Fans have high hopes for UGA’s latest collection of elite recruits
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.
Georgia has been on an unprecedented run of recruiting success since Kirby Smart became coach in 2016. The program has never collected talent at the rate it currently is, and the result of those Signing Day wins is increased anticipation for those Bulldogs players’ college debuts.
2019 will be no different in that regard.
UGA signed five 5-star recruits in its most recent class – offensive lineman Clay Webb, wide receiver George Pickens, defensive lineman Travon Walker and linebackers Nakobe Dean and Nolan Smith.
All of them could make a significant impact this season, but they might not be the only newcomers to accomplish that feat.
Some of the Bulldogs’ other 2019 signees – including a trio of 4-star prospects such as safety Lewis Cine, wide receiver Dominick Blaylock and defensive back Tyrique Stevenson – are also in the mix for playing time based on the early buzz.
In fact, it’s likely all these freshmen – along with most of the Bulldogs’ 2019 signees – will play at least some this season.
UGA only redshirted five members of its 2016 class, seven from the 2017 class and eight last season – which was the first year of a new NCAA rule that allowed players to retain a redshirt after playing in up to four games.
However, while it’s safe to assume most freshmen will play, it’s still a bit of a mystery to determine which of them will play well.
The SEC’s recent past suggests success for a few of the newcomers is possible, but expectations should maybe be tempered a bit.
For instance, only nine true freshman in the last five years have made either the coaches or Associated Press’ first or second-team All-SEC teams. The last UGA player to accomplish the feat was running back Nick Chubb – a first-team selection in 2014.
Yet despite not showing up on many All-SEC teams in recent years, freshmen have been major contributors for some of the league’s best teams – including UGA in 2017 which was led to the College Football Playoff in part by two freshmen starters, quarterback Jake Fromm and then-right tackle Andrew Thomas.
Could first-year players lead the Bulldogs in a similar fashion this season?
It seems unlikely. UGA’s depth is arguably far greater now than it was then.
Take Webb for instance, He was the No. 26 recruit in the country for the class of 2019 – 19 spots higher than Thomas was in 2017. Yet Thomas was able to earn a starting position immediately for the Bulldogs.
That probably won’t be possible for Webb this season. Four of UGA’s presumed offensive line starters were named to the Preseason All-SEC team and the two top backups – sophomores Cade Mays and Jamaree Salyer – were also 5-star recruits.
The future looks bright for Webb, but he’ll probably need more patience than Thomas required.
The chances of early playing time might be better for Pickens and Blaylock, but what are the realistic expectations for them in year one?
In 2015, two SEC freshmen eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving – Alabama’s Calvin Ridley and Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk.
However, since then, only three SEC freshmen have surpassed 600 receiving yards, and UGA has only had two freshmen exceed 300 receiving yards in the last seven years – Isaac Nauta (361 yards in 2016) and Terry Godwin (379 yards in 2015).
Pickens and Blaylock might not match the highs of Ridley and Kirk, but they have a strong chance to outpace what has been the typical freshman Bulldogs receiver.
Pickens was rated as the No. 24 prospect in the country for the class of 2019. Blaylock was No. 36. Prior to adding them, UGA hadn’t signed a wide receiver rated among the top-100 recruits since 2009.
On the other side of the ball, there are seemingly more opportunities for freshmen. Walker, Smith and Dean might eventually emerge as starters. Yet if that happens, they’re unlikely to rank among the Bulldogs’ statistical leaders.
Only one true freshman in the SEC has exceeded 80 total tackles in a season over the last five years (Arkansas’ Dre Greenlaw with 95 in 2015).
Eight freshmen have collected at least 60 tackles over that span.
As for rushing the passer, three of the SEC’s top sack totals came from freshmen in 2014. However, only 10 freshmen since then have collected at least three sacks in a season. No freshman managed that feat in 2018.
Of course, Walker, Smith and Dean’s stats could be bolstered by UGA’s offseason emphasis on Havoc Rate. However, their productivity could also be diminished by the crowded nature of their position groups.
The SEC has seemingly been a little easier for first-year defensive backs to navigate.
Five freshmen ranked among the league’s top 29 in passes broken up last season. That could be good news for Stevenson and Cine, but that also appears to be one of UGA’s most competitive battles for playing time – with Richard LeCounte and J.R. Reed returning as starters at safety, Eric Stokes back at cornerback and possibly Tyson Campbell – a partial starter last season – potentially manning the other corner spot.
Ultimately, projecting freshman performances isn’t easy. While it’s true that SEC newcomers occasionally emerge as some of the conference’s top players, more often than not they rank below more-experienced players in the stat column.
In other words, the safest bet is to assume these freshmen – and the rest of the 2019 class — are more likely to be a supplement to the Bulldogs’ championship pursuit rather than be the catalyst for it.