Georgia opens on Saturday September 1st against an Austin Peay team that went 8-4 in the Ohio Valley last year. It’s no secret that Georgia must replace pivotal pieces on both offense and defense for the 2018 season. To start, Georgia has to replace a running back duo that now holds the record for most rushing yards by a duo in FBS history. In addition, they must replace the 8th overall pick in this year’s draft and last year’s leading tackler, Roquan Smith. In total, Georgia needs to replace four starters on offense, and eight starters on defense. Below are the key losses for Georgia heading into 2018:
We will look at the offensive side of the ball first. Projected depth chart: QB- Jake Fromm, RB- D’Andre Swift, FB-?, TE- Isaac Nauta, RT- Isaiah Wilson, RG- Ben Cleveland, C- Lamont Gaillard, LG- Kendall Baker, LT- Andrew Thomas/Solomon Kindley, Slot- Mecole Hardman, WR- Terry Godwin, Riley Ridley.
The key for Georgia heading into 2018, is the return of a strong nucleus of massive human beings upfront. The biggest loss was Isaiah Wynn, who was drafted 23rd to the New England Patriots. That projected starting line has 49 career starts under their belts. You add in Solomon Kindley, which we should because he will play, and that number jumps to 56 career starts. That is a massive number in a league where games are won and lost in the trenches.
Jake Fromm should win this quarterback battle, if you even want to call it that. That isn’t to say Justin Fields won’t see the field, because he will. How Chaney and company plan on doing that is still TBD, but I’d expect specific packages for Fields to run. His ability to run the read option with Swift and the other backs, paired with his throwing ability, will make defenses stay at home and not sell out on one facet of his game. Speaking of D’Andre Swift, we should talk about the running backs that Georgia is housing.
D’Andre Swift is a homerun hitter, highlighted by his 64-yard touchdown run in the SEC championship game last year. He is only going to get better running behind that offensive line. Swift will be accompanied by a plethora of talented running backs. Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien both saw plenty of action last year and throw into the mix five-star Zamir White, who is coming off an ACL injury, and four-star James Cook, brother of Dalvin Cook, and you have enough horses to fill out a field at the Kentucky Derby.
Then there are the receivers. Last year this unit was a big question mark for the team. To say they exceeded their expectations is an understatement. Javon "Long Limb" Wims graduated but you get Mecole Hardman, Terry Godwin, and Riley Ridley back. Georgia has a ton of depth at receiver, most notably J.J. Holloman. Keep an eye on Matt Landers as well. He is 6-foot-5 and had a nice jump ball catch in the G-Day game. Finally, we have the tight ends. Always reliable Jeb Blazevich has graduated but you return three guys who all saw playing time last year. Isaac Nauta, Charlie Woerner, and Jackson Harris won’t miss a beat this year and should all be solid parts of the offense.
Georgia had a stout defense in 2017 that ranked 6th nationally in total defense and was a massive reason they reached the college football national championship. There are a lot of holes that need to be plugged, however, Georgia looks like they have the pieces to do it. Most notably, Georgia’s entire starting linebacking core needs to be replaced. Look at Natrez Patrick (if he can stay on the field), Juwan Taylor, Walter Grant, and G-Day stand out Monty Rice to get most of the starts this season. This projected unit has a combined seven starts; however, they were all used heavily in the rotations in 2017. Backing them up you should be seeing a lot of Robert Beal, Tae Crowder (probably slots into the starting role if Patrick can’t stay on the field), and Nate McBride. Robert Beal and Nate McBride are future stars in this defense. Robert Beal who redshirted last year, was the #27 overall prospect in the 2017 recruiting class. Touted as a pass rusher, Beal needs to improve his run defense to become a polished all-around linebacker. Nate McBride, on the other hand, is one of six freshmen last year to see action in all 15 games. McBride saw most of his action on the special team’s unit, but he should be used in numerous roles on the defensive side this year.
Upfront is where Georgia looks to have the second most questions behind the linebacking core. Jonathan Ledbetter returns as does Julian Rochester, Tyler Clark and DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle (who might have one of the best names in football). A nice addition this off season came in the form of Notre Dame grad transfer Jay Hayes. Primarily a run stopper, he led Notre Dame in tackles against Georgia last year. This was a great pickup for two reasons; 1. It gives you a guy who has experience at the collegiate level, and 2. It gives you depth in an area that it is much needed. Look to also see Malik Herring, who played in every game as a freshman, and David Marshall to get plenty of snaps as well.
The secondary returns enough players who saw action in 2017, but the depth is a cause for concern. The return of Deandre Baker for his senior year should be huge and hopefully lock down one side of the field. Tyrique McGhee looks to start opposite of Baker and has played in 28 games since stepping on campus. In the safety roles you have Richard LeCounte III and J.R. Reed who both saw extensive action last year. In the star position it looks to be William Poole III and Deangelo Gibbs, who was not with the team this spring. There are some young, talented pieces to back up and rotate in the secondary. Look at Jarvis Wilson, Ameer Speed, Eric Stokes, Mark Webb, and Tyson Campbell to get playing time in 2018. In 2017, the secondary was full of seasoned vets, but ultimately a busted coverage cost Georgia the national championship. Kirby was a defensive back himself and there is a sense of personal pride with this part of the defensive unit. I fully expect the secondary to blossom into the cornerstone of the defense in 2018.
Some may have missed a new rule that was imposed for 2018 on kickoffs. The rule reads that calling for any fair catch made between the goal line and the 25-yard line is to be treated as a touchback. The intent here is to further bolster player safety in an area many believe is the most dangerous part of the game. For Georgia specifically, I don’t see this being a huge deal. Rodrigo is going to blast kickoffs through the end zone and good luck telling Mecole not to run the ball out. Rodrigo had 67 touchbacks last season out of a possible 94 tries, which equates to a 64.3% clip. Expect more of the same this year. In the return department, didn’t it seem like Mecole took a couple back last year? Surprisingly, he didn’t. For the first time since 2013, Georgia didn’t have a return touchdown of some kind. Mecole seemed to be just one more block or one more move away from springing a handful last year, so expect for him to take at least one back this season. Marshall Long takes over the punting reigns from graduate standout Cameron Nizialek, who was 11th in average and 5th in net average nationally. Nizialek was a solid piece to an already good special team’s unit in 2017, let’s hope we see more of the same from Marshall this season.
There are a lot of questions to be answered heading into 2018. Can this program in year three under Kirby keep the momentum heading in the right direction? Can they duplicate the success of year two? Who will break out as the new stars of the 2018 team? It expects to be another good season between the hedges.