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Post Georgia 10 – Clemson 3: You are enough

Thursday September 9, 2021

Finding explosiveness from a limited arsenal

The disappearance of explosive plays from Georgia’s offense became a big story in 2019 and was a large contributor to the offense’s fade. This was from my writeup of the 2019 Notre Dame win:

(Fromm) was 11-12 in the first half. He also had 59 yards passing at halftime – a subpar 4.9 yards per attempt. Of Georgia’s 11 completed passes in the first half, only two went for more than 10 yards. 5 of the 11 – nearly half – went for 3 yards or less.

Sound familiar? J.T. Daniels’ 4.5 yards per attempt and 135 yards against Clemson might have been a troubling callback to 2019 for Georgia fans eager to see an offense capable of competing in the shootouts that have come to define high-level college football. Saturday’s win more closely resembled the defensive struggles of the 2010 era. When you’re trying to scratch out a win over a perennial playoff participant, you play to your strengths. For Georgia those strengths were a dominant defensive front and a running game tough enough to control field position and close out the contest.

In 2019 an inexperienced group of receivers and an unimaginative offensive system allowed defenses to pack the line of scrimmage without consequences. Receiver personnel reared its head again in Charlotte. Injuries have gutted the Georgia receiving corps leaving several of its more experienced and proven members sidelined. Clemson didn’t have to stack the line – a unit with Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy doesn’t need to. The Tigers were able to sag in coverage, give Georgia short-yardage plays, and take away explosive plays.

When you lack explosive plays, you have to string together a lot of plays to sustain drives and end up with points. That increases the chances of something going wrong. Georgia’s offense was effective in one regard – they usually weren’t too quick to exit the field. The easiest way (other than a turnover) to handicap a high-performing defense is to keep putting them back on the field. Georgia managed only two three-and-outs in the game and had four drives of 8+ plays. Yes, more points need to come from those drives, and shorter drives are fine if they involve high-EPA plays that lead to points. In this game it was significant that the defense was able to stay fresh. Take a game like Auburn 2019: Georgia’s defense started well en route to a 21-0 lead. But 5 of 6 second half Georgia possessions were three-and-out, and a gassed defense had to hold on for dear life until Travon Walker’s game-ending sack.

I’m more convinced that the lack of output had much more to do with injuries and personnel than gameplan or creativity. Daniels was sacked early in the fourth quarter as Van Pran and Ericson left Myles Murphy unblocked. Had the play developed, McConkey was breaking open down the sideline on a wheel route, and Daniels was clearly winding up to deliver the knockout blow. It was a clever play marred by execution on the line. The plays are there. Will the players be?

The vision we all have is that the offense will round into better form as key players return from injury and the offensive line finds its optimal lineup. That assumes though that there are no further injuries or that those who do return will be back at peak performance. Ratledge’s injury reminds us that injuries will continue to be a fact of life throughout the season. Kirby Smart pointed out that Jermaine Burton, one of the seemingly healthy receivers with some experience, missed quite a bit of practice time dealing with his own injuries. That’s kind of what I was getting at with this post – just because we see someone out there and cleared doesn’t mean that they’re in top shape and able to perform how we remember them performing. I’m sure we all have expectations for how Blaylock or even Washington will look once they return to the offense. It might be wiser to accept things as they are and ask how more production can be coaxed out of the players that are available. The idea of a high-performing offense can’t depend on the promise of a certain player or players returning at an unspecified time at a given level of fitness. Georgia must work with what it has.

Several things can be true:

  1. Clemson returned a lot of talent from the defense rated #8 by SP+ last season.
  2. Georgia was missing several key receivers and had to reshuffle the offensive line early in the game.
  3. Those who did play had some costly execution errors that prevented bigger plays or longer drives.

Georgia will face many good defenses this year but it should be a while until they see a unit as complete and talented as Clemson’s. The return of the injured receivers is out of anyone’s control. What is in the team’s control is the execution of those who see the field. Kirby Smart has explained time and again the role of perimeter and downfield blocking in turning decent gains into explosive plays. That need won’t change regardless of who’s available, and the output we expect from Georgia’s offense depends on it.

The defense – the beautiful defense

The defense’s strength starts up front, and it’s telling that sacks and pressures were distributed among nearly every position – defensive tackles, ends, inside linebackers, and outside linebackers. Dan Lanning made optimal use of the athleticism and experience of his front seven. The source of pressure from play to play was unpredictable, and those not involved in pressure dropped back into locations that made reads difficult. Even those, like Wyatt, who didn’t record a sack were active batting down passes and making sure Clemson didn’t establish any kind of running threat.

If there was a standout among a unit that itself was a standout, it was Jordan Davis. It’s often enough for defensive linemen to occupy lanes and let linebackers make the tackles. Davis cut out the middleman and recorded two tackles for loss and a sack of his own. On other plays, his penetration led to someone else’s stat. To me Davis’s most impressive play might’ve been tracking down the Clemson quarterback on a delayed read. Davis fought through the line and had the agility to change directions to bring the quarterback down from behind. Those are plays we see linebackers or defensive ends make.

The linebackers made sure they wouldn’t be overshadowed by the defensive line. Nearly all of them came up big. Nolan Smith started strong with a physical pass rush that led to a sack. Channing Tindall’s speed made you gasp as he sprinted to make a cross-field tackle and made it clear that going wide wasn’t an effective counter to Georgia’s inside domination. Nakobe Dean’s constant presence in the backfield and relentless blitzing up the middle reminded me of the adjustments Georgia made in the Rose Bowl. People have wondered whether Dean’s junior season would resemble Roquan Smith’s stellar 2017. The way Dean was used in this game won’t slow those comparisons.

It wasn’t a surprise – maybe more of a relief – to see the line and linebackers play as well as they did. That was the expectation with so much returning talent and experience. It was a different story for the secondary. The attrition from the 2020 squad left Georgia’s defensive backfield with enough uncertainty to raise questions whether it would hold back the potential of the defense. Georgia fans have to be pleased with what we saw from the group. Clemson had a single explosive pass play, but Georgia’s defense largely kept the action in front of it and tackled well to prevent short gains from becoming something bigger. There was an expectation that the front seven would help the secondary, but in this game it went both ways. Several of Georgia’s sacks and pressures took time to develop, aided by solid coverage downfield.

There were some pass interference calls – Ringo in particular panicked and nearly tackled his receiver on a pass unlikely to be caught in bounds. Those were mistakes of aggression and sometimes 15 yards is preferable to giving up a long pass play. Only a few times was a defensive back simply beaten. Kendrick bit on an inside move and gave up the longest pass play of the game on a third down.

Georgia’s defense was magnificent in a way that looks sustainable week to week. Speed, talent, awareness, athleticism, and all of the other attributes that stood out don’t depend on the opponent. It’s not the best plan to lean on the defense that much – just a single blown coverage can change the game and give the opponent all it needs.

  • Other than Christopher Smith’s textbook pick-six, the defense’s biggest moment followed Daniels’ interception. Georgia followed a short gain with two sacks to take Clemson out of field goal range and take away any momentum Clemson might have gained from the turnover. Georgia turnovers twice gave Clemson a short field, and the Tigers were able to do nothing with their best field position.
  • The anticipation to see Gilbert and Washington on the field overshadowed another impressive spring performer: Brock Bowers. Bowers had a standout debut as Georgia’s reception leader and was trusted to block against a top-quality defensive front. He made his share of mistakes, but that was a high-pressure environment in which to debut, and he handled it.
  • The knock on Latavious Brini has been speed keeping up with slot receivers. His coverage skills shone in the short-yardage red zone area where speed becomes less of a factor. He made consecutive pass breakups in the end zone and, most importantly, did so cleanly without drawing a flag.
  • Zamir White left no doubt as to his alpha status as the back you want closing out a game. There was something special though about the few times Kendall Milton got loose.
  • Jake Camarda was a highlight of a so-so special teams unit. Consistency had been the only thing holding him back, and each of his punts was a positive for Georgia. Five of six punts landed inside the Clemson 20, and he did well to get his last punt off when Clemson applied pressure. Camarda enabled Georgia to establish and maintain a decisive field position advantage.
  • Arian Smith and the other gunners were key to downing those punts. Smith had time to visit the concession stand before the ball arrived.
  • Other special teams – less so. Podlesny’s missed 36-yard FG wasn’t close. Tough to fault Milton for getting hit on the bounce while he was engaged with a block, but there could be better communication to clear the area. I understand why you’d want a hobbled but sure-handed Jackson fielding punts, but he didn’t present much of a threat in the return game when field position meant so much.
  • Limited tight end depth meant that offensive tackle Xavier Truss was called into a service as an extra blocker.
  • The player perhaps hurt most by Georgia’s perimeter blocking woes was James Cook. He is most valuable getting into space and is a frequent target on sweeps and screens. Too often there was a defender waiting to meet him.
  • J.T. Daniels wasn’t asked to do much, and he didn’t. The defense bailed him out on the interception. Another pass to Bowers in the back of the endzone into tight coverage made you hold your breath. A third-down completion before the missed field goal might have gone for more yards had the pass been more accurate. It wasn’t a bad game, but it also wasn’t a statement game that kicked off a Heisman campaign. The usual outlets can shelve those pieces now. Winning the game was the important thing, and Daniels largely stayed upright with quick, short passes before the Clemson pass rush got home.
  • So much of the pregame conversation had to do with the stakes in the game and its playoff implications. It was assumed that either team could take a loss and still control its own fate by winning out. I’m not so sure that’s the case for Clemson. It’s likely they won’t face another ranked team during the regular season. They desperately need to face a highly-ranked opponent in the ACC championship, but a North Carolina loss on Friday hurt those chances. With a 12-1 record and no wins over ranked teams, Clemson’s resume will be on par with better G5 teams rather than other P5 champions.

