Last Tuesday was supposed to be the first day of spring practice for Georgia football. Graduate transfer Jamie Newman was supposed to be taking his first snaps under center in a Georgia uniform, and it was going to be new Todd Monken’s inaugural practice in Athens.
But sadly UGA’s practice fields were empty, as was the entire campus, and most of the public places in town. The outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S. has put an abrupt halt on college and professional sports, but more importantly the world. The virus not only canceled spring practice for football programs but also canceled all on-going winter sports and postponed the rest of spring programs.
“This is a difficult day for all of us, and I am especially disappointed for our student-athletes,” said SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey. “The health and well-being of our entire conference community is an ongoing priority for the SEC as we continue to monitor developments and information about the COVID-19 virus.”
Looking ahead, with the 2020 Olympic games being postponed, the upcoming college football season could in jeopardy, too. College football is the biggest interest draw in NCAA sports, and big-time programs bring in the most revenue for their schools. The loss of spring practice combined with the unpredictable future could prove costly. Especially for a revamped Georgia offense that comes with a new quarterback, offensive coordinator, offensive line coach and only a few returning starters.
Now before we dig deep, let’s just remember that Georgia’s season isn’t in peril. It’s just that these problems are not ideal, especially for a top-five program and national title contender.
Former Bulldogs’ All-American offensive tackle and current UGA Athletic Board member Jon Stinchcomb weighed in on the situation.
“There’s a reason you have spring ball,” said Jon Stinchcomb, per The Athletic. “It’s a disadvantage for Georgia just because of the amount of turnover that they’ve had from last year to this, specifically on offense.”
Stinchcomb when on to say that Georgia’s season isn’t done, but said that the team wouldn’t have a “huge change of trajectory” off spring practice. These circumstances are vastly unknown, but sometimes that’s just the way things are. It’s unfortunate that Georgia is having to go through these unforeseen times, but so is every Division I program.
This is just another obstacle in the road that Kirby Smart and his staff will have to overcome. It’s evident that Georgia’s offense could have used those 15 practices to work on new things, but it’s a reach that the unit would have gelled in those two weeks, but that’s a large assumption in the grand scheme of things. There are a lot of different components that have changed in the past couple of months, and two weeks of practice certainly doesn’t seem like enough.
First, not only was Monken hired to replace James Coley, but Matt Luke was brought in as the new offensive line coach after Sam Pittman’s departure. Even though Luke did come in during Sugar Bowl practices, there still is a lot to figure out as most of the pieces to the puzzle have been discombobulated. After the departures of Andrew Thomas, Isaiah Wilson, Solomon Kindley, and Cade Mays; Luke was left with a mess to fix in such a short amount of time.
The two former starting tackles, Thomas and Wilson, helped the program by skipping the Sugar Bowl. That gave some younger guys some valuable reps in practice, like Warren Ericson, who got his first start of the season in the bowl game. There were still experienced players coming back, but spring practice was supposed to help give us an idea of who might fill those roles in the fall.
The two-week spring practice period was supposed to be important for guys like Xavier Truss, Owen Condon, Clay Webb, and Warren McClendon. Now, they will have to wait until the new batch of freshman crop comes in to compete, which they now shouldn’t have a clear advantage due to the talent in that group.
“It’s probably the most important position group to have everyone on the same page,” Stinchcomb said. “So to have that many new pieces in place, that’s a lot of cohesion that you lose in that group. So yeah, it’s costly. More so than if we were in this situation a year ago, you’d feel a little better. You knew some of the answers to the questions that we don’t have this time around. It’s costly.”
Another developing concern is the installment of the new offense with a new quarterback. Of course, Newman has four years of college experience under his belt, but this is a new team for him. It’s still a new system with new faces, and he is losing time when he could be building a bond with this young Georgia receiving core. The spring was also a time for Monken to be able to figure out how he was going to use Newman in this new system.
The two week period would have given Monken a chance to see firsthand what Newman’s strengths and weaknesses were. Even though Newman is the predicted starter, nothing is set it stone yet, and it was supposed to be a time for him to see what UGA had down the depth chart. He has other viable options in Stetson Bennett IV, D’Wan Mathis, and Carson Beck. Those guys would have given Monken a pretty good idea of what he had going into the fall in case something drastic were to happen.
