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Post Georgia 37 – Arkansas 10: Bennett, defense avoid disaster

Tuesday September 29, 2020

The 2019 season started with a comfortable win at Vanderbilt and then some forgettable blowout nonconference wins to set up the big Notre Dame game. Georgia was out ahead of Vanderbilt 21-0 so quickly that most of us tuned out and began to anticipate that visit from the Irish. There wasn’t much need to look for warning signs, though managing only second half field goals against a bad Vanderbilt team might’ve been more than opening game jitters. Lack of explosive plays and offensive malpractice wouldn’t slap us in the face for a couple of weeks.

The 2020 team and the conference-only schedule have done us a favor: the existential problems facing this team were laid bare right from the start. A true crisis at quarterback and an unsettled offensive line threaten Georgia’s attempt at a fourth-straight SEC East title.

D’Wan Mathis’s debut didn’t last a half. The redshirt freshman never settled into the job, and a big hit clearly affected him. Kirby Smart is correct that many other things contributed to the slow start on offense, but Mathis did few positive things to get things going. I’m glad he was able to get some experience later in the game with the outcome settled, and he seemed a little steadier in a lower-pressure situation. Mathis’s best throw of the day was wiped out by a penalty. That 28-yard sideline pass to McIntosh in the fourth quarter had perfect touch and hit the receiver in stride for a big play.

But the pressure on the quarterback is only going to increase with the quality of opponent. Replacing Mathis with Stetson Bennett had a calming effect similar to Jake Fromm’s entrance against App. State in 2017. Bennett isn’t Fromm. He’s also not Buck Belue coming off the bench to beat Georgia Tech in 1978, though the mop of hair might have you seeing double. To be honest, it felt more like 2006 when Tereshinski and Cox were keeping the seat warm for Stafford. (Also not claiming that JT Daniels is Stafford in this scenario.) Against Arkansas Bennett’s steadying influence under pressure was enough to get the offense going and dispatch an overmatched opponent.

That steadying influence was the difference. It’s not that the offense was all that more productive in the second half. Behind Bennett the offense stopped shooting itself in the foot. Scoring opportunities and field position that came up empty earlier were converted. The touchdown pass to Pickens might have the most important play of the game. Another botched snap on 1st-and-goal made it appear that Georgia was going to waste another scoring opportunity. Facing 2nd-and-goal from the 19, Bennett stayed calm and found a wide-open Pickens who curled back outside to race for the endzone. It’s likely Georgia would have still won, but Georgia would have still trailed midway through the third quarter if they had to settle for a field goal there. After that score and Bennett’s tough 2-point conversion, Georgia never looked back.

Monken’s Debut

Of course it wasn’t the start Todd Monken wanted for his offense. Zoom installs can only do so much, and Monken had to put together an offense with new starters at nearly every position. The numerous penalties and unforced errors made it difficult to evaluate what the offense was trying to do. Once the offense settled down, we began to see a bit of scheme taking shape. Tailbacks were noticeably involved in the passing game, and that was part of a bigger development: 12 different players caught a pass. Pickens had his big touchdown pass, but Jackson looked encouraging as the team’s leading receiver. Bennett was able to spread it around, and Pickens wasn’t the only one getting open and making important receptions.

After several years of Jake Fromm work the sidelines, one of the bigger changes we saw was Bennett finding success across the middle. The seam route to Washington got the late first half scoring drive going. He again found paydirt throwing to a tight end on Fitzpatrick’s touchdown. A nice 20-yard pass to Landers in a small window converted a 3rd-and-10. That was followed up with another pass across the middle to Jackson.

They are what we thought they were

While the offense struggled to mesh so many new pieces, the defense showed off the depth and experience of one of the nation’s top units. There was a costly blown coverage early, but the defense combined with effective special teams to prevent further damage until the offense got going. We saw speed as any Arkansas attempt to get outside was snuffed out quickly. We saw discipline as every Arkansas trick play and attempt at misdirection was blown up. We saw physicality as the Arkansas interior running game went nowhere. If there was a weakness in the defense, it was against crossing routes when the pass rush failed to materialize. That was an issue early in the game with a couple of third down conversions. Even the best defenses are going to have trouble covering if there’s no pass rush, and the Dawgs occasionally had trouble getting much pressure rushing four.

