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Post Managing the moment

Thursday September 19, 2019

Georgia has played in a lot of big games since Kirby Smart took over in 2016. Upperclassmen on this team have played for a couple of SEC titles, won a Rose Bowl, and played for the national title. A top-ten showdown against Notre Dame shouldn’t be an exotic experience for Georgia’s players.

The difference is that all of those other big games were either on the road or at neutral sites. Georgia has won important games in South Bend, Pasadena, and Atlanta, and they’ve dropped some games away from home against SEC West foes. For the first time since Kirby Smart took over the program, Georgia gets to enjoy a top-ten matchup at home.

Auburn was #9 (and fading) when an unranked Georgia team pulled the upset in 2016. It was a big win for the program, but there wasn’t much buildup for the game itself due to Georgia’s up and down season.
The most hyped home game under Smart might be the 2017 Mississippi State game when then-#17 MSU visited then-#11 Georgia. Auburn was #24 when they played in Athens a year ago, and there just haven’t been many other home games to move the needle during Georgia’s current run.

That of course all changes on Saturday when the spotlight of the college football world shines on Athens. You’d think finally having a game of national significance at home is nothing but an advantage for Georgia, but it has its perils. You can put on the “business trip” blinders on the road and insulate yourself from most things other than the team and the game at hand. It’s much more difficult to do that at home. The game is all anyone will talk about this week in class, on campus, and all over Athens. Media began streaming in starting with Smart’s press conference on Monday, and it won’t let up. With Gameday coming to town the broadcasts will start on Thursday. I want to see if the coaches – and, more importantly, the team leadership – can get the team to tune out those distractions and prepare as well as they have for the first three games. With Georgia’s new approach to scheduling, preparing for big games – home or away – is something we’re going to have to deal with a lot more often if Kirby Smart builds the kind of program we expect and Georgia becomes everyone’s biggest game.

There’s a reason they call it “home field advantage” though. If Georgia can solve the distraction problem, they’ll have an awful lot in their corner. The crowd will be out of its mind. Brian Kelly is correct that Notre Dame’s players are used to being the big attraction wherever they go, and I’m sure Notre Dame will bring many more fans than the 8,000 tickets allotted to the visitor. Still, it will be a loud, raucous environment capable of rattling even the most hardened road warriors.

It’s a big moment for Kirby Smart. There’s the game itself – Notre Dame seems to be the only credible threat to Georgia heading into November without a loss. Georgia’s adjustments helped to win the Rose Bowl, but this coaching staff found itself outmaneuvered a couple of times in 2018. With the home field and a presumed advantage in talent, a loss would be a setback. Smart will also be welcoming one of the most impressive collection of prospects that Georgia has hosted, and we know they’ll want to see a good show.

More generally, the game is an opportunity for Smart to show off what he’s built in less than four years. Smart’s team, culture, the facilities, and a supercharged fan base will all be on display for the first time against a top-ten opponent on Smart’s own home field. The roster is now nearly all players he recruited. Private donors and the athletic department have made a tremendous investment in facilities and personnel. Under Smart’s leadership all elements of the program seem to be aligned, and Smart lacks for no resource. With a national audience for what might be the biggest home nonconference game in over 50 years, there’s no better time for Smart to show what it’s all been building towards.

There are too many games left and bigger goals remaining at the end of the season to consider a win on Saturday a peak, but it would still be a milestone. Georgia’s narrow win in South Bend two years ago started Georgia on a run of success, and everyone will be watching to see how far they’ve come since then.


Post Georgia 55 – Arkansas State 0: Ruthless

Monday September 16, 2019

We’ll keep this brief with much bigger things to talk about this week, but if you were concerned about Georgia’s focus for a noon kickoff against a decent mid-major opponent ahead of the Notre Dame game, you should be very pleased with Saturday’s result. Even if you didn’t expect Georgia to sleepwalk through this game, it was still an impressive showing. It’s easy to forget after a result like that that Arkansas State came in to the game as Georgia’s toughest opponent of the season, but this is a fairly successful Sun Belt program with eight straight bowl appearances. Coming into the game both ESPN metrics (SP+ and FPI) had them higher than Vanderbilt. The Dawgs were focused and prepared and, perhaps for the first time this season, kept their edge throughout most of the game.

I’m not sure whether the offense or defense had the better day, but posting a shutout gives the honor to the defense by a hair. Blake Anderson’s teams had put up at least 300 yards of offense in 27 straight games. They had reached 400 yards in eight straight games. Those streaks came to a crashing halt in Athens. Georgia held the Red Wolves to 220 yards of total offense, allowed a single play over 20 yards, and forced five three-and-outs. With their leading rusher out, Arkansas State could do little on the ground – there was no running play longer than 10 yards, and no ASU back had more than 24 yards of rushing.

Without a credible rushing attack to worry about, the Georgia defense could pin its ears back against a potent passing game. Georgia’s secondary had perhaps its best performance of the season, and they were aided by a pass rush that recorded four sacks and many more pressures. ASU was held to a paltry 4.4 yards per attempt through the air while completing 57.5% of their passes. Georgia’s defense did very well limiting yards after the catch and had very few missed tackles. That’s a must if Georgia is going to take more chances up front in the service of havoc.

Some minor drama occurred late when Arkansas State attempted a fourth down conversion deep in Georgia territory. (Credit to Anderson for not taking the cheap field goal just to avoid the shutout.) Lewis Cine ended the threat with an interception in the endzone, but it was the sideline’s reaction that stood out. Cine was greeted by an enthusiastic bunch of starters. They were happy for the freshman of course, but you could also tell that preserving the shutout mattered to the defense. It reminded me of the reaction after a Monty Rice tackle kept Mississippi State out of the endzone in 2017. There was a pride in the defense’s performance from the starters through the reserves, and the reserves aspired to the standard set for the starters. Of course it helps when even the reserve units are packed with 3*, 4*, and occasionally young 5* players.

Meanwhile the offense had one of the program’s top 10 games in terms of production. Georgia spread the ball around on the ground and in the air – no player had more than 9 carries or five receptions, but there were still enough balls to go around for 268 yards of rushing and 388 yards passing. Explosive plays were the order of the day – four backs had a carry of at least 19 yards, and even Stetson “Mayfield” Bennett got in on the act with a 14-yard scamper on a bootleg. Nine players had a reception longer than 10 yards, and three had a catch go for longer than 30 yards. Thanks to outstanding blocking downfield, Georgia’s ballcarriers and receivers found a lot of room once they got into open space. Lawrence Cager’s enthusiasm after blocking a defender into the endzone on Cook’s long scoring run shows how even relative newcomers are taking their roles seriously, and the offense is clicking because of it.

Georgia hasn’t faced much of a challenge over its first three games, but the team has taken care of business. There were no slip-ups, close calls, or glaring weaknesses exposed. Whether it was the penalties at Vanderbilt, the missed tackles against Murray State, or the turnovers in each game, Georgia has tightened up at the margins and built towards the result we saw on Saturday. The Dawgs look very much like the top five team they were expected to be, and that’s about all that could be asked after these three games. Georgia has a deep and well-balanced team and is the only squad in the nation after three weeks with all three units (offense, defense, and special teams) in the top 10 of the SP+ rankings. Now it’s time to see whether the team can sustain this level of play against much better competition.

