There is a new sheriff in town in Athens. Head coach Kirby Smart takes over for Mark Richt after Richt and Georgia decided to part ways after 15 years. Smart comes to Athens off a 10-year apprenticeship under Nick Saban. In eight of those seasons, he served as Alabama's defensive coordinator, cementing his name as one of the most head coach-ready coordinators in football.
He takes over a Georgia team that has plenty to work with. The Bulldogs are fresh off a 10-win season and a TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Penn State. They return 14 starters, including Heisman hopeful running back Nick Chubb, and appear to be one of the SEC East's top contenders, even with the coaching turnover. The outlook for 2016 is bright, but there is still plenty to work on during spring practice.
5 Storylines to Watch in Georgia’s Spring Practice
1. The Quarterback Battle
At most schools, especially in the SEC, the spring quarterback battle is worth paying attention to. Very few schools have a starter set in stone for the upcoming season. For Georgia, Greyson Lambert returns after an efficient season in 2015. Lambert threw for nearly 2,000 yards and had 12 touchdowns to only two interceptions. He has a big frame for a quarterback. At times, he looked like an NFL-caliber gunslinger. For example, his 24-of-25 for 330 yards and three touchdowns performance against South Carolina turned some heads early in the season. But other times, things weren't so great.
That is why a lot of people think incoming freshman Jacob Eason is Georgia's future at quarterback. Eason, the highest-rated prospect of Georgia's top-10 ranked 2016 recruiting class, has overwhelming upside. He is rated as the nation's No. 2 pro-style quarterback prospect, according to 247Sports' Composite ranking. With a big arm and track record of making smart decisions, it is easy to see why 'Dawgs fans love Eason right now. However, Smart has made it clear that Georgia has two other capable quarterbacks in Lambert and Brice Ramsey. All three will benefit tremendously from working with new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney this spring.
2. Nick Chubb's Progression
Since Aaron Murray left, Georgia has had to rely mostly on its running game for offensive production. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, they have had the likes of Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, Sony Michel and Chubb during that time, as well as a proficient offensive line. The downside to having those talented running backs, though, is the fact that most of them have been or were unable to stay healthy in their careers at Georgia. Chubb is back this season after running all over the SEC in 2014 and having his season cut short in ‘15.
Chubb sustained a gruesome bundle of torn knee ligaments, not limited to the posterior cruciate, on the first play of the game against Tennessee last season. At the time, he was well on his way to another 1,500-yard rushing season. Since the injury, Chubb has progressed well. In fact, Smart recently said that Chubb is “overachieving” in rehab. Chubb isn't expected to participate in any spring drills, but he is staying in shape through conditioning drills, and is beginning to get some agility back. By the time fall camp rolls around, the duo of Chubb and Michel hopefully will be back at full strength.
3. Sam Pittman and the O-line
Not only did the Bulldogs get a new head coach and offensive coordinator, they got arguably the best offensive line coach in the country in Sam Pittman. In just the past five years, Pittman totally revamped the offensive lines at Tennessee and Arkansas. He has recruited and/or coached NFL players and prospects such as Ja'Wuan James, Zach Fulton, James Stone, Denver Kirkland and Sebastian Tretola. Pittman is well known for getting the most out of his players and getting them to play as a unit.
His hiring at Georgia comes at the perfect time. The 'Dawgs must replace three starters on the offensive line, including mainstay tackle John Theus and seasoned veteran Kolton Houston, who was on the roster for six years. Luckily for Georgia, they do return standout senior guard Greg Pyke. His leadership and ability to anchor the line will be essential as the Bulldogs rebuild up front. Although there is some uncertainty on the offensive line, Georgia fans shouldn't fear. If rebuilding the front is something that must be done, Pittman is the best man for the job.
4. Front Seven Overhaul
The offensive front isn't the only area of the team that will see some changes in the spring. Possibly Smart's biggest challenge early on will be rebuilding the front seven on defense. The Bulldogs lose leading tackler Jake Ganus at linebacker, as well as Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins, two of the SEC's best pass rushers. Mammoth inside men Sterling Bailey and Chris Mayes also have moved on. The only returning starter in Georgia's front seven is linebacker Tim Kimbrough.
So, what happens next? This is where the hiring of Smart will be of grave importance. He has a ton of experience, specifically, in rebuilding Alabama's front seven over the past few years. Think of all the great linebackers and defensive linemen the Crimson Tide have had that seemingly came out of nowhere. This is where Smart can earn his money — in building great defenses. Now, Georgia's recruiting isn't quite on that level yet, but the 'Dawgs are off to a good start with Trent Thompson, Jonathan Ledbetter and Lorenzo Carter coming. With a reasonable amount of depth, the front seven will be just fine.
5. Managing Expectations
If the front seven makeover isn't Smart's biggest challenge, it will be managing expectations. That applies even in the spring. Everyone in Athens is excited about having a new coach, whether they were on board with firing Richt or not. Change is good, and most Georgia fans are ready to see what's in store. However, as is the case with every college football fan base, there are some people out there with extremely unrealistic expectations.
The most hardcore fans, the ones who hated everything Richt did, want nothing more than a national championship. They are expecting Georgia to come out looking like Alabama in the spring. Eventually, maybe Smart will be the right guy to get the 'Dawgs to that level, but he needs time. This year is not a national championship year for Georgia. While most fans understand that, Smart will have to do a good job of containing the crazies. Remember, Smart was brought in for the purpose of winning a national title. Georgia's fans and administrators, for that matter, aren't interested in 10-win seasons.
Pre-Spring Georgia Outlook in the SEC
Georgia is one of the two or three most talented teams in the SEC East. With South Carolina and Missouri in despair (for lack of a better word) and Kentucky and Vanderbilt not having adequate roster depth, the race for the East crown is likely going to come down to Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Just like the good ol' days. And realistically, even though Florida found ways to win games late last season, the Gators looked pitiful down the stretch. It's probably going to come down to the Bulldogs and the Volunteers.
Between now and fall camp, a lot can happen, especially with everything going on in Knoxville right now. While the Vols may be the early favorite to end up in the SEC Championship Game, Georgia might be the safe pick. The 'Dawgs should find their rhythm pretty quickly on offense, and there is plenty of depth on the defensive side, even though some of the stars are gone. Georgia's schedule isn't too rough. If the 'Dawgs get through back-to-back games at Ole Miss and against Tennessee at home, it could be a special year between the hedges.