Georgia’s defense should be good enough to carry them in most games, but we saw last year that it’s not going to get them very far towards their bigger goals. If you leave such a razor-thin margin for the defense, one breakdown might just be enough. South Carolina had a single explosive pass play last year, and that was all the offense they needed. Asking even the nation’s best defense to be perfect each week is a big ask, and if the other team is able to add points with defense or special teams, your safety net has just been pulled out from under you. That’s not a winning strategy for a team with playoff aspirations.


Kendal Briles brought an up-tempo style of offense of offense to Arkansas, and Georgia was prepared for it. Even with frequent substitutions and situational packages, the Dawgs were able to provide an object lesson in the downside of tempo. 11 Arkansas possessions failed to move the chains. The result was a possession advantage for Georgia of over ten minutes. Though Georgia’s own offense wasn’t especially up-tempo outside of the final drive of the first half, the Bulldogs ran 89 plays – yes, 89. Contrast that with, say, the Texas A&M or Notre Dame games a year ago in which Georgia ran 59 plays.

Be vewy vewy qwiet

One big thing that worked in Georgia’s favor was the crowd. At under 17,000 fans it was a non-factor. I wrote last week about the challenge of getting a team up to play in front of a limited crowd, but there’s another side to that coin. Home underdogs can feed off a frenzied crowd. Things were bad enough for Georgia and its quarterbacks in the first half, but there was never a sense of things snowballing out of control. The mistakes and missed opportunities were more like failed practice reps. It’s much easier to remain composed without a hostile SEC crowd building in volume with each series of futility. A German soccer coach said of playing in front of empty stadiums that “without spectators, it comes down more to the quality of players.” That was certainly the case as Georgia’s talent and depth took over.

  • I flagged Jake Camarda as a player to watch this year because of past inconsistency. He was magnificent on Saturday. Georgia’s offensive struggles were even more frustrating given the outstanding field position created by defense and special teams.
  • Tyson Campbell played well in his return as a healthy defensive back, and DJ Daniel was also solid at cornerback. The performance of Campbell and Stokes on the outside put the star position more in the spotlight. I thought Mark Webb had the better day at star; Stevenson was picked on for some completions.
  • As ragged as the offense was in the first half, it was impressively precise on the quick drive before halftime. Bennett orchestrated it well and started by finding Darnell Washington down the seam. Robertson made a couple of nice catches along the sideline and quickly got out of bounds.
  • The offensive line settled in for the second half, but center issues still have to be worked out. Warren McClendon was an upgrade at right tackle and might have won that job.
  • Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint’s tackle on an Arkansas’s kickoff return is a great way for a freshman to earn more playing time. His tackle pinned Arkansas deep and put pressure on the Razorback offense. Contrast that poor field position with McIntosh’s nice return after the Arkansas field goal that gave Georgia a short field to begin the drive that gave them the lead.
  • Even with plenty of talent on the roster, freshmen were used early and often at key moments. It’s clear that Burton and Rosemy-Jacksaint figure into the plans for the passing game. Washington is already a physical presence at TE. You have to smile at being able to rotate someone like Jalen Carter in on the defensive line.
  • Freshmen didn’t figure as heavily into the running game. Milton and Edwards both saw playing time, but most carries went to White, Cook, and McIntosh. Cook had a fantastic block on the long pass to Landers, but he wasn’t able to break many runs or receptions despite getting the ball in space. He also had a costly fumble. White looks much smoother this year and showed the ability to make people miss if a hole opens up. Unless there’s a big step forward by another back, it’s pretty clear that the fortunes of the Georgia running game this season lie with Zeus. Overall it was a disappointing day running the ball against a defense that struggled to defend the run last season.

I credit the team for not falling to pieces or getting too off-script when things weren’t working. Eliminating unforced mistakes will go a long ways towards a more productive offense, and we saw some of what’s possible in the second half.

