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Top Dawgs: UGA’s Best players heading into 2018
On Monday, we got the news we all expected but hoped wouldn’t come: Roquan Smith declared for the NFL draft.
The obvious question in the wake of Smith’s decision is how Kirby Smart can replace him. The short answer is he can’t. Smith was an all-time great UGA defender — arguably the greatest, but that’s a post for another day — a locker room leader and the best player on the team for the last two seasons. Those characteristics aren’t exactly easy to come by. But Smart will have to try, and someone will have to step up and become the new best Bulldogs player.
We’ll get into how to replace Smith within the linebacker corps below, but first I wanted to address the question of who is the new best player on the team. The losses of Smith, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter open up a number of slots in the list of top-10 players on the team. So below, I’ve ranked who, in my opinion, are the top 10 Bulldogs on the roster heading into 2018. With so many new names, I’m sure there will be disagreement, just as I’m sure I will be wrong about some of this once 2018 goes down in the books. So let me know what you think in the comments below.
10. Lamont Gaillard, C, Sr. — One factor that should play in Jake Fromm’s favor as he takes more control of the offense in 2018 is consistency at center. Gaillard and Fromm worked well together in their first season as partners, and their rapport should only improve in their second year together.
9. Rodrigo Blankenship, K, Jr. — To think, a year ago Blankenship’s dad was pleading for a scholarship. If the College Football Playoff taught us anything, it’s that Blankenship is capable of consistently hitting 50-yard field goals. In a tight game, that’s one of the most dangerous weapons you can have.
8. Andrew Thomas, T, Soph. — Thomas was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2017. His emergence at right tackle provided a stabilizing presence on a line that needed stability. Now he’ll shift to the left and protect Fromm’s blind side. Based on what we saw last season, Thomas will be the anchor of this unit for the next two or three years.
7. Jonathan Ledbetter, DE, Sr. — When you look back at the 2017 stat sheet, Ledbetter’s numbers don’t pop out at you, but he’s shown a penchant for making plays in clutch situations, such as his two stops during the Rose Bowl comeback. More importantly, it seems Ledbetter learned from the mistakes he made early in his Georgia career and has stepped up as defensive leader, something that’s needed with all the players the Dawgs lose.
6. Terry Godwin, WR, Sr. — Godwin is the leading returning receiver for the second consecutive season, but there’s a sense he still hasn’t quite reached his potential at Georgia. With his decision to come back for his senior year, he’ll get that chance.
5. Tyler Clark, DT, Jr. — Clark began the season behind Trenton Thompson in the defensive tackle pecking order, but made his case as the best DT on the roster as the season wore on. With strong showings in the Rose Bowl and National Championship Game, he’d overtaken Thompson in the minds of many. Thompson’s departure rendered that debate moot, leaving more reps and a chance to establish himself as a dominant DT for Clark.
4. J.R. Reed, S, Jr. — This time last year, few Georgia fans knew who Reed was other than some dude who transferred from Tulsa. They learned quickly in the first few games of 2017, as Reed carved out a role as a headhunter in the secondary. With the departure of Smith, Reed is the leading returning tackler with 40 solo and 79 total and also pitched in 2 interceptions, a forced fumble and 2 fumbles recovered. As things stand, Reed figures to be the primary playmaker on the defense.
3. D’Andre Swift, RB, Soph. — It would be one thing to fill Chubb’s or Michel’s shoes. It’s quite another to fill Chubb’s and Michel’s shoes. But in the limited touches we saw Swift receive, he looked more than up for the challenge. Swift ran for 618 yards and 3 touchdowns on 7.6 yards per carry as a freshman. If he gets 200 carries or so, more than 1,500 yards is a strong possibility.
2. Jake Fromm, QB, Soph. — For the first time since Aaron Murray graduated, it seems there will be stability behind center. (Don’t remind me we said that last year.) Fromm was spectacular as a freshman, and the big throws he made in the National Championship Game only reinforced the notion that he could become one of the premier quarterbacks in college football and a potential Heisman candidate. Make no mistake: This is Fromm’s offense now.
1. Deandre Baker, CB, Sr. — The best news Georgia has received since the National Championship Game was the news that Baker will return for his senior season. Had Baker decided to jump, Georgia would be looking for a near complete rebuild of the secondary. Instead, Baker will be the cornerstone for a revamped and more talented, though inexperienced, unit. The Dawgs have lacked a shutdown corner for years. They’ve finally got one in Baker.
Just missed the cut: D’Andre Walker, Natrez Patrick, Mecole Hardman, Julian Rochester,
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Replacing Roquan Smith
As I said above, there is no good way to go about replacing a player as transcendent as Smith, but somebody’s gotta play inside linebacker. And while none of the candidates are anywhere close to the level of Smith, Georgia shouldn’t hurt for options. From Seth Emerson of DawgNation:
Much depends on the status of Natrez Patrick, a junior who has battled off-field problems, and who missed the Rose Bowl and National Championship Game while receiving drug treatment. Patrick is a starting inside linebacker, if eligible, but that’s not clear right now. …
There are several candidates to fill the two inside linebacker spots:
- Monty Rice started one game as a freshman – against Missouri, when Patrick and Carter were out – and finished the season with 22 tackles, including 2 for a loss.
- Tae Crowder, the hero of the Rose Bowl for his play on Oklahoma’s squib kickoff, saw action at inside linebacker in the National Championship Game. A tailback when he signed with Georgia in 2015, Crowder moved to defense in 2016, put on weight and has shown potential. He had 7 tackles in 13 games this year.
- Juwan Taylor started one game this year as a junior – at Vanderbilt, also when Patrick and Carter were out – and played well in that game. He finished with 3 tackles at Vanderbilt, including 1 for a loss, and had 13 tackles total this season.
- Nate McBride and Jaden Hunter were freshmen last season who came to Georgia as 4-star recruits. McBride played on special teams and Hunter redshirted.
- Channing Tindall, a 4-star prospect from Columbia, S.C., signed with Georgia during the early signing period.
Support staffer headed to the NFL
The fact that so many Georgia coaches and staffers are getting looks from other programs and organizations shows that Smart is doing something right in Athens, but it also means he’ll probably lose some of those talented folks.
Such is the case of Jay Valai, a defensive quality control coach who has been hired by the Kansas City Chiefs to help with its defensive backs. While it might not seem like losing a quality control coach is a big deal, this could have an immediate, and negative, affect on UGA’s recruiting efforts. Valai was reportedly a crack recruiter and key in securing a place for the Dawgs among the finalists for undecided 5-star CB Isaac Taylor-Stuart.
Dawgs on Twitter
— Quan (@RoquanSmith1) January 15, 2018
— Georgia Basketball (@UGABasketball) January 16, 2018
— Georgia New Media (@Hunkerdown_UGA) January 16, 2018
.@Goldberg brings passion and intensity to everything he does…on the field, in the ring, and especially with his family.
His intensity and character made him one of the biggest stars in our industry…so #WhosNext?
The #WWEHOF. Congrats, Bill. pic.twitter.com/pu3OpYAwre
— Triple H (@TripleH) January 15, 2018
— Faunus Dog (@faunusdog) January 15, 2018
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