ATHENS — Georgia football fans wanting to see a different offense next season have been granted their wish, to the extreme, at that.
Quarterback Jake Fromm sent shockwaves through college football when he declared he was declaring himself eligible for the NFL draft on Wednesday.
Moments later, an aftershock: Reliable and versatile offensive lineman Cade Mays had reportedly entered the transfer portal.
It leaves the Bulldogs in search of a graduate transfer at quarterback — Stanford’s K.J. Costello and Wake Forest’s Jamie Newman are early names to watch — and with just two experienced offensive linemen.
Georgia sophomore Trey Hill started all 14 games this season for the Bulldogs at center and has 17 career starts in all. Returning redshirt senior Ben Cleveland overcame a foot injury to start seven games this season, though he was among those ineligible for the Sugar Bowl.
The Bulldogs have two returning quarterbacks: former walk-on Stetson Bennett and redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis. Georgia’s third scholarship quarterback is incoming freshman Carson Beck, an early enrollee.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart will need to change the scheme out of necessity.
There’s ample room for speculation of what direction that might go, and justifiably so.
Smart added former Ole Miss head coach and offensive coordinator Matt Luke to the offensive meeting room when Sam Pittman departed to become the Arkansas head coach.
If the 26-14 Sugar Bowl win over Baylor was any indication, Luke is a good fit with returning offensive coordinator James Coley.
The Bulldogs have another staff opening after special teams coach Scott Fountain joined Pittman at Arkansas. Smart could elect to add another offensive coach if tight ends coach Todd Hartley can add special teams to his duties, as he did at Miami.
Smart has said his offensive philosophy will always feature balance, in the sense that he wants his teams to be able to dictate the run in short-yardage and be capable by both ground and by air.
But first things first, Georgia will need to zero-in on its players’ talents to best learn how to utilize them.
It all starts with the quarterback the Bulldogs envision under center: arm strength, mobility and football aptitude the most critical components.
The Bulldogs are loaded with talent at the skill positions, but not experience.
Sugar Bowl MVP George Pickens is the leading returning receiver with 49 catches for 727 yards and 8 touchdowns, with just two career starts.
Senior Demetris Robertson enjoyed the most productive season of his Georgia career, overcoming a hamstring injury to make 30 catches for 333 yards with 3 TDs. Robertson has five starts at Georgia.
The Bulldogs will be eager to get receiver Dominick Blaylock back from injury. The freshman suffered a torn ACL in the first quarter of the SEC Championship Game, ending a season that saw him make 18 catches for 310 yards with 5 TDs in three starts.
Redshirt sophomore Matt Landers is another returning receiver, and he’s coming off a career-high three catches in the Sugar Bowl. Landers has one career start, against Murray State.
Georgia loaded up at this position with four-receiver signees: Jermaine Burton, Marcus Rosemy, Arian Smith and early enrollee Justin Robinson will all compete to get into the rotation.
Tight end signee Darnell Washington has the skillset to make more of an impact in the receiving game than any UGA player at that position in recent memory.
The Bulldogs would also consider graduate transfer like former Michigan receiver Tarik Black, who could contribute immediately.
It was widely known that junior D’Andre Swift would very likely not be back for his senior season even before the 2019 season started, and Brian Herrien was playing out his eligibility as a senior.
Redshirt freshman Zamir White got his first career start in the Sugar Bowl, and freshman Kenny McIntosh played extensively with Swift limited to three snaps and sophomore James Cook knocked out of the game early with bruised ribs.
The Bulldogs added elite running back and early enrollee Kendall Milton to the stable, and he’s expected to contribute immediately.
The backfield appears solid, even with walk-on Prather Hudson in the transfer portal.
Georgia had one of the most celebrated offensive lines entering his season in recent history, but the so-called “Great Wall” has taken a great fall, with three underclassmen electing to turn pro early and Mays’ pending transfer via the portal.
Smart and the Bulldogs have built quality depth and recruited well here, however, so while there’s a sense of concern, it does not approach panic.
Xavier Truss is a promising 6-foot-7, 330-pound redshirt freshman prospect showing all the size and physical ability Luke could want to mold into a starting left tackle.
Junior Justin Shaffer started two games in place of Solomon Kindley at left guard and appeared in four others before suffering a season-ending neck injury. Shaffer will be back, and there shouldn’t be much drop off at this position.
Hill, as mentioned, has been a rock at center. There’s no reason to believe that will change.
Redshirt freshman Warren Ericson saw his first start at right guard in the Sugar Bowl and performed admirably. Ericson can play center, guard or tackle, and could fill May’s Swiss-Army-Knife role next season if needed.
Jamaree Salyer, a 6-foot-4, 325-pound right tackle, was so impressive there’s no doubt he’ll be in the starting lineup provided he continues his hard work. Salyer might even compete at left tackle in the offseason.
Redshirt freshman Warren McClendon (6-4, 320) is another strong returner up front who will push for playing time.
Georgia recruited well on the offensive line again in this class, and Tate Ratledge (6-6, 322) has the look of an incoming freshman who could man up enough to play immediately. It also has commitments from the No. 2 tackle and the No. 2 center in the 2020 class in Broderick Jones and Sedrick Van Pran-Granger.
Bottom line numbers
Georgia brings back 14 of the 22 position starters from the Sugar Bowl team that beat Baylor 26-14 — five on offense, nine on defense.
The hole at quarterback is gaping, with Fromm coming off an NCAA -high 42 consecutive starts and accounting for 92-percent of the passing yards this season.
A great deal of production at running back must also be accounted for. Swift and Herrien combined for roughly two-thirds (67.6 percent) of the rushing yardage from the UGA backs.
Georgia got an early jump on developing receiving talent on account of injuries and attrition.
Even with pass targets Lawrence Cager, Tyler Simmons, Charlie Woerner and Eli Wolf exhausting their eligibility, UGA stands to return 60 percent of the catches and 61 percent of its receiving yardage.
The nature of the offensive line rotation cushions the losses up front, somewhat. But Georgia still loses 62.8-percent of the starts along the offensive line (44 out of 70).
Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart might have an idea some of this attrition was headed his way when he delivered his postgame message at the Sugar Bowl.
“The future’s only bright if those guys continue to work because there’s a disease that creeps in at Georgia where kids believe they are better than they are and they read their own press clippings,” Smart said.
“When you’re not hungry, you become average. And some of that, I think, has affected us in the past, and we’ve got to find a way in this program to not let that creep in and keep that same hunger you have as a young player because we’ve had it happen to several guys that were really hungry, and then they become full. And you can’t become full when you go playing the teams we play against.”
It’s safe to say that the Georgia offense is anything but full at this stage, and there will be plenty of opportunities ahead.
Returning offensive players career starts
WR George Pickens (2)
WR Kearis Jackson (11)
WR Dominick Blaylock (3)
WR Demetris Robertson (17)
WR Matt Landers (1)
WR Trey Blount (1)
TE John Fitzpatrick (1)
C Trey Hill (18)
OG Ben Cleveland (16)
OT Jamaree Salyer (2)
OG Justin Shaffer (2)
OG Warren Ericson (1)
RB James Cook (3)
RB Zamir White (1)
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