Post 20 disjointed thoughts about a disjointed 2020 season

Saturday September 26, 2020
  1. Nothing is guaranteed. It wasn’t a given that we’d get here, and each of the ten games we’re able to see is a gift. I’ve written plenty about my personal decisions regarding the season, but I’ve always been more optimistic about the season itself. That’s not because of some cold indifference to the realities. The SEC has the resources to study and minimize the risks; many other conferences and teams do not. That doesn’t mean that the league has avoided localized outbreaks. It just means that the protocols have been put in place to manage those outbreaks. In doing so the SEC is in a position to forge ahead with a compelling schedule while being in a position to take advantage of the improved testing and other advances that have allowed other leagues back in the pool.
  2. I’ve been especially impressed by Kirby Smart’s navigation of the offseason. Georgia has had coaching changes, attrition, injuries, and of course positive tests. At no point did you ever get the sense that he was out of step with the moment. Smart’s statements about player safety and the program’s response to social issues have avoided the tone-deaf missteps we saw at other programs. Georgia has had its share of positive tests, but the response was to follow the protocols in place, avoid panic and hysteria, and push forward. The result is a team that has largely held together since early June and been able to prepare as much as SEC and NCAA guidelines allowed.
  3. In a way, the uncertainty of this season is a bit thrilling. We’ve never done a season like this before, and there’s no analogue for what we’re about to see. There’s a single bye week but no break at all from the SEC grind. In Georgia’s case, that’s especially true through the first half of the season. Things could get wild, and that’s before we talk about more serious matters like canceled or postponed games and rosters thrown into chaos by quarantine.
  4. In strictly football terms, I’m excited for this season because of the format: ten SEC games. If the league is able to make it through the schedule, we should see something special. The plan is to return to scheduling-as-usual next year, but hopefully we’ll get too much of a good thing this year to ever want to go back. People talk about an asterisk for this year’s champion, but the team that emerges from a 10-game SEC slate will be more worthy than any previous team.
  5. I will miss playing Tech. I know that game means less to an increasing number of fans, but it’s a series that needs to resume after this season.
  6. With several other conferences announcing their return, the playoff committee will have quite a job. They’ll have to weigh teams playing a different number of games at different times of the fall with few intersectional games to aid comparison between conferences. If we get to that point, there will be enough outrage and talking points to fuel weeks of punditry. Just enjoy the season. The ten-game SEC season is the main course. If there’s more beyond that, great.
  7. D’Wan Mathis will start at quarterback.
  8. I’m less confident that Mathis will finish the season as the starter. That’s not a knock on him. We’re still waiting for J.T. Daniels to be cleared. Mathis could take the decision away from the coaches ala Jake Fromm in 2017. We could see shared playing time like 2018, though hopefully Monken’s rotation would have more purpose and tactical reasoning behind it. If we do see multiple quarterbacks, the best case is that Daniels can be slowly worked in. Even if he’s cleared, he’s still a year removed from knee surgery (and has had cleanup work since.) It’s much better if he can be used when and if it makes sense and not because the team’s hand is forced. Worst case is Mathis flops and Daniels must be rushed along. Scratch that – worst case is that Mathis struggles, Daniels isn’t cleared or ready, and Georgia must turn again to a true freshman.
  9. Count me among those who expects Monken to be an upgrade. I’m not looking for anything specific scheme-wise from Monken. He’s been around long enough to have a varied toolkit. I’m most interested to see how the pieces come together. Is he able to run what he wants with new starters at every position but center? Is he making the most of Georgia’s talent advantages and doing what he can to compensate for disadvantages? Does so much change on offense manifest itself in turnovers, sacks, penalties, or miscommunication with players and coaches not on the same page?
