ATHENS, Ga. - In a lot of ways, the football season begins Tuesday for the defending SEC champion and national runner-up Georgia Bulldogs.
Tuesday is the first day of spring practice in Athens, which is also the first opportunity for Georgia coach Kirby Smart and his staff — not to mention legions of football-hungry Dawgs fans — to get some real-time glimpses at the winter conditioning pay-off.
One of the first questions fans and pundits alike typically ask about a defending champion or runner-up is: Do they have what it takes to do it again? But before we tackle that question, here are four other questions that we’ll be honing in on between now and Saturday April 21 when Georgia takes the field for its annual G-Day spring football game.
1. Who fills in the leadership gap? Roquan Smith. Nick Chubb. Sony Michel. Lorenzo Carter. Davin Bellamy. Isaiah Wynn. You may hear these names and think “stat sheet stuffers” or big play makers. And all of them were that in their own way. However, players such as the aforementioned arguably meant more to Georgia’s team psyche than it did the team stat sheet.
Guys like former Stockbridge standout Brenton Cox could become a familiar face as an outside linebacker, despite his likely being a true freshman. But at least as far as the linebacking corps goes, D’Andre Walker could be that heart-and-soul guy defensively. Walker, a 6-foot-3, 240-pounder, registered just 39 total tackles in 2017. But he’s the team leader in tackles for losses (13.5) and he tallied 5.5 sacks and forced a fumble.
When a defender who shows the penchant to routinely make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage gets more opportunities to make plays, it also means more chances for him to shine as a leader.
Deandre Baker spurning the NFL Draft gives Georgia a bonafide leader in the secondary. Additionally, look for sophomore-to-be quarterback Jake Fromm to take a step up in the leadership aspect of his game.
Thrust into the starting role early in his true freshman year, Fromm’s biggest job was to make sure he didn’t put Georgia’s offense in bad positions. And more times than not, he was successful there. Chubb and Michel were arguably the leaders of that offensive unit. But with their graduation, look for Fromm to make a concerted effort to make this team “his team,” offensively speaking.
Some are wondering how much push dual-threat freshman quarterback Josh Fields will give Fromm, but it’s going to be mighty hard to justify benching a guy who led the program to its first national championship game appearance since 1980.
2. Who makes immediate spring impact? Surely there may be many, but — at least at the beginning of spring — look for tailback D’Andre Swift to be that guy. Swift’s impact will be felt immediately, if for no other reason than the fact that he looks to be the heir apparent to the starting running back position left vacant by Chubb and Michel’s graduation.
Swift will probably get the lion’s share of the carries, especially in spring. But if there’s a two-platoon tailback system to be employed, watch for the emergence of Elijah Holyfield, and don’t count out No. 1 running back prospect Zamir White either, depending on how fast he recovers from the knee injury he sustained in his senior year in high school.
Keep watch, also, on safety Richard LeCounte. Dude is just an athlete, and he flashed a few moments in 2017, particularly in the season opener against Appalachian State — enough to make one believe that with if he can stay healthy, year No. 2 for LeCounte could mean a starting role at the safety spot.
Speaking of immediate impact DBs, don’t sleep on 5-star corner and likely true freshman Tyson Campbell. It’s going to be hard to keep arguably the nation’s top cornerback prospect out of high school off the field.
3. What to do with Justin Fields? A quarterback controversy sounds nice and sexy to sports writers and college football talking heads, but it’s not likely. At least not this year. However, Fields presents the kind of dual-threat skill set at quarterback that Georgia hasn’t had since a guy from South Metro Atlanta (North Clayton High) named D.J. Shockley was taking snaps in Athens.
Don’t be shocked to see a few packages installed into Georgia’s offense that takes advantage of the run-pass option element that Fields brings. Also, don’t be surprised to see Fields diligently preparing for the job as if he will be the starter on Sept. 1 against Austin Peay. After all, he would only have to go as far as Fromm to find a cautionary tale on second-string signal caller readiness.
4. What’s happening on the Newton County watch? Georgia’s roster has a pair of players in Eric Stokes (DB) and J.J. Holloman (WR) who could challenge for some playing time in their second year in the program. Stokes is a world class track athlete and speedster who’s gotten noticeably bigger since his recent Eastside High playing days. Even if he doesn’t see immediate action in the secondary, he could find more valuable time on special teams, perhaps as a kick returner or something like that.
Holloman, however, could stand the best chance of the two to see more significant playing time, just because Georgia will be looking for a third receiving option after Mecole Hardman and Terry Godwin. He had a strong spring game last year, which elicited praise from Smart. But Georgia’s corps of wideouts was fairly deep.