Post 21 questions for the 2021 Georgia football season

Friday September 3, 2021

The 2021 offseason has had its moments. Injuries have affected the depth chart both in the short term and long term. The transfer portal giveth and taketh away. Players may now be paid for their name, likeness, and image, and many are learning how to juggle those obligations with their usual coursework and team responsibilities. But compared with 2020 when the season itself was in doubt, Georgia’s past eight months have been about as steady as can be expected.

The narratives are clear: Georgia is a consensus top five team behind a fearsome front seven on defense, a deep pool of tailbacks, and an established starting quarterback. Clemson and Florida stand out as the toughest games on the schedule, but the Bulldogs are once again overwhelming favorites to win the SEC East. That’s the baseline expectation. Whether they can take an additional step and win the SEC or return to the playoff is much less clear.

1) Will we have a normal season? We looked forward to the 2021 season as a return to normality, tailgating, and full stadiums. That seemed a given as recently as the early summer. We enter the season with cases spiking and hospitals strained across the SEC footprint – constant reminders that the pandemic is still very much ongoing. Vaccinations fortunately have made the risk calculations different from a year ago. Plans and attendance policies for a normal season remain unchanged, but anecdotally some fans are reconsidering attendance and travel plans. Ticket demand for certain games hasn’t been strong, and there could be a number of reasons ranging from the quality of games to economic factors to health concerns to pleasant memories of a 2020 season spent on the couch. Teams will face an updated set of rules in 2021 in terms of testing, quarantine, and distinctions for those who were vaccinated. We shouldn’t see the wholesale cancellation and postponement of games we saw a year ago, but will we see any team have to forfeit a game because they are unable to field a squad?

2) Do we appreciate how different things are this year? Georgia’s quarterback stability is night and day from a year ago. Without an organized spring and offseason, a new offensive coordinator had to install an offense with a new starting quarterback. Then that quarterback opted out just before the season. His replacement wasn’t up to the job. The heralded transfer wasn’t ready yet. Georgia had to turn to a former walk-on, and he performed well enough to keep Georgia in contention in the SEC East. Now Georgia has a returning starting quarterback, a returning coordinator, and a complete offseason and spring. That’s no guarantee for success, but it’s also less likely that we’ll see the desperate grasping at straws that shocked us all at Arkansas a year ago. There’s no reason not to be ready.

3) Does Georgia have its elite quarterback? After Georgia beat Clemson in 2014, the fortunes of the two programs diverged. The two paths can roughly be traced to quarterback play. We saw the debut of Deshaun Watson in that 2014 game, and the Tigers have produced two first-round QBs since with each having a solid 2-3 years at the helm. After 2015 Georgia improved its QB recruiting, but production has been hit-or-miss as two top-rated prospects transferred out. The story of college football over the past couple of years has been quarterbacks putting up stunning numbers in creative and aggressive offenses. J.T. Daniels showed enough in a handful of games in 2020 to give hope that Georgia finally had its guy – and a system in which he can shine.

4) Do we underrate Georgia’s areas of concern? By this point we’ve heard it all. Yes, receivers are banged up. Yes, the offensive line is in flux. Yes, Georgia lacks experienced depth in the secondary. Once we internalize all that, it’s easy to move on to the next thing to worry about. We knew that receivers and tight ends were depleted entering 2019, but we didn’t figure that the passing game would all but disappear as the season wore on. The quarterback position should have been a bigger red flag in 2020, and we were banking on big improvement from Jamie Newman for no reason in particular. Sometimes a weakness really is a weakness, and there’s no need to dig much deeper than that when they show up in games.

5) What stats will tell the story in 2021? The decline of the offense in 2019 showed up most clearly in the explosiveness numbers. On the other side of the ball, havoc rate has become the calling card of disruptive defenses. This year we can add two stats: net yards per play (YPP) and expected points added (EPA). YPP is simple – how many yards are you gaining (or giving up) per play? If you want to compete for a national title, it had better average out to around +2.5 YPP. EPA is a little more complex, but it attempts to assign a point value to every play. Big plays get you closer to scoring points, so they have higher EPA values. A one-yard run (or worse, a lost-yardage play) is going to have a tiny (or negative!) EPA value. Is the defense as effective with an overhauled secondary? Is Monken succeeding at opening up Georgia’s offense? Tracking these two stats and comparing them against Georgia’s peers should give us some answers.

6) How many offensive line combinations will we see? Clemson has one of the best defensive fronts in the nation, so it’s unlikely that Georgia will use an untested player at a critical position like left tackle. But Georgia’s optimal lineup might have Jamaree Salyer inside, and there are capable – though inexperienced – tackles in the pipeline. An injury to center Warren Ericson has opened the door for Sedrick Van Pran. After the Clemson opener Georgia has about a month of games that afford experimentation and evaluation.

7) How useful is tailback depth? No question – Georgia is loaded at tailback. That was the case last season, and now a healthy Kendall Milton is added to the mix. The problem is that you can only play one at a time – usually. That will help to limit wear-and-tear, but it also creates challenges – or opportunities – for coaches to get the most effective players on to the field. At the same time, depth can create a temptation to pull a player on a roll. The depth and versatility of Georgia’s tailbacks will be a test of creativity. We saw Cook score on a long pass at Alabama lined up wide. Others have strengths in the passing game. Most of us are anticipating a more open offense this year and go right to Daniels and the receivers, but the depth, experience, and talent at the tailback position has to make this group essential to Georgia’s 2021 plans.

8) Can anyone replace George Pickens? Georgia has talent at receiver. Jackson is an underrated veteran. Burton had an impact freshman season. Smith has explosive speed. Mitchell opened eyes during spring. Fingers are crossed for Blaylock’s eventual return. None might be as individually gifted as Pickens was, but collectively most roles can be filled. There are options for speed, size, hands, and possession. Many have had the complete offseason to work with Daniels and Monken, and the timing of the injury to Pickens at least gave the team time to prepare without him.

9) What should we expect from the tight ends? The promise of watching teams defend Darnell Washington and Arik Gilbert at the same time was a huge tease. Washington could and likely will contribute, but it could be October before that happens. We saw a good dose of 12 personnel in the spring game, and it was enticing to see Todd Monken deploy multiple tight ends. The absence of Gilbert could open things up for Brock Bowers who had an impressive spring. Bowers, like Gilbert, could line up wide and still give Monken some different options using 12 personnel. Fortunately John FitzPatrick returns from a preseason injury to give the position some veteran stability, and Brett Seither is due to contribute. I don’t anticipate Monken putting this position on the shelf while we wait for Washington to heal.

10) Can Jordan Davis stay healthy? His return for a senior season was a huge boost to Georgia’s defensive front. If you look at some of Georgia’s tougher losses of the past three years (Texas 2018, South Carolina 2019, and Florida 2020), Davis was on the sidelines. That’s not to say that Davis’s presence would have meant a Georgia win, but Georgia has only lost two regular season games (LSU 2018, Alabama 2020) in three seasons when Davis played.

11) Can Adam Anderson become a three-down player? Does he need to? A big part of Azeez Ojulari’s ascent into the first round a year ago had to do with his development into a player Georgia wanted on the field in most any situation. Georgia’s depth along the defensive front is impressive, but there are still times when you just want your best 11 out there. Anderson has made a name as a pass rush specialist lining up all over the formation, and the preseason hype has been dizzying with possibilities for Anderson to contribute everywhere from a hand-down pass rusher to star. It reminds me somewhat of people dreaming up ways to use James Cook on offense. Anderson’s athleticism and potential are staggering, but he’ll be most valuable for Georgia (and at the next level) if he, like Ojulari, can find a role that keeps him on the field.

