Sony Michel is expected to be out 6-8 weeks after breaking his arm last weekend. That timetable has him back just before the season opener, but it’s worth remembering that it’s 6-8 weeks until he’ll be cleared for participation, and his return to playing form could take a while longer. We trust that the medical staff will be working with Michel to minimize weakness and atrophy and expect that Michel will play with a cast or brace for a few weeks. It wouldn’t be the first time.
All that’s to say that even if Michel is cleared and plays in the opener, he’ll probably be in a similar situation to Chubb: medically cleared but closely supervised, protected, and even limited. That has obvious direct bearing on the tailback situation – Brendan Douglas and a handful of freshmen (redshirt and true) might play a larger role in the early part of the season. Douglas himself had offseason wrist surgery, but he was able to participate in spring practice.
But beyond the tailback position the availability of Michel and Chubb will impact other roster decisions and even the identity of Georgia’s offense. A diminished (or at least unproven) rushing threat will place additional pressure on a passing game with questions of its own. Determining the receiver depth chart behind Godwin will be a priority of preseason camp. Tight ends look to be a potential strength, but they’ll have to be far more productive than a year ago.
Will the tailback situation and Michel’s status affect the quarterback competition? With a potential lack of experience at both tailback and receiver, you might lean towards a quarterback with starting experience. Lambert won ten games as a starter and dramatically improved his TD/INT rate. The offense wasn’t nearly as productive, but it also didn’t make the crippling mistakes that cost games. That unaesthetic formula got the team to ten wins despite Chubb’s injury and coaching turmoil.
Keep in mind that we’re not talking about a long-term solution, and we recognize that the team could undergo quite a transformation from the beginning of the season to its end. At this point I’m more interested in getting to the Ole Miss-Tennessee stretch when Georgia should be healthier and more potent at tailback and more settled at quarterback.
What gives me pause about Lambert as the “safe” option is, of all things, the 2013 Vanderbilt game. It’s not necessarily because of the loss (special teams had plenty to do with that); it’s the way Vanderbilt defended Georgia. Without Gurley and Marshall and with several receivers sidelined, Georgia simultaneously lacked a strong running game and a deep threat. Sound familiar? Vandy didn’t sell out against the run but were able to limit the Dawgs to just 107 rushing yards. With no deep options in the passing game, it felt as if Aaron Murray were trying to throw in a phone booth. Completions came in small, frustrating chunks, and Murray’s 4.1 yards/attempt has to have represented one of his least productive game.
So entering 2016, I wonder if Georgia’s probable tailback roster can take advantage of an expected weakness in the UNC rush defense. If not, Gene Chizik will likely follow that Vanderbilt plan and force Georgia to make plays downfield. That challenge lends itself not to Lambert but to other quarterbacks on the roster. There could be risks – the inconsistency of Ramsey or the inexperience of Eason – but the alternative is a stagnant offense against an opponent that can put up some points.
The less likely Chubb and Michel can play a significant role in the opener, the more likely we are to see Eason. Lost production from the backfield will have to come from the passing game, and I think we’ll need more than we saw towards the end of 2015. Kirby Smart, as a new coach, has the goodwill to take that kind of risk in the opener, and he’ll then have two winnable games to prepare the offense for what could be the toughest stretch of the season.