Kirby Smart got his 93K, and Bulldog Nation got an impressive young quarterback to fall in love with, as fans packed Sanford Stadium for a G-Day game like no other on a beautiful spring day in Athens.
For a while there, we wondered whether Smart’s challenge that 93,000 fill the stadium for G-Day was going to be fulfilled. A half-hour before kickoff, the lower bowl was full and the 300-level was filling on the sides, but it was still mostly empty in the upper end-zone seats and the 600-level up in the clouds was bare. But, in the wake of the Dawg Walk, the stream of folks heading into the stadium was intensifying.
And, sure enough, during Ludacris’ energetic 13-minute pregame show, when the camera turned around to pan the stadium, it was clear that Smart’s challenge had been met — and then some. Folks who couldn’t find a seat were standing in the concourses, and there were other fans who couldn’t manage to get in at all.
Frankly, I hope this 93K business doesn’t become a yearly thing, as it demanded a major time investment on the part of fans for what was essentially a two-hour scrimmage. With a 4 p.m. kickoff to accommodate TV, it was a loooong day for those fans (including me, brother Jonathan and my daughter Olivia) who arrived on campus mid-morning to secure decent parking and lined up early for a chance to enter the stadium when the gates opened to make sure we got good seats.
Still, I’m glad I was there to see history made with an SEC spring game attendance record.
As for what it all meant, this lifelong Georgia Bulldogs fan was left with two main takeaways.
First, in getting his 93K, the new head coach obviously tapped into a yearning in the Bulldog Nation for UGA’s football program to be a much bigger deal on a bigger stage. And, while this could change down the road, depending on how the wins and losses shake out, Smart is right now the object of something just short of adoration from a large segment of the fan base.
There was a big cheer when he showed up on the stadium’s big video screen, which was showing the first-ever G-Day Dawg Walk, and then came the end of one of the UGA athletic department’s typically well-done hype videos right before kickoff, culminating with Smart’s face filling the scoreboard screen and, with a slight smile, the former Bulldog player and new head coach saying: “It’s good to be home.”
The capacity-plus crowd roared its approval.
My other takeaway: Smart’s going to have an interesting, and perhaps difficult, decision to make in naming a starting quarterback for the season-opener against North Carolina at the Georgia Dome.
The main question I’ve gotten from fans who couldn’t attend is, of course, how the quarterbacks looked. No, really, make that how five-star prospect Jacob Eason looked. And I have to say that, after he entered the game to a huge ovation, he looked a lot farther along in his development than Smart’s downplaying had led me to expect.
We knew he had a big arm and was tall enough to be able to survey the field. But the Eason on display in Saturday’s losing effort by the Red team (second-string offense, first string defense) showed finesse and a fine touch on a variety of different types of passes as he mixed it up between swing passes to backs and more difficult sideline routes and long downfield shots to tight ends and wide receivers.
Yeah, he occasionally held onto the ball a bit too long, resulting in some of those infamous spring game “whistle sacks” (the QBs wear black non-contact jerseys and the officials blow the play dead whenever a pass rusher gets close to them).
But Eason, who was 19-of-29 for 244 yards, didn’t look at all nervous, despite making his debut before a packed house.
As for the other two QBs supposedly ahead of Eason on the depth chart, both Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey ended up playing for both teams at times (while Eason only played for the Reds), and they both looked pretty much as expected.
Black team (first string offense, second-string defense) starter Lambert (11 of 22 for 140 yards) was adequate, but never truly impressive. He had a couple of passes dropped but also threw an ill-advised ball into traffic that, thanks to a busted route by a freshman receiver, resulted in an interception and 98-yard return for a TD.
Ramsey (16 of 25 for 224 yards) had a better day passing than Lambert but never seemed to really get his offense fully in gear and looked a bit awkward in a couple of his handoffs.
So, yes, Eason was the most impressive quarterback on G-Day.
That alone shouldn’t mean an elevation to starter’s position, as veteran G-Day observers know. Big spring games don’t guarantee fall success.
However, with Lambert and Ramsey being known quantities (and neither showing any reason to revise past estimations of their worth), and Eason having the greater potential upside, it’s tough not to conclude that if Smart chooses to go the Mark Richt route and start the veteran Lambert in the first game, Georgia won’t have its best QB behind center against the Tar Heels.
Would starting Lambert be the safer choice in the high-profile opener against UNC? Yes, probably so. But if, like most observers, you feel that Eason is likely to wind up as the starter at some point during the season, why not go ahead and let him hopefully get his freshman yips out of the way early on, so the lightbulb clicks on for him before, say, that annual game in Jacksonville?
Other G-Day quick hits: Most of the offensive emphasis Saturday was on the passing game (with 12 different players catching the ball), which is not particularly surprising considering Nick Chubb did nothing but warm up (which was good enough for another huge ovation from the crowd), the coaches already know what Sony Michel can do, and Brendan Douglas was playing in a non-contact jersey. Michel looked good in limited use, Douglas was effective as a receiver, and Tae Crowder (who scored twice) and wide-receiver-turned-tailback Shaquery Wilson each had some nice moments. … The Dawgs already were stacked at the tight end position, but judging from Saturday’s game it’s going to be tough to keep true-freshman Isaac Nauta (another five-star recruit and Eason’s roommate) off the field. The kid is big, has good hands and he showed power in catching a ball in front of the goal line and then leaning over it for a score. He also broke a couple of tackles on another play. He wounded up with six catches for 56 yards … Among the wide receivers, senior Reggie Davis (six catches for 134 yards), freshman Riley Ridley (four catches for 68 yards) and Jayson Stanley (four catches for 87 yards) all looked good. Oh, and Michael Chigbu got robbed by the officials on what should have been a TD catch but was ruled out of bounds. … The defense had its moments, including Aaron Davis’ pick-6 and D’Andre Walker’s four sacks. There also were several passes broken up by the secondary. But overall, it was more of an offensive day. … The kicking game is still a work in progress. Punting was mostly mediocre, though Ramsey did boom a nice one on his first try, and walk-on kickers Rodrigo Blankenship and William Ham had inconsistent days, though Blankenship looked like the leader at this point. … Fourth-string QB Nick Robinson, a redshirt freshman, led a nice drive for the Blacks in the third quarter, resulting in a score. … Another new wrinkle, honoring the signee class of 2016 on the field at halftime, was a smart move, considering the large number of recruits who were on hand for the game. … The old G-Day standby, the lettermen’s flag football game, led off the proceedings and proved a bit more entertaining than usual, as the Reds scored on a trick play with just seconds left. The flag game ended in a 26-26 tie.
Feel free to share your own thoughts on this year’s G-Day.
Congratulations are due the UGA gymnastics team, which made it back to the Super 6 in this weekend’s NCAA championships and may have saved head coach Danna Durante’s job in the process. Georgia wound up finishing 6th (behind Oklahoma, LSU, Alabama, Florida and UCLA), but seniors Brandie Jay and Brittany Rogers were named NCAA individual champions after recording the highest scores on vault and bars, respectively.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg
Bill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.