Kirby Smart urged the Bulldog faithful to pack Sanford Stadium for the 2016 G-Day spring game and the Bulldawg Nation heeded their new head coach’s plea to perfection on a sun-kissed Saturday afternoon by filling every nook and cranny of the old stadium to the tune of 93,000 fans.
Exactly the number Smart had called for from the moment he succeeded Mark Richt as Georgia’s head football coach. And that estimated crowd of 93,000 almost doubled Georgia’s previous G-Day attendance record of 46,815, set just last season.
And Smart’s team gave the overflow crowd plenty of things to digest in the coming summer months, before the Bulldogs play for real on Sept. 3 against North Carolina in the Georgia Dome. In a game that featured a total of 83 passes and saw the highly-touted freshman quarterback, Jacob Eason, make a sterling Sanford Stadium debut, the Black team – wearing white uniforms – romped past the Red team by a 34-14 tally.
“Opening remarks … wow!,” said Smart in his post-game press conference. “For our fan base to come out and support our program and our kids the way they did, it touches me and my heart. It’s a special moment to know that the fan base has your back and has got your program’s back,” added Smart. “There were a lot of doubters out there that said it couldn’t be done, that they won’t come out, they have something better to do. But they came and they came in droves and I appreciate that. Our kids appreciate that…it speaks volumes for where Georgia is heading and what Georgia can do…What a great atmosphere to come out and compete in. I can’t say enough about our fan base and what they were able to do. I don’t think we gave them our best performance,” said Smart. “We had some sloppy ball at times but they came out to support us and, again, I appreciate that.”
As Smart promised, the three quarterbacks competing for the starting job this fall … senior incumbent Greyson Lambert, junior Brice Ramsey and early enrollee Eason were given pretty much equal reps on the afternoon, with Lambert and Ramsey seeing action for both teams and Eason doing all his throwing for the Red team.
And, no question, the loudest roar of the day came when Eason made his first appearance in the second quarter. And the 6-5, 230-pound Eason quickly lived up to his immense build-up, completing a 13-yard pass in the flats to Brendan Douglas on his first throw and going on to finish the game 19-for-29 for 244 yards including a 7-yard touchdown strike to another new early enrollee, tight end Isaac Nauta. Eason’s 244 yards passing is believed to be the most in a Georgia spring game since Athens’ own Paul Gilbert threw for 250 yards in 1968.
Ramsey also had a good day, completing 16-of-25 attempts for 224 yards. Lambert posted an 11-for-22 outing for 140 yards on both sides and had one costly interception, which junior cornerback Aaron Davis picked off at the Blacks’ 2-yard line and returned 98 yards for a touchdown. Redshirt freshman walk-on Nick Robinson added a 5-for-7 passing line with 49 yards and a touchdown.
“We tried to balance out the quarterbacks and they came out almost dead even,” Smart said. “I thought all three of those kids competed hard. They communicated well in the hole … they did a good job in executing the offense. I thought Jacob executed the offense well and moved the ball down the field. I don’t think he knew there were 93,000 people there because he showed no fear. He did hold the ball too long at times but, overall, played well.
“Brice also had some good throws, also completing 60 percent of his passes and Greyson did well also but had a couple of drops,” said Smart. “What we’re seeing now are three guys who have three different traits. The guy who starts against North Carolina will be the guy who gives us the best chance to win the game.”
On the receiving end, senior flanker Reggie Davis led all players with 134 yards on six receptions for the Red team. Early enrollee Riley Ridley added four receptions for 68 yards and Nauta caught six balls for 56 yards and a touchdown. The Black team was led by Jayson Stanley with four receptions for 87 yards.
With the Red team hurling 49 passes and completing 31 of them for 387 yards and the Blacks putting the ball up 34 times and completing 20 for 270 yards, the aerial circus completely overshadowed Georgia’s run game. With injured All-American candidate Nick Chubb dressed out but watching from the sideline while recuperating from his knee surgery, redshirt freshman Tae Crowder and rising junior Sony Michel carried the load for the Black squad, combining for 14 carries and 67 yards, a 4.8 average per carry. On the opposite side, Shaquery Wilson led the Red team with nine carries for 24 yards and a touchdown, while Douglas contributed three carries for 13 yards.
Defensively, sophomore outside linebacker D’Andre Walker led the Black squad’s pass rush with four sacks for a combined loss of 27 yards. Juwan Taylor led the Black team in tackles with seven, while Aaron Davis added three and the 98-yard interception return for a touchdown. The Red team was led by junior inside linebacker Reggie Carter with six tackles and senior safety Quincy Mauger with five tackles and a pass breakup.
“We’ve got to get more physical up front on defense,” Smart said. “I think it hurts us to have some guys out on the defensive line. Defensively, we didn’t do what we’ve done all spring … attack the ball. I’m not pleased with our defense. We’ve got to play better and play more physical,” he added. “Offensively, I do think we are going to run better and run the ball better,” he said, likely envisioning ahead to the fall and what a healthy Nick Chubb will mean to Georgia’s ground attack.
“The crowd was incredible,” said junior tight end Jeb Blazevich. “I was telling somebody earlier I always try to ignore the crowd but today it was impossible to ignore them. The people were so loud that we couldn’t ignore them. That was insane … and awesome. As far as our performance today, I think we need to continue to develop our run game, in terms of the line of scrimmage,” said Blazevich. “A lot of that is our effort, just getting bigger and stronger. Technically, we’re getting sounder, but we’re still working on getting more aggressive and more physical.”
“I think the best thing about today was the love that the fans showed,” said senior safety Mauger. “Big props to the fans for filling the stadium to capacity. That shows what kind of loyal fans we have. They really believe in us, and so it was time to give ‘em a show. On defense today, we just tried to be a very physical team. Stopping the run is definitely one of the main things we need to focus on heading into the fall. We’ll go back into the film room and teach and learn off that.”
“I do feel like we have a great chance to do big things this year,” said sophomore wide receiver Terry Godwin. “The receiving corps is very excited we’re taking more deep balls this year. That’s what we’re here for. We’re either going to be a deep threat or a hard-nosed running football team. But it was very exciting today,” said Godwin. “We were debating earlier today. Some of us were saying there would be around 60,000, so we weren’t expecting to see our fans pack out the stadium. That was a special moment for us.”
For the record, the Black team’s scoring came via a 46-yard field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship, a 2-yard run by Crowder, another 19-yard field goal by Blankenship, a 4-yard pass from Robinson to fullback Christian Payne, Davis’ 98-yard interception gallop and another short touchdown run by Crowder, this time for six yards. The Reds’ only scores on the day came on Eason’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Nauta and converted wide receiver Shaquery Wilson’s 7-yard touchdown run in the final quarter.
“Bottom line,” said Smart, “we’ve got a long way to go but the good thing is, we’ve got a good amount of time to get there and it all starts with the summer workouts.”