Chubb, the running game could be the focus of a fairly productive offense. Without Chubb, Michel and Douglas are the only returning backs with experience. There will also be some changes on the line. Michel proved himself to be a capable 1,000-yard back, but the offense wasn’t nearly as dynamic as it was when Michel’s versatility was on display in the first month of the season. Without Chubb and a deep pool of backs, you might need to ask for more from the passing game right away and accept the risks that come with it.
We often see teams change over the course of a season. Sometimes (2013) it’s for the worse as injuries or off-field incidents cut short a promising season. Other times (2007) teams find themselves and make a run late in the season. Unless the Dawgs get fairly lucky and both of these playmakers are ready to go on September 3rd, the identity of the 2016 team could change in a big way. How late (or early) in the season that transition occurs and how well the team and coaches manage it will have a lot to say about how we remember Kirby Smart’s first season as head coach.