Although spring football practice is on hold due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19 and the current global pandemic, the Georgia football rosters are still set for the fall. Coming off a 12-2 season, the Bulldogs head into the 2020 season with high expectations. Bulldawg Illustrated is analyzing each opponent in a twelve part series that will continue for the next several weeks.
Following Georgia’s game against Alabama, the Bulldogs will return home on Sept. 26 to take on the University of Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks at home in Sanford Stadium.
2019 Record: 5-7 overall, 4-4 Sun Belt Conference
Head Coach: Matt Viator
Key Returnees: tight end Josh Pederson, running back Josh Johnson, right tackle Sam Williams, left tackle, Blake Lodes and T.J. Fiailoa, center, Zach Breaux, cornerback Corey Slaughter
Key Losses: quarterback Caleb Evans, wide receiver Markis McCray, linebacker Cortez Sisco Jr., defensive lineman Donald Louis Jr. and Sam Miller
The biggest question surrounding the ULM Football program next season is who will replace quarterback Caleb Evans. During his four year career, Evans racked up 9,520 total career passing yards, which is second all-time in program history. He also finished with 58 career passing touchdowns (second all-time), 34 interceptions, and a 60.4 percent completion rating. In 2019, Evans had his best year throwing for 2,942 yards and 21 touchdowns. Evans was also the team’s second leading rusher last year racking up 794 yards and 12 scores on the ground.
Redshirt sophomore Colby Suits is more than likely the top candidate to replace in Evans. In his first two season, Suits saw limited actions behind Evans, who finished his career his 34 consecutive starts.
“Fortunately for us, Caleb never got hurt,” Viator said. “Colby has worked hard, but sometimes, you have to fight though that back-up mentality. He’s always been a great kid and worked hard, but what we want to see from him moving forward is a little more pep in the step.”
This past year, ULM signed Trinity Valley Community College transfer Jeremy Hunt to compete with Suits for the starting job. Hunt (6’2, 235) has the size and arm to play in the Sun Belt Conference. In 2019, Hunt completed 201 of 308 passes for 2,474 yards and 20 touchdowns at Trinity Valley helping them finish with a 7-4 record.
“You bring in a guy like Jeremy that has success at both places he’s been, both the DII school (Central Missouri) and the junior college. He won both places and produced at both places. He comes in with a little confidence.
“We’ll just see how it shakes out,” Viator said. “It will be a little different. Colby and Jeremy are the two biggest quarterbacks I’ve ever been around. They’re big, they can throw it and they’re smart.”
At the running back position, the Warhawks return Josh Johnson, who led the team in rushing with 1,298 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also had 13 receptions for 120 yards as well. His 1,298 rushing yards mark ranks as the fourth-highest single-season total in school history. Johnson also had 14 explosive plays (plays of 20 yards or more) last year.
The Warhawks will be without leading receiver Markis McCray in 2020, McCray finished the year by hauling in 47 catches for 580 yards and six scores. Luckily, tight end and second leading target Josh Pederson returns. Pederson finished the 2019 season with 43 receptions for 567 yards and nine touchdowns.
“It’s been fun to watch Pederson from where he was when we signed him to what he’s become,” Viator said.
The Warhawks will have a complete reboot on the offensive line as they have to replace four senior starters. As bad as that sounds, ULM coaches (like Georgia) rotated guys around a lot last season during games.
“I’m anxious to see going forward,” Viator said. “I believe with all my heart that we have recruited really well on the offensive line. It’s going to be hard to replace guys who played as long as our guys have. But I like the talent and the attitude and the size we have.”
Right tackle Sam Williams and left tackle Blake Lodes played a lot, and will return as key pieces to the puzzle in 2020. Additionally, T.J. Fiailoa is expected to return after a leg injury that sidelined him for most of 2019.
“He’ll do a lot of spring,” Viator said. “Obviously, we need T.J. back.”
The competition for center will be tough as Zach Breaux and JUCO transfer Dillion Brooks will compete for the job.
Viator said that he thinks the biggest area moving forward is the battle for center. He also added that they are going to have to move redshirt freshman John Bolding over to guard to clear some space up on the depth chart. And with Fiailoa limited, Dakota Torbert, Conner Parsons, and Evan Henry will be battle for starting positions at guard, as well.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Warhawks lose leading tackler Cortez Sisco Jr, also defensive lineman Donald Louis Jr. and Sam Miller. Sisco racked up 114 total tackles, two tackles for loss, and one sack in 2019. Louis had 42 total tackles, but was tied for first on the team with 10 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, in which he led the team. Miller totaled 23 total tackles and two tackles for loss (both sacks).
This leaves guys like Myles Cole, Brandon Nettles, and Dayonte Roberts to move up on the depth chart. Cole is now listed at 6-6, 250 pounds, and has matured since joining the program.
“Cole has grown at least two inches since he’s been here,” Viator said. “Maybe three. He went from 225 to 250 pounds.”\
Last season linebacker Rashaad Harding tore his ACL against Louisiana Lafayette, and will be held out as he nurses his injury. Other than him, the linebacking core seems stacked with the return of Traveion Webster, Hunter Smith, KeyShawn Johnson, and Keilos Swinney.
A strongpoint to ULM’s defense is their secondary, and especially the return of cornerback Corey Slaughter.
“Corey had to start as a true freshman because we didn’t have anybody else,” Viator said. “He took some lumps. He definitely took some. The next year, he got better. Then all of a sudden last year, he wasn’t taking any lumps. It’s been fun to watch.”
When on the field, Slaughter allowed the nation’s lowest passer rating last season at 13.5 percent, the lowest completion percentage at 28.8 percent, and the fewest combined receptions for first downs and touchdowns with seven. He was named by USA Today as a second team All American and by Pro Football Focus to the third team all-defense. According to PFF, his coverage grade ranked sixth-highest among all NCAA FBS cornerbacks.
The Monroe, Louisiana native also tied for seventh in the country in interceptions (5) and ranked thirteenth in passes defended (15). Slaughter was also named a first-team All-Sun Belt Conference selection. He only allowed one touchdown reception in 2019, and one explosive pass play.
The secondary also feature Kenderick Marbles, Josh Newton, Jordan Oliver, and Kevric Wiggins, as well as junior college transfer D.J. Travis.
“We’ve got more numbers of guys that have been here,” Viator said. “That’s been a sore spot for us. We’ve gotten so many guys hurt.”
Early Score Prediction: UGA wins 45-13