  • Fromm only had five incomplete passes. At least three of those were downfield shots just off the fingertips of the receivers. On a couple to Pickens, Fromm could have put a little more distance on the pass as Pickens had to slow down and allow a defender to make a play. Fromm’s poise earned a touchdown before halftime as a play broke down and Fromm bought time until Cager became open.
  • The Pickens Catch of the Year of the Week is a thing now. Certainly his game can use plenty of refinement, but there’s no mistaking the raw talent. The emergence of a playmaker on the outside will only make the job easier for Georgia’s running game.
  • Interior pass blocking had been an issue over the first two games, but it was solid on Saturday. Hill had his best game so far. The line didn’t give up a sack, but there was a close call on a play on which Thomas was beaten. Fromm had to rush the pass, and it was underthrown. Pickens made a nice play to come back to the ball, and a near-disaster turned into a moderate gain.
  • As at Vanderbilt, Georgia’s third down conversion rate was under 50%. The four third down conversions were huge: two went for explosive scoring plays, another kept a scoring drive alive, and the final conversion helped Georgia escape its own goal line and set up Kenny McIntosh’s long touchdown run.
  • Only three of Georgia’s third down opportunities were short yardage (3 yards to go or less). Georgia converted two of those.
  • Georgia only ran the ball on three of its third downs, and one of those runs was a draw on 3rd-and-14. Even on its three short-yardage third downs, Georgia passed twice. Georgia was similarly unpredictable on third-and-short last week, and Coley has moved the ball around well in those situations. It’s still nice to know Fromm can burrow his way forward for two yards if necessary.
  • After two weeks of seeing the tight ends a little more involved in the passing game, a 6-yard reception by Eli Wolf right before halftime was the only catch for a tight end on Saturday. Woerner was targeted on another pass. It’s not that Georgia changed much with play selection; other options were open. The tight ends didn’t take the afternoon off – they were again outstanding in run blocking.
  • Tyson Campbell had one of his better games and is settling into the cornerback spot opposite Stokes. Stokes-Campbell-Webb seem to have solidified as the top unit in nickel coverage, but Wilson and Daniel are providing some nice depth. There were still some shaky moments, and Arkansas State’s best chance to hit a big play was fortunately dropped. In all the secondary held its own against a couple of quality receivers.
  • Lewis Cine saw a lot of action in garbage time, and he made the most of it. As the only player without a name on the back of his jersey (because his usual #8 was shared with Blaylock), a lot of people wanted to know who #28 was.
  • Can’t let Pickens’s theatrics overshadow another good game for Blaylock. Not only is he a threat for big plays as a receiver, it was important to have him available as a steady option when Simmons couldn’t field punts.
  • Both Simmons and Blaylock got coached up by Smart after letting punts hit the field. Otherwise special teams had another productive game. Early drives ending in field goals wasn’t ideal, but Blankenship still made sure Georgia got points out of those drives and increased that early lead ever so slightly.
  • Stetson Bennett made better decisions in his second game. He could have forced a pass on the bootleg, but the room was there for a big gain on the ground. He managed the situation well when Georgia was backed up on its own goal line and made a key third down pass to move the chains.
  • Cager’s difficult come-back touchdown catch at the goal line was a just reward for Cager’s outstanding blocking work on the outside. Cager’s blocks were involved in two and maybe three other touchdowns. Good downfield blocking = explosive plays.
  • On the flip side, I hated to see Trey Blount have his first career touchdown taken away from him. It was the right call, but Blount has done a lot of grunt work (and was on the field to block for Sony Michel’s Rose Bowl gamewinner.) Hopefully he gets in the endzone soon.

Finally, credit to the fans and program for the show of support towards Blake Anderson and the Red Wolves program. The idea, promotion, and execution of the impromptu pink-out was tremendous, and it was heartwarming to drive down Milledge before the game to see how the students responded. The team didn’t allow the moment to distract from the business at hand on the field, and the outreach to Anderson and ASU stayed on the right side of uncomfortable and patronizing. It was a wonderfully decent and human gesture, but it was also simply the right thing to do.


Post Georgia 63 – Murray State 17: Past, present, and future

Tuesday September 10, 2019

Georgia paid tribute to one of its icons on Saturday, and the Bulldog Nation welcomed back some of the greatest players of the 60s, 70s, and 80s (*). The ceremony introducing “Vince Dooley Field” was enough to fill the stands on a relentlessly hot day and move a nearly-capacity crowd to a warm ovation.

It was by no means a farewell for Dooley who remains active in the Athens community and makes frequent appearances at events. In some sense though it was closure and a way to wrap up an unsettled period in Georgia history that covered nearly two decades now. Clashes with the administration led to the end of Dooley’s career as athletic director and divided a Georgia fan base right as its flagship football program began to show signs of life. With all of that division a distant memory and that administration long gone, Saturday’s ceremony might have been as much about putting that era behind us as it was a recognition for a long and successful career.

Whether or not the “Dooley Field” recognition could be seen as vindication or a last laugh, it should be at least enough to close this chapter with an appropriate ending. Dooley himself seems at peace. “It’s all been great, but I’ll be glad when it’s over, to focus all the attention back to where it should be, on the football team,” he said. Dooley is content now to “(fade) away in the sunlight in my garden,” and we hope that twilight isn’t for many years to come.

Meanwhile the team that plays on the field now named for Dooley is doing anything but fading away. If the pregame ceremony was about the past, Saturday’s game quickly became about the bright future of the program. Some initial shakiness had fans grumbling about a 7-7 score after one quarter, but a 35-point second period cleared the way for waves of reserves to have their moment in the (did we mention brutally hot) sun.

Fromm was sharp as usual with only one incompletion, Swift got into the endzone and had yet another explosive run, and Reed perfected his scoop-and-score technique. The starters did their jobs. After the game though most of the conversation had to do with some of the impressive Sanford Stadium debuts we saw. So often these blowouts end up with the team basically taking a knee for the second half, but those who stuck around or watched on TV saw plenty of action. The offense scored as many points (28) without Fromm in the game as with him. The defensive reserves allowed just a field goal.

Here are just some of the firsts we witnessed:

  • George Pickens’s first reception and touchdown.
  • Pickens leading the team in receiving yards
  • Zamir White’s first touchdown
  • White leading the team in rushing yards
  • Nolan Smith’s first sack(s)
  • Eli Wolf’s first career multiple-reception game
  • Stetson Bennett’s first touchdown pass
  • Latavious Brini’s first interception
  • Demetris Robertson’s first Sanford Stadium receiving touchdown
  • Dominick Blaylock’s debut and first touchdown
  • Netori Johnson’s first tackle for loss on a late fourth-down stop

Those are just individual highlights. Several other players saw their first action at Sanford Stadium. Thanks to the new redshirt rule, Georgia emptied the bench. If a scholarship player didn’t play in this game, they were probably injured. What struck you was that even with the reserves in the game you were still watching impressive, though inexperienced, talent. It’s late in the fourth quarter, and there’s 4* DE Bill Norton. At cornerback was 4* Tyrique Stevenson who could have played for anyone. Blaylock didn’t even play last week and showed explosiveness. I thought about three years of watching Smith, Pickens, Blaylock, Walker, Dean, and White and couldn’t help but smile. Even as we celebrated the past by honoring Dooley, the present is exciting, and Georgia’s not going away for the foreseeable future.

