ATHENS — Georgia is poised for a recruiting class that could rank No. 3 in the country. Very, very good. But those players will be joining a team that finished the past two seasons unranked. Not good, not good at all.
Oh, Georgia is set to return 10 starters on defense, seven on offense, the kicker and the punter. But when you lose five games, you clearly have plenty of room for improvement.
Here’s a look at the five biggest on-field needs for Georgia in 2017, and whether they’re set to be filled by this excellent recruiting class … or from within. Or not at all.
1. OFFENSIVE LINE
This is the major one, both in numbers and extent of the problem. Three starters depart from an offensive line that struggled for much of the year, especially in run blocking. Both starting tackles and the center have to be replaced.
But help is definitely on the way.
The highest-ranked member of Georgia’s signing class at this point — according to the 247Sports composite — is Isaiah Wilson, who is projected as a tackle, but also could play guard. Junior college transfer D’Marcus Hayes is already on campus, and will have spring practice to try to lock down one of the tackle spots.
Tackles Andrew Thomas and D’Antne Demery and guard Netori Johnson, all 4-star prospects, are also committed and will compete for playing time as well. Throw in the returning players, such as Aulden Bynum, Ben Cleveland and Chris Barnes, and offensive line coach Sam Pittman should have plenty of options.
2. WIDE RECEIVERS
Georgia’s two best receivers this past season — Isaiah McKenzie and Terry Godwin — are both under 6-foot, which isn’t the direction this coaching staff wants to go. Now McKenzie, who led the team in receiving and was its most dynamic offensive player, is off to the pros.
So what now? Much like the offensive line, help is on the way, joining a group of veterans ready for an increased role.
Receiver Jeremiah Holloman. (Jeff Sentell / AJC)
Much attention in these final 10 days will be on whether Nico, a four-star prospect, will end up at Georgia. At 6-foot-5, he could be a factor right away at Georgia, unless he ends up at LSU or Michigan.
But 4-star prospect Jeremiah Holloman is already on campus, having enrolled early, while 4-stars Mark Webb and Trey Blount and 3-star Matt Landers are committed. Landers is 6-foot-5, and the other three are 6-2.
But don’t forget about returning players, especially rising sophomore Riley Ridley and rising senior Javon Wims.
Georgia projects to lose just one defensive starter, but it’s a big one: Maurice Smith, the graduate transfer from Alabama, who started every game at nickelback and was arguably the MVP of the defense. He plays a position that’s of increasing importance in the era of spread football, and his top backup this year — sophomore Rico McGraw — is also leaving, via transfer.
There are a few possible replacements, and while they may not necessarily be an incoming player, it would open a spot for one.
Aaron Davis, a rising senior who’s played safety and cornerback, could move to the star. That would open up a starting spot at strong safety, where 5-star Richard LeCounte and 4-star DeAngelo Gibbs could play. Both enrolled early and will have a chance this spring to earn the spot.
4. PUNT/KICK RETURNER
Not only is Georgia losing McKenzie, the school record-holder for punt return touchdowns, but also senior Reggie Davis, the main kick returner the past couple years.
Mecole Hardman, who was Davis’ main backup on kickoffs as a freshman in 2016, will be a prime candidate for that role. Tyler Simmons, another rising sophomore, also should get a look.
But there’s no shortage of players with speed coming in, like the receivers and defensive backs listed above. And D’Andre Swift, the 5-foot-9 tailback from Philadelphia, brings a motor.
5. SPECIAL TEAMS IN GENERAL
This is where signing good classes year after year and not having much attrition could really help a team.
Georgia obviously struggled on special teams this year, ranking in the bottom half of the SEC in punting, kickoff return defense and opponents punting average. Punter and kicker look set, with Marshall Long and Rodrigo Blankenship, but the staff appears to be kicking the tires on kickoff specialists.
Beyond that, the actual coverage, tackling and blocking on special teams, should be helped by a deeper team. While it’s nice to have starters on special teams, it’s often safer to use second-teamers who are good enough to start. If, say, 5-star Richard LeCounte isn’t starting on defense, he still could help a lot covering on punts and kickoffs. Kirby Smart talked about a lack of depth this year beyond the starters, and it may have manifested itself in special teams. But the better your second- and third-teamers are, the better your special teams probably are.