  10. Monken’s not the only new coach on offense, and I’d like to see the differences Matt Luke brings to Georgia’s offensive line. For the bowl game his only concern was cobbling together a functional line. Now he’s had some time to get to know and evaluate his unit. Pittman was a wonderful coach and recruiter, but he also had a preference for a large, physical line that suited Georgia’s straight-ahead power style of play. The pendulum might swing back under Luke towards a lighter line that might work better with Monken’s more open and faster-paced offense. This isn’t so much a good/bad question as it is curiosity about how a new coach tries to solve a slightly different set of problems.
  11. I’m bullish on Zeus. He has the skills and size to be a powerful SEC tailback, and the second year after an ACL surgery is almost as bankable as the second-year coach effect. I’m not as sold yet on Cook. We’re told he just hasn’t been used properly, but he’s also had several opportunities to make big plays. It hasn’t clicked yet. With the changes to the offense, there aren’t many excuses left. Hopefully he thrives, but younger backs like Milton are waiting for their opening.
  12. Georgia lost six defensive linemen from last year’s roster, and there’s still more excitement about that unit than I’ve seen in years. I see why – there’s a ton of experience, bona-fide stars like Herring and Davis, and Travon Walker was one of last season’s top freshmen. Any list of newcomers to watch in 2020 leads with Jalen Carter. Tray Scott has quietly upgraded the defensive front year after year.
  13. The overall talent on defense is staggering. The questions then become about roles and the best ways to deploy that talent. Roquan Smith and J.R. Reed became invaluable not only for their individual contributions but also for their roles orchestrating the defense on the field. Even among a galaxy of stars, someone like Nakobe Dean might shine brighter this year. The bright middle linebacker saw plenty of time behind Crowder and Rice as a true freshman and is in a position to become that next defensive leader.
  14. One thing I’d like to see from the defense is for one or more of the outside linebackers to emerge with an all-conference season. The depth is ridiculous with Ojulari, Smith, Johnson, Grant, Anderson, and now Sherman. These are all special players with unique skill sets (just watch how Anderson is used when he’s in the game.) I’d just like to see someone have the kind of season where it’s tough to take them out of the game.
  15. I’ve already mentioned Jalen Carter, but we’re also hearing good things about freshmen receivers Jermaine Burton and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint. Georgia will need early contributions from those freshmen receivers as Blaylock is out for the season and the tight end position unsettled.
  16. Why is the TE position unsettled? We’re still not sure of its role in Monken’s offense. This might be one of those instances I mentioned above where what Monken wants to run is constrained by personnel. Tre McKitty is out in the short term. Seldom-used John FitzPatrick as the likely starter. Great expectations came with the signing of 5* Darnell Washington from Las Vegas. He’ll play, but he’s still getting into playing shape.
  17. I’m not as concerned with the offensive line as I am other areas of the offense. There’s plenty of experience despite four new starters. It’s still a big job to replace two first-round tackles. Salyer has the pedigree to be just fine at left tackle, but there aren’t many options if he’s not up to the job.
  18. “Explosive” is this year’s “havoc.” After last year’s South Carolina debacle, I noted that “not all successful plays are equal.” The explosive runs that had defined Georgia in 2017 and 2018 disappeared. Though the running game could still get nearly 5 yards per carry, the lack of explosive runs meant that the offense had to work its way down the field in smaller chunks. That was too much to ask, and we all saw the results. With no real threat to break big plays in either the running game or the downfield passing game, the offense suffocated.
  19. It looks as if Jack Podlesny has won the placekicking job (again, for now.) It’s good to see some special teams coverage in among the daily QB updates. We’ve seen some spectacular special teams failures in the first three weeks, and Georgia is only replacing the placekicker, both returners, and the special teams coach. These are the areas that might seem like a nuisance at Arkansas but can turn games against Auburn or Alabama.
  20. I admit it’s been tough at times to get my head around the upcoming season and to put nearly the same energy into it especially knowing that I won’t be there in person to see it. There are enough reminders that nothing, including our beloved college football, is close to business as usual. I’ve come to grips with that – there are circumstances, issues, and causes that can’t and shouldn’t go away just because the season is going forward. In a year where we’ve been forced to take things a day at a time, I’m grateful that this day is finally Game Day. May we have many more.

