Junkyard Mail: Fans debate UGA’s first-game starters at QB, tailback

Fans want to know what Sony Michel's broken arm will do to the starting lineup in Georgia's first game of the season. (Ted Mayer / UGA)

With SEC Media Days this week marking the unofficial beginning of the 2016 college football season, the chatter among Dawgs fans over who should start at quarterback and tailback for Georgia against North Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game is intensifying.

Let’s catch up with some of the recent Junkyard Mail on the subject …

Barry Odom writes: Bill, with the news this week about Sony Michel’s broken arm and the uncertainty of whether Nick Chubb will be ready to reclaim the starting tailback job by the first game, my buddies and I have been debating what Kirby Smart and Jim Chaney should do, and we’re interested in your viewpoint. Some of us, including me, think the best-case scenario is for Michel to go ahead and start, playing in a cast, assuming his recovery is far enough along. We have never expected Chubb to start against the Tar Heels, though we think he’s likely to play. Other Bulldog friends think the safest plan is to start senior Brendan Douglas, who’s no gamebreaker but is a solid bruiser, and use Chubb and Michel in relief. And then there’s one guy I know who thinks that Elijah Holyfield should be in the mix! Where do you come down on this issue?

In a related question, Kent Hoover writes: Dang, Bill, when it comes to running backs, Georgia seems to have the worst luck! I don’t have any idea who should start the first game, but I’m more concerned about how this affects the coaching staff’s thinking on the starting QB. I know a lot of folks, sportswriters included, have been speculating that one of the experienced quarterbacks, most likely Greyson Lambert, will be the starter, with Jacob Eason getting some playing time so as not to throw in him in the deep end before he’s learned to swim in the SEC. But with a less established running attack to lean on, do you think the Dawgs might need to gamble a bit and start Eason, who might be inexperienced and no doubt will make mistakes, but who has a higher upside in the passing game?

A lot of observers expect senior Brendan Douglas to get the starting nod. (Andy Harrison / UGA)

Let’s put it this way, guys: I think this is where the UGA coaching staff gets a chance to really earn those huge paychecks. On the tailback question, I’ll frankly be surprised if Douglas doesn’t get the starting nod, considering his experience and the fact that run defense is not a UNC strength. Like Barry and his friends, I do think Chubb will play. And, if he’s far enough along, Michel, too. As for Holyfield, I think it depends on the nature of the game. If it’s a nail-biter, no, I doubt he or any of the other inexperienced backs gets in. But if the Dawgs have a decent lead, I would expect the four-star freshman might get some playing time. Let’s not forget, both Chubb and Michel got to play in relief against Clemson in their first game as true freshmen. (Remember Nick scoring on a play where he ran out of his shoe?)

As for the quarterback situation, I doubt who is available to start at tailback will be the deciding factor. If Smart and Chaney are inclined to bring early enrollee Eason along gradually, they’ll probably go with the experienced game manager Lambert (unless Brice Ramsey just wows everyone in August drills), no matter who starts at running back. But I expect Eason to play early, probably in the first game.

One thing I do think we’ll see as a result of Michel’s injury: Chaney having his QB (whoever it is) throw a lot to the Dawgs’ talented, deep corps of tight ends. Getting those guys the ball in space would be a great way to make up for a diminished running attack and also take some pressure of the starting QB.

Andrew from Westminster, S.C. writes: Given the current state of the Braves rebuild, I have more time to think about upcoming NCAA football season. I am eager to see where we are compared to other teams and how things will be different under Kirby Smart, even if it is early in his process. My first litmus test for Kirby is to see if the team is ready the first second of Game One. Not are we as talented as others, although I think we should compare favorably, but are we READY — mentally and physically. Are the Dawgs in shape looking like we WANT to be there and SHOULD be there. Mark Richt teams rarely were any of those early in the season.

I think you’re painting the Mark Richt years with a bit too broad a brush, but, certainly, there were a number of key games (including some season openers) where his Georgia teams looked less than ready. As for how the Smart era begins, considering the suspensions and injuries and unknowns hanging over this team, I’ll be happy with a win of any sort, even if they don’t look exactly ready for prime time. If, however, by midseason we don’t see a team that looks well-coached and fully prepared, that might mean Smart’s first season will be a bit rough.

Seneca Dawg writes: Bill, looking at Georgia’s 2016 schedule, I’m pretty worried about three of the first five games. I don’t think the opener at North Carolina will be anything resembling a cakewalk for the Dawgs, and the back-to-back games against Ole Miss and Tennessee are, I think, the toughest we’ll have all season. I know a lot of folks still think Florida and Auburn will be toughies, but I believe the two best teams on our schedule are the Rebs and the Vols. What say you?

I think it’s too early to rank all this season’s opponents, because Florida and Auburn have a lot of question marks at this point, but I do agree with your estimation of the difficulty of the UNC, Mississippi and Tennessee games. Of those, I think Ole Miss (on the road) is likely to be the most difficult, despite all the preseason media love for the Vols. I wouldn’t be too upset (or surprised) if Georgia comes out of those first five games with a 3-2 record.

Judy Turner writes: Bill, the last time Georgia played in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, both teams wore special one-time-only Nike uniforms. I haven’t heard anything about those sort of plans for this year’s game with North Carolina, but I was wondering what the likelihood is of UGA staging a “Blackout” of the Georgia Dome and the Dawgs being Back in Black!!??