Kirby Smart will have plenty to pick apart from the game. Pass protection can still be a concern. Smart wasn’t pleased with tackling. Georgia was more successful at creating havoc plays, but at times it came at the cost of giving up big plays when the initial tackle was missed. He’ll be pleased with fewer penalties and the results against the run, but Murray State’s air raid exposed a few areas to clean up in pass coverage. Fans don’t have to think about all of that. This is a good, deep team, and it showed on Saturday against a lesser opponent. As Smart reminded us, it’s something else to perform this well against more equally-matched opponents. We’ll worry about that when those opponents show up.

There was one area in which Georgia’s depth was more than just a luxury. The midweek injury to Isaiah Wilson meant that Georgia would have to find a solution at right tackle. We assumed that Mays would slide out to tackle with Cleveland taking over at guard, but Jamaree Salyer also saw time at tackle with the first unit. The offense didn’t suffer much with either combination. Granted the level of competition had something to do with it, but Georgia was still able to do most of what it wanted to. Since Wilson could miss the Notre Dame game, the team will have another week to experiment with its starting offensive line and find the best combination to take into the big game.

One thing that might be overlooked was how clean the game was in terms of operations. Murray State’s air raid offense wanted to push the tempo. If they huddled, they often used a “sugar huddle” that didn’t give the defense much time to align itself to the formation. Even their punt unit used an unconventional method to get on to the field. Georgia was rarely caught off-guard by any of this. The Dawgs had to burn an early timeout before a punt, but otherwise they were prepared with quick substitutions involving entire changes of personnel groupings. I don’t recall any substitution infractions or major misalignments of the defense, and that’s tough to accomplish against this kind of team. Given the heat and how easy it would have been for minds to wander with such a lopsided score, it’s even more impressive considering how many reserves played and the dizzying number of combinations Georgia had to get on and off the field. That’s a credit to the detailed preparation that went into an FCS opponent.

More…

  • Eli Wolf didn’t just have a career high in receptions. His five receptions in 2019 match his 2018 total at Tennessee, and he already has more receiving yards at Georgia (84) than he did in his Tennessee career (78). Wolf has been a welcome addition and has allowed Georgia to use a lot more 12 (ace) personnel than we expected, and the tight ends are doing more than blocking. They were key parts of the passing game during the second quarter scoring outburst.
  • Perimeter blocking is consistent – even late in the game Trey Blount was getting it done on the outside.
  • Last season kick coverage was often an adventure when there wasn’t a touchback. Three such kicks in 2019 is a small sample size, but Georgia seems to have solved its coverage issues. Special teams in general are solid, and Camarda has been outstanding.
  • Stetson Bennett showed he was capable of running a simplified offense. He made a couple of mistakes and probably should have been intercepted twice, but you know he was anxious to make something happen in his first meaningful action at Georgia.
  • A week after subpar results on third down, Georgia converted 8-10. Only one of those failed conversions came before the fourth quarter – the sack of Fromm in the first quarter. Murray State’s defense isn’t Vanderbilt’s, but that’s still improvement.
  • More interesting might have been the way Georgia mixed it up on third-and-short (three yards or less.) The Dawgs didn’t face third-and-short until the second quarter, but that 3rd-and-3 play was a 24-yard Fromm pass to Wolf. On six plays of 3rd-and-3 or shorter, Georgia ran three times and passed three times. Georgia’s only short-yardage third down play near the goal line was a handoff to Zamir White, and he plowed six yards into the endzone behind some nice blocking.
  • I didn’t see any serious injuries or even cramping – that’s incredible in those conditions. Kirby Smart made a point of practicing outdoors as much as possible in August, and the team’s conditioning seemed to be up to the challenge.
  • It wasn’t obvious in broad daylight, but you could see the new lighting system being used before and during the game. Georgia’s new LED lights can be instantly turned on and off individually to create any number of effects, and they can also be dimmed similar to what you’ve seen at a Braves game. We’ve also seen testing of red lights. It should be quite a show for that little night game in two weeks.
  • At least from my perspective the University did well to manage the conditions. Cold water was available well into the second half. The policy to allow ticketholders to bring water into the stadium helped, and I heard good reviews of the water filling stations. I only saw one heat-related incident in our area, and it was promptly handled. I appreciate the hard work it took by stadium staff to make the heat as tolerable as possible.

* It amazes me that this era still resonates as it does with younger fans and recruits. A recruit meeting Herschel Walker now would be the equivalent of a young Walker meeting Frank Sinkwich or some other WWII-era legend.


Post Georgia 30 – Vanderbilt 6: Your ordinary everyday takeover

Wednesday September 4, 2019

A year ago Georgia led Vanderbilt 21-6 at halftime but scored 17 third quarter points to allow both the bench and stands to empty early. The Dawgs enjoyed the same halftime margin on Saturday night but struggled to pull away, settling for a trio of second half field goals for the final margin. Penalties, a turnover, and a failed fourth down conversion kept the Bulldogs out of the endzone in the second half. The result was a comfortable if not flashy 30-6 win. There are plenty of things to work on and improve but very few areas that should keep fans up at night.

It’s a new season, but the Georgia team we saw in Nashville was very familiar. Even with two new coordinators both the offense and defense would have looked at home in 2018.

That’s not to say there weren’t some tweaks. The offense featured a bit more pre-snap motion, especially orbit motion that brought a player in motion behind the quarterback. Georgia ran from passing formations and, as on the first touchdown, passed when a run might have been expected. Play-action was a big part of the passes Georgia attempted, and Georgia’s run threat led to some very open shots down the field. Otherwise though, it was the run-heavy attack you’d expect from Georgia. The motion and spread looks allowed the offense to showcase its speed on the outside while creating nightmare defensive matchups when Georgia decided to run between the tackles.

Things also looked familiar on defense, and that might merit a closer look. We’re going to be sick of the term “havoc” before long, but the defense identified havoc as a key area of improvement this season. If that’s the case, it’s worth pointing out that Georgia shut down some capable skill players and kept Vanderbilt out of the endzone without creating much disruption. In fact, according to Patrick Garbin of UGASports.com, it could be said that Georgia took a step back in havoc relative to 2018.

Pass pressure and hurries aren’t a part of the havoc calculation due to inconsistent stats, but, as Garbin points out, Georgia fared much better pressuring the quarterback in this game even if it didn’t lead to tangible results like sacks or turnovers. More often the results were errant passes or short gains that neutralized Vanderbilt’s explosive potential. Georgia only allowed five plays longer than 10 yards and only one play longer than 20 yards. Without those big gains, Vanderbilt could be relied upon to shoot themselves in the foot with their own miscues. It’s a formula that worked against enough teams in 2018 to give Georgia a top 10 defense, and it worked again on Saturday night. I’m not so sure that’s the identity the team wants this year though.

Georgia’s defense – the line in particular – was a little more into the game in the second half. The few havoc plays largely occurred after halftime, and as a result the Vanderbilt offense wasn’t able to stay on the field very long. During one stretch in the second half, Vanderbilt had four straight three-and-outs losing a combined 1 yard. Even though Georgia’s offense slowed down, the Bulldog defense slammed the door on any kind of comeback. For contrast, Vanderbilt had no possession shorter than six plays in the first half, and several of those drives only stalled due to penalties. Consequently Georgia only had four first half possessions while their offense was humming.

