ATHENS – Normally at Georgia football practices, drills are done among position groups: Receivers over here, running backs over there, tight ends over there, etc.
But at spring practices this year there’s been a new unit: During some periods a select group of receivers, tight ends and tailbacks have been together, running routes under the direction of receivers coach James Coley.
They start in the middle of the field, and run the same route, whatever their position: Terry Godwin (receiver), Mecole Hardman (receiver), Isaac Nauta (tight end), Sony Michel (tailback), Brian Herrien (tailback), and others.
It all reflects one of those tweaks that Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is making to this year’s offense: Putting their players in the best position to make plays, and that includes putting certain players in the slot, where they would create either a size or speed mismatch for a defender.
“It’s been a change. Guys like Sony being in the slot,” inside linebacker Natrez Patrick said this week. “It’s a nightmare looking across and having to check Sony in an open field.”
Chaney has mentioned the need to “freshen up” the offense, acknowledging that it wasn’t inventive enough last year, when it ranked 87th nationally, despite the presence of star tailbacks Nick Chubb and Michel.
It’s not that Georgia didn’t use the slot receiver role last year: Isaiah McKenzie, who ended up the team’s leading receiver, was in that role often, as was Nauta, then a freshman tight end who ended up the team’s third-leading receiver. Michel has always been involved in the passing game too, though often out of the backfield.
Now, however, there appears to be a renewed emphasis on it, especially with the weapons Georgia has there this year.
McKenzie may be gone, but Hardman, who’s move to offense is now seemingly inevitable, will be available. Michel will be used in more of a receiving role. And so will Herrien, who was a revelation last year as a tailback, but whose speed and size (6-foot and 210 pounds) makes him versatile.
“He could probably be a starting receiver, believe it or not,” head coach Kirby Smart said Wednesday during an appearance on AM 680 The Fan.
And Georgia’s depth could allow Georgia to use those tailbacks – and receivers – in those multi-dimensional roles. Chubb (who said he’s also been getting more receiving work) can line up in the backfield, allowing Michel and/or Herrien to flex out to receiver. The wide receivers who could line up out wide include Javon Wims, Riley Ridley, Michael Chigbu and Jeremiah Holloman – all of whom are 6-1 or taller – allowing the smaller Godwin and Hardman to line up in the slot and use their speed to get open.
Even the tight ends can get involved. Nauta and Charlie Woerner’s athleticism make them a mismatch for linebackers and defensive backs in the slot, and there’s still Jeb Blazevich and Jackson Harris available to line up at the usual tight end slot.
Of course, Harris was also working with the slot receivers during Tuesday’s practice. And Blazevich is no slouch himself athletically.
“Yeah I think that’s something where coach Chaney is giving a bunch of guys a chance to step up and giving everybody an opportunity I guess to try out,” Blazevich said. “I think he’s just opening it up for competition, and in what, a week and a couple days they’ll sit down and decide what they want to do this summer.”
It remains to be seen how often Georgia ends up spreading it out to three, four and five-wide sets. And who knows how effective it will be. At minimum, however, it’s evidence that Chaney and Georgia are trying something.
“It’s definitely a change,” Patrick said. “It’s a good change.”