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Post Positional heat check

Tuesday August 29, 2017

It’s game week! Preseason camp is over, and the team is well into opponent preparation. After all of the news reports and tidbits I’ve picked up over the past month, this is my sense of how the various position groups are faring heading into the season.

Offensive line: Lukewarm

If you were counting on definitive answers along the offensive line to make you feel better about the 2017 season, you’re going to be waiting for a while. The combination of newcomers, minor injuries, and the sheer number of open spots on the first and second team lines means that there are still decisions to be made. That’s maddening to fans looking for resolution to the team’s biggest question, and Kirby Smart is in no hurry to announce anything decisive. Though there hasn’t been and likely won’t be official confirmation, a starting line has begun to coalesce. There are nuggets of good news – Isaiah Wynn has looked to be the veteran anchor he was expected to be. True freshman Andrew Thomas has been a pleasant surprise and might even start. But as for nailing down specific positions and the depth chart? Ask us again in the second quarter of the App. State game.

The bright side? There is finally enough depth to have a legitimate competition. In less than three weeks, Georgia will have to name a traveling roster for the Notre Dame trip. Assuming there are 10 offensive linemen on the travel roster, there are about 11 or 12 players competing for those 10 spots. Some familiar names might be left off that list. In fact, given how fluid the composition of the line might be over the next couple of weeks, the battle for a coveted trip to South Bend might be more interesting than the competition to be a week one starter.

The big question remains how the line will perform. It was underwhelming at G-Day, but we were reassured that the incoming class would help. Thomas and perhaps Isaiah Wilson could crack the rotation, but the lines we’ve seen in practice have largely been returning players. In some sense, that’s a positive – the fewer freshmen linemen that play, the better, even when you’re talking about one of the best OL recruiting hauls in the nation. On the other hand, you’re relying on the development of players who either contributed to last season’s sub-par line or weren’t able to unseat those who did play. That development should be aided by another year with Sam Pittman, and it’s the first time since 2014 that a Georgia team will have the same line coach and blocking approach for consecutive seasons.

Tailbacks: Surface of the sun

Take a returning group of Chubb, Michel, Herrien, and Holyfield. Add true freshman D’Andre Swift, who was turning heads early in fall camp, and you have one solid unit. When the big question for the tailbacks is who gets the carries after the first two guys, you can feel pretty good about the position.

Quarterbacks: Throwing more logs on the fire

The team replaced Lambert with another touted freshman, and Ramsey is back in the fold as a quarterback rather than a punter. Let’s not assume just yet that the position is in a better spot than it was a year ago. Fromm’s potentially more talented than Lambert, but Fromm is far less experienced and would have to go through the same growing pains Eason experienced a year ago. So whether the QB position is in better shape seems to hang on the progress of Eason. That progress is…ongoing. There have been good moments, but we’re still a ways from feeling as confident about the position as we are about the tailbacks. Fromm, for his part, has been fairly anonymous. That’s a good thing as far as snuffing out any kind of manufactured controversy. He hasn’t struggled any more than you’d expect, but he also hasn’t overtaken Eason. That’s fine – he’s a good true freshman quarterback who will be brought along as such. As with the tailbacks, it’s worth watching who comes off the bench. With Fromm a redshirt candidate until he plays, do things go well enough that Ramsey can handle the rest?

Tight ends: Simmering

Nauta, Blazevich, and Woerner are all a year older. It’s an experienced and healthy group. We’ve been proclaiming “The Year of the Tight End” for what seems like three or four years now, and it’s unlikely that Georgia will have a better combination of depth, talent, and experience for a couple of seasons. Don’t forget about Harris and Davis either. Now it’s up to the coaches to use them.

Receivers: Warming up

Jacob Eason didn’t have a ton with which to work a year ago, and it was a mixed blessing that Isaiah McKenzie became a favorite target. McKenzie was a capable playmaker and will be missed, but Georgia still lacked much of a deep threat or physical outside receivers. With much of the same group back, is there hope for improvement? Start with Javon Wims – the 6’4″ JUCO transfer had a typical JUCO adjustment and recorded just two receptions through the first six games. He added 15 receptions in the back half of the season. Terry Godwin, a former 5* prospect, has been a steady contributor since his freshman season but recognizes the need to play a larger role. Chigbu and Stanley have been known more for their blocking, but this is their best opportunity to earn playing time a some of Georgia’s larger receivers before younger receivers develop. Riley Ridley showed us what he can do at times as a freshman, but consistency and personal discipline will determine whether he’s a breakout star in 2017.

