It was a season to remember for Jake Fromm, who received his Baphmatic Baptism by Fire in the third series of the 2017 campaign, started every game the rest of the way, and was behind center for memorable wins over Notre Dame, Tennessee, Florida, Tech and then in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game and Rose Bowl. Fromm is the incumbent starter and a fan favorite for the Georgia faithful. He has remarkable command of the offense, tremendous accuracy, top-notch athleticism and a knack for making the big play. It’s the “It Factor.” Now welcome in Justin Fields. In the true fashion that Kirby Smart is building a powerhouse in Athens, it’s about recruiting and competition. Fields was one of the most heralded school-boy prospects in the land, and brings an impressive skill set to the position. Like Fromm, and Jacob Eason before him, Fields benefits from enrolling early and spring practice. He is a superb runner with great size and a big arm. Fromm is the starter, Fields will play, both can be great. Redshirt freshman walk-on Stetson Bennett IV dazzled on the scout team a year ago. If pressed into action, or if called on during blowout time, the Bulldogs feel plenty confident in Bennett. James Coley, who has done terrific work for Smart, takes over as the QB coach, and he has a talented bunch to work with and develop.
Tailback U is unquestionably home again in Athens. Sony Michel and Nick Chubb are two of the all-time Bulldog greats, and were first and high second round picks in April’s National Football League Draft. Their talent, toughness, leadership, drive and thirst for victory will be irreplaceable. But great teams have heir apparent standouts waiting in the rings, and they reload. Georgia certainly has that with electric sophomore DeAndre Swift, who was one of the top tailbacks in the conference last season – as Georgia’s third option. Now he’s the guy. The focus will be on Swift. But he is special. So is true freshman early enrollee Zamir White, one of the country’s top prospects. Compared favorably to former Bulldog great and reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley, a fellow prep producer from North Carolina, White is undergoing rehabilitation for a knee injury he suffered in December. Georgia’s coaches will obviously be cautious with his return, but when he is back, White and Swift could be very special – like their predecessors. Fellow ballyhooed freshman James Cook is an exceptional talent and joins the group that also includes juniors Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien, both of whom have had some big moments in red and black. Running Backs coach Dell McGee has done top notch work at the position.
Georgia lost a great fullback in Christian Payne, so it remains to be seen how Georgia approaches the position. But even great teams with fantastic backs and powerful offensive lines struggle running with the quarterback under center in one back sets.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all of Georgia’s great players last season was Javon Wims, who made a slew of memorable plays, big grabs, touchdown catches and downfield blocks – highlighted by sensational plays against Appalachian State, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Florida, Tech and Oklahoma. He was a seventh-round pick by the Chicago Bears and leaves a void. Georgia welcomes back big play Mecole Hardman, TD-maker at South Bend and in the SEC Championship Terry Godwin and Riley Ridley. These three figure to be the primary targets at receiver, and the Bulldogs have some talented players in their second year in the program, plus a pair of true freshmen, one of whom, Kearis Jackson, was an early enrollee. Georgia needs for a a couple of these young players to emerge. A pair of elite five-stars are verbally committed for the class of 2019.
Isaac Nauta and Charlie Woerner are a tremendous pair of juniors who give the Bulldogs punch, talent, toughness and big play ability at tight end. A lot has been made of Georgia not targeting the tight ends in the passing game often last season. If the offensive line is improved this year, that could change a bit, as they may not be required to stay in to help on pass protection as often. Nauta is physical, talented and explosive. His touchdown against Auburn in Atlanta tied the title tilt. Woerner is tough, like Nauta has hands, and athletic. Georgia’s coaches love to point out that he’s never on the ground. He certainly has the bloodlines – a double plus – as uncle Scott Woerner is a College Football Hall of Fame legend from the Bulldogs 1980 national championship team. Jackson Harris is a good one too, and the Dogs welcome in a pair of talented true frosh, Luke Ford and John FitzPatrick. The claim Tight End U could certainly be made in Athens. A blue-chipper is committed for 2019 as well.
Georgia fans would have to go back to the 1970s and 1980s to find a two-year stretch where the Bulldogs recruited this well in back-to-back seasons. The classes of 2017 and 2018 combined with a few veterans are the primary reasons the Bulldogs are bullish on the offensive line of 2018 – despite the departure of All-American Isaiah Wynn to the New England Patriots as their first, first round draft choice. Andrew Thomas played every meaningful snap at right tackle last season as a freshman. This sensational all-around talent now moves to the left side. Lamont Gaillard is back at center. The other three positions seem up for grabs. The great news: there is terrific talent and depth – and don’t forget jumbo size – all across the front. O-Line coach Sam Pittman is one of the best in the business. He and Smart’s plan is to recruit each player with a position in mind and then cross-train them. The right tackle will likely be manned by redshirt freshman Isaiah Wilson and true freshman early enrollee Cade Mays, both off the chart five-star talents. At guard, Georgia is loaded with Ben Cleveland, Kendall Baker, Soloman Kindley, Justin Shaffer (who missed spring practice with an injury) all with experience from 2017. Netori Johnson redshirted a year ago and is hungry for snaps. Two other early enrollees, Trey Hill and Warren Ericson will fight for time, with one likely the heir apparent to Gaillard at center. When preseason camp begins, Jamaree Salyer, another five star and Pace High prep teammate of Thomas, joins in the fight at guard. Owen Condon will add depth to the tackle position. This is the spot, along with special teams, that was neglected in a costly fashion for far too long, and these have been the primary focuses of Smart and the retool of the program’s launch back into the elite.
