There’s no better way for the Georgia Bulldogs to get past the heartbreaking loss in the national championship than to throw on the pads and get back to work. And that’s exactly what the defending SEC champions will do, as spring practice officially gets underway on Tuesday in Athens.
Georgia will enter the 2018 season as the overwhelming favorite in the SEC East, and once again, ranked among the top teams in the nation. However, there is plenty of work to be done before the Bulldogs set out to make another run at a national title. Kirby Smart will be tasked with replacing 17 scholarship seniors and two juniors that declared early for the NFL draft. Many of those players were starters and/or key contributors. That leaves the Bulldogs with a lot of big shoes to fill.
The good news is that cupboard appears to be well-stocked with returning talent. Georgia’s top-ranked recruiting class for 2018 will further bolster the talent pool. The question now is, who among them will step up to fill those vacant spots? Spring practice should go a long way in helping make that determination, along with unraveling a few other mysteries.
5 Storylines to Watch During Georgia’s Spring Practice
1. Fromm vs. Fields
It’s not normal for a quarterback that just led his team to a 13-win season and the national title game to have to fend for his starting job against an incoming freshman. But that appears to be the case, and that’s exactly why this is by far the biggest storyline for the Bulldogs this spring.
Justin Fields, the nation’s top overall high school prospect (according to ESPN.com), will certainly have his work cut out for him. Jake Fromm’s (above, right) proven track record, along with his poised demeanor and efficient play, will be tough to overcome. However, if the strong-armed, fleet-footed freshman is as good as advertised, this could develop into a legitimate quarterback controversy by the time spring practice concludes.
It will be very interesting to see if Fields has what it takes to make a serious run at the starting job. If he does, Fromm vs. Fields should make for quite the show at Georgia’s annual G-Day game on April 21.
2. Replacing Roquan Smith
There may not be a player in the entire country that can fill the monster shoes left behind by Smith. It might even take a committee of Bulldogs to fill that void. But Kirby Smart has several talented applicants ready and willing to give it a shot. Senior Natrez Patrick is the most likely candidate to slide into Smith’s inside linebacker spot. Of course, that all depends on his availability this spring, as he makes his way back from suspension. Patrick is by far the most experienced linebacker on the roster with 17 starts under his belt, most of them playing alongside Smith.
Sophomore Monty Rice is another favorite to land a starting role at one of the two vacant inside linebacker spots. The rising sophomore appeared in 14 games last season, recording with 22 tackles and two tackles for a loss. But Rice will have his hands full trying to beat out a large cast of worthy contenders. Senior Juwan Taylor, junior Tae Crowder, sophomore Nate McBride, and redshirt freshman Jaden Hunter will all be vying for playing time at inside linebacker this spring. All are legitimate contenders to land a starting spot as well. The competition will really heat up when high school All-Americans Channing Tindall and Quay Walker arrive on campus this summer.
3. Serious competition at outside linebacker
Smith isn’t the only talented linebacker the Bulldogs will need to replace. The departure of Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter could make for some compelling competition at outside linebacker as well. Sophomore Walter Grant appears to have the inside track on Bellamy’s vacant JACK linebacker spot heading into spring. That said, he will have a serious fight on his hands to maintain that edge. Redshirt freshman Robert Beal and early enrollee Brenton Cox have all the tools to give Grant a run for his money. Cox, in particular, is said to have made quite the impression during offseason workouts.
Senior D’Andre Walker (right) is the overwhelming favorite to replace Carter at the Sam linebacker spot. Walker played in all 15 games last season with 40 total tackles and ranked second on the team in both tackles for a loss (13.5) and sacks (5.5). The real challenge this spring will be identifying the pecking order behind Walker.
4. The battle at right tackle
Georgia returns four of its five starters along the offensive line from last season. The only problem is that the lone departure was All-SEC offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn. Sophomore Andrew Thomas, who earned Freshman All-American honors last season, is expected to slide over from right tackle to fill that spot. But that still leaves a big hole to fill at right tackle.
There are several candidates in play and multiple scenarios that could unfold this spring. However, the top candidate appears to redshirt freshman Isaiah Wilson. The former 5-star prospect was the jewel of Georgia’s 2017 signing class before arriving too out of shape to compete last season. Wilson appears to be primed and ready to go this spring.
Early enrollee Cade Mays, another 5-star recruit, might provide Wilson with his biggest competition this spring, both literally and figuratively. Mays’ elite size and potential make him a worthy adversary. Former junior college transfer D’Marcus Hayes could get in the mix as well, along with several others. It’s also plausible that starting right guard Ben Cleveland will get a serious look at right tackle during spring practice . It will be interesting to see how a talent-rich Georgia offensive line shakes out in the end.
5. The search to replace Javon Wims
Terry Godwin and Mecole Hardman are locked into starting roles. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s’ best guess how the depth chart will shake out at wide receiver. The first order of business will be identifying the top candidates to replace Wims, Georgia’s leading receiver last season. That should make for one of the Bulldogs’ more captivating position battles as spring practice unfolds.
Riley Ridley’s stellar performance in the national championship game could give the junior wideout a leg up on the competition entering spring. But that isn’t a given with highly touted sophomores JJ Holloman and Trey Blount poised for a breakout. Perhaps the most intriguing candidate is redshirt freshman Matt Landers. The rangy 6-foot-5 receiver built quite the reputation as a big-time playmaker against the first-team defense on the practice field last season.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.