Newcomers should be able to contribute early. Ahkil Crumpton is a JUCO known mostly for his kick return ability, but he’ll also be an option for several of the McKenzie-type plays. Mark Webb’s size should get him on the field on special teams as well as at receiver. J.J. Holloman electrified the crowd at G-Day, but he’s been quiet in August as he cautiously rehabilitates a hamstring injury. Don’t be surprised to see him contribute with relatively little fanfare.

An issue is what seems like a glut of talent in the slot. Crumpton, Godwin, and Hardman are cut from similar cloth. It will be a challenge for the coaches to keep them involved and still have the personnel on the field to improve the vertical passing game. Godwin has the experience and talent to line up outside on certain plays. Any of these slot receivers, in addition to Michel, Swift, and Herrien, could feature in the Wildcat, on jet sweeps, or just about any play in the book designed to get the ball into space.

Defensive line: A rolling boil

This is a fun group to think about, and new position coach Tray Scott has to be excited. Thompson, Atkins, and Ledbetter are enough to make you smile, but then you remember Rochester, Marshall, Carter, Hawkins-Muckle, Young, and Clark. Chauncey Manac can contribute at DE in pass situations. There’s depth, and it’s good depth. Malik Herring, a key member of the 2017 signing class, might have to be a redshirt candidate. With Thompson, this group can be very effective against the run. The first order of business is conditioning: it’s nice to have a deep rotation, but some of the linemen need to make themselves available for more snaps when the team needs their skills in the game. The next step is to become a more disruptive group on pass plays.

Linebackers: On the back burner

We’ve heard quite a bit from and about Lorenzo Carter in the preseason. Good things. But how often have you seen the names Roquan Smith or Natrez Patrick in practice or scrimmage reports this month? If linebackers were an unknown, that would be a sign to worry. Because we know plenty about Carter, Smith, Patrick, and Bellamy, no news is good news. Reserves D’Andre Walker and Chauncey Manac will contribute depth on the outside, and Tae Crowder and Jaleel Laguins will try to hold off some talented freshmen on the inside. Several in this group can be moved around and matched up depending on the opponent. If there’s a doubt about this group, it’s the same as the defensive line: can all of this talent generate a more effective pass rush?

Secondary: Cold front?

The outlook was sunny for Georgia’s veteran defensive backfield. Though they’d be replacing the production of Mo Smith and lost some reserves to attrition, the group still had enough experience and returning starters to get by – barely. An injury to Malkom Parrish caused a sudden chill in the optimism. Without Parrish for the first couple of games, Georgia will have to shuffle its secondary and play inexperience underclassmen or perhaps even true freshmen. There is competition among that young talent though, and coaches have been pleased with the newcomers. Safety J.R. Reed could follow Jake Ganus and Mo Smith in a line of transfers who make an immediate contribution to the defense. The duration of Parrish’s absence will have a lot to say about the composition of this group after the first couple of weeks, but it might be a matter of time before we see more significant playing time for freshmen Richard LeCounte III or Deangelo Gibbs.

Special teams: Thawing

Georgia’s 2016 struggles on special teams began in the season opener and rarely let up. There was the occasional bright spot (Blankenship at Kentucky), but even the Human Joystick dropped off until the UL-M game. Punting fell to a reserve quarterback. That’s enough about last year.

We might see a new set of kickers thanks to a pair of graduate transfers. Fans got a glimpse of punter Cameron Nizialek at G-Day, and he seems in position to start the season. David Marvin is neck-and-neck with Rodrigo Blankenship for placekicking, and the two might split placekicking and kickoff duties. The departures of Reggie Davis and Isaiah McKenzie mean that we’ll see new returners as well. JUCO transfer Ahkil Crumpton was a mid-summer addition to the team and will try to fill in for McKenzie as both a returner and receiver. Mecole Hardman and Terry Godwin are also possibilities for kick returns.

Coverage units should benefit from Georgia’s strong recruiting. A large, fast Nate McBride charging down the field on kick coverage would be an impressive sight. The only way some talented newcomers like McBride might make the limited travel roster is on special teams. There is competition for those special teams roles among young defenders and even tailbacks and receivers. As Smart fills out his 85-man roster and improves the quality of depth, that quality will begin to show up on special teams. There’s too much turnover among the specialists – kickers and returners – to justify confidence in special teams heading into the season, but there’s at least hope that it won’t be the train wreck that it was a year ago.



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