Overview: Kirby Smart’s first season in Athens wasn’t a smooth one. Losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech soured a first season in which the biggest win, if not over a mediocre Auburn team, was probably in a bowl game against TCU. That hasn’t stopped the hype train from hitting the station with all switches grinding, though, thanks to a veteran defense and a talented quarterback. Now is when Georgia finds out what it has under the headset.
Projected record: 11-1 (AU); 7-1 and 1st SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 5 (LT, C, TE, QB, RB)
Returning defensive starters: 10 (NT, DT/E, ROLB, RILB, LILB, LOLB, RCB, LCB, FS, SS)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK, P)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
QB: Vg DL: Vg
RB: Ex LB: Ex
WR: Av DB: Vg
OL: Fr ST: Av
Offensive breakdown: There isn’t a lot of experience on this side, and what is there may be running for its life thanks to an offensive line that is expected to be a hindrance, not a plus. Jacob Eason will probably be the odds-on favorite for a Heisman nod, if one goes to an SEC quarterback. He’s everything you want in a starter: big, big arm, mobile, coachable. His true freshman season went surprisingly well given the poor quality of the offensive line and the new coaching staff breaking itself in. But he needs to take fewer hits in 2017, and for once, doesn’t need to lose running backs in serial fashion to injury. If Eason goes down, it might be panic time, as his backup will be true freshman Jake Fromm and then behind that, a vacuum. Brice Ramsey, who played quarterback before moving to punter, returned after earlier announcing a transfer, and will fill out the depth chart.
The running back position is undoubtedly the strength of the offense, thanks to Nick Chubb and Sony Michel coming back for their senior seasons. Georgia has put some split-back looks into the playbook to accommodate both players being on the team, but for the most part Smart would like them to work in a 1-2 rotation much the way Alabama uses its backs successfully. Georgia has good depth behind them, with Brian Herrian, true freshman D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holifield all angling for snaps. Unfortunately, neither the depth nor the quality carry over to the receiver unit, with the notable exception of the tight end position. There, Jeb Blazevich and Isaac Nauta are as good a 1-2 punch as any team has, and Charlie Woerner isn’t chopped liver. But the actual receiver corps is made up mostly of guys that would be intriguing second options on better teams. Case in point, Riley Ridley is in line for a starting job, as are Javon Wims and Terry Godwin. Georgia needs one of those three to separate from the rest, or perhaps take a look at Michael Chigbu, Mecole Hardman or one of four quality receivers signed in February.
The offensive line must improve regardless, no questions asked. Isaiah Wynn is the only true standout, although Georgia is hoping this is the year Dyshon Sims finally wakes up. If he does, the left side of the line will be brick-solid. The other three positions are still up for grabs to one degree or another, although Lamont Gaillard is expected to hold his center position from a year ago. The lack of development here was confounding to Georgia in 2016.
Defensive/ST breakdown: There are no depth concerns here; the real question is how to get all the playmakers on the field at once. Georgia’s front seven could vie for best in the conference by season’s end. Georgia will use a variant of the same 3-4 over/under Smart learned under Nick Saban in Alabama, but the Bulldogs are hoping for better numbers than 36th against the run and 16th against the pass. While not bad, Georgia’s defense wasn’t elite in 2016. The linebacker group – outside backers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy and inside linebackers Reggie Carter, Roquan Smith and Natrez Patrick – will make this train go. If they play up to potential, this could be a special year.
While the secondary technically outperformed the front seven last year, it did so almost in spite of itself. Few expected this particular group to exceed expectations so soundly, and Smart was correctly given credit for much of that. The unit returns intact with the notable exception of Alabama transfer Maurice Smith, who was credited as the glue that held this group together in 2016. What Georgia must cut down on are big plays and big busts, which unfortunately was a trait that seemed to follow Smart from Tuscaloosa to Athens.
Special teams could use some help. The punting situation isn’t ideal, with Marshall Long expected to hold the job despite a 38.7-yard average a year ago. Rodrigo Blankenship had a nice season as the Bulldogs’ placekicker, but then generated more than a little off-field drama when his family took the Bulldog staff to task for not extending him a scholarship as a reward. The return units must also be rebuilt.
Overall Trend: Up. There’s so much talent here, it would be difficult for Smart or his staff to mismanage it to anything less than a division title. Other than the drama at placekicker, there aren’t a lot of positions generating much controversy. There are no Maurice Smith stories as they were a year ago. The biggest story along those lines is the addition of former Wafford placekicker David Marvin as insurance against Blankenship not returning. For this reason, look for Georgia to get an honest appraisal of its abilities in 2017, delivered by its opponents and not off-the-field occurrences.
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