Since 1995 - Insightful commentary on the Georgia Bulldogs

Post Wynn wins the Senior Bowl

Saturday January 27, 2018

Think back to about a year ago. Coming off a lackluster 2016 season, one of Georgia’s biggest questions was at offensive line. The line underperformed in 2016 and lost several starters. One of those starters was a stopgap left tackle, and the fact that Georgia’s best option at that key position was a graduate transfer from Rhode Island (with its implied “of all places”) summed up not only the state of the 2016 line but also the level of talent available to the new staff. Not only would line coach Sam Pittman have to piece together functional lines with the current roster, he’d also have a big replenishment job ahead in recruiting.

Georgia began to take care of that recruiting imperative with the 2017 class. Georgia landed three of the nation’s top 20 linemen, and analysts concluded that “no position group will receive a bigger upgrade from this (2017) class than the offensive line.” The class had depth and quality. Perhaps most important was the best collection of incoming tackles Georgia had seen in recent memory. Two of the top three freshman signees were tackles, and another signee was the #2 junior college prospect at tackle. Many, including myself, expected Georgia’s 2017 starting line to include two of these three tackles.

So when Isaiah Wynn all but declared himself the starting left tackle after the 2017 spring practice, it wasn’t taken very seriously. Wynn had been a guard on that 2016 line and at 6’2″ was several inches shorter than a prototypical tackle. It’s not that Wynn didn’t have experience at tackle. The 2015 Florida game caused many changes in the program, and an immediate reshuffle of the offensive line was among them. Wynn finished the 2015 season at left tackle (all games won by Georgia, by the way) but was moved back inside when Pittman arrived with Kirby Smart. Wynn did play at left tackle in Georgia’s Liberty Bowl win, but Georgia was dealing with an injury to the starter. Wynn was a candidate at tackle for 2017 and would start out there during spring, but the assumption was that he was there as a placeholder until one of the newcomers took over.

We know how assumptions work out. 2017 held three big surprises at the tackle position: 1) the Isaiah who became an anchor at left tackle was Wynn and not Wilson, 2) not only did Wilson and JUCO D’Marcus Hayes not claim a starting job, both redshirted in 2017, and 3) the one freshman from this class who did earn a starting job was Andrew Thomas – perhaps the least heralded of the three incoming tackles (though as a 4* and U.S. Army All-American certainly no slouch). If you had predicted those three outcomes after Signing Day, many fans (at least those who didn’t laugh in your face), would have wondered why this touted group of 2017 OL signees turned out to be such a bust.

The 2017 season of course had little to do with any shortcomings of the signing class. Wynn turned out to be an anchor. Thomas picked up the system quickly and stood out as early as preseason practice. Georgia was able to draw on its depth (imagine that!) and promote Ben Cleveland at guard. Wilson struggled with acclimation, and Georgia’s top guard signee Netori Johnson had a more serious physical issue to overcome. Both should be very much in the mix going forward. With another impressive class of linemen on the way in 2018, there will be no shortage of depth or competition for playing time.

But back to Wynn. He’s getting noticed this week at practices for Saturday’s Senior Bowl. He was named the top offensive lineman of the week and is drawing praise and attention from people in a position to earn him quite a high draft pick and a large rookie contract.

Sure enough, Wynn is back at guard this week. The NFL has enough guys at the “right” size to play tackle to take a flyer on someone like Wynn. He’s proving in Senior Bowl practice that he’ll do just fine back on the inside. But for Georgia he was just what the Dawgs needed at left tackle. He was a big reason why Georgia’s prolific running game took off and also a key to Jake Fromm’s progress and success as a true freshman quarterback.

(Since I began this post talking about 2016, how about this thought exercise? Wynn held his own at tackle at the end of 2015 as Georgia won its last five with a run-focused offense. Tyler Catalina struggled at tackle for Georgia, but he’s made an NFL active roster as a guard. Would the 2016 line have fared better had Wynn and Catalina exchanged positions? Was that a rare mistake by Pittman? Certainly there were adjustments to the new staff in 2016, and Pittman had to make the best out of the roster he had. It’s just one of those hypothetical what-ifs that fans have the luxury of asking.)

Post Saban’s calculated gamble

Thursday January 11, 2018

Alabama’s quarterback switcheroo in the title game was fascinating enough in the context of the game, but it also gives Georgia fans a lot to think about concerning our own group of quarterbacks.

Jacob Eason’s unfortunate injury in the opener made it a moot point, but Georgia’s quarterback situation loosely resembled Alabama’s at the start of the season. There was an established second-year starter and a promising newcomer waiting in the wings. Jake Fromm wasn’t quite as highly rated as Tua Tagovailoa, but Fromm’s performance at G-Day and in preseason camp led to more than a couple of questions about how Kirby Smart would find playing time for his true freshman.

Eason’s injury reversed the situation. Smart chose to stick with his freshman, and Saban continued to start the established sophomore. There was a difference in how each program worked in the backup. Eason attempted four passes the rest of the year (and none beyond the Vanderbilt game) after returning from his injury. Alabama continued to find playing time for Tagovailoa who attempted 77 passes in 2017. While Fromm’s position as the starter became more and more certain as the season went on, the idea of starting Tagovailoa threatened to grow beyond the fringes of the Alabama fan base especially after Alabama’s offense struggled against Auburn.