I know the thinking is that Georgia’s offense went conservative in the second half with the game more or less under control. That might be the case, but there are still reasons to have expected more points on the board. The defense’s ability to get off the field meant that four of Georgia’s six second half possessions started with field position no worse than their own 46. You want more than six total points out of those four possessions. The other two possessions ended on downs and Jackson’s fumble. Georgia was still running its first team offense with the long strike to Jackson and consecutive shots at the endzone with Pickens, so it wasn’t a case of the offense taking a knee for the final 30 minutes. You want to see the offense finish those drives better especially when given that kind of field position.

Spreading it around

In each of the past two seasons a single receiver emerged as Jake Fromm’s favorite target. Wims stood out in 2017, and Holloman became that target in 2018. Whether Fromm feels more comfortable spreading the ball around or he just hasn’t found that go-to target yet, we saw Georgia showcase a variety of weapons in the passing game. Fromm completed 15 passes to eight different receivers. Six players had multiple receptions, and no one had more than three. There were three receptions by tight ends, three by tailbacks, and nine by four different wide receivers. Others (Simmons and Pickens in particular) were targeted but didn’t record a reception.

There were hardly any outright drops – many of the incompletions were just passes into tight coverage. We can’t dismiss concerns about the receiving corps yet, especially with Jackson’s injury, but some nice options seem to be available. Simmons and Pickens will soon join the stat sheet, and we haven’t even seen others like Blaylock yet. Georgia (and Fromm) had a bit tougher time of it on more obvious passing situations like third and long or at the end of the first half.

There were some shaky moments in pass protection. Hill, as the newest member of the regular offensive line, is still figuring some things out and had problems with a couple of stunts and twists, and he wasn’t alone in getting beat by the pass rush. LSU and Texas last season were able to confuse Georgia’s protection at times as they limited Georgia’s offense. We’ll see if Pittman can address those protection issues before Georgia faces another opponent that can take advantage of them.

Tailback U

When you combine for over 300 yards on the ground against an SEC opponent, something is going right. The offensive line and perimeter blocking were excellent, but each of the backs had something worth celebrating in this game:

  • Herrien earned a well-deserved start and set the tone right away with a 10-yard gain.
  • Cook showed how versatile he can be in the offense with two carries and two receptions. He glided to the endzone on his scoring run, and he’s going to be a tough assignment running the orbit motion.
  • Zeuuuuuuuuuuus – I was surprised that Georgia fans had it together enough to not only recognize that White got into the game but to greet him with a serenade loud enough to make the other players wonder what was going on. The reception for White could turn a heart of stone, and it was a well-deserved appreciation for the two years of hard work that led to White just taking the field. White didn’t disappoint on his five carries – just hold onto the ball!
  • Swift’s health and availability was a daily preseason obsession, but he showed no limitations once the lights were on Saturday. He led Georgia in both carries and yardage. No disrespect to the other ballcarriers who contributed to the win, but a fully operational Swift is just in a class by himself.

Tight ends

I wondered if Georgia might turn to its offensive line depth to help the tight ends in short-yardage situations, but the three tight ends Georgia used Saturday turned out to be enough. When Georgia went into the I-formation on the goal line they turned to Eli Wolf as the blocking back, and he was up to the job taking out two Vanderbilt defenders. Tight ends were active in the passing game with three receptions, and they (especially Woerner) were devastating blocking in open space.

The tight ends were a little less effective blocking in tight formations. The fourth down attempt was a mess. It wasn’t an issue of five offensive linemen left to block seven defenders; Georgia was in 12 or (“ace”) personnel with two tight ends in to help up front. There were enough blockers, but both tight ends missed their block. Georgia was more effective in short yardage with a lead blocker (Wolf) or running out of a spread look.

Newbies

There weren’t a ton of true freshmen who played at Vanderbilt, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t a lot of new faces. Georgia mixed in a handful of new-to-us players who had us scrambling for our roster sheets. JUCO transfers DJ Daniel and Jermaine Johnson were popular choices on third downs. Grad transfers Eli Wolf and Lawrence Cager had nice debuts for the offense. Divaad Wilson got an earful from Kirby Smart on a thoughtless personal foul but was right back out there as part of Georgia’s secondary. In all five redshirt freshmen, two JUCO transfers, and two grad transfers joined with seven true freshmen to make a significant impact on the outcome.

In the haze of the celebration after Georgia’s first touchdown, I swore I saw a freshman defensive linemen charging down the field to cover a kickoff. That says about all you need to know about Travon Walker – part basketball player, part defensive end, and part special teams gunner. Walker is already working into the defensive line rotation, and it was surprising to see Walker get the nod over more experienced players like Malik Herring.

Azeez Ojulari isn’t a newcomer, but you might not know the name if you tuned out of the Sugar Bowl. Ojulari stepped into Ledbetter’s #13 and looks to be a three-down option at outside linebacker. Nolan Smith quickly showed why he was the nation’s top prospect with an impressive backside pursuit to force a Vanderbilt punt.

A home nonconference game and the full roster combined with the four-game redshirt rule should mean many more glances at the roster this week.


Post Not a 2019 season preview

Friday August 30, 2019

It’s here! Time to load up the car for a road trip to Nashville. An invasion by Georgia fans is almost expected now for any road game, and Nashville is usually happy to accommodate. This isn’t a preview – there are plenty of those elsewhere – but more of a dump of things on my mind as we head into the season.

There haven’t been many surprises over the offseason, and any concerns have to do with the incremental improvements that turn a playoff contender into a champion. In other words, we more or less know the cards Georgia is holding, and we know they’re good ones. That can make for boring blogging at times as there are only so many ways to say that Georgia has a good team.

Kirby Smart touched on an obvious but important point at SEC Media Days in July: how weird is it for Georgia to be measured relative to a team not even on its schedule? As Smart reminds us, the Dawgs have a 12-game row to hoe first. The assumption of a postseason date with Alabama implies a couple of things: first, anything short of another division title would be a serious setback. Second, Georgia is nearly to the point as a program that Georgia advancing to face Alabama is expected as much as Alabama advancing to face Georgia. The Georgia program is now measured in all things relative to Alabama, and that in itself says quite a lot.

The Grown-Up in the Room

It seems as if he was hired yesterday, but only four SEC head coaches now have more experience at their current school than Kirby Smart. Entering his fourth season Smart has created a team and program largely of his own making. There are a handful of redshirt seniors (Blankenship!) and others who committed to Mark Richt for the 2016 class, but 68 of Georgia’s 83 scholarship players are juniors or below.

Smart, for the first time, is welcoming new coordinators. Replacing just a single coordinator has been enough to trip up other Georgia coaches. Hiring from within might lend itself to some continuity, but was that taking the easy way out? That’s no disrespect to Coley or Lanning who have earned their roles, but Georgia didn’t seem to conduct much of a search for its coordinators outside of the 706 area code. Why would they? Both the offense and defense were doing well, and these men certainly had their hands in that success.

There were two things keeping Georgia fans from worrying too much about two new coordinators. First was, again, the Alabama factor. Bama loses coaches all the time and chugs on, so why shouldn’t Georgia? That’s assuming quite a bit though about the state of Georgia’s program. Alabama has earned that benefit of the doubt; I’m not so sure Georgia has. Second is the presence of Kirby Smart. We know what kind of offense Smart prefers, and we know this team is meant to run that certain style. Coley might introduce his own wrinkles, but this isn’t Auburn bringing in Tony Franklin for a wholesale retooling of the offense’s identity. It’s a similar story on defense. It’s unfair to Mel Tucker (and Lanning) to call them figureheads running Smart’s defense just as it was wrong to say that about Smart and Saban at Alabama. What’s true though is that Smart will set the tone in both the players the program recruits and the insistence that the defense meets the same standards of composure and physicality he’s set for the entire program. Certain aspects – like this season’s emphasis on havoc – might change from year to year, but you’re never concerned that Kirby Smart doesn’t know what he wants from his defense.

