“Change is inevitable, growth is optional!”
That was Kirby Smart’s message to his Georgia football team at the opening of spring practice in March and for the 2018 edition of the Bulldogs, no truer words were ever spoken.
That’s because the changes in Georgia’s makeup for this coming season, after the SEC Championship season and national championship runner-up finish the 2017 team accomplished, are just shy of dramatic.
Especially in the Bulldog running back corps, where Georgia lost the NCAA’s all-time combo rushing duo in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, and in the defensive backfield where starters Dominick Sanders, Aaron Davis and Malkom Parrish completed their eligibility, are areas where Bulldog Nation will see sizable change this autumn.
But then there’s the growth part of Smart’s statement and without question the Georgia coach was emphasizing to his third Georgia team, especially the Bulldogs who will be stepping into starting roles for the first time, that their growth as a football player and subsequent contribution to the University of Georgia is something that each individual player must take hold of; indeed, a true option where the Bulldogs can rise to the challenge and help form a championship team or fail to grow as both a player and student and fall by the wayside.
And in the recent spring practice, which culminated in the April 21 G-Day game, there were distinct signs emerging of these 2018 Bulldogs beginning to take steps forward in the individual position battles and being ready to go full steam ahead into the summer workouts and then the beginning of August camp.
All over this new-look Georgia team there are areas where growth must happen if the Bulldogs are to repeat as SEC champions but, as mentioned, two critical areas where new starters must emerge are at running back and in the secondary.
“Absolutely, there’s been growth in the running backs corps,” said junior tight end Isaac Nauta. “We’ve got a bunch of good backs. We’ve been nicked up back there (during spring) so we’ve had some guys step up … even Prather Hudson stepped up and made some big runs in the scrimmages so that was good to see. We’ve just got so much talent back there that it’s going to be hard not to get those guys involved as well. Elijah Holyfield, Brian Herrien and D’Andre Swift and we’ve got a couple of guys we haven’t even seen yet (Zamir White, James Cook) due to injury or not being here yet. So there’s a ton of talent back there and I’m going to be excited to see what’s going to happen … see those guys carry the rock!”
“With Nick and Sony leaving it definitely brings a void to the offense but we’ve got guys who came to college to step into their place and take over that role,” said junior wide receiver Mecole Hardman. “So is it hard to replace Nick and Sony and guys like Isaiah Wynn in the line? Yes, it’s definitely hard but we’ve got players who can step in and do what they’re supposed to do.”
One guy who will be stepping in and, in fact, will be the projected starter at tailback when the Bulldogs kick off the season Sept. 1 against Austin Peay is sophomore D’Andre Swift, who sat out the G-Day game with a lingering groin injury. Earning freshman All-SEC honors, the Philadelphia, Pa. native ran for 618 yards and a 7.6 yards-per-carry average, that despite playing behind 1,000-yard rushers Chubb and Michel. But the 5-9, 215-pound Swift will have plenty of help at the position from rising juniors Holyfield and Herrien, who both enjoyed good springs.
And those three are about to get plenty of competition from the two ballyhooed incoming freshmen, White and Cook.
While Cook, a 5-11, 183-pound speedster from Miami and the younger brother of former Florida State All-American Dalvin Cook, will be reporting to campus next month, White has already raised some eyebrows with his taking reps in spring practice, although without contact after having surgery for a torn ACL he sustained in the North Carolina state playoffs. White, known as “Zeus,” was ranked as the No. 1 prep running back in America while playing for Scotland High in Laurinburg, N.C.
“He’s just really athletic, he’s shifty,” Georgia senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said. “You can just see him going through drills and it looks like he’s home. This is what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s one of those players,” Ledbetter said. “He’s electric, he’s just a great athlete.”
Also decimated by graduation, the Bulldogs’ defensive backfield apparently made great growth strides over the 15 days of spring drills and that was illustrated in the G-Day game that was won 21-13 by the Black team, which featured the Bulldogs’ No. 1 defensive unit. Combined, the projected starting secondary of the Black team — Tyrique McGhee, Richard LeCounte, J.R. Reed, and Deandre Baker — totaled 14 tackles, four pass breakups, and two interceptions.
“The secondary played really well today and kind of kept us on our toes,” said the Bulldogs’ starting sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm, who quarterbacked the Red team, which consisted of Georgia’s No. 1 offense. “They took away a lot of the deep stuff that we normally do, but I thought they played well and got after us a little bit. In practice we’ve gashed them and got some big plays on them but today they definitely played a lot better and didn’t allow us to do that. So we tip our hat off to the defense.”
Smart said he was generally pleased with the measure of growth both the running back unit and defensive backfield attained during spring and will carry forward into the summer workouts.
“We still have a long way to go,” said Smart. “There has been growth and I have seen progress. I have seen some of the drills we do correlate into the scrimmage or a team 11-on-11 situation. You’re always as a coach trying to put guys in a situation they’re in in a game but make it safer and make it simpler. We have done a lot of drill work and some of the guys have gotten better but we’ve still got a long ways to go. I am pleased with the effort but we aren’t near where we need to be yet.”
So yes, there will be plenty of change swirling around the 2018 Bulldogs as they prepare to defend their SEC title this fall but the Georgia players, to a man, feel they will have taken the necessary growth strides to confront the challenges the opposition will bring their way in the new season.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say change is optional but you’re put in a situation where either you’re going to change or not change and life is going to keep moving,” said Ledbetter. “It’s a big machine here and I’m just proud of our guys because no one’s really laid down and not been able to rise to the call of action. All are eager to compete and just come out and try to help one another get better.”