The infamous uniform worn by the Dawgs in the 2011 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. (Radi Nabulsi / UGA)

Judy, you just had to bring up those awful Power Ranger uniforms, didn’t you? Ugh! As for a Blackout of the Dome, I’d say UGA calling for a fan “Redout” is much more likely, and I’d be quite surprised if Kirby Smart decided to have his first Georgia team come out for his first game as coach in any sort of special uniforms, black jerseys or whatever. I do expect to see the black jerseys reappear some day, but not in this year’s Chick-fil-A game.

In response to my Blawg ranking the greatest games under Mark Richt, Michael Scharff writes: Bill, I would have to include the 2008 Sugar Bowl. That was as dominant a defensive performance as any UGA squad played during Coach Richt’s tenure. I’ve been to every Sugar Bowl the Dawgs played in from the ’70’s to now. The 1980 game was so close that it was terribly nerve-wracking until the end. The 2008 game, on the other hand, was an absolute blast!

Michael, I’ve heard from several folks who wondered why I didn’t include that bowl win over Hawaii or the 2002 Sugar Bowl win over Florida State on at least the honorable mention portion of my list, and I have to say those indeed were the next two games up. They didn’t make the cut because, frankly, neither of those opponents really challenged the Dawgs.

Joseph Stewart writes: Love the Blawg! I look forward to reading it every time it comes out. If you’ve already answered this question, I apologize for asking again, but I want to get your thoughts on why all the sudden [Greg] McGarity feels the urge to raise Hartman Fund donations. The only reason he gave was that it brings us up to par with other programs in the SEC; to me that is a cop-out excuse. I feel like those of us who pay good money for donations and tickets get the prices increased.  While the students, who are the ones that don’t show up at times, pay barely anything for their tickets. If you’re going to ask for more money, at least do a better job scheduling, because it’s getting old having to play these weak nonconference home games. I really enjoyed home games like Clemson, ASU and so on. Why can’t we do more home games like those? Thanks for letting me vent. Keep up the good work!

I did address this issue earlier, but to recap: I think the timing of the Hartman Fund donation increase was a result of the overall rise of optimism about the program with the advent of the Kirby Smart era. Had there not been a change in coaches, we might not have seen that donation hike in what would have been the 16th year of the Richt era. Like I said in my earlier Blawg on the subject, you can see this as gouging the most dedicated fans while Bulldog Nation is still in the honeymoon period with the new head coach, or UGA simply keeping pace with what other schools in the SEC are doing, since the school still will rank generally in the middle of the conference in what it asks fans to pay, even after the increases, which are the first hikes for the donations since 2005.

Judy Power writes: Hi Bill, As we come closer to fall and football (Hooray!) I want to tell you that I really love your writings about the Dawgs. You are concise and don’t use jargon that this old lady does not understand! I feel the love you have for our Dawgs. I am thrilled that we have Kirby Smart. I loved Mark Richt, but he had lost the buzz after Alabama beat us in the SEC championship game. …  I just want to know that even when losing we still have a chance to win. I KNEW when Tennessee went ahead last season, that we were done. I want to raise my hand with four fingers when the last quarter starts and feel that we can beat them no matter the score. This is what Dooley gave the team: Never give up!

Thanks, Judy. I think that fourth-quarter-belongs-to-us mentality that many fans feel typified the Dooley years is perhaps the single most frequently mentioned characteristic I’ve heard fans say they want to see returned to the Bulldog program. Whether it’s conditioning, coaching decisions, on-field team leadership or a combination of those things, Smart will go a long way toward winning over Bulldog Nation if his teams become known for getting stronger as the end of the game approaches.

Dave Hall, who says he’s 61 and has been going to UGA games since he was 6, sent me a list of high points (and disappointments) from the Dooley years in response to my list of the greatest games of that era. But, he sums up: Bill, you can forget all of the above. We are fixing to go to a place where we have not been since the 1940s. We finally got us a ball coach. For the first time in a long time, I am excited again about UGA football.

I think maybe the early 1980s Herschel Walker days matched the 1940s heyday of Frank Sinkwich and Charley Trippi, Dave, but you’re not alone in your renewed optimism, as evidenced by the overflow crowd for this year’s G-Day game. Now, let’s hope Smart and his players can justify that optimism!

Frank Sinkwich was not listed by UGA as a quarterback. (University of Georgia)

Finally, Ralph Freeman writes: Back when we were discussing Georgia’s all-time greatest QB, I nominated [Frank] Sinkwich but you said he was a running back. I pointed out that he set the SEC record for passing yards but you didn’t respond. Now CBS has released a Mount Rushmore of Georgia greats with Sinkwich on there as a QB  I was curious as to your reaction to that. Thanks. Enjoy your work very much.

Sinkwich is one of the greatest college football players ever and one of the three greatest Bulldogs. He  earned the first Heisman Trophy awarded to a Southern college player. In his three-year college career, Sinkwich rushed for 2,271 yards, passed for 2,331 yards, and accounted for 60 touchdowns — 30 rushing and 30 passing. But he wasn’t a quarterback, no matter what CBS thinks. UGA listed him (and still does) as a halfback for two of his three varsity seasons. And the last year, when he shared the backfield with another great, Trippi, Sinkwich moved from halfback to fullback on the roster. You have to remember, the game was a bit different in those days. He might have passed the ball a lot, but not from the quarterback position.

If there’s something you want to discuss or you have a question for the Junkyard Blawg, email me at junkyardblawg@gmail.com.

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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.

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