Who are likely to be the Dawgs’ breakout stars this season?

Hybrid wide receiver-tight end Arik Gilbert had an impressive G-Day game and looks like a possible breakout star for the 2022 Dawgs. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Picking which Dawgs will be the coming season’s breakout stars can be tricky.

You might go with a freshman who enrolled early and had a standout performance in the G-Day game. And, sometimes, those players do live up to early expectations. Other times, injuries, the depth of talent ahead of them and other factors mean somewhat slower progress, once the season arrives.

Of course, a new season’s breakout stars aren’t necessarily freshmen, with some players who’ve spent two or more seasons steadily gaining experience suddenly kicking it up a notch to the next level, and breaking out of the pack.

The other thing you must consider in playing this pre-season guessing game is just what you think qualifies as a “breakout” star.

As far as I’m concerned, players who already have impressive stats and are expected to be among a team’s leaders can’t be labeled a “breakout,” because they’ve already broken out. If they have a great year, they’re just living up to expectations.

Freshman tight end Oscar Delp gives Georgia a fourth strong option at that position. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com, Dawgnation

Last year, a couple of 2021 early-enrollee freshmen were among Georgia’s biggest stars — tight end Brock Bowers and wide receiver Adonai “AD” Mitchell.

Bowers had a decent G-Day game, with three catches for 37 yards, but he’s not the player everyone was talking about afterward.

That was Mitchell, who entered the G-Day game as an unheralded 3-star signee and ended up wowing everyone, leading all pass-catchers that day with 7 receptions for 105 yards and a touchdown.

Come the season, Mitchell had a good year, winding up as the Dawgs’ fourth-leading receiver, with 29 catches for 426 yards and 4 touchdowns, including the go-ahead score in the national championship game.

Bowers, meanwhile, was the team’s leading receiver, despite being a tight end, catching 56 passes for 882 yards and 13 touchdowns (plus he scored another TD running). He earned first-team All-American honors on several lists.

Now, that’s a breakout star.

Georgia running back Kenny McIntosh seems likely to be used in the hybrid runner/receiver role that James Cook filled last year. (Chamberlain Smith/UGA)
Chamberlain Smith, Dawgnation

I expect both Bowers and Mitchell to be among UGA’s biggest offensive weapons in the coming season, but, like I said, they’ve already broken out of the pack. Ditto receivers Ladd McConkey (another 2021 star who seemingly came out of nowhere last year) and Kearis Jackson.

However, another tight end who stands a good chance of having a breakout season in 2022 is Arik Gilbert, who transferred into the program from LSU last season but didn’t see action due to personal problems. At this year’s G-Day game, Gilbert looked better than you’d expect of someone who hadn’t played in a game in about a year and a half, scoring twice for the victorious Black team.

And, since offensive coordinator Todd Monken has shown an inclination to use schemes with multiple tight ends, Gilbert (who also can line up at wide receiver) could find a way to shine, even with Bowers and Darnell Washington ahead of him in the rotation.

Actually, another tight end, Oscar Delp, one of 2022′s early enrollees — who also showed a lot of potential in the G-Day game, leading the Red team with 7 catches for 91 yards — could turn some heads this year as well, especially if Monken trots out a four-tight-end formation, like many of us are hoping to see him do in the red zone.

Meanwhile, a wide receiver with the potential to break out in a big way is speedster Arian Smith, a Bulldogs track team member who caught just three passes for 102 yards and 1 TD last year before suffering a broken leg. Pro Football Focus picked him as one of its 30 national breakout candidates this year; if he can stay healthy, he could be a major downfield threat for the Dawgs.

It’s a testament to Georgia’s depth at tailback that last year’s third- and fourth-string backs, Kenny McIntosh and Kendall Milton, are expected to replace departed Zamir White and James Cook as leaders of the Dawgs’ running game.

Both are being tagged as potential breakouts by the college football media, but it was Milton who was picked by CBS Sports as a potential 2022 breakout star. Although he’ll share carries with McIntosh, Milton might wind up taking White’s spot as the workhorse running back, if he can avoid injury, while McIntosh, who also caught 22 passes last year for 242 yards and 2 TDs, seems likely to be used in the hybrid runner/receiver role that Cook filled. On the other hand, McIntosh’s breakaway speed could make him the greater home run threat.

As a tandem, they should be terrific.

Would a great season for underrated quarterback Stetson Bennett qualify as a “breakout” performance? (Tony Walsh/UGA)
Tony Walsh, Dawgnation

Meanwhile, what about Stetson Bennett? He had some of the best numbers nationally among quarterbacks last season, and led his team to a natty, being named offensive MVP of the College Football Playoff championship game. And, yet, there are quite a few fans who still don’t think he should be Georgia’s starting quarterback. Bennett is sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of college QBs as far as the national sports media is concerned, too, getting little respect. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the No. 34 quarterback in the nation and No. 10 in the SEC, and 247Sports had Bennett as the eighth best QB in the conference.

One of those who thinks that’s ridiculous is record-setting former UGA QB Aaron Murray, who tweeted: “The amount of disrespect Stetson Bennett gets is incredible. Kid helped lead his team to a national championship with inexperienced WRs and an average run game.”

So, if Bennett winds up having a fantastic season, racking up Murray-like numbers, should it be considered a “breakout” performance? That would sound kind of silly when you’re talking about a sixth-year senior and returning starter on a defending national championship team.

Georgia defensive back Kelee Ringo, seen in the Orange Bowl win over Michigan, already is a household name in Bulldog Nation. (Tony Walsh/UGA)
Tony Walsh, Dawgnation

On the defensive side, would you consider cornerback Kelee Ringo a potential breakout star? On the one hand, he was a good — not great — defender much of last season, getting better as the year went on. But, he wound up as one of the heroes of the national championship game, thanks to that celebrated pick-6 that sealed the Crimson Tide’s doom.

If he builds on the momentum of that shining moment, and becomes a lockdown corner, then, yeah, I could see him being called a breakout star, despite already being a household name in Bulldog Nation.

Some other Dawgs defenders — Jalen Carter, Nolan Smith and late-blooming Robert Beal, a sixth-year senior who had a team-high 6.5 quarterback sacks and 16 QB pressures last year — probably shouldn’t be considered breakouts if they have a great season, because they’re already experienced players with some big plays on their solid resumes — and are expected to lead the defense.

Georgia linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson intercepted a pass during the Bulldogs’ game with UAB last season, running it back 20 yards for a touchdown. (Mackenzie Miles/UGA)
Mackenzie Miles, Dawgnation

However, Jamon Dumas-Johnson, nicknamed “Pop” because of the sound his tackles make, has been drawing an awful lot of positive comment since spring practice (he was the only other Bulldog to make Pro Football Focus’ national breakout list). The rising sophomore played in 14 of 15 games in 2021 as a reserve, making 22 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, a pass breakup and an interception. He also spent time on special teams. If Dumas-Johnson steps up big at inside linebacker, that could be a big plus for the Dawgs, who lost their top three players at that position to the NFL.

So, those are the most obvious candidates for breakout-star status for UGA in the coming season.

But, really, considering that the 2022 Dawgs will be the youngest team that Kirby Smart ever has put on the field — with 56 of the 85 scholarship players listed as either freshmen or sophomores — the chances are good that, when the season’s final whistle is blown, there’ll be at least a couple of new stars that we didn’t anticipate.

LET ME HEAR FROM YOU!

I’ll dip into the Junkyard Mail next week, so let me know what your expectations and/or concerns are for the coming season — and feel free to share your views on the anything else related to UGA athletics — by emailing me at junkyardblawg@gmail.com.

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