ATHENS – When Kirby Smart was asked what he thought were the strengths and weaknesses of Georgia’s current roster, he deflected a bit.
“I’d be lying if I told you I knew exactly what’s here,” he said. “Especially maybe defensively, I don’t get to see those guys as often.”
Conveniently enough for Smart, that Georgia offense that Smart studied and schemed against last October is actually where the most immediate needs are. But they aren’t the only ones.
As signing day nears closer, it’s important to remember that Smart and his staff aren’t necessarily recruiting for the 2016 roster. They’re taking a longer view, because they can afford to, as a first-year staff. There won’t be the pressure to win that Mark Richt and his staff would have had.
That doesn’t mean it still wouldn’t be nice to win big in 2016. So here’s a look a look at Georgia’s top five needs for the upcoming season – and whether help is on the way through this recruiting class.
1. Wide Receiver
Why: The best thing Georgia’s anemic passing game had going for it last year was Malcolm Mitchell, and now he’s graduated. Yes, there’s also Terry Godwin, who had a strong freshman season (35 catches for 379 yards and 2 TD, not to mention the team’s second-longest touchdown pass of the season.) But you need more, even if you count on a healthy season from Isaiah McKenzie (who only had 10 catches last year). The biggest emphasis has to be on bigger receivers, which Godwin and McKenzie definitely are not. Michael Chigbu, Jayson Stanley and Shakenneth Williams could be that, but they combined for seven catches last year.
Is this need being filled? Somewhat. Four-star commitment Charlie Woerner is a big body (6-foot-5, 230 pounds), as is junior college commitment Javon Wims (6-4, 215). But Woerner is also a hybrid receiver-tight end, so Wims might be the most likely to step in this season. New receivers coach James Coley was also able to corral early enrollee Riley Ridley (6-1, 198). But the Bulldogs lost out on a number of other targets this cycle, notably Tre Nixon (Ole Miss), Kyle Davis (Auburn) and Josh Imatorbhebhe (Southern California). Most recruiting analysts believe Georgia has yet to reel in a sure-fire No. 1 receiver. Five-star prospects Mecole Hardman and Demetris Robertson are heavily on Georgia’s radar, but both could also end up on defense. Of course, with the way things look now if Hardman were to come to Georgia and Smart were to decide where he’s needed immediately – cornerback or receiver – the answer would be clear.
2. Offensive line
Why: It wasn’t a strength last season, and the line now loses tackle John Theus and tackle-guard Kolton Houston. There also appears to be a philosophical shift underway, with Smart and new O-line coach Sam Pittman wanting bigger linemen. That could mean Isaiah Wynn, who had the inside track under the previous staff to start at left tackle, will stay at guard. There are several good, bigger prospects in the program (Patrick Allen, Sage Hardin, Sam Madden), but they’re unproven.
Is this need being filled? Maybe. Ben Cleveland, the four-star early enrollee, stands 6-6 and 320 pounds. There are a couple other commitments, but the player most capable of starting right away is likely E.J. Price, who de-committed from Georgia last year but could still end up with the Bulldogs.
Why: Because the departure of Marshall Morgan leaves no obvious replacement, at least nobody on scholarship. Rodrigo Blankenship was brought in last year as a preferred walk-on, and former preferred walk-on William Ham is set to return to the team after sitting out a season.
Is the need being filled? Not yet. Lassiter High School’s Mitchell Wasson visited Georgia last week and spoke to Smart for 45 minutes. He’s being offered a preferred walk-on spot, but Alabama could get him with a full scholarship offer. Georgia is also one of a number of programs who have offered Oren Milstein, a kicker at American Heritage in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Sony Michel and McKenzie’s school.)
Why: You know why. Actually, Greyson Lambert was better than many have credited, throwing only two interceptions, and going 10-2 as a starter. But he was also inconsistent and only averaged 163.3 passing yards per game, so his starting spot is by no means locked up.
Is the need being filled? Not sure if anyone’s mentioned this yet, but Jacob Eason has joined the team. The competition with Lambert – and there will be one – will be the story of the next nine months. And who knows, Brice Ramsey could sneak his way back into the picture while he’s not preparing to be the team’s punter.
5. Defensive line
Why: It’s not that this was a weakness for Georgia last year – the Bulldogs ranked eighth in the SEC in rushing defense – but it was not a strength, and a lot of veterans (Sterling Bailey, Josh Dawson, James DeLoach, Chris Mayes) have moved on. The team still has Trent Thompson, last year’s mega-recruit, and other talented returning players (John Atkins, Jonathan Ledbetter, DaQuan Hawkins, Michael Barnett.) But it’s not enough right now to be a dominant line, which Smart has made clear he wants.
Is the need being filled? Maybe, but it depends heavily on one decision. Early enrollee Julian Rochester and commitments Chauncey Manac and Tyler Clark are four-stars. The major name out there is Derrick Brown, the five-star prospect from Buford who is rated the nation’s ninth-best overall prospect, according to the 247Sports Composite. Georgia is also trying for four-star Michail Carter – as is Smart’s old team, Alabama.
Answering one questions before it’s asked: Why isn’t linebacker on this list, even though Georgia lost OLB studs Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins, and ILB Jake Ganus, who was named the team MVP?
Answer: Because Georgia has replacements ready. Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter should step in on the outside, with Chuks Amaechi as another guy to keep an eye on. A host of younger players got their feet wet at inside linebacker, notably Natrez Patrick, Roquan Smith and Juwan Taylor. Plus Reggie Carter should be back from injury and Tim Kimbrough presumably should be back from his bowl suspension. This doesn’t mean Georgia won’t see a drop-off at linebacker in 2016. But there isn’t a pressing need to go out and recruit immediate starters yet.