As spring games go in the Kirby Smart era, Saturday’s G-Day was pretty typical in most respects: The scaled-back playbook was mostly vanilla on both offense and defense, the emphasis mainly was on the passing game — with aerial plays accounting for more than 70 percent of the offense — and most of the attention wasn’t on the program’s established stars.
Also, as usual, there was at least one play that got the fans talking — this time, a trick play that resulted in a 39-yard touchdown pass caught by one of the quarterbacks.
One thing that wasn’t typical of the Smart era for this G-Day game was the attendance. Due to the unseasonably cool, wet weather; the game falling on Easter weekend; and probably also the lack of a compelling storyline, with no battle for starting quarterback, Georgia didn’t lead the conference this year in the number of folks who showed up for the spring game. The official attendance was announced generously as 52,630; suffice it to say the upper deck was mostly empty, and the lower bowl wasn’t at capacity.
That figure still is more than any G-Day game before Smart became head coach, but it ranks as the smallest crowd of the past four years. Of course, it felt more like February than spring in Athens Saturday, leading Smart to wonder after the game whether he would have attended if he wasn’t the coach (he said he doubted it).
As the head coach said Saturday, the purpose of the spring game nowadays mostly is to drum up recruiting interest, as well as to let the new players get a feel for what it’s like to play in front of a bigger crowd than they’ve ever experienced before.
As far as what to expect in the fall from the Dawgs, G-Day isn’t really a great barometer. In one respect, that’s a good thing, since Jake Fromm maintained the recent G-Day tradition of the starting quarterback giving a so-so performance, though his starting status remains unchallenged. He was 14-of-29 for 116 yards and a touchdown before retiring to the sideline late in the third quarter.
Those looking for an early clue to what we can expect from new defensive and offensive coordinators in Saturday’s 22-17 Red team win over the Blacks were out of luck. (The Red team had the first-string offense; the Black team had the first-string defense.) Both the defenses and offenses ran scaled-back packages, Smart said at his post-game press conference. “A lot of the new things we’re doing weren’t in that package today.”
The thing about an intrasquad game is, the good plays are simultaneously bad plays, since it’s all Georgia. Long touchdown passes? Good for the offense, but bad for the defense. Punts forced? Good for the defense, bad for the offense.
Plus, don’t give much weight to the inflated sacks total (a combined 7), since officials blew a whistle whenever a defender touched a quarterback. Quite a few of the whistle-sacks called on freshman QB D’Wan Mathis likely would have been positive-yardage plays if he’d been allowed to take off running. The kid has speed.
So, anyway, let’s break this G-Day down into what was most impressive, what turned out about like we expected, and what was disappointing:
Black team cornerback Eric Stokes was the most impressive defensive player, starting with the way he pulled a Fromm pass out of J.J. Holloman’s hands on the third play of the game for a 39-yard pick 6. Stokes also had a couple of pass breakups, including one where he kept Holloman from catching a Fromm fade in the end zone. He didn’t have a perfect day, though, fretting after the game about the 43-yard touchdown pass Holloman scored on him.
Offensively, the best day was had by former-Bulldog-returned-to-the-fold Stetson Bennett, who played for both the Black team and the Red team. Bennett showed a nice touch on some long passes, including the previously mentioned TD strike to Holloman and a 52-yard completion to Matt Landers, and showed great pocket presence on a play where he maneuvered in the pocket, directing his receiver, to complete a 22-yarder to Tyler Simmons. For the day, Bennett was 8-of-14 for 128 yards and a touchdown for the Reds and 4-of-9 for 82 yards for the Blacks.
We didn’t see much of talented tailbacks D’Andre Swift and Brian Herrien (or the running game in general), but each had his moments, with Swift making an impressive 27-yard run and Herrien scoring on a particularly nice catch and run. It was encouraging to see the success the quarterbacks had throwing to their backs.
Defensively, Richard LeCounte led the Black team with eight tackles, followed by freshman linebacker Nakobe Dean with five and defensive backs Stokes and Tyson Campbell with four each. The Reds’ defense was led by safety Lewis Cine’s eight tackles, and they got six from defensive back Christopher Smith and five each from backs Tyrique Stevenson and Latavious Brini (who also had an interception). Playing the star position, Mark Webb had a couple of impressive pass breakups.
Works in progress
The receivers had a mixed day, personified by 6-foot-5 Landers, who was targeted all day but had trouble coming down with the ball, failing to catch at least three long passes from Bennett and Mathis that hit him in the hands.
For the Reds, the leading receivers were tight end Charlie Woerner, who had 5 catches for 44 yards; Holloman, who snagged 3 for 54 (with one TD); and Herrien, who caught 3 for 50 and one touchdown. For the Blacks, Trey Blount led receivers with 5 catches for 69 yards, and tight end John FitzPatrick caught 5 for 32 yards.
In the battle to see who will be Fromm’s primary backup at quarterback, Bennett looked like the leader. Mathis, who played just for the Black team, showed a lot of potential, but remains very raw. As you’d expect of a kid fresh out of high school, he held the ball too long (resulting in a bunch of those whistle-sacks) and threw some unwise passes. He completed 15 of 28 for 113 yards and one interception (though he nearly was picked off on another play when he was trying to throw the ball away). He also mishandled a couple of snaps.
Dual-threat Mathis’ game was hampered, of course, by the fact that he couldn’t take advantage of his speed by keeping the ball without drawing the officials’ whistles. He showed some of his potential on the game-ending Hail Mary attempt when he bought time by rolling out to evade pass-rushers and nearly completed a game-winning pass (another one that hit Landers in the hands, only to be broken up).
Sophomore walk-on QB John Seter also got in for one series with the Blacks.
In terms of special teams, there were four field goals made by four different placekickers, including a long one for the day of 49 yards made with length to spare by Jake Carmarda, who’s primarily the starting punter. Kicks weren’t returned, so the big question of who’ll handle that for the Dawgs won’t be answered until August.
Play of the game
Among several long passes completed, the most exciting easily was the touchdown reception by Mathis on a double-reverse throwback that offensive coordinator James Coley drew up the day before, but which they’d never practiced. The play saw Mathis hand off to tailback James Cook, who tossed the ball to Landers on a reverse, with Landers then throwing downfield to the speedy freshman QB.
I have a feeling that’s a play we’ll be seeing again somewhere down the road.
Let me hear from you!
I’ll dip into the Junkyard Mail next week, so let me know what you thought of the spring game, and feel free to share your views on the upcoming season by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.