ATHENS – Isaac Nauta grinned as the question was asked: How many times does he get asked about his lack of catches, or for that matter the lack of catches for all Georgia tight ends?
“I get it quite a bit,” Nauta said, smiling, but turning back to the company line, one which also happens to have factual basis. “What we’ve done thus far has been working, for the most part. We’ve got two great backs carrying the rock for us. I really can’t complain.”
Those who drafted Nauta in their college football fantasy league may complain. A year after hauling in 29 passes as a freshman he only has seven this year. And that leads the Georgia tight end room: Charlie Woerner has six, and Jackson Harris and Jeb Blazevich have two apiece.
It’s true that Georgia runs the ball so well that its passing numbers overall are suffering, if that’s the right word. But the tight ends make up a talented group – Nauta was the team’s third-leading receiver last year – so why do they comprise a collective 14 percent of the team’s catches?
Kirby Smart has a simple explanation. Defenses are playing man-to-man against Georgia, because they’re worried about UGA’s run game, and it’s easier for tight ends to get open against a zone.
“Trust me, I know about coaching defense and I know how people are playing us. So it’s easy to see why tight ends aren’t catching as many passes for us: Because they’re not open,” Smart said. “We throw to the open guy.”
Smart sounded bemused at all the fuss about the subject.
“I’m so engulfed in what we’re doing that I don’t know what people are so enamored with about the tight ends catching the ball. If the tight ends get open, they’ll get thrown the ball,” Smart said. “When people play you to stop the run, they play man a lot. When they play man, they cover the tight ends. I dare you to show me where there’s a tight end that’s open in man-to-man. …
“We’ve got plays designed to go to the tight ends, but they’ve been covered. It’s not a matter of we don’t want to throw to our tight ends. We have no mutiny against them. We just have to keep working at it and try to get some spots where they’ll be open. If some teams will play zone we could throw the ball to the tight end.”
TARGETS ALSO DOWN
Georgia tight ends have been targeted 31 times this season, according to Pro Football Focus. But Pro Football Focus also reported that the tight ends have only been asked to pass-block on one-fifth of Georgia’s pass plays this season.
So Georgia is sending the receivers out on routes. The balls just aren’t going in their direction.
“It’s really not for me to even complain right now. We’re having a great season,” Blazevich said. “We’re buying into what the coaches are doing. We’re getting opportunities and we’re getting the opportunities and we need to maximize those.”
Georgia’s tight end production has been steadily declining for a while. Back in 2011, Orson Charles caught 45 passes in a year Georgia’s tight ends caught a total of 61. Two years later, Arthur Lynch had 30 catches, and the team had 39. The next two years saw the tight end production fall to 31 and then 24 catches.
Last year it went back up to 41 catches for the tight ends, with Nauta accounting for 29 of those. But with even Nauta not being targeted much this year, the numbers have fallen off a cliff.
“It’s been a learning process for me, as far as being a part of something that’s bigger than me and you,” Nauta said. “I’ve been at a lot of great places, a lot of winning programs, and this has definitely been a different year, as far as individually for me. But it’s been a blast. When you’re winning games and having fun, it’s all good.”
‘IT’S NOT ABOUT ME’
The blocking part is critical, too, as Smart pointed out. A glance at how effective Georgia has been running the ball shows the tight ends are a part of that.
“I thought the other night, Charlie and Jeb, and even Isaac, on two of the touchdowns, they did a tremendous job blocking at the point of attack,” Smart said. “It’s hard to find guys who can do that in college football, block the defensive linemen they have to block.”
But blocks don’t appear in the stat book. Catches do, and thus get the brunt of fans’ attention.
Blazevich has seen his personal catch total go from 18 as a freshman to 15, six and now two.
“I’m a competitor, selfishly. But it’s not about me,” Blazevich said. “This is a team sport, and in order to win you need to give of yourself in order to win. That’s why I love football.”