ATHENS — What happened on Thursday was not unprecedented at Georgia: Two years ago Mark Richt announced at the senior gala that four prominent players (Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins, Malcolm Mitchell and John Theus) were all returning for another year. Five years ago Richt trotted out basically his entire defense, including Jarvis Jones, to announce they were all returning.
That doesn’t mean this year’s news won’t be a far-reaching. Here are seven ways Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy deciding to return has a major impact for Georgia, both now and next year:
1. Senior leadership
Kirby Smart has praised this year’s group of seniors, while also pointing out that there aren’t as many of them as he’d like: There are 12 who came to campus on scholarship, and two of them are graduate transfers, another a junior college transfer. Only five were starters this year.
Now, next year’s team projects to have a 20-member senior class, and that’s not counting walk-ons or former walk-ons like Aaron Davis. And of those 20, you have leaders and/or starters such as the four who were on stage Thursday, as well as Isaiah McKenzie, Isaiah Wynn, Dominick Sanders, Jeb Blazevich and John Atkins.
When many your best players are also seniors, that’s invaluable.
Now, there could still be attrition – Sanders hasn’t announced his NFL plans yet, Brice Ramsey hasn’t firmly said he’s coming back, others could transfer. But there’s already certain to be a much better veteran core next season.
2. Star power continues at tailback rather than talent but uncertainty.
Could Georgia have survived at tailback without Chubb or Michel, or even both? Sure.
But imagine the depth chart without them: Brian Herrien, Elijah Holyfield, then freshmen Toneil Carter and D’Andre Swift. Yes, a lot of talent, but also a lot of inexperience.
3. Potential star power at outside linebacker
Carter and Bellamy, frankly, haven’t fulfilled their potential yet. That’s a big reason they’re coming back. But it would have been a big loss if either or both had left.
D’Andre Walker would have been the most experienced outside linebacker coming back. Chauncey Manac, who redshirted this year, would have competed for the other starting spot. Remember, the Bulldogs are losing Chuks Amaechi, the team’s top reserve OLB.
There would have been a much bigger drop-off at outside linebacker than tailback. Now there won’t be.
4. Master stroke of public relations
Here’s what else happened yesterday: Three players transferred, two of them relatively big names (Juwuan Briscoe and Rico McGraw), while a fourth (Kirby Choates) is confirmed to be expecting it.
And all that negative news was totally overshadowed.
Whoever clamped down on the transfer news – only Shaquery Wilson’s leaked out – and made sure it only came out minutes before the Chubb and company announcement, knew what they were doing.
5. Chubb and Michel record watch.
Everyone assumed Chubb would finish second on Georgia’s all-time rushing list, and he still probably will: He’s four yards away from passing Todd Gurley for second place, but would still need a nearly 2,000-yard season to pass Herschel Walker (who sits at 5,259, with Chubb at 3,282 entering the bowl.)
Chubb was asked (by me) on Thursday if Walker should be worried now, and Chubb sounded like he knew it would be a tall feat: “I don’t know, you’ll never know what happens next year.” (He didn’t smile as he said it.)
But Chubb at minimum now has a very good chance of becoming only the second 4,000-yard career rusher in school history, and to climb the SEC charts. Darren McFadden (4,590) is second, followed by Kevin Faulk (4,557) and Bo Jackson (4,303). Let’s say Chubb runs for “only” 100 yards in the bowl and 1,000 next year. That would still leave him fourth all-time, ahead of Jackson.
As for Michel, he’s sitting at 2,324 heading into the bowl. If you conservatively give him 75 yards in the bowl and 800 yards next year (he has 753 this year) then he’d finish 30th on the all-time SEC list, ahead of people like Deuce McAlister, Trent Richardson, Fred Taylor, Arian Foster and Stephen Davis. Not too shabby.
6. Helping Jacob Eason
Chubb was asked Thursday what Eason’s reaction was to the news. Chubb didn’t know.
“We haven’t told anyone,” Chubb said.
Presumably, Eason was very happy. Whatever bumps in his development there were this year because of the receivers and offensive line, just imagine how rough it might’ve been if he didn’t have Chubb and Michel. (And he had them almost all season, which Greyson Lambert and Hutson Mason didn’t the previous two years.)
This eases the pressure on Eason to make a big sophomore leap, but increases the chances that he will.
7. Overall feeling around the program
Smart’s spring speaking tour, however many stops it has next year, could have been a dicey one coming off an 8-5 or 7-6 season, including home losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech.
Instead, between this and the recruiting class, the narrative is still a very bright one. It doesn’t automatically mean that next year will be a much better one on the field. But it does mean it’ll be a much happier fan base, and for good reason.