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Starting quarterback JT Daniels had a strong performance on G-Day, showing good command of the offense.
Tony Walsh

Pass-happy Dawgs stick to the G-Day script

There are certain things you know about a G-Day game in the Kirby Smart era even before the Red and Black teams have taken the field: The first-string offense will go against the first-string defense. The play-calling on offense and defense will be as vanilla as possible. And, contrary to the regular season, there will be much more emphasis on the passing game than on the run. 

Best-on-best is, of course, the way they do it in all the spring scrimmages. The scaled-back playbook is because Smart understandably doesn’t want to give future opponents an advance look at his team’s trickier schemes. And, as Georgia’s head coach explained after Saturday’s intrasquad spring game, the pass-happy approach is because it’s not their intent to establish the running game on G-Day. 

Freshman receiver Adonai Mitchell was the talk of the day for his breakout performance. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

“G-Days are built around a lot of 2-minute drives,” Smart said. “You want to hurry up, throw and catch the ball. That reduces the risk of injury.”

Coming into Saturday’s game, the third of three scrimmages and last of 15 practices this spring, what was on the minds of most of the 20,524 socially distanced fans in Sanford Stadium — as well as those watching a live streaming webcast of the game on SEC Network+/Watch ESPN — was the quarterbacks. 

Would JT Daniels avoid another G-Day tradition, of first-string quarterbacks having so-so days and being outshone by a backup? He did, completing 28 of 41 passes for 324 yards, with touchdown passes to three receivers: freshman Adonai “A.D.” Mitchell, junior Kearis Jackson and sixth-year senior Demetris Robertson. 

And, who would look like the frontrunner for the job of backing up Daniels this fall, former starter Stetson Bennett, sophomore Carson Beck or highly touted early enrollee Brock Vandagriff, a hometown boy? Since Saturday’s game was merely a snapshot of what went on this spring (albeit, the only one the public and media were allowed to see), the guess here is that the competition for the backup job will continue into August. But, on this day, Beck looked like the leader.

Zamir White was among the running backs who had their greatest G-Day success catching passes. (Tony Walsh/UGA)

Daniels, like the rest of the Red team/first-string offense, got off to a slightly slow start Saturday, and we really didn’t see the sort of explosive vertical-passing game Smart has said he wants (except on a handful of plays), but, as the coach noted afterward, the starting QB seemed comfortable and in command of the offense. 

“I’m excited about what he can do,” Smart said.

Daniels had some trouble early on with placement of back-shoulder passes, but he threw some very nice balls, including the arching 59-yarder caught by Robertson for a touchdown, and a laser strike to Mitchell for a score just before halftime.

Daniels played most of the game for the Red team, backed up briefly by Bennett, who completed 3 of his 4 passes (with 1 interception) and did lead the team on a touchdown drive, with a nice 29-yard pass to Jackson that set up a 2-yard TD run by Zamir White.

For the Blacks, Beck took the lion’s share of snaps and got stronger as the game went on, completing 22 of 31 passes for 236 yards and 2 TDs, though he did have 1 interception, had a couple of passes batted, and overthrew some open receivers. On the Black team’s two final scoring drives, however, he pretty much shredded the reserve defense playing for the Reds.

Big tight end Darnell Washington continues to look like a major weapon for the Dawgs. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Vandagriff showed some dual-threat capability (though quarterback runs quickly were whistled dead, since they were wearing white noncontact jerseys) and he completed 6 of 9 passes. He did have a fumble on a play where he apparently took his eye off the ball and couldn’t handle a hot snap. Jackson Muschamp, son of Will, also got in for a handful of plays at QB.

As usual, there was a previously overlooked player who managed to get fans excited (yet another G-Day tradition), and that was Mitchell, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound 3-star signee from Texas who was Daniels’ favorite target of the day, thanks to a slew of injuries that kept more experienced receivers out of the game. Mitchell led all pass-catchers with 7 snags for 105 yards and the touchdown. 

Mitchell wasn’t really on the national list of major recruits, but, as Smart put it: “We thought he was a talented player. … we do as good of a job as anybody in the country doing research on players and evaluating players. It is not about what they are ranked or what the media says about them or what the recruiting rankings say. We watch the tape. The tape speaks volumes. In the case of Jordan Davis, it spoke volumes. In the case of Adonai Mitchell, it speaks volumes. … We thought that he was a really good player. We did not care what everybody else thought.”

Jalen Carter and the rest of the defensive front kept pressure on JT Daniels. (Tony Walsh/UGA)

Of course, a word of caution here to fans who might think the Dawgs have found another George Pickens in Mitchell: We’ve seen some receivers show up big on G-Day in the past, and then, come fall, spend most of their time on the sideline. Hopefully, Mitchell will be an exception.

There were a couple of other encouraging signs that the loss of Pickens for most (if not all) of the season won’t derail Georgia’s passing attack. First, was hulking tight end Darnell Washington, playing for the Black team, who caught 4 passes for 84 yards, including 1 TD and another 51-yarder from Beck that set up a rushing TD by Kendall Milton. I firmly believe that, given enough throws, Washington could be Georgia’s equivalent of what Kyle Pitts did last year for the Gators. He also had a key block on Milton’s TD run. 

“He’s a great target, he’s a big target, he’s an athletic guy,” Smart said of Washington. “He’s a weapon. We’ve got to find ways to be able to utilize him, both in the passing game and in the run game. Because he’s a weapon in both.”

Carson Beck’s G-Day efforts made a strong case for him being Georgia’s backup quarterback. (Tony Walsh/UGA)

The other positive in the passing game that got me excited was the regularity with which the quarterbacks (particularly Daniels) threw check-down passes to well-positioned running backs. Among the tailbacks, James Cook had 61 yards receiving (compared with 26 yards on the ground) and White ran for just 28 yards but had 50 yards receiving. Among the Black team running backs, Milton had 5 catches for 31 yards and Daijun Edwards caught 5 balls for 24 yards. 

Daniels admitted he loves throwing deep, but he said this about throwing to his RBs: “I think check-downs in general are the most underrated and underappreciated aspect of the offense. At a bare minimum … it’s three yards — and that’s if the first guy tackles them. It’s very, very rare that the first guy tackles any of our running backs. … You know, if I have to check it down 10 times in a row, I’ll check it down 10 times in a row. There’s no problem with that for me. … It’s really just taking what the defense gives you. And we trust our running backs with the ball.”

Meanwhile, the first-string defensive front (playing for the Black team) sometimes gave the still-developing first-string offensive line (the Red team) more than it could handle, particularly  in the first half, getting a lot of pressure on the QBs and four whistle sacks (though, on one of those, Daniels clearly had shrugged off his attacker, but the play was blown dead because the defender laid a hand on him).

Freshman quarterback Brock Vandagriff didn’t play much on G-Day, but he did show his dual-threat potential. (Tony Walsh/UGA)

The big question mark for this year’s defense, the secondary, was a less clear picture, with several nifty pass breakups, but also a couple of big pass plays on which defenders fell down. Fifth-year senior Ameer Speed and redshirt freshman Jalen Kimber started at cornerback for the Black team, while redshirt freshman Kelee Ringo and true freshman Nyland Green started for the Reds.

Overall, you could say that the offense won the day, with Smart’s program also a winner, because it came out of the spring game with no major injuries. However, the question marks about the secondary, offensive line and depth at receiver remain to be answered.

As Smart put it after the game: “We’ve got a long way to go to get where we need to go.” 

Let me hear from you!

I’ll dip into the Junkyard Mail next week, so let me know what you thought of the spring game, and feel free to share your views on the upcoming season, by emailing me at junkyardblawg@gmail.com.