Better or worse? Previewing Georgia's new-look offense in 2020
Editor’s note: This is the 2nd in a series previewing every SEC East team’s offense. Next: Kentucky.
To say that it will be a transitional year for Georgia football on offense is an understatement.
The starting quarterback in 2020 will be a player who wasn’t even here last season. The 2 players atop the running back depth chart in 2019 are on NFL rosters, as are 3 offensive linemen — with another one transferring.
And that’s just the players: The offices of the offensive coordinator and the offensive line coach will be filled by 2 new faces.
Even with the exodus, will the Dawgs see a slippage, or will they find themselves riding a veteran quarterback and a young corps of talent to Hard Rock Stadium to play for a title? Let’s take a look at the offense and see if it will be better or worse than last year:
Key losses: Jake Fromm, QB; D’Andre Swift, RB; Brian Herrien, RB; Andrew Thomas, OT; Isaiah Wilson, OT; Cade Mays, OT; Solomon Kindley, OG
Key returnees: Zamir White, RB; Dominick Blaylock, WR; George Pickens, WR; Trey Hill, OC, Ben Cleveland, OG
Key additions: Jamie Newman, QB; Tre’ McKitty, TE
Potential breakout players: Demetris Robertson, WR; Jamaree Salyer, OT; James Cook, RB
At a glance, the reflex reaction when seeing the turnover would probably be that things would be worse in 2020 — and that’s not including the demotion, and later departure, of embattled offensive coordinator James Coley and offensive line coach Sam Pittman’s exit to take the reins at Arkansas.
Filling those 2 spots were Kirby Smart’s most important moves this offseason, and he delivered. First came Matt Luke, fired as the head coach of Ole Miss in December but having built a reputation as a dynamic, highly respected offensive line coach before that. Then Smart added offensive guru Todd Monken, who helmed the resurrection of a moribund Southern Miss program before leveraging his success there into an NFL gig.
The biggest question is how quickly the older players, as well as a talented incoming freshman class and a group of strong transfers, take to Monken’s high-octane system, as well as how Luke can rally the offensive line, which lost 2 of the best in program history. On paper, despite the long list of departures, this is still a talented group.
Running game: Better
The Dawgs’ running attack wasn’t terrible in 2019. That’s not to say it was a juggernaut, either: Georgia’ 185.1 yards-per-game output ranked just outside of the top 40 nationally and was good for 5th in the SEC.
So there’s plenty of room for growth here, and we should see it in 2020.
Monken’s signature work is likely developing Nick Mullens into one of the country’s top quarterbacks, but don’t forget that he also guided Jalen Richard and Ito Smith to 1,000-yard rushing seasons in 2015. With Zamir White as the presumptive starter after a relatively decent body of work in 2019, Monken has the opportunity to mold another running back who could make a big mark.
A key battle might be how the depth chart behind White shakes out, with returnees James Cook and Kenny McIntosh set to be pushed by promising freshman Kendall Milton.
And while Mullens was a traditional pocket passer, Newman’s dual-threat ability, manifested in a 2019 campaign where he ran for 574 yards and 6 touchdowns, is an extra treat that Monken has in his arsenal that he didn’t have with the Golden Eagles.
This isn’t to say that there won’t be pressure on the running back corps to follow what Swift did, but Georgia fans have to feel confident about what the team has to work with heading into the upcoming season.
Passing game: Better
Before May, it was pretty clear that Jamie Newman was going to be the starting quarterback, even garnering some very early Heisman love in the spring.
Then, former Southern Cal quarterback JT Daniels transferred to the Dawgs.
The jury is still out on whether we’ll have to wade through another quarterback controversy a la Fromm vs. Fields: We still don’t know if Daniels will have immediate eligibility or will have to sit until 2021. But Newman didn’t transfer from a pretty good ACC program to one of the top programs in the country to play backup … right?
Regardless, I’d like to think that the passing game will be improved in 2020. Smart hired a proven commodity in Monken, who worked wonders for Mullens and Southern Miss’ offense 5 years ago. There’s no reason to think that the Dawgs’ aerial attack won’t improve from a system employed by Coley that, while effective, lacked the excitement other programs (see: LSU) showcased on a weekly basis.
Georgia finished 5th in the SEC in passing yards per game (223) and 4th in TD passes (26). In 2018, they averaged more yards (226) and threw more TDs (34).
Among the targets are downfield threats in Blaylock and Pickens, who impressed as true freshmen last year, and Robertson, a veteran still trying to reach his recruiting hype. Trey Blount, Kearis Jackson, Matt Landers and Makiya Tongue help make up a deep receiving corps. A wrinkle to expect from Monken’s offense is how he utilized his running backs at Southern Miss in the receiving game. To go along with their respective 1,000-plus yard rushing seasons in 2015, Richard and Smith combined for 79 catches and nearly 800 yards.
As far as the newcomers are concerned, McKitty, who hauled in 50 combined catches in 2018 and 2019 with Florida State, along with incoming freshmen Darnell Washington, Marcus Rosemy and Arian Smith, hope to carve out their respective roles. But the depth Smart and Monken have here offers them the luxury to redshirt a few players to prepare for yet another transformational year in 2021.
Offensive line: Worse, but only marginally
This might be a little unfair to the Dawgs’ current crop of linemen: The only reason I say “worse” is because it will be tough to top what a unit led by Thomas and Wilson, 2 first-round picks, did in 2019.
That being said, the cupboard isn’t bare.
Senior Justin Shaffer is set to replace Solomon Kindley at left guard. He and junior center Trey Hill, who is getting some later first-round draft looks, will be among the key pieces for Luke in the front 5, along with tackle Jamaree Salyer and interior linemen Warren Erickson and Ben Cleveland.
The biggest question mark? Left tackle, where Thomas’ departure to enter the draft and backup D’Marcus Hayes’s graduation created a big hole. Cade Mays might have had the inside track at this spot, but with his transfer to Tennessee, redshirt freshmen Xavier Truss and Warren McClendon are among the names you might see on the outside.
I’m saying better despite the turnover in the coaching and personnel ranks. As mentioned, Monken and Luke are known quantities: Monken will have plenty of weapons to work with in Newman, a young but promising receiving corps, and a running attack led by White and Cook that will be able to take the baton from Swift. Luke’s body of work with offensive lines should equal a relatively seamless transition from the Sam Pittman era, especially if he can pull the right strings at left tackle.
Whether “better” means a long-awaited championship remains to be seen, but for a program and a coach that has already set a high bar of expectations and has plenty of talent in its locker room, missing out on the College Football Playoff for a 3rd consecutive year will be a disappointment.