I believe that the beginning of week 4 is a perfect opportunity to assess what has transpired so far and what we might expect in the near future from our beloved Bulldogs in Athens. The start of the season has been widely discussed in UGA circles and those discussions have covered a pretty wide range from elation to depression to confusion and everywhere in between. The facts are not disputable. We have played 3 very different teams with one being a non-conference ranked opponent on a “neutral” field, another being an FCS school at home and the most recent being a conference opponent at their house. Those teams are a combined 4-1 outside of their matchups with Georgia. So with caveats and asterisks everywhere, which we will discuss below, we should all agree that we are in the best possible position after 3 weeks. We could reasonably be 0-3 right now, at least 1-2, based on the first three games but we aren’t. We are undefeated and have given our freshmen a load of game action as we prepare for the meat of our schedule. Before we get to that future schedule, let’s take a look at where we are now. These are my observations and you are more than welcome to disagree and provide counter points as that is what college football discussion is all about.
The last three weeks have allowed the Richt faithful an opportunity to mock the hiring of Kirby and proclaim that we are no better. First, I disagree, but secondly and most importantly, it’s much too early to put any reasonable measurement on the transaction. I will tell you why I disagree through. I see us at no better than 1-2 with Richt at the helm of this years squad. I don’t believe he gives the reigns to Eason this soon. He was very loyal to his players, and I admire that to a degree. What that means is that he would have allowed Lambert to be our steady hand and keep us in ballgames. We do not win the UNC game or the Mizzou game in my opinion with Lambert at QB. Think about the past and how the quarterback situations have been handled. We would have seen glimpses of Eason but I don’t believe there is any way we go into week 4 with him being the undisputed named starter as we are now.
What Kirby and his staff have done so far is come in and opened up the competition for the entire team. Each player is being evaluated on a weekly basis and the players that want to be on the field are on the field. Tenure and experience aren’t the driving factor on roster decisions this season and that is the first time in many years. Kirby has also not been shy about that fact. He recognizes and acknowledges poor effort and poor performances and has been assuring of Bulldog Nation that it will not be accepted. No more status quo as they say. As for game day, I believe clock management and halftime adjustments have also been immediate improvements. We are 3-0 because we have overcome a deficit in 3 consecutive games in the second half. How many times did that happen in the last 4 years?
While this section is truly not meant as an indictment on Richt, this is very much a defense of what I believe to be an improvement in our coaching staff. We have wanted nothing more out of our head coach over the last few years than emotion and a sense of urgency and we have had that in the last three weeks. And let’s be honest, we all have eyes and can see what has happened on the field over that span. None of us are satisfied. The difference this year is we know our head coach isn’t either. When asked how it felt to be back home in Sanford stadium after the week 2 game, Coach Smart said, among other things, “we did not play to the level of our expectations or Bulldog fans expectations, we know that. We have to get better.” This was after a win. Refreshing. And one of the biggest worries was over whether we could maintain our recruiting edge and that has been answered with a resounding YES!
Offense has truly been a mixed bag so far in 2016. Week 1 started with Nick Chubb coming back from his brutal knee injury of 2015 to gash UNC for 222 yards and 2 scores. The game also included a couple of flashy plays from the young freshman, Jacob Eason. Enough flashy plays in fact to raise what was a dull roar to name him the starter, to a fever pitch. And we got our wish in week 2. It was clear in the Georgia Dome that we were a more potent offense with Eason at the helm. The field was stretched with his big arm and, for that game, helped open up running lanes for Chubb to seal the victory with a 55 yard scamper, putting a stamp on the Heisman hopeful’s return.
Week 2 is a game we all would just assume to forget. The only benefit to arise from the game was Eason getting more reps and escaping with a W in his first official start. The performance was shaky and led to another week of questioning who the starter would be. We would not find out until just before the Missouri game that it would again be Eason. Only this time, Lambert never saw the field. Now, as of Monday morning, Eason has been named the starter for the upcoming Ole Miss game. I’ll call it progress. Of course, there really shouldn’t have been any doubt after his performance this past weekend. In his 3rd game, and 2nd official start, he threw 55 passes, the most by a UGA quarterback since 2000. So much for easing into conference play. One of those 55 passes was the game winning touchdown with less than two minutes remaining in his first conference game on the road. Oh, and it was 4th and 10 so let’s give the kid some moxie points too. Also of the 59 passes, only one landed in the hands of the opposing team and only 4 drop backs resulted in sacks. Lambert was sacked 3 times in the first quarter of the UNC game, which supported one of his perceived weaknesses of holding the ball too long. Lambert does deserve a lot of credit for helping the kid get ready and become more comfortable in the huddle. It is nice to have a 5th year senior willing and able to do that for a young freshman. So let’s not just write Lambert off. I think even he knew that Eason’s talent was beyond comparison in our quarterback room so this is not meant to disparage his efforts.
