Confidence high among fans, but Dawgs must answer key questions

Quarterback Carson Beck throws downfield in the national championship game against TCU. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
Hyosub Shin

No matter who the coach is, hope springs eternal for Dawgs fans this time of year.

However, back-to-back national championships naturally have Bulldog Nation feeling especially good about the outlook for Kirby Smart’s eighth UGA team.

Coming off Georgia’s first national title in more than four decades, fans were a bit cautious this time last year when it came to discussing prospects of the Dawgs winning a second consecutive natty.

This year, however, the mood is a bit more confident about the chances of a third straight title, which no other program has done in college football’s modern era. (Minnesota won national three consecutive national championships in the mid-1930s.)

When a program keeps recruiting elite athletes year after year, as Smart and his staff have done, expectations naturally run high every new season. But, that’s especially true after the past two campaigns.

It’s not just fans who are high on Georgia’s chances, either.

Georgia QB Brock Vandagriff confers with Offensive Coordinator Mike Bobo during spring practice. (Tony Walsh/UGA)
Tony Walsh, Dawgnation

Heck, the College Football Playoff national championship game against TCU wasn’t even over and the ESPN folks already were putting the Dawgs in the playoff conversation for the 2023-24 season.

Georgia began spring practice this past Tuesday and will conclude it April 15 with the annual G-Day game at Sanford Stadium.

Quickly running down key units, the tight ends again will be a major strength, despite the loss of Darnell Washington, with superstar Brock Bowers and Oscar Delp leading the way.

I think the Dawgs also will be just fine at running back with Kendall Milton and Daijun Edwards the likely starters, but Branson Robinson (who started drawing attention late last season) and freshman Roderick Robinson also will be in the mix, along with Andrew Paul, when he returns from rehabbing after ACL surgery. If Milton can stay healthy (which has been a problem for him at UGA), he and fellow senior Edwards should be a pretty dynamic duo, since both also are receiving threats out of the backfield.

Tight end Brock Bowers runs after a catch during the SEC Championship Game against LSU. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz, Dawgnation

Speaking of receivers, despite AD Mitchell and Dominick Blaylock transferring elsewhere, the Dawgs look good there, too, with Ladd McConkey, Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, Arian Smith and Dillon Bell back, and new transfers Dominic Lovett (from Missouri) and Rara Thomas (Mississippi State). The latter two led their respective teams in receiving last season. Freshmen Yazeed Haynes, Anthony Evans and Tyler Williams also could get a look, along with returnees De’Nylon Morrissette and Jackson Meeks.

Center Sedric Van Pran anchors an offensive line that lost a couple of starters in tackles Broderick Jones and Warren McClendon, plus a veteran backup with the tragic death of Devin Willock (“Do It for Dev” is the team motto this year). However, the OL returns starters Xavier Truss and Tate Ratledge, and has rising talent in Amarius Mims and Earnest Greene. Plus, Smart has said Austin Blaske, Monroe Freeling and Chad Lindberg will be in the competition.

I expect the defensive front to remain stout, despite the loss of Jalen Carter, with Nazir Stackhouse, Tramel Walthour, Zion Logue and Warren Brinson among the veterans returning, along with stars-in-the-making Bear Alexander and Mykel Williams, both of whom showed late in the season that they can provide a very effective interior pass rush. Early enrollee Jordan Hall might be a factor, too.

Inside linebackers Jamon Dumas-Johnson and Smael Mondon look to be among the best in the country at their position.

Head coach Kirby Smart celebrates with defensive MVP Javon Bullard after Georgia’s Peach Bowl playoff win over Ohio State. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz, Dawgnation

And, the secondary might be even better than last season, with starters Javon Bullard (defensive MVP of both playoff games), Kamari Lassiter and Malaki Starks back, along with Dan Jackson (who’s out for the spring), and Tykee Smith. Transfer Deyon “Smoke” Bouie from Texas A&M will be joining the unit, which loses safety Christopher Smith and cornerback Kelee Ringo. Also battling for playing time will be Jacorey Thomas, Daylen Everette and Nyland Green, among others. Cross-training will be a priority, so it’ll be interesting to see who ends where.

Of course, all that new and returning talent doesn’t mean Smart and his staff don’t face challenges this year.

Georgia again has lost some notable talent off a championship team (as was the case a year ago), but there’s a lot of talent still in Athens, some of it quite experienced. And, there’s some fresh talent, with 18 early enrollees in addition to the three transfers.

While replacing key players with equally impressive talent has become something of a thing at UGA of late, the way Smart and his staff handle the transition to a new offensive coordinator and a new starting quarterback are the most obvious question marks hanging over the Woodruff Practice Fields in Athens.

Top of mind for most fans and observers is the battle to replace six-year senior and Heisman finalist Stetson Bennett at quarterback.

Starting out spring practice, redshirt junior Carson Beck (Bennett’s backup last season) and redshirt sophomore Brock Vandagriff are splitting time with the No. 1 offense, but Smart said you can’t rule out redshirt freshman Gunner Stockton, who impressed the coaching staff quarterbacking the scout team last year (something he has in common with Bennett).

