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L.G. Patterson/AP
The return of quarterback JT Daniels and other key offensive players bodes well for the 2021 season.

Junkyard Mail: Dawgs fans react to a week of good news, bad news

It’s been an up-and-down offseason so far for Bulldog Nation, and that’s reflected in the latest Junkyard Mail. …

Hey Bill, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry lately when it comes to my Dawgs. On the one hand, we’ve had some key players, like JT Daniels, Jordan Davis, Justin Shaffer and Zamir White, decide the NFL can wait a year so they can take care of #unfinishedbusiness. Even defensive coordinator Dan Lanning decided to stay in Athens rather than go to Texas. In that way, it kind of feels like 2017 all over again. On the other hand, we’ve continued to have players transfer out, the latest being Tyrique Stevenson, who looked set to start this coming season. I keep hearing there’s nothing wrong with the culture in Kirby Smart’s program, so why do players like Stevenson leave?

— Harry Walker

Why do they leave? The reasons vary, from being homesick to wanting more playing time, but the basic answer is, because they can. With the transfer portal in place, and the NCAA now routinely allowing transferring players not to have to sit out a season, today’s players are almost as free to look elsewhere as their coaches always have been. I must admit, Stevenson leaving Georgia puzzled me a bit, since he was set to start, but perhaps he just wants be closer to family. However, it’s also worth noting that members of the Miami coaching staff were openly talking in the press about wanting Stevenson more than a week before he’d even announced he was entering the portal, raising the issue of whether the NCAA needs to look at some possible tampering there. 

Devote Wyatt is coming back, which will bolster Georgia’s defensive front. (University of Georgia)

After we watched two teams other than UGA play in the National Championship Game, our disappointment soon turns to optimism. Signing day and spring practice are around the corner and expectations are running wild. That exuberance this time of year has sustained Bulldawg Nation for the last 40 years. How wonderful it would be to surpass that exuberance with euphoria the second the clock hits double zero at the next College Football Playoff Championship Game.

— Tony Tyson

That’s the sort of enthusiasm that is a hallmark of this early point. Frequently, the season that follows doesn’t live up to that optimism, but, as someone who was there when Smart’s Dawgs camethisclose to winning a national championship, I do have faith that we’re going to see that happen — if not this year, then sometime soon.

Bill, I enjoyed your column, and agree we have reason to be optimistic about next year. The schedule is quite favorable, and catching Clemson first is a break. They obviously have much talent, but a new QB facing the Dawgs early is to our advantage. I have one question. Do we know how many guys will take advantage of the one-time-only additional year opportunity? 

— Jim Sandifer

I ran your question by UGA athletics information guru Claude Felton and a couple of the beat writers who cover the Dawgs, and the consensus is that, after seniors Justin Shaffer and Devonte Wyatt announced that they’re taking advantage of the free season of eligibility and coming back, the main question marks are Demetrius Robertson and Julian Rochester. Felton also noted that he hasn’t heard for sure about special teams player Prather Hudson. 

Bill, most of the early Top 25 rankings I’ve seen are pretty high on the 2021 Dawgs. I want to believe that’s realistic, but what do you really think?

— Tommy in Tifton

Tailback Zamir White is one of the reasons college football observers are high on Georgia’s offense. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

You’re right about Georgia’s way-too-early preseason rankings being extremely high. So far, the ones I’ve seen include being ranked No. 1 by Fox Sports, No. 2 by USA Today, No. 3 by Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports, No. 4 by Athlon Sports, The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel and Bleacher Report, and No. 5 by Sporting News. While I think putting Georgia into the preseason Top 5 is reasonable, I think the Fox and USA Today ratings are a bit unrealistic. If the Dawgs manage to knock off Clemson in the opener, though, the sky’s the limit.

I, too, am optimistic about the upcoming season for a lot of the reasons you and others outlined. Our offensive line needs to jell and our defensive secondary is very young. Given the young nature if our secondary, we are going to have a difficult time with a great passing offense. I would feel better if we played Clemson later than the first game. I believe we can win the SEC East. We have to show that we can beat Alabama before I jump on the natty train. Thanks for your articles. 

— Jim Carroll

You’ve hit the nail right on the head, Jim. The Dawgs will have to replace the entire back half of their 2020 starting defense. I feel pretty good about Lewis Cine and Christopher Smith at safety, as they got a lot of work late in the 2020 season due to injuries. The big question mark will be the cornerbacks. There’s some great young talent, like Kelee Ringo, but they lack playing experience. There’s been a lot of speculation lately that Georgia will be looking to the transfer portal for an experienced cornerback. Let’s hope they find a good one.

Bill, I’m a big reader and enjoy your columns. You and Jeff Schultz (I subscribe to The Athletic) write the columns I try not to miss. … I try to do a little writing myself and, for the past four years, have provided color commentary for Blake Giles’ play-by-play of Prince Avenue Christian School football. Brock Vandagriff is the real deal, but I’m glad he won’t have his first test against Clemson. I think he will be more patient than [Justin] Fields. He played wide receiver as a frosh at PACS. Bazooka arm, tough, intelligent. Glad he stayed home. Keep up the good work.

