Kirby Smart has a lot of questions to answer as he opens his second spring as Georgia's head coach Tuesday.
The UGA alum could not instantly get the Bulldogs over the hump -- they posted a disappointing 8-5 record in his debut season -- but after signing a dynamic recruiting class in February, Smart has turned Georgia into a popular pick to win the SEC East this fall.
If that’s going to happen, though, he has to clean up some messes -- particularly at the first two position groups we’ll discuss today: wide receiver and offensive line. Those battles are among the top storylines we’ll be following this spring in Athens.
1. Identifying weapons in the passing game
To be frank, Georgia’s passing game was highly underwhelming last year, and now the Bulldogs move forward without the one guy who was productive. Isaiah McKenzie entered the NFL draft after catching 44 passes for 633 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior.
Who will emerge as the weapons that second-year quarterback Jacob Eason can rely upon to catch big passes and move the chains? Keep in mind that it doesn’t always have to be wide receivers, and that’s a good thing. Junior Terry Godwin (38 catches for 397 yards last year) is the only wideout we could call a proven commodity, and even he has not yet lived up to his blue-chip billing as a prospect.
However, the Bulldogs have a lot to like at other skill groups. Running back Sony Michel (22-149, TD) is an outstanding pass-catcher, and Nick Chubb (5-86, TD) has caught the occasional ball out of the backfield, as well. And the tight end group led by sophomore Isaac Nauta (29-361, 3 TDs) has the potential to be outstanding. Jeb Blazevich (6-69) and Charlie Woerner (5-50) will be two more weapons for Eason at tight end.
But at wide receiver? Who knows. Godwin and Riley Ridley (12-238, 2 TD) have had their moments, but it would be premature to elevate either of them to No. 1 wideout status. Georgia fans have high hopes for Javon Wims (17-190, TD) and early enrollee Jeremiah Holloman, and then there are guys like Michael Chigbu (9-88), Jayson Stanley and Tyler Simmons (2-19) who could still make an impact.
2. Reconstructing the offensive line
The offensive line might be the most important position group for Georgia this spring. This group was often bad in 2016, and it’s entirely possible there will be an entirely different starting lineup for this season’s opener against Appalachian State than there was for the bowl win over TCU.
Otherwise, it’s tough to predict how things might shake out up front, especially before a solid collection of offensive line talent -- led by tackles Isaiah Wilson (the No. 2 overall prospect on the ESPN 300) and Andrew Thomas (No. 40) -- arrives this summer.
One signee already on campus is junior college transfer D’Marcus Hayes (No. 12 on ESPN’s JC50), who could immediately contend for a spot at tackle. Other names to watch: Dyshon Sims and Solomon Kindley at guard, plus Ben Cleveland, Kendall Baker and Pat Allen.
This is probably just the start of a competition that will continue well into the season while offensive line coach Sam Pittman searches for the right combination to protect Eason and clear space for Georgia’s talented running backs. One thing is clear, though: If the line fails to improve significantly from last season, Georgia’s SEC East hopes will circle the drain once again.
3. Can freshman QB really push Eason?
This time a year ago, it felt like a coronation once Eason arrived on campus. However, in his first season under center, it became clear that Eason could not wave a magic wand and solve the many personnel issues affecting the Georgia roster.
The talent level is improving, and Eason has some work to do himself. For starters, he might have to hold off spunky early enrollee Jake Fromm, ESPN’s No. 132 overall prospect and No. 7 pocket passer.
Smart has praised Fromm for his leadership skills and insists that he will push Eason, a year after he passed for 2,430 yards, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions as a freshman starter.
Ideally, Georgia could redshirt the newcomer, but he and Eason are the only scholarship quarterbacks on the roster after Brice Ramsey recently announced his decision to transfer. So most likely the kid will play. But Georgia probably needs him to push Eason to improve -- not pass him on the depth chart -- if the Bulldogs are to make good on those division hopes. Jalen Hurts and 2016 Alabama aside, teams with true freshman starting quarterbacks typically don’t win big.