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Post Preseason pessimism? In 2019?

Thursday July 11, 2019

Preseason magazines have been out for weeks or even months, and we’ve had time to digest how the pundits view the Dawgs this year. (Short answer: pretty good!) Most expect at least another SEC East title, and more than a few have Georgia back in the playoffs. In practical terms, that either means an undefeated regular season (making the outcome of the SECCG more or less irrelevant) or an outright SEC championship. Not a bad year in either case.

We’re in that brief lull now between Independence Day and Media Days, the unofficial start of football season, so maybe it’s a good time for one last sober look at things before the preseason news machine really gets going. Seth Emerson’s got things started off with a painful reminder of some of the close calls and what-ifs ($) of the past decade. We’ll see whether this team joins that list. I’m actually pretty high on the team’s prospects, but it’s worth going through position-by-position and looking at some of the potential stumbling blocks that we would look back on as reasons why the 2019 team didn’t meet expectations.

Injuries go without saying, and all bets are off with a 2013-style epidemic. Still, Georgia is deep enough at some positions to weather the inevitable injury, and occasionally an injury can open the door for a younger player who just needed an opportunity. At other positions, depth *is* the story, and we’ll be sweating the health of a couple of starters all season.

Quarterback: With D’wan Mathis’s availability in question, Georgia’s quarterback depth is as precarious as it was last season. The difference is that you’re replacing Justin Fields with Stetson Bennett. Bennett has experience in the Georgia system but hasn’t seen more than mop-up duty. He’s earned the respect of teammates, and it’s likely he would have earned the backup role over a true freshman even if Mathis were cleared to play. Still, Georgia hasn’t had this much uncertainty in its backup QB since maybe 2015.

As for Jake Fromm, is there anything left to prove after two seasons at the helm? He’s been outstanding within Georgia’s system, and he improved his production and efficiency last season while maintaining a solid 9 yards per attempt. Fromm hasn’t been asked to do much more because, let’s face it, the run-heavy system has worked much more often than not. Has Fromm had his defining moment yet? I’ll always come back to this amazing play against Oklahoma or the pass to Wims that set up the winning FG at Notre Dame. This year I’d like to see Fromm put things on his shoulders when things aren’t going so well in the running game. Defenses will challenge him and the passing game by selling out against the run, and it will be up to Fromm to elevate an inexperienced but talented group of receivers. Let’s put it bluntly: Georgia hasn’t managed a point or even a drive longer than 28 yards in the fourth quarter of the past two games against Alabama. Can Fromm and the Georgia offense find a way to close out their biggest games this year?

Tailback: I can’t even feign pessimism about Swift, so we’ll focus on what would come after. Herrien has proven to be a solid role player especially as a receiver out of the backfield. James Cook turned heads in practice as a true freshman, but he found it tough to earn carries outside of garbage time behind Holyfield and Swift. Cook is also coming off ankle surgery. Kenny McIntosh is the lone incoming freshman – a big, physical back with purported pass-catching skills. Then there’s Zeus. Zamir White’s ability to come back from two ACL surgeries is the bellwether for how comfortable many fans feel about the running game. If he’s close to full strength, Georgia will have yet another formidable duo with considerable depth behind it. If not, the Dawgs will have to hope Herrien takes a big step forward as a senior, Cook turns the corner, or McIntosh is ready to go out of the gate.

Receiver: Graduation and the draft took its toll on the receiver position. Fortunately sophomore Jeremiah Holloman emerged as a favorite target in 2018. That would be reassuring if Holloman hadn’t been involved in an alleged domestic violence incident that led to his dismissal from the team. Without Holloman Georgia’s returning receivers accounted for just 12 total receptions last season, and nine of those were by Tyler Simmons. Two tailbacks (Swift and Herrien) had twice as many receiving touchdowns in 2018 as all of the returning receivers and tight ends.

Simmons and Trey Blount shouldn’t be overlooked especially when it comes to their important roles in the running game. Both were on the field as blockers in the Rose Bowl on the unforgettable winning play. Georgia has added size and speed at the position in the past two recruiting classes with multiple top-100 prospects, and of course Demetris Robertson is lurking there waiting to make an impact after a year in the program. Is Robertson’s adjustment period a cautionary example for the incoming talent? How long will it take them to get up to speed in the offense, and how physical are they willing to be on the perimeter? It might be enough just to ask freshmen to run the right routes, but you don’t get explosive running plays without downfield blocking.

Tight end: If you thought the receiver position was depleted, the tight ends invite you to hold their beer. Attrition leaves Georgia with only one returning scholarship tight end: senior Charlie Woerner whose career 25 receptions, 298 yards, and zero touchdowns by default make him a top returning target in the passing game. Georgia has added a graduate transfer (with 8 career receptions) but will otherwise fill out the TE depth chart with freshmen – one of which is coming off of knee surgery. Will Georgia have to dip into its deep OL talent pool to shore up the TE spot?