Post Getting their ass ready to play

Thursday September 24, 2020

Playing with no or few fans in the stands is the ultimate noon kickoff. Schools will do whatever they can to artificially create noise and a homefield advantage, but my takeaway watching the first couple of weeks of football has been that nearly every game has the vibe of those sleepy noon starts regardless of the start time. (The exception was Notre Dame’s home opener. It’s no coincidence that Notre Dame’s ticket policy limited attendance to students and the university community.) That means that teams will generally not have a raucous home environment and must, as Kirby Smart put it before the South Carolina game last year, “get (their) ass ready to play” on their own.

We haven’t had much experience with this phenomenon in the States, but European soccer teams play in front of empty crowds occasionally – most often as punishment for unruly or abusive fans. They’ve also played without fans this spring and summer during the pandemic. An ESPN study found that empty stadiums eroded homefield advantage in the German Bundesliga. “The vibe is a little bit off to be fair,” admitted one player.

The lack of fans might even affect how the games are officiated. Refs are human and, right or wrong, can get caught up in the crowd reaction. Sports Illustrated cited a study from Sweden concluding that “the favorable calls conferred on the home team dropped by 23%–70%” depending on the type of foul. Even more, “they noted that the same referees overseeing the same two teams in the same stadium behaved dramatically differently when spectators were present.” Few calls are as exposed to fan reaction as pass interference, so it will be worth watching who does and doesn’t get those calls this year.

These studies dealt mainly with completely empty venues, and there’s not enough experience yet with crowds the size we’re likely to see across the SEC. It’s not likely that homefield advantage will evaporate, but I think the noon game paradigm is the right way to approach preparation. Georgia has been on both sides of that coin: we all remember last year’s South Carolina game or the 2016 games with Nicholls and Vanderbilt, but there’s also the upset win at Auburn in 2006 or Nick Chubb’s breakout game at Missouri in 2014. The Dawgs have generally been able to focus on the game at hand under Kirby Smart, but there won’t be the frenzied home crowds or even the road takeovers that have become the norm.

The good news for Georgia? “Without spectators, it comes down more to the quality of players,” claimed one German soccer coach. Georgia doesn’t lack for quality players. That said, those players have to be ready to go. Whether it was the horrific faceplant of the Big 12 or Tech knocking off FSU in week 1, less-talented but motivated road underdogs can knock off sleepwalking home favorites without the home crowd to wake things up. Those road teams can isolate and focus on the “business trip” routine. Preparing players to match and surpass the energy level of their opponents will be even more important this year than it usually is, and it will all have to come from inside the team.

Post Viewing the 2020 season through six players

Wednesday September 23, 2020

These six probable starters might or might not end up being the best or even most important players at their positions, but they’re interesting starting points for thinking about some of the bigger issues facing this year’s team.

Tyson Campbell: There aren’t many questions on Georgia’s defense, but the secondary is seeing the most turnover on that side of the ball. Lewis Cine seems set to replace J.R. Reed at safety. Cornerback is a little less settled. Despite overall good depth in the secondary, Divaad Wilson’s transfer and an injury to Kelee Ringo leaves coaches with fewer options at cornerback. We know Eric Stokes is set on one side, but the other cornerback spot is still up for grabs. DJ Daniel has the experience to do the job, but Campbell is itching to show why he was a five-star national top 25 prospect in 2018.

Campbell lost the starting job as a true freshman in 2018 to Stokes. He was again expected to start in 2019 and replace Deandre Baker, but a nagging turf toe injury sidelined him for a good chunk of the season and led coaches to rely more on Daniel. Daniel is back, as is Tyrique Stephenson, so it’s not a given that Campbell will start as a junior. We should expect to see a lot more of him though now that he’s unencumbered by injury.

Georgia’s rush defense was among the best in the nation in 2019, and many of those front seven defenders return. The passing defense wasn’t far off; they were 8th in pass efficiency defense. Still, it might’ve been a little lucky that Georgia faced a slew of backup quarterbacks later in the 2019 season. If the rush defense is stout again, the pass defense will be the true measure of how good this defense can be. If that other cornerback spot firms up this year, that creates extra time for people like Nolan Smith, Jermaine Johnson, and Azeez Ojulari to get to the quarterback. Beyond that, success on passing downs will determine whether the defense earns its reputation. Can they get off the field on third down? Can they take advantage of down and distance to create turnovers? Can they prevent explosive throws over the top? If Stokes’s presence forces quarterbacks to look elsewhere, the opposite cornerback figures to be picked on. That’s the opportunity for Campbell. Is the third time the charm?

George Pickens: Pickens lived up to his five-star billing – you know him from his acrobatic catches, his dominant first half against Baylor, or his arrangement of a meeting between a Tech defensive back and the wall of Bobby Dodd Stadium. His flair for the spectacular and his unquestioned physical ability makes him one of the most exciting Georgia wideouts of the past ten seasons.

