Own the East: UGA’s No. 1-rated 2018 class still offers potential breakout stars
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.
Recruiting success has become commonplace at Georgia since Kirby Smart became coach. Yet only the 2018 signees can lay claim to the coveted distinction of being the nation’s No. 1 class. However, this week, news involving one of those recruits raised questions about how valuable that rare designation will prove to be.
Former 5-star linebacker Brenton Cox entered the transfer portal, making it seem likely his time at UGA is done. If so, Cox will join former 5-star quarterback Justin Fields and 4-star tight end Luke Ford as high-profile departures from the class. However, that attrition probably shouldn’t be used to suggest the 2018 recruiting cycle was a bust. Some of those players could still be set to break out in a major way.
UGA safety JR Reed offered that prediction in July at SEC Media Days when asked about the chances that some of the Bulldogs’ touted crop of true freshmen – such as linebackers Nakobe Dean and Nolan Smith — could be a significant part of the defensive game plan. Reed sees that as possible, but predicts the competition to be intense – especially in regards to players who’ve been in the program and gained some experience.
“I expect whoever’s going to make the plays and whoever’s the best is going to step up,” Reed said. “We not only have those freshmen, we have guys who’ve waited their turn – guys that were freshmen last year… We sometimes look over and the media looks over those guys, but those guys have been working really hard.”
One of the names from the 2018 class Reed mentioned in particular was sophomore linebacker Quay Walker, although presumably there are more who could fit the bill – especially at linebacker.
Walker is one of five in his position group from the 2018 class who were rated as a 4-star prospect or better. Yet the results for the group thus far have been mixed. The collective talent is undeniable, and there have been flashes of brilliance, but patience has been required too.
That patience might be about to pay off.
Even if Cox is no longer in the picture, There’s a sense of optimism surrounding Adam Anderson, Channing Tindall as well as Walker. However, the player from the group that could turn the most heads is the one seen least on the field a year ago.
Azeez Ojulari spent most of 2018 recovering from an ACL tear suffered near the end of his high school career, but earned his way on the field for the Sugar Bowl and didn’t disappoint – recording three tackles and nearly collecting a sack. That performance was apparently a strong springboard to spring practice, where once again Ojulari earned praise.
“I think he’s transitioned really smooth,” UGA coach Kirby Smart said at the time. “I think the bowl practices for he and (cornerback Divaad Wilson) and some of those younger players have almost made them like an experienced vet because they got all that work and they were able to go play the whole game like a starter. That helped his confidence now.”
Smart’s mention of Divaad Wilson is worth noting too. For as much as linebacker is a group filled with 2018 signees possibly ready to emerge, Wilson and another rising sophomore in the secondary – Tyson Campbell — could have similar statements attached to their names.
Wilson – like Ojualri – was in injury-recovery mode for most of last season. He tore his ACL near the start of what was supposed to be his first spring practice. He also used the Sugar Bowl loss to Texas as a chance to possibly preview what’s to come for him now that he’s fully healthy.
“I give the kid a lot of credit, he’s been frustrated, and he wanted to play,” Smart said. “He had the ACL injury in the spring, and we thought he was going to be a really good player.”
He still might be, and Campbell too for that matter.
Campbell — a former 5-star cornerback from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. – earned a starting job to begin last season, but was forced to relinquish it after 10 games due to some spotty play. Campbell — to his credit — seemed to remain positive about his situation.
“Not every job is secure,” Campbell said after UGA’s SEC championship loss to Alabama. “You’ve always got to have that chip on your shoulder. Anybody can be replaced. I’m not mad or anything. I’m supporting my teammates. I’m just ready to move forward.”
This could be the season where that forward step occurs, but – as with the linebackers — there are newcomers potentially standing in Campbell’s way.
The Bulldogs signed two cornerbacks in the 2019 class: junior college transfer D.J. Daniel and 4-star prospect Tyrique Stevenson. Both have plenty of accolades, but neither possesses what Campbell has — experience.
In a position battle to replace last year’s Thorpe Award winner (Deandre Baker), Campbell’s time on the field prior to being demoted will be a strong ally.
Another 2018 signee on the other side of the ball is seemingly more of a lock to start.
Center Trey Hill – despite only starting four games in 2018, and none at center – is already on the Rimington Watch List for the nation’s top center. That’s probably due to the strong reputation UGA’s offensive line has collectively garnered, and the relatively low bar for earning watchlist status. Nonetheless it speaks well for Hill – who also drew some praise from Smart for handling a tough situation last year vs. Kentucky after senior center Lamont Gaillard left the game with an injury.
“Here’s a guy [Hill] who played in a ‘go win the SEC East’ type of game against a really tough defense, and he was thrust right into the limelight,” Smart said. “He’s got some experience already, which is valuable.”
Of course, with apologies to the rest of the 2018 signees, the most-anticipated debut from that class will almost certainly be made by redshirt freshman running back Zamir White when he finally plays after being upended by an ACL injury last summer (White’s second ACL injury in as many years).
It remains to be seen what White’s role will be and how effective he’ll be so soon after injury recovery, but one thing’s for sure: White’s presence will make the running back competition a lot more interesting.
In fact, that can probably be said about all of UGA’s position battles. The unprecedented collection of talent will make the jockeying for playing time fun to watch.
“We’re really deep at every position on defense and offense,” Reed said. “I think that brings the best competition out of everybody. I think the best players are definitely going to step up and play.”
NOTE: The video posted above was recorded prior to Cox’s reported dismissal.