But if our faith in the new coordinators lies largely in the belief that they’re instruments of Kirby Smart’s preferences, Smart’s own role in decisions deserves greater scrutiny. That doesn’t just mean fake punts late in the SEC championship game. If Coley gets away from the run a little too soon, will Smart be willing to correct? Hopefully it won’t take a Chubb/Michel type of meeting. If an opponent makes adjustments to attack Georgia’s offensive line as LSU did, will Smart be quick to recognize it and help craft a response? Can Smart step in when the defense isn’t getting lined up properly against hurry-up offenses?

The results on the field and on the recruiting trail show that Kirby Smart can build a winning program and culture. Will we see how Smart himself has improved with three years’ experience at the helm? This might be a harsh way of putting it, but will the coaches prove to be at the level of the players they’ve brought in?

Return on Investment

Smart has been the beneficiary of a tremendous investment in the program. Both donors and administrators have aligned to provide Smart with an impressive coaching and support staff, a jewel of an indoor facility, and an eye-popping West endzone addition to Sanford Stadium. We’ve seen the pockets opened for recruiting to the point where no program spends more to attract top talent. Soon the program will begin raising funds for the next capital project – a football facility and much larger weight room adjacent to the Butts-Mehre building. Will donors be as generous as they have been, or do they need to see at least another playoff appearance first? Is this an important year for Smart – not in terms of job stability but in terms of sustaining the no-questions-asked investment that has fueled his first four years?

Home Turf

These Georgia players have been in plenty of big games, and the pressure of expectations is last year’s news. The difference this year is that a couple of the biggest games of the year are at home. None of these players were around for September 2013 (or the 2015 Alabama game, but the less said about that the better.) About the biggest home game these players have seen is the 2017 Mississippi State game. Georgia hasn’t dropped a game at Sanford Stadium since 2016, but they also haven’t faced opponents this good.

For road or neutral site games you can put on the “business trip” blinders and insulate yourself from most things other than the business at hand. That’s tough-to-impossible at home. When there’s a big game coming up it’s all anyone will talk about that week in class, on campus, and all over Athens. Media will come in starting with Kirby’s press conference on Monday, and it won’t let up. If Gameday is here, as it will likely be for Notre Dame, the broadcasts will start on Thursday. I want to see if the coaches – and, more importantly, the team leadership – can get the team to tune out those distractions and prepare. It’s something Georgia is going to have to deal with a lot more often if Kirby builds the kind of program we expect and Georgia becomes everyone’s biggest game.

Something to Prove

Beyond big game hype, the Notre Dame game will come with something a little extra. We all saw the tweets last December from Georgia’s players as they watched Clemson dismantle Notre Dame. That mindset carried over to the bowl game, and we saw what happened.

I’m sure Notre Dame’s coaches will remind their players what Georgia’s players think of them. I hope Georgia’s coaches use it too. You said it, now back it up. Notre Dame was in the playoff last year, and the Dawgs weren’t. Do something about it.

The Z-Factor

Georgia fans have been anticipating Zamir White’s debut since his pivotal commitment in 2017. Remember – at the time he was Georgia’s highest-rated tailback commitment of the internet era. Two major knee injuries have pumped the brakes on any next-Herschel (or even next-Chubb) hype, but the idea that someone that good is on the roster and might be able to contribute has been enticing enough to keep the what-ifs alive in the back of our minds.

Reports out of camp have been promising with White showing a physical running style and no lingering effects from his injuries. Nearly every Georgia back has been lauded this offseason for his pass catching ability out of the backfield, and White has held his own there. There’s no need to rush him into 20 carries per game, but there also seems to be no reason why he shouldn’t be a part of the gameplan from the start. We should be confident enough in Brian Herrien’s ability to give Swift some relief, but Zamir White anywhere near his original strength gives Georgia a legitimate 1A and 1B punch in the backfield and suddenly makes this unit look fairly deep. It would allow the coaches some flexibility with Cook, put less of a load on Swift (who himself has battled injuries), and let the coaches approach the tailback rotation strategically.

White’s 2019 could even have ripple effects beyond the current team. Georgia currently has one five-star tailback committed and, according to reports, is near the top of the list for a second. It wouldn’t be the first time Georgia signed two five-star tailbacks (White himself along with James Cook were such a duo), but it would be unprecedented with White and Cook still on the roster. It’s not unthinkable that any prospective tailback commitment will be watching White and Cook for a sense of how crowded things might be at the top of the depth chart in 2020 if D’Andre Swift goes pro.

Depth

Georgia, according to Rivals, has put together three straight top three signing classes (and two straight #1 classes). Quibble about the exact rankings, but there is arguably more talent now in Athens than at any point in the program’s history. How does that increased talent level begin to manifest itself? Georgia has always had standout players and NFL-quality talent. The difference now is in depth. We saw an example of that depth last year when a player of the quality of Cade Mays could step in when Andrew Thomas had to leave the South Carolina game. We saw defensive backs Eric Stokes and Otis Reese push and even unseat starters during the season.

Depth offers you both of those luxuries: options when inevitable injuries occur and continuous competition that reinforces standards. We’ve already seen competition shuffle things around in the preseason. Hopefully we won’t have to discover how resilient the team’s depth is to injuries.

Since we started with Alabama, we’ll finish there too. Georgia’s collapses on both sides of the ball in the fourth quarter have led to narrow losses in the past two meetings with the Tide. Key injuries – Wims in 2017 and Walker in 2018 – couldn’t be overcome. This is where you expect to see depth show up. Will the team be able to rotate players throughout the season to have something in the tank for the postseason? Will more position groups develop players ready to step in with minimal loss of production if a starter is unavailable? Georgia should now be deep enough that you don’t have to stretch to get the right 11 on the field for most any situation, and not many teams can say that.


Post Cry havoc…

Monday August 19, 2019

Any preview of the Georgia defense this year must include one word: havoc. Coaches and players usually aren’t that willing to volunteer details about what they’re working on, but this season’s focus on creating more havoc has been an exception. That’s not as vapid as saying the defense’s objective is to keep the offense from scoring; being more intentional about havoc implies certain adjustments to scheme and a willingness to take a few more chances. It’s willing to put one of Georgia’s 2018 defensive strengths at risk and suggests that the staff might have a little more faith in the 2019 secondary.

What is “havoc rate?”

Yes, “havoc” is a measurable thing and has been a part of the emerging advanced stats developed by Bill Connolly and others. Connolly writes that havoc rate is “The percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up).

But does a good havoc rate go hand-in-hand with a good defense?

Not exactly, but it doesn’t hurt. Here’s the 2018 defensive advanced stats for college football. Only four of the top 10 defenses by S&P+ had top 10 havoc rates. The rest rated 20 or below, and over 40 teams had havoc rates better than three of the top 10 defenses.

