Thanks to the arrival of a new head coach and perhaps the nation’s top quarterback prospect, this already was going to be a momentous spring for UGA football, one that fans have been eagerly anticipating.
The beginning of spring practice, tentatively set for March 15, is a day many in the Bulldog Nation have circled on their calendars.
But, throw in Kirby Smart’s challenge to Bulldogs fans to fill up Sanford Stadium for the April 16 G-Day game, due to be telecast live by ESPN, and you end up with what could be the most-hyped spring practice in many years for the Dawgs.
If UGA comes anywhere near to Smart’s goal of 93,000 in the stands, it will make quite a contrast with the last time G-Day marked the debut of such a highly touted freshman QB.
That player was Matthew Stafford, who Georgia fans got their first view of on April 8, 2006. The crowd that day 10 years ago was only 18,530 — this was back when UGA charged admission for its spring intrasquad game, plus the weather wasn’t very good.
Still, I remember the electricity in the crowd when the big kid from Texas took the field for the Black team after the Red team, which had the first-string offense and second-string defense, had been stopped with a three-and-out.
Sure enough, on his very first UGA snap Stafford ran play-action, faking to Danny Ware and then throwing deep down the left side to a wide-open Mikey Henderson for a 64-yard touchdown. The freshman QB’s debut couldn’t have gone better if it had been scripted (and I remember wondering at the time if they hadn’t done just that as a treat for the fans).
Jacob Eason, one of six freshmen who are early enrollees this season, might not have such an auspicious first play at this year’s G-Day, but who ultimately will win the battle between the self-dubbed skinny quarterback and veterans Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey to be the starter unquestionably ranks No. 1 on fans’ spring watch list.
However, there are other question marks about the 2016 Dawgs — and the mostly new coaching staff Smart has brought in — that merit just as much scrutiny as quarterback and, in fact, could have more to do in the end with how this team fares. Not least among them are what changes in philosophy, if any, we’ll see from Smart and his offensive and defensive coordinators Jim Chaney and Mel Tucker.
It’s expected Georgia won’t look drastically different on either side of the ball, particularly offense, where the Dawgs still will mostly be a pro-style attack based around the tailback. Of course, the rehabbing Nick Chubb won’t be a factor this spring, with the biggest question being when he’ll be ready to play again this fall, something Smart hedged on in recent interviews. Until then, Sony Michel and Brendan Douglas again look likely to be the workhorses.
There are positions where the Dawgs appear to be in pretty good shape, including the linebacking corps and secondary, though even there the experience level leaves something to be desired once you get past the likely starters.
As Smart noted this week in an interview with Atlanta radio station 680 the Fan, he’s concerned with Georgia’s size and depth. “When you say the first 22, it’s very comparable. Once you get past the first 22 it’s very deficient. There’s not very much depth there. And that’s probably the most concerning thing.”
In other areas, the Dawgs look to be a bit green, especially on returning coach Tracy Rocker’s defensive line, where there are no returning starters, though Trent Thompson and John Atkins have logged a good bit of playing time. Over the past couple of seasons, the Dawgs’ defensive front has given up a lot of yards in some games to opposing rushing attacks, and last year’s pass rush, which was expected to be formidable, proved disappointing.
So, Rocker and the other defensive coaches have their work cut out for them.
The offensive line also is a big question mark, with newly arrived Sam Pittman needing to replace John Theus and Kolton Houston from last year’s underperforming veteran group, and determine which of the understudies at this usually slow-to-develop spot are ready to be starters.
Another area of concern is wide receiver, where new coach James Coley needs to develop some reliable big-play threats and sure-handed possession receivers other than returning Terry Godwin and Isaiah McKenzie.
And when it comes to special teams, generally a weakness in the latter part of the Mark Richt era, Smart has admitted he’s “scared to death” of the placekicking situation, where a couple of walk-ons will battle for the starter’s job.
Of course, however many thousands of fans wind up filling the stands on April 16, we won’t really have the answers to most of these questions until after the rest of the incoming true freshmen don their Georgia uniforms in August.
Still, G-Day usually provides at least some indication of which areas are likely to be strengths or problems come the fall.
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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.