Expectations high for 2019 Dawgs, but there are some concerns

Georgia-Georgia football-wide receivers-J.J. Holloman
Returning Dawgs receiver J.J. Holloman is likely to be Georgia's main pass-catching threat when the 2019 season opens.

Dawgs fans mostly seem to be putting the recently concluded season behind them (even if they weren’t happy about how it ended) and focusing their thoughts and hopes on 2019.

Expectations again are high. Several early preseason rankings, including Mark Schlabach’s at ESPN, have the Dawgs at No. 3 to start out. But, with recent departures, there are several question marks about the 2019 Dawgs.

It will be a big plus for Georgia’s running game if Zamir “Zeus” White can come back quickly from knee surgery. (Lauren Tolbert/UGA)

Let’s open the latest installment of Junkyard Mail with questions from a couple of Blawg readers who seem have concerns that are tempering their dreams of that elusive national championship. …

Bill, the 2018 team actually outperformed my expectations, considering all the great players we lost, and I was figuring 2019 would be the big year. I’m still pretty hopeful, but the recent early departures of some key talent has me less sure. Unless Zeus White is able to step in, I fear the loss of Elijah Holyfield could have a major impact. What areas concern you most for the coming season?

— Bobby Davis

My two main concerns about the 2019 Dawgs are establishing an effective pass rush (which Georgia never had consistently in 2018), and the relative lack of experience in the receiving corps. To a lesser extent, quarterback depth concerns me a bit.

There is hope on the pass rush, though, with the arrival of a pair of early-signing freshman defensive ends: Nolan Smith (the nation’s top recruit, according to 247Sports Composite) and Jermaine Johnson, the top-ranked junior college player. Kirby Smart has said that he sees both players primarily as pass rushers able to disrupt opposing quarterbacks, something the Dawgs did only rarely this past season. 

When it comes to the receivers, Georgia is losing four of its top five pass catchers from 2018, but there is talent remaining. It just needs to step up. J.J. Holloman looks to be Georgia’s main receiving threat, and he thankfully started living up to his hype this past season. But, the Dawgs will need a couple of other impact players. Most likely contenders are Tyler Simmons, Demetris Robertson, Kearis Jackson and incoming freshmen Dominick Blaylock and Makiya Tongue. Blaylock, a 5-star prospect who caught two touchdown passes in the recent Army All-American Bowl, is a particularly exciting addition. Also, Charlie Woerner needs to be more than a blocker at tight end, now that big Isaac Nauta and his reliable hands are gone.

Georgia won’t have much in the way of experience behind quarterback Jake Fromm. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

As for QB, there thankfully won’t be any distracting controversy about who starts, with Jake Fromm firmly established, but if something happens to him, it could get dicey. He’ll be backed up by Stetson Bennett, a former walk-on who’s returning to Georgia after a year in junior college. That’s it for players with any experience. Walk-on Matthew Downing, who got some snaps last year as the third-string QB, is transferring to TCU. That leaves incoming freshman Dwan Mathis, who reports indicate is a promising but raw talent, and probably John Rhys Plumlee, who’s expected to sign as a blueshirt in August, but could wind up elsewhere. That’s really thin when it comes to experience, so don’t be surprised to see Georgia sign a graduate transfer before the season starts.

Hey Bill, with the personnel losses from Black Friday, I’m looking at the Dawgs’ 2019 schedule and getting kind of nervous about facing the likes of Notre Dame and Texas A&M, both expected to be in the Top 10 or close to it. What do you think about the schedule?

— Warner Saxe

It’s definitely an upgrade from 2018, particularly with the Fighting Irish and the Aggies coming to Athens. Season ticket holders are going to get their money’s worth this coming season. Let’s face it, having Georgia and Notre Dame playing in Athens is a lifetime dream for many fans. Overall, I see it as a high-risk, high-reward schedule. If Georgia carries wins over Notre Dame and A&M into the postseason, that definitely strengthens their College Football Playoff prospects. And those games are both in Athens, which is a definite plus. Of course, Georgia will have to play at Auburn this year, and the Dawgs still likely have to get by Alabama at some point.

