We gave you the five greatest successes of Georgia’s season, plus a few honorable mentions.
Then we gave you the five greatest disappointments, with no honorable mentions, because we had depressed you enough for one day.
Finally, we wrap up this trilogy with the five greatest surprises – which we define as generally positive. Yes, it was surprising that the offense didn’t perform better. That’s why we included it in the disappointments, and feel we covered it just fine there. And in a few hundred exhaustive other stories.
This time, let us focus on the players or positions that emerged in the following way: If you took a copy of the final statistics, team and individual, and showed them to somebody back in August, which most would make people go: Whoa, I didn’t see that coming?
Yes, the greatest surprises might actually be Georgia losing to Vanderbilt, or only beating Nicholls State by two, or Nick Chubb and Sony Michel both staying another year. But hey, work with us here. That’s why we changed the headline to most surprising players. And here they are:
1. MAURICE SMITH
There was obviously a reason that Kirby Smart and Mel Tucker, who knew Smith from their Alabama days, were willing to wait on Smith to win his transfer battle against Alabama. (As we wrote last week, Smith earned the only win over Nick Saban in 2016.)
But while the whispers were that Smith could help Georgia’s secondary, who expected him to start every game, be named a team captain and arguably be the defensive MVP? This was a guy who had started just two games in three years at Alabama. It’s a pretty amazing story.
2. BRIAN HERRIEN
The freshman tailback cooled off in the latter part of the season, but still finished as the team’s third-leading rusher – and with a better per-carry average (5.9) than Chubb (4.8) or Michel (5.5).
It doesn’t get much attention how unique a story Herrien was this year: A late signee, and one who wasn’t expected to do much, he scored a touchdown on his first college carry, against a high-profile opponent in the Georgia Dome. That ranks up there as perhaps the most surprising individual moment of Georgia’s season.
Most everyone expected the other freshman tailback, Elijah Holyfield, to be the other tailback to emerge this year. Or for Brendan Douglas, a veteran, to be the next option off the bench. Those two combined for just 11 carries, while Herrien toted it 61 times for 362 yards and three touchdowns. Holyfield’s preseason high ankle sprain may have led to Herrien vaulting him on the depth chart – and he ran with it.
3. RODRIGO BLANKENSHIP
Yes, he was the favorite before the season to be the team’s field goal kicker, but when he didn’t initially win the job, that was a concern. Then Blankenship took over and ended the season 14-for-17 on field goals and made all his extra points.
Why that qualifies as a surprise: Freshman kickers usually struggle more. Blair Walsh was 15-for-22 as a true freshman, and Marshall Morgan was 8-for-14. Maybe it helped Blankenship that he was a redshirt freshman, not in his first year. But he was also a walk-on – and still is, as everyone knows.
4. DAVID MARSHALL
While it’s good to generally believe star ratings, Marshall is yet another example to not be obsessed by them. Some sites had the Thomaston native as a three-star, but Smart and his staff saw something in the defensive end and pushed hard to flip him away from Auburn. And Marshall didn’t need long to show why.
In the season opener, Marshall had a sack and three more tackles. He ended up starting four games, notching 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble, and was right there with Julian Rochester – the more hyped of the defensive linemen – in making an immediate impact.
5. DEANDRE BAKER
Another three-star recruit, Baker, a cornerback, hardly played as a freshman and wasn’t playing much this year at the start. Then he was inserted into the lineup at Ole Miss, and proceeded to lock down his spot the rest of the way.
Baker hauled in two interceptions, along with six pass break-ups and even a sack, serving as a key cog in a pass defense that improved as the season went on. In fact, the pass defense improvement can be traced to when Baker entered the lineup. It may not have been totally because of Baker, but he had a lot to do with it.
Lamont Gaillard: The offensive line did struggle, but Gaillard – a former defensive lineman – still managed to hold down the starting right guard job throughout the season.
Tyler Clark and Michail Carter: While they didn’t have quite the same impact as Marshall and Rochester, their fellow freshmen, Clark and Carter played a lot more than expected and each had their moments.