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Losing Jacob Eason (left) to a knee injury in the first game and having to turn to freshman Jake Fromm has not helped Georgia establish an offensive identity.

Bulldogs still searching for an offensive identity

Chip Towers

ATHENS — According to the research of DawgNation’s team of statistical analysts — or Seth Emerson watching the game over, whichever sounds better — Georgia utilized 18 different offensive formations against Notre Dame last Saturday night. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, one of those included the victory formation.

There are a lot of conclusions you can reach from that, but the chief one for me is that might be too many.

It’d be one thing if the Bulldogs were flying up and down the field and lighting up the scoreboard like a pinball machine while doing that. But in case you haven’t noticed, that’s not happening.

No, two games into the 2017 campaign, the No. 13 Bulldogs (2-0) find themselves right back where they’ve been the past three years. That is, in the bottom third of SEC teams in total (347 yards per game), passing (144 yards) and scoring offense (25.5 points per game).

First, though, I want to point out some good things about quarterback Jake Fromm. The freshman from Houston County is the one piloting this ship. Think about all those aforementioned personnel groupings, then wrap your head around that for a moment.

Every time the Bulldogs trot out there in one of those formations, that has to be called and/or acknowledged by the quarterback. In this case, that’s a quarterback who was playing high school ball this time a year ago — mostly out of one basic formation — and wasn’t expecting to play much 10 days ago.

So let’s give props where they’re deserved. Fromm did a pretty good job amid some very difficult circumstances.

Asked what he learned about Fromm from this past weekend, senior tackle Isaiah Wynn said: “That he can handle the load. I think we all believed in him, but it’s different to see him just step up and take leadership of the whole offense and not miss a beat. He did good.”

Senior tailback Nick Chubb echoed that sentiment.

“I thought he handled it well,” said Chubb, who had 63 yards on 13 carries against the Fighting Irish. “He’s a very mature player. He came in like he’s been doing it forever. I thought he handled every situation well.’

There were the resident freshman flaws that should be expected. He was intercepted once and could’ve/should’ve been on another pass that actually went for a completion. And Chubb confirmed Tuesday what was suspected Saturday night: Fromm was trying to pull the handoff that got fumbled and led to an early Notre Dame score.

But in terms of running the offense and making decisions, Fromm did exceptionally well.

“Love his demeanor, his competitiveness, his ability to stay positive after adversity,” former UGA quarterback David Greene observed. “He handled a tough situation about as well as anybody could ask.”

The problem is figuring out just exactly what it is Georgia’s trying to do on offense. As most coaches will point out, ultimately that’s simply to gain first downs and score points. But usually there is some sort of obvious means to that end.

It used to be that you always knew that Georgia was a tailback-oriented offense that is going to establish the run game and throw off of that. But while the Bulldogs are still known as Tailback U and actually have two or three exceptionally good ones, they rarely line up as tailbacks anymore.

Again, according to Emerson’s breakdown, Georgia lined up in the I-formation seven times in 72 plays against Irish. Out of those, the tailbacks actually carried the ball just twice for a total of 7 yards. Three were fullback runs and the other two were unsuccessful passes.

No, far more often Georgia was in the shotgun with a single back and numerous different personnel groupings. At the end of the evening, the Bulldogs had attempted 43 runs to 29 passes and finished with a relatively balanced distribution of 185 yards rushing and 141 yards passing.

Of course, it might’ve looked even better if Mecole Hardman had hung on to Fromm’s well-placed deep post pass or if Fromm hadn’t overthrown wide-open Terry Godwin on one deep route. But as coach Kirby Smart often says, it is what it is.

So what is it, exactly? Well, it’s what most offenses these days are. That is, it’s the proverbial “multiple offense,” for sure. And there are indications that it could actually be quite good if it could ever enjoy even a modicum of consistency.

Certainly Jim Chaney is an easy target. Offensive coordinators always are. I often find myself questioning the calls he’s making in a given series or quarter or game. But that was true for Mike Bobo, too. And Bobo rarely found himself in the situation that Chaney finds himself in for a second year — and the third straight year for Georgia.

That is, working with a new quarterback.

As good as Fromm is and has been relative to his age and experience, it’s naive to think that he’s currently able to command Georgia’s offense to the degree that Jacob Eason would have. I don’t know the actual number of “check with me’s,” as coaches like to call them, that Fromm had at his disposal against Notre Dame, but he did call an audible a few times.

It would follow that Eason, who had only four or five of those a year ago, probably would have had a lot more this year. Seeing how this offense was expected to have him at the controls, it’s not a stretch to think it might run a little better with him under center.

But that’s not the cards Georgia has been dealt. The time could come before the season is over that the deck gets reshuffled again. But nobody’s sharing just yet exactly how long Eason will be out and what happens if and when he returns.

In the meantime, though, this is what the Bulldogs are yet again on offense. They are a freshman quarterback-led team surrounded by a bunch of talented running backs and skill-position players while operating behind a second-tier offensive line.

“I think the paradox is that if you only have one thing you do well, what is that one element?” said SEC Network football analyst Matt Stinchcomb, a former All-America lineman at Georgia. “Are you pro style? What does that even mean anymore? I don’t think it means anything. …

“The challenge Georgia has faced the past three or four years is they either have a new offensive coordinator or new guys at quarterback. Your identity has to morph to what you’re capable of. The best coaches mold their system to the guys they’ve recruited. …. Georgia’s having a hard time getting there right now.”

Certainly, the Bulldogs will look much more fluid on offense when Samford comes to town Saturday. But another fresh challenge waits just around the corner when Mississippi State visits Sept. 23. The Maroon Dogs, under the direction of former UGA defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, are third in the SEC in total defense and lead the conference against the pass.

If Fromm is still the quarterback at that point — and he’s expected to be — maybe we’ll have a better idea then of what the Bulldogs are trying to do. Or maybe Chaney will keep dialing for dollars out of a dozen or so sets.

As long as Georgia keeps winning it won’t be an issue.

“Alabama won a national championship in ’15 when they beat Clemson and the talk of the season was, ‘What’s your offensive identity?'” Stinchcomb said. “And I remember Lane Kiffin saying, ‘We don’t have one.’ … I don’t know that’s what’s happening here. Maybe this offense looks like it’s supposed to. But I have a hard time getting there.”

The bottom line is the Bulldogs seem to believe in what they’re doing.

“We know who we are,” Chubb said. “We have different packages, different personnel. It might look complex but we all have a good grasp on it.”

Fromm, most especially.