Previews 2016: Florida, Georgia and Kentucky

Apr 16, 2016; Athens, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart talks to running back Sony Michel (1) during the second half of the spring game at Sanford Stadium. The Black team defeated the Red team 34-14. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 16, 2016; Athens, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart talks to running back Sony Michel (1) during the second half of the at Sanford Stadium. The Black team defeated the Red team 34-14. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY

Georgia Bulldogs

Overview: There is no team that will be watched more closely than Georgia in 2016, with the possible exception of the Crimson Tide. That’s because long-time Bama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart has come back to his alma mater as head coach. Smart hasn’t shaken up the roster or the Bulldog systems as much as fans would probably prefer, but in the short term, that might be a good thing, as the East title is not guaranteed to land in Tennessee’s lap just yet.

Projected record: 9-3 (OM, UT, USC); 5-3 and 2nd East
Returning offensive starters: 7 (QB, RB, SE, TE, LG, C, RT)
Returning defensive starters: 3 (RCB, SS, FS)
Returning specialists: 0

Unit ratings
QB: Av DL: Fr
RB: Ex LB: Fr
WR: Vg DB: Vg
OL: Av ST: Av

Offensive breakdown: While Georgia fans might have clamored for speed-spread offenses and the like, Smart hired veteran pro-style offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and will simply continue using Mark Richt’s old systems. It’s hard to argue, given that the quarterback position will come down to one of three pro-style guys, incumbent Greyson Lambert, last year’s backup Brice Ramsey or true freshman phenom Jacob Eason. Lambert would seem to be the presumptive favorite, but last year’s debacle against exposed Lambert’s issues with everything from hand size in bad weather to a lack of zip on the ball to questionable decision-making under duress.

If Smart thinks Eason is too green for the job, Ramsey would seem like the safe compromise pick. Still, Lambert’s stats from a year ago – most notably 19 touchdowns against only 2 picks – would seem to make it hard to jump over him to get to someone else. Georgia may end up repeating last year’s unwise decision to play multiple quarterbacks for the entire season.

Injury concerns are the only thing stopping the running back group from being exemplary. Sony Michel and Nick Chubb are as good a 1-2 punch as can be found anywhere. Brendan Douglas gives Georgia experience further down the bench. Tae Crowder has the body type to be the next great Georgia back. Hiring Chaney as OC guaranteed that Georgia’s fullbacks wouldn’t need to transfer to find playing time; Christian Payne and Glenn Welch will handle the there.

Receiver should be a strong suit, at least at the top, with Terry Godwin and Reggie Davis back along with Isaiah McKenzie. Jeb Blazevich was underutilized at tight end last year, a rare occurrence in Athens. Jackson Harris gives the Bulldogs some experience there. Finding a second wave of receivers is key, as Jayson Stanley should get one of the spots. Shakenneth Williams, Michael Chigbu and freshman are other candidates.

The offensive line isn’t a mess, but there are questions. Guard Greg Pyke moved to right tackle; it’s not his ideal playing spot but the Bulldogs have few options. A graduate transfer from the University of Rhode Island, Tyler Catalina, apparently has shown enough that left guard Isaiah Wynn can return to his 2015 post rather than having to learn a new one.

Center Brandon Kublanow is solid. Lamont Gaillard and Dyshon Sims will battle, along with Thomas Swilley, for the right guard vacated by Pyke’s move to tackle. The lack of tackle could be an issue for this team, as Kendall Baker gets double duty backing up both sides.

Defensive breakdown: As one might imagine, Smart will bring the 3-4 over/under he and Nick designed and ran in for nine years to Athens, with former assistant Melvin Tucker serving as coordinator. But Smart and crew will be tested early, as the front seven will be all new. John Atkins gets the call at nosetackle, with Trenton Thompson and DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle the likely starters at end.

The search for a supporting cast led to Julian Rochester coming out of as the No. 2 nose, while Joseph Ledbetter will work at end, especially in passing situations. Michael Barnett, freshman Michail Carter and walk-on Alex Essex are others with a shot for playing time.

Tim Kimbrough was set to return at one of the inside linebacker posts, but was essentially cut from the team, if Kimbrough’s social media was to be believed. Smart also must try to solve the riddle of outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter, who has so far failed to live up to expectations. Davin Bellamy will start across from Carter at the other outside spot, while Reggie Carter and Natrez Patrick will be the inside linebackers. Roquan Smith will back up the inside spots, while Chuks Amaechi provides outside. Overall, however, there isn’t much depth here.

The secondary will be led by returning safeties Dominick Sanders and Quincy Mauger. Aaron Davis and Malkom Parrish will battle at cornerback, as will Juwuan Briscoe. And then there’s the much-ballyhooed transfer of ’s into the mix. Given that Smith claimed to leave over lack of playing time at corner, it’s a safe bet he’s expecting a starting assignment there in Athens. Rico McGraw and Deandre Baker are also in the mix.

The kicking situation could get ugly. Rodrigo Blankenship and Ham will duke it out for the placekicking spot, but neither has managed to lock it up yet. At punter, freshman Marshall Long threatens to take the away from quarterback Brice Ramsey, an unfortunate development for fans of quick kicks and fakes.

Overall Trend: Down. Forget the Kirby Smart situation, Georgia simply lost too much on defense. But Smart’s hesitance to name a starting quarterback, coupled with rebuilding efforts on the offensive line and in the special teams department, mean this will probably be a transitional year all the way around. Taking over a major program like Georgia is never easy for a coach with no prior head coaching experience, so Smart can expect to be under the microscope all year, especially from a Georgia base not well-known for either its patience or its grasp of understanding of place in the pecking order.

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