This time also affects these three as well because of the limited availability that they will have in the summer to impress coaches. For the first time since Smart’s arrival, his quarterback room is deep. We know what Stetson Bennett can do on the practice squad and we have seen a glimpse of Mathis, but Beck was expected to get a head start this spring before Brock Vandagriff comes in next year. Beck had a strong junior year at Mandarin High School, but his senior year he kind of regressed. Beck now misses on a chance to display his arm that so many are looking forward to seeing.
Another measure of spring practice is to indicate how well your offseason had gone, and Georgia had a busy one. The grind doesn’t stop, and right after the semester started the players started off-season conditioning. These workouts are to keep the players on a structured schedule and to keep them in shape by the time spring rolls around. It also gave coaches an idea of what their position players needed to improve, but also an outlook on the health of everyone.
“This is the time of the year where you get pushed the hardest,” Stinchcomb said. “You’re gaining strength and changing your body, especially for younger guys just out of high school. During the offseason, I gained 10, 15 pounds of muscle. You get more athletic and more coordinated, and just working on those raw skills. And you’re pushing. When there’s a group of 15-to-20 linemen together we’re challenging each other. We’re getting stronger together, we’re getting more in shape together. There’s some synergy that that creates, and you’re missing out on all that. I don’t know exactly what that looks like in this world, and I don’t think many people do.”
This was the first time Kendall Milton, Jermaine Burton, Justin Robinson, Carson Beck, Major Burns, and Warren Brinson got to workout with their new teammates. After workouts, this was a time for the freshman to build a rapport with their position groups. It would be their first time to make a name for themselves before the rest of the class got to campus and to show coaches what they were made of. Out of this group, those most impacted are Milton, Burton, and Robinson.
Milton, a very skilled and highly recruited running back, doesn’t get the chance to open eyes and place on the depth chart. Georgia’s backfield is already loaded, but this is the first season since 2012 that the program doesn’t return a back that has rushed for over 1,000 yards. Even though Zamir White will probably get a load of the carries, Milton had the chance to fit right in during spring drills. But James Cook, Kenny McIntosh, and Daijun Edwards all will have a chance once fall comes around.
Burton and Robinson are two freshman receivers that could add some depth to a depleted receiving core. Besides George Pickens, there’s a lot of question marks surrounding the position group, and it was expected that these guys would get a head start. With Dominick Blaylock injured, many wonder whether or not Matt Landers, Trey Blount, Demetris Robertson or Kearis Jackson can match the level of production that Pickens had last season. The arrival of Ladd McConkey, Arian Smith, and Marcus Rosemy will have to answer that in the fall.
In the offseason, nothing really has changed for Georgia’s defense. There are some questions on the depth of the defensive line, but that’s about it. The Bulldogs defense returns most of its starters and especially some key defensive backs. Still, the lack of spring activities will halt their training process, but other than that there’s really nothing to worry about out of this group.
“Defense is always ahead of the offense in the spring. Because they’re ‘see the ball, attack the ball,’” said Terrence Edwards, who is Georgia’s all-time leading receiver. “As an offense as a whole, we’ve got a whole lot more moving parts. Offensive line. Quarterback. Running back. Receivers. As an offense, (not having spring practice) is going to set us back a little bit.”
The expectations are high for the Bulldogs in 2020, and they are again being talked about as a national title contender. Even though this halt might slow them down, Smart’s team has an advantage over most, and that’s depth at most positions. The coaches won’t get to do their duties firsthand, but it’s known that they will still be in contact with their players. Meetings will more than likely go on per usual online using Zoom video teleconferencing or apps like Skype.
But it’s going to be hard for players to work out and push themselves without others behind them. Though, even without a team’s structure, some Georgia players have taken the initiative to call out others via social media when they are working out on their own. We’ll see if that continues as the uncertainty of these times doesn’t really encourage individuals to be out in public.
“It’s a downer for everyone because I was ready to see some of the moving parts we have, the new offensive coordinator,” Edwards said. “I was just excited for football.”