12) Is Devonte Wyatt underrated? Jordan Davis deservedly gets a ton of attention as the anchor of Georgia’s defensive front, but Wyatt’s decision to return for a 5th year established Georgia’s line as one of the nation’s best. His combination of speed and size makes him a difficult challenge for offensive lines and forces offenses to pick their poison when it comes to double-teaming he or Davis. You’ll often see Wyatt described as “disruptive”, though learning to control his athletic gifts and aggressiveness will be what makes his senior season special.

13) Is Nakobe Dean set to take off? Dean has been an impact player since his arrival in Athens, but he’s now drawing national attention. Many have pointed out that Roquan Smith didn’t become a superstar until his junior season. Dean spent much of 2020 playing through a torn labrum but was still one of Georgia’s defensive leaders. In good health and with a dominant defensive line in front of him, Dean has both the talent and the environment in which to follow Roquan’s meteoric rise.

14) Who will lead the secondary? Georgia missed the experience of Richard LeCounte following his midseason injury in 2020. Christopher Smith was thrust into a larger role in the absence of LeCounte, and he and fellow safety Lewis Cine are two of the more veteran members of the secondary. Both starting cornerbacks could be newcomers – Kelee Ringo and Derion Kendrick. Georgia has had that steadying influence in the defensive backfield since J.R. Reed stepped up in 2017, and LeCounte inherited that role last season. Now it will likely turn to Cine and Smith to see the big picture and captain the unit on the field. Don’t forget that the defensive backs also have a new position coach. Communication, confidence in assignments, and quick adjustments will have to be sorted out before the season kicks off.

15) Can Jake Camarda find consistency? Georgia’s punting has been in the upper third of the SEC in both average and net punting yardage for the past two seasons. The one thing though that’s plagued Jake Camarda has been the untimely shank. We’ve seen it as recently as the last game against Cincinnati – a 4-yard punt in the first quarter gave Cincinnati possession on Georgia’s 42-yard line, and that favorable field position led to the game’s first touchdown. We know what Camarda is capable of, but eliminating those costly shanked punts should be the next step in his development.

16) Will Kearis Jackson break a kick return? He’s been close: Jackson had a kickoff return of 56 yards and a punt return of 52 yards in 2020. His decision to return certainly helps Georgia’s receiving corps, but a dependable veteran return man is invaluable in special teams.

17) Will Georgia have to deal with hostile crowds? Most (all, really) of Georgia’s interesting games will happen away from Sanford Stadium. We know all about Clemson, and no one will overlook the Florida game. Yes, there were some fans in the stands last season, but less than half the team has played in front of a packed SEC crowd. I’m of the belief that Georgia would have had a much tougher time pulling out the 2020 Arkansas game in front of a full hostile crowd. Even J.T. Daniels, who played for USC at Texas in 2018, will get a new experience in Charlotte. One game where the road crowd might make the matchup more interesting is at Auburn. Of course they’re rebuilding under a new head coach, but they’re not Tennessee. Georgia hasn’t had an easy time at Jordan-Hare since 2012.

18) Is there any possibility of a slip-up at home? You never say never after the 2019 South Carolina game, but Georgia should be heavy, heavy favorites in its home games. South Carolina is in disarray. Arkansas overachieved in Pittman’s first year and will be pressed just to get back to that level. Kentucky is the best team on Georgia’s home schedule, and there’s always a chance of a Homecoming sleeper after a trip to Auburn. Missouri is always a wildcard and should be improved in Year 2 of a new coach. That game comes on the heels of an emotional game in Jacksonville that could decide the SEC East. Don’t sleep on UAB – they got votes in preseason polls. Navigating the weak home schedule will be a test of focus.

19) What or who will be the unexpected story of 2021? No question that Stetson Bennett was the story of 2020. He saved Georgia at Arkansas and then led the Bulldogs to convincing wins over two rivals. Yes, he didn’t have enough to lead Georgia to a division title and was eventually supplanted, but he wasn’t even considered part of the plan leading up to the season. In 2019, transfer WR Lawrence Cager emerged as Jake Fromm’s favorite target in big wins against Notre Dame and Florida. Georgia doesn’t have a ton of uncertainties in 2021, but there are still opportunities for players to step into the spotlight. The defensive backfield is an obvious area waiting for someone (or several someones!) to emerge. A young receiver could have the impact Jermaine Burton had a year ago. Hopefully the surprises in 2021 are fortuitous ones.

20) Will Georgia have a swagger? We remember how the 2017 team became a machine that used the “revenge tour” motivation to steamroll its rivals en route to a conference title. Even that team didn’t find its legs until the Mississippi State game. The team had to come to terms with the loss of its starting quarterback and survived the trip to Notre Dame by the narrowest of margins. The flea-flicker to start the MSU game showed a bit of brashness and confidence in a freshman quarterback, and the team never looked back. I’m not saying the 2021 team needs a trick play to get going. The team should be more confident this season with a more stable quarterback situation, and the quarterback often sets the tone for a team’s identity (see Burrow or Lawrence or Mayfield). It will miss the edge a player like Pickens brings. That confidence needs to be in place from the start – Georgia has the talent to compete with Clemson or anyone, but there has to be the belief that they can win these games.

21) Should there be a greater sense of urgency? I agree with Kirby Smart that it’s more a question of “when” and not “if” Georgia reaches the top. That outlook is reassuring, but it can also serve to take the focus off the present. We remember Smart saying after the national title game that “Georgia isn’t going anywhere.” He was right – Georgia has remained a top 10 program, recruited well, and has lost just four regular season games since 2017. But Georgia also hasn’t won a conference title or returned to the CFB playoff since. For that “if” to become “when”, a lot of things need to go right within a season, and Smart will need to find ways to get the most from the talent he has recruited. It’s comforting that all of the eggs aren’t in the 2021 basket just as they weren’t in 2018, 2019, or 2020. But there are reasons why those years didn’t become “the year.” If 2021 is going to have a different outcome, Georgia will have to avoid the missteps that sank recent seasons. Overhauling the offense after 2019 showed a willingness to change and improve, and we’ve yet to realize the payoff from that evolution. It might not happen in 2021, but we should also admit that there are very few reasons why it shouldn’t.


Post Are you hurt or are you injured?

Sunday August 29, 2021

It’s trite and obvious to point out that injuries will affect a team. Most of us remember the horror of October 2013 as a slew of injuries derailed a team flying high after wins over South Carolina and LSU. Most often, though, we think about those injuries in binary terms: is a player available or out? After 2-3 (or 4-6) weeks, they’ll be back. In worse cases, they’re out for the year.

Georgia’s a little banged up right now, and that makes them just like most any other program during preseason camp. Tykee Smith and Darnell Washington have joined a list that includes several receivers and starting center Warren Ericson. Many of these players will return in time for the opener; game week has strong healing powers. Others, like Smith, Washington, or even Pickens, will have recovery periods that will linger on into the season.

Returning to the practice field though doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no longer an issue. Certainly Georgia’s outstanding medical staff wouldn’t clear anyone in obvious risk of serious injury, but there’s a lot of gray area between being unable to participate and a clean bill of health. Most injuries aren’t as cut-and-dried as an incapacitating ACL tear, and there are many varying degrees of “OK.” Few players are going to feel fresh as a daisy during the physical grind of camp and the season. For these players then the season becomes a struggle of managing their condition(s) while remaining available to play. It’s a constant reassessment of the famous “hurt vs. injured” standard.

You often don’t hear about it until well after the fact. Just about every offseason has a story (or several!) like this one:

Georgia inside linebacker Nakobe Dean underwent surgery to repair his torn labrum this spring….Dean revealed he actually played through the labrum issue for the majority of the 2020 season.

Dean probably looked just fine to you and me as he continued to develop into one of the best inside linebackers in the nation. But clearly he wasn’t in top form, and he probably wasn’t the only one. How players cope with these minor injuries affects not only their ability to perform; it also affects how coaches manage lineups and situations. Ericson might return in time for the season, but the true extent of his recovery will have a ripple effect up and down the line. Blaylock might be cleared to practice or even play, but can he ever perform at his pre-injury level? Turf toe is one of those injuries that seems minor but can linger for weeks, and it could hamper Arian Smith’s top-level speed.

Georgia’s situation isn’t unique – the rare exceptions are those teams and players not dealing with a spectrum of injuries. Limited playing time or even absences might not make much sense in the moment, and coaches aren’t always forthcoming with their reasons. It’s worth keeping in mind that 1) an injury isn’t gone when a player returns to the team and 2) many injuries we’ll never know about until well after the fact, if at all.


Post Georgia’s 85 for 2021

Friday August 6, 2021

As Georgia begins preseason camp today, I like to get my head around the composition of the team, and this format helps. The impact of the transfer portal and the exceptions made for the pandemic have made it tough at times to keep up with who’s coming and going, but things have settled down now. Georgia welcomes 20 true freshmen and three transfers to complete its 85-man roster.

