5 questions for UGA heading into the season

Georgia freshman quarterback Jacob Eason hopes to follow up a solid G-Day spring game performance by winning the starting job during preseason camp.
Georgia freshman quarterback Jacob Eason hopes to follow up a solid G-Day spring game performance by winning the starting job during preseason camp.
photo Senior inside linebacker Tim Kimbrough started seven games last season for Georgia and made 67 tackles, but he was bumped from the starting lineup in the last two contests.

In 34 days, Georgia's Kirby Smart coaching era will begin against North Carolina, which won the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference last season and has been picked to repeat that feat.

Smart's Bulldogs have questions to answer in every area except their secondary, which returns intact, so preseason camp in Athens will be among the more intriguing in the Southeastern Conference. The starting quarterback on Sept. 3 could be a fifth-year senior (Greyson Lambert) or a true freshman (Jacob Eason), and the starting tailback could be a fourth-year senior (Brendan Douglas) or a true freshman (Elijah Holyfield) if a pair of 1,000-yard rushers aren't available.

Top-10 NFL draft pick Leonard Floyd must be replaced at outside linebacker, but the biggest absence among last season's departures may be kicker Marshall Morgan. It should all add up to a challenging month for Smart at his alma mater, with practices scheduled to start Monday afternoon.

"In December I was given the opportunity of a lifetime," Smart said. "I haven't slowed down since."

With a plethora of questions facing the Bulldogs, here are the five most pertinent:

1. Who will win the quarterback job?

Lambert started 12 of 13 games in 2015 after transferring from Virginia and led the Bulldogs to 10 wins. He was intercepted just twice all year but never engineered much aerial pop, with Georgia ranking 10th in the SEC in passing offense (an average of 184.4 yards per game) and total offense (367.8).

Eason was the top quarterback nationally in the 2016 signing class according to ESPN and Rivals.com, and he completed 19 of 29 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown in front of 93,000 fans at the G-Day spring game. Brice Ramsey, a junior who attempted passes in six games last season, is the overlooked member of the competition.

Georgia's last ultra-hyped true freshman quarterback, Matthew Stafford, began the 2006 season on the sideline as fifth-year senior Joe Tereshinski started, but Stafford earned the job midway through that year. Could history repeat and Lambert start against UNC before eventually stepping aside for Eason?

"We're going to play the best player that gives us the best opportunity to win football games, and I don't know who that is," Smart said. "A lot of these 28 or 29 practices will tell us that. I've sat through a lot of meetings the last few years at the University of Alabama making that same decision, and I think a lot of it is how a person affects the rest of the offense.

"Does he make every player on the offense better? That's hard to measure, but that's a decision you have to make subjectively as a coach."

2. Will Chubb and/or Michel be healthy?

The biggest question health-wise for the Bulldogs the first six months of this year was about junior tailback Nick Chubb, who tore knee ligaments on the first play of last year's trip to Tennessee after amassing 745 yards through the first five games. Then came July, when Sony Michel, a 1,161-yard rusher a year ago, broke a forearm in an ATV accident.

Georgia could still have the formidable one-two punch of Chubb and Michel this season, but will it be sooner or later?

"That's a tough situation," Smart said. "Who would have thought at this point in time that both guys would be on the sideline rehabbing? Nick is progressing really well and has done everything with the rest of the team as far as summer workouts, but that may change when we go to pads, because he's not going to go out there and do everything right away as far as tackling and scrimmaging.

"We'll know a lot more about Sony when we get closer to the season. A lot of that injury involves how the muscle repairs itself around that plated bone. That will be a big part of it."

3. Who is the leader at inside linebacker?

Smart referred to safeties Quincy Mauger and Dominick Sanders in the spring as his defensive leaders, but which inside linebacker will get the signals from new coordinator Mel Tucker and display leadership traits once the games start? Jake Ganus became last year's reliable rock after transferring from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and he racked up a team-high 102 tackles.

Ganus was the only 13-game starter among Georgia's inside linebackers a year ago, with Tim Kimbrough making seven consecutive starts before being replaced by Natrez Patrick the final two games. Kimbrough and Patrick are back this year, as are Reggie Carter and Roquan Smith.

Carter played just one game last year due to season-ending shoulder surgery, while Smith capped his freshman year with four tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss in the TaxSlayer Bowl win against Penn State.

4. Can an effective kicker emerge?

After four seasons and 407 career points compiled by Morgan, the Bulldogs are breaking in a new kicker, and they will do so through the walk-on ranks.

Vying for the chance to be Morgan's successor are redshirt freshman Rodrigo Blankenship and redshirt sophomore William Ham. Blankenship had the better G-Day showing, making a 46-yard field goal and just missing from 48 yards out, while Ham decided to give up football during spring 2015 but was asked to come back last fall.

Georgia has the top three scorers in SEC history - Blair Walsh, Billy Bennett and Morgan - as well as the legendary Kevin Butler, so will a next great Bulldogs kicker emerge? Or will the program suffer a rare drop-off in this area?

5. Will any receivers emerge as threats?

Receivers have played a supporting role during Georgia's recent surge of running backs, but that may not be the case if Chubb and Michel are sidelined for the early going.

Terry Godwin is back after catching 35 passes for 379 yards and earning TaxSlayer Bowl MVP honors as a freshman, but Georgia's other returning receivers combined for just 32 catches a year ago. Reggie Davis, who had a 98-yard touchdown reception as a freshman in 2013, hopes to bounce back from a junior season that included a big drop at Tennessee and no catches in his final six games.

Isaiah McKenzie had only five catches in the final nine games last season and is better known as a return specialist, so the slack may need to be picked up by sophomores Michael Chigbu and Jayson Stanley or newcomers Riley Ridley, Tyler Simmons and Javon Wims.

Should the receivers struggle throughout camp, the talented tight end quartet of Jeb Blazevich, Jordan Davis, Jackson Harris and five-star freshman Isaac Nauta could be used even more come September.

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

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