While Eason threw the ball what felt like 1,000 times this past Saturday, our run game had its second consecutive underwhelming performance. And not at the fault of the running backs themselves. There have been no holes to navigate at the point of attack and in fact, they have been met in the backfield on more occasions than I am comfortable with. Some of that is due in part to having a freshman quarterback and defenses daring him to beat them. Another is due in part to having the level of talent in the backfield. If I were a defensive coordinator sitting down to review film up until this week, I would be putting 8 in the box on every down as well. But perhaps the most alarming reason for the run game drop off seems to be the perceived underperforming offensive line. I use the term perceived because I really don’t think they are as bad as they may look due to the defensive alignments they are facing. Again, 4 sacks in 59 opportunities are not terrible. But 8 men in the box can’t be the only excuse and the coaches have acknowledged that improvement is necessary. I have to believe that we are somewhere between the 289 rushing yards vs UNC and the 55 pass attempts vs Mizzou. If you told me at the beginning of the season that Nick Chubb would be healthy and below 100 yards in 2 of the first 3 games, I would not have predicted 3-0. It helped to get Sony Michel back this week and he provided some edge stress for the defense but Chubb is our workhorse and I feel much more comfortable when he tops the 100 yard mark. That means things are going well in the run game. If the run game improves, the game will slow down some for Eason. In addition to the offensive line issues, the wide receivers have also been called out for their unwillingness to get involved in the run game by being active blockers. That led to Jayson Stanley getting his first start against Mizzou, even though he is not 100% comfortable with the route tree yet. Add an above average number of dropped passes to the blocking issues and the wide receivers have underperformed to date. The tight ends have been non-existent, presumably because they are being kept in to help fight those 8 man fronts. While the wide receiving group has underperformed as a whole, our clear cut MVP through 3 games has to be Isaiah McKenzie. I-Mac has been electric in every ball game and has developed great rapport with Eason and the offensive coordinator. Jim Cheney has found a number of ways to get him involved and I-Mac himself has improved his route running and hands tremendously this season, save a dropped TD against Mizzou. He made up for that with a beautiful catch on the game winning TD. He had 10 receptions for 122 yards and 2 scores. He was targeted a whopping 16 times. If Eason and McKenzie continue to blossom as a duo, that will soften up the running lanes for Chubb and also open up the passing game for Chigbu, Godwin, Ridley and our talented Tight End group.
Going forward, we clearly need to improve our blocking up front. In addition, Cheney could improve on mixing up some of the play calling when running the ball. It was noted by Bill King on the Junkyard Blawg that when UGA lined up to run, it was mostly out of classic run formations. On the rare occasion we ran out of a spread formation, we were successful. You simply cannot load the box when you spread the field with 4 outside receivers. Eason also needs to keep improving and stretching the field to allow the run game to be freed up. The wide receivers need to cut down on the number of dropped passes and the tight ends have to get more separation when they are used in routes. We have the potential to be a truly explosive offense if we can improve in those areas. The more game reps Eason gets, the more comfortable he will become with the speed of the SEC and the playbook. I have to believe that it hasn’t been fully unleased on him quite yet.
The defense this season has been a tale of two halves so far. We have looked unsure and confused at times in the first half of games, specifically the UNC and Mizzou matchups. They are two high powered offenses and have been able to move the ball seemingly at will on us during both 1st halves. Ole Miss may be (likely is) the best offense of the three and we can’t wait until halftime to get comfortable and start to be aggressive. UNC was a balanced attack with Elijah Hood and TJ Logan at running back and a group of 3 very talented WR’s. Missouri provided much more of a strain on our secondary and was held under 100 yards on the ground. Ole Miss will be as one dimensional as any of them as they have produced no run game to speak of. But they also have the superior quarterback when compared to the others and are going to provide the toughest test of the season on our pass defense. In order to be ready for the pass offenses we face over the next several weeks, our defensive front is going to have to start getting to the quarterback. Aaron Davis, a safety, is currently tied for the team league with 1 sack. That group includes Trenton Thompson, Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy and Natrez Patrick among its eligible members. Trent has been a formidable force in the run game and Roquan Smith has been excellent in coverage and moving from sideline to sideline in the run game. Carter and Patrick have been all but non-existent in the pass rush so far. That can’t continue against Chad Kelly and Josh Dobbs. If Kelly is given the time that Drew Lock was given, he will carve us up; much like Lock did the entire first half. Pressure on the quarterback was the key to our success in the secondary in 2015 when we were ranked #2 in the league. Speaking of the secondary, Juwan Briscoe, Malkom Parrish and Maurice Smith have proven they can provide good coverage but they are as ineffective as anybody else would be when there is no pass rush. The secondary is being asked to cover for far too long on many plays. The ball hawking skills of Dominick Sanders, Aaron Davis and Quincy Mauger will only improve when the pass rush turns up the heat as well. Although, Mauger is tied for the league lead with his 2 interceptions through 3 games and one of those interceptions was truly a beautiful play. The secondary has tackled better this year and produced 5 turnovers in the second half of the Mizzou game. Those turnovers were the overlooked story in that game and gave Eason the opportunity to provide the heroics with less than 2 minutes remaining. The defense did not call it a night after that td though as they forced a huge fumble to seal the win. Looking ahead, the defense will continue to be tested with Kelly, Dobbs, Jalen Hurd, Josh Malone, and Auburns spread offense. Our only hope at a solid overall season is with the defense providing some lights out performances in those matchups. We can’t ask Eason to throw 55 times or expect Chubb to rush for 222 each week. If the defense does not show immediate first half improvement this Saturday, I worry that Ole Miss will be too much for us. The need for pressure on the quarterback cannot be overstated. It’s what makes our defense work. Pressure spawns rash decisions by the quarterback, third and longs and turnovers. So far, we have not had that pressure on a consistent basis.
