Georgia football fans have a history of getting all excited about the backup quarterback on the basis of that glorified scrimmage known as G-Day.
No doubt, a lot of fans walked out of the Black team’s 21-13 victory Saturday excited about freshman Justin Fields, just as, a year ago, many left G-Day buzzing about another freshman early enrollee, Jake Fromm.
It’s sort of the nature of the spring game that the backup QB, who gets to go against the second-string defense, tends to outshine the starter, who’s going up against the first-string defenders.
Generally, though, even if the backup has a better day than the starter, as was the case Saturday with Fields and Fromm, that’s not enough to shake up the depth chart.
First of all, it’s not the only scrimmage of the spring, so Kirby Smart and his coaches have other performances that figure into their evaluation. And, there’s also preseason camp to come in August.
Actually, spring intrasquad games are a very imperfect way of predicting what sort of team you’ll have in the fall, what with the use of a running clock for all but the final 2 minutes of each half reducing the number of plays for the offenses, the non-contact white jerseys worn by the quarterbacks (and the ensuing whistle sacks) limiting what they can do, the incomplete roster (thanks to injuries and key freshmen who won’t arrive until summer), and the vanilla offensive schemes generally used.
Plus, at Georgia, there’s Smart’s tendency, seen last year and this year, to focus the spring game on the passing attack, not really trying to establish a running game. As he explained at his postgame press conference, “there was not an intent to rush the ball a bunch … we think we have the capabilities of doing that; that’s not the purpose of our spring game. It’s to throw the ball, catch the ball and gain confidence in the passing game.”
Of course, the defenders knew that, which allowed them to rush the passer without having to worry very much about the run. And, as my brother Tim pointed out: It was obvious Saturday that the defense was playing against an offense with which they were very familiar.
The other problem with G-Day as a viewing experience for fans: Because it’s an intrasquad game, it’s tough deciding whether to cheer or grimace sometimes. If the offense struggles, that might be because the defense is playing better than expected, and vice versa. While fretting about that pick-6 thrown by Fromm, you had to be elated by Deandre Baker making the interception and returning it 32 yards for a Black touchdown. Yin and yang — that’s G-Day!
Bottom line for me from G-Day: The first-string defense (playing for Fields’ Black team) had a better day than the first-string offense (playing for Fromm’s Red team).
But, then, the offense generally had looked better than the defense during most of spring drills, so what does that really mean? The D does better playing before a crowd?
Now, granted, what we see on G-Day sometimes really is an inkling of what’s to come. Two years ago, Jacob Eason looked like the better QB on G-Day. While the starter from 2015, Greyson Lambert, remained the No. 1 QB when the first game kicked off, by the end of that game, Georgia had a new QB in Eason.
Last year, a lot of fans thought then-freshman Fromm outshone sophomore Eason on G-Day. But, it took the hand of fate — an injury in the first game — to unseat Eason. Of course, Fromm made the most of the opportunity, and remained the starter the rest of the year.
There’s no way of knowing at this point how the Fromm vs. Field competition will play out, but what I saw Saturday was a good kind of problem to have: two excellent quarterbacks.
Fromm, the more assured and experienced player, had a disappointing day, but still showed glimpses of how he led the 2017 Dawgs to the National Championship Game. Yes, he threw a couple of uncharacteristically bad passes that were intercepted, but he also threw some on-the-money balls that were dropped, particularly a beautiful 44-yard bomb to Riley Ridley, who caught the ball in the end zone but couldn’t hold on to it (due in part to excellent defense by Tyrique McGhee). And, Fromm threw a 57-yard TD pass to Ridley late in the game. In the downfield game, he looked like the more assured passer of the two.
However, top-rated signee Fields had the better day overall, while showing flashes of his big-play potential with both his arm (some laser throws) and his legs (including a 22-yard run). He also looked poised, on one play stepping up in the pocket under pressure to complete a pass. On the other hand, he also was whistle-sacked 7 times, in part because of a freshman tendency to hold on to the ball too long. Fromm was whistle-sacked 4 times.
Through the air, Fields was 18 of 33 for 207 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception. His long pass of the day went 36 yards. On a 15-yard touchdown pass from Fields, Matt Landers made a terrific catch falling backward.
Fromm completed 19 of 38 passes for 200 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions, with his long pass being that 57-yard scoring strike.
Walk-on Stetson Bennett played for both sides and led a drive that resulted in a field goal for the Reds. His long pass of the day went 45 yards. Mecole Hardman also threw a pass on a trick play for the Reds that resulted in another interception.
Frankly, I expect Fromm to remain the starter, but I’d feel comfortable seeing Fields in the game this fall.
Now, as to other questions fans were looking to G-Day to answer, at least partially …
What did the rest of the offense look like?
The first-string offensive line generally looked really good, providing great protection, but the pocket did collapse a few times (which means the defensive front was playing well), and we didn’t see much of their run blocking.
The Black team had only 60 yards net rushing on 26 attempts (a 2.3 yard average) while the Reds tallied 33 yards net rushing on 14 attempts (2.4 yard average). Those numbers would be slightly better if not negated by the sacks.
Prather Hudson had 40 yards on 9 carries for the Blacks, averaging 4.4 yards. For the Reds, Brian Herrien carried the ball 5 times for 34 yards (6.8) and Elijah Holyfield ran it 5 times for 23 yards (4.6). There were no fumbles. D’Andre Swift, the likely starter at tailback this coming season, didn’t play in the spring game.
Also, the backs were used as receivers a good bit by both teams, with Hudson catching 5 passes for the Blacks and Herrien catching 4 for the Reds.
The Black team was successful on 8 of 16 third-down conversions while the Reds converted only 3 of 12 (and 1 of their 3 fourth-down conversion attempts).
The tight ends also were targeted a few times, with Isaac Nauta catching 3 passes.
What about the defense?
The Reds’ Monty Rice, who hurt a hamstring late in the game, was the leading tackler, with 14, and a sack. McGhee led the Blacks with 6 tackles. Keyon Brown and David Marshall each had 2 sacks.
Secondary play by the first-string Blacks generally was very encouraging, also contributing to the lackluster offensive showing for the first-string Red offense. Richard LeCounte, who’d been called out earlier in the spring by Smart to pick up his game, responded with an interception and 3 tackles.
And special teams?
The limitations of the spring game format (returns are whistled dead and there’s no rushing of kicks) means you can’t really tell much, other than Rod Blankenship looked as sharp as at the end of last season, routinely putting kickoffs through the end zone and making his 2 field goal attempts for the Reds. Brooks Buce missed both his attempts for the Blacks.
Also, here’s hoping incoming freshman punter Jake Camarda is as good as advertised, as the punting Saturday was pretty mediocre, with the 8 punts between three kickers averaging 36.6 yards.
Overall, parts of the game were a bit sloppy, as Smart noted afterward, but that’s another constant of spring games.
However, I didn’t see anything that, as a fan, alarmed me, and there were enough bright spots to make me generally optimistic as we head into the long offseason.
Let me know what you thought of G-Day spring game. And, if there’s something you want to discuss, or you have a question, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.