Gather ‘round kids, as I tell you a tale of Georgia Bulldog football past. There was a time not so long ago when Georgia fans puffed their chests out and proclaimed their school as "Tight End U." They thrilled to the exploits of McMichael, Watson, Pope, Milner, Charles, and a host of other greats who left Athens for glory in the NFL. Highly touted recruits at the position saw this and lined up to play for Mark Richt. It was what is commonly known as a "virtuous cycle."
Then it changed. Not overnight. This was a gentle erosion, first with Mike Bobo getting the ball to talented wide receivers more often. Maybe flexing Orson Charles out more. Then Brian Schottenheimer came to town with an offense that....how to put this.....resembled nothing so much as a Labrador retriever setting its owner's house on fire while trying to boil water for a grilled cheese sandwich.
And now here we are, entering the second year of the Jim Chaney offense. In his first season in Athens Chaney made good on the promise to get the tight ends more involved in the passing game. Tight ends on the Georgia roster caught 41 passes for 450 yards in 2016. In 2015 the numbers were 28 receptions for 306 yards. It is coming off of a small base, but that's still nearly a 50% increase in production. Will 2017 see a similar move in the general direction of Georgia’s proud tight end legacy?
Signs point to yes. For starters, there's the starters. Isaac Nauta is a preseason All-SEC candidate and Mackey Award watch lister following a rookie campaign that saw him named freshman All-SEC. His 29 receptions for 361 yards led the tight ends in both categories.
Perhaps most encouraging is the fact that Nauta’s statistics improved as the season went on, such that in the latter third of the season he was good for three receptions and 40+ yards per game regularly. If Nauta’s blocking has improved this season (all indications are that it has), it will be a chore to keep the 6’4, 245 pound former Buford standout off the field.
I have already identified Jeb Blazevich as a player whose profile will likely rise this season. The reasons for this are myriad, but the bottom line is that Georgia is in a position to utilize the tight ends more, and Blazevich may be the most versatile tight end Jim Chaney has.
Charlie Woerner’s 5 receptions for 50 yards in 2016 do not jump off the page. But the sophomore was hampered by injury throughout his freshman campaign, and drew praise from the coaching staff this spring. Woerner brings an element of versatility to the position that could be useful. He’s athletic enough to split outside, tall enough to be a goalline mismatch. One thing that I will be evaluating Jim Chaney on this season will be his ability to use a guy like Woerner to the fullest.
Rising junior Jackson Harris is another former blue-chip recruit at the tight end position who appears sadly underutilized at this point. In fact, during that abysmal 2015 season, freshman Harris’s 4 catches for 50 yards were a welcome bright spot, a seeming indicator of good things ahead. Nothing in that season presaged him having 1 catch for 5 yards in all of 2016. The 6’6, 247 pound Tennessee native will almost certainly have a higher profile in 2017. How could his level of involvement get any lower?
The same could probably be said for senior Jordan Davis. Davis was shut out of the passing game entirely in 2016. Not a single catch, despite seeing action in 12 games. It almost defies belief that as experienced a contributor as the 6’4, 240 pound Davis won’t find a place in Chaney’s 2017 plans.
Another wildcard comes in the form of true freshman walkon Wix Patton. The 6’6, 240 pound Landmark Christian product is speedy and athletic, but will need to develop physically and in his blocking technique to crack the rotation in a talented TE meeting room. That being said, Patton chose to pay his own way at UGA despite scholarship offers from some smaller schools. One expects he didn’t do that just to sit on the bench.
Nauta and Blazevich look like options 1A and 1B. But the drop down to Woerner and Harris isn’t that far. That Georgia rolls six deep at the tight end position despite having three different offensive coordinators in three years is a minor miracle. But it’s one that comes with challenges for Chaney. Bulldog fans take their tight end play seriously, and they’ll be looking for the Dawgs’ OC to continue improving the productivity at the position as part of a hopefully ascending offensive whole. No pressure there. Until later...