— G. Richard (Dick) Hoard

Incoming freshman Brock Vandagriff is the “real deal,” say those who watched him in high school. (Jason Getz/AJC)

You’re not the first person who’s followed Prince Avenue to tell me Vandagriff is the real deal. From the brief bits of him playing that I’ve seen, I think he has the tools to be a top-notch college QB, but the transition from Class A private school ball to Power 5 football is quite a leap. That’s why I’m particularly glad JT Daniels is returning. I think Vandagriff (and Georgia) definitely would benefit from him being allowed to grow into substantial playing time. At the same time, though, I hope Smart doesn’t keep him on the sideline so much that he feels irrelevant, and we get a repeat of the Fields debacle. I feel sure there’s a happy medium in how to juggle quarterbacks. I just hope Smart finds it. Speaking of quarterbacks …

What about C. Beck? Seems he is never mentioned. …. Beck’s size and arm strength should equal playing time. Is Beck even looked at?

— Jackson Jenkins

I assume Carson Beck will have a chance to compete with Vandagriff and Stetson Bennett IV for the backup spot behind Daniels this year, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see him (or Stetson) enter the portal and go elsewhere.

Georgia football’s offensive and defensive lines: At what point will they improve? … We seem to get beat too many times on the line of scrimmage. 

— Butch Walker

The offensive line was something of a disappointment in 2020, particularly the makeshift unit that we saw in the Peach Bowl, and that’s my second biggest concern for 2021, after the secondary. OL coach Matt Luke loses Trey Hill and Ben Cleveland (neither of whom played in the bowl game). He has some key returnees (including Jamaree Salyer and Justin Shaffer) and plenty of young talent, but getting the offensive front to jell is paramount to Georgia having the high-powered offense it will need. I have to disagree with you, though, about the defensive line. Even when big Jordan Davis was out injured, the Dawgs’ 2020 defensive front was pretty stout. And, once he returned, the line was the strength of Georgia’s defense. With Davis and Devonte Wyatt returning, and with talent like Nakobe Dean and Adam Anderson in the linebacking corps (even with the loss of Azeez Ojulari), I feel good about Georgia’s front seven.

Now that Josh Brooks is the new athletic director, it is time to show his support for Kirby and let 2023 be the last time the Dawgs play Florida in [Jacksonville]. Kirby needs that recruiting weekend, and why give Jax an additional $35 million in revenue? 

— Tom Whitten

The Georgia-Florida game is special, and considered one of college football’s great traditions, because it’s held away from the two schools’ campuses. I know Smart has complained about the neutral-site game hindering recruiting, but, to me, the only real argument in favor of moving the Georgia-Florida game to home-and-home is to bolster the schedule in Athens and reward season ticket holders with the chance to see the Dawgs and Gators tangle without having to travel to Jacksonville. But, if that ever is going to happen, it’s not going to be soon, as the current deal runs through 2023, with an option to extend it through 2025. A lot can happen in college football in that time, so we might see a change then, but I’m skeptical.

The lack of success under men’s basketball coach Tom Crean has fans restless. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Bill, Tom Crean has again assembled a team that cannot shoot the ball, plays defense sporadically and makes more turnovers than anybody could ever imagine. Is this his last season if things don’t improve, and how does UGA basketball ever become relevant? 

— Craig Scroggs

Bill, Due to the past horrible pandemic year (continuing into spring 2021), I’m willing to give UGA coaches in all sports a pass if any happen to underachieve. … To me, the highest profile underachiever is Tom Crean. Again, I give him and all coaches a pass this season. But when things come back to normal as possible, how many years longer does UGA give Crean to show success in the SEC and NCAA tournament? 

— Jim Parry

Bill, do you think Crean is toast in Athens after this season?

— Bo Eller

Crean’s roundball Dawgs finally got a conference win Saturday over Ole Miss in Oxford, but, yeah, it’s been a pretty dispiriting season so far. Going 0-4 to start conference play exposed the Dawgs, who had gone 7-0 to start the season in nonconference play, but against a very weak lineup of opponents. Crean isn’t the first college coach to find out that playing a weak early schedule to pile up some meaningless wins doesn’t serve you well once the real season commences. Still, there’s a lot of games left to play, and highly-touted freshman K.D. Johnson just got cleared to play midseason, so let’s not write off this season just yet. The knock I hear frequently on Crean (including this weekend in a conversation with my brother Jon) is that, while he’s a great recruiter, he’s not a good game coach. I think the off-and-on results he got last year out of Anthony “Antman” Edwards speak to that. At times, Edwards looked like the future NBA star that he’s already becoming. But, there also were games where he didn’t seem fully engaged, other than tossing up long 3-point attempts. And, defense never has been a strength under Crean. To answer Bo’s question, though, no, I don’t see Crean being fired that soon. When asked this week about men’s basketball, Josh Brooks said, The message for me is patience. When you want to build a program the right way, sometimes it takes a while.” However, I do think Crean might get the “significant improvement” mandate and certainly would be on a hot seat next season if this year doesn’t turn around soon. Meanwhile, a salute to Joni Taylor’s Lady Dogs, who are having a great season so far, including this past week, when they notched their first win over Tennessee in Knoxville in 25 years!

Bill, I know this is a Georgia sports blog, but I have very fond memories from my teenage years of your Quick Cuts From the Rock Scene every Saturday morning! So, since it’s the offseason, I hope you wouldn’t mind entertaining a Georgia music question. If you had to pick five albums recorded by Georgia acts, what would they be?

— Joy Delancey

Since it’s the offseason, and you remember my old Quick Cuts column, I can’t say no to you. Limiting myself to one album per act, here are my top five, in no particular order: “Eat a Peach” by the Allman Brothers Band, “Otis Blue” by Otis Redding, “Cosmic Thing” by the B-52’s, “Soul on Top” by James Brown and “Out of Time” by R.E.M. There are a lot of other great Georgia-related albums, though. 

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