Georgia is set to officially kick off Kirby Smart’s second campaign as the program’s head coach, with preseason practice beginning Monday.
Players reported Sunday with a grueling month of practices on deck. The Bulldogs will look to work on improvements from last season’s 8-5 campaign, which ended with a 31-23 Liberty Bowl win over TCU.
Quite a few story lines exist for the Bulldogs heading into the 2017 season. The SEC East favorites, according to reporters who attended this year’s SEC Media Days, have plenty to work on during the next month.
Here are five of the most important storylines with preseason practice set to begin.
Offensive line’s improvement
This is a topic that has been thoroughly discussed since the spring.
Georgia’s offensive line must improve if the offense, as a whole, is to be a more balanced unit. The Bulldogs struggled mightily to run the ball in quite a few games in 2016. The worst came against Nicholls, which saw Georgia total only 167 rushing yards — 81 through three quarters — against a below-average FCS squad.
Isaiah Wynn is set to move to left tackle, a spot he played all spring, with Lamont Gaillard taking over at center. Right tackle still needs a new starter with Greg Pyke finishing his Georgia career.
If Georgia can get back to running the ball efficiently, its offense should take a big leap.
Quarterback Jacob Eason played mistake-free football for the most part in 2016. He didn’t force too many passes, which led to a 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio as a true freshman.
But like any young college quarterback, becoming more accurate will be key. That’s something Smart has stressed during the offseason.
Eason finished his first season with a 55.1 completion percentage, missing a few too many times on his deep throws. It will be imperative for Eason to hit his receiving targets more frequently as a sophomore.
Finding a ‘star’
The good news on defense is that Georgia returns 10 starters. The bad news is that the player Georgia must replace is productive nickel defender Maurice Smith.
Smith totaled 50 tackles and two interceptions as Georgia’s star defender a year ago. With Georgia forced to play against many spread offenses, the star defender — Georgia’s term for its nickel cornerback — must be able to defend quick slot receivers and athletic tight ends.
Georgia has a few options to choose from. If J.R. Reed continues to impress at safety, Aaron Davis could move to star. If Davis stays at safety, Tyrique McGhee and Deangelo Gibbs will compete for the position. At G-Day, Smart opted to go with the Reed and Davis combo.
Two special teams competitions
Place-kicker and punter will be key positions to watch this preseason. After hitting 14-of-18 field goals last season, Rodrigo Blankenship will compete with Wofford graduate transfer David Marvin for the starting place-kicker position.
While Blankenship was quite reliable down the stretch inside of 50 yards, Marvin offers a booming leg. At Wofford, he made two field goals of 57 yards. It wouldn’t be a shock if Georgia begins the year using both place-kickers.
At punter, it remains to be seen how much sophomore Marshall Long, who sustained a dislocated kneecap the week of the Auburn game, will be able to do this preseason.
Columbia graduate transfer Cameron Nizialek took first-team reps during the spring and will have the chance to be Georgia’s punter with a strong preseason.
Which freshmen emerge?
Freshmen are always hot topics each preseason. And with Georgia signing the third-ranked recruiting class in 2017, the summer saw an influx of talent arrive to campus.
Gibbs, Richard LeCounte III, Jake Fromm, Monty Rice and Jeremiah Holloman all enrolled early in January. But big-time prospects Isaiah Wilson, Andrew Thomas, D’Andre Swift, Mark Webb and Nate McBride, among others, will now have a chance to show their worth as members of the Georgia team.
Wilson and Thomas, two high-prized offensive tackles, will be ones to watch early in preseason practice, based on three key contributors graduating.