It’s a new era for Georgia’s football program, as Mark Richt’s 15-year stint in Athens ended after the regular season, and former Alabama assistant Kirby Smart was hired to lead his alma mater to SEC titles. Smart inherits plenty of talent, but the Bulldogs also feature question marks on both sides of the ball. On offense, there’s uncertainty under center with true freshman Jacob Eason and Greyson Lambert battling for the starting job. Additionally, running back Nick Chubb is recovering from a serious knee injury. Georgia boasts one of the SEC’s top defensive backfields, but the front seven has to be retooled.
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Previewing Georgia’s Offense
For an offensive-minded coach known for developing quarterbacks, Mark Richt’s downfall at Georgia came down to those two things. When Mike Bobo left after 2014, Richt didn’t make the right hire to replace him, and Georgia’s passing-challenged offense sputtered to a ranking of 83rd nationally in 2015.
Enter Kirby Smart, a defensive-minded coach who had long had his eye on a couple assistant coaches to fill his staff. So he closed in on offensive coordinator and QB guru Jim Chaney and offensive line coach Sam Pittman, the latter of whom required a three-year contract at $650,000 per season to pry him away from Arkansas.
So how quickly will things be turned around? Potentially pretty quickly. The quarterback spot already looks better, whether it’s fifth-year senior Greyson Lambert (who started all but one game last year after parachuting in from Virginia) having a full offseason in Georgia, or five-star freshman Jacob Eason living up to his potential. And don’t rule out junior Brice Ramsey and his strong arm.
All eyes will be on how soon Nick Chubb will get back on the field, and how close to his old form he’ll be after significant knee surgery. Either way, junior Sony Michel — who rushed for more than 1,000 yards despite starting only six games last year — is back. Receivers Terry Godwin and Isaiah McKenzie offer dynamic options, and tight end is very deep.
Ultimately, the course of this offense may come down to quarterback and offensive line — which loses two starters — the two spots that plagued Richt’s final Georgia team.
Previewing Georgia’s Defense
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Smart inherits a pretty good group on defense. Jeremy Pruitt, who replaced Smart in his old job as Alabama’s defensive coordinator, did a solid job recruiting on his side of the ball in two years at Georgia. The strength should be the secondary, which returns almost everybody from the nation’s top-ranked pass defense. That’s a tad deceiving, as Georgia faced two triple-option teams, and its schedule wasn’t that strong — Alabama, for instance, picked apart the Bulldogs secondary. But safety Dominick Sanders was first-team All-SEC and anchors a very talented group.
The front seven is inexperienced but offers plenty of upside. Defensive tackle Trent Thompson, considered by many to be the nation’s best overall recruit last year, showed flashes. He’s joined by a deep class of sophomores and freshmen. The only question is how quickly this unit can harness all that talent.
The big question is at linebacker, where Georgia lost team MVP Jake Ganus, an inside linebacker, and outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd. Outside linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter are two talented juniors who could disrupt opposing passing games. Reggie Carter, who missed most of last year with a shoulder problem, is healthy again to play inside linebacker, and sophomores Natrez Patrick and Roquan Smith have high upside.
Previewing Georgia’s Specialists
McKenzie, in just two years, has already tied Georgia’s school record for return touchdowns and punt return touchdowns. His only issue will be staying healthy. The kicking spots are a concern. Marshall Long was signed to be the punter. The placekicking job will be occupied by a walk-on. There could be some very tense moments when Georgia is attempting field goals this year.
Smart’s first season sets up a lot like Richt’s final few: A chance for a 10-win season, but maybe not quite enough to win it all. For it all to come together, quarterback play and blocking will have to be much better, the inexperienced front seven will have to play well immediately, and the kicking game will have to be unexpectedly good. That’s a lot to ask. But the pieces are still there to contend in the mediocre SEC East.