Dawgs look to replace key starters as spring practice opens
Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs are the favorite in the SEC East again in 2018. But, with the Dawgs having to replace a number of key starters, fans naturally have questions and concerns as spring practice begins Tuesday.
Teams don’t lose talent such as Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Roquan Smith, Davin Bellamy and Javon Wims without it having some impact on their program. Yes, the Dawgs are deep in young players, some of whom already have gotten a good bit of game experience. Still, expecting the 2018 team to pick up right where the 2017 national championship runners-up left off might be a tad unrealistic.
That’s not to downplay Georgia’s chances of making it back to the College Football Playoff. If Smart and his staff find the right pieces to replace the holes in their starting lineup, another run like last season is possible.
That process begins, and the position battles commence, on Tuesday. However, the work won’t be completed until summer, when most of the eye-opening freshman talent Georgia has signed arrives.
In the meantime, we’ll get our first taste of the 2018 Dawgs on April 21 at the G-Day game in Athens. After a bit of an attendance drop-off last year following his spectacular 93K G-Day debut in 2016, Smart once again is urging Georgia fans to fill Sanford Stadium for this spring scrimmage, and that seems likely to happen on the heels of a very successful campaign.
Looking ahead, my biggest concerns about the 2018 team are replacing the starting linebackers and rebuilding the secondary. Georgia will be without more than half its starters from a very good 2017 defense, including Roquan (who has earned first-name status with Bulldog Nation), Bellamy, Trenton Thompson, Lorenzo Carter, Reggie Carter, John Atkins and Dominick Sanders.
As my buddy Joel put it: “My biggest concern can be summed up in four words: Roquan Smith is gone.”
I don’t think we can expect anyone to be the “next Roquan” anytime soon, but the return of sometime starter Natrez Patrick, still not confirmed, would loom large.
Other linebackers in the mix include Monty Rice, Walter Grant, Juwan Taylor, former tailback Tae Crowder, Nate McBride and Jaden Hunter. Plus, a couple of 4-star signees, Quay Walker and Otis Reese, could get a look once they’re on campus this summer.
In the secondary, an occasional problem area for Georgia last season, Georgia returns the two strongest players, Deandre Baker and J.R. Reed, but the Dawgs will have to replace Sanders, Aaron Davis and Malkom Parrish. In at least one of those spots, though, it’s likely we’ll see an upgrade.
Among those in contention will be returnees Tyrique McGhee, Richard LeCounte and Jarvis Wilson, plus, hopefully, Deangelo Gibbs, whose playing status remains uncertain, as he currently isn’t enrolled. You also can bet that 5-star signee Tyson Campbell will get a look once he arrives.
As for the defensive line, Georgia played a lot of folks last year, so the departure of Thompson and Atkins shouldn’t be a major problem. Tyler Clark, Julian Rochester, Jonathan Ledbetter, Malik Herring and David Marshall look like the early favorites to start. Also in contention is DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle, and an incoming freshman, big Jordan Davis (6-foot-5, 330 pounds), no doubt will get some snaps.
My next biggest concern is how much the running game will be affected by the loss of Chubb and Michel. The Dawgs are again stacked at tailback, but the experience level will drop quite a bit. Probable starter at tailback is speedy D’Andre Swift, who was used quite effectively last year as a runner and receiver, with Elijah Holyfield the likely thunder to Swift’s lightning.
Brian Herrien also will get some carries in the tailback-by-committee arrangement, and, come fall, highly regarded freshmen Zamir White and James Cook will provide depth. (White already is enrolled, but he’s rehabbing a torn ACL, so we probably won’t see much, if any, of him this spring.)
This time last year, the offensive line was one of my chief worries, and what we saw at G-Day only exacerbated those qualms, but, once the season arrived, OL play generally was much improved. The Dawgs lose Isaiah Wynn, but Andrew Thomas, Lamont Gaillard, Kendall Baker, Ben Cleveland and Solomon Kindley lead the returnees, plus redshirt freshman Isaiah Wilson will get a chance.
More mix-and-match shuffling on the line is likely, especially in the spring, and we could wind up seeing a freshman earn a starting spot, as we did last year with Thomas. Early enrollee Cade Mays and Jamaree Salyer, who’ll arrive this summer, seem like the most likely candidates.
The Dawgs also will have to replace Wims’ production at wide receiver. Terry Godwin, Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley (who stepped up in the game against Alabama) look like the top choices, with Ahkil Crumpton, Tyler Simmons and J.J. Holloman also in the mix. The Dawgs’ tallest receiver, Matt Landers (6-foot-5), also could be a handy target for Jake Fromm.
Speaking of Fromm, although I’m sure there’ll be a healthy quarterback competition during spring practice, I fully expect him to hold on to the starter’s position come fall. Too much is made, generally, of how backup quarterbacks do in the G-Day game.
Still, it will be fun to see how 5-star early enrollee Justin Fields looks this spring, especially since he’s more of a dual threat than Fromm. And, during the season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see special packages introduced for Fields, especially in the red zone.
The big question to me on offense is whether coordinator Jim Chaney will take some pressure off Fromm and the young running backs by calling more passes to his talented roster of tight ends, who mostly were ignored last season.
Swift has the potential to be as good as Michel, but he’s not there yet. And Holyfield isn’t Chubb. Maybe one of the freshman backs will make a big splash, but, in the meantime, the offense will need more weapons. And tight end Isaac Nauta, in particular, is too good to be left out of the passing game, as he mostly was last year.
Still, I’m like my son when it comes to Georgia throwing to its tight ends: I’ll believe it when I see it.
A somewhat lesser concern for me is replacing reliable one-year starter Cameron Nizialek at punter, but incoming freshman Jake Camarda looks very promising.
A more intangible concern, expressed by my brother Tim, is whether the 2018 team will play “with the same intensity and desire as last year’s team. I think, overall, they will have more talent and athletic ability; I just hope there’s no letdown.”
Despite his concerns, though, Tim expects another special season — maybe even the best ever. As he put it: “15 & 0 baby!!”
How about you?
Will Tom Crean’s enthusiasm be contagious?
If Tom Crean can elicit from Bulldog Nation the sort of enthusiasm he showed at his introductory press conference, we could be entering a new and exciting era of Georgia basketball.
Crean might have been Georgia’s second choice to replace Mark Fox as coach — and the unrequited courtship of Thad Matta was a tad awkward for UGA — but I like the way Greg McGarity aimed high, opened the purse strings, and didn’t waste any time moving on to Plan B.
Georgia still got a high-profile “name” coach with postseason experience at major programs. I think Crean is a good hire.
Yeah, he was a little over the top at his extroverted Athens debut, but he’ll probably calm down a bit once he’s on the job. And, I certainly wouldn’t object to having some passion and energy injected into the Georgia basketball program.
Maybe his established track record, and that enthusiasm he showed, will help salvage Georgia’s recruiting class, once ranked No. 1 in the nation but then decimated by the declining fortunes of Fox.
One thing’s for sure, with Crean’s emphasis on offense, games at the Steg should be entertaining.