ATHENS – We remember back to G-Day in 2016, the first time many laid eyes on Jacob Eason. That was the day he won over the fan base. Perhaps, in retrospect, that should have been the day we realized Georgia had something in Isaac Nauta.
Eason threw 1 touchdown pass that day, and it was to Nauta. That signaled a connection the two freshmen would carry into the season, when Nauta was the team’s third-leading receiver.
This reporter will admit he was a skeptic, at least, that Nauta would have that big an impact. Yes, he was a 5-star recruit. But look at how deep Georgia was at tight end, with starter Jeb Blazevich, Jackson Harris and Jordan Davis, plus another freshman in Charlie Woerner. Where would the playing time come?
Well, it came. Nauta’s blend of size and athleticism was too good not to use, and it didn’t hurt he had a rapport with Eason.
Now both are sophomores, and it’s possible Eason will have to depend on Nauta more. His leading receiver, Isaac McKenzie, is now with the Denver Broncos. For as much as Georgia’s offense struggled last year, imagine where it would have been without McKenzie. Now it is without him. That makes Nauta more important.
Reminder: This is not purely a ranking of Georgia’s best players. It is an evaluation of which players are most vital to the team’s success in 2017 based on their own talent, the importance of their position, the depth at their positions, and the strengths and weaknesses of the team.
New starting center Lamont Gaillard was No. 12.
Wide receiver (it appears) Mecole Hardman came in at No. 11.
WHY HE’S IMPORTANT: Nauta may be the most dynamic receiver at Eason’s disposal now that McKenzie is gone. Much of that depends on the development of other players, as there’s considerable upside with freshman J.J. Holloman, sophomore Riley Ridley, senior Javon Wims, and with Sony Michel, Terry Godwin and even Brian Herrien playing in the slot. There are more options this year it would appear. But Nauta is now a known quantity, and he is a mismatch in a lot of areas of the field, whether he’s at the traditional tight end spot, flexing out or motioning out of the backfield. And while Georgia remains deep at tight end – Blazevich the solid veteran, Woerner another athletic option – Nauta is a notch above. Take him out of the equation, and Georgia’s passing game loses an explosive element. Arguably its most explosive element.
FACTOID: Orson Charles as a Georgia freshman tight end: 23 catches, 374 yards, 3 touchdowns. Nauta as a freshman: 29 catches, 361 yards, 3 touchdowns. Charles improved his numbers each year and went on to finish first all-time among Georgia tight ends with 1,370 receiving yards, despite leaving for the NFL after his junior year.
BEST CASE: Nauta continues to be a main target, using his speed advantage on linebackers who try to cover him, and size advantage on defensive backs who are given the task. He doubles his touchdown catches from last year. His presence causes defenses to double him and opens up opportunities for the rest of Georgia’s passing game. Nauta is first-team All-SEC at the end of the season.
WORST CASE: Remember how good a freshman season Blazevich had? In 2014, Blazevich started 10 games, beating out several veterans, racking up 269 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns. But his numbers fell as a sophomore, with unspecified nagging injuries a root cause, though he played in every game. In Nauta’s case, it might be hard to see that happening. But the dreaded scenario, beyond injury, would be defenses adjusting to him, and being able to focus on him more with McKenzie out of the picture. So while the hope is Nauta will open up things for the rest of the offense, Nauta may need that offense to open up around him, too.
FINAL WORD: Charles and Nauta compare favorably in skill set and size, the only difference being that Nauta is about 4 inches taller. And the guess here is Nauta, barring injury, goes on to break Charles’ tight end school record for receiving yards, and break it easily.