Georgia football fans crave a national championship, and this season might be the year their wait comes to an end. However, the first step toward making that happen is for UGA coach Kirby Smart to lead the Bulldogs to a third-straight SEC East title. With that in mind, DawgNation is proud to present — in partnership with Georgia’s Own Credit Union — the “Own the East” series. A season preview content series focused on what it will take for UGA to dominate the division once again, and possibly return to the College Football Playoff.
A Friday afternoon in late June isn’t typically a moment when college football fans expect big news, but that was the case for Georgia on June 21, and the news wasn’t just big, it was shocking.
“Jeremiah Holloman no longer represents the University of Georgia football program,” UGA coach Kirby Smart said in a statement. “We expect every member of our team to uphold the highest standards and values of the University of Georgia and Georgia football. It is disappointing when this does not happen.”
Just like that, UGA’s leading returning wide receiver was gone.
Holloman was allegedly involved in an incident of domestic violence with a woman with whom he was dating last April. The victim reported the alleged incident to the police just days before Holloman’s dismissal.
“Early June we were made aware of a police report, and we took immediate action,” Smart said at SEC Media Days in July. “It was very unfortunate. We wish J.J. nothing but the best.”
It’s the kind of moment that can shake the foundation of a football program – a moment where genuine leadership is needed.
One of the Bulldogs’ top leaders – left tackle Andrew Thomas – recalled his feelings when he first heard the news.
“I was very disappointed,” Thomas said. “It’s a very unfortunate situation, but we’ve got to move on. We’ve got goals as a team and we’ve got to accomplish them.
UGA quarterback Jake Fromm echoed a similar sentiment.
“It is what it is,” Fromm said. “Next guy up, and let’s go play football.”
Fromm apparently took his own advice. He’s been credited by many of his teammates for setting the tone for the kind of intense summer workouts that would be required to get a crop of – mostly inexperienced – receivers ready for what UGA hopes is a national championship run.
One of the guys who noticed Fromm’s efforts is one of the receivers who’s been with him longest – senior Tyler Simmons.
“Fromm took more initiative with getting the young guys in to meet more,” Simmons said. “Getting the young guys in to do one-on-ones, and just trying to find out who his guys will be this year.”
Fromm explained that sometimes the most significant challenge associated with the extra work was finding time during busy schedules to squeeze it all in.
“During the summer, it’s trying to find time around the classroom schedule, around the weight room schedule,” Fromm said.
It’s not always easy managing everyone’s time, but for Fromm, getting on the same page with his young wideouts is probably a necessity.
“We have a lot of young receivers,” Thomas said. “We lost three receivers from last year. So right now we have a lot of young guys and a transfer guy working hard to come in and step up and take those roles.”
Among those young receivers are two of the more notable recruits UGA has signed at the position in recent years – freshmen George Pickens and Dominick Blaylock.
“They were really great high school football players,” Fromm said. “They’re just trying to get up to the speed, really trying to learn the offense. They’re both doing really well with it.”
Pickens and Blaylock will undoubtedly face some growing pains while transitioning from high school to the SEC, but they both possess the talents to aid that process.
Pickens, in particular, has turned heads as of late.
“George is a one-of-a-kind player,” UGA cornerback Eric Stokes recently said. “He’s one heck of a wide receiver… I’m falling in love with George day by day.”
UGA safety Richard LeCounte – after battling Pickens in a recent practice – had even higher praise for Pickens’ ability to make leaping catches.
“[Pickens] reminds you of A.J. Green – his skillset, being able to adjust to the ball in the air,” LeCounte said. “He’s a great guy. He’s got a lot to learn, but also you see flashes.”
According to Simmons, the off-field aspects of Pickens and Blaylock – including the ability to absorb information quickly — have been just as impressive as the athleticism.
“They’ve come a long way compared to me,” Simmons said. “I didn’t really learn the offense much in my freshman year (2016), but they’ve come in and taken it full-fledge on. They’ve met more with Jake. They’ve met more with the coaches. They’ve taken that time to get the timing down with the quarterbacks. They’ve bought into the program.”
Pickens and Blaylock’s time spent with Fromm could prove valuable, but it won’t necessarily guarantee a spot in the receiver rotation.
There are plenty of other candidates in the competition including – as Thomas said – Lawrence Cager, a transfer from Miami.
Cager has a relationship with new UGA offensive coordinator James Coley dating back to Coley’s time working at Miami before arriving in Athens in 2016.
Coley recently described the one thing Cager has that freshmen like Pickens and Blaylock haven’t earned yet.
“He’s a veteran,” Coley said of Cager – who had 21 catches for 374 yards and six touchdowns for the Hurricanes last season. “The thing he brings is experience – where you sit back and you say ‘I wonder if this guy’s going to make this play in a particular time.’ Veteran guys [like Cager] you’ve seen it happen. You know they’ve been in those spotlights.”
Of course, Cager isn’t the only transfer wide receiver on the roster hoping to earn playing time with the Bulldogs. The same can be said for Demetris Robertson – who arrived last summer from Cal, but didn’t make much of an impact during the 2018 season.
This year might finally be Robertson’s time to shine.
“He’s gotten more opportunity,” UGA coach Kirby Smart recently said of Robertson. “Last year he had a plethora of guys – he had three draft picks in front of him. And he was coming in not knowing an offense. Now he’s got three draft picks removed, and he’s the guy playing the slot, catching the balls… he’s got to continue to work and improve… he’s got a lot of guys behind him who are competing and pushing him.”
Coley has also been impressed with what he’s seen from Robertson.
“D-Rob has continued to improve within our system,” Coley said. “He’s definitely a guy who has got a great skillset. He’s fast. He’s quick. We’ve just got to continue to develop him into the type of player we need him to be.”
It’s a fair bet Cager and Robertson are just as eager to spend time with Fromm as Pickens and Blaylock have apparently been, but all four will be challenged by the rest of the receiving corp. for the coveted playing time made available when Holloman was dismissed and Mecole Hardman, Riley Ridley and Terry Godwin departed for the NFL.
Simmons, along with Kearis Jackson, Matt Landers, Trey Blount and Tommy Bush are all seemingly in the mix.
It remains to be seen who’ll emerge atop the pecking order, but there’s no shortage of candidates to have breakout seasons.
Expect the remainder of the summer to be busy as coaches evaluate all the talent, receivers work to impress and Fromm attempts to establish the chemistry needed to make the offense efficient.
“It’s on them winning spots to be playmakers,” Coley said of the Bulldogs’ wide receivers. “It’s on Jake to know in the situation who he’s going to go to, and it’s on me to put them out there [and] once they’re out there say, ‘we’re going to feature this guy because he can do this really well.’”