Tagovailoa was unknown to people who didn’t watch much Alabama football, but he threw passes in seven regular season games, attempted nearly a quarter of the team’s passes, and accounted for just under 40% of the team’s passing touchdowns. He was unfamiliar but not unready or unproven. Georgia’s coaches were aware of and, going by Smart’s postgame comments, even prepared for the possibility of seeing him. Would Fromm have been in a similar state of readiness had Eason remained the starter?

Thinking about that in the Eason/Fromm context now is a little pointless, but it becomes a little more relevant in 2018. Georgia will once again have a promising and capable true freshman, and Justin Fields will bring a skill set that will give the coaches some options. It remains to be seen how Fields and Fromm will measure up in terms of arm strength, accuracy, preparation, and even leadership, but Fields’ mobility is a unique attribute.

I’m not beating the drum for a quarterback controversy days after Jake Fromm led his team to the national title game. But when the situation and matchup convinced Saban to take a risk with everything on the line, he didn’t hesitate, and Tagovailoa was ready. I admit that’s the first place my mind went when I saw Alabama’s quarterback change. Would Smart be willing to take such a calculated risk if he had a reason to do so? And how would Georgia fans receive a change like that? Would the reaction be outcome-based, or would they understand the coach’s attempt to match personnel and situation? In hindsight, Saban’s move was genius only after Tagovailoa made an improbable third down escape to spark Alabama’s first scoring drive. Were those missed Georgia tackles the difference between a desperate and failed experiment and validation of Saban’s bold move?

Fields hasn’t suited up yet, so I know this is getting ahead of ourselves. One of the more impressive things about 2017 was how Georgia players of all levels of experience were ready when called on. That’s a credit both to the coaches and the players. Crowder was ready for the most obscure possibility in the Rose Bowl. Ridley was ready to step up with Wims injured in the title game. Even after clinching a division title, the staff made a change on the offensive line to make the offense that much better for the postseason. We forget that Fromm himself is an example of readiness. Eason’s injury could have been a deflating disaster, but the staff (with Fromm’s hard work) had the freshman ready to step in right away and then prepared him for the challenge of the Notre Dame game. I don’t know how Smart will approach the quarterback position next year, but I’m confident that he won’t be caught unprepared.

Post How playoff games are won

Wednesday January 3, 2018

It’s going to take some time to process the Rose Bowl. It’s surely a classic, and it’s place among the great Rose Bowls will have to be debated by people who have watched a lot more Pac 12 / Big 10 football than I have. And we really don’t have time to dwell on it, because the win opens up an opportunity to play for something even bigger in less than a week. When you’re in the middle of an emotional roller-coaster of a game, all you have are disjointed reactions until we have time in a few weeks to sort all of this out. Because it would take volumes to do justice to this game, it’s all I can do to focus on one player: sophomore wide receiver Tyler Simmons.

Simmons played occasionally in 2017 as a reserve receiver. He had two catches for 17 yards during the regular season and hadn’t caught a pass since the Samford game. With Jayson Stanley suspended for the game, Simmons was called on more often in the Rose Bowl. The first time we saw him was in the first quarter when he caught a first down pass just short of the marker. A subsequent penalty killed the drive and led to a missed FG, but who thought we’d get into scoring position on consecutive passes to Charlie Woerner followed by Tyler Simmons’ first reception since September?

Simmons made a bigger play in the third quarter. Georgia faced a punt near midfield and hoped to pin the Sooners deep. Stanley was often a gunner on punt coverage, and Simmons filled the role on this punt. He sprinted down the sideline and made a clean stop of a rolling ball just shy of the goal line. Oklahoma was able to punch the ball out with a couple of runs, but they remained on their side of the field due to the starting field position. Georgia’s defense bounced back with a couple of sacks, and the comeback rolled on. After a shaky start that featured a short punt and a missed field goal, Georgia’s special teams was as good as it’s been all season in the second half. Simmons’ play on that punt was one of several big moments in the kicking game.

There’s one more highlight featuring Simmons, and it’s a play we’re going to rewatch for years. Look at the receiver personnel on Georgia’s final play. It wasn’t the usual Wims, Godwin, Hardman, or Ridley. It was Crumpton, Blount, and Simmons. Three guys with a total of eight receptions between them. We’ve seen Georgia use a similar grouping on run plays throughout the season. Again Simmons took the place of the suspended Stanley in the formation. Wynn got out in front of the play. Nauta helped Baker seal off the inside. Fromm – Fromm! – sustained a block on the outside cornerback to open up the lane. Simmons, lined up in the slot, got to the secondary and disrupted a defensive back long enough for Michel to get past.

Why focus on Simmons? Georgia needed its stars to come up big, and of course they did. The Dawgs wouldn’t have won without Michel or Smith or Chubb or Fromm or Carter doing what they do. Georgia has never lacked for that star talent even in the lean years. Teams compete for championships though when their star players are augmented by others up and down the roster doing their jobs. As Georgia’s recruiting picks up, you’re going to have talented players outside of the starting lineup called on to fill roles even on special teams or in situational packages. There can be no dead weight. Every active player on this team has the opportunity to contribute. The flip side is that everyone must be ready to contribute when that opportunity presents itself. Tyler Simmons was. Tae Crowder was.

OK…one last Simmons clip from Cole Cubelic. Ouch.