Dawgs fans weren’t in a very good mood after another loss in the SEC Championship Game, this time a blowout, and a season that saw continued offensive struggles.
As reflected heavily in the Junkyard Mail, fan talk this week was full of discussion over what Kirby Smart needs to do about the offense (and whether he’ll do it), and what happened to Jake Fromm in his junior season. Plus, of course, the continuing debate involving Fromm beating out Justin Fields, who left UGA to become a Heisman Trophy finalist at Ohio State.
A fan going by Lorenzo Dawgriquez noted that the response to Fields “tearing it up” at Ohio State frequently is, “But that is an easy, QB-friendly system.” Lorenzo concluded: “Then let us get a QB-friendly system.”
Brian Kim is tired of Smart’s “pro-style” offense. “It seems [Mark] Richt hasn’t left the building yet. We never had an interest in signing Georgia-grown Cam Newton or Deshaun Watson, and … they brought championships to Auburn and Clemson. Now, we have to watch Justin Fields to lead OSU to a championship. Sad.”
Jason Watson thinks Georgia’s recruiting might be affected by its offensive struggles. “If I were a wide receiver or receiving tight end, why would I want to come to UGA?”
Noted a fan called PacBear: ”David Pollack said it before the game, that LSU isn’t running something new, it is the same offense the Big 12 has been doing for years, only with better players in all the positions. I wonder why Smart recruited Justin Fields, a modern spread offense quarterback, and tried to make him fit into an antiquated pro-style offense? Talk about a round peg and a square hole! We saw what Fields can do when placed in the right scheme. The major question is, can and will Smart adjust to the new reality? Nick Saban has moved on and so has Ed Orgeron. Will Smart and Georgia?”
Ned Newell isn’t optimistic about Smart changing the offense: “Rather, he will just double down on his dated offensive philosophies with a Kirby-against-the-world mentality.”
Quite a few national football writers also believe Smart needs to bring his team’s attack into the 21st century, as Saban and Orgeron have done, opening up their offenses with more spread and run-pass-option elements. And, it’s noteworthy that the four teams that made the College Football Playoff this year all run wide-open offenses.
But, many have taken Smart’s comments after the SEC Championship Game as an indication that he doesn’t see anything wrong with his current approach. After all, the coach pointed out, Georgia threw 42 times against LSU.
However, only going pass-heavy when you don’t have any choice feels more like desperation than diversification. Considering he’s modeled himself on Saban, Smart clinging to the pro-style offense puzzles me. I’m hoping it’s not sheer stubbornness, and that his desire to win will trump his desire to wear down opponents with an up-the-middle running game that opponents jammed this season by loading the box, since they weren’t afraid of the Dawgs’ passing attack.
As Smart himself noted, he had not done a good job of recruiting at wide receiver, which meant that not much experienced talent was left after the exodus of Georgia’s top receivers following last season. Georgia only returned 24 percent of its receiving yards from 2018.
A piece written by Andy Staples, late of Sports Illustrated and now with the Athletic, was widely shared among Dawgs fans this week. In concluding the Dawgs’ offense needs to change, Staples said: “Georgia needs to change tempo more often. It needs to get the ball in the hands of its best athletes in space. If there’s a logjam at tailback and the receiving corps is thin, take the best catching tailbacks and have them run routes. Move them around the formation and drive defenses crazy by creating mismatches. Use the tight ends.”
I’m sure Smart knows all of that. Only time will tell if he’s willing to make the changes to make it happen. I think he will, especially if he senses Georgia’s reputation for a stodgy offense is affecting recruiting.
Another popular topic in this week’s Junkyard Mail was summed up by Al in North Carolina, who asked: “What the heck happened to Jake Fromm this year? I know he lost most of his receivers after last season, and injuries plagued the wideouts this year. But, like you said in your blog after the LSU game, that doesn’t explain him missing wide-open receivers. Any clue as to what’s going on?”
At his press conference after the loss to LSU, Smart pointed to the loss of talent at wide receiver. “The first two years, Jake’s numbers were better,” the coach said, when there were four receivers on Georgia’s sideline “that are playing in the NFL. So, right now, I don’t know if we have four wide receivers that are going to be playing in the NFL at this time next year. And the loss of those wideouts, the vertical threat, has probably hurt our team.”
In his Athletic piece, Staples noted that Fromm’s numbers this year were comparable to (and a bit better than) Joe Burrow’s were for LSU last year, before Orgeron changed offensive approaches. Said Staples: “Fromm could be next year’s Burrow if given the right toolbox.”
Smart and Staples are right that Fromm has proved he can get the job done when he has good receivers. Remember when he was even in the peripheral Heisman conversation?