The question is whether Pickens is ready to go from the occasional highlight to being a more consistent and reliable leader of the receiving corps. The fortunes of Georgia’s passing game ebbed and flowed in 2019 with Lawrence Cager’s health. Pickens was able to pick up some – though not all – of the slack, and of course the quarterback had his own issues. As much as Fromm leaned on Cager in big midseason moments, Cager’s absence late in the year meant that Pickens emerged as Georgia’s leading receiver. Pickens’s 12 receptions and 175 yards against Baylor saw him run away from the pack.

Pickens was rarely dominant, but that’s a lot to ask for from a true freshman in a struggling offense. He had a single game with over 100 receiving yards and was largely held in check from the Florida game through the end of the regular season. The good news is that the trend is positive. Six of his eight touchdown receptions came in the last half of the season, and he scored in each of the team’s final four games. Arguably his best football came against quality opponents in a game and a half of postseason play. Those 16 postseason receptions are the encouraging part – Pickens had a combined two receptions against Notre Dame, Florida, and Auburn while posting better numbers against weaker opponents.

Five of Georgia’s top seven receivers in 2019 are gone or unavailable in 2020. The two who return are senior Demetris Robertson and Pickens. Robertson, another former five-star prospect, has found it more difficult to become a standout after transferring in from Cal. There’s a group of returning receivers with experience but little production. Kearis Jackson made a splash right away at Vanderbilt but injured himself on his best play. The speedy Jackson could get a look at some return duty and as a slot receiver. Matt Landers has battled some bad drops, but his size and consistent effort continue to earn him playing time. Will that cut it in the new offense? Tommy Bush is another tall target who battled injuries in 2019, and we’re not sure yet what his upside can be.

Whether or not Pickens, Robertson, and the others can step up, Georgia will still rely on one of the nation’s top receiver signing classes. The Bulldogs brought in five receivers. Four rated among the top 150 players in the nation. Speedster Arian Smith had offseason surgery, so it might be later in the season until he sees the field. Three of the others – Justin Robinson, Jermaine Burton, and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint – could be early contributors. They might not have the impact Pickens had but as a group could be key to Georgia’s passing game success.

Trey Hill: What an offseason of change for Georgia’s offensive line. Coach Sam Pittman is gone, three starters were drafted by the NFL, and another abruptly transferred to Tennessee. That leaves Hill as the lone returning starter from a unit that has been considered the identity of the Georgia offense since 2017. But Kirby Smart is rarely caught unprepared, and the program managed such a major transition about as well as it could.

Former Ole Miss coach Matt Luke was brought in before the bowl game to replace Pittman and did well to assemble a shorthanded group. It might be more important that Luke was able to hold onto another impressive recruiting class of linemen. Georgia saw a single defection from the class, and key commitments at tackle and center remained on board. That group of signees is part of another reason why Georgia can survive so many changes from a year ago. The losses hurt, but the cupboard isn’t bare. Consistent quality recruiting along the offensive line over the last several classes means that Georgia won’t be scrambling and rushed to play those true freshmen. Though four starters must be replaced, all but one of the replacements have starting experience.

Though Ben Cleveland, perhaps the lone Mark Richt commitment left in the program, has started games since 2017, Hill’s 18 starts are tops among Georgia’s linemen. He wasn’t a natural center and has had shaky moments, but he’s grown into the role and will now have to lead a new group of linemen playing for a new position coach protecting a new quarterback in a new offense. Georgia has signed other centers since Hill took over. Clay Webb and, most recently, Sedrick Van Pran are available in reserve, but the stability and experience Hill brings to an important position is one of the few elements of continuity on an overhauled offense. Georgia will face some of the more difficult defensive fronts in the conference early in the season, so this reconfigured line won’t have long to get it together.

Zamir White: Who was Georgia’s leading returning rusher heading into the 2012 season? Isaiah Crowell (850 yards) was dismissed. Carlton Thomas (361 yards) graduated. That meant that Brandon Harton, whose 247 yards just edged out Richard Samuel’s 240, was Georgia’s top returning tailback heading into 2012. Harton had seen mostly garbage time duty in 2011, but injuries to Crowell and Samuel thrust Harton into the spotlight against Kentucky. He responded with 101 yards against the Wildcats to help Georgia clinch its first SEC East title since 2005.