Georgia’s personnel issues (if you can call it that) stand out in a format like this. At defensive back, there are as many newcomers as upperclassmen. You can see why the transfers of Tykee Smith and Derion Kendrick were so important. Brini, Speed, and Poole had all seen playing time but had yet to claim a starting job heading into their final season. The other options at cornerback were all largely unproven freshmen. We’ve penciled in Kendrick as one starter, and Smith would be considered a starter at star in a nickel defense. That still leaves one spot up for grabs (not to mention the rest of the depth chart), but you’re not as terrified about playing someone like Ringo or Kimber as you’d be if they were paired with someone much less experienced.

It’s a similar story on the offensive line. The return of Salyer and Shaffer for their senior season saves Matt Luke from dipping deeper into a 10-man pool of true and redshirt freshmen. Truss could still figure in the left tackle picture, and it would be encouraging to see the 5 starters come from among the 7 linemen with at least two years’ development in the program. Still, the offensive line tilts very young with 10 of 17 players as true or redshirt freshmen. The depth of the line and the flexibility of coaches to deal with injuries depends on this talented but raw group.

The hopes for a high-performing offense will lie with a young fleet of receivers and tight ends. There are no seniors among the group. With Pickens out indefinitely, Jackson and FitzPatrick are the only upperclassmen among the tight ends and receivers. This roster shows how Georgia is set up for a couple of exciting seasons with Gilbert, Burton, Arian Smith, Adonai Mitchell, and others having several years’ of eligibility remaining.

We also see how the team’s recruiting needs align with what’s going on out on the recruiting trail. The anticipated early exit of Daniels creates the need for depth at quarterback, and Georgia has a commitment from Gunner Stockton. Lovasea Carroll’s move to defensive back created a gap at tailback, and Branson Robinson will help there. Davis and Wyatt returning on the defensive front is huge for 2021, but they’ll leave a big hole next season especially if Travon Walker exits. Georgia has two defensive line commitments for 2022 and is on the hunt for more. Kirby Smart won’t be caught again without talent in the defensive back pipeline, and there’s a big group of seniors due to leave after this season. The same is true at linebacker where four seniors will depart and both juniors could be early exit candidates.

It almost goes without saying these days that the bulk of the roster (54 of 85) is freshmen and sophomores. Smaller senior classes are the norm with transfers and early draft entrants taking their toll on the roster. The team isn’t as young as it looks, though. 24 of the 54 freshmen and sophomores have redshirted, giving them at least one year of development in the system. All but four of the incoming true freshmen enrolled for spring semester. There’s no substitute for game experience, but coaches won’t have to worry about acclimating a large group of newcomers when preseason camp opens.

(Players are listed alphabetically by class. Possible Day-One starters in a base formation are in bold – just a best guess. [R] indicates a player who has redshirted. A star(*) indicates an early enrollee.)

ELIGIBILITY REMAINING

4 Years

3 Years

2 Years

1 Year

QB (4)

Brock Vandagriff *

Carson Beck [R]

J.T. Daniels

Stetson Bennett

RB (5)

Daijun Edwards

Kendall Milton

Kenny McIntosh

Zamir White

James Cook

TE (5)

Brock Bowers *

Darnell Washington

Ryland Goede [R]

Brett Seither [R]

John FitzPatrick

WR (11)

Jackson Meeks *

Adonai Mitchell *

Ladd McConkey [R]

Justin Robinson [R]

Arian Smith [R]

Jermaine Burton

Arik Gilbert

Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint

Dominick Blaylock [R]

Kearis Jackson

George Pickens

OL (17)

Dylan Fairchild

Amarius Mims *

Micah Morris *

Jared Wilson

Austin Blaske [R]

Broderick Jones [R]

Cameron Kinnie [R]

Chad Lindberg [R]

Tate Ratledge [R]

Sedrick Van Pran [R]

Warren McClendon [R]

Xavier Truss [R]

Clay Webb [R]

Owen Condon

Warren Ericson

Jamaree Salyer

Justin Shaffer

DL (14)

Marlin Dean *

Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins *

Jonathan Jefferson *

Warren Brinson

Jalen Carter

Nazir Stackhouse

Zion Logue [R]

Tymon Mitchell [R]

Bill Norton [R]

Travon Walker

Tramel Walthour

Jordan Davis

Devonte Wyatt

Julian Rochester

LB (13)

Chaz Chambliss *

Jamon Dumas-Johnson

Smael Mondon *

Xavian Sorey *

MJ Sherman

Rian Davis [R]

Trezman Marshall [R]

Nakobe Dean

Nolan Smith

Adam Anderson

Robert Beal

Channing Tindall

Quay Walker

DB (14)

Javon Bullard *

Lovasea Carroll *

David Daniel *

Nyland Green *

Kamari Lassiter

Jalen Kimber [R]

Kelee Ringo [R]

Lewis Cine

Tykee Smith

Latavious Brini

Derion Kendrick

William Poole

Christopher Smith

Ameer Speed

Spec (2)

Jared Zirkel [R]

Jake Camarda

33

21

14

17


Post Not asking too much

Thursday August 5, 2021

When we tried to have a realistic look at J.T. Daniels’ Heisman chances, it boiled down to this conclusion: “Daniels would have to obliterate the Georgia record book and do things never before seen in Athens.” The high water mark for a Georgia quarterback remains Aaron Murray’s 2012 season: nearly 3,900 passing yards, 10.1 yards per attempt, and 36 passing TD. The stats of recent Heisman winners suggest that Daniels would either have to become a dual-threat quarterback capable of rushing for 1,000 yards, or he’d have to leave Murray’s 2012 passing stats in the dust. That doesn’t just mean break the records: Joe Burrow threw for nearly 5,700 yards and 60 TD in 2019. Mac Jones threw for 4,500 yards in 2020 in a shortened season – and didn’t win the Heisman.

Along the same lines, Blutarsky looks at the imperative to raise Georgia’s net yards per play (YPP). He clearly sets out the target for a team with playoff aspirations: “you’d better create a net YPP of 2+ if you want a realistic shot at the CFP (the four-team version, that is). And if you want to win, you’d better wind up north of 2.5.” What does that mean in practical terms? “Georgia probably has to bump its offensive YPP up a full yard over the 2020 number to make the CFP field this season, assuming it can maintain its defensive excellence.” Maybe a bit more context will help: “A 7.21 ypp would be the best in the program’s history.”

So there’s the simple challenge for Tood Monken and J.T. Daniels: perform at a level never before seen at Georgia. That sets the expectations fairly high, and it raises some interesting questions. What if Daniels matches or just barely surpasses Murray’s 2012 numbers? It would be a superlative season for a Georgia quarterback, but would it be seen as a disappointment? What if Georgia’s defense, and its secondary in particular, slips a little and yields, say, another half yard or so per play? Would we notice an appreciable gain on the offensive side? Would the pressure instead be on Monken to offset the difference and still come out with a net increase?

It’s good to put some concrete numbers behind our expectations beyond straight wins and losses. We recognize the need to modernize and increase the output of the offense to compete at the highest level; it’s why Todd Monken is here. Metrics like YPP, EPA, success rate, and explosiveness are important benchmarks to follow that let us know how things are going. We know, based on those metrics, what a successful team and offense looks like. If we want and expect Georgia to contend at that level, watching those metrics will be the equivalent of the world record line superimposed over an Olympic swimming or track event – is Georgia on pace, out ahead, or falling behind where they need to be?

The encouraging news is that while these numbers might be unprecedented at Georgia, several other teams have found multiple ways to get there. Georgia’s program bests, unless you’re talking about something like Herschel Walker’s output, represent good seasons but aren’t untouchable and should be surpassed if the talent and offensive system are what we claim they are.


Post SEC vs. the field

Sunday August 1, 2021

Blutarsky has often identified college football’s regional passion as one of its unique characteristics worth preserving. That point has always resonated with me, and it’s not hard to see the downside of an enjoyable fall distilled down and repackaged into a nationwide “who’s in?” made-for-television event.

The conference expansion dominoes that fell across the nation a decade ago established conferences less as regional blocs and more as convenient revenue-sharing arrangements. The Big 12 stretched from west Texas to West Virginia. The SEC added a midwestern school to its East division, and Colorado found a home with the Pacific coast teams. Air travel meant that the rough geographic borders that used to constrain conferences were anachronisms, and conferences could be structured more around markets, eyeballs, and media rights. And as Blutarsky also points out, this train left the station long before 2012: the addition of South Carolina and Arkansas to the SEC in 1992 that facilitated a lucrative conference championship football game showed the way.

Texas and Oklahoma are coming to the SEC, and this pretty much says why:

That’s a ton of cash. (Though, for context, it’s still around 15% of the new NFL media rights deal. Why stop now?) What’s more important is that it creates an entity on par with the NCAA itself. That doesn’t mean the SEC’s revenues will equal the revenue of all other conferences combined. The NCAA is a distinct organization and gets its revenue from things like media rights for the NCAA basketball tournament. It does mean that the SEC, along with its media partner, will have sufficient clout to influence not only the competition on the field but also how college football is presented, marketed, and discussed.

