Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
SEC TEAM PREVIEWS Georgia:
Bulldogs tasked with remodel job
Georgia coach Kirby Smart waits with players to enter the field to take on Georgia Tech Yellow before an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)
Ninth in a series previewing the 2020 SEC football season.
It didn’t take Kirby Smart long to turn Georgia football into a powerhouse.
The Georgia alum had the Bulldogs hoisting an SEC championship trophy and playing for the College Football Playoff championship in his second year.
In 2020, the Bulldogs are gunning for their fourth consecutive SEC East title, and the opener in this strange, covid-19 impacted season is at Arkansas on Sept. 26.
Smart has never faced a season with more rebuilding to do since his first year in Athens, Ga.
Georgia lost nine offensive starters, four on the line, veteran quarterback Jake Fromm and star tailback D’Andre Swift, and line coach Sam Pittman, now the head coach at Arkansas. Smart shuffled offensive coordinator James Coley to assistant head coach and hired Todd Monken to replace him and oversee the new schemes.
One of Monken’s first tasks will be to determine a quarterback starter between graduate transfer Jamie Newman (formerly of Wake Forest) and sophomore transfer JT Daniels, who was granted immediate eligibility after leaving Southern California.
Quarterback play, combined with the current state of college football, were obviously the hottest topics following Saturday’s first scrimmage.
“We’re behind,” Smart said, listing the coronavirus, social justice issues and injuries as factors in his team’s mindset. “I don’t know that I’ve ever come out of a first scrimmage and felt good.
“I’m happy we got to scrimmage, to be honest with you. … But just looking at the scrimmage as a whole, we have a long way to go. We looked like a team that didn’t go through spring practice. We looked like a team that is young at a lot of positions. We were really sloppy, to be honest with you.”
Smart, one of nine FBS head coaches to be leading his alma mater, said Newman, Daniels, and freshmen D’Wan Mathis and Carson Beck all took snaps with the first offense on Saturday.
Most analysts believe Newman, a 6-4, 230-pounder will win the starting job. He passed for 3,959 yards, with 35 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in 19 games with the Demon Deacons. As a 12-game starter in 2019, Newman completed 60.9% of his passes for 2,868 yards, with 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also rushed for 574 yards and six touchdowns.
Daniels, a 6-3, 210-pounder, is coming off knee surgery from one year ago. In 11 games in 2018, he completed 216 of 363 passes (.595) for 2,672 yards, with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The five-star prospect from powerhouse Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif., suffered a torn knee ligament in last year’s season-opening win over Fresno State.
Smart said he has not been cleared to go through a whole game with live tackling yet.
“Cleared to me is, I can go out and play a full game of tackle football,” Smart said. “He gets to scrimmage, but he wouldn’t be cleared for a game in terms of contact yet.”
Smart said Zamir White, the likely starting tailback, and James Cook both had long touchdown runs in the scrimmage, but they came against a second-team defense that contributed with mistakes.
George Pickens, a 6-3 target who had 49 catches for 727 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2019, will lead a receiving unit that has already suffered adversity. The Bulldogs lost Dom Blaylock with a torn knee ligament.
The Bulldogs’ offensive front, a powerhouse under Pittman, is almost starting over. The unit lost three players to the NFL Draft, including first-round picks Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson, and 6-6 guard Cade Mays transferred to Tennessee.
Former Ole Miss head Coach Matt Luke, who assisted in the Bulldogs’ Sugar Bowl victory over Baylor, has a group with center Trey Hill and guard Ben Cleveland as returning starters.
“It’s a challenge any time you come in, just building those relationships, because that’s what coaching is. It’s about building relationships,” Luke said. “I guess the Sugar Bowl really helped me, because you have no choice. You kind of get thrown in the fire. And you go in there and you coach and those guys have to develop that trust and belief in you. The only way you can do that is with time.”
The Bulldogs could be a juggernaut defensively, with eight starters returning from a unit that was No. 3 nationally in total defense (275.7 ypg), No. 1 against the run (74.6), No. 31 against the pass (201.1) and No. 1 in scoring by allowing a paltry 12.6 points per game.
Nose man Jordan Davis and end Malik Herring are back on the base 3-4 front, along with linebackers Monty Rice and Azeez Ojulari. The secondary abounds with experience, led by safety Richard LeCounte and cornerback Eric Stokes, but also including senior cover men DJ Daniel and Mark Webb, who will be pushed to retain their starting jobs.
“The biggest thing we’ve emphasized so far this offseason is the finish,” defensive coordinator Dan Lanning said. “You know, we’ve talked about havoc plays on here a lot in the past, and that is still definitely a big focus for us, but we want to get the ball out. We want to finish. We want to impact the game by having some game-changing plays that we can create, and our players have really embraced that so far.”
On special teams, Georgia must find a replacement for Lou Groza Award winning kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, while sophomore punter Jake Camarda, who finished strong in 2019, is a returning starter.
Georgia Bulldogs at a glance
LAST SEASON 12-2, 7-1 (1st in SEC East)
COACH Kirby Smart (44-12 in 5th season at Georgia and overall)
RETURNING STARTERS 11: Offense 2, Defense 8, Specialty 1
KEY PLAYERS QB Jamie Newman, C Trey Hill, NT Jordan Davis, MLB Monty Rice, FS Richard LeCounte, WR George Pickens, DE Malik Herring
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Todd Monken (1st year)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Dan Lanning (2nd year)
SEC EAST TITLE SCENARIO Identifying a starting quarterback and getting him comfortable in a unit that is rebuilding almost its entire front is the first order of business. The defense should be among the nation’s best, which will make the Bulldogs tough to unseat from their fourth SEC East title in a row.
Georgia's 2020 schedule
Sept. 26 at Arkansas
Oct. 3 Auburn
Oct. 10 Tennessee
Oct. 17 at Alabama
Oct. 24 at Kentucky
Oct. 31 Open date
Nov. 7 vs. Florida%
Nov. 14 at Missouri
Nov. 21 Miss. State
Nov. 28 at South Carolina
Dec. 5 Vanderbilt
% Game at Jacksonville, Fla.
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