Then again, nine of the defenses with top 10 havoc rates rated no worse than 21st in defensive S&P+. The outlier? Resurgent UAB had the sixth-best havoc rate in the nation but rated 45th in defensive S&P+. The Blazers demonstrated to the extreme the give-and-take of havoc: they were #1 in success rate, #2 in front 7 havoc, and #6 in overall havoc. But they were #112 in IsoPPP – a measure of effectiveness against explosive plays. UAB was aggressive up front and often successful, but they were extremely prone to getting burned by big plays.

I think the takeaway here is that there is more than one way to play effective defense. Still, if you look at the teams Georgia considers its peers – Clemson and Alabama – there’s no mistaking dominant defenses featuring a high havoc rate led by disruptive defensive fronts. You had just better be able to cover well behind that front.

Georgia was 73rd in havoc rate in 2018. That’s bad, right?

Again, Georgia had a top 10 defense by S&P+, so the lack of havoc wasn’t crippling. It’s just not how Kirby Smart prefers to play defense. In a way, it’s a credit to the coaching staff that they were able to adjust the defensive scheme last season to get a fairly effective season out of a rebuilding roster. By dialing back aggressive playcalling, Georgia was top 3 in IsoPPP, passing S&P+, and passing down S&P+. They kept things largely in front of them, didn’t give up big plays, and made opposing offenses work. Even when teams were able to move the ball on Georgia, the Bulldog offense (rated #3 in S&P+) was much more often than not able to put enough points on the board to make up the difference.

There were weaknesses in that approach though. Without many lost yardage plays, teams could generally stay ahead of the chains against Georgia, and the Dawgs had a mediocre defensive success rating of 63rd and were 53rd in rushing S&P+. We saw that softness against the run at some key moments last year. Even at Missouri, the Tigers were kept out of the endzone through the air but still made things interesting by running the ball with surprising success. That was a choice by Georgia to take away the big passing plays on which Drew Lock and the Mizzou offense thrived. Fortunately not too many Georgia opponents in 2018 had the firepower to force Georgia into that kind of a choice.

So what’s Georgia’s plan?

As with any defensive scheme, it begins up front. A defensive line without much push by definition won’t have many havoc plays (sacks and tackles for loss). A veteran group with a few key pieces getting healthy should help. Developing underclassmen like Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt, and Malik Herring will be key. Travon Walker could have the kind of impact Davis had a year ago as a freshman. Collectively they must improve at taking on the offensive line and getting a push into the backfield.

Behind that line is one of Georgia’s more talented and deep units. The Dawgs have recruited as well at linebacker, especially outside linebacker, than most other positions. In a 3-4 base defense (granting that Georgia plays more nickel than anything), many of your havoc plays will come from the linebacker position. While the defensive line occupies blockers, explosive linebackers can attack. Roquan Smith is obviously the model here, and that’s why so much attention has been paid to Monty Rice’s health and the arrival of Nakobe Dean. The guys on the edge have as much to do with it, and getting more production from the insanely talented outside linebackers will have as much as anything to do with improved havoc rate. A more aggressive approach from this group against Alabama was effective, and getting to Tua Tagovailoa led to sacks and turnovers until D’Andre Walker was injured.

The secondary has an important role to play if you want to avoid the UAB scenario of getting torched in the name of creating havoc. Coaches won’t be as willing to be aggressive up front if they’re not confident in their safety net. The four (or five) defensive backs can’t allow explosive plays. That means pass coverage, yes, but it also means sure tackling to prevent small gains from turning into bigger ones. That wasn’t always a strong point of Georgia’s defense in 2018, especially at safety. This unit will have its own role in havoc: if the front seven are creating pressure, you would expect a quarterback under duress to make more mistakes and create opportunities for interceptions.

Even the offense can help. If Georgia is able to establish early leads, the opponent’s offense becomes more predictable. Georgia can leave its pass rushers on the field, play coverage schemes that might be a little more vulnerable to the run, and get after the quarterback.

Since we have metrics for these things now, the defense’s progress won’t be hard to track. We’ll see it in more traditional stats like turnovers, tackles for loss, and sacks, but “havoc rate” is what we’re really looking for. It will also be worth keeping an eye on IsoPPP to see whether the defense can continue to limit explosive plays as well as they did a year ago. With an improved havoc rate and sustained success against big plays, Georgia would take the step forward on defense that could get the team over the top this year.


Post Georgia’s 2020 football schedule

Saturday August 10, 2019

The SEC released its 2020 football schedule earlier this week. Georgia’s schedule has two items that were big enough to compete with 2019 preseason coverage. First was confirmation that, yes, the Auburn game would leave its traditional November slot for an early October date. The big story was that the Bulldogs would open SEC play on the road in Tuscaloosa as Alabama rotates on to Georgia’s schedule. The two most recent regular season meetings haven’t gone so well for the Dawgs, but Georgia has taken the past two meetings in Tuscaloosa.

It’s a good thing that the Alabama game will take place so early in the season as its build-up has the potential to suck all of the air out of the room, especially if the two teams meet yet again in the 2019 postseason. Both teams will be able to put it behind them and get on with the rest of their season. We’ll hear plenty about that game during the offseason. It’s possible that both teams will have new quarterbacks, and there are a zillion other storylines about that game we’ll have plenty of time to get to after, you know, the actual 2019 season staring us in the face.

Some other quick thoughts about the 2020 schedule before we shelve it for the next six months:

1. I’m glad Blutarsky brought this up because I was struggling with a way to put it. The early placement of the Alabama-Georgia game is ideal for the conference’s chances of having two playoff teams. The loser of the game will have plenty of time in which to climb back up the polls before a possible rematch in December. At the same time, a loss will leave one of those teams with little margin for error for the rest of their season within their own division.

2. Not only does Georgia open the SEC slate at Alabama, that trip to Tuscaloosa will also be Georgia’s third game in 12 days. The season opener in Atlanta against Virginia is on Labor Day (Monday). It will be interesting to see how the staff manages the ETSU game. On one hand, you want the team sharp and rounding into form for the season’s biggest game. On the other hand, you might need an opportunity to rest players moreso than usual after a game just five days earlier.

3. You can pencil in October 3rd (Vanderbilt) as Homecoming.

4. Every couple of years we’ll get a schedule that takes Georgia away from Athens for over a month. With only six home games on the schedule, Georgia will go from October 10th through November 14th without a game in Athens.

5. Yes, the shift in the Auburn game will take some getting used to. It also means that Georgia will have its SEC West obligations out of the way by early October. Georgia closes the conference schedule with five straight SEC East games and won’t play its second game in the division until the second half of the season. In fact, it looks as if the SEC has set up many of its biggest intra-divisonal games for late in the season. From weeks 9 through 13 you have Georgia-Florida, Georgia-Tennessee, LSU-Alabama, LSU-Auburn, Auburn-Alabama, Alabama-Texas A&M, and LSU-Texas A&M. November 2020 should be fun.

6. I was disappointed to see the Kentucky game move back to November. There was some hope based on the 2019 schedule that we’d have an October trip to Lexington. An early autumn trip with Fall Meet going on at Keeneland used to be one of the highlights for Road Dawgs, but it’s not going to happen next year.


Post The 84 that will start preseason camp

Thursday August 1, 2019

Preseason camp opens on Friday, and we’ll get our first practices with the complete 2019 roster. 14 members of the incoming class went through spring practice, and the rest of the class arrived earlier in the summer for offseason workouts. There’s been some additional attrition since spring, but by and large the team that reports will be intact. Returning players made grades, and all incoming players qualified.

