ATHENS – Georgia has had freshman classes that were larger in number and several that were ranked higher. But few will make as much of an immediately impact as the one that is currently matriculating through the Bulldogs’ preseason camp.
Georgia signed 20 players between early enrollees and those that inked on national signing day. They would add two more players afterward – Tyler Catalina came in via transfer and Brian Herrien was added as a late qualifier – then lost Chad Clay over the summer to a disciplinary dismissal.
Based on what has been seen and heard from Georgia’s preseason camp over the last 20 days, it appears that nearly every member of the class will find his way onto the field this fall. It’s reasonable to think that at least 80 percent will play and possibly more.
“I’m sitting there and going, ‘Wow, on every two-deep there’s a new guy here and he’s surpassing guys that are sophomores and juniors quickly.’ So I have been pleased with this group,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said earlier this week. “I always argue they’re not as good as people rank them; they’re always being given accolades. But this group has come in and competed and they’re going to provide depth for us right away.”
Georgia’s 2016 class was considered No. 8 in the nation, according to 247Sports.com’s composite rankings. It was highlighted by three 5-star-rated signees and featured another 10 4-star recruits.
Of those, at least five could be considered in the running to start right out of the gate. Of course, quarterback Jacob Eason, a 5-star signee from Lake Stevens, Wash., is the most high profile. And as a graduate transfer, that Tyler Catalina is in the mix at least tackle is not a surprise.
Others are benefiting from the Bulldogs’ lack of depth at their respective positions. Defensive linemen Michail Carter and Julian Rochester are both going to play, if not start, at one of the tackle positions. That’s due in part to the loss of junior John Atkins to a hyperextended knee for most of camp.
“Julian Rochester, Michail Carter, those guys are big-time athletes, elite players. Those are big dudes. David Marshall, very put-together,” said Rusty Mansell, a recruiting analyst for 247Sports. “You’re probably not going to hear as much about them week one, two or three. But when games five, six or seven roll around. Those guys are going to be playing meaningful minutes.”
But some freshmen are coming through despite being at positions where there is depth. It appears a virtual certainty that Riley Ridley will be in Georgia’s wide receiver rotation. And tight ends Isaac Nauta and Charlie Woerner are both in line to play, if not in the offensive rotation at least on special teams. Same for 5-star athlete Mecole Hardman, who is playing cornerback primarily but can also return kicks and play some offense.
One of the biggest surprises of camp has been tailback Elijah Holyfield. Not only has he displayed strong running skills and good vision, but he has also picked up the playbook quicker than many anticipated. He had been running second and third in the Bulldogs’ tailback rotation. With Sony Michel’s status questionable for the opener, Holyfield was in line to carry the football in Georgia’s first game. But an ankle injury this past Saturday has sidelined him for a while. Nevertheless, he had proven he deserves to play.
“I thought Elijah was an SEC level running back, but I wasn’t sure what kind of impact he would have as a freshman. Now, I think he might’ve been underrated,” Mansell said. “From what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard about the way he’s playing, he probably should have been higher ranked. He probably should have been Top 100 instead of top 250 player in the country. That’s still an elite player, but it sounds like he’s probably better than I thought.”
The Bulldogs conducted their second major scrimmage of the preseason on Saturday and it figured to be an extremely important one as far as determining the 50 or 60 players that are likely to get on the field against North Carolina. Smart’s not about to list how many of those will be freshmen, but he could say for sure it’d be “a lot.”
“This freshman class, I’m proud of the way they’ve competed and responded,” Smart said. “I think the fact that you get to come in the summer and we get to legally meet with them has allowed kids as freshmen to be able to play more.”
Technically, one could include Alabama transfer Maurice Smith in this group. He’s a graduate transfer like Catalina. And Smith, too, is expected to make significant contributions.
TRACKING THE CLASS
Georgia’s 2016 signees listed with their chances of playing this season.
- OL Chris Barnes, 6-3, 294: Unlikely
- DL Michail Carter, 6-3, 317: Likely
- OT Tyler Catalina, 6-6, 325: Potential starter
- DL Tyler Clark, 6-4, 309: Maybe
- DB Chad Clay, 6-1, 170: Dismissed, transferred to Butler CC
- OL Ben Cleveland, 6-6, 345: Likely
- QB Jacob Eason, 6-5, 242: Potential starter
- CB Mecole Hardman, 5-11, 180: Likely
- TB Brian Herrien, 6-0, 205: Maybe
- TB Elijah Holyfield, 5-11, 209: Likely
- OL Solomon Kinley, 6-4, 350: Unlikely
- LB Jaleel Laguins, 6-2, 220: Unlikely
- P Marshall Long, 6-2, 223: Likely
- OLB Chauncey Manac, 6-3, 255: Maybe
- DE David Marshall, 6-3, 270: Likely
- CB Tyrique McGhee, 5-10, 177: Likely
- TE Isaac Nauta, 6-4, 246: Likely
- WR Riley Ridley, 6-2, 195: Potential starter
- DL Julian Rochester, 6-5, 327: Potential starter
- WR Tyler Simmons, 6-0, 194: Likely
- WR Javon Wims, 6-4, 220: Maybe
- TE Charlie Woerner, 6-5, 249: Likely