Offensive line: The OL is usually one of the more anonymous units on a team, but not at Georgia. Its position coach is a superstar, there are likely high NFL draft picks at both tackle spots, and there’s enough depth stockpiled that former five-star prospects will be fighting just to get on the field. Georgia’s line is its strength and its identity. So why should anyone be worried about the offensive line?

The 2018 LSU game is worth examining. LSU made adjustments after Georgia showed some success on the ground and was able to frustrate Georgia at the line of scrimmage. “Orgeron said the key adjustment involved changing up the defensive fronts, creating different angles, with Aranda expertly mixing in different personnel to create problems for the Bulldogs.” Not many teams had the talent LSU had up front, but those who do can use scheme to attack Georgia’s size up front if the Bulldog coaching staff isn’t prepared to make adjustments of their own. Texas had similar success getting into the backfield.

You also want to see the line step up when it’s time to get physical and the defense is expecting the run. No line is going to dominate when teams send more bodies than you can block, but it was incongruous to see Georgia’s offense struggle to punch the ball in down around the goal line. Until the passing game with all of the new receivers proves itself, expect this line to face stacked defensive fronts. The ultimate test for this line: Georgia hasn’t rushed for more than 4 yards per carry in the 2017 and 2018 losses to Alabama. It’s a tough ask to get the better of the good defensive lines of Auburn and Alabama, but this line (and its coach) won’t be judged by how good the running game looks against Murray State.

Defensive line: It’s one of Georgia’s more experienced units, but it’s also under the most scrutiny. Whether you put the lack of pass rush on the line or the linebackers or some combination, Georgia hasn’t been very disruptive up front. The defensive line has also been one of the few positions absent on Draft Day, calling into question the staff’s ability to develop players at this key position. We know injuries have taken their toll among the veteran linemen, and underclassmen Jordan Davis and Malik Herring took advantage of those openings to earn playing time. The defense’s mandate to create havoc plays begins by affecting the line of scrimmage. For that to happen Georgia has to have big seasons from seniors like Clark, Rochester, and Marshall while hoping that freshman Travon Walker has the kind of impact Davis had a year ago.

Linebackers: Georgia has recruited well at linebacker, but the outside linebackers face questions about their pass rush while the inside backers have something to prove against the run. There might be no more talented group on the team than the outside linebackers especially with Nolan Smith and Jermaine Johnson added to the group. This is the year you would expect to see all of the potential begin to turn into production in the form of a fearsome pass rush and general havoc behind the line of scrimmage. But this unit will depend on the line getting that initial push and occupying blockers. Can the coaches find the right mix of every-down outside linebackers and pass rush specialists?

The search for the next Roquan Smith continues at ILB. The group will be challenged to make stops near the line of scrimmage and improve the defense’s #53 ranking in rushing S&P+. A healthy Monty Rice should make a difference. Is experience enough for Tae Crowder to hold on to his starting role? The staff is waiting for Channing Tindall and Quay Walker to make a move, and few freshmen have more expectations on them out of the gate than Nakobe Dean. Still, it took a couple of years even for Roquan to become Roquan. Will Georgia rely on another year of experience to get the improvement it needs, or will it take a newcomer shaking things up?

Secondary: The big concern is replacing Deandre Baker. Eric Stokes emerged last year as one answer, but that still leaves the other side of the field. There are several candidates – Divaad Wilson was competing for a starting job a year ago until an injury sidelined him, DJ Daniel brings JUCO experience, and Tyson Campbell now has a year of experience under his belt. This is a battle we can expect to linger on into the season, and you hope there’s some kind of resolution before Ian Book and Notre Dame come to town. Coaches weren’t afraid to make midseason changes as the true freshman Campbell struggled, and they won’t hesitate this year either as there is no shortage of options.

Reed and LeCounte are established at safety, but the offseason development of LeCounte will be worth checking out. He’s been candid about his deficiencies a year ago and worked to address them though he was still the team’s leading tackler. Even if he is ready to be more physical this year, the fact that he and Reed were the top two tacklers by a clear margin suggests that too many plays, especially running plays, were getting into the secondary. If the safeties are that involved in run support once again, it’s a sign that things haven’t improved along the line and at ILB. As with cornerback, the coaches weren’t shy about trying Otis Reese and others when things weren’t working. Freshman Lewis Cine will be one of the first off the bench if physicality becomes an issue at safety.

Specialists: Rodrigo Blankenship has earned his celebrity status, though we saw in the 2018 SEC Championship how even one missed kick can open the door for a comeback. Blankenship’s most impressive step forward in 2018 was a big uptick in touchback percentage, but ho boy was it an adventure for the coverage team on the few kickoffs that were returned. With consecutive top signing classes, special teams units should be stocked with young talent. Can they improve on last season’s shaky coverage? Mecole Hardman’s departure means that Georgia must find a new returner, and ball security is a minimum job requirement. Jake Camarda had an up and down season as a freshman punter and was ninth among SEC punters. Will he be more consistent and productive with a year under his belt? Will Kirby Smart be gunshy about any more special teams trickeration after some high-profile disasters in 2018?

That’s enough hand-wringing for one preseason. On to the preseason happy talk.



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