But, there was more to it than that this year. Reader Gary Cody and several others suggested that, perhaps Fromm was less sharp this season because he “did not have a Fields or [Jacob] Eason pushing him in practice for playing time, meaning he didn’t have to work as hard and be as sharp in practice and that showed on the field. … Smart says iron sharpens iron, but Fromm has no iron to sharpen against.”
It is possible that not having to look over his shoulder this year did take a bit of edge off Fromm’s development, but I also think the fact that Georgia didn’t have a dedicated quarterbacks coach this year was a factor. It showed in Fromm’s eroding fundamentals. As several former players turned analysts pointed out during the season, his footwork, in particular, was not good. Maybe that was a result of poor coaching.
Speaking of which, that brings up the Fromm-Fields debate. Reader Kevin Kelley lamented, “the fact that Georgia let Eason and Fields go for him just floors me.” And Larry Pope asked: “Jake vs. Justin — do you have any thoughts on how Kirby handled 2 QBs last year, and whether he may have chosen the wrong one considering their respective play this year? I know Justin was not used enough and used poorly when he was called, but, long-term, was he the better choice?”
I think Fields was a bad fit for UGA to begin with, unless they planned on opening up the offense a la Ohio State. In the pro-style, he definitely was not as good as Fromm, so there was no talk last year that Georgia was playing the wrong quarterback. Whenever Fields took the field, the drop-off from Fromm was evident to all.
As PacBear put it, Georgia’s coaching staff followed a round-peg-in-a-square -hole approach with Fields, and I think it was doomed from the start, especially since Georgia didn’t make any effort to customize a package of plays for Fields. That, and the regression of Fromm’s fundamentals this year, indicate Smart’s coaching staff has a problem coaching/developing QBs.
A couple of other topics came up in this week’s Junkyard Mail. Preston Hayes touched on the rather laissez faire officiating in the SEC Championship Game. “I don’t ever remember watching a game with a scrambling QB without a single holding call,” he said. ”I would have said it wasn’t possible, but they missed every one of them, including the one clearly seen on the big screen where the O lineman was hanging on 99’s jersey while Burrow continued to search for a receiver unmolested.”
Preston has a point, but, to be fair, the officials also allowed cornerbacks on both teams to get very handsy in their coverage. Frankly, given a choice between a game that’s marred by frequent flags and one in which they allow them to “just play,” I prefer the latter.
And, switching sports, James Parry already is writing off this year’s Georgia basketball team, despite the fact that new star Anthony “Antman” Edwards is living up to his billing. Said Parry: “OK, we have ‘Antman.’ Big deal. Our b-ball team is still getting blown out on a regular basis. My analysis of Tom Crean as an overrated coach is coming true. I’m sad to say. I said it last year, and I’ll say it this year…. The guy is a ‘rah, rah!!’ guy. All hype. No results.”
I think it’s a bit early in the season to write the basketball Dawgs off, especially as they haven’t even begun conference play yet. But I will concede that they haven’t looked good whenever the level of opponent rises, and the fact that it took a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Edwards to dispatch Division II Chaminade in the Maui Invitational was alarming.
Still, Edwards’ performance in the loss to Michigan State, bringing Georgia back from a 28-point deficit as he hit seven 3-pointers and scored 33 of his 37 points in the second half, was encouraging. The Spartans still pulled out a win, but, no doubt about it, Antman is the real thing. As for Crean, the jury is still out. Let’s let them get into conference play before we dismiss his coaching ability.
One more thing: Congratulations to fan favorite Rodrigo Blankenship, winner of the 2019 Lou Groza Award, given to nation’s top placekicker. He didn’t have a great game against LSU, but, over the course of his career, he’s proved himself a Dawg for the Ages.
How a future UGA legend became a hometown hero
Fifty years ago this week, the Athens High Trojans, led by future UGA star Andy Johnson, met the mighty Valdosta Wildcats for the state football championship in what many consider one of the greatest high school football games ever played. In fact, there are some who claim it was one of the best football games they’ve ever seen, at any level.
Providing a preview of the sort of late-game heroics that would make him a Georgia Bulldogs legend two years hence against Georgia Tech, Johnson led the Trojans down the field for a touchdown and 2-point play that tied the game 26-26 as time expired. Back then, ties still were acceptable, so Athens and Valdosta reigned for the next year as co-champions.
Johnson’s highlights included an untimed play tacked on to the end of the first half after a penalty. Johnson took the snap from center, burst through the Valdosta defensive front and raced 68 yards for a touchdown. Valdosta led by only 13-12 at halftime.
As the final minute of the game approached, the Wildcats led 26-18. It looked like Valdosta was going to run out the clock, when Wildcats quarterback Don Golden (who also wound up playing at UGA as a safety and punter) fumbled with less than 2 minutes to play, and the Trojans recovered.
Athens High coach Weyman Sellers later said he told Johnson on the sideline that Athens was going to score. Andy replied, “I know.”
For a look back at the making of a hometown hero, check out my Quick Cuts blog.