I had a feeling when my phone started blowing up on a Friday afternoon, a few days after the Dawgs’ last game of the season, that it probably wasn’t good news.
The texts from friends and family all were focused on the events of “Black Friday,” as some have dubbed the exodus of talented UGA juniors leaving early for the NFL, on top of a couple of freshmen already transferring.
We already knew that much-heralded backup QB Justin Fields was transferring out of frustration over not winning the starting job, as well as freshman 5-star tight end Luke Ford, who is leaving to be closer to his ailing grandfather.
But, then came the names of the upperclassmen who won’t be returning for their senior year: tight end Isaac Nauta, wide receiver Riley Ridley, receiver/returner Mecole Hardman and, finally, running back Elijah Holyfield.
That’s a lot of talent walking out the door of Butts-Mehre (where a friend had an inkling something was up Thursday when he saw Fields and his dad, Ridley and Hardman all arriving within about 2 minutes of one another).
I think most of Bulldog Nation already was resigned to Fields leaving, though the discussion was ongoing over whether there was anything Kirby Smart and his staff could have done to prevent it, and whether they could have used the freshman quarterback more wisely behind starter Jake Fromm.
Frankly, short of naming Fields the starter (a job he obviously wasn’t ready for), I don’t think there was anything the Georgia coaches could have done to keep him. Even if offensive coordinator Jim Chaney had scripted complete series for Fields in every game, he probably still would have left. The freshman came to Athens with his mind set on unseating Fromm as the starter, and, that wasn’t going to happen.
Fields may be a great quarterback one day, but he plainly was the second-best QB on the Georgia roster this season.
Yes, you can quibble about the way Fields awkwardly was shoehorned into non-cupcake games for an inconsequential play here or there, particularly against Alabama. Most of the time, it resulted in wasted downs, as he either handed off or ran for a yard or two. In the passing game, Fields clearly wasn’t comfortable yet, too frequently failing to go through all his receiver progressions. Instead, if the primary receiver was covered, he’d tuck it and run.
As it turned out, these sporadic one-play cameo appearances were neither in Fields’ nor Fromm’s best interests.
Still, the hard truth is that, short of benching Fromm, Fields wasn’t going to get enough reps to overcome his freshman deficiencies. And, you just don’t bench a successful starting QB in order to provide on-the-job training for a potential successor.
As for the juniors deciding to leave the program, like many others, I wasn’t at all surprised by the departure of Nauta. He’s the prototypical NFL tight end, and he seemed ready. Plus, he probably was a little bit frustrated he wasn’t given more opportunities to catch the ball.
Ridley, who’d only really risen to the level of a “star” receiver beginning with last year’s national championship game, still had room for improvement, but he’s got all the attributes that NFL teams covet in a ball catcher.
I was somewhat surprised by Holyfield leaving early, until I remembered the frequent talk about how running backs have a finite number of runs and hits in them and need to take advantage of their opportunities while they can. He and D’Andre Swift made a terrific tandem, but it’s unlikely another year would have improved Holyfield’s draft status all that much, and an injury could have severely hurt it.
On the other hand, Hardman leaving early surprised me. Having wasted his freshman year as a defensive back, he’d only been on offense for two seasons and was up-and-down as a receiver, due to inexperience catching the ball, and his small size.
However, I don’t think it’s fair to say, as I heard from at least a couple of folks, that he tended to “disappear” in big games. Remember, it was Hardman who provided the only real offensive highlight of the second half for the Dawgs in last January’s national championship game as he tightroped the sideline on that 80-yard TD, the longest scoring catch in College Football Playoff history.
Actually, Hardman’s NFL future probably lies in his remarkable speed and shiftiness as a kick returner, and that’s where Georgia will miss him the most.
Still, I think Hardman might have improved his deal by playing another season for the Dawgs.
Naturally, social media across Bulldog Nation erupted quickly and strongly over the news of the departures.
