By the Numbers: The panic-free evaluation of how UGA will replace departing juniors
Georgia football fans can get their statistical fix each week with By the Numbers — a stats-based look at how UGA coach Kirby Smart is doing in his attempt to keep the Bulldogs on top of the SEC and continue the program’s pursuit of a national championship. Today’s edition of By the Numbers looks at UGA’s juniors leaving school early for the NFL draft.
Four Georgia juniors entered the NFL draft Friday. This obviously has the potential to make a negative impact on the Bulldogs in 2019, but the chances of UGA taking a free fall without tight end Isaac Nauta, wide receivers Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman and running back Elijah Holyfield probably aren’t as significant as you might think.
First, the bad news:
In the last five years, there have been 30 teams to have at least four underclassmen declare early for the NFL draft, and 19 of those teams won fewer games the following season. In fact, those 19 teams averaged 2.63 more losses the year after a wave of early departures.
This shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The absence of multiple NFL-quality prospects would hurt most teams, and plenty of UGA fans seem quick to assume the exodus from Athens will also hurt the Bulldogs. However, a closer examination of the facts indicates Georgia doesn’t have much in common with the programs that haven’t bounced back when large numbers of players entered the draft.
11 of those19 teams failed to produce a top-five recruiting class according to the 247Sports composite at any point over the last five years. In other words, those programs were less able to replicate talent when top-flight players moved on.
In February, UGA will close out what’s expected to be its third-consecutive season of top-three classes (currently ranked No. 2 after finishing No. 1 in 2018 and No.3 in 2017). When Georgia loses NFL players it’s more likely to be able to replace them with players who will also eventually go to the NFL.
Nine of those 19 teams had multiple seasons with four or more departures between 2014-18. UGA only had three early entrants from its 2017 roster, and only lost two juniors after 2016.
Players leaving school early might catch up with Georgia eventually, but it isn’t likely to be a serious detriment to success next season.
Furthermore, UGA fans who consider the Bulldogs to once again be national championship contenders next season should know that large numbers of juniors declaring early for the NFL draft haven’t kept teams from competing during the College Football Playoff era.
Alabama will play for the national championship Monday night after losing five players early to last year’s draft. Clemson won the national championship in 2016, just a few months after seven Tigers players left school early. In fact, every CFP national championship game has featured at least one team that lost at least three juniors from the previous season.
This isn’t meant to diminish the contributions of Nauta, Ridley, Hardman and Holyfield. They’ll no doubt be missed at Georgia. Yet they aren’t irreplaceable.
Nauta could have a tremendous NFL career, but more opportunities for Charlie Woerner at tight end next season should leave UGA in good shape. Woerner has had a knack for having his best games in the biggest moments. He recorded three catches in the 2018 Rose Bowl before getting hurt, and caught two passes in each of the Bulldogs last two games — the Sugar Bowl vs. Texas and the SEC Championship against Alabama.
The story at wideout is much the same. Ridley (570 yards) and Hardman (532 yards) were UGA’s two leading receivers this season, but the Bulldogs top receiver has been a different player in each of the last five seasons. The only player to show up in the top two of UGA’s receiving stats more than once over the last five years is departing-senior Terry Godwin, who was the Bulldogs second-leading receiver from 2015-17 before dropping to No. 5 on that list this past season.
Finding new receiving targets is something Georgia seems to do every year.
Next season, it will have plenty of intriguing possibilities to choose from. Jeremiah Holloman took a dramatic step forward in 2018 — hauling in five touchdowns. Demetris Robertson is also expected to return, and his credentials speak for themselves — the nation’s only 5-star receiver in 2016 and a former freshman All-American at Cal. Not to mention incoming freshman Dominick Blaylock — who caught two touchdowns to cap off his high school career in the All-American Bowl on Saturday.
The hardest junior to replace will probably by Holyfield. He ran for 1,018 yards in his final season, and the Bulldogs will look to duplicate that productivity next year.
However, Holyfield’s story also serves as a reminder that relative newcomers can burst onto the scene quickly. Holyfield’s big season came after only getting 50 carries for 293 yards in 2017.
This should give hope to rising sophomore James Cook — who had just 41 carries for 284 yards this season, but was the nation’s No. 3 all-purpose running back from the 2018 recruiting class. It should also get DawgNation excited about Zamir White, the No. 1 running back from the 2018 class who missed the entire 2018 season after tearing his ACL during summer practices.
Given the level of talent waiting in the wings, UGA fans feeling anxious about those leaving the program shouldn’t expect a lot of sympathy from opposing coaches, players or fans. They know the Bulldogs will remain a threat, and everyone who sees juniors leaving early as a problem, should know that with the way Georgia is recruiting, the “problem” won’t go away anytime soon.