Bill, your comments about Jim Chaney being good, but not good enough to win it all, brings up a fear I have about Jake Fromm that I’m sure won’t be popular with your readers, but I want to raise it anyway. I’m afraid Fromm is good enough to hold off challenges from other quarterbacks (see Jacob Eason in 2017 and Jacob Fields this past year) but not quite good enough to win it all. I don’t want to tag him with that lame “game manager” label, because I believe he has proved he’s more than that. He’s been good enough to carry his team in a few victories. But the evidence is that he plateaus against the best competition, like Alabama and LSU. (I won’t hold the loss to Texas against him, since he was stuck with trying to lead a team that didn’t really want to be there.) Fromm can be a pinpoint accurate passer when he’s on, but he doesn’t react well to an elite blitz or pass rush. And he’s certainly no dual threat. So, I wonder if he really is good enough to lead Georgia to a win in the natty, or if he’s just an above-average QB good enough for at least 11 wins a year. What are your thoughts?

— Simon Chase

You make some good points, Simon, but I fear you’re putting too much weight on Fromm’s shoulders for Georgia’s losses to Alabama and LSU. I think the problem in the second half of last January’s national championship game was the Georgia coaching staff trying to sit on a lead. Yes, the Bama defense gave him fits at times, but Fromm also made some key throws. It was Chaney continually trying to run Nick Chubb up the middle of the Tide defense that doomed the Dawgs. Also, in this past season’s SEC Championship game, Fromm was superb. He didn’t lose that game; a tired and outmanned defense and poor coaching did it. As for the LSU game, I’ll admit that was the worst performance I’ve seen from Fromm, but his play the remainder of the season was exemplary. I think he’s good enough to win it all; but he can’t do it by himself.

My question is about Demetris Robertson. Why do you think we saw so little of him this season? He was really hyped up before the season started and then we saw so little of him. He rarely saw the field and I understand that we had an amazing wide receiver corp this year, but why did we not give him more experience to prepare him for the 2019-2020 season when we’ll need different wide receivers to step up and make big plays?

— Macy Mealor

Transfer Demetris Robertson scored the first time he touched the ball as a Dawg, but did little after that. (Perry McIntyre/UGA)

A lot was expected of Robertson, who had 50 catches for 767 yards in his freshman year at California. But, after a medical redshirt year, I think he came in way behind Georgia’s other receivers in terms of conditioning, and I believe moving to an SEC program where the receivers are expected to block downfield was a bigger jump for him than many anticipated. It also took the former 5-star prospect a while to learn Georgia’s playbook after coming in late, and he had a lot of experienced receivers ahead of him. And, he wasn’t able to catch the most important pass thrown to him, in the LSU game. He also had an undisclosed injury midway through his first season with the Dawgs. Still, he’s still one of the team’s fastest players, as he showed the first time he touched the ball when he ran 72 yards for a TD on an end-around against Austin Peay, so he could be a big-play receiver for the Dawgs if he lives up to his potential.

What happened to the Georgia toss sweep? You and I both know that a long line of UGA running backs have thrived on that play. For some inexplicable reason, it was mainly absent during Chaney’s tenure.

— Skip Jacobs

Tailback D’Andre Swift hasn’t gotten that many opportunities to run the toss sweep. (Steven Limentani/UGA)

Chaney did call the toss sweep, but certainly not as often as some old-school Georgia fans would have liked. I do think the Dawgs have the speed necessary on the offensive line to run it, and in D’Andre Swift they certainly have the perfect back for it, so I also find it puzzling that Chaney didn’t use that play more.

We will not know until this fall how we respond to [the Sugar Bowl] loss. My hope is that it will make the returning players dig deeper and work harder to become their best and perform their best in every game. Our team has the opportunity to show how good they can be in 2019 with a schedule that includes Notre Dame and Texas A&M. It is up to them to prove to the world they belong in the CFP.

— Gary Cody

Good summation, Gary. Like I said earlier, Georgia faces some definite challenges in the upcoming season, but, with a strong schedule, they should be in playoff contention if the players come back with the sort of determined attitude exhibited by the 2017 team. I think perhaps the players and coaches alike coasted a bit too much through much of the 2018 season, which didn’t help when the opposition got stiffer.

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