Bill Connelly says he normally doesn’t pay attention to spring football, but this year, he’s making an exception in Georgia’s case.
The upside is obvious: Georgia enters 2020 with the deepest, most proven defense in the country, and head coach Kirby Smart has now out-recruited former mentor Nick Saban’s Alabama twice in three years. There are blue-chippers everywhere you look, and UGA is projected fourth in SP+.
With just a slightly different approach to efficiency and returning talent, however, ESPN’s FPI ranks the Dawgs just 10th, only one spot ahead of division rival Florida. And it’s not hard to see why a drop-off could be in the works: a disappointing offense has to replace nearly every known entity: quarterback Jake Fromm, running backs D’Andre Swift and Brian Herrien, receiver Lawrence Cager, All-American lineman Andrew Thomas, etc., not to mention offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who’s now Arkansas’ head coach.
The unknowns replacing these guys, however, are both intriguing and pretty, well, known. And I have no idea how they’ll fit together. Granted, we won’t learn as much as we want to this spring, but consider me fascinated all the same.
It’s a fair framework (although I think FPI underplays the “blue-chippers everywhere you look” aspect).
That being said, it’s hard to find fault with Bill’s list of questions:
• Wake Forest quarterback transfer Jamie Newman is a favorite of the Pro Football Focus folks — they ranked him third in the country among returning QBs this fall. He’s more INT-prone than Fromm (he had a 4.1% INT rate against man coverage in 2018-19 and a 2.0% rate against zone, compared to 1.7% and 1.0%, respectively, for Fromm), but he still completed 61% of his passes last year, and not even including sacks, he carried the ball nearly once every five snaps. He’s like a point guard with a high usage rate — he’s going to have the ball in his hands even more than the normal QB, and he will almost completely define the personality of this offense.
• New offensive coordinator Todd Monken has been around the block. The Knox College alum spent the 2010s first as Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator, then as Southern Miss’ head coach/exorcist, then as offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cleveland Browns. He’s likely to add some much-needed sophistication to the passing game, but when was the last time he had such a run-hungry QB? J.W. Walsh at Oklahoma State in 2012? How does he adapt to Newman’s skill set, and how does Newman adapt to Monken?
• New offensive line coach Matt Luke is dealing with turnover up front, but he has an absolute bounty of potential with which to work. By my count, there will be something around 11-12 former blue-chippers on the line, including freshmen, this fall. But about eight of them will be sophomores or younger. Can he coax reliability out of high-upside youngsters?
• Also, who the heck is catching passes? We know sophomore-to-be George Pickens is a star in the making — at least if he can keep his temper in check — but can Monken’s system unlock the still-mostly-theoretical potential of former blue-chipper Demetris Robertson? Can sophomore Dominick Blaylock thrive in the slot as it appears he might? Blaylock is still recovering from a torn ACL, so we won’t get any answers on him until fall camp. But how Monken deploys Robertson (and junior Matt Landers, and any number of youngsters) has my attention.
Then, there’s Bill’s passing note in conclusion:
While Dabo Swinney’s Clemson has beaten Alabama for the national title twice in four years, between recruiting and pilfering no one has done more to damage Saban’s infrastructure than Smart. We’ll see if he can eventually get past the Tide on the actual football field. The Dawgs head to Tuscaloosa in Week 3.
The narrative for that week is going to be repeated ad nauseam. Not that that’s gonna stop anyone from repeating it.