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Post Decent – not great – draft for Georgia

Tuesday April 28, 2020

This year’s unusual NFL Draft was a welcome gulp of water while we are parched for live sports. It was hardly a return to normalcy, but it did give us a reason to look ahead to a time when sports and football would be back. I kind of liked the virtual format. Seeing all of the prospects in their homes surrounded by family gave the event a more raw and humanizing touch relative to the slick production the league had prepared in Las Vegas.

The Bulldogs had seven players drafted including two first-rounders. The seven players selected matched 2019’s total, and Georgia had one more player selected in the first three rounds this year than a year ago. Georgia’s draft showing could be called…fine.

A second straight season with seven draft picks seems like good news, but at the same time expectations might have been a little higher. The hype factory at the AJC speculated about a record draft, tying or surpassing the program-best eight picks. Instead it was a tough night for some of Georgia’s higher-profile draft entrants. Jake Fromm slid from high-round projections to the fifth round. He won’t be a lock to make the Buffalo squad. The lack of scouting opportunities outside of the combine due to the pandemic surely hurt Fromm as well as injured players like Lawrence Cager. Fan favorite and Lou Groza award winner Rodrigo Blankenship seemed like a lock to sneak into the late rounds, but he remained undrafted as other specialists came off the board. Defensive leader J.R. Reed also went undrafted.

Georgia’s defense might have relished the “no-name” label applied to the squad that led the nation despite no superstar standouts, but that anonymity also continued into the draft. Tae Crowder, selected with the draft’s final pick, was the only member of the productive defense to be drafted. In fact, let this sink in: Georgia has had more offensive linemen (4) drafted in the past two seasons than defensive players (3).

(How fantastic and improbable was it to see Crowder drafted? He was a converted tailback best known for his recovery of a squib kick in the Rose Bowl, earned a starting job at inside linebacker, and held off several 4* and 5* prospects as he became a Butkus Award semifinalist. Now he’s the only player drafted from the nation’s top defense. Kindley is a similar story. He didn’t switch positions, but as Georgia got better and better at recruiting offensive linemen, it was always assumed that the 3* Kindley would give way. He didn’t, and his left guard spot was one of the more stable positions on the offensive line.)

If there was a sure winner based on Georgia’s 2020 draft results, it was someone no longer associated with the program: three of Sam Pittman’s offensive linemen were among Georgia’s draft crop. Four of the five starting offensive linemen on the 2018 team have been drafted. That’s a testament to what everyone saw with their own eyes: Pittman was able to harness the resources available at Georgia to elevate the program’s offensive line recruiting. Kirby Smart identified that as a need from his opening press conferences, and the draft results speak to Pittman’s and Smart’s success. It also sets a bar going forward for Matt Luke.

When a program leans as heavily as Georgia does on its production of NFL players as a selling point for recruiting, the draft is the scoreboard. Numbers will be scrutinized especially relative to Georgia’s peers. National champion LSU had a record-tying 14 picks. Alabama, after a “disappointing” season that left them out of the playoff, produced nine picks – all in the first three rounds. Georgia’s seven selections placed fifth among all schools, tied with Clemson, Florida, and Utah.

The drafts of the past two seasons saw a large drain of talent from the offense at all positions. The pendulum should swing back towards the other side of the ball in 2021 as the offense retools and younger players from the 2018 and 2019 defenses become draft-eligible. Georgia has had three consecutive recruiting classes rated #1 by Rivals, and they’ll begin to become draft-eligible in 2021. Fans expect to see that influx of talent pay off in wins and titles, but it’s also important for Kirby Smart to see those top-rated classes turn into not just draft picks but *high* draft picks.

Georgia’s 2020 NFL Draft Picks

  • Andrew Thomas (1st – NY Giants)
  • Isaiah Wilson (1st – Tennessee)
  • D’Andre Swift (2nd – Detroit)
  • Solomon Kindley (4th – Miami)
  • Jake Fromm (5th – Buffalo)
  • Charlie Woerner (6th – San Francisco)
  • Tae Crowder (7th – NY Giants)

Post Deciding to renew

Friday April 24, 2020

Marc Weiszer wrote a piece last week about season ticket renewals during these times, and I was happy to contribute my perspective. I was surprised to see renewal rates so high, and I expect Greg McGarity is also (pleasantly so). As I shared with Weiszer, our decision to go ahead and renew came down to a couple of points:

  • We considered ordering tickets as a moderate-risk bet that there would be football this fall.
  • The possibility of a refund if the season were canceled (or played without fans) lessened the risk.
  • We like our location(s) in the stadium and didn’t want to be displaced after 20+ years.
  • We are grateful to be able to place that kind of a bet right now.

The last point is difficult – I know so many are struggling right now either with immediate needs or with crippling uncertainty hanging over them. That renders any other consideration meaningless. Georgia has been flexible with dates and payment options, but in the end season tickets are an expense that’s suddenly become an extravagance for many people. Even if the season is canceled and refunds issued, many can’t tie up money for that long.

There’s one scenario for which we had to accept some risk: what if they decide to open the stadiums and we aren’t comfortable returning?

