With Georgia’s spring practice set to start the week of March 20, Bulldog Nation seems to be of a mixed mind about the coming season: generally feeling good about some aspects of the team but worried about others.
I think the Dawgs may have the nation’s most talented 1-2 punch in the backfield with the unexpected return of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, but I worry about whether they’ll once again be stymied by an offensive line that needs rebuilding, and by stubborn, unimaginative play-calling.
I expect the Georgia defense, which ranked 16th nationally last year, to be even better, because almost everyone returns, but I’m concerned about the status of playmaker Trenton Thompson.
And, like most fans, I’m hopeful that quarterback Jacob Eason will show progress, and that coach Kirby Smart will continue to grow into the job, helping the Dawgs live up to expectations that they should be the cream of a once-again unsettled SEC East.
To see how others in UGA football fandom feel about the coming season, this week I asked some regular readers and the Blawg’s social media followers a 2-part question: What single thing/player gives you the most confidence about 2017? And what is your single greatest worry about the team?
The results of this confidence check were about what I expected. The one thing fans agreed on more than any other is the boost of having Chubb and Michel in the backfield, with 46 percent of the folks I heard from expressing confidence in the Georgia running game. However, that confidence was tempered by concern about the offensive line (cited by 33 percent).
Said Randy Malone: “Backfield is my least concern; the young OL is my biggest concern. The backfield will be good, but if the OL matures quickly, the RBs will be off the charts.”
However, as Mark Symms noted: “My greatest concern is the O-line being able to open up holes up the middle, since we know that (Jim) Chaney will call that play twice during three downs.”
Bob Ellis is concerned about whether “we have a strong anchor at center on the line of scrimmage. UGA’s best offensive teams have had centers who were great leaders and often an additional coach on the field. Need for another great one to emerge this year.”
And while my brother Tim likes the experience and depth at running back, he wondered: “Will Eason get better and will the receivers get open and hold onto the ball? And will the line pick it up? Size won’t be a problem, but can they learn fast enough?”
Similar concerns about the receivers were cited by 8 percent of the fans I heard from. Brian Davis was one of those, saying that, while he thought Smart brought in an “incredible recruiting class … I wish we had done a little better at receiver.”
The experienced defense was cited by 19 percent as a confidence booster, while 15 percent are sure that Georgia’s second-year head coach and QB will show significant improvement. The large number of experienced starters returning also was cited by 9 percent.
Meanwhile, the biggest vote-getter among fan worries (which slightly outnumbered reasons to be confident) was offensive coordinator Chaney and his play calls, with 35 percent concerned about that, including N. Roper, who said he worried whether Chaney will be “willing to modify the scheme in the name of SEC wins. I just hope they don’t ‘hunker down’ too much with their game plan that we waste the return of Chubb and Michel! Those are two DGD’s that deserve some space to run.”
Also cited as a concern by 16 percent was the play and development of Eason at quarterback. Dan P. said that “with a year’s experience under his belt, I see great strides forward this season [for Eason]. My greatest concern is offensive line. True, we bolstered the line with recruits, but they may need time to develop. Also need time for the weight (strength and conditioning) program to make them SEC-ready.”
Setting the bar fairly low, Steve in Roswell said that, in comparison with the underperforming unit last season, the offensive line “can only get better.”
Another factor bothering some fans was uncertainty about the status of defensive star Trenton Thompson, who had to withdraw from classes this semester to deal with a medical problem. That was mentioned by 5 percent of those responding, including Joseph Kennedy, who said: “Biggest concern is if Trent Thompson doesn’t come back. No other DL is as dynamic as Trent.”
A few other factors drew mention. Aaron Jones’ chief reason for optimism is the home schedule, in which “no opponent causes extreme concern. Appalachian State comes in with the most victories from 2016 [10-3, won the Camellia Bowl], and Kentucky is our only SEC home opponent that managed 7 wins last year. Mississippi State will be our only conference home opponent with a 2016 bowl win.” Jim Cooney agreed, saying that, on paper, the schedule looks like “at least 10 wins” for the Dawgs.
Meanwhile, Grayson Routt based his optimism more on intangibles, what he perceives as “the settlement and growth of a new team culture. ‘Finish the Drill’ has been replaced by ‘Attack the Day,’ and Kirby is ventilating the lingering stench of contentment out of Athens.”
Somewhat surprisingly, nobody mentioned the unsettled situation at kicker or punter, or the need for improved special teams play, but Allen Duff Durden wrote: “I secretly hope Rodrigo (Blankenship) wins the PK job despite the scholarship kickers being brought in. Then kicks the game-winning field goal at Notre Dame into the arms of Touchdown Jesus. Then does the postgame interview in his helmet. To me, that would be a successful season.”
It might take a bit more than that for most of us, Allen.
Sanford Stadium update
Responding to fans expressing their dissatisfaction with the game-day experience at Sanford Stadium here in the Blawg and elsewhere, Bulldogs athletic director Greg McGarity told DawgNation’s Seth Emerson this week that he hears the fans, “And I think the message that we’d like to convey is that it’s a huge deal for us.”
I also heard this week from McGarity, who listened patiently while I summed up for him the rising tide of fan discontent I’ve witnessed.
In response, he talked about the gradual upgrading of Sanford Stadium facilities, conceding that, perhaps, they hadn’t done a good enough job of “pushing out there” what they’ve already done (renovating restrooms already on the south and southwest sides) and letting fans know when other improvements will be made elsewhere.
I asked him about the outdated and overwhelmed north-side restrooms, and he said “the plan is” to redo them this year, sometime after G-Day, though they “haven’t finalized everything.”
He said part of the problem with the disgusting state of the restrooms on game days is all the ridiculous things people try to flush down the toilets, which causes them to overflow.
(I guess that falls into the “See, this is why we can’t have nice things” category.)
McGarity also said the athletic association is trying to streamline the frustratingly slow concessions process: They’ve eliminated time-consuming items like chicken tenders and french fries and rounded the prices up or down to simplify making change. He also said they hope to improve the training of the volunteer concessions workers and get more vendors into the stands.
As for the crowded concourses, McGarity noted there’s not a lot they can do about that structurally, especially on the south side, short of taking over Field Street and adding a Reed Plaza-like area on that side. But, he indicated he didn’t think the university would be receptive to giving up that street.
He also pointed out the athletic department will do a lot of work at Stegeman Coliseum, including a new scoreboard, new lighting and sound system, and replacing the seats with new black ones, hopefully before the start of next season.
If the plans McGarity mentioned for areas of the stadium not included in the recently announced $63 million upgrade of the west end come to pass, it would be a good first step toward addressing the needs of the fans who are being asked to support the program financially.
After talking with him, let’s say I’m cautiously optimistic and look forward to seeing what actually gets accomplished in time for the coming season.
(If there’s something you want to discuss, or you have a question, email me at email@example.com, or connect with me on Facebook or via Twitter. And don’t forget to check out past entries of the Junkyard Blawg.)