If Georgia is to contend for an SEC championship, it will need to see a few improvements that could prove critical in 2017.
That goes for any team in all honesty. But Georgia, which lost games to Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech by a combined five points, could see a significant jump with favorable tweaks in certain key areas.
In fact, all signs point to improvements in at least three facets of Georgia’s 2017 football team.
Special teams should see a boost
Kickoffs proved difficult for Georgia a season ago. Place-kicking took a while to get into form. Punting was inconsistent throughout the entire year.
While the struggle was real in 2016, this season should have a much different outlook.
Word is that Wofford graduate transfer David Marvin can absolutely boot the ball into the end zone on kickoffs. That was evidenced by Marvin nailing 37 touchbacks with the Terriers in 2016. Georgia’s kickoff coverage unit struggled at times last season. One cure for those woes would be for the opposition to not return many kicks.
Marvin will also compete for the starting place-kicking job with incumbent Rodrigo Blankenship. Blankenship didn’t open the 2016 season the starter but ended up getting the gig in Week 4 against Mississippi. After an early-season miss against the Rebels, Blankenship nailed 10 field goals in a row, including a game-winner against Kentucky.
Blankenship proved quite accurate on kicks inside of 50 yards and will look to lengthen his range. But Marvin has shown a big leg during his career, considering he holds a Southern Conference record of a field goal made from 57 yards. The August competition should only make both place-kickers better.
Columbia graduate transfer Cameron Nizialek should add distance to Georgia’s punting game. Nizialek averaged 44.8 yards per punt last season, which compares favorably to Georgia’s average of 37.5 yards per punt in 2016.
Pittman to get more out of offensive line
Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman has too good of a track record for the offensive line not to make considerable gains in his second season on the job.
Early on in 2016, the Bulldogs struggled to move men off of the line of scrimmage in Pittman’s dual blocking scheme. The line’s struggles made running back Nick Chubb look human at times, which was something no one thought they would ever see.
But while Georgia has to replace three contributors from last year’s line, two reasons exist as to why there will be significant improvement in 2017.
Size matters up front in Pittman’s scheme and Georgia will be a bigger group. Isaiah Wynn is now over 300 pounds and did not drop below that weight during the spring. Guards Solomon Kindley and Pat Allen offer much more size up front too. Freshman Isaiah Wilson tips the scale at 350 pounds and could be a candidate to start at right tackle from day one. Utility lineman Dyshon Sims, who spent the majority of the spring as Georgia’s first-team right tackle, is near the 300-pound benchmark.
Georgia didn’t have this kind of size a season ago and will hope its linemen can lean more on opposing defensive fronts in 2017.
The other factor going Georgia’s way is the fact that this is the first time since 2014 that the line will have the same position coach returning to the program. Continuity is a big deal in college football. Sims even admitted as such shortly after Georgia arrived to Memphis, Tennessee for the Liberty Bowl.
The Bulldogs spent a lot of last season growing accustomed to Pittman’s scheme and terminology. That’s now in the past, with Georgia’s linemen able to focus more on executing than thinking through each particular call.
Secondary won’t have to play catch-up
Georgia’s secondary began the 2016 season showcasing a few deficiencies. It came to a head against Ole Miss, when former Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly went off for 282 passing yards and two touchdowns.
If Ole Miss didn’t get out to such a big lead early, the damage could have been worse. But as the season went along, Georgia improved as a secondary. A lot of this had to do with the emergence of Deandre Baker, who was inserted into the starting lineup in Week 5 against Tennessee.
Georgia was torched through the air in games against Missouri and Mississippi. If the NFL’s No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubsiky didn’t miss on some wide-open deep throws in Georgia’s opener against North Carolina, then he would have a better statistical showing too.
The Bulldogs, however, improved considerably in the back end and finished the year second in the SEC in pass defense at 183.8 yards through the air per game.
But the Bulldogs shouldn’t be in a position where they are working out some early kinks. With four defensive backs returning and a slew of potential quality contributors at the star position, Georgia will be in good position in the secondary from the first game on.