ATHENS — Let’s begin this with the proviso that the greatest success of Kirby Smart’s first year at Georgia is in recruiting. That’s become fairly evident in recent days, if it wasn’t already.
This little postseason series, however, is about the season itself. The on-field product wasn’t as pretty as the off-field news, but the season had its moments — and its points of success. Beyond the eight victories themselves (well, seven plus Nicholls State) here are the five best things that happened for Georgia on the field this season:
1. FRESHMEN IN GENERAL
The hype centered around Jacob Eason, but he wasn’t even the best player in his class. And the best talent might have been on the other side of the ball.
David Marshall (2.5 sacks), Julian Rochester (2 sacks), Tyler Clark and Michail Carter all got significant playing time on the defensive line.
On offense, tight end Isaac Nauta and receiver Riley Ridley emerged as legitimate weapons, especially Nauta. The two freshmen combined for 41 catches, 599 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns.
Tailback Brian Herrien had a quiet second half of the season, but the first part was so strong he still finished as the team’s third-leading rusher, with 363 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns.
Oh, and Eason wasn’t too shabby either: His completion percentage and QB rating weren’t great, but he did throw for 2,430 yards, 16 touchdowns and just 8 interceptions. The last stat was rather unexpected, considering even Matt Stafford had more picks than TD passes as a freshman.
2. ISAIAH McKENZIE
He was so involved in the offense — and from the start — that people forget how underused he was prior to the season. Yes, Jim Chaney deserves credit for that: He realized right away he had a weapon in the 5-foot-7 (maybe) receiver, and he used him.
Consider this: McKenzie, who combined for just 16 receptions his first two years at Georgia, had 43 as a junior. He also had 19 carries, after combining for 18 his first two years. He finished as the team’s leading receiver (643 receiving yards) and second on the team in total TDs. Chaney made him a focal point of the offense, and it benefitted Georgia greatly.
3. RODRIGO BLANKENSHIP
Remember when Smart cracked that he was “scared to death” of the kicking situation? He was only half-joking, and Blankenship didn’t even win the job in the preseason.
But once he inherited the job, the redshirt freshman ended up one of the feel-good stories of the season. And not just because he gave a postgame TV interview with his helmet on.
Blankenship finished the season 14-for-18 on field goal attempts, better than both Blair Walsh and Marshall Morgan as freshmen.
Georgia ended the season plus-8 in turnover margin. That’s nothing compared to two years ago, when the Bulldogs were plus-16, and it was just a slight improvement over last year, when it was plus-4.
But Georgia’s margin this year is tied for the best in the SEC with a team named Alabama. The key for the Bulldogs was forcing them: Their 19 turnovers committed is only the fifth-least in the SEC, but the defense was really good at ball-hawking, especially the secondary.
Dominick Sanders, as usual, led the way with 3 interceptions, but amazingly six other players had 2 interceptions each, including everybody who started in the secondary. (Including Juwuan Briscoe, who lost his starting spot four games in.)
5. ROQUAN SMITH AND NATREZ PATRICK
Georgia lost its team MVP from last year (Jake Ganus, as voted on by the coaches) as well as Tim Kimbrough. But it put its hopes on a pair of highly-regarded sophomores, and they came through.
Smith played in every game, starting 10 and leading the team with 95 tackles. Patrick, who missed the final three games of the regular season with a shoulder injury, was still the team’s second-leading tackler. The pair held down the middle of the field most of the way, helping Georgia finish fifth in the SEC in run defense despite that very young defensive line.
Also worth mentioning:
– Nick Chubb and Sony Michel: It feels like they should be top 5, and their combined rushing yardage (1,970) was their most since they arrived together in Athens. But everyone knew they’d be successful if they stayed healthy, and if not for the run-blocking problems, they could have done so much better.
– Maurice Smith: As we wrote last week, he’s the best individual story on this year’s team. From battling Alabama for the right to transfer, to a starter nearly every game and arguably the defensive MVP.
– Injuries: Or lack of them. The only player to suffer a season-ending injury before December was punter Marshall Long, and that was nine games in. As late as the Florida game, on Oct. 29, the Bulldogs had every single starter and every key reserve as well.
– Deandre Baker: The sophomore cornerback wasn’t talked about much before the season, or even a few games into it, but once inserted into the starting lineup he became a very good defender.
Coming next: The five greatest disappointments of Georgia’s season.