Georgia is, by my count, at 84 scholarship players entering camp. They were at the limit of 85 until early June when JJ Holloman was dismissed. Kirby Smart will likely use that scholarship to expand the size of the 2020 class, but it might also mean that a senior walk-on earns a full ride this year. Then again, Ahkil Crumpton didn’t join the 2017 squad until August, so it’s possible that Smart is still out there beating the bushes to find a late transfer to use that open scholarship. Stay tuned.

I like using the “recruiting roster” format below to get a quick sense of how the talent on the team is distributed across classes and positions.

The first thing you’ll notice is how the roster is weighted towards the left side of the table – 50 of the 84 have at least three years of eligibility remaining. That’s not a shock – with early enrollment and the transfer portal, all teams are young teams now. When you’ve recruited this well, just about anyone could be called on to play. That’s especially true of the defense – Ojulari and Wilson were the only defensive newcomers redshirted last year, and they were injured. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the majority of Georgia’s team now comes from the 2018 and 2019 classes rated #1 in the nation by some recruiting services.

It looks like a relatively small senior class, but we can expect that group to be augmented by some juniors declaring for the draft, particularly on offense. Pretty much every position group on offense other than TE has potential junior pro prospects. We have a whole season to play before fretting about 2020, but if Fromm and Swift declare for the draft, Georgia’s skill positions will be light on upperclassmen. It’s a problem for down the road, but there could be a fairly large leadership vacuum (and opportunity!) on the offense in 2020.

For now though it’s an impressive looking group. Georgia is starting to accumulate nice depth across the board. Barring injuries, the Dawgs might not have to lean on true freshmen as much as they have in the past couple of years. Some like George Pickens and Nolan Smith might be ready sooner than others, but the staff can plug these newcomers in when it makes sense and not because there are no other options.

(Possible Day-One starters are in bold – just a best guess using the post-spring depth chart from UGASports.com. [R] indicates a player who has redshirted.)

Years of Eligibility Remaining
  4 3 2 1
QB D’wan Mathis Stetson Bennett Jake Fromm  
RB Kenny McIntosh
Zamir White [R]
James Cook D’Andre Swift Brian Herrien
TE Ryland Goede
John FitzPatrick [R]
Brett Seither
    Charlie Woerner
Eli Wolf
WR Dominick Blaylock
Tommy Bush [R]
Kearis Jackson [R]
George Pickens
Matt Landers Trey Blount
Demetris Robertson
Lawrence Cager
Tyler Simmons
OL Owen Condon
Warren Ericson [R]
Warren McClendon
Xavier Truss
Clay Webb
Trey Hill
Cade Mays
Jamaree Salyer
Isaiah Wilson [R]
Ben Cleveland [R]
Solomon Kindley [R]
Justin Shaffer
Andrew Thomas
D’Marcus Hayes
DL Zion Logue
Tymon Mitchell
Bill Norton
Travon Walker
Jordan Davis
Netori Johnson
Tramel Walthour
Malik Herring
Devonte Wyatt
Justin Young [R]
Michael Barnett
Michail Carter
Tyler Clark
David Marshall
Julian Rochester
LB Rian Davis
Nakobe Dean
Trezmen Marshall
Azeez Ojulari [R]
Nolan Smith
Adam Anderson
Robert Beal
Brenton Cox
Channing Tindall
Quay Walker
Walter Grant
Jermaine Johnson
Nate McBride
Monty Rice
Tae Crowder
DB Lewis Cine
Tyrique Stevenson
Makiya Tongue
Divaad Wilson [R]
Latavious Brini
Tyson Campbell
Otis Reese
Christopher Smith
Ameer Speed
Eric Stokes
DJ Daniel
Richard LeCounte
William Poole
Mark Webb
Tyrique McGhee
J.R. Reed
Specialists   Jake Camarda   Rodrigo Blankenship
         
28 22 19 15

Post Getting to 70

Thursday August 1, 2019

As practice opens on Friday, we’ll have the usual questions to answer: who steps up to replace the players no longer on the team, who will start, and which newcomers are ready to contribute right away.

A recent UGASports.com podcast reminded me that the schedule presents another preseason question Georgia hasn’t had to deal with in several years: Georgia opens on the road for the first time since 2013 and opens with a road conference game for the first time since 1994. Why does that matter? Georgia can only travel 70 players to Nashville. At least 14 scholarship players won’t make the trip, and that number could be higher if walk-ons are needed for special teams or depth (like a third quarterback.)

That limit means that the travel roster, or at least its first draft, has to be settled in preseason camp. The job isn’t just identifying starters or even the two-deep. The staff must also form personnel groups, special teams units, and select kick returners from that 70.

Coaches won’t have a home game or even a road/neutral nonconference game in which to evaluate the roster before deciding who makes the cut. All of that work must be done in August, and the 28 newcomers or redshirted players won’t have long to make an impression. For those who aren’t established starters it creates a little more urgency to stand out over the next four weeks.

Injuries will do some of the deciding for the coaches. Players like Rian Davis and Ryland Goede who are working back from knee surgeries will likely be scratches. Georgia will have the luxury of redshirting several incoming offensive and defensive linemen, so they’ll also be candidates to miss the trip. Those newcomers who enrolled early and went through spring drills will probably have a leg up over those newcomers who didn’t arrive until June. Still, at some of the unsettled positions like receiver and defensive back, the opportunity to make the 70 is wide open.

No, it’s not as critical as it might be if Georgia were opening with Auburn. It does set a bit of a pecking order and sets the bar for those who didn’t make the roster. As we know with this staff, nothing is set in stone from week to week, and there will be plenty of time in September for other players to make their case. After Vanderbilt the team will have over a month at home to evaluate and refine its travel list before the next road game at Tennessee, and we might expect to see a slightly different 70 make that trip.


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.


Post Claxton drafted, Howard signed

Monday June 24, 2019

Nic Claxton Thursday night became the first Georgia basketball player to be drafted by the NBA since 2013 when he went early in the second round to the Brooklyn Nets. That draft position might be a little disappointing – Claxton had generated quite a bit of first-round chatter and was considered to be one of the prospects on the rise since he announced his intention to enter the draft. It’s still a fairly solid position and evidence of tremendous growth during his time at Georgia, but you wonder if a second-round projection might have affected Claxton’s decision to leave.

Claxton’s early departure left an opening on the Georgia frontcourt, and Tom Crean addressed that opening with the signing of 6’11” Rodney Howard late in May. Howard is a former Ole Miss commitment and Georgia native who chose the Bulldogs over Georgia Tech.

While Howard replaces Claxton numbers-wise, he’s not likely to be a replacement for Claxton’s production or style of play. I think of Howard more as a replacement for Derek Ogbeide. With the incoming talent at guard and wing, there’s less of an urgent need for a stretch 4/5 like Claxton to score away from the basket. Georgia needs interior depth – rebounding, defending the rim, and scoring around the basket. If Howard can help in those areas, he’ll be an asset, and I won’t care if he never attempts a three-pointer.

The backcourt was set earlier in May with the addition of Sahvir Wheeler and Donnell Gresham Jr. Now the frontcourt picture is clearer, though Crean has room to add another grad transfer. Rayshaun Hammonds becomes the returning scoring and rebounding leader. Amanze Ngumezi didn’t see a ton of time as a freshman, but he’ll probably be in line for a much bigger role while Howard comes along. If Georgia wants to go small, there’s a trio of incoming 6’6″ wings whose toughness inside the paint might be tested. It’s clear though that the ability of Hammonds to stay healthy and out of foul trouble will be one of Georgia’s keys to success.

