ATHENS — Kirby Smart calls this the “identity phase,” his favorite time of year with the Georgia football program as he instructs and identifies the “Top Dawgs.”
Already, this reigning CFP championship program has completed 20 percent of spring drills, with three of the designated 15 workouts behind them leading up to the annual G-Day Game on April 16 (TV: 1 p.m., ESPN2).
Talking to Smart and the players, it’s clear the staff and players recognize this offseason will be about scaling the mountain, more so than staying on top of it.
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Georgia had 14 players at the NFL Combine, not including team leaders John FitzPatrick and Julian Rochester.
Further, five previous starters left the program via the NCAA transfer portal (Jermaine Burton, JT Daniels, Owen Condon, Latavious Brini and Ameer Speed).
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Another three Georgia football players who are projected to start are limited or out with injuries this spring: (Brock Bowers, Darnell Washington, Tykee Smith).
The best thing Smart or anyone can say about the injuries and attrition is it presents opportunities for a youthful -- but stacked -- roster consisting of players from four signing classes ranked in the nation’s top four, including the No. 1 classes in 2018 and 2020).
Already, veterans are dropping names of stars in the making that will have big shoes to fill while others appear capable of expanding their roles.
Here are a few early observations from Week One of spring drills, very early in the process, but worth noting:
Smart and the Georgia coaching staff have certainly convinced the returning players not to expect any carryover.
Sedrick Van Pran shared that he was irritated by national championship logos adorning the workout fields this offseason, and Warren Ericson openly admitted the Bulldogs still have a sort spot from the 41-24 whipping Alabama put on them in the SEC Championship Game.
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Georgia will still open the season as the SEC East Division favorite, but not in the overwhelming fashion of last season with all of the production there is to replace.
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Watching third-year QB Carson Beck sling the ball with velocity and in tight-spiral fashion on Pro Day last Wednesday, however, was impressive enough to think things might not be as settled at quarterback as Monken indicated.
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Monken, after all, had Bennett running fourth team at the G-Day Game last spring behind JT Daniels, Beck and one-time Oklahoma commit Brock Vandagriff.
Things can and have changed quickly in the Bulldogs’ quarterback room in the past. It wouldn’t be a total shock if there are ups and downs in the QB rooms again this season -- Beck and Vandagriff are physically gifted and are picking up on the offense.
Of course, it also wouldn’t be shocking to see Smart stick with Bennett through thick and thin, as he did last season even after the few games the Mailman wasn’t necessarily delivering all his passes accurately or on time.
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George Pickens was explaining why receivers can thrive in the deep game at Georgia, as so much is set up by play-action which gives the targets more time to release and get down the field.
The key for play-action passing is it takes a strong run game to help stay ahead of the chains and make the defense respect the handoff.
Bennett was at his best and most comfortable in play-action than with the field spread needing to make third-down throws.
The good news for Georgia is this season’s team could be as good on the ground as the Bulldogs have seen since 2017, when Nick Chubb and Sony Michel were complimented by an explosive freshman named D’Andre Swift.
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It’s an athletic, deep and capable offensive line, and Kenny McIntosh, Kendall Milton and Daijun Edwards fit the most similar profile yet to the elite backs of 2017.
McIntosh opens spring as the Top Dawg, per past and current teammates, and he was among the seven players Smart sent out to talk with media last week: (Chris Smith, Zion Logue, Kearis Jackson, Nolan Smith, Warren Ericson, Sedrick Van Pran and McIntosh).
The Bulldogs ranked sixth in the SEC in rushing last season, and Smart has yet to produce a consensus first-team All-SEC running back in his six-year tenure.
Nick Chubb, in 2014, was the most recent consensus first-team All-SEC running back at Georgia.
While McIntosh and Milton figure to split enough of the workload that neither makes first-team All-SEC this season, it’s not out of the question to think they could each go over 1,000 yards from scrimmage in 2022.