With the first game of the season just about two months away, fans of Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs are balancing the usual high hopes with some nagging doubts held over from last year.
Nick Chubb and Sony Michel back for their senior year? Wow, the Dawgs should be the favorite in the SEC East, right? Running behind yet another patchwork offensive line, and with Jim Chaney calling the plays? Um, maybe not.
So, here’s a rundown of some of the things this fan hopes to see in the coming season from the Dawgs — as well as a few others that I hope never to see again.
For starters, I’d love to see Georgia have two backs run for 1,000 yards in the same season — and, with Chubb and Michel both having had 1,000-yard years in the past, that’s a possibility this year, barring injury problems. It’s even happened before under offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who had a pair of 1,000-yard backs at Arkansas in 2014, so, why not?
OK, another questionable offensive line that may end up having to make use of some true freshmen, that’s why not.
Certainly, I’m hopeful that the 2017 O-line will be an improvement over the 2016 version (it wouldn’t take much), but what we saw on G-Day wasn’t exactly a confidence-builder. The first-string line didn’t open many holes, and quarterback Jacob Eason spent most of the day throwing off-balance under heavy pressure or getting sacked, which looked a lot like last year.
Another thing I hope to see is Chaney having Eason throw to his backs more, particularly Michel, who showed against TCU in the Liberty Bowl last December what he can do as a receiver, breaking tackles and making some great moves on a 33-yard TD reception.
Michel spent a good bit of the spring lining up as slot receiver (as did fellow back Brian Herrien and others), which seems like a wise use of his talents, what with Chubb likely to get the lion’s share of rushing carries. With opposing defenses bottling up Georgia’s running attack last season and the deep passing game not there yet, it was baffling why Chaney didn’t have Eason dumping the ball off to the backs more, getting them the ball out in space where they are most dangerous, and taking some of the pressure off his young quarterback.
Which brings up another thing I hope not to see: Chaney failing to adjust during a game to what the opponent is doing. Too often last season, he stuck with a predictable regimen of two runs up the middle followed by a third-and-long pass when opposing defenses loaded the box.
Chaney and Smart both have indicated that we can expect a “freshened” and more open offense this coming season, and I fervently hope that comes to pass, with more elements of the spread incorporated into Georgia’s pro-style play-action offense to keep defenses honest.
It’s tough any time an opponent makes you “one-dimensional,” Smart observed after the Florida game last year, in which the Dawgs basically had no rushing attack.
After suffering through a similar lack of offensive production in the first half against TCU, Chaney did change things up a bit, putting Eason and his tailbacks in the “pistol” formation, which seemed to give Chubb and Michel a head of steam. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of that this season.
There also were times last season when, by design or not, Eason managed to loosen up defenses by scrambling or rolling out, so it was encouraging at G-Day to see both him and Jake Fromm rolling out of the pocket to buy time until they could find open receivers.
Many times, that open receiver will be the tight end, which brings us to another thing I’d like to see more of: throwing to Jeb Blazevich, Charlie Woerner and Isaac Nauta — particularly Nauta, who is big, has good hands and emerged last year as a favorite target for roommate Eason.
I’m also hopeful that Terry Godwin will live up to expectations and that he’ll bounce back from a somewhat disappointing season and fill the gap left by the departure of Isaiah McKenzie. Hopefully, he won’t be alone, either, with Riley Ridley and Javon Wims having shown potential at times, and highly touted freshman J.J. Holloman and former defender Mecole Hardman also presenting exciting options.
As for the guy throwing the ball to them, I fully expect it to be Eason (with Fromm as the backup), and I’m hoping we will get to see him progressing in his second season as starter, making better decisions and improving his accuracy, particularly with the deep ball.
Last year, Eason had 204 completions in 370 attempts for 2,430 yards and a modest 55.1 percent completion percentage. It would be a big boost for Georgia’s offense if he could move that north of 63 percent, which would put him on par with Greyson Lambert in 2015 and Eric Zeier in 1993, who rank sixth and fifth, respectively, in Georgia football history. (Tops is Hutson Mason with 67.87 percent in 2014, followed by Mike Bobo’s 65.03 percent in 1997 and a pair of Aaron Murray seasons: 64.84 percent tin 2013 and 64.51 percent in 2012.)
Along those lines, it would be helpful if the receiving corps cut down on the number of dropped passes, which was one of the chief reasons for Eason’s less-than-stellar showing last year.
I also hope the coming season brings improvement in the red zone — on both sides of the ball.
The Dawgs’ offense was, as Smart put it, “horrible” in the red zone last year, having to resort to field-goal attempts all too often, as they only managed to score a touchdown 55.6 percent of the times they got inside the 20, which ranked them 100th nationally. Some of that was Chaney’s predictable play-calling, some of it was poor line play, and some of it was attributable to starting a freshman QB. If the Dawgs are to compete in the East this season, that must change.
Meanwhile, although Georgia had the nation’s 16th best overall defense last year, it ranked 114th nationally in red-zone defense, with opponents scoring 90.7 percent of the time when they got inside the 20-yard line. That was a startling drop from ranking third in the nation in red-zone defense in 2015 under Jeremy Pruitt.
Speaking of the defense, I hope to see Trenton Thompson pick up where he left off with his MVP performance in the Liberty Bowl, when he racked up 8 tackles and 3 sacks. Too many times last year, the Dawgs were unable to get to opposing quarterbacks on a consistent basis.
But, Thompson isn’t the only reason to be optimistic about the defensive front this year; I have high hopes that edge rushers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy, who passed on the NFL draft to return for their senior seasons, will up their games considerably. The inside linebacking corps should be solid with Roquan Smith, Natrez Patrick and Reggie Carter. And the secondary should be strong, with Dominick Sanders, Aaron Davis, Malkom Parrish and Deandre Baker returning, Tyrique McGhee or DeAngelo Gibbs at nickel back, and some talented freshmen coming in this summer.
I’m also hopeful that we’ll see overall improvement on special teams, especially in getting more touchbacks on kickoffs and not giving up long returns for scores, as sometimes happened last year. Whether it’s Rod Blankenship or Wofford transfer David Marvin handling kickoffs, Georgia needs to put the ball deep into the end zone much more frequently.
A more consistent punting game would be a plus, too. And, hopefully, Hardman will be an able replacement for McKenzie as return specialist.
Back on the hope-not side, I’d like never to see another performance by a Georgia team as underwhelming as the squeaker last year over lightly-regarded designated victim Nicholls State.
And, finally, please, no more fourth-quarter collapses and last-second heartbreakers, which have become something of a Georgia Bulldogs trademark in recent years. When you have the lead with only a few seconds left on the clock, you should win the game. No excuses.
JUNKYARD MAIL CALL