ATHENS — On Tuesday afternoon, the Georgia football team will return to practice. The head coach will be the same. So will most of his staff. The team itself, however, will look much different. So will the expectations placed upon the players.
This is a program that is freshly minted as a top-tier national power, both on the field and in recruiting. The previous team nearly won a national championship and its players already have gone down in program lore for what they accomplished: a Rose Bowl title, an SEC championship, a win at Notre Dame and just a general dominance of the SEC East that hardly has been seen.
But most of the key players from that team have departed. Or at least they will after they suit up in Athens one final time Wednesday for pro day. The returning players take the field a day earlier, charged with reloading for a season in Athens that is still expected to deliver an SEC East title. At a minimum.
They will be joined by nine members of perhaps the most celebrated recruiting class in Georgia history, the nation’s top-ranked class. Several of those early enrollees have a chance to play right away.
Fittingly, that means a clash at the game’s most visible position between one of the few remaining heroes of 2017 and the most celebrated arrival of 2018.
But Jake Fromm vs. Justin Fields, if it really is a true competition, is just one of several storylines for this Georgia team as it takes the field Tuesday.
Justin Fields vs. Jake Fromm
Let’s get this one out of the way quickly. The prevailing wisdom is Fromm will be hard to unseat but that Fields is so good that Georgia will find a way to get him on the field. The next four weeks and G-Day could scramble that thinking. But if it does it will likely be because of how Fields plays. Fromm, given the reputation he’s built for his leadership and work ethic, isn’t likely to leave Fields much of an opening.
Life after Nick Chubb and Sony Michel
Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are back in Athens this week, but to attend the women’s NCAA Tournament and train for pro day. Their presence, or lack of it, will loom over the start of practice.
D’Andre Swift, so good as a freshman last season, returns and almost certainly is the starter. But how much will his workload increase and what will it look like? Much of that probably depends on who emerges behind him. Juniors Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien should engage in a spirited battle for the No. 2 job, which will be joined this fall by freshmen James Cook and, perhaps, Zamir White.
White, an early enrollee, is working his way back from surgery on his right knee and will spend the spring rehabbing.
Four starters return but the influx of talent is so heavy — literally and figuratively — that only two spots can assumed to be locked up: left tackle Andrew Thomas (moving from right tackle) and center Lamont Gaillard. The rest is wide open.
Redshirt freshman Isaiah Wilson and freshman Cade Mays, an early enrollee, are the favorites at right tackle, but they could have company. Both starting guards are back but not set-in-stone starters. Kendall Baker and Ben Cleveland will face competition from the likes of Solomon Kindley (who started most of last season at right guard before yielding to Cleveland), freshman Trey Hill and perhaps others. And every interior lineman is trying to get some breathing room before 5-star signee Jamaree Salyer arrives this summer.
Georgia lost All-American inside linebacker Roquan Smith and most of the core around him; nine defensive players who totaled 97 starts last season have moved on. Some core players, however, are back: safety J.R. Reed, cornerback Deandre Baker, and defensive linemen Jonathan Ledbetter, Tyler Clark and David Marshall.
Natrez Patrick, the star-crossed inside linebacker, is also back, trying to return to the good graces of the coaching staff after a tumultuous 2017 season off the field. That should help.
There is talent on the way this fall, as well — cornerback Tyson Campbell, to start — and talent already on hand, such as early enrollee defensive end/outside linebacker Brenton Cox. It will be fascinating this spring to see how much it sorts out, and how many questions carry over to the fall.
New coaches and roles
Scott Fountain, who spent last year as a special teams analyst, is now the full-time special teams coordinator. Cortez Hankton (receivers) and Dan Lanning (outside linebackers) have joined the staff. James Coley, who had been receivers coach, is expected to move to help coach quarterbacks. Jim Chaney, who had been quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, may focus on the latter role. Coach Kirby Smart should confirm the moves before practice begins Tuesday.
There’s plenty. Who else emerges at receiver, other than Terry Godwin and Mecole Hardman? Does Marshall Long show big improvement at punter after a year off, or is freshman Jake Camarda, who will arrive in the summer, the heavy favorite? And what overlooked player makes a move this spring? There’s always at least a handful of players nobody talks about before spring practice but who emerge in March and April to be a big factor. Expect the same this spring.