ATHENS — Georgia football is 4-0 and has yet to sustain any season-ending injuries. That means Kirby Smart and his program have passed the ultimate test to this point.
But the No. 3-ranked Bulldogs have to improve to stay on track for an SEC and College Football Playoff championship run.
An inspired Notre Dame team exposed Georgia’s weaknesses on the field, in the coaching booth and perhaps even from a philosophical standpoint.
Smart came out of the 23-17 win over the Irish intent on Jake Fromm throwing the ball downfield more often moving forward and ensuring dynamic players get more involved. The three longest plays of the season have come from freshmen.
The only Georgia football grades that truly matter are in the meeting rooms at Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall.
But with a third of the regular season over, and some time to catch our breath, a trimester report card seems in order (graded on a championship curve):
Jake Fromm is as efficient as ever (9th nationally), and he has yet to throw an interception while getting sacked just one time. Fromm’s throws have appeared razor sharp, especially in the two-minute offense. Smart says he wants calls signaled in quicker, so Fromm can change plays at the line when appropriate. The UGA pass game might be opening up more very soon. Stetson Bennett has looked both good and bad in relief, leaving him with an incomplete grade at this time.
Running backs (B+)
It’s hard to believe the longest run against Notre Dame was just 16 yards (Brian Herrien) and that D’Andre Swift’s longest gain on a career-high 18 handoffs was 15 yards. It’s also hard to believe Smart didn’t have the confidence in his backs to gain a yard running behind the biggest O-Line in college football in the fourth quarter. There’s a lot of talent here, but Swift has yet to hit rhythm, and Cook has been underutilized. Zamir White dishes out — and absorbs — hits running with the same punishing style as Herrien. Freshman Kenny McIntosh is faster and more elusive than some expected and has the longest play from scrimmage this season, a 62-yard run.
Receivers & tight ends (B)
The talent and impact of the newcomers is impressive, grad-transfer Lawrence Cager stepping up in a big way against Notre Dame. Demetris Robertson has shown reliable hands while battling a hamstring that’s robbed him of top gear. Senior Tyler Simmons is a tough and a reliable blocker, but his speed has yet to translate to big plays this season. Kearis Jackson was off to a strong start and will soon be back from a broken hand to provide a lift. Freshman George Pickens is the most talented in the group and a big-play waiting to happen, but he’ll need to expand his route tree. Dominick Blaylock has proven reliable enough to challenge for a starting spot and more opportunities. Eli Wolf has filled Isaac Nauta’s shoes at tight end and should be on his way to similar (30-catch) numbers. Charlie Woerner remains a reliable option and strong blocker, but he lacks Wolf’s speed. Collectively, the receivers need to improve against press coverage and get more yards after the catch, but there have been some impressive catches with very few drops.
Offensive line (A-)
A mark down here because when it came down to fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter of a top 10 home game, Georgia didn’t have confidence it could get a yard behind this line. There were other factors, but among them was UGA getting stopped twice in short yardage against Vanderbilt, and a 2018 season filled with short-yardage failings. More creative play calls would help, but ultimately this unit is expected to take over games and wear down defenses. Injuries have taken a toll, with two starters already dealing with lost snaps. There have been times the so-called “Great Wall” has been not-so-great, but the potential is still there to pave the way for a third straight SEC rushing title and national championship.
Defensive line (B+)
Not as dominant as recent championship D-Lines at Clemson and Alabama, and not as talented a the starting groups at Auburn and Florida. But this blue-collar unit has become sound and deep enough to perform at a championship level, particularly in the fourth quarter when other units are wearing down. Jordan Davis and Michael Barnett have plugged the middle, and Tyler Clark has regained his 2017 form and been a disruptor. Malik Herring has found his way into the starting lineup, which means he may be on the verge of tapping his potential.
Tae Crowder and Monty Rice have had their moments from the inside linebacker position, but there’s room for more playmaking here. Outside linebackers have “flashed” as Smart likes to say, and the talents of Azeez Ojulari, Nolan Smith and Jermaine Johnson are obvious. It was Smith and Johnson chasing Notre Dame QB Ian Book out of the pocket with the game on the line. Smart said UGA is using the bye week looking for more ways to create havoc, and it’s a good bet the linebackers will be involved.
Senior J.R. Reed stepped up with the sort of playmaking performance one expects from an All-American, and Richard LeCounte appeared to be assignment sound and showed improved tackling and physicality against a big-time opponent. Cornerback Tyson Campbell was coming on when he suffered his foot injury. Eric Stokes has looked good in pass coverage but could use work in run support. DJ Daniel handled the moment with Campbell out, but there was a drop-off at the other corner position when Stokes went out against Notre Dame. The star position has produced adequate play, but there’s room for Mark Webb and Divaad Wilson to become more consistent.
Special Teams (C-)
Rodrigo Blankenship gets an “A” with his 8-of-8 field goal attempts including three clutch kicks against Notre Dame, but as a whole, this group is underachieving. Punter Jake Camarda looked shaky with two punts shanked traveling less than 30 yards in the prime-time affair. The Bulldogs kick return game has been embarrassingly inadequate, ranking 115th in the nation (16.3) despite waves of talent on the roster. UGA is also 82nd in the nation in punt return defense. Finally, there have been two dropped punt returns, one that very nearly cost Georgia a perfect season.
Georgia put a restrictor plate on Fromm in September, going to great lengths to protect him from hits and risk of injury. But Notre Dame and Vanderbilt showed that when good teams load the box, they can neutralize the run game. If teams stay close, Fromm ends up in situations like last Saturday, where he’s scrambling for first downs and exposing himself to hits, anyway. It would be much better if UGA made teams pay for loaded boxes and press coverages from the onset. Dynamic offenses with capable QBs like Fromm read one-on-one coverage and audible to fades routinely. The Georgia defense is solid and will only get better as young talent gains experience. Special teams must improve, or it could ultimately be what derails a championship season.
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