Claxton’s departure and the arrival of Howard means that over half the roster will turn over entering next season. Crean is quick to caution that this is the very definition of rebuilding, and it could temper expectations even with a top 10 class and an elite guard coming in. The nonconference schedule isn’t completely set yet, but we know that Georgia Tech and the Maui Invitational are in November, and the Dawgs will also face Memphis’s top-rated signing class. It could be a fun process watching this talented incoming class grow, but we also have never seen this amount of turnover with so many newcomers counted on. That could lead to frustration as we see glimpses of what’s possible before those individual moments of excellence come together as team success. Expectations for this group will be tricky which is why Crean is already out in front of managing them. He wants to show progress after last season’s step back and must keep the fans engaged as well as he did a year ago, but just as important is keeping the recruiting pipeline full so that any growth this season becomes a foundational building block for bigger things.


Post More like Clemson every day

Wednesday May 29, 2019

A couple of years ago a former baseball letterman wrote one of those open letters sent to local media about the state of Georgia athletics. Football had struggled through Kirby Smart’s first season, and baseball was at a turning point. The thing to do, the letter-writer suggested, was to follow the lead of Clemson – a program celebrating a football national title and opening glittering new facilities left and right.

The problem with that suggestion was the difference between perception and reality. Even with the higher-profile sports underperforming, Georgia’s overall program was a good 30 points higher in the Directors’ Cup standings than Clemson. But because Clemson football had broken through, the perception, according to this letter, was that Georgia had a lot to learn from its rival up I-85.

I bring that up because this post by Blutarsky reminded me of that letter from two years ago and how things have changed in a way that would meet with the approval of its author. Kirby Smart has things rolling. Basketball just pulled in arguably its best recruiting class ever. Gymnastics seems to be on an upswing. The decision to stick with Scott Stricklin has paid off as the Diamond Dawgs are looking at a high national seed in this year’s NCAA tournament. In terms of the overall athletics program though, there’s this reality: “Georgia is 35th in the most recent NACDA Directors’ Cup, which ranked ninth in the SEC. The Bulldogs were 15th in the standings at this point a year ago in the all-sports measurement.”

There are bright individual spots. There always are. Track is a national power. Women’s tennis had a strong season. Several ongoing sports like men’s golf and baseball have an opportunity to earn some hardware. The metric tells us that Georgia’s programs overall are decent with “17 of 21 sports competing in the NCAA postseason,” but it’s not near the usual level of success. I doubt we’ll see impassioned appeals to the media about the state of things this summer. Didn’t you see the latest defensive line commitment?

(Clemson by the way? Down there with Georgia Tech in the 80s.)


Post Want a beer? Get in line now.

Wednesday May 29, 2019

So the SEC is going to review its “decades-old bylaw prohibiting member schools from selling alcohol” at this week’s spring meetings in Destin.

I’m not opposed to the idea of alcohol sales in the stadium, but can Sanford Stadium handle it? I don’t mean the patrons; I’m talking about the neglected infrastructure of areas of the stadium that haven’t been touched since the East stands were added in 1981. I’m trying to visualize how the already-overcrowded concourses of Sanford Stadium would handle beer lines. Navigating the tight East or South concourses for concessions (or anything, really) is already bad enough.

If the plan involves placing beer sales in more open areas in Reed Alley, around Gates 6 and 7, or the West endzone, fine. But this is about revenue, so the temptation won’t be to limit the number of taps or place the majority of them away from where most fans are seated. I have no doubt alcohol sales will happen sooner than later, but I’m going to be very interested in how Georgia implements it. Getting it wrong could be just one more reason to stay at home and enjoy the cold ones from the fridge.


Post Football isn’t brain surgery

Tuesday May 28, 2019

But this is. Yikes.

Freshman quarterback D’Wan Mathis underwent emergency brain surgery last Thursday after an MRI revealed a cyst on his brain.

The surgery was deemed a success, and the prognosis is for a complete recovery. He’ll be closely supervised for some time, and he’ll be on antibiotics for the next month. His availability for preseason camp or even the 2019 season is unknown, but that’s a distant concern next to his well-being. Fortunately this condition was caught in time before more permanent damage was done. Brain surgery isn’t ever minor, and Georgia’s coaches and medical staff will take every precaution. We wish Mathis the best in his recovery.


Post Getting production from Georgia’s most experienced unit

Friday May 17, 2019

Georgia’s not going to have a large senior class in 2019. A quick glance at the roster shows about 14 or 15 rising scholarship seniors. That’s kind of the norm now of course, and the class is smaller than it would have been with several early exits. It’s also revealing about the size of next year’s signing class and why Georgia was able to count two 2019 incoming graduate transfers towards that class.

What stands out among this smaller senior class is that a good chunk of them are defensive linemen. Georgia returns six seniors along the DL next year:

  • Michael Barnett
  • Michail Carter
  • Tyler Clark
  • David Marshall
  • Julian Rochester
  • Justin Young

Not all have started or will start, and younger players like Jordan Davis and Malik Herring have made their case for playing time. But a senior class of that size at one position is a wealth of experience for Tray Scott to work with. (It’s also why Georgia has been incredibly active recruiting defensive linemen for 2019 and 2020.) With all of the attrition from the 2018 team and the graduation of Jonathan Ledbetter, this group of rising seniors remains a bit under the radar. Michael Barnett was slowed during the spring of 2018 by a knee injury. David Marshall was making steady progress since a promising freshman season in 2016 and had a really nice game at South Carolina last year. He was injured during the Vanderbilt game, and his long recovery from a Lisfranc foot injury continued into the spring. Carter, Marshall, and Rochester will miss much if not all of spring practice as they recover from injury or surgery. The injury situation has and will continue to impact depth during spring practice and offseason workouts, but everyone should be available in time for preseason camp.

With so many injuries slowing development and opening the door for younger players to claim playing time, how much production can be expected from the team’s largest group of seniors? Though the defensive line has some of the most veteran players on the roster, not many people consider it one of the team’s stronger units. Few on this list can be said to have had a career arc building towards a breakout senior season. It’s tough to even say how many, if any, will start this year. At the same time, nearly all of these seniors have had impact moments in their first three seasons. The trick this season for the players and coaches is developing those moments into the consistency that will turn into opportunities at the next level. You don’t have to remind anyone that the time for that development is running short.

Perhaps the best news is that Tyler Clark will be back. After a promising sophomore season and a nice performance in the Rose Bowl, Tyler Clark was on most lists of Bulldog juniors likely to consider the 2019 NFL Draft. Clark’s production dropped a bit in 2018 (down to 31 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 sack from 41 tackles, 6 TFL, 2.5 sacks), but remember how the defense changed from 2017 to 2018. Georgia was weaker among the front seven, the pass rush wasn’t as effective, and interior defenders like John Atkins and Roquan Smith weren’t plugging up the inside. Blocking schemes could pay more attention to a good player like Clark. The biggest difference in Clark’s stats came in lower *assisted* tackles. Georgia just wasn’t getting much done behind the line of scrimmage, so there was less for Clark to help clean up. We know what Clark can do, and we’ll see if he and any other defensive linemen are freed up to have a bigger impact this year with a big influx of talent elsewhere among the front seven.