Jeff Dantzler takes a look at the 2017 Georgia Bulldogs position by position and first up is the offense.
For Georgia to win the state and Southeastern Conference East, Jacob Eason has to improve at quarterback. He got thrown into the fire with a poor offensive line and first-year staff in 2016, but now is the time for the five-star prospect to consistently excel. Eason had his moments, like the comeback against Missouri and near-comeback against Tennessee, but struggled with accuracy, finding secondary receivers, getting the offense in the right sets and catastrophic turnovers. Making the big strides in all those areas – especially the last of those four – is essential.
True freshman early enrollee Jake Fromm is pushing Eason and will play this season. His future is bright, and gurus who know quarterbacks predict great things for his future. It was a good sign when Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart said that Eason didn’t like when Fromm would answer questions before him. Competition.
Both Eason and Fromm have tremendous upside and bright futures, pushing one another will help both reach their potential.
There are two spots on offense where the Bulldogs boast bountiful talent – running back and tight end. The decisions of tremendously talented seniors Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to return for their final seasons has jacked up Georgia’s 2017 expectations. With Kirby Smart rebuilding the depth of talent, most Bulldog fans had their eyes of 2018 as the year that expectations of greatness were reasonable. But Michel and Chubb, who have already had memorable careers, haven’t been to an SEC Championship Game and have had a pair of bitter and painful losses to Tech to deal with, didn’t want to go out that way. Their return bolsters the offense, makes Georgia arguably the favorite in the SEC East and shows tremendous confidence and faith in Smart.
Brian Herrien, when he got the chance as a freshman, showed he too can be an elite tailback. He hits the hole with a tremendous burst. Elite incoming freshman D’Andre Swift was the state player of the year in Pennsylvania and has been compared to former Bulldog All-SEC tailback and first-round pick Knowshon Moreno. They could be the next duo – with another elite prospect possibly joining the fold in 2018.
Elijah Holifield, assuming he has a one-game suspension, gives Georgia another physical runner in a top-flight backfield.
Fullback Christian Payne is one of the most versatile players on the squad.
He can block, catch and run.
Georgia runs it much better with a fullback on the field when the quarterback is under center. Have to clean out the hole. The versatility of so many of Georgia’s backs, especially Michel, Herrien and potentially Swift, gives the Bulldogs the option to play multiple tailbacks in various spots together.
Last season it was a close race for the position that most underperformed and was the greatest victim of several years of subpar recruiting between the offensive line and wide receivers.
Smart, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and receivers coach James Coley would certainly like for three or four receivers to emerge and separate themselves. It’s tough for a quarterback to get the timing down with five, six, seven wide receivers. The staff also made it a point to get bigger and more physical at the position – all four signees are at least 6-2, including early enrollee Jeremiah “J.J.” Holloman, who had an impressive spring. Javon Wims came on late last season and is 6-4 with good speed. Terry Godwin, a threat in multiple ways, was called out by Smart as having a strong spring and taking big steps forward. The former five-star, though not that big, has speed and versatility. Riley Ridley will likely miss the first game. He too has potential but must become a reliable pass- catcher. Ridley had the big TD grab in the almost against the Vols, but had a big third down drop (compounded by a missed field goal from the Bulldogs) in the heart-breaker the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Charlie Woerner, the big and talented nephew of Bulldogs hall of fame legend Scott Woerner, figures to be on the field for a majority of Georgia’s snaps. Will he be a tight end, a split end, flanker, hybrid? As a sophomore now, his improving grasp of the offense gives Georgia a big, fast, maneuverable talent with excellent hands.
There are other veterans and three other incoming freshmen at the position, but shuttling seven or eight players in and out isn’t what the Bulldogs are looking for. Not at wide receiver.
Isaac Nauta, if he keeps the drive, could be an all-time great at tight end for the Bulldogs. If someone told you that in 20 years a current member of the Georgia football team would be getting a bust and gold jacket in Canton, Nauta would be a great bet.
Jeb Blazevich is awfully good and a big-time team leader. The depth here is terrific with Jackson Harris and Jordan Davis. Plus there is Woerner, who can be used as a hybrid. Nauta is the key though, a special talent, Rob Gronkowski potential.
Coach Sam Pittman was the crown jewel hire of Smart’s staff, one of the most respected recruiters and O-Line gurus in the business. He is working gangbusters to rebuild and restock a unit, due to years of sub-par and an overall lack of quality recruiting that was one of the worst in program annals a year ago. Help is on the way with a highly touted crop of four freshmen coming in, along with early enrollee junior college transfer D’Marcus Hayes. The Bulldogs are also strongly in the mix for the state’s top two offensive linemen for the class of 2018 and have a commitment for a blue- chipper in the potential blockbuster Bulldog crop of 2019.
Georgia’s offensive line promises to be very good in 2018 and great in 2019. If not sooner. But what about 2017?
While elite prep prospects Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson at tackle and Netori Johnson and Justin Shaffer at guard will be the cornerstones of soon-to-come massive and talented fronts, they will be on a steep learning curve as true freshmen.
The question with what Georgia has coming back… can the Bulldogs put together a good enough line without having to count on one or more of the freshmen to start? It would be great to have that option as a luxury, not a necessity.
Isaiah Wynn figures to be the man at left tackle. Georgia’s best and most versatile lineman is excited for a big senior season. Versatile senior Dyshon Sims could start at guard – and that’s the bet – or right tackle. Lamont Gaillard will be the center, the junior making strides after moving over from the defensive front. Sims could also play center. But having Gaillard step in at center is the play – that way Jacob Eason (if he starts this season and next) wouldn’t have three centers in three years.
What of the redshirt freshmen Soloman Kindley, Chris Barnes and the massive Ben Cleveland? Kindley could play guard or tackle, while Barnes trained at center in the spring, along with a guard. Cleveland, the highly touted five-star, continues to make strides. Flexibility has been one of his biggest issues, but the big fella has been doing yoga and could certainly contribute this season. As for being a front line force, he may be a year away but is on his way. Pat Allen made a big push at guard in the spring and is vying for a starting spot.
The depth is getting there. Whether the line will be much better this season is a key question for Georgia’s success in 2017. But, with Pittman as the driving force, this big unit is heading in the direction that Georgia fans have long longed for.
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