Those focused on football have wondered how the addition of Texas and Oklahoma will shift the competitive balance of the SEC. How will the conference be organized? Georgia has played Clemson more often than A&M since the Aggies joined the SEC. Adding teams under the current model would be ridiculous. I do like the pod system many have outlined for football. (I can’t imagine a good system for sports like baseball though that would rotate through the conference often enough.) We can expect changes to scheduling, and it’s not as if Georgia will be playing Texas and Oklahoma every year.

The bigger impact will come nationally as the rest of the college sports landscape will have to deal with an expanded SEC as a bloc. The Pac-12 is already rattling swords about the SEC’s effect on the playoff expansion to 12 teams. The Pac-12 itself might not have much to say about it, but we can expect coalitions to form that will attempt to check the SEC. Those coalitions might be formalized through the expansion and realignment of other conferences, or they might remain informal and shifting alliances depending on the moment. No one wants to answer to the SEC, and there are several schools and conferences that might – might – be effective opposition if they can find common ground.

Those who appreciate the regional roots of college football might be amused that one effect of SEC expansion will be an even greater focus on southern football. Even as the playoff and media coverage package the sport for a national audience, the product will have a decidedly southern bent. It’s a big geographic footprint, but much of what happens in college football will be defined by what happens from Oklahoma to Florida. Certainly there’s enough good football outside of the conference to remain relevant and competitive, but it’s not hard to see that the narrative each season will begin as which outsider can take down the SEC’s best. Expansion might even lead us to rethink what it means to be a conference champion. Surviving and emerging as the SEC champion would, to many, be as impressive and more important than winning a national title against the best of the rest.

Whether it’s previewing each season’s football national title race or pondering the future of college sports, the addition of Oklahoma and Texas will raise the same question: “the SEC or the field?”

One more small thing…another effect I expect from this expansion will be to shift the SEC’s center of gravity westward. By that I mean six of 16 schools will lie on or west of the Mississippi. Oklahoma and Texas have just a bit more presence and clout than Missouri or even Arkansas. The SEC’s Nashville-Atlanta-Birmingham center can’t help but feel that tug. One consequence I expect will be the rotation of the SEC football championship game. Even a more permanent event like the SEC baseball tournament could be forced to rotate. There are at least four major domed stadiums in the west (New Orleans, Dallas/Arlington, Houston, and St. Louis) capable of hosting major events, and Dallas seems the most obvious choice to host the occasional SEC championship. You can be sure they’ll try.


Post Framing the preseason Heisman hype

Thursday June 24, 2021

Excitement about the potential for the 2021 Georgia offense can only mean one thing: offseason talk about J.T. Daniels’ Heisman chances. The strong finish by Daniels and the Georgia offense, the number of weapons returning, and a full and normal offseason with Todd Monken have generated tremendous anticipation. With record-shattering offenses at LSU and Alabama in recent years, the hope is that Daniels could lead Georgia’s transformation into the next powerhouse offense. But would that mean a Heisman for Georgia’s QB1?

I can probably just link to this post from 2019 when we were having similar discussions about Jake Fromm’s Heisman chances as a senior. Things didn’t go well for Fromm or the offense in 2019, but the larger points stand. If you’re not a dual-threat quarterback, you must put up ridiculous numbers to be considered for, much less win, the Heisman.

How ridiculous? Not many pocket passers have won the Heisman over the past 15 years. Sam Bradford won in 2008 with only 47 rushing yards. Were Baker Mayfield and Jameis Winston considered pocket passers? Neither put up big rushing numbers but had decent enough mobility to make plays on the ground. In their Heisman seasons, those quarterbacks threw for over 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. Bradford and Winston won before the RPO era and the unreal offensive production we’ve seen in recent years. Joe Burrow threw for nearly 5,700 yards and 60 TD in 2019. Mac Jones threw for 4,500 yards in 2020 in a shortened season – and didn’t win the Heisman.

The gold standard for quarterback production at Georgia remains Aaron Murray’s 2012 season: nearly 3,900 passing yards, 10.1 yards per attempt, and 36 TD. That was a productive and balanced offense that took Georgia to the cusp of the national title game.

Back to Daniels: Brent Rollins of UGASports.com framed the answer correctly in this video: “yes, but.” When you look at the stats of recent Heisman winners (or even those invited to New York) and compare them against Murray’s Georgia-best 2012 season, you realize what has to happen. Daniels would have to obliterate the Georgia record book and do things never before seen in Athens. As Rollins observes, it would also require Georgia to run a lot more plays, and a higher percentage of plays must be passes. The deep and talented backfield is going to put an upper limit on how pass-happy Georgia becomes. That’s not to say Georgia can’t and won’t air it out – we saw that evolution begin to take place last season. But if an opponent presents a soft rushing defense, Smart and Monken are just as happy winning with 16 pass attempts and 332 rushing yards as they did at South Carolina last year. They’d be foolish not to, and it would take an intentional shift in offensive philosophy to blow past Murray’s benchmark and put up modern Heisman numbers.

Rollins notes that the Clemson game could swing how the nation views Daniels. A big performance and perhaps a game-defining moment on that stage would make Daniels (or Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei) an early favorite, and it might be possible to maintain that edge with a consistently solid showing the rest of the year. After all, Trevor Lawrence never cracked 4,000 yards in a season and finished second in the 2020 Heisman voting. An unremarkable showing against Clemson, even with a Georgia win, would mean that Daniels would have to stand out in games against lesser opponents with fewer people watching. He’d either have to make it up with volume (outrageous stats) or with a defining performance in the few marquee games left on Georgia’s schedule (Florida.)

Lawrence’s career reminds us of another development to watch. After the Clemson game, Georgia should be favored in its remaining games. Any SEC game could be competitive, but you’d still expect some big leads and lopsided wins. If Georgia is in a number of tightly-contested games this year, Daniels probably isn’t having a Heisman type of season. If the Georgia offense does click, you can expect to see the playcalling shift towards the capable backfield in the second half. What’s more, the trio of Beck, Bennett, and Vandagriff could be doing the handing off late in games. Clemson so dominated the ACC that Lawrence watched his backups close out a lot of games. That hurt his numbers in terms of the gaudy stats Heisman voters like, but it kept him fresh and available for multiple runs into the playoff. I think that’s a tradeoff most Georgia fans would accept.


Post Impressive track and field hire focuses attention on Georgia’s facilities

Wednesday June 16, 2021

Marc Weiszer outlines the process and events that aligned to announce the accomplished Caryl Smith Gilbert as Georgia’s new track and field coach last weekend. The importance of the move isn’t lost on anyone – she’s Josh Brooks’s first hire, and she’ll be the first female head coach of a male team at Georgia. Smith Gilbert is looking for a step up in competition in the SEC, but it had to take more than just a new challenge to entice a championship-winning coach to leave one successful program for another.

Yes, Georgia – or most any SEC school – has the resources to outspend other programs for staff and facilities. But the trick is actually committing to put those resources to work. All of the parties in Smith Gilbert’s hire downplayed the facilities concerns that led to friction with the outgoing coach, but I think we can be certain that there were more than vague assurances made about Georgia’s future investment in the track program.

How can we be so sure? To get an idea of what Smith Gilbert was used to in terms of support, have a look at this. That’s a $16 million track renovation spearheaded by Smith Gilbert involving a significant private fundraising effort. The Spec Towns Track might be a nice neighborhood gathering place in Five Points, but it isn’t the showpiece of a multi-million dollar capital campaign. The common constraint at both USC and Georgia is the “landlocked” nature of their existing track facilities leaving little room for expansion. Georgia, though, does have options outside of the central athletics complex. It’s reasonable that a coach of Smith Gilbert’s standing would have to feel confident in Georgia’s willingness to put its resources to work.

We know that Georgia lacks a master plan for facilities, and Brooks revealed that developing such a roadmap is a priority this summer. “We’re going to take a deep look this summer into the next five to seven year plan for…all facilities,” Brooks said. “Softball, baseball, everything.” (It’s interesting and encouraging that baseball – another “landlocked” facility – would receive attention just a few years after a $12 million renovation to Foley Field.) Brooks was caught in a tough spot by not inheriting a long-term facilities vision, and that reportedly strained the relationship with Petros Kyprianou. But Brooks had to anticipate that the facilities question would come up while trying to attract a replacement for Kyprianou. Even if a more comprehensive master plan isn’t ready yet, Brooks knew about the pending change long enough to at least come up with a coherent and acceptable answer. The hiring of Smith Gilbert indicates that he was able to do so.

