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Georgia tight end Isaac Nauta celebrates his second-quarter touchdown against Auburn in the SEC Championship Game.

Own the East: TE Isaac Nauta plans to be play-maker for Dogs, whether as a blocker or receiver

Chip Towers

GEORGIA’S OWN 2018 #18: TE ISAAC NAUTA

ATHENS — Isaac Nauta has had an 83-yard receiving game. Twice he’s had five receptions in a game. He went 50 yards with one catch. He has scored five times in his brief career.

Yet ask the junior tight end what is his career highlight with the Georgia Bulldogs and he’ll point to the last play of the Rose Bowl. Nauta executed the key block that sprung Sony Michel around left end on a Wild Dawg sweep for the 27-yard, game-winning score in the second overtime.

“Just being able to make that block for the game-winning touchdown was something special,” said Nauta, a former 5-star prospect out of Buford by way of IMG Academy.

Nauta’s entire sophomore season paled in comparison to his freshman campaign in terms of receiving production. He had nine catches as opposed to 29 his first year, gained 114 yards to 361 and scored 2 TDs compared to 3. But Nauta said his second season was infinitely more fulfilling, and not just because the Bulldogs won the SEC title and played for the national championship.

He learned more about team play. He got bigger and stronger. He even got a little better on pass routes, getting himself open and catching the football in the traffic.

And, yes, Nauta improved as a blocker.

“I think I had a better year overall than I did my freshman year as far as growth, as far as blocking,” he said. “To other people it might’ve been, ‘Hey he wasn’t as productive.’ But, for me, I know I got better as a player. That’s the way I look at it.”

Those words were music to the ears of Georgia coach Kirby Smart. While he appreciates tight ends as a weapon in the passing game, the job of the position first and foremost is to provide run-blocking and occasional pass protection.

Accordingly, Georgia has experienced a decidedly downward trend in receiving production at the position over the last few years. Tight ends caught 22 passes last year compared to 41 the previous season.

“I am so tired of tight end questions,” Smart said during a Coaches Caravan stop this summer. “To be honest with you, I don’t know if they’ve caught the football more or less. The end line for me is, ‘How many points do you score?’”

Those were up significantly for the Bulldogs last year, 35.4 points per game from 24.5.

Nevertheless, the thought is that Georgia might want to target the tight ends a little more this year. To start with, it’s one of the Bulldogs’ most talented and well-stocked positions. In addition to Nauta, who was considered the No. 1 tight end in the country when he left high school, Georgia also has senior Jackson Harris and junior Charlie Woerner in the fold. And the Bulldogs added two more tight ends in the Class of 2018 in John FitzPatrick of Atlanta and Luke Ford of Carterville, Ill. All of them were 4-star-rated recruits that stand 6-foot-5 or taller.

Woerner began to emerge as a star tight end in his own right toward the end of last season. He had three catches for 21 yards in the first half against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl before a lower-leg fracture sidelined him for the remainder of the playoffs. Woerner has since recovered and was able to participate in spring practice. Along with Nauta, they give the Bulldogs an athletic duo that can split wide, play in tight or line up as an H-back in the backfield.

The best news for all the tight ends is offensive coordinator Jim Chaney took over the position group after Shane Beamer left UGA to become an assistant head coach at Oklahoma. Chaney, who coached tight ends for a while in the NFL, remains the Bulldogs’ play-caller. So the thought is at least a few more targets should come the group’s way in 2018.

Regardless, Nauta vows to carry out whatever responsibility the position comes with in 2018, whether it be to pave the way for D’Andre Swift and the tailbacks or haul-in a play-action pass for a touchdown as he did in the SEC Championship win over Auburn last December.

“Obviously I want to improve on what I did last year,” Nauta said, “and catching balls and making plays is one of those areas.”

If Nauta combines his newly-acquired blocking expertise with the ability to get open and haul in catches on critical downs, that’s another reason the Bulldogs could “Own the East” in 2018.