(11) LSU
7
2nd QTR
14:17
21
(1) Georgia
Georgia football-tight ends-Clemson
Georgia tight end John FitzPatrick (86) during the Bulldogs’ practice session in Athens, Ga., on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. (Photo by Tony Walsh)
Tony Walsh

How Georgia football tight end position went from a good problem to a big problem ahead of Clemson opener

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Georgia football now has a different problem at tight end

When Georgia began fall practice, the tight end position was an unquestioned strength. Between trusted veteran John FitzPatrick and promising sophomore Darnell Washington — whose potential might be the only thing bigger than his 6-foot-7, 280-pound frame — it was easy to see why Arik Gilbert was brought in as a wide receiver.

Add in the early promise shown by freshman Brock Bowers and you can see why one of the longer answers offensive coordinator Todd Monken gave when speaking to the media was on the various talents in the tight end room.

“We’re really, really fortunate to have those three guys in the mix,” Monken said on August 12. “Those three guys, that’s a pretty special group that we have. With the ability to utilize them and their skill set.”

But in less than 10 days time from when that quote was given, the position has been turned upside down. FitzPatrick has reportedly missed both scrimmages with a foot injury.

That injury isn’t as bad as the foot injury Washington suffered. The sophomore underwent surgery to repair the injury. FitzPatrick’s status for the opener against Clemson is more promising, if only because there’s less certainty about his injury. Washington is very likely going to miss that game due to the surgery.

In theory, Gilbert could slide in as a possible replacement and he had been working and rotating with the tight ends. But he’s not with the team at the moment due to personal reasons. There’s no way to predict when he might be back with the team.

Related: Arik Gilbert’s mentor: ‘He needs your prayers and your positivity’

This leaves Bowers and redshirt sophomores Brett Seither and Ryland Goede as the only healthy tight ends for the season-opener against Clemson. Those three have just one catch combined in their time at Georgia.

Bowers has earned plenty of praise from Monken, head coach Kirby Smart and even teammates like Kendall Milton. Bowers was likely always going to play a role in Georgia’s offense during the 2021 season.

But to expect him to be a leader at the position so soon was unforeseen.

“Just seeing him when he first got here, he’s probably about 6-3, 6-3 and a half, just like fully built,” Milton said. “He’s one of those dudes who can really do it all. He has crazy explosion, he’s crazy fast, super strong. The potential he has, it just makes me excited.”

Related: Georgia football winners and losers from fall camp

The Napa, Calif., native had an impressive spring practice and finished the spring game with three catches for 19 yards. He’s continued to make progress on the field for the Bulldogs and will certainly play a part of the Clemson game plan.

“He came in the spring, probably was swimming some in the spring, but he’s accelerated his learning,” Smart said. “He’s competitive, he works his tail off every day. He’s a joy to be around. He’s what you want in a football player. So we’ve got to find a way to use his skillset.”

Bowers though does not have the same size as Washington or FitzPatrick. He’s almost certainly not going to be the same level of blocker for Georgia. That’s not ideal given the talent Clemson has on its defensive line with Bryan Bresee, Myles Murphy and Xavier Thomas.

Another interesting wrinkle within that opening game is that in recent Clemson losses, tight ends have played a key part in attacking the Clemson pass defense.

In the national championship loss to LSU, Thaddeus Moss finished with five catches for 36 yards. Two of those receptions were touchdowns as LSU came away with a 42-25 victory.

Michael Mayer was one of three 5-star tight ends in the 2020 signing class, with Gilbert and Washington being the other two. He finished with five receptions for 67 yards in Clemson’s 47-40 loss to Notre Dame last season. Even in the Clemson-dominated rematch, Mayer had five catches for 51 yards.

By comparison, Georgia has had just one five-catch game from a tight end since the start of 2017. Isaac Nauta did it against Florida in 2018.

Then in the final game of Clemson’s 2020 season, the Tigers lost to Ohio State when Jeremy Ruckert caught three passes for 55 yards. Like Moss in the LSU loss, Ruckert found the endzone twice.

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