The hiring of Smith Gilbert was a strong first move by Brooks. She’d be an impressive addition under any circumstances, but it was especially noteworthy after the messy PR that followed the inability to retain Kyprianou. In a way, it strikes the same tone as Kirby Smart’s knack of having a bit of good news ready to go on the heels of a setback. The facilities issues raised by Kyprianou were legitimate (and, to be fair, were mostly out of Brooks’s control), but this announcement has done a lot in a short time to change the conversation. If a title-winning coach in a good spot has faith enough in Brooks’s vision and leadership to move across the country, maybe there’s hope.


Post Jacksonville: pardon our dust

Friday June 4, 2021

It kind of went under the radar yesterday, but the Jacksonville Jaguars and owner Shad Khan announced plans for a $441 million development around TIAA Bank Field. The project would include a $120 million football facility requested by new coach Urban Meyer as well as indoor/outdoor practice fields. Currently the team’s facilities are co-located inside the stadium with an indoor practice field on the south (river) end of the stadium. The new facility would be on the opposite northwest end of the stadium (Lot R area).

The ambitious plan would also include “a Four Seasons hotel and residences, office space and renovations to the city-owned marina.” The plan must still face scrutiny from a labyrinth of city agencies and political bodies, and a similar proposal was tabled not long ago. If the plan survives the process, “the team and its affiliated real estate development company hope construction could begin by the end of the year and be completed in 2023.”

The most interesting bit was this:

The Jaguars hope the project is the first step in what they are calling the Stadium of the Future for Jaguars fans, meaning eventual significant renovations — or possibly even a brand-new one — within the next decade.

When we talk about the future of the Georgia-Florida game, the facility in Jacksonville is more or less taken for granted. The game didn’t miss a beat during the last renovation that added the large scoreboard and pool areas in the endzones. A more significant renovation or a rebuilt stadium could take the venue out of play for multiple years as it did in 1994 and 1995. The series returned to the new stadium in 1996 without much fuss. At that time there wasn’t much support for moving the game out of Jacksonville long-term. That’s shifted somewhat in the 25 years since, and Kirby Smart is among those who might welcome a change. Another return to campus (or another neutral site like Atlanta) in the near future could be an opening for those who favor changing the nature of the series.

Additionally, there might be another party at the bargaining table:

The proposal said that the team would sign a long-term lease of the facility and that the team — not the city — would be responsible for ongoing maintenance and operational costs.

The stadium is and will remain city-owned, and Georgia and Florida negotiate the terms of the game with the city. If the Jaguars take a more substantial stake in the operation of the stadium, they could have input on how much of the game’s costs are shouldered by the hosts.


Post Release the hounds

Tuesday June 1, 2021

Most of us have a date or event we’re looking forward to as a personal return to normal. It could be a trip, a family gathering, or even the season opener in Charlotte.

For Kirby Smart that date might be today – June 1, 2021. It’s been 16 months since Georgia and other schools have been able to host prospects. A 2020 post-signing day dead period was extended over and over, eventually spanning the 2020 football season and entire recruiting calendar. Recruiting was done virtually, and decisions were made in some instances without ever setting foot on campus. That all ends today.

Georgia still did well in its 2021 signing class with a consensus top five class with several impact players. But we know the real magic of Kirby Smart’s recruiting happens once kids are on campus, and that hasn’t been possible for the past year. Though Smart adapted as well as he could to the circumstances, it was tough to maintain the national reach and appeal he had cultivated in earlier recruiting classes.

Visits will begin immediately, and Smart is raring to go. There are almost too many visits on tap to keep up with, but suffice it to say that it’s going to be a very busy summer making up for lost time. Plans that have been in development for months will finally become reality as the top prospects of 2022 and beyond experience Athens and all that Georgia football has to offer. Beyond that, Smart will also introduce prospects to the nearly-completed $80 million football facility. It’s the latest improvement to bring Georgia’s facilities on par with the best programs in the nation and should only bolster Smart’s effective recruiting.

If that’s not enough, the one-time transfer exemption will continue until July 1, so we could still see some high-profile transfers for the 2021 team arriving in Athens.

Smart put it plainly last week: “It’s about to go crazy.” June should bring a frenzy of offseason football activity and kickstart a busy summer that leads us into a huge season opener in just three months.


Post Making Athens a basketball destination

Wednesday May 26, 2021

As I read this piece over at Get the Picture, what struck me is how easy it was to see the Georgia basketball program mirrored in Texas State football. That’s not a cheery thought.

There are differences. Some players like Savhir Wheeler recruited by Tom Crean were certainly sought-after prospects, but, man, if this line didn’t hit close to home: “My whole argument is I can take the [high school] kid down the street that no one wants and no one offers who, after three years, you develop him into a good player, and he can leave.” Again, Wheeler, K.D. Johnson, and Toumani Camara were wanted and offered by good programs, but that doesn’t make it easier to see a player’s development pay off somewhere else. It’s especially tough when that “somewhere else” is a team you’ll be facing next season.

“The rest (of available scholarships) have gone to transfers, 11 of them. That after (Jake) Spavital lost 12 players to the portal. He has not signed a high school prospect at Texas State in his Class of 2021…”

That’s describing a mid-major Sun Belt football team, but it’s not far from the story at Stegeman Coliseum. Crean has at least signed a few high school players, though the current recruiting class is rated near the bottom of the SEC. Like North Texas football, Georgia basketball will remake its roster largely through the transfer portal. For the third straight season, well over half the roster will turn over. Continuity is impossible. The coach’s job now is to assemble a roster with a one-year expiration date and win with it. That might be invigorating for Spavital: “it’s given life to our program.” It’s proving more difficult for Crean though as the top performers from each team leave and are replaced with less-accomplished pieces.

The contrast with what’s happening across Smith Street is glaring. Sure, the Georgia football team has lost players to the transfer portal, and there have even been some highly-rated Georgia players like Brenton Cox to transfer out. On the whole, though, most of Georgia football’s losses to the portal have been typical of transfers in earlier seasons – players with disciplinary issues and players buried on the depth chart who haven’t showed signs of breaking through. Georgia football approaches the portal from a position of strength – as a destination. The portal is used to improve the program and not just fill out numbers.

That’s the age-old problem for Georgia basketball: how to make it a destination. It’s been tough enough over the years just to recruit players to Athens, and now the program is doing someone else’s player development. Players have recently departed Georgia for Arizona, Kentucky, Auburn, Dayton, and of course the NBA. That’s quality talent that could have been a solid core had it held together. The long-term goal is to make Georgia a place at which those players see themselves accomplishing their goals. The short-term imperative is to piece together a roster from transfers and recruits and try to hold it together long enough to accomplish something significant enough to make Georgia that destination. Even that is proving difficult, and even signs of progress like attracting an Edwards or a Wheeler are followed by two steps back and have failed to “give life to our program.”

The fans did their part. Challenged by Tom Crean to show support for the program, Georgia fans set attendance records. The setting for big moments like the 2019 Kentucky game was as good as it gets. Facilities are no longer an anchor holding the program down. What’s left? That’s why Crean gets the big bucks. It’s generally accepted that this will be a decisive season for Crean’s future at Georgia. With the number of decent perimeter shooters coming in, the upcoming roster might actually be more suited to Crean’s style than any roster he’s had at Georgia. But it’s asking a lot for another overhauled roster to come together in the time it takes to have an effective November and December and have enough wins in the bank to survive the SEC slate and deliver Crean to the NCAA tournament. That’s what’s at stake. As Spavital put it, “[if] you don’t win, you get fired. We gotta think outside the box here.”


Post What it takes to get us off the couch

Thursday May 20, 2021

Couldn’t describe my 2020 viewing habits better:

A number of fans were introduced to the pleasure of attending Man Cave Stadium last season and found easy access to things like restrooms and refreshments to be something of a pleasure.

As much as I hated to break my home game streak and go without one of the things I enjoy most, I have to admit that it was nice to set up in the backyard with all of the comforts of home steps away. Can’t even begin to calculate how much money I saved, too.

So why am I so excited to get back? I wrote this about opting out last fall:

For many of us the social element of gameday is as important as the action on the field. It’s an opportunity to bring together friends and groups from around the state (and beyond) and rekindle family bonds and traditions that span generations.

That’s the advantage the in-person experience has over watching at home. With the social aspect of gameday significantly (and necessarily) curtailed last year, it made it a fairly easy decision to watch from home. Now that it’s looking like 100% capacity and a fairly normal experience on tap for the 2021 season, I’m more than ready to be back.

I do agree that Barrett Sallee might be stretching it a bit saying fans will “never take the joy of watching a game in person for granted again.” It might not take that long either – ask me about joy around the second half of a hot September guarantee game against UAB.


