Sugar Bowl may be college finale for Georgia tight end Isaac Nauta

Sugar Bowl may be college finale for Georgia tight end Isaac Nauta

December 30th, 2018 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Junior tight end Isaac Nauta ignites Georgia fans during the Bulldogs' 36-17 victory over Florida in October.

Photo by Kristin Bradshaw/Georgia

Tuesday night's Sugar Bowl will mark the final game for Georgia seniors including center Lamont Gaillard, defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter, inside linebacker Natrez Patrick and outside linebacker D'Andre Walker.

Senior cornerback Deandre Baker has already played his last contest for the Bulldogs, but will the showdown against the Texas Longhorns represent the last college game for junior tight end Isaac Nauta as well?

The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder from the Atlanta suburb of Buford has 29 catches for 427 yards (14.7 yards per reception) and three touchdowns this season, and he also scooped up a Jake Fromm fumble and raced 31 yards for the opening score against Tennessee in September.

"I've obviously had a lot more targets than last year, and that's always fun," Nauta said during a news conference in New Orleans. "As a player, you work hard all week, and to make plays on Saturdays and in big-time games are what you play for. It's definitely been a better year statistically, and I definitely feel like I've gotten better, too."

Nauta is among several Georgia juniors who are considering an early opportunity at the NFL, with running back Elijah Holyfield, safety J.R. Reed and receivers Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley also considering the jump. Nauta has been the busiest of that bunch, having racked up 26 starts in 41 college games and 67 catches for 902 yards (13.5) and eight scores.

After playing at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, Nauta arrived in Athens in January 2016 at the same time as quarterback Jacob Eason, a fellow five-star signee, and the two quickly formed a bond. Nauta had 29 catches for 361 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman, when Eason was the starter, but his numbers dipped to just nine receptions for 114 yards and two scores last season, with his most memorable play a 41-yard touchdown catch against Mississippi State.

There have been numerous moments to remember this year, including the touchdown run against the Volunteers, catches on four straight plays against Florida, a 4-yard reception to open the scoring at Kentucky and a 20-yard catch to do the same against Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game early this month.

Nauta doesn't need to return to become a team leader, with third-year Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart believing that's been the case for a while.

"He's not afraid to speak up," Smart said. "He's one of those guys who really doesn't care what you think, so if he sees it one way and doesn't think you are doing it right, he'll call you out on it. He's definitely one of our leaders."

Nauta has discussed his impending decision with coaches, teammates and family members, but he won't make an announcement until after the Sugar Bowl. Should the Bulldogs (11-2) defeat the Longhorns (9-4), they would clinch consecutive seasons of 12 or more wins for the first time in program history.

Smart has been a huge help in this process, Nauta said.

"I don't think he cares whether we stay or leave as much as whether we're happy," Nauta said. "He's going to do everything he can to support us, and he's been great throughout this process."

Baker announced earlier this month that he would play against Texas, but he changed his mind and joined the growing number of projected top NFL picks who are skipping bowl games to avoid risking injury and to get a head start on their training for February's draft combine.

Nauta had no desire to join other underclassmen who have been bypassing bowl games, such as Michigan defensive lineman Rashan Gary, Houston defensive lineman Ed Oliver and LSU cornerback Greedy Williams.

"Deandre made a business decision for his body, which I totally understand," Nauta said. "I look at all these games as an extra opportunity. I wanted to go out there and play regardless."

Whether he decides to leave or return, Nauta knows he can improve in every facet of the game. Underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to announce their intentions, which could result in a difficult few days.

"It's one of those decisions you've got to pray about," Nauta said. "If you think picking a school is hard, this is a whole different type of pressure."

Not impressed

The Bulldogs finished fifth in the race to assemble the four teams for this season's College Football Playoff, and No. 3 seed Notre Dame's dismal showing in Saturday's 30-3 loss to No. 2 Clemson in the Cotton Bowl semifinal caused some Georgia players to react on social media.

"The best four teams should get in," sophomore inside linebacker Monty Rice posted on Twitter, with Ledbetter adding, "Y'all want a redo?"

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


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