Ask Griff: Midseason Georgia football positional report card, most improved player

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Cornerback Deandre Baker is the star of an elite secondary, but safety Richard LeCounte keeps improving under J.R. Reed's leadership.

BATON ROUGE, La. — It’s an exciting time for Georgia football, halfway through the regular season, 6-0, ranked No. 2 in the nation and relatively healthy.

Even better, the Bulldogs have yet to play their best football of the season — and they are a young group. In fact, Georgia’s roster consists of 68.5 percent freshmen and sophomores, youngest in the SEC and 15th-youngest in the nation.

Today’s question (s) comes from the DawgNation Forum, where some of the best Georgia football fans gather to hash things out and talk about the Bulldogs.

Who’s your pick for most improved player on the team so far this season? And why? What’s you position, and coaching grades for the team so far?

My pick for the most improved player on the team is sophomore safety Richard LeCounte, who coach Kirby Smart called out in spring and fall drills.

LeCounte is a special talent who has responded, understanding his role as the last line of defense and carrying out his duties in sufficient fashion.

Remember when Smart said LeCounte was worried about making too many plays instead of playing his role?

Georgia has allowed only five plays of 20 yards or more this season, often playing a two-deep look while defending the run adequately.

My position-by-position report card for the Bulldogs requires a qualifier: I’m grading this on a curve, with last season’s team setting the bar.

Georgia was the best team in college football in 2017

The grades:

Quarterback (A-)

It was good to see Jake Fromm unleash that 75-yard bomb to Terry Godwin last Saturday, as that was an element to the offense the Bulldogs had been missing. According to ESPN that was just the ninth time UGA had a pass attempt travel more than 20 yards in the air. Fromm throws a beautiful deep ball, but he has missed Javon Wims and a healthy Godwin. Fromm is somewhat throttled by Smart’s penchant to maintain a high percentage and somewhat conservative offense, typical of a defensive-minded coach. Justin Fields is a special weapon who will ultimately develop into an NFL quarterback prospect. There should be no hurry. The quarterbacks need to continue to set the example of doing what’s best for the team.

Running backs (C+)

Remember that curve I was talking about? Of course the Georgia backfield is better than 80 percent of those in college football, but it’s a drop off from last season’s group with the Bulldogs’ No. 2 and No. 3 all-time leading rushers and a healthy D’Andre Swift. If Swift can continue to look as good as he did against Vanderbilt, that would help a great deal, his explosive gear had been missing. Elijah Holyfield needs to continue to run with heart and hunger, as he’s having a career season. Expect to see James Cook continue to emerge and Brian Herrien hammer out yards in relief. This group will be challenged to do more the second half of the season, as yards won’t come as easily as they did against a modest schedule the first six games.

Receivers (B)

The receivers have more in the tank, so expect a more productive second half to the season, as much out of necessity, as anything. Mecole Hardman got off to a dynamite start, but defenses have identified him and Fromm’s not apt to throw into double coverage. Terry Godwin appears to be back in form after being slowed by knee and calf injuries. Riley Ridley has made some acrobatic catches but hasn’t been as consistent as expected. JJ Hollomon has the specs of an NFL receiver, so where’s the production? Has Demetris Robertson learned the secret handshake or done enough in practice for UGA to throw a pass to him in a game? Can Georgia receivers beat the sort of physical, press coverage that’s ahead?

Offensive line (A-)

The heart of the offense is right here with this physical, consistent group, rated the highest in the nation by Pro Football Focus. The Georgia run game is benefitting greatly from the holes Sam Pittman’s crew is blowing open, and the sacks are mostly on Fromm (holding the ball), receivers (not getting open) and the tight ends’ shaky pass protection moments. Center Lamont Gaillard is having an All-American year, and left tackle Andrew Thomas has the highest grade in the country, according to Pro Football Focus. The Cade Mays story is fascinating, the true freshman starting at left tackle and right guard, already showing a mean streak that puts fear into defensive linemen.

Defensive line (C)

This group has been ordinary, adequate at best, failing to show the dominant traits associated with most championship caliber defensive lines. It doesn’t say much for the upperclassmen when the Georgia football coaches are turning to a true freshman (Jordan Davis) in crucial short-yardage run-stop situations. Julian Rochester and Michael Barnett look the part at nose guard but the production hasn’t been there. Tyler Clark is a sturdy, though not dynamic defensive tackle. End Jonathan Ledbetter has no sacks or tackles for loss.

Linebackers (C+)

The corps lacks the hitting that makes you say “WOW!” Yes, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and the catalyst of the 2017 Dawgs has moved on. Outside ‘backer D’Andre Walker is the closest thing to an All-SEC pick here, accounting for four of the team’s five sacks. Smart is still waiting to see an inside linebacker step up and take over the group. It could be no-nonsense Monty Rice if he can play through the sprained knee that sidelined him against Missouri. Natrez Patrick has stayed out of trouble off the field, but he has just 13 tackles. Undersized Juwan Taylor is getting the most out of his abilities. Tae Crowder, a converted tailback, has the only interception in the group.

Secondary (A+)

Special group, Smart plays to the strength of this talented bunch of playmakers. Other than one broken play against Tennessee, there’s not much not to like about the position group coached by defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and tutored by the head coach, a two-time All-SEC safety, himself. Cornerback Deandre Baker is an All-American who is playing up to his first-round NFL Draft stock. Baker smothers receivers and shows the right attitude in run support. J.R. Reed is a savvy and steady leader who clearly puts his time in the film room, improving himself each week. Richard LeCounte, as mentioned, has learned to put assignment football first, his best plays still ahead of him. Freshman Tyson Campbell is a talent, but Eric Stokes showed his upside at Missouri when Campbell was out. Tyrique McGhee has overcome a foot injury and been solid.

Special Teams (A)

Rodrigo Blankenship is the sort of ace-in-the-hole kicker that can win a game for you with his big leg and reliability under pressure. All but two of his kickoffs (both into the wind) have been touchbacks. Punter Jake Camarda is giving the Bulldogs almost everything they could realistically ask of a true freshman. Georgia has dangerous options in the return game with Mecole Hardman, Brian Herrien, and Ahkil Crumpton.

Coaching (A)

Smart and his Georgia football coordinators have schemed wonderfully, and their personnel decisions are hard to question outside of Robertson’s puzzling exclusion from the pass game. There will be a smaller margin for error in these next four games, as the opponents have similar front-line talent and momentum. Jim Chaney’s offense, in particular, has been set up for this run, ready to take a more aggressive approach when the head coach or situation calls for it.

Overall (A)

Georgia football is in a good place, the head coach has managed his team and staff in exemplary fashion, and the players have taken care of their business off the field and maintained focus from week to week. There’s enough talent to overcome the obvious shortcomings on this young team if the Bulldogs can get the right breaks at the right times the season.

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