Curtis Compton/AJC
Georgia expects even more good things from defensive back J.R. Reed, who had a fumble return for a touchdown against Florida,

Georgia football: The top 5 rising juniors heading into 2018

Cy Brown

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Top Dawgs: Rising Juniors

We continue to plug along in our “Way-Too-Early Look at 2018” series with a breakdown of the top 5 rising juniors on Georgia’s roster. You guys know the drill by now, so let’s get right into it.

  • Isaac Nauta, TE — Some had Nauta penciled in as an All-SEC tight end before last season, but Kirby Smart moved away from targeting tight ends. As a result, Nauta dropped from 29 catches for 361 yards his freshman season to 9 catches for 116 his sophomore season. But if Smart does opt to target the ends more, Nauta is capable of becoming one of Jake Fromm’s top targets as is another tight end. I was up in the air on whether or not to give fellow junior TE Charlie Woerner this spot, so I figure his name deserves a mention.
  • Mecole Hardman, WR — Smart’s reasoning for moving Hardman to defensive back as a freshman was understandable. But Hardman’s work at receiver this season made it clear he was born to have the ball in his hands. Hardman had 418 receiving yards, 4 receiving touchdowns and 2 rushing touchdowns. What folks will want to see more of in 2018 is the big play ability he put on display with an 80-yard touchdown catch in the national title game and hinted at on punt returns throughout the year.
  • J.R. Reed, DB — Reed is a ballhawk. Plain and simple. Wherever the ball goes, Reed’s going, too. Reed enters 2018 as the leading returning tackler with 79 total stops, and he also pitched in 2 interceptions and also a defensive touchdown off a recovered fumble against Florida, the only defensive score for the Dawgs all season. Deandre Baker is the better defensive back and more reliable in coverage, but Reed is more likely to get in the thick of things and create a big play.
  • Rodrigo Blankenship, K — Special teams have been a struggle for Georgia at times in the last few years, so it’s nice to have a kicker as reliable and clutch as Blankenship. His ability to hit field goals from more than 50 yards gives Georgia a major advantage in close games. He also may legitimately be one of the most famous college football players in America, so you’ve got to give props for that. We live in strange times.
  • Tyler Clark, DT — Clark may be the Bulldogs player I’m most excited to watch in 2018. Coming into last season, all the talk along the defensive front was about Trent Thompson. Coming out of it, it’s about Clark. The defensive tackle from Americus was solid all season, but blew up during the College Football Playoff with 10 combined tackles and a sack in the Rose Bowl and National Championship Game. Dominant defensive linemen are crucial to title-winning teams. Da’Ron Payne, Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis showed Georgia that. Clark has the potential to become a dominant lineman in that mold.

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

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Tray Scott on what he looks for in a defensive lineman

If Georgia is going to get dominant defensive linemen like the ones at Alabama, the man who must identify and land them on the recruiting trail and then coach them up on campus is defensive line coach Tray Scott. He spoke with Jeff Sentell of DawgNation about what’s he looking for when recruiting defensive linemen, and Scott said it all comes down to versatility.

“Someone who is flexible in terms of the things that he can do,” Scott said. “The first thing I am looking for is a guy that I think I can develop into a really good run defender but also has the ability to rush the passer.” …

“I feel like if we can find that, then from that point on, it is up to me to kind of help them develop into a premium run defender and then being that pass rush guy as well. That’s really one of the big things in terms of athleticism, but there’s also a certain mentality.

Where is Deangelo Gibbs?

After going over rising sophomores ob Thursday, I received some questions about Deangelo Gibbs, the uber-talented DB who wasn’t with the team late last season. He didn’t make the cut on my rising sophomores list because I think the five listed are better right now, not because of his uncertain status. (He would, however, clock in at No. 6 among rising sophomores.) But for those of you wondering what’s going on with Gibbs, Seth Emerson of DawgNation gave this update in his weekly mailbag.

Anything on the disappearance of Deangelo Gibbs at the end of the season? Can we still expect big things from him?
― Scott

I can answer only one of these questions with any surety: Deangelo Gibbs left the team late in the season for what was a “medical” reason. (Safety J.R. Reed, his cousin, used that term, as did other people in reporting the reason for the absence.) It was left at that, and we’ll leave it at that too until there’s more we can confirm. Frankly, I haven’t even confirmed whether he’s enrolled in school this semester.

Bulldogs Bracketology

In his mailbag, Emerson also gave his take on where he believes the 12-5 Georgia men’s basketball team stands with regard to a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Georgia is ranked 46 in the RPI, which is normally right on the bubble, but the Bulldogs have four top 50 wins (Alabama, Marquette, St. Mary’s and Temple), which is something UGA has lacked in recent years at this point. So this team, at least on paper, is in better shape. The SEC also is better, which may make wins more difficult, but it means if Georgia can get enough of those wins – such as at Auburn (ranked ninth in the RPI) on Saturday, then it should be OK.

I always hate to set a specific number of wins needed to make the NCAAs, because it always depends on who those wins are over, and what other teams in the running do. As I always say, they pick the 68 best teams, rather than say if your team’s résumé is good enough or not. But if you pinned me down, I would say Georgia going 9-9 in SEC play would probably be good enough.

Who doesn’t love a good QB controversy?

For the first time since Aaron Murray graduated, Georgia will have the same quarterback as primary starter for consecutive seasons. Maybe.

Fromm would seem to have the starting quarterback gig on lock, but we said the same thing about Jacob Eason last season. The quarterback position at Georgia has been nothing if not unstable over the last five years, which is why Adam Rittenberg of ESPN has Fromm vs. 5-star Justin Fields as one of his QB battles to watch this spring.

The candidates: Jake Fromm, Justin Fields

Returning starter: Fromm

What to watch: The good news is that Fromm knows the drill. He was in Fields’ position a year ago, hoping to beat out a returning starter (Eason). The difference is that Fromm helped Georgia win the SEC and reach the national title game, showing incredible maturity with efficient passing (he was rated ninth nationally) and limited mistakes (7 interceptions in 291 attempts). He has to hold off Fields, a possible once-in-a-decade prospect who enrolled early and will compete this spring. Smart, a Nick Saban disciple, won’t hesitate to make a change, so Fromm must continue to develop.

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