ATHENS — Here is what we have learned about the Georgia Bulldogs so far in camp.
Let me amend that: Here’s what I believe I’ve learned a week into preseason camp regarding some of the main questions surrounding the team. You can take my word for it or not. Such as:
The quarterbacks …
I still see this as a one-man race, and I’ve seen nothing to dissuade me from that. That is, sophomore Jake Fromm is the undisputed starter and freshman Justin Fields is his talented understudy. Fields is being pressed hard to be ready to take over at a moment’s notice. But, I’m sorry, Fields is not going to unseat an incumbent starter that played more than 900 snaps on the largest of stages based on what he does in 28 preseason practices and three scrimmages before the first game.
That said, a lot can happen once those games start. Injuries and/or ineffectiveness by either party could come into play. But based on what I’ve been seeing and hearing, I expect to see a vastly improved Fromm in command of a faster-moving, more-pass-oriented offense. And I expect to see Fields in the first half of the first game.
The backup quarterbacks …
I get an inordinate amount of questions about who might be Georgia’s third-team quarterback. The Bulldogs have five signal-callers in all, including three walkons: redshirt freshman John Seter of Hampton, freshman Matthew Downing of Alpharetta and Mason Wood of Douglasville. I’m really just guessing here, but I’d say the 6-foot-3 Seter would be on the travel squad based on his size, an extra year of experience and what looks to me to be a smooth delivery and accurate ball. But it just as well could be Mecole Hardman or Terry Godwin in the Wild Dawg in a pinch. Hopefully none of us will find out unless it’s garbage time.
The linebackers …
All indications are that Natrez Patrick is a go for the first game and that he’ll start at middle linebacker alongside Tae Crowder. And if that is indeed the case, that might make for a very different-looking defense for the Bulldogs. Patrick and Crowder are 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, and 6-3, 235, respectively. The Bulldogs were considerably quicker and leaner down the stretch last season with Roquan Smith and Reggie Carter manning the middle most of the time. Of course, linebacker coach Glenn Schumann will have the option of going smaller and quicker if he so chooses with Monty Rice (6-1, 235) and Juwan Taylor (6-1, 218). Unfortunately for Georgia, neither of them have the speed and quickness of Smith. Then again, nobody does.
As for Patrick’s availability, the senior served a two-game suspension to end last season after sitting out four games earlier in the year due to marijuana-related violations of team policy. Coach Kirby Smart has never specified whether Patrick will have to sit out more games to start this season. It’s unclear because while Patrick violated his Athens-Clarke County probation last December, he ultimately was not charged with a crime and his attorney claimed he passed UGA’s drug tests. But Patrick’s presence with the No. 1 defense daily in practice suggests he’d be good to go early in the season. Otherwise he’d be taking away reps from a player who needs them to get optimally ready.
The running backs …
Everybody expects an automatic reload for the Dogs in the backfield, and the potential is certainly there. But it seems like we’re talking too much about potential and not enough anything resembling a known quantity. D’Andre Swift averaged 5.4 carries a game last season and he’ll be stepping into a role where the guys ahead of him averaged 26 carries a game. A lot of those attempts came between the tackles, too, and often Swift was on the field at the same time as Nick Chubb or Sony Michel when he was averaging 7.6 yards a carry.
Obviously, Swift won’t be asked to do it all himself this season. Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien surely will see their carries increase significantly, at least at the outset. But then both the highly-touted freshmen joining the rotation also come with unknowns. Zamir White remains in a brace recovering from knee surgery and James Cook didn’t show up until late July. It’s not a stretch to think that might slow their progress.
The defensive line
I’m starting to change my tune about this group. The more I watch them and review their work, the more I think Georgia’s going to be OK on the defensive front. Tyler Clark started 12 games to Trent Thompson’s 2 at tackle last season, and transfer Jay Hayes is earning high marks for his work at that position already. The Bulldogs are set at end with Jonathan Ledbetter and David Marshall, and I believe they’ll get what they need at nose out of Julian Rochester, Daquan Hawkins-Muckle and big freshman Jordan Davis, to name a few.
There are others who can get in there and play some snaps as well. Staying healthy will still be a big factor, as it always is every season, but the front line is looking surprisingly well-manned all the sudden. To me, at least.
The secondary …
I actually see this group coming together fairly quickly and I believe it has strong potential. Technically, there are three positions up for grabs, with only senior cornerback Deandre Baker and junior safety J.R. Reed returning as regular starters. I don’t see either of those guys being unseated.
Meanwhile, there’s been some buzz about some other guys in the back end. Converted receiver Mark Webb seems to have solidified himself at the other cornerback position. And for all of Kirby Smart’s complaints about Richard LeCounte’s lack of consistency, he’s also always talking about how important flashes of play-making ability are for judging a player’s ultimate potential. LeCounte, the sophomore safety from Liberty County, has been flashing like a neon traffic light at a 4-way stop. So he looks good there to me.
The real intrigue is at the star position, or nickelback, or whatever you want to call it. My money right now is on Tyrique McGhee. The junior played so well so often in spot-duty at corner last year (including two starts) and is reportedly a heady DB as well, which makes McGhee an ideal fit for the star position. That said, the star utilizes different types of players for different situations, so the 6-1 Webb and the 5-10 McGhee could just as easily switch there, as well as one of the Bulldogs’ many athletic outside linebackers.
But another distinct possibility is the enigmatic Deangelo Gibbs. At 6-1, 205, he’s a protypical fit as a corner/safety hybrid. If he has gotten his shoulder injury and all his counter-culture hangups out of the way, don’t be surprised if this former 5-star prospect finds himself in a prominent role for 2018. I’ve heard nothing so far to suggest otherwise.
The rest …
Likewise, there are loose ends for the Bulldogs to tie up all over the field. A pretty good competition has developed at punter and at left guard. And the receiver rotation has yet to be determined, especially with still unknown integers such as Terry Godwin’s knee injury and Demetris Robertson’s eligibility gumming up the works. But the pedigree of the combatants lends one to think whomever ultimately mans the posts in the end will be well worthy of it and not a cause for concern.
Now, with all that said, here comes my big qualifier. The Bulldogs will conduct their first major scrimmage of camp on Saturday, and this first Saturday in camp tends to be like the Saturdays we see in professional golf tournaments. That is, there will be a lot of movement on the leaderboard — or in Georgia’s case, the depth chart — as a result of what happens in that session at Sanford Stadium.
As always, we’ll be watching closely as the Bulldogs reconvene for practices on the other side of that scrimmage. But based on early returns, the first 22 or so Georgia places on the field this season has a chance to be at least as good as those 22 or so that represented the school last fall.
That’s just one man’s opinion, though.