ATHENS – It got lost with everything that was going on and would eventually happen in Georgia’s Rose Bowl victory over Oklahoma, but you know who was playing really good in that game?
The sophomore tight end with the famous last name hauled in three pass receptions for 21 yards in the first quarter. Three! Relative to how often the Bulldogs’ tight ends were targeted all year, that’s like 10 for a wideout or 15 totes for a tailback.
Then, poof, he was gone.
I don’t think anybody even asked anything about it after that thrilling game was over. The Bulldogs’ prevailed in the most dramatic of fashions. Georgia blocked a field goal then scored on a long touchdown run in the second overtime of a 54-48 victory.
Next thing we know, Woerner was not practicing the next week and he shows up for the national championship on crutches and standing on the sideline in warmups.
“I was pretty bummed out,” said Woerner, now a junior. “It really sucked watching and knowing I could have been out there helping the team. But I was sitting on the sidelines supporting my team and doing what I could. At the end of the day I wanted to be out there.”
You can bet the Bulldogs wanted Woerner out there as well. In glimpses last year, we saw that when this kid is healthy and utilized, he can be quite the weapon.
Remember that play against Missouri, where Woerner hauled in the pass in the flat, then hurdled a defender as he sprinted down the sideline for a 50-yard gain? Sometimes Georgia would line up Woerner inside at tight end, sometimes they’d flex him out wide and other times they might put him in the slot. All the while, they experienced no drop-off in blocking, which is and continues to be the primary responsibility of the tight ends. At 6-foot-5, 251 pounds, this former high school safety and tailback has the speed to get open and the strength to block defensive ends and outside linebackers.
Woerner was revved up early on against the Sooners, too. His best buddy, quarterback Jake Fromm, recognized that and targeted him three times in the first quarter alone. Woerner hauled in that third catch and turned up field for an 11-yard gain and a first down. It looked like the Bulldogs had something going.
“I was having a blast out there,” Woerner said after one of Georgia’s spring practices this past week. “That was a really fun game … the way it started out.”
But then we wouldn’t see Woerner again. The strange thing about it was there wasn’t a moment where we saw him lying on the field being attended by trainers. Just speaking for me, I never saw him even hobble off or anything. But I know for certain I saw him on the field after that last 11-yard catch.
Woerner was asked to explain.
“I got hurt and couldn’t finish it out,” he said. “I hurt my leg and I kept playing. Then I couldn’t take it anymore, so I came out.”
Woerner wouldn’t say last week exactly what his injury was, so I did a little digging. Here’s what I found out after the fact: He had a broken leg. Fractured tibia.
I just assumed after seeing him sidelined at the National Championship Game that it was the same old high-ankle sprain that had dogged Woerner during his freshman season in 2016. This was worse.
But Woerner is well again. He pronounces himself fit and healthy now, and he says he’s having blast so far in spring practice. He seemed genuinely excited and optimistic when he came up to talk to reporters after Tuesday’s practice. The Bulldogs are now two weeks into five weeks of the spring session, which will culminate with the G-Day on April 21.
There’s much for Woerner and all the tight ends to be excited about. No matter how you slice it up, that is one of the Bulldogs’ deepest and most talented positions. Woerner and fellow junior Isaac Nauta headline the group, which includes senior Jackson Harris and freshman signee Luke Ford, a 6-foot-6, 252-pound high school All-American from Illinois. And now that group has offensive coordinator Jim Chaney as their position coach.
Chaney moving to tight ends was part of a staff re-shuffle that allowed the Bulldogs to keep James Coley on staff. Coley was offered the coordinator’s position at Texas A&M, but stayed with Georgia after Kirby Smart promoted him to co-coordinator and put him in charge of the quarterbacks.
It was a savvy move, and it helps the Bulldogs at tight end as much as anything. Shane Beamer had been coaching the position before leaving to join the Oklahoma job, and did a decent job. But in Chaney the tight ends now have a man who coached the position in the NFL and, as O.C., can explain their position and their role in the offense in a much more sophisticated way.
Woerner is not the type of player who would ever be critical of his former or current coach, but it’s evident he has gained knowledge with Chaney in charge.
“Coach Beamer was a great coach for us; Chaney is a little different,” Woerner said. “Obviously he’s the O.C., so he knows the offense inside and out better than anybody could and he’s doing to play-calling. Being in a room with him all the time is letting us get inside his head a little bit, too, and see what he’s trying to do. It should make our minds more like the quarterbacks’ almost, you know what I mean, thinking like he would.”
Woerner joked that the tight ends offered Chaney “sweet team and cookies” to get him to call more pass plays for their position. But between Woerner and Isaac Nauta, it shouldn’t take bribery for Chaney to do that. Their unique skillsets should be enough to warrant that.
Besides, it’d be hard for Chaney to target tight ends much less. They caught half the passes last year (20 for 233 yards and 2 TDs) than they did the previous one (40-480-3)
“That’s definitely the anticipation in the room, that we’d get the ball a little more,” Woerner said politely.
With talent and toughness like Woerner brings to the field, one would think they’d get a little more involved regardless who’s coaching the position. I suspect they will.