NEW ORLEANS — When Georgia offensive coordinator and play-caller Jim Chaney was moved from coaching quarterbacks to coaching tight ends, it was assumed those playing under him would benefit with on-field opportunities.
They have, but not to the extent one might expect.
Retrospectively, Chaney believes that might’ve been a mistake. With extended time to review and breakdown what the Bulldogs have been doing on offense this season, he believes he may have under-utilized his own guys.
“You get going so fast during the season some things pass you by,” Chaney said during the Bulldogs’ Sugar Bowl preparations this week. “I think one statistic that did kind of pass me by is how many times we were targeting those kids and how many times when we targeted them, it resulted in a completion.”
Chaney did not say what the targets per completion rate, but that it was “a very high, alarming rate.”
Georgia doesn’t otherwise provide targeting information in its statistical profile, but just basing it on receptions, tight ends are catching it more this year than they did last year.
In fact, twice as much.
The Bulldogs’ tight ends have 40 catches for 564 yards and three touchdowns this season. Last year, they accounted for 20 receptions for 236 yard and two scores. Junior Isaac Nauta has been the primary recipient with 29 catches for 427 yards and all three touchdowns scored by the position.
But the tight end’s 40 catches represents just 18.1 percent of the team’s receptions this season. The grand majority have gone to wide receivers and running back D’Andre Swift. Split end Riley Ridley leads the Bulldogs with 39 receptions for 509 yards and nine touchdowns. Flanker Mecole Hardman is next with 33 catches for 529 yards and six scores, followed by Nauta.
“You would have to be a dummy to sit here and think you probably shouldn’t utilize that position a little bit more than we have in our offense,” Chaney said of the tight ends. “You can see that probably changing a little bit.”
That might be a promise Chaney needs to make to keep Nauta and fellow tight end Luke Ford around. Nauta, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior, is contemplating early entry for the NFL Draft. Ford, a 6-6, 252-pound freshman from Carterville, Ill., has submitted his name into the NCAA’s transfer portal.
If both leave, that would leave the Bulldogs with just junior Charlie Woerner and freshman John FitzPatrick to return to the position next year. Georgia signed Ryland Goede, a 6-6, 240-pound, 4-star prospect out of Acworth, in the early signing period this month
Both Chaney and head coach Kirby Smart said they can’t anticipate what Nauta or Ford will do, but they remain confident in the talent at the position.
“First off, I think Charlie Woerner does a tremendous job,” Smart said Monday. “Charlie is one of the most athletic, physical blockers, especially for a guy that played every position in high school football. … He grew into a tight end body, and he’s one of the toughest, hardest workers who never complains, never says a word in practice. He just works. He’s gotten a lot better throughout his career and will continue to do so.”
Smart said FitzPatrick has also made great progress, but has been somewhat limited by having to play some offensive tackle on the scout team due to others’ injuries.
“But he’s grown and gotten better,” Smart said. “I think when you put those two guys out there, they both have a chance to help us. And that’s with the stuff we’ve got up in the air.”
Making sure all of Georgia’s worthy offensive play-makers get the ball in their hands is one of Chaney’s greatest challenges. The Bulldogs are blessed this season not only with great running backs such as Swift and Elijah Holyfield but also their deepest and most talented wide receiver corps in recent memory.
The SEC’s leading rushing team, Georgia generally prefers to keep the ball on the ground whenever it can. But the one of offense’s most explosive attributes is the play-action fake. With the Bulldogs’ speed on the outside, receivers have a knack for turning those into long gains.
But both Nauta and Woerner have exceptional speed for their size. And as Chaney alluded, they’ve rarely not hauled in the ball when it has come their way.
Keeping all of Georgia’s worthy offensive skill players happy can be a difficult proposition. Then again, contentment is not necessarily the point.
“We do have a lot of play-makers, but that doesn’t necessarily go through (the coaches’) head,” quarterback Jake Fromm said. “They’re not worried about whether this guy touched the ball enough or that guy; they’re worried about winning. And that’s really all there is to it. … Guys are supposed to be bought into wanting nothing but the best for the team. So we’re all just doing to best we can with the pieces we think are right and that’s all we can do.”