Big John Atkins and Trenton Thompson leave a big void, but the Bulldogs have talent up front. The depth isn’t ideal. If Georgia stays healthy, there is enough, but the last two years, Georgia has brought in just two (possibly three, depending on whether Tramel Walthour comes on board this season or in December) defensive tackles. It is clearly the top priority for this coming recruiting class, and the following one. As for 2018, the Bulldogs have talent and experience at defensive end with Jonathan Ledbetter, David Marshall and Malik Herring. The same goes at defensive tackle with Tyler Clark, who had a tremendous Rose Bowl, Julian Rochester, DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle (how about that blocked field goal in the SEC Championship Game) and Michail Carter. Justin Young and Michael Barnett missed some time in the spring, but both have played and are valuable up front. Davonte Wyatt enrolled in December for bowl practice and could contribute as a freshman. Jordan Davis, at 6-6, 325, is a massive freshman who will be a force at the nose one day. Smart pulled off yet another roster coup, as Notre Dame graduate transfer Jay Hayes joins the front, and Mo Smith, J.R. Reed and Cameron Nizalek as additions from other programs. He started every game for the Fighting Irish last season and had seven tackles against the Bulldogs in South Bend.
Much like on the offensive line, Georgia has put together back to back stellar recruiting classes at linebacker, and the time is now. The Bulldogs lost All-American, SEC Championship Game MVP, Captain and No. 8 overall pick Roquan Smith, who had one of the greatest seasons for any player in Georgia history at any position. The quarterback of the defense at middle linebacker, he leaves an enormous void, as do Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy – speaking of Pasadena and South Bend. Natrez Patrick, if he can stay on the field, and D’Andre Walker give Georgia a pair of talented and experienced all-conference caliber seniors on the inside and outside. Monty Rice is the best bet to start in the other spot in the middle. He and Walter Grant, the front-runner to start opposite Walker, both saw significant snaps last season, notably in some o the Bulldogs blowout wins. Nate McBride is a special teams ace, who wants to be a regular, as does double legacy Jaden Hunter. Robert Beal redshirted last season and brings depth on the outside. Now let’s talk about the true freshmen. Brenton Cox, who enrolled early, Adam Anderson and Azeez Ojulari were all big time prospects. The former two, a pair of five-stars considered amongst the top 30 players nationally. Quay Walker and Channing Tindal were both blue-chippers who will most likely begin their careers on the inside. This is a lights out group the Bulldogs pulled in – players who could be the core one day of a dominant defense. Otis Reese is another top ten Peach State product who signed on with the Bulldogs, but Smart hinted he may be given a look at safety. Hey, the Dogs could use another Thomas Davis, right?
Georgia loses three of its five regulars from the nickel sets, but ace corner Deandre Baker and the sure-tackling safety Reed give the Dogs a pair of outstanding, all-conference caliber returnees at DB. Smart and standout defensive coordinator and secondary coach Mel Tucker feel good about the first unit, but the reliability of the backups is a question. Richard LeCounte, III was waiting in the wings last season and is the front-runner to start opposite Reed. If his inured knee is healed from a spring injury, Mark Webb, the cousin of Swift who moved over from receiver, could win the corner job opposite Baker. Ameer Speed is also impressive. Georgia has signed seven cornerbacks the last two years. Unfortunately, early enrollee Divaad Wilson injured his knee in the spring and likely will miss at least a large portion of the season. Tyson Campbell is a five-star from Florida who will get a look, and Chris Smith has a bright upside, as does Nadab Joseph. Again, being reliable, and knowing the coverages is a must to play in this secondary. Ty McGhee can play corner or the “star” position. Eric Stokes has wheels. Smart summed it up when he told this batch that if they didn’t get everything down pat, they would be replaced by new players who could. Georgia is also getting back DeAngelo Gibbs, who was a five star recruit. Reese could be in the mix at safety, and certainly, like so many young
players in the program, could be a big time special teams player.
The unit showed incredible improvement last season. Scott Fountain is back with the unit, and hopefully, a role will be found for now-graduated Hall of Fame legend Kevin Butler, who has unsurpassed knowledge and relatability of special teams play. Rodrigo Blankenship had an incredible sophomore year and is one of the nation’s top returning kickers. Butler’s help is immeasurable. Nizalek was a tremendous punter, the best for Georgia since All-American Drew Butler. Marshall Long is out with another knee surgery, but a pair of redshirt walk-on players and highly touted true freshman Jake Camarda will battle for the punters roll. Landon Stratton, a graduate transfer from Murray State, will also content for the punter job. Hardman is a speedster returner and is aiming to break a couple this year. There will be plenty of talent, from veterans and newcomers to give Georgia great play in the return and coverage games. The vastly improved depth of talent in the program really shows here. But it starts with the performances of the kicker and punter.