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D'Andre Swift (7) is one of Georgia football's top rising sophomores.

Georgia football: The top 5 rising sophomores heading into 2018

Cy Brown

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Top Dawgs: Rising sophomores

We continue our “Way-Too-Early Look at 2018” series with a breakdown of the top 5 rising sophomores on Georgia’s roster. Some of these players made names for themselves as stars of the team in 2017, while others carved out spots for themselves as role players. But regardless of what they did in 2017, these five Bulldogs sophomores will be relied on heavily next season. Let’s go.

  • Richard LeCounte III, S — One of the top prospects from the recruiting Class of 2017, Richard LeCounte served as a backup safety — and part-time recruiter — in his first season. He had only 15 tackles this season, but many of those put his head-hunting ability on full display. As things stand, LeCounte might be first in line to replace Dominick Sanders as starting safety.
  • Monty Rice, ILB — There wasn’t much hype surrounding Monty Rice entering his freshman season, but come unexpected circumstances forced him into an important role early. Rice started logging significant minutes midseason following the suspension of Natrez Patrick. When Patrick entered drug treatment before the postseason, Rice stepped up once again and played a major role in both College Football Playoff games. With the departure of Roquan Smith, Rice will enter 2018 as one of the most experienced middle linebackers on the team. And with the future of Patrick still in doubt, he might be the best as well.
  • Andrew Thomas, LT — It can’t be overstated how impressive Andrew Thomas was in 2017, if only because freshmen almost never earn playing time on offensive line. (Check the next section for more on that.) But Thomas didn’t just play ― he started ― and became one of the best linemen on the team. Next season, he’ll anchor the unit at left tackle, giving Kirby Smart and offensive line coach Sam Pittman a cornerstone to build upon as they try to construct the best line in college football.
  • D’Andre Swift, RB — D’Andre Swift had the talent and skill to start at dozens of Power 5 schools and get more than 150 carries as a freshman, but instead he served as a change of pace and third-down option in relief of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Even so, fleet-footed Swift managed to rush for 618 yards on 7.6 yards per carry, the second-best average in the SEC. Chubb and Michel are gone now, but if offensive coordinator Jim Chaney stays true to the run and gives him the bsll 150 to 200 times next season, Georgia’s offense could turn into the D’Andre Swift Show.
  • Jake Fromm, QB — From his teammates to his coaches, seemingly everyone within the program has offered high praise for Fromm’s leadership and quarterbacking skills. There’s no doubt he’s one of the best young quarterbacks in college football, and so far he’s answered every question that’s been raised about his ability to be The Guy for UGA football. But his sophomore season brings with it a slew of new, important questions about how Fromm will lead the team going into the future. Can he transition from a leader of the offense to the leader of the offense? Can he go from a game manager to a game winner?

A Way-Too-Early Look at 2018: Schedule breakdown | Top 10 players | Early enrollee rankings | Top redshirt freshmen

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Netori Johnson, Isaiah Wilson explain their redshirt situations

As I mentioned above, it’s devilishly difficult for freshman offensive linemen to earn playing time. The offenses and blocking schemes they learn in college are typically much more complex than what they ran in high school. On top of that, many must undergo a complete overhaul of their diet so they can get into the condition needed to compete at this level. So no one should be surprised or even concerned when highly touted linemen sit out their freshman seasons. Former 5-star Ben Cleveland sat in 2016 and ended 2017 as one of the best players on the line.

In recent interviews, linemen Isaiah Wilson and Netori Johnson explained why they redshirted in 2017 and how that could help them in the future.

Here’s Anthony Dasher of UGASports.com with Johnson:

“I have diabetes,” Johnson said. “But with Mr. Ron’s [Ron Courson, UGA director of sports medicine] help, it’s like I don’t have it, basically. He takes care of me and I take care of myself. It’s not a setback.” …

“It humbled me down. Knowing that they are giving me time to improve on my game and become a better player, it doesn’t bother me at all,” Johnson said. “They [coaches] just told me to trust the process, their plan right now, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

And Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald with Wilson and Pittman:

“At first, it was hard,” Wilson said. “Any freshman can tell you how much they’re dying to get on the field and help the team….About the second week knowing I was going to redshirt, I was OK with it because I knew what it was for and I was getting better, just progressing.” …

“He wasn’t ready to play,” Pittman said. “Pretty simple. He wasn’t there yet and by the time we felt like he was heading in that direction it was late in the season so we decided to keep him there, but we’re pleased with all the guys we signed last year.”

Keep it tight

I heard from Georgia fans last season who were unhappy about the limited use of tight ends. UGA tight ends caught 22 passes in 2017 compared to 41 in 2016. But what was one group that wasn’t bothered by the limited usage of tight ends? The tight ends themselves. Here’s Jason Butt of The Telegraph speaking with tight ends coach Shane Beamer:

“It was a challenge in recruiting because you have all these tight ends you’re recruiting wondering why the tight ends aren’t catching the ball,” Beamer said. “But it was never an issue with those guys. It’s like what Isaac [Nauta] told me. ‘People can say what they want, but I came to Georgia to have an opportunity to win a national championship.'”

Beamer mentioned the recruiting challenge created by the lack of targets for tight ends, but that hasn’t stopped the Bulldogs from signing some of the best in the country at the position. Four-star TEs Luke Ford and John FitzPatrick signed during the early signing period, and Beamer said he was honest with them about how they’ll be used within the offense.

“I tried to do a good job of making this clear to the tight ends we were recruiting: if you’re coming to Georgia for stats and to catch 60 balls, you’re probably coming for the wrong reasons,” Beamer said. “The two that we signed, are they competitors and do they want to catch the ball? Absolutely. But they want to win, too, and they’re good kids. I think they’ll blend right in with that room we already have.”

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