Charlie Woerner caught a strike from Jacob Eason up the seam at G-Day. He bounced off a defender, ran by another and rumbled his way into the end zone for a 36-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
It was the kind of play no one had really seen but one head coach Kirby Smart alluded to all spring. Woerner, a 6-foot-5 and 251-pound tight end, has made plays split out as a slot receiver often in practice. In front of a sizable G-Day crowd, Woerner was able to show why he potentially could provide Georgia a matchup advantage this coming season.
Woerner is one of six targets who figures to rotate into Georgia’s slot receiver position. It just so happens that in this group there are two receivers (Terry Godwin, Mecole Hardman), two running backs (Sony Michel, Brian Herrien) and two tight ends (Woerner, Isaac Nauta).
All six of these players will hope to replace the production provided by Isaiah McKenzie, who caught 44 passes for 633 yards and seven touchdowns in 2016.
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“There is a lot of production in that position,” Smart said. “That’s a big challenge for us.”
Slot receiver is an integral position in offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s scheme. Chaney’s lone stint in the NFL came with the then-St. Louis Rams from 2006-08 as an offensive line and tight ends coach. His head coach at the time was Scott Linehan, who is now the offensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys.
Linehan’s offense relies heavily upon the slot position. Since becoming the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator in 2015, slot receiver Cole Beasley has seen his numbers rise, which included a 2016 season with career-bests of 75 catches and 833 yards.
Judging by how the offense operated in 2016, it seemed that perhaps he took this wrinkle from his time spent with Linehan.
Smart said he has been impressed with Godwin’s ability to play the position this spring, calling him a “vital piece of that slot.” While Godwin could wind up being the top option in the slot, Georgia has quite a few options to go with depending on the matchup.
Godwin and Hardman are smaller and shiftier receivers who can create space and work zone coverages. Woerner and Nauta are big bodies with speed who can out-run linebackers and out-size nickel defenders. Michel and Herrien are quick-footed who can motion out of the backfield to create a mismatch if the defense is in a certain personnel grouping.
“Certain guys, smaller guys, quicker guys, you have them in the slot,” receiver Jacob Wims said. “The bigger, more physical guys you have outside. Guys who can do both, we’ll have packages where they go in the slot. It all depends on the formation and personnel.”
At spring practices, the outside receivers have split out to the usual split end and flanker groups during individual drills.
One noticeable change, at least during the media viewing period, was the fact that a slot receiver group featuring those aforementioned six players all caught passes together. It looks to be a position Georgia wants multiple players to produce out of.
“I think that’s something where Coach Chaney is getting a bunch of guys a chance to step up,” tight end Jeb Blazevich said. “He’s giving everybody an opportunity things to try out. I know specifically Isaac and Charlie, they’ve been out there doing a great job.”
And in practice, it looks like the position group provided its share of problems for the defense.
“It’s a nightmare looking across and having to check Sony,” inside linebacker Natrez Patrtick said. “It opens the field. It’s a good change I think.”