Georgia opens spring practice this week with extremely high expectations for the coming season, thanks to the large number of veterans returning, particularly on offense, and the elite level at which Kirby Smart has been recruiting the past three years.
But, there also is the usual quota of questions to be answered, thanks to quite a few changes in the coaching staff and the early departure of some key players.
However, I think fans looking forward to the April 20 G-Day game in hopes of getting those answers are bound to be somewhat disappointed.
While Smart has put increased emphasis on G-Day as a promotional opportunity during his time as head coach, trying to pack Sanford Stadium, the actual intrasquad scrimmage itself has become increasingly irrelevant as an indicator of what to expect during the coming season.
It’s largely a show put on for recruits, with a grandstand full of fans serving as an impressive background. Fans aren’t privy to the real spring work, done in closed practices and scrimmages.
What you see on G-Day isn’t necessarily what you’ll get, come fall.
Although the Dawgs pretty much run vanilla offensive and defensive schemes on G-Day, in order not to provide anything of use for scouts from upcoming opponents, the offense tends to throw the ball a lot more in the spring game than in real games, and fans wind up getting excited about relatively unknown players who show up big on that day, but frequently go on to have only a minimal role in the actual season.
Still, even though most of the question marks will remain hanging over the team until the August preseason camp or even later, the beginning of spring practice is a good time to take stock of the most pressing issues as Smart’s fourth team marks the unofficial beginning of the 2019 season.
Generally, the team’s in great shape, with a third-year starting quarterback in Jake Fromm; a veteran offensive line (led by returning offense tackles Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson, though the Dawgs will be settling on a new center); a talented running back corps led by the phenomenal D’Andre Swift (though not as daunting as it could have been if Elijah Holyfield hadn’t left early for the NFL); a wealth of experience at most positions on defense; and one of the nation’s best placekickers in Rodrigo Blankenship.
As I said here a couple of months ago, my two main concerns about the 2019 Dawgs are establishing an effective pass rush (which Georgia never had consistently in 2018), and the relative lack of experience in the receiving corps. To a lesser extent, quarterback depth concerns me, too.
Smart, appearing recently on Atlanta’s 680 The Fan sports talk radio, said he’s “hoping to get some more pass rush; we’re trying to increase the pass rush and tackles for loss; we’re always trying to give people negative plays.”
He cited the youth of last year’s defense overall as a reason he chose not to run the risk of blitzing more. But, he said, “This year we don’t feel like we’re as young on defense. We feel like we’ve got some guys coming back that can contribute, some guys coming back that played and that may allow us to be more aggressive.”
There also is hope for more a more effective pass rush with the arrival of a pair of early-signing freshman defensive ends: Nolan Smith (the nation’s top recruit, according to 247Sports Composite) and Jermaine Johnson, the top-ranked junior college player. Smart has said that he sees both players primarily as pass rushers able to disrupt opposing quarterbacks.
That would be good, as a strong pass rush would help alleviate pressure on the secondary, which has lost the dominating presence of Deandre Baker, the best cornerback in college football last year.
While we’re talking about the secondary, while safety J.R. Reed is a strength there, and a team leader, the other safety, Richard LeCounte, needs to improve his tackling drastically.
Defensively, I really doubt that departed coordinator Mel Tucker being replaced by the team of Dan Lanning and Glenn Schumann will make all that much difference, because it’s always been Smart who’s really calling the shots there.
The main area of improvement needed defensively, besides establishing a pass rush, is the effectiveness of defensive front seven against the run.
When it comes to my other main concern, the receiving corps, Georgia is losing four of its top five pass catchers from 2018. The top returnee is J.J. Holloman, and he’ll likely to be Georgia’s main big-play receiving threat. The looming question is who else will step up at the position. Will Demetris Robertson finally live up to the hype that accompanied his transfer from California last year? Most likely other contenders are Tyler Simmons, Kearis Jackson and incoming freshmen Dominick Blaylock and Makiya Tongue.
Also open to question is who will join Charlie Woerner as a regular presence at tight end, and how the lack of depth there will affect blocking schemes, especially in the running game, where the decision to go without a fullback continues to be puzzling.
As for QB, the lack of experienced depth behind Fromm means the battle for the backup spot will draw a lot of attention this spring. Actually, I doubt that spot will be settled until August, but the returning Stetson Bennett (who left the program for a year playing in junior college) looks like the favorite over incoming freshman Dwan Mathis, mainly because of his experience with the Georgia offensive playbook. Either way, if something happens to Fromm, all bets are off on Georgia’s 2019 season.
Another question we’ll have to wait to see answered is what sort of offensive identity Georgia will have under new coordinator James Coley, who was quarterbacks coach last year but has offensive coordinator experience at Florida State and Miami. The expectation of many program observers is that Coley will run a slightly more wide-open passing game than the primarily run-oriented philosophy Jim Chaney followed, especially with the loss of one of the Dawgs’ two 1,000-yard tailbacks, but we won’t really know that until the fall. Perhaps, Coley’s offense will be a bit more uptempo, too.
One area where improvement definitely is needed is the short-yardage game. Last season, despite being a run-first team, the Dawgs had trouble making short-yardage plays to convert third downs or score.
Fans also are anxious to see how ready the highly touted Zamir “Zeus” White will be to join the tailback rotation behind D’Andre Swift. As fan Jesse Murrah put it on my Facebook page this past week: “Am excited to finally see ‘Zeus’ destroy everything in his path.” However, the reality is, that’s likely to be another storyline that won’t get resolved until later in the year, since White is just seven months removed from surgery that forced him to miss last season. He’ll participate in drills this spring, but may not receive any contact. It’s doubtful we’ll see him play in the G-Day game.
Another intriguing question is who will replace Mecole Hardman in the kick return game, and there are several possibilities, including James Cook, Simmons, Robertson, Jackson and incoming freshman Blaylock. But, since I’m assuming kicks won’t be returned during the G-Day game (based on past practice), that’s another one we’ll have to wait until at least August to see resolved.
It’s notable that 14 members of Georgia’s 2019 signing class are already in school and will participate in spring drills, part of an increasing trend that Smart recently told Tony Barnhart is attributable to the fact that the mindset for players now is “‘I’ve got to get out in three years and get to the NFL.’”
For the coaching staff, that necessarily speeds up the process of working freshmen into the game plan, and leads to frustration on the part of those freshmen who don’t get as much playing time as they’d like (as in the case of Justin Fields). The transfer portal looms large these days.
We can expect to see quite a few of those fresh faces working their way into playing time, but that won’t really be evident until well into the season.
Smart, who hasn’t addressed the reporters covering UGA football since the bowl game, kicks things off with a press conference Tuesday, followed by the first of 15 practices that will include the G-Day game.
Speaking of which, while it might not be much more than a dressed-up final spring scrimmage, and an opportunity to get recruits excited, it’ll still be great to have the Dawgs teeing it up Between the Hedges for the first time in what could prove to be a momentous season in Athens.