Despite a formidable stable of running backs, a mostly experienced defense and an apparently wide open SEC East, Kirby Smart’s second UGA team opens spring practice this week with a number of key question marks that need resolving if the Dawgs are to make it to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in December.
The biggest unknown Smart and his staff must tackle is what sort of offensive line Georgia will have, with only two starters returning from a group that badly underperformed in 2016. The poor OL play hampered both the Dawgs’ running attack and the development of their young quarterback. With opponents stacking the box, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel had little room to run, and Jacob Eason spent much of the season under heavy pressure.
Lamont Gaillard is one of two returning starters for the offensive line. (Caroll Gambrell/UGA)
Isaiah Wynn and Lamont Gaillard are the OL returnees, but even their positions aren’t set. Gaillard, who started at right guard last year, seems likely to move over to center. Wynn played both left guard and left tackle last season, but the talented lineman is undersized for that key tackle spot, and many observers think highly ranked junior college transfer and early enrollee D’Marcus Hayes will be given a shot there this spring, with top-rated recruit Isaiah Wilson a long-shot possibility as a true freshman after he arrives this summer.
Meanwhile, will big-but-raw Ben Cleveland finally be able to crack the starting five? What about highly regarded rising sophomore Pat Allen, senior Dyshon Sims and the other returning linemen? It will, as Smart said in a recent radio appearance, be “a very interesting spring” as the Dawgs have “some holes to fill” and the jobs are “wide open.”
Another deficiency last year that hampered Georgia’s offensive production (and Eason’s on-the-job training) was at wide receiver, where getting open, blocking downfield and holding on to the ball when it was thrown to them were all continuing problems.
With the departure of Isaiah McKenzie, last year’s main playmaker in the receiving corps, the Dawgs need Terry Godwin to step up and live up to the promise he showed two years ago as a freshman. Riley Ridley, once he’s served his expected suspension, also looks to be a key target, but can the Dawgs get more production from Javon Wims and Michael Chigbu? One thing’s for sure, early enrollee Jeremiah Holloman, a true freshman, likely will get a chance to become the impact player Georgia so badly needs at this position.
Then there’s the question of whether the Dawgs are really going to have an open quarterback battle between Eason and early enrollee Jake Fromm, or whether Smart simply has been trying to light a bit of a fire under his returning starter by talking up the true freshman so much lately.
Competition never hurt, and with only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, it definitely behooves offensive coordinator and QB coach Jim Chaney to get Fromm ready as quickly as possible. But, as discussed here last week, I think Eason has what it takes to make the great leap in his sophomore year that so many national football analysts are expecting.
And, no matter how talented he is, Fromm will face the same steep learning curve Eason did last year, so I can’t imagine any favorable scenario for UGA football that involves Fromm having to start any games this season, since that either would mean Eason flopped or got hurt.
Jim Chaney and offensive line coach Sam Pittman have their work cut out for them this spring. (Philip Williams/UGA)
Speaking of Chaney, his underwhelming debut last year as Georgia’s offensive guru makes him a major question mark for the 2017 season as well. Will he “freshen up” his rather predictable offense, as he’s indicated, and will he show more flexibility in adapting his offense to the talent he has, rather than trying to do the opposite?
More importantly, will an offense that frequently looked rudderless last year finally find its identity? Smart hinted recently that the Dawgs may be incorporating more elements of a spread offense, saying that “you cannot sit there” in the I-formation any more. “If you are not changing, or you are not looking at things, you are going to get passed by.”
Maybe that means spreading out the offense more to keep defenses honest; perhaps it will translate to throwing more to Michel out in space. Whatever Smart has in mind, here’s hoping that it proves to be more than just spring media talk.
On the defensive side, the main question marks are not quite as daunting, with only the nickel back or “star” position wide open as practice begins. However, turning more of last year’s quarterback pressures into actual sacks would be a big step forward.
As for special teams, the kicking situation probably won’t clear up until the season begins, but while the who-gets-a-scholarship soap opera involving the kickers is interesting, the bigger question is on the return side of the game, where McKenzie will be a significant loss.
Georgia’s coaches need to find ways to get the ball into the hands of Mecole Hardman. (Andy Harrison/UGA)
The early money is on Mecole Hardman to return kickoffs, but Smart has indicated the sophomore, who was barely used last year, is less likely to be a factor in punt returns.
However, the more intriguing question is what else Georgia’s coaches will do with Hardman, who seems to have the tools to become a playmaker, if only they can decide how to utilize him. Officially, the 5-star recruit is a defensive back, but Smart has said the Georgia staff needs to find more ways to get the ball into his hands.
So, you’ve got to figure that, in addition to returning kicks, there’s a good chance there might be some special offensive packages installed for Hardman, who was an explosive player on offense in high school. Maybe he’ll be used as a slot receiver, or perhaps taking over for McKenzie on some of those jet sweeps.
If Hardman ends up this season as nothing more than a kick returner and a backup cornerback, someone will have failed to do their job properly.
Fan concerns have been heard
Faced with widespread fan dissension over the state of the more decrepit restrooms at Sanford Stadium, as well as the ridiculous waits at concession stands, athletic director Greg McGarity has responded with some action.
McGarity announced this week that long-awaited renovations to the restrooms will be “expedited and completed prior to the 2017 season” and also that “several improvements in concessions services throughout Sanford Stadium will also be in place for 2017.”
Whaddaya know, it appears that, indeed, it is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease! Kudos to all the fans who spoke out on these issues here, and in other forums.
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