Five questions facing Georgia as Bulldogs enter spring football

Five questions facing Georgia as Bulldogs enter spring football

March 20th, 2017 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason, pictured, will work to improve during his second spring in Athens, and he could be challenged by early enrollee Jake Fromm for the starting spot.

Photo by John Paul Van Wert

Georgia receiver Terry Godwin has put up similar numbers during his first two college seasons and could benefit this spring from an improved passing game.

Georgia receiver Terry Godwin has put up similar...

Photo by Andy Harrrison

Georgia set a Southeastern Conference record last spring when 93,000 fans packed Sanford Stadium to watch Kirby Smart's first G-Day football game as coach of the Bulldogs.

Smart set the theme for last year's "93K Day" with a plea during halftime of a Bulldogs basketball game, but there was no such message earlier this winter. That does not mean, however, that the second-year mentor does not want another healthy audience on April 22.

"The more we can pack that stadium and make it like a real game, the more I get to find out how kids respond and adapt to that atmosphere," Smart said last week on his radio show.

The Bulldogs struggled through a 7-5 regular season during Smart's debut year — losing to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech in the same year for the first time since 1961 — but they had a fantastic December. Tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and outside linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter announced they would return for their senior seasons, and Georgia notched an eighth triumph with a 31-23 topping of TCU in the Liberty Bowl.

Georgia returns its leading passer, its three leading rushers, five of its top six receivers and 14 of its top 15 tacklers from a season ago, so to say optimism abounds in Athens would be quite the understatement.

Here are five questions concerning the Bulldogs as they prepare start to spring practices Tuesday.

1. Can the offensive line improve?

Georgia was beyond erratic last season behind a front line that no longer has Brandon Kublanow at center and Tyler Catalina and Greg Pyke as the tackles. The Bulldogs opened last year with 289 rushing yards against North Carolina but had just 75 and 21 in losses to Vanderbilt and Florida.

In each of their final three games, against Louisiana-Lafayette, Georgia Tech and TCU, the Bulldogs rushed for more than 230 yards.

"As much as everyone wanted to complain and fuss about the three guys we had, they are gone now," Smart said, "so now we've got some holes to fill."

Returning guards Lamont Gaillard and Isaiah Wynn could stay put or move to other positions, while Kendall Baker and Dyshon Sims are expected to compete for first-team spots. D'Marcus Hayes of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College will vie as well, but the rest of Georgia's touted newcomers up front will not arrive until the summer.

This position area could have a very different look by late August.

2. Is there a quarterback competition?

Smart has been answering in the affirmative when asked about the impending duel between heralded early enrollee Jake Fromm and heralded sophomore Jacob Eason, who started the last 12 games last season.

"I expect Jake to come out and compete like he's trying to win it," Smart said. "I see him in no different eyes than I saw Jacob this time last year. Jake is coming in as a highly regarded recruit, but he's very serious and very professional about his work. He's a great leader in the locker room, and a lot of the guys on the team already respect him.

"He's not afraid to jump out there and tell guys where to line up and what to do, and he gets after it a little bit with a little fire. Jacob sees that. Jacob sees this young kid coming in with a little more fire and brimstone than even he had."

Eason and Fromm are Georgia's lone scholarship quarterbacks, evoking memories of the 2010 season, when the Bulldogs had just redshirt freshman Aaron Murray and true freshman Hutson Mason.

3. Will the offense change?

The Bulldogs ended last season by overpowering TCU behind Chubb and Michel, who combined for 187 second-half rushing yards, but Smart has sounded a lot like former boss Nick Saban this spring in wanting the ability to be powerful at times and to spread things out at times.

"You have to change it up," Smart said. "You can't just sit there in the I nowadays. There are too many teams that attack you. You have to be in one-back sets, but when you are in that one-back set, who are the other four guys on the field? Three receivers and one tight end? Two receivers and two tight ends?

"You have to have a lot of packages to mix it up, and you have to find guys who can block and play in space."

Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney shouldered the blame in Memphis after a regular season in which the Bulldogs averaged a modest 24 points a game. Can he diversify things in his second go-around?

4. Is there a perimeter playmaker?

Receivers Riley Ridley (57) and Javon Wims (51) and tight end Isaac Nauta (50) each had a gain of 50 or more yards last season, but explosive plays were few and far between.

The top receiver and return specialist from last season, Isaiah McKenzie, is preparing for the NFL draft, having announced after the Liberty Bowl he is skipping his final year of eligibility. Terry Godwin was the MVP of Georgia's triumph over Penn State in the TaxSlayer Bowl after the 2015 season, but he never reached the end zone as a sophomore.

Godwin, Ridley and Wims have the potential to give the Bulldogs some outside punch later this year, while Nauta could be the top mismatch for opposing defenses.

5. Can an already solid defense improve?

Georgia not only returns 14 of its top 15 tacklers from last season but 10 of 11 starters, with Alabama graduate transfer Maurice Smith the lone departure.

The Bulldogs will not have standout defensive tackle Trenton Thompson this spring, nor will they have inside linebacker Roquan Smith for several practices, and Smart believes there are plenty of areas in which this unit can be enhanced.

"Just because people are coming back doesn't mean you can't improve," Smart said. "We don't have everybody back. We lost an MVP and a really quality player in our nickel who played 75 percent of our snaps, so somebody is going to have to replace him. That's a unique challenge that we lost not only him, but we lost his backup (Quincy Mauger).

"We lost two people at the same position that's very critical, so we'll have to find somebody ready to fit that role."

Improving special teams would certainly qualify as another question that needs answering, but a lot of coverage teams won't be set until a promising signing class gets its chance to contribute in August camp.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.


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