Neither Beck nor Vandagriff has had extensive experience, though Beck has appeared in 12 games (seven last season) and has completed 36 of 58 passes (62.1%) for 486 yards and 6 touchdowns, with 2 interceptions. He also has 58 yards rushing on 13 attempts. Vandagriff has played in four games, with 3 pass attempts, no completions and one 7-yard run.

Center Sedric Van Pran is back to anchor the Dawgs’ offensive line. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz, Dawgnation

In his spring press conference, Smart begged off from saying which QB has the stronger arm, and, while Vandagriff is considered more of a threat to run, the head coach said that he doesn’t think people “give Carson enough credit for being a good athlete. He was a really good baseball player. He has great movement skills.”

At this point, Beck seems to be the favorite to start at the beginning of the season. He looked very good at times last year (particularly in relief of Bennett in the South Carolina and Vandy games), but that doesn’t always translate to success as the starter. Still, if he can step up as the leader of the team (not just the guy behind center), he has three years of eligibility remaining, because of the pandemic year the NCAA granted.

As the AJC’s Chip Towers pointed out, Beck’s presence on the roster after three years of waiting suggests that Smart and his staff may have given him some sort of indication (if not an assurance) that he’ll get a shot as starter.

Football talk naturally intensifies among fans during spring practice, and when my Bulldog buddies Joel and Scott and I chatted about the outlook for the Dawgs this week, Joel pointed out that the schedule should help whoever wins the starting QB job. “The first four games are at home,” he said, “and all are teams we should beat easily, although South Carolina might be tougher than expected.”

Regardless, it’s unlikely that the starting quarterback will be named until August, which might help the Dawgs keep from having one of the three decide to bolt during the May transfer portal.

Fans hope that Stockton realizes he still has a lot to learn and sticks around, and, as far as Vandagriff is concerned, the UGA careers of Bennett and Jake Fromm should drive home the lesson that the No. 2 QB is only a play away from becoming No. 1. And, once you’re there, if you prove yourself, Smart will let you remain as the starter.

Chaz Chambliss is one of the Dawgs’ returning outside linebackers. (Tony Walsh/UGA)
Tony Walsh, Dawgnation

If, however, Georgia does lose a quarterback in May, you can expect Smart to hit the portal for an experienced transfer.

The other question that looms large for a lot of folks is Mike Bobo taking over from Todd Monken as offensive coordinator. Since Bobo worked as an analyst last season with Monken, I don’t see him drastically reworking the approach — Smart said this week that “the continuity we have on offense” was a factor in promoting him.

But, it remains to be seen how Bobo will call a game this time around. By his last three seasons as OC at Georgia previously under Mark Richt, Bobo was running a very prolific offense and starting to diversify the Dawgs’ previous pro-style attack, introducing some spread elements. The offensive plan has progressed quite a bit more in that direction in the years since, but Bobo should be up for it. I know Monken credited him with some of the successful plays they called in the postseason.

Also, I’m pretty confident that Bobo will continue to feature the tight ends prominently. I mean, when you have a talent like Bowers on the team, how could you do otherwise?

Plus, let’s not forget that Georgia fans weren’t always happy with Monken. Several times the past couple of seasons (including the Missouri game last year) he was criticized for unimaginative play-calling. However, when Monken was on, he really was on. As my friend Scott noted, it’s going to be hard for Bobo to “come close in what Monken accomplished last year. I’m still in awe of our three postseason games: 167 points — 52 per game!”

And, Joel added: “Kirby’s hiring has been pretty much flawless to this point. I thought [Stacy] Searles was a bad hire, but the OL was damn good (even though they didn’t win the Joe Moore Award). So, if Kirby thinks Bobo is the man, I trust him. Kirby’s not the type to keep someone around just because they’re a friend.”

Another key unit that will be going through a major change this season is special teams, where the 151 points that placekicker Jack Podlesny scored last season (the most in school history for a kicker) must be replaced. His highly rated backup, Jared Zirkel, looks to be the heir apparent, though he’ll compete this spring with preferred walk-on Henry Bates, and No. 1 rated kicking prospect Peyton Woodring will join the team this summer.

One of Scott’s key concerns is who will step up at outside linebacker, where Georgia lost Nolan Smith and Robert Beal. When Smith was hurt the latter part of last season, the Dawgs lost some of their rushing threat and containment on the edge.

Kirby Smart makes a point during one of Georgia’s spring practices. (Tony Walsh/UGA)
Tony Walsh, Dawgnation

Smart labeled this the “youngest position on the roster,” but among the possible replacements this coming season are veteran Chaz Chambliss, Jalon Walker and Marvin Jones (the latter two are missing spring practice with injuries), plus incoming freshmen Damon Wilson (Georgia’s highest rated prospect in this year’s signing class), Samuel M’Pemba and Gabriel Harris.

Despite the competition for playing time at quite a few positions, chances are good Smart’s latest team is going to rival his past two.

“I have big goals and big plans for myself and for this team,” Bullard said at the spring press conference.

Added McConkey, who chose to return for another year: “I love it here. I love the guys here and the coaches. In that aspect, it was easy to come back. I wanted to be with them and try to do it one more time.”

You don’t hear Georgia players throwing around the “t-word,” but the oddsmakers in Vegas are believers, favoring the Dawgs to achieve a threepeat.

And, if this team somehow manages to do so, then we’ll start hearing folks describing Smart’s program at Georgia with the “d-word” — dynasty.

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