Some fans reacted to the departure announcements with the sort of wailing and gnashing of teeth one would expect from an NCAA death sentence; others, with harsh criticism of the players leaving for being “disloyal” or “selfish.”
Both are overreactions.
While Dawgs fans selfishly would like to have seen these guys return for their senior years, three-and-out has become a commonplace thing in college football, and Georgia certainly isn’t the first program to suffer such a loss. Some other programs, including Bama, have had more players leave early for the NFL at the end of a season, and it hasn’t derailed them.
Bulldog Nation was spoiled by the atypical scenario that played out the season before last when four NFL-worthy players elected to return for their senior seasons. We love them for doing so, especially since they led UGA to the national championship game, but that doesn’t mean we should hate those who don’t make the same gamble with their future careers.
Let’s face it, if you had the chance to sign a big-money deal that could change not only your life, but that of your family, could you resist just on the basis of “school spirit”? Especially when, by returning for another year of college ball, you’d run the risk of all those dollars going away if you got hurt?
I think the recriminations over Black Friday largely have been unnecessary. The more positive way to view these losses is that, if you recruit a lot of 5-star talent that is capable of playing at the next level, as Smart is doing these days, the odds are you’re not going to hold on to some of those players more than three years. That’s just a fact of life in college ball. And, as my buddy Joel noted, “Back in the good old days, when freshmen couldn’t play, you only had guys for three years anyway.”
Another friend, Scott, summed it up nicely Friday, noting this is “the downside to Kirby’s selling approach: Come to UGA because we can best prepare you for the NFL. And today the bill came due for that pitch.”
However, while the alternative — drafting fewer 5-star prospects — might make for a more stable lineup, it also would mean you’re not signing the best players, and that is going to make it harder for you to compete at an elite level.
As for what this particular exodus of talent will mean for Smart’s program next season, the most obvious effect is going to be on the passing game, which, besides the tight ends, Ridley and Hardman, also loses Terry Godwin to graduation.
That doesn’t leave Georgia talentless at receiver. J.J. Holloman has shown brilliance in flashes, Tyler Simmons has looked good at times, and maybe, finally, celebrated transfer Demetris Robertson can live up to his billing. Plus, there’s incoming talent in 5-star prospect Dominick Blaylock and 4-star Makiya Tongue. And, who knows, maybe Smart can flip another top receiver by the February signing day.
Still, that’s probably going to mean the running game is going to have to carry the offense this next season until the decimated receiver corps gets some experience — a task complicated by losing one of the team’s two 1,000-yard backs in Holyfield. Yes, with Swift, Brian Herrien and James Cook, and the hoped-for return of Zamir “Zeus” White from his second ACL tear, Georgia still will have a dynamic backfield.
But, you can bet that, at least early on, every defense the Dawgs face is going to load the box against the run and dare Fromm to throw the ball. The offensive line thankfully will return mostly intact, but this is going to increase the pressure on Chaney to become less predictable in his rushing calls (a recurring problem that reared its ugly head again against Texas).
My brother Tim also suggested that “Kirby needs to look at the grad transfer market for a running back, receiver and QB for backups,” which might be a good way to bolster depth at those positions. Another experienced tight end, either a grad transfer or a JUCO player, would be a good addition, too.
Not all the Georgia fans texting me Friday afternoon were looking on the downside, however. Joel said: “I hate it but, frankly, none of these guys is irreplaceable.”
And while Scott is “not convinced Zeus will ever be the back we hoped, only because two ACL tears is a huge mountain to climb,” he does think “Swift as a feature back, relieved by a very solid Herrien and change of pace with Cook, will give us a formidable run game.”
He added: “I think it’s safe to say we are in prime position to recruit 4- and 5-stars at both RB and QB next cycle.”
And, so it goes. That’s the natural cycle of college football, even if players leaving early does complicate things a bit for the coaches — and leave fans fretting.
Speaking of which, I’ll be answering Junkyard Mail next time, so if you have any comments or questions on Georgia’s 2018 season, or on the outlook for next year, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.