Opinion: The 5 UGA players most likely to lead the SEC in a statistical category
Expectations are high for Georgia. The Bulldogs are projected to once again be among the top teams in the country, and after winning the SEC East three consecutive years, it’s easy for many analysts and fans to pencil UGA back in the SEC championship game as well. What’s not quite as easy is determining the individual players who’ll help lead the way.
UGA’s deep and talented roster has operated as an ensemble cast in recent seasons. For instance, if you ask a number of knowledgeable UGA fans who the best player on the Bulldogs defense was last year you’re likely to get a variety of answers with plenty of evidence to support the choice. A similar level of roster balance appears to be in place for the upcoming season, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a chance for some individual players to dominate.
Yet some of the best players on UGA’s roster may be less likely to fill the stats sheets than you might think.
For example, UGA is justifiably known to many as “Running Back University,” but UGA isn’t likely to produce the league’s leading rusher based on previous years under coach Kirby Smart.
D’Andre Swift was seventh in the SEC in rushing yards last season after being eighth in that category the year before. His teammate, Elijah Holyfield, was ninth in 2018. Another pair of Bulldogs running backs — Nick Chubb and Sony Michel — were fourth and fifth respectively in rushing yards in 2017.
UGA has led the SEC in rushing in two of the last three years, but that hasn’t led to an individual leader mostly because Smart favors using multiple running backs.
Likewise, there are a couple defensive categories where UGA is probably unlikely to produce an individual leader. The Bulldogs have been first or second in the SEC in total defense in each of the last three seasons, but hasn’t produced many sacks or tackles for loss.
UGA’s top sack producer in 2019 — Azeez Ojulari with 5.5 — was only 13th in the league. The Bulldogs haven’t had a player lead the SEC in sacks since Jarvis Jones had 13.5 in 2012.
Ojulari also topped returning UGA players a season ago in tackles for loss with six, but that mark only placed him 47th-best in the SEC.
However, if you’re looking for UGA players most likely to lead the SEC in a statistical category, here are five names to consider (Hat tip to Doug Maddox on Twitter for the topic suggestion).
Safety Richard LeCounte to lead the SEC in interceptions
The last UGA player to lead the SEC in interceptions was Bacarri Rambo — who pulled down eight in 2011. LeCounte could match that feat this season.
LeCounte came close to leading the league a year ago when he picked off four passes, putting him just two behind the SEC’s top performer, LSU cornerback Derek Stingley.
Stingley, who’s just a sophomore, returns for 2020, and is expected to produce another big season. Yet expectations are justifiably high for LeCounte as well.
Linebacker Monty Rice to lead the SEC in tackles
Rice was 10th in the SEC with 89 tackles last season, so seeing him leap up to first might seem like a stretch, but it probably shouldn’t. The leading tackler in the SEC last season, LSU linebacker Jacob Phillips with 113, was 11th in the conference with 87 tackles in 2018. Plus, there’s precedent for a UGA player at Rice’s position in this category. Roquan Smith was the SEC’s top tackler in 2017.
Quarterback Jamie Newman to lead the SEC in touchdown passes
It might seem strange to picture a UGA quarterback as the SEC’s best in a category given the program isn’t exactly known for its passing success these days, but UGA’s previous quarterback probably performed better in this metric than you realize. During Jake Fromm’s three seasons at UGA he finished third, second and fourth in the SEC in touchdowns thrown — averaging 26 touchdowns per season. Of course, there’s a chance that recent transfer arrival JT Daniels earns the UGA starting job over Newman if he’s ruled eligible, but that’s a different column for a different day.
Running back Zamir White to lead the SEC in rushing touchdowns
This might be a bit of a long shot for the same reason a Bulldogs player isn’t likely to lead the league in rushing: UGA shares a lot of carries between its running backs. However, it’s easier to imagine White leading the league in touchdowns than rushing yards because good teams tend to score a lot. For context, Michel (16) and Chubb (15) were third and fourth respectively in the SEC in rushing touchdowns when UGA won the SEC in 2017.
George Pickens to lead the SEC in receiving yards
To put it bluntly, history isn’t on Pickens’ side. Malcolm Mitchell — who was eighth in the SEC with 865 yards in 2015 — is the only Bulldogs receiver in the last seven years to finish in the top 10 of the conference in receiving yards. However, Pickens — who was 13th in the SEC with 727 yards as a freshman last season — had more yards than any Bulldogs receiver other than Mitchell over that span and had the fourth-best single season total for the Bulldogs in the last 10 years. In other words, it’s been a long time since Georgia has had a receiver that has shown as much promise as Pickens, and it isn’t unreasonable to think he could take the next step in 2020.