ATHENS – The other day I was at Kroger, buying diapers, when a Georgia fan approached and, without saying hello or anything, said: “Hey, that series you do every year on Georgia’s most important players, are you doing that again? When does it start?”
That didn’t really happen, of course. I just made it up because I was looking for a way to open the series and couldn’t think of anything. But I was in a Kroger at one point last week, if that helps. And the diapers were for my kids, though now that I’ve turned 40 it is fair to ask.
Also as a writing device, here are some questions I made up to ask myself about this series:
Q: For those of us new to it, how do you define important?
A: Thank you for asking. This is not a ranking of Georgia’s best players, so to speak. It is an evaluation of which players are most vital to the team’s success in 2016 based on their own talent, the importance of their position, the depth at certain positions, and the strengths and weaknesses of the team.
Q: Did you copy and paste that paragraph from last year’s series?
A: Other than inserting “2016”? Yeah, pretty much.
Q: Do you have any factoids to give this list credibility?
A: Last year’s most important player was “the quarterbacks.” I’d say that turned out pretty accurate.
Q: Who was No. 2?
A: Nick Chubb. And again …
Q: Do you have any other factoids that make the opposite point?
A: Jake Ganus, who was eventually named the team’s MVP, wasn’t on the list.
Q: Are you going to once again lump “the quarterbacks” into one post, not quite making the 12 most important players, but actually more?
A: Well, you’ll just have to see.
The series will run three times a week over the next four weeks, leading into SEC media days. Hope you enjoy, and let’s get it started with …
12. ISAIAH McKENZIE
WHY HE’S VITAL: Where to begin? As a punt and kick returner, he gives Georgia’s special teams a dimension it lacked for several years before his arrival in 2014. McKenzie is already tied for Georgia’s career record for punt return touchdowns, with four, and his career return average (13.3) is tied for fourth all-time. He only has one kickoff return for a touchdown, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll be used more often in that role.
Georgia will be breaking in a new punter, place-kicker and even long-snapper this year. So if McKenzie can stay healthy, and prove dependable, that’s at least one load off the mind of special teams coordinator Shane Beamer – who himself is new. McKenzie’s ability to hold onto the ball has been in question, which is no surprise for someone who’s generously listed at 5-foot-8.
Then there’s McKenzie’s role on the offense. He only has 16 catches in his two seasons on campus, but has also rushed 18 times, and is averaging 11.3 yards per touch on offense in his career. That’s, uh, pretty good. It’s an enduring mystery why he wasn’t used more last year to ignite the sputtering offense.
There are, at least on paper, more speed-oriented weapons to play with this season, including freshman Mecole Hardman and Tyler Simmons, but they’ll have a learning curve.
McKenzie won’t, and as the favorite to be the slot man when Georgia goes three-wide, he carries vital importance there in an offense lacking experienced receivers.
QUOTABLE: “He’s got nerve. And you’ve gotta have nerve. And sometimes that nerve works against you.” – Then-head coach Mark Richt on McKenzie last year, after McKenzie’s 53-yard punt return touchdown proved the difference in the 20-13 win over Auburn. McKenzie was only in the game because Terry Godwin, who had been returning punts, was pulled from the role because he wasn’t doing a good enough job of yelling “Peter,” which was the signal for the other 10 players on punt return to get away from the loose ball. It’ll be interesting to see how the new coaching staff handles someone with so much upside – and volubility – in a key role.
BEST CASE: McKenzie’s hamstring, fumbling and dependability issues all prove a thing of the past. He breaks and then expands on the school record for return touchdowns, even doing on kickoffs. Jim Chaney and the offensive staff figure out creative way to get him touches, and he has around 7-to-10 offensive touches a game. It adds an explosive – and consistent – dimension to the offense, easing the transition for the younger skill position players. (Including, potentially, at quarterback.)
WORST CASE: McKenzie joked in January about transferring back home to Miami. That would have been worst case. He was joking, he made clear. But the previously-related issues, particularly the hamstring, still loom. If McKenzie does get derailed, or derails himself, Georgia can still turn to Godwin or other speedy options (like Hardman and Simmons) but it would be preferable not to.
FINAL WORD: If McKenzie’s health could be assured, a safe bet would be that he’d have a spectacular junior season, even if there are some occasional ball control hiccups. When he gets the ball in the open field he’s a threat to go all the way. It would behoove Georgia to get him the ball as much as it reasonably can.