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Brant Sanderlin/AJC
When it came to playing freshmen in 2016 - UGA head coach Kirby Smart wasn't shy about it, especially when it came to QB Jacob Eason.

Georgia freshmen played in 162 games in 2016

Cy Brown

As it does most years, Georgia finished in the top 10 in team recruiting rankings in 2016, clocking in at No. 8, according to 247. And most of the recruits in that class were integral parts to the Dawgs’ efforts last season, with a total of 162 games played among the freshman class, including 41 total starts.

Name Position Games Played Games Started
Jacob Eason QB 13 12
Julian Rochester DL 13 6
Isaac Nauta TE 13 5
Tyler Clark DL 13 0
Tyrique McGhee DB 13 0
David Marshall DL 12 4
Javon Wims WR 12 3
Charlie Woerner TE 12 2
Brian Herrien RB 12 0
Mecole Hardman DB 11 0
Riley Ridley WR 11 0
Marshall Long P 9 9
Michail Carter DL 7 0
Tyler Simmons WR 6 0
Elijah Holyfield RB 5 0
Total 162 41

At glance, this looks like a high number of freshman playing – and it is – but it needs to be put into a bit of context. For example, the 2015 freshman class played a total of 180 games their first year in Athens, while the class of 2014 class only played in 93 total games as freshmen.

The biggest contribution came at QB, where Jacob Eason played in all 13 games, starting 12 of them. Four freshman defensive linemen played more than seven games in 2016, with Julian Rochester and Tyler Clark playing in 13 games, and David Marshall playing in 12. Georgia also found a lot of help from freshman pass-catchers. Three WRs played more than six games, and two of them played more than 11. At TE, Isaac Nauta and Charlie Woerner both played games in the double-digits.

On average, Georgia freshmen who didn’t redshirt played a bit more than 10 games in 2016, and started nearly 3 games apiece.

Offensive contributors

The biggest contributor on offense was obviously Jacob Eason. After playing in relief of Greyson Lambert in the opener against UNC, Eason put a stranglehold on the starting gig, putting up 2,430 yards passing and 16 touchdowns to just 8 interception in his inaugural season.

A good chunk of Eason’s options at wideout were also freshman. As mentioned above, five first-year pass-catchers (Javon Wims is a JUCO transfer) contributed in the passing game. In total, the class of ’16 WRs and TEs  hauled in 860 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns, more than a third of Eason’s production in both categories. Nauta led newcomers in both categories with 361 yards receiving a 3 touchdowns

Two tailbacks also saw action for the Dawgs, although both were limited because of the presence of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien combined for 392 rushing yards, 363 of which were provided by Herrien.

Marshall Long also established himself as Georgia’s best punter, playing and starting in 9 games.

Defensive contributors

As already noted, four freshman defensive linemen played for Georgia in 2016. Rochester was the most productive among them, starting is 6 games and finishing the season with 23 tackles, 2 sacks and a forced fumble. Marshall was right there with him, racking up 19 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Clark played the least, and also provided the least amount of tackles and sacks with 14 and 0.5, respectively.

Georgia also got help from a couple of freshmen in the secondary, with Tyrique McGhee and Mecole Hardman getting minutes in more than 10 games each. But neither freshman contributed much on the stat sheet.

Redshirts

In total, six freshmen redshirted in 2016: OL Ben Cleveland, OL Solomon Kindley, OLB Chauncey Manac, OLB Jaleel Laguins, OL Chris Barnes and WR Josh Moran.

It’s unlikely that either of the OLBs will see a ton of minutes in 2017. Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy are two of the best OLBs in the SEC, and the Dawgs already have depth their to boot. The offensive line is a different story. Georgia is rebuilding its line nearly from scratch this offseason, and Kirby Smart will be looking for some young guys to step up. Out of the three OLs who redshirted, OG Kindley – who received a redshirt despite playing one snap vs. Ole Miss – is the most likely earn a starting job.

Attrition

So far, there hasn’t been much attrition in this class. DB Chad Clay was kicked off the team in June following his second arrest since he arrived in Athens. Other than Clay, no class of ’16 players have been dismissed or transferred away from the team

What to expect from the class of ’16 going forward

It’s no stretch to say that there will be a lot expected of the class of ’16 as the players progress through their UGA careers. When guys earn minutes as freshmen, fans have an expectation that they will improve significantly going into their second college season. Players who don’t play much as freshman have the advantage of working to improve in relative anonymity, while much is expected of someone such as Hardman, even though he didn’t do anything of note last season.

The area that I expect to see the most improvement from in this class is the passing game. Eason is already targeting his classmates a third of the time, and that connection should only grow as they continue to play together and sync up over the next few seasons. The passing game was fairly pathetic last season. But as time goes by, and Eason learns more of the intricacies of each receivers playing style, it could become a bedrock of Georgia’s offensive game plan.

Defensively, expect UGA’s defensive line to be good for quite some time. Four freshman played a lot of minutes in 2016, but they’re still stuck behind older players such as Jon Abrams, Trent Thompson and DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle. By the time the class of ’16 DLs make up the bulk of the starters on the line, they’ll be some of the most-experienced linemen in the SEC.

Looking at how much the players from the last two recruiting classes have played for Georgia as freshmen refreshed my perspective on the state of the program. It’s far from the only reason, but a big contributor to Georgia’s rut in the last two seasons was the number of youngsters who had to do a lot of learning on the fly. While that was a detriment at the time, in the future Georgia will have a stable of relatively young players who have a ton of experience, which could lead to some damn good football teams.