Georgia’s tailback situation changed dramatically in 2012. Gurley and Marshall arrived to begin a run that arguably surpassed the 1980s as the golden age of Georgia tailbacks. Over the next seven years Georgia didn’t only have standout tailbacks; they weaved a depth chart that ensured there was a proven and productive back in place for the following season. The Gurley/Marshall era overlapped with the Chubb/Michel era which overlapped with the Swift/Holyfield era.

The next transition seemed to be set up with the 2018 signing of Zamir White and James Cook. A series of knee injuries delayed White’s debut, and Cook never really found his role in Georgia’s power offense. White eventually got his chance in 2019, but carries were tough to come by, and coaches were slow to place much of a load on someone coming off two knee surgeries. With Swift and Herrien sidelined for the Sugar Bowl, White posted his season high in carries (18) and yards (92) with one touchdown against Baylor. White ended the season with 408 rushing yards – the fewest yards for Georgia’s leading returning tailback since that pivotal 2012 season.

As with 2012, the tailback position is at a crossroads entering 2020. White and Cook are expected to lead the pack, but they won’t be the only options. Kenny McIntosh earned some tough yards as a freshman. Five-star Kendall Milton will arrive from California as the next heralded Bulldog tailback prospect. Daijun Edwards stood tall in the meatgrinder of south Georgia prep football. It’s less likely that 2020 will follow 2012 though. Milton and Edwards, while solid prospects, don’t carry the expectations of Gurley and Marshall. More to the point, White and Cook are better than the returning backs in 2012. White is ready to step into the lead back role and can hopefully follow Chubb’s lead of a strong season two years after knee surgery. Cook has the tools to thrive in a more open offense. He’ll also be a receiving option out of the backfield, and he is expected to be in the mix to return kicks.

Georgia has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year since 2014. There are two or three backs capable of continuing that streak, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Zeus.

Malik Herring: It’s been a while since the Georgia defensive line has produced a star. In fact, Georgia hasn’t had a defensive lineman drafted since John Jenkins in 2013. Promising prospects like Trenton Thompson and Tyler Clark had to go the free agent route. That drought should end soon, and it is likely to start with Herring. Herring really began to make a name for himself in dismantling Tech’s option attack in 2018, and he quietly became an important – and consistent – standout on Georgia’s improved defensive front in 2019. Georgia’s linemen tend not to get a ton of stats in the 3-4 scheme, and Herring is no exception. But the advanced stats say that Herring does his job well. ESPN considers him the top returning edge defender in the SEC.

Jordan Davis is the plug in the middle. Travon Walker is poised to move from a third-down role to an every-down matchup problem on the opposite side. It’s going to be tough to keep freshman Jalen Carter off the field. It’s Herring though and his ability to control the edge that could set Georgia’s defensive line apart. The defensive line could and should take a step forward in terms of visibility this year, but the real value is the opportunities that a disruptive defensive line create for the wealth of havoc-creating talent at linebacker.

Jake Camarda: Right…Monken’s offense is never going to punt. Just in case, Camarda deserves a bit of scrutiny as one of the more veteran members of Georgia’s special teams. He wasn’t quite able to shake his inconsistency as a sophomore; a 27-yard punt shanked out of bounds a midfield was nearly disastrous against Notre Dame. Even with that inconsistency, Camarda might be the one area of special teams that’s fairly stable.

The big question is placekicking. Camarda might not only figure in punting. He’ll be looked at, along with incoming freshman Jared Zirkel, to replace Rodrigo Blankenship as placekicker. Camarda handled PK duties in high school and was more than competent. If Zirkel isn’t quite ready yet, Camarda could become twice as important. Walk-on junior Jake Podlesny is another option at placekicker.

Georgia will also see new returners in 2020 after a very unremarkable 2019. A stingy defense meant there weren’t many kicks to return, and Brian Herrien was the most productive kick returner. Most punt returns were handled by Dominick Blaylock or Tyler Simmons. Neither return unit scored in 2019, and there were very few explosive returns to help a struggling offense with good field position. James Cook returned four kicks in 2019, and he seems to be the leading candidate to handle the job in 2020. Punt returns might be even more wide-open. Kearis Jackson is the only returning player with punt return experience, but some of the speedy newcomers could also get a look.

We don’t really think much about specialists until things go wrong or unless they have special moments like Blankenship or McKenzie. Let’s hope for the latter.