This is going to be short and sweet because this is our biggest deficiency. We have to get consistent touchbacks on kickoffs. Game 2 had several and cut out the potential for big plays in the return game. Touchbacks were nowhere to be found in the first or third game and Mizzou made us pay more than once. Our punt return defense continues to commit dumb penalties involving kick/catch interference. The play this past week was only a hair early but was also the most egregious thus far, resulting in Kirby Choates being kicked out during the second half and being suspended for the first half of the upcoming matchup with Ole Miss.
Finally, it should be no surprise to anyone that we need a field goal kicker. What we have seen so far is abysmal and downright depressing. Perhaps we have been spoiled with the likes of Blair Walsh and Billy Bennett and Marshall Morgan over the last several years but extra points are even an adventure these days. Knuckle balls and shanks are becoming the norm and I currently have no faith in the kicking game. Special teams continue to be a disaster in Athens in some facet and I had really hoped we would see an improvement this year.
Odds and Ends
- We have seen a large amount of freshmen get game action so far this year. Our starting freshman quarterback is the big story. But we had as many as 11 freshmen on the field between offense and defense this past Saturday. This is good in the long run but makes for some tense moments in the present.
- Two names we haven’t seen much of yet are Mecole Hardman and Elijah Holyfield. Hardman picked up a fumble and returned it for a touchdown on the obvious kick catch interference call against Mizzou but it was good to see him in action.
- The “Get Back” coaches are having to work a lot harder this year than they have in the past. I see them quite often trying to get a coach back on the sideline. It’s good to see.
- Recruiting continues to go well for our 2017 class with the addition of Mark Webb. We had to go into Pennsylvania to pull this kid so the coaches are working hard on the recruiting trail.
- I was in town for the home opener 2 weeks ago and discounting the game, Athens is as beautiful as always. I enjoyed the trip except for the nightmare that is parking. We walked past the indoor practice facility and it is coming along nicely.
Our next 7 games are conference opponents and include Ole Miss, Tennessee, Florida and Auburn. The next two weeks will go a long way in sorting out the SEC East. We go to Oxford MS this weekend to play the high powered offense of Ole Miss. They are 1-2 but have lost to both FSU and Alabama in that stretch. They put up 43 points on the vaunted Alabama defense in their most recent loss. Florida travels to Tennessee this weekend to provide what has begun as a shaky Tennessee campaign its first real test. Tennessee lost two of its best defensive players this past Saturday and Florida lost its starting quarterback so both teams are sort of hobbling into this one. Maybe they will continue to beat each other up. Then, when all the dust settles from this Saturday, the Volunteers come to Athens on October 1st in what shapes up to be quite possibly the biggest game of the year for Georgia. Someone in the East could very well be eliminated in the next 2 weeks, logically rather than mathematically. It’s also possible that all three teams come out of the next 2 weeks with 1 loss apiece making the UGA/UF game our biggest game of the year and the Tennessee/Alabama game the same for Vols fans. Are you excited yet, football fans?
Here’s the bottom line. We are a good but not great team in the present. We are far from perfect. We have the potential to be great if we allow the coaches to continue to do what they are doing. It is unreasonable and unfair to believe that we would turn our coaching staff over, play 85% of the recruiting class in the first 3 games and start a freshman at QB and still go undefeated or be a lock for a conference championship. I read an article last night that said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are football teams.” Anyone who is paying attention can see the changes that are being made and the standards that are being adjusted. It will not happen immediately. We are 3-0 but could possibly be 3-2 at the end of the next two weeks. Do I want that? Absolutely not. Will I be standing on a ledge if we are? Of course not. I’m in this for the long haul and I truly feel something special happening with our football team. We just have to sit back and allow it to happen. If we stumble over a division title in the process, I will be thrilled but that truly wasn’t my expectation coming into this year and certainly isn’t after the first 3 weeks. We need to allow time for this to unfold. Be patient Dawg Nation!