There’s no question that things are going to be muddy for a while even after this first wave of infection passes. There will be no clean break and no “over”. Until there is a vaccine, the job will be playing whack-a-mole against isolated outbreaks of an easily-transmitted virus. Meanwhile, much of the nation is under intense pressure to reopen. Sports will be a big part of that reopening. There’s a symbolism to the return of sports, but there are also real financial considerations. We’ve seen the panic of schools faced with the loss of the football season that funds the whole operation. We’ve heard about the campaigns to support arena and stadium staff. We know what kind of economic impact sports has on small towns like Athens.

I don’t suggest (Mike Gundy aside) that leagues would willingly put athletes or fans at risk, but their standards and risk aversion will necessarily be colored by the pressures they face to play ball. Gabe DeArmond pointed out that it’s not news that coaches want to play. It will be news when someone with a financial stake in the game says that we shouldn’t play. Blutarsky recently touched on a question I’ve been thinking about for a couple of weeks. Coaches and administrators want business as usual – or at least to get back out there as soon as possible. Fans sorely miss sports. The real question though is much more personal: when will you be comfortable being packed shoulder-to-shoulder with 92,000 random fans who have traveled in from across the southeast?

The change of the past month has been swift. In early March, I was sat among fans from Tennessee to South Carolina to Mississippi at the SEC women’s basketball tournament. Sure, we knew to wash hands a little more carefully and be suspicious of coughs and fevers, but the games went on. A little over a month ago Georgia played a men’s basketball game in Nashville. It all ended abruptly that week: first the NBA pulled the plug. (Rudy Gobert was irresponsible, but how many lives did his recklessness indirectly save?) College conference tournaments began postponing and then finally cancelling games. The NCAA tournament wasn’t going to take place. Within a week the SEC had ended spring sports. Now we’re separated from friends and loved ones, and a simple trip to the grocery store is fraught with peril. That’s a severe and sudden psychological and behavioral shock, and it’s not easily reversed.

I told Weiszer that I wouldn’t attend games under current conditions. That implies limited testing and an unproven toolkit of therapeutic responses. The hope (and the assumption) is that we’ll be working under a different paradigm later this year. That means more widespread testing to identify and contain outbreaks, contact tracing, and more proven therapeutics that will reduce the risk of mortality or even severe illness for those who are infected. Most every plan forward outlines those elements as requirements along the long road from shelter-in-place to a vaccine. The extent and effectiveness of those remedies will determine which pieces of society can safely resume and at what level.

The “how” of sports returning doesn’t concern me so much. It’s something I’d like to see very much, but it’s not really under my control. Whether it’s an abbreviated schedule, a delayed start, a season without fans in the stands – those are all just ideas based on our current understanding of how things might work. It’s good to think about those things now, and you’d expect any decent organization to have an array of plans available in order to be flexible when the time comes to reopen. Certain administrators and pundits have taken heat for pessimism about playing this year, but a lost year is a possibility that can’t catch anyone off-guard. Time (and the virus) will help to instruct us about under which circumstances sports may return. The same applies to travel, retail, tourism, entertainment – any activity that brings people into shared spaces.

What I can control is my participation. That’s the agency any of us has in whatever comes next. You’ve likely seen the survey that found that over 60% of fans wouldn’t be comfortable returning to the stands until a vaccine is available. It’s possible that many respondents were spooked by the sudden onset of the pandemic and might moderate their views as time goes on. It’s still very likely that fans will be slow to return in person even as games get underway. I expect we’ll see the same in other areas of life as things are allowed to reopen.

Public health regulations might allow games to occur. Students might return to campus, and other necessary conditions might be met. Each of us will still have our say in whether we feel safe enough to attend. At most I’ll lose the cost of a ticket. It would hurt to miss something I love dearly. Fortunately I don’t have to make that decision right now. As Weiszer writes, we’ll “now have the months ahead to see what a Bulldogs football season might look like in 2020.” It’s foolish now to make forecasts whether or not there will be a football season and what form it might take. Renewing season tickets now bought me time to watch and wait and make a more informed decision months from now. I hope progress is such that there’s an easy decision to make.

Post Not spring football – football in the spring

Friday April 17, 2020

While most public statements are optimistic about a normal college football season in the fall, we also know that most every sport is kicking around alternative plans. There’s too much money at stake; games will be played in some form if authorities give the go-ahead. That might mean games with no fans in the stands. It might mean a delayed start to the season. Coaches have raised alarms and proposed solutions to the amount of time necessary to prepare for the season. One suggestion even moves the season to the spring of 2021.

That idea does raise plenty of questions and issues, but, again, there will be desperation to fill the coffers. The implications of a “season-ending injury” are certainly worth thinking about. I wonder what a roster for a spring season might look like:

  • How many top seniors and draft-eligible underclassmen will skip all or part of a season that extends into spring semester? Unless the NFL also delays its 2021 draft date, the first three months of the year are dedicated to focused draft preparation once the college season ends. Workouts, combines, all-star games for draft-bound players, pro days – all of these pre-draft activities occur early in the year. Basketball (especially women’s basketball), baseball, and softball have drafts much closer to the end of the season – sometimes even before the college postseason is over. Those players play complete seasons, but we know that the physical demands of football make it a different animal. Who will want to go from the grind of a college season straight into NFL OTAs if the lack of a recuperation and conditioning period hurts their chances of making a roster spot?
  • Would early enrollees be eligible to play in spring games? Currently they may participate in bowl practices before classes begin, but they can’t play in bowl games. If they’re enrolled and taking classes at the start of the season, what would distinguish them from any other member of the team?