MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Jeb Blazevich searched his memory, but he couldn’t quite remember when and how he heard the news two years ago. Yes, his offensive coordinator leaving was a big deal, but at the time it didn’t seem like a seismic, far-reaching event. Georgia was coming off another record-setting offensive year, there was talent all around, and even Mike Bobo told everyone on the way out that his team would be just fine.
There was no reason for Blazevich and other Georgia players to think anything else.
“They said we had the best offense in Georgia history my freshman year,” recalled Blazevich, now a junior tight end, on a year when Georgia scored the most points in school history. “I said, well shoot we’ll break it again next year.”
“It’s interesting how naïve I was, I guess,” he said.
The struggles since then of Georgia’s once-mighty offense have cost one head coach his job, resulted in wholesale turnover on the offensive coaching staff, and generally been a source of constant consternation among the fan base.
If Georgia doesn’t score 40 points in Friday’s Liberty Bowl, it will be the first season in 16 years that the Bulldogs haven’t reached 40 in a single game. After setting records in Bobo’s final few seasons, the numbers have cratered the past two years under Brian Schottenheimer and Jim Chaney: The Bulldogs enter the bowl game ranked 89th nationally in total offense and 104th in scoring, and will need to score 40 points to avoid the lowest scoring output for a Georgia team since the schedule expanded to 12 games.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow when you’re not scoring enough points,” Chaney said Wednesday, during a press conference at which he put the blame squarely on one person. “Once again, it falls on me.”
There is hope that things have bottomed out. Blazevich and other teammates – particularly star tailback Nick Chubb – pointed to a specific reason why.
But first, how did it fall so hard, so fast?
Bobo left an offense that, in his final three years, had the three best total yardage seasons in school history. He left Chubb and Sony Michel, receiver Isaiah McKenzie, and an experienced offensive line. He also left the heir apparent at quarterback, Brice Ramsey, and secured the commitment of a five-star quarterback recruit. Everything seemed in place.
“Obviously Mike did great things here,” Schottenheimer said when he was introduced at Georgia. “He will do great things at Colorado State. I’m not gonna try to be Mike, certainly. I’ve had success along the way as well.”
Schottenheimer didn’t even make it to Georgia’s bowl game that year. Chaney, hired by new coach Kirby Smart to run a similar pro style offense, has guided an offense that ended up struggling even more.
Schottenheimer and Chaney both came to Georgia with loads of experience. But with that came records of mixed success.
During Schottenheimer’s nine years as an NFL offensive coordinator, his offenses with the New York Jets and St. Louis Rams ranked in the bottom half of the league four times – including the three years before he arrived at Georgia – and in the top 10 just twice. But Mark Richt was looking for a pro-style coach, and as he pointed out when he hired Schottenheimer, those were a diminishing amount at the college level.
In Schottenheimer’s one season at Georgia, the offense went from ranked 30th nationally in Bobo’s final year to 83rd – one spot behind Pittsburgh, coached by Chaney.
Chaney had an extensive resume’ at the college level, dating back to Purdue in the late 1990s, where his quarterback was Drew Brees. More recently, Chaney’s offenses had tended to be pretty good or pretty mediocre: Arkansas ranked 45th in total offense in 2014, but 106th in 2013. Tennessee’s national ranks during Chaney’s four years: 18th, 104th, 75th, 60th.
Entering the bowl, Georgia ranks 89th nationally. Pittsburgh, under new coordinator Matt Canada, jumped up to 40th. (And LSU subsequently lured Canada away.)
Chaney, who signed a three-year contract paying him $850,000 annually, said this week he has done a lot of “reflecting” and will sit down with Smart after the season to discuss things. What would that mean?
“I couldn’t even tell you. It might be the same thing,” Chaney said. “I wouldn’t begin to go that far. Those conversations will be taking place later. I just know that there’s always good times when the season is over to sit down and reflect on possibilities of doing things differently, or changing some stuff.”
THE BLOCKING SCHEMES
An offense can have stars, and Georgia does, but if the line doesn’t block well the starpower is contained. And that’s what has happened the past two years.
The quality of the linemen is an issue, but it’s not all. When Bobo and offensive line coach Will Friend were around, Georgia didn’t have many future pros, but they succeeded anyway. Part of that was scheming around it – as in play-calling – but an underrated factor the past two years may have been the adjustment in blocking strategies.