Post Georgia’s talent pipeline flowing into the NFL

Monday May 3, 2021

I called last year’s NFL draft results “decent but not great” for Georgia. Georgia did have seven players drafted, but several of the higher-profile draft-eligible Dawgs went later than expected. We saw LSU’s dream season pay off with a record-tying 14 picks, and Alabama had nine picks in the first three rounds. Those were extraordinary results, but those are the programs against which Georgia competes on the field and on the recruiting trail.

Thursday’s first round of the 2021 draft got off to a slow start. It wasn’t a surprise to see Eric Stokes selected in the first round, but it was a little unexpected that he would be the only Dawg who came off the board on Thursday. The news got much better on Friday as Tyson Campbell and Azeez Ojulari were drafted early in the second round, and three more players followed in the third round. By the end of the seventh round on Saturday a program-record nine Bulldogs had been drafted. Six were drafted in the first three rounds. As usual, several undrafted players quickly signed free agent deals and will report to an NFL camp.

With the nine Bulldogs selected in 2021, 29 Georgia players have been drafted in the four drafts held since the national title game appearance. That’s the best four-year run of draft picks ever for the Bulldogs. There have been other clusters of years with strong draft results: 15 players were drafted in 2012-2013 and 2002-2003. No other time period in program history has seen this quantity (29) or consistency (at least 7 each year) of draft picks. That’s what you’d hope for as a string of highly-rated signing classes becomes draft-eligible. We can’t quite close the book on the Mark Richt era yet, but it’s fair to say that the Kirby Smart recruiting machine that kicked into gear in 2017 is now producing its share of draft picks.

I focus on the first three rounds since those players are more likely to make rosters, start, earn more, and have lasting NFL careers. Of course there’s value to be had in later rounds (and even UDFAs) – just ask Tae Crowder. But just as the odds are better for highly-rated recruits to be drafted, you’d rather be drafted earlier. It’s one thing to claim a high number of draft picks, but it’s better to have those picks concentrated higher in the draft. Having a top pick doesn’t guarantee a title (Stafford), but championship teams produce high draft picks. LSU’s remarkable 2020 draft class had five first-round picks. Alabama’s 2020 championship team produced six first-round picks. It was encouraging, then, to see Georgia have twice as many early round picks (6) in 2021 as they had in 2020 (3).

The next step for Georgia is to have more of its players called even earlier in the draft and especially in the first round while maintaining at least seven picks per year. Georgia has recruited as well as anyone over the past four recruiting cycles, and the talent pipeline seems to be just as full for the future. This is what I touched on after the national title game. Then we wondered how very good players become elite Heisman-quality performers. Now we ask how do obviously talented and draftable players become elite high-round draft picks?

This might seem like a secondary concern for Kirby Smart since job #1 is winning football games getting whatever production he can out of these players while they’re in Athens. Two things are true though: first, Georgia promotes not only the number of players playing in the NFL but also their earnings. Higher draft picks earn more at first but also have a better shot at sticking around in the league long enough to sign higher-paying contracts once they prove themselves. Second, while a single elite pick might not say much about a team’s success, a slew of such picks probably means you had a pretty good season. LSU and Alabama are the extreme examples, but it’s also not much of a coincidence that the most Georgia first-round picks (3) came after they played for the 2017 national title. More early draft picks will be a lagging indicator that Smart got it done on the field.

This is a discussion at the margins, but marginal differences distinguish championship programs. Once you get to the point at which talent and resources are no longer roadblocks, so much time and energy is spent coaxing out the fractional improvements that matter against the best opponents. Entire fields of study using terms like “Pareto analysis” and “80/20” have been built around all that goes into getting that last bit of improvement out of a system. If you look at the final SP+ rankings of 2020, you see that the margin between the #25 team and the #10 team is as wide as it is between the #10 team and the top four.

That’s where we are with draft picks. It’s difficult and a tremendous accomplishment to be drafted at all. We’re thrilled to see a record number of Bulldogs drafted, and the year-over-year continuity shows what we all know to be true: Georgia is a consistently strong program with consistently strong recruiting. It already produces draft picks at a clip better than all but a handful of programs. Just as the Georgia program is trying to make the difficult incremental improvements to move from a perennial top 10 program to a regular playoff participant, those efforts will pay off with Georgia’s draft picks coming in earlier rounds in better and higher-paying situations for those players. Six early-round picks in 2021 is a good start. If Georgia puts together another title run, the results on draft day could be even better.

Georgia’s 2021 NFL Draft Selections

  • DB Eric Stokes: Green Bay Packers (1st rd, 29th overall)
  • DB Tyson Campbell: Jacksonville Jaguars (2nd rd, 33rd overall)
  • LB Azeez Ojulari: New York Giants (2nd rd, 50th overall)
  • LB Monty Rice: Tennessee Titans (3rd rd, 92nd overall)
  • OL Ben Cleveland: Baltimore Ravens (3rd rd, 94th overall)
  • TE Tre’ McKitty: Los Angeles Chargers (3rd rd, 97th overall)
  • DB Richard LeCounte: Cleveland Browns (5th rd, 169th overall)
  • C Trey Hill: Cincinnati Bengals (6th rd, 190th overall)
  • DB Mark Webb: Los Angeles Chargers (7th rd, 241st overall)

Post G-Day airs it out

Monday April 19, 2021

Georgia’s search for a fairly routine spring practice successfully wrapped up with the G-Day scrimmage in front of a limited crowd. It was an entertaining game on a perfect afternoon showcasing Georgia’s depth at quarterback, and no major injuries were reported. That would be welcome in any year, but it was an especially enjoyable return to normalcy after the 2020 season. Some key storylines that came from spring practice:

  • George Pickens’s ACL injury left fans wondering whether Georgia now lacked the big play receiver that would allow the offense to realize its full potential. Hope remains that Pickens might return before the end of the regular season, though he might elect to focus on preparation for the 2022 NFL draft.
  • Jermaine Burton had a scare with a knee injury, and the injury situation began to look like a repeat of the carnage of 2013. Fortunately Burton’s injury wasn’t season-ending, but it did keep him out for the rest of the spring.
  • Other receivers Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint and Dominick Blaylock look to be on track to return for 2021.
  • The unsettled secondary should be aided by the transfer of Tykee Smith from West Vriginia. Smith didn’t go through spring practice but should arrive in Athens soon.
  • A record 16 early enrollees went through spring practice. It’s a complete 180 from the offseason of 2020 when there was a new offensive coordinator, an unknown at quarterback, and spring practice was canceled. Almost the entire 2021 team was in Athens for this spring’s organized workouts.
  • The team was far from complete, though. Over a dozen players, including starters like Nakobe Dean, missed some or all of spring practice with injuries. All but Pickens are on track to be ready for the season.

G-Day did little to change the narrative that the offensive line and secondary are the areas to watch heading into the season. That’s good in a way – you don’t want unforeseen problems popping up while addressing the obvious issues that have been front and center for months. Georgia’s strengths looked like strengths: a diversified offense with weapons at quarterback and tailback, promising depth at receiver especially considering those recovering from injuries, and a defensive front that’s going to wreck shop.

QB1

JT Daniels wasn’t even a member of the team at this point a year ago. Since last May, he’s transferred in from USC, took over the starting job in November, and lived up to the massive expectations placed on him after Jamie Newman and D’Wan Mathis didn’t or couldn’t claim the starting job. Georgia needed a big performance from the passing game to beat Mississippi State, and Daniels delivered. He wasn’t perfect in his progressions and showed some odd mechanics, but that’s understandable for a guy coming off knee surgery and who didn’t have much of an offseason with his teammates or a new playcaller. He’s had that experience now, and he looked very much in control of an offense that’s expected to carry Georgia far this season. Daniels showed great arm strength and placement on a touchdown strike to Adonai Mitchell right before halftime. But he was just as comfortable checking down to tailbacks and finding tight ends, displaying more command and comfort in the system than he did in 2020.

Daniels’s comfort goes along with a quarterback room that’s much deeper and and more stable than it was when Daniels arrived. Stetson Bennett, a veteran with SEC starting experience and wins over Auburn, Tennessee, and Kentucky, finds himself in a tough competition to remain the backup. Carson Beck, almost forgotten between last season’s drama and the incoming 5* prospects, began to show the development and maturity coaches hoped to see. This depth will give the coaches the luxury of developing Brock Vandagriff, the touted true freshman, who showed both the rawness and potential that coaches will attempt to hone this season before a likely quarterback competition next year.

Defensive evolution

One name I was especially glad to see called was Devonte Wyatt. It’s not only because he chose to come back; it’s because his role could be a key to defensive success. With so much attention paid to Jordan Davis, other defensive linemen like Wyatt (and Walker and Carter…) will need to come up big, and they’ll have the matchups to do so. Wyatt got good penetration, and he and Walker were credited with two sacks each.

