ATHENS — First Isaac Nauta hit the Oklahoma linebacker up high, pushing him back. Then Nauta turned and hit him by the side, pushing him the other way. Then Sony Michel ran past both players, and seconds later Georgia won the Rose Bowl.
Nauta’s block to seal the edge might have been missed by the millions who watched the College Football Playoff semifinal. But Nauta remembers it well, a symbol of a season that he thinks was better individually for him than people may realize.
“That game was exhausting,” Nauta said. “[Fellow tight end] Charlie [Woerner] went down with a broken leg. That was probably the most snaps I played all year. And just being able to make that block for the game-winning touchdown was something special.”
The stats, at least the individual ones, pointed to a down season for Nauta: His catches decreased from 29 as a freshman to just 9 as a sophomore. His receiving yards, obviously, also went down, as his 114-yard season total was only a few more than he had in a couple games as a freshman.
But Nauta said he looks at things deeper than that. Georgia’s offense was much better last season, especially the running game, and Nauta feels he was a big part of that.
“You can look at it one of two ways: I didn’t get as many balls, but I think I had a better year overall than I did my freshman year, as far as growth, as far as blocking,” he said. “To some other people it might’ve been, ‘Hey he wasn’t as productive,’ but for me I know I got better as a player. That’s the way I’ve looked at it.
“This year obviously I want to improve on what I did last year, and catching balls and making plays is one of those areas.”
Nauta made only 9 catches, but a couple of them were very memorable:
- Georgia’s first touchdown in the SEC Championship Game, a 2-yard reception from Jake Fromm that tied the game.
- The 41-yard catch-and-run over the middle for a touchdown in the win over Mississippi State, which put a punctuation mark on Georgia’s rout in a game that had been expected to be closer.
There also were the blocks. Georgia’s perimeter blocking went from porous in 2016 to much improved in 2017, a big reason the team’s running game was better. Nauta had a big hand in that.
And when asked about his production last season, or perceived lack of it, Nauta paints an understanding picture of himself.
“We had two of the best rushers in SEC history, and Georgia history,” Nauta said. “It’s just a different team. Those guys were going to get the ball because they’re super-talented. It’s just the way it was. And I improved as a blocker.”
But this season’s team is different, as Nauta pointed out.
Nick Chubb and Michel are gone, and while Georgia still has good tailbacks, it also has a returning quarterback, and returns six of its leading receivers — including Nauta.
There’s another change: Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is now the tight ends coach, which leads many to assume that will benefit Nauta, Woerner and Co. in the stat sheet.
“I guess it depends on the game plan we’ve got going into that week,” receiver Mecole Hardman said, before adding: “Definitely with the OC working with them he’s going to draw up some plays to get them the ball. Especially like third-and-short, second-and-shorts, get them out quick and get the first down. Definitely we look for those guys to make some plays for us.”
But Nauta is putting as much import on Chaney’s technical expertise. He was a tight ends coach at the NFL level — albeit for just one season, with the St. Louis Rams in 2007. But Nauta said Chaney already has pointed out errors and bad habits, including in the first spring scrimmage last week.
“He’s definitely put a big emphasis on blocking — and route running, really,” Nauta said. “He coached tight ends in the league, so he’s got a lot of techniques and stuff that has already really helped us. And it’s been kind of eye-opening for us. It’s been good, I feel like I’ve grown already as a blocker in the couple weeks that he’s been coaching us. It’s good for us to learn that stuff from a guy who’s been at the highest level.
“It hasn’t been easy. He’s been pushing us. We’ve had a lot of reps this spring so it’s been long practices for us. But it’s only going to help us in the long run.”