What do we know so far about Kirby Smart’s third edition of the Georgia Bulldogs?
They are fast. Team speed is perhaps at an all-time high.
They are a big-play team, with the potential at any time to break a long one, such as the 56-yard and 66-yard runs from scrimmage, 46-yard and 65-yard pass receptions and 70-yard punt return we saw Saturday.
They can score points in bunches, including four touchdowns in the second quarter of Saturday’s game against Conference USA’s Middle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders.
They have two very good quarterbacks. The starter is a steady leader who is only a couple of tweaks away from near perfection; the younger one still has a way to go in becoming a confident pocket presence, but already is showing signs that he’ll one day be perhaps the nation’s best.
They have an abundance of young talent, particularly on offense — perhaps more than any program in the country.
And, probably the biggest takeaway from the first three games of the season: They really haven’t been tested yet, especially the defensive rebuild-in-progress after losing a bunch of NFL-caliber players from last year’s team.
That’s why we still don’t know how good these Dawgs really could wind up being this season. The level of competition so far — including Georgia’s opener in conference play last week against South Carolina, supposedly the second-best team in the SEC East — has been less than challenging.
The third game of the season was so lopsided that it’s difficult to judge Georgia’s performance. MTSU, whose uptempo spread offense was much touted in the week leading up to the game, is not a very good team, and Georgia had mostly third-stringers playing in the fourth quarter, as Smart again decided not to run up the score against a hapless opponent.
We do know the Dawgs started out the day rather sloppy and undisciplined, incurring too many flags for needless penalties and having trouble getting players out on the field in a timely manner. Georgia was flagged a season-high six times for 49 yards and had plays come back on two holding penalties and two false starts.
“We started off a little rough with some penalties and organizational stuff that we’ll clean up,” Smart told Chuck Dowdle of the Bulldogs radio network after the game.
But, the head coach thought his team “came out physical and played hard,” which speaks well of their mindset, considering the level of opponent Saturday.
Amid all the big plays the Dawgs had, the Georgia offense continued to look formidable on a day when the starting tailback played only two series (for reasons that remain rather vague) but the No. 2 back notched a 100-yard game (and would have had more had one of his runs not been canceled by one of those penalties).
The running-game-by-committee approach is working wonderfully, even down to another long touchdown on a jet sweep by a receiver (this time it was Tyler Simmons, but much-lauded transfer Demetris Robertson also had a nice run for 23 yards).
As Holyfield said afterward: “You kind of get to save your body a little bit when everybody else is getting touches as well. Now we’re going into SEC play, and I think we’ll do the same thing. We spread the ball around and make it work.”
The passing game also was impressive on a day when the three quarterbacks (including walk-on Matthew Downing) completed 17 of 21 passes to eight different receivers for 4 touchdowns and an average of 13.1 yards per completion. Oh, and Isaac Nauta had 4 catches for 47 yards; the tight ends are back!
Starter Fromm looked smooth and confident most of the game and had a productive day. He was sacked twice, but the first of those — almost a safety in the end zone before a Fromm fumble trickled across the goal line and was recovered by an alert Ben Cleveland — was a protection breakdown and wasn’t really Fromm’s fault, Smart later said. The second sack, however, resulted from Fromm not throwing the ball away after he initially had escaped the Blue Raider rush.
On the other hand, the sophomore quarterback’s second-quarter pass to Ridley Ridley for a TD was a superb throw, as was the 65-yard completion to Jeremiah Holloman earlier on that drive.
Justin Fields, Fromm’s potential-superstar backup, remains a little quick to abandon a passing play and pull the ball down and run, but his upside already his showing. On Saturday, he underthrew one long incompletion, but Fields threaded the needle on a perfectly thrown bullet TD pass to Jayson Stanley in the back of the end zone. And, he showed what a difference maker his legs can be when he scored on a 15-yard scamper that saw him break an arm tackle to cross the goal line.
On the defensive side, Deandre Baker got another interception; you can bet Missouri’s Drew Lock is going to be throwing to the other side of the field from Baker next week. Baker also forced a fumble that Richard LeCounte picked up and returned 7 yards. Juwan Taylor led the Bulldogs with six tackles, while Monty Rice had five stops.
Star of the day, though, definitely was Elberton’s favorite son, Mecole Hardman, who snagged 4 passes for 21 yards, including a TD, and had another score as he finally broke a punt return all the way. He’s definitely this season’s breakout player so far.
Otherwise it was mostly business as usual on special teams, thanks to strong-legged Rod Blankenship, with only a couple of offsides calls on kickoffs marring the performance.
But, back to what we don’t know about this team.
Defensively, Georgia still looks a little soft against the run up the middle. MTSU averaged 4.2 yards per rushing play; an SEC opponent not named South Carolina likely will do better. And, the Dawgs haven’t generated much of a pass rush so far this season.
While the offensive line generally has performed well, the pass protection is spotty at times. Freshman Cade Mays, who looked so good when he entered the game in relief of injured left tackle Andrew Thomas against South Carolina, was much shakier in his first start. With the competition level rising from here on, Georgia needs Thomas to return quickly.
One thing’s for sure, though. Smart is the sort of coach who continually seeks improvement.
Asked by Dowdle if he’s happy with what he’s seeing from his team so far, Smart replied: “At times.”
The quest for perfection continues.