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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.

One Response to 'Viewing the 2020 season through six players'

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  • Think that the special teams will be huge this year. New special teams coach (unproven in that area), new place kicker, new returners – could be the make or break element this season (aside from COVID). Good article, Thanks!

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