Sam Pittman, the respected line coach hired by Smart, instituted a scheme predicated on blockers moving forward. Rob Sale, the line coach last year, focused more on a “lateral” technique, according to lineman Dyshon Sims.
“It’s the same concept, but every position coach teaches it different,” said Sims, a junior this year. “And I think as you happen to do the lateral stuff last year and then trying to transform it into going straight downhill took some time for us getting some used to. But I think now that we’re comfortable with that scheme it’s going to be a lot better.”
Sims was asked what the biggest challenge was with the change.
“Just not getting into the old system anymore,” he said. Because you train yourself into trying to do that for so long, for over a year, and then you have to change everything, pretty much. So sometimes you can find yourself going into the old stuff a lot.”
Brandon Kublanow, a starter the past three years, also acknowledged that you sometimes “fall back on habits”, but you have to use practice to avoid that.
“I think every offensive line coach will tell you they have their own style, what kind of footwork they want, what kind of steps they want, how far the steps will be,” Kublanow said. “So everyone’s different. New year, new coach, so a lot of different things.”
Chaney, when asked about the offensive line, didn’t go there.
“The struggles there, the struggles everywhere you can go through but I’m not going to point fingers at anybody but myself,” Chaney said. “That’s my job to coordinate everything, put everything in perspective and make sure we’re all on point. There is no position on our football team that works harder than our offensive line. Those guys were fantastic and through the season, as the season went on I thought we progressed in our pass protection, we got a lot better and by the end of the season.”
Georgia is recruiting very well so far under Smart. But if you go by the 247Sports Composite, it wasn’t doing so badly before either, even on offense: Five current members of Georgia’s offense were five-star recruits, and 16 were four-stars.
So what’s the problem? Many haven’t lived up to the hype. Seven were newcomers this year, including starting quarterback Jacob Eason. The elite talent at receiver (five-star Terry Godwin and four-star Isaiah McKenzie) has played well, but isn’t the bigger and taller receivers the coaches would prefer. And the only five-star offensive line recruit, Ben Cleveland, was an 18-year-old redshirt this year.
But a look at the offense the past two years also has to center on the fact that the plan at quarterback was derailed.
Ramsey was always expected to be the starter, and many around the program think he would have been if Bobo had stayed. But Ramsey ended up being beat out last year by Greyson Lambert, who transferred in from Virginia. Then Lambert, after one start this year, gave way to Eason, who had an uneven freshman campaign, as one would expect.
It may have been misplaced hope in Ramsey, who played in a single-wing offense in high school and had mostly impressed in camps, not real games. Or perhaps under Bobo’s continued tutelage he may have succeeded. No one will know how. Either way, it’s Eason’s show this year and probably beyond.
“I feel like they’ll be fine,” senior receiver Reggie Davis said. “Coach Chaney is a great guy, has a great offense. Jacob’s a young guy and every year he’s going to develop and get better and better. Once that happens, all the pieces fall into place, they’ll be fine.”
There’s a reason that Blazevich, Chubb and the other soon-to-be seniors are looking forward to next year: Continuity.
“This’ll be the first time I had a strength coach and offensive coordinator both coming back,” Blazevich said. “So just to have that consistency. I mean, I don’t even know what it’s like. Just to take that next step, because everything’s always been intro.”
Not only have there been three coordinators the past three years – four if you count John Lilly’s successful play-calling stints in the two bowls – but there have been three offensive line coaches, three running backs coaches, three receivers coaches, and three strength and conditioning coordiantors.
“The consistency of ‘This is how it’s going to be, this is how it was, now everybody’s on board and everybody knows,’” Blazevich said. “It’s not, ‘Oh we need to figure out this offense, we need to figure out this weight training.’ Now it is what it is and we can just go.”
Chubb echoed that.
“I think it has been overlooked. You can get by with it one year, but then the next year you change, and it kind of gets complicated,” Chubb said. “Hopefully we can get some kind of stability here and make things better.”
Chubb and Sony Michel returning will help. So will Eason being a returning starter. And better talent, presumably, especially at receiver and offensive line.
Then again, there’s always happy talk when it comes to next year. Remember the optimism after the hiring of Schottenheimer? It happened last year too.
If Georgia’s veterans have learned anything the past two years, it’s been to appreciate the good old days. Trying to figure out how to get back to them has been the hard part.