The roles of Wyatt, Walker, Carter, and the other linemen are coupled with how defenses are adjusting to more open and pass-happy offenses. With more nickel and dime personnel on the field, there will be fewer linebackers – especially the outside linebackers who are traditionally the pass rush specialists in a 3-4 base defense. The OLB position is still important; Nolan Smith had a fantastic G-Day. Adam Anderson was less conspicuous, but this scrimmage really wasn’t the setting in which to feature the blitz packages where Anderson’s versatility shines. The point though is that the role of the down linemen in pressure and disruption will increase. We’re used to them absorbing blocks, clogging lanes, and letting the linebackers clean up – contributions that might not show up in the stat sheet.

We should expect to see those linemen become less anonymous going forward. Their talent alone makes them tough to ignore, but their role and the nature of the defense means they could start making as many plays as they help set up for those behind them. Wyatt, Walker, and Zion Logue were right up there with Nolan Smith as G-Day’s sack leaders. With quick-release passes common in RPO-heavy offenses, you often don’t have time to wait for the pass rush to get home. The line of scrimmage has to be disrupted before the quarterback can make a comfortable run/pass decision. Georgia has the personnel to cause that disruption, and we saw on G-Day that it’s not just Jordan Davis.

Work to do

The most positive thing about the situations on the offensive line and in the secondary is that they’re still in flux. That’s to say that Georgia isn’t locked into a certain set of personnel and without options. There’s still time for offseason development and for individuals to make moves before the season. That’s a byproduct of and an advantage from consistently strong recruiting. But at some point coaches will have to make decisions, and G-Day didn’t offer a ton of clarity.

At defensive back Jalen Kimber might have looked more at ease than newcomers Kelee Ringo and Lovasea Carroll, and Nyland Green didn’t see the field. Ringo showed the speed to keep up with some of Georgia’s quicker receivers, and he laid what might have been the biggest hit of the day on Ladd McConkey. We can expect Tykee Smith to be plugged into a big role, and he should provide some stability and experience. Speed, Poole, and especially Brini reminded us last season that there are some experienced seniors who shouldn’t be counted out. The takeaway is that no one player came out of spring as the obvious answer at cornerback.

Georgia has recruited well on the offensive line since 2017, and five years ago we’d be salivating over guys currently running with the second team. What hasn’t happened yet is that talent coalescing into a confident whole. Some of that has to do with coaches still trying various combinations. That might be frustrating to fans watching the process play out in plain sight but is illuminating and useful for coaches. But it might also have to do with some players not making satisfactory progress to lock down their starting role. That leaves a couple of known starters, like Salyer, in limbo as we know he’ll start somewhere but exactly where will depend how other positions shake out. Ideally Salyer would play inside, but coaches would have to feel comfortable with Xavier Truss (or someone else) at left tackle. Truss has made visible progress since the Peach Bowl, but he’s not yet to the point of securing the job. The situation isn’t much more clear inside, and interior run blocking and pass protection wasn’t stellar at G-Day. Salyer could shore that up, but, again, we don’t know if he’ll be needed more at left tackle.

More…

  • You feel for Dan Jackson getting trucked by Washington and blocked into the endzone by Broderick Jones, but Jackson rebounded with a nice ball-hawking interception and showed why coaches have been positive about his future.
  • Again, this wasn’t the day to show off a power running game, but a healthy Kendall Milton makes this an incredibly deep backfield once McIntosh returns. The battle for that third tailback spot will be intense, and the depth gives coaches the option to feature multiple tailbacks if Cook’s role evolves.
  • Cook’s reception on the wheel route was the highlight of a prolific receiving day for the backs. On the other hand, there was some PTSD for seeing Georgia’s defense burned on another wheel route with an OLB in coverage.
  • Adonai Mitchell was a favored target and delivered a big game. He doesn’t have to lead Georgia in receiving; if he has an impact similar to Burton’s impact in 2020, that will go a long way towards easing the loss of Pickens.
  • Darnell Washington might not be 100% yet, but we’re witnessing him going supernova. The unexpected story at TE though might be the debut of Brock Bowers. The QB position has come a long way since last season, but the TE position has also transformed quite a bit since 2019 when Charlie Woerner was the only returning scholarship TE. FitzPatrick, Washington, and Bowers are talented enough to allow coaches a lot of flexibility with the position.
  • Special teams never gets much attention in these scrimmages. It was unfortunate that Zirkel was unable to participate. Camarda filled in as the second-team placekicker and showed good leg strength but not much accuracy. No concern about Camarda’s punting though. Kearis Jackson will be the return man, but McConkey seemed to be someone coaches wanted to get a look at.

Post Taylor’s next challenge: doing it all over again

Saturday April 10, 2021

It was a much-needed season of vindication for Joni Taylor. The canceled 2020 NCAA tournament spared Georgia the ignominy of missing consecutive tournaments for the first time in program history. The 2021 squad was picked to finish where it ended 2020: ninth in the SEC.

The 2021 team, led by a strong senior class, blew past those expectations. The team finished 4th in the SEC, reached the finals of the SEC tournament for the first time since 2004, and received the program’s best NCAA tournament seed since 2007. Taylor, for her part, was named SEC Coach of the Year and earned a contract extension and increase.

The trick though is sustaining that success and progress. Taylor wasn’t able to build on Georgia’s last trip to the NCAA tournament in 2018, and two disappointing seasons followed. Her contract extension says more about belief in Taylor for the future than it does about rewarding recent accomplishments. This can’t be as good as it gets, and no one in the program should feel that Georgia basketball is finally back. To be fair, the fact that we’re mentioning dates like 2004, 2007, 2001 (the last conference title), or even 2013 (the last Sweet 16 and Elite 8 appearances) suggests that the program hasn’t met its own standard for some time. Taylor took over a weakened program, but embracing Georgia’s legacy and making it her own has been a big part of her message. She deserves credit for a season that reminded Georgia fans of past greatness, but these successful seasons can’t be the exceptions.

Sustaining success begins with personnel, and there’s been great news on that front. Two of Georgia’s four key seniors have elected to return for an additional season as allowed by the NCAA. Jenna Staiti and Que Morrison were named honorable-mention All-Americans. Staiti was second team All-SEC, and Morrison was the SEC’s co-defensive player of the year. The return of a dominant post player and the team’s best defender will go a long way towards stability and success in 2022. These two returning post-graduates will join a top-15 recruiting class – the best incoming group since the 2017 class that featured Morrison.

With the return of Staiti and Morrison, Georgia will lose only two of their four key seniors. Maya Caldwell was a capable wing who showed good versatility later in the season dropping down to a more interior role. Georgia has options there: Mikayla Coombs and Sarah Ashlee Barker should see more playing time. The remaining hole is at point guard. Gabby Connally was an extension of Joni Taylor on the court and ran the offense for the better part of her four seasons. There isn’t an obvious replacement lined up, and the solution could come from one of four possibilities:

  • Next man up. Chloe Chapman was recruited as a five-star point guard, but she’s struggled to find playing time while splitting attention between basketball and soccer. There’s no questioning her athleticism, speed, and stamina, but her development as an offensive weapon has been slow. If she’s ever going to become a regular member of the rotation, this seems to be the window of opportunity.
  • The committee approach. Georgia might not have an obvious heir to the point guard position, but they do return several experienced guards. Even incoming freshman Reigan Richardson could contribute to the role.
  • Position change. Georgia’s assists leader last season wasn’t Connally; it was Que Morrison. Mikayla Coombs also had more assists than Connally. That might speak more to the nature of the Georgia offense – Connally often got Georgia into its halfcourt offense, but Georgia’s other guards were more keen to attack the basket. Morrison and Coombs did have issues with turnovers. An offseason dedicated to the nuances of point guard could help either Coombs or Morrison reduce turnovers and make better decisions with the ball.
  • Look for a transfer. The transfer portal is flush with players, and several have point guard experience. Georgia hasn’t been shy about taking an impact transfer (Coombs, Staiti, and Davenport.) Morrison and Staiti won’t count against scholarship limits, so there should be room to bring someone on if there’s a good fit out there. Georgia’s scholarship numbers might be fine, but adding another player creates a very crowded bench. Who comes off the court?

Georgia will enter the offseason with the same staff it’s had since Taylor became head coach. The continuity and stability of Georgia’s coaching staff is almost contrarian and refreshing in a very fluid profession, but it means that fresh ideas and improvement will have to come from within. The SEC won’t stand still, and changes will take place aimed at Georgia’s spot in the standings and their Coach of the Year. Georgia’s position is fragile; a handful of points separated them from an outcome more in line with modest preseason expectations. To their credit, they won those games, and there are plenty of players returning who understand how to compete and win in the SEC. Expectations will be much higher now than they were even a year ago, and exceeding them will be much more difficult. This is an inflection point for Taylor and the program: will the success of the 2021 season be the foundation for growth, or was it another peak in a series of valleys?