Better/Worse in 2016: Georgia passing game
With Georgia, it all begins with the quarterback battle.
It’s the most hotly-contested element of Georgia’s passing game. It’s also the one that zero people — likely head coach Kirby Smart included — have any clue how it will end up. Well documented, it’s a three-headed competition between incumbent starter Greyson Lambert, his 2015 backup Brice Ramsey and poster boy early enrollee Jacob Eason.
Until the full-time starter is decided, which no one should hold their breath for until fall camp, the specific details of how Georgia’s air attack will operate in 2016 are anyone’s guess.
But quarterback play is just one aspect of the passing game, and it’s not the Bulldogs’ only concern.
There’s a lackluster projection of the receiving corps there to assist the eventual signal caller. Malcolm Mitchell has moved onto the New England Patriots, and though the lineup of Terry Godwin, Jayson Stanley and Michael Chigbu won’t unsettle the SEC, it certainly offers the potential of an overachieving group.
Then, of course, there’s the litter of talented tight ends. Jeb Blazevich, Jackson Harris, Jordan Davis and Isaac Nauta all have SEC starter ability. It’ll be fun to watch how offensive coordinator Jim Chaney tries to maximize those assets with a relatively standard receiving corps outside of Godwin.
And that’s the last major unknown that will shape the entire landscape of the Georgia passing game: Chaney.
Georgia fans might have been happy with just about anyone other than Brian Schottenheimer this season. Will the Bulldogs get used to the new offensive scheme quickly? And how much will the TBD quarterback and young receivers with the stable of tight ends affect a passing game that was nothing short of anemic in 2015?
Passing yards per game (SEC rank): 185.1 (10th)
TDs: 14 (9th)
INTs: 8 (tied for 10th-most)
Again, who will be the guy? Everyone in Athens probably is hoping and praying it’s Eason. His arrival was a big reason 93,000 piled into Sanford for a spring scrimmage, isn’t it?
It appears, however, that this is Lambert’s job to lose, and quite frankly, his experience and style make you think it should be his to lose. He did throw an interception in the spring game, though he clearly was not turnover-prone in 2015. As frustrating as the passing game got for the fans spoiled by Matthew Stafford and Aaron Murray, Lambert only started in two losses — Alabama and Tennessee. He finished with 12 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. He’s the safest option.
Ramsey seems like the odd man out, even though he practiced with the first team and Eason didn’t, but it feels like it’ll be Lambert or Eason. Either way, it’d be hard for a Georgia team to have a less impressive passing game than it did last season.
Sure, the running game is stout, so the numbers might not be there as much by the end of the season. But there were times in 2015, especially after Nick Chubb’s injury, that it felt like no matter who you put at quarterback, the Bulldogs were going to struggle to get first downs.
Lambert won’t be worse than he was in 2015, but how much better can he get? And if Eason, or Ramsey, beat him out, that likely means there’ll be expected improvements from the coaching staff.
Smart recently said he isn’t ruling out Eason starting the opener simply because he’s a freshman.
“I have no objections to him starting the first game,” Smart said, according to 247Sports. “I want the guy that gives us the best chance to win to start the first game. Whoever that is, that is 20-something practices from now, so we will know a lot more.”
Receivers/tight ends/running backs
The Bulldogs will probably miss Mitchell more than they realize this season. Mitchell was an underrated pass-catcher in traffic, which there was a lot of because of the panicky offensive vibe and inability to stretch the field in 2015. Mitchell was serviceable from his freshman season, and was, as cliche as it may be, the heart and soul of the team.
That won’t be replaced with young receivers like Godwin, Stanley, Chigbu and newcomer Riley Ridley. It will be interesting to watch the leadership role unfold there, given older guys like Isaiah McKenzie and Reggie Davis are back as well.
The tight end situation couldn’t be better. Blazevich is the guy, and he’ll enter his junior season knowing it could be his last before turning pro. He can catch, block and lead. He’s exactly what Georgia’s offense needs with a new coach, to help ease the transition.
But he’s not the only key tight end. Harris showed surprising ability at G-Day. Jordan Davis is the new-age basketball/tight end type of player. And Nauta might just be the best of the bunch when it’s all said and done. A year older, with new additions, the Bulldogs are as good as anyone in the conference there.
And then there’s the running backs, who contributed to the passing game last season. Sony Michel again will be the play-maker to watch from that position. He caught three touchdown passes last season, second only to Mitchell’s five. Michel had Wildcat formation moments last season, and Schottenheimer started getting creative with Michel in the slot and out wide prior to Chubb’s injury.
Eason aired it out, relatively speaking, during G-Day. And Chaney probably will try to be a little more creative than the traditional style the Bulldogs have put out in the past, and Michel, Godwin and McKenzie are unexpectedly dangerous weapons who can beat you from all over the field.
All bets are off when it comes to Chaney’s offense in 2016. But if 2015 is any indication, Georgia will lean heavily on running the ball on first down.
Of the team’s 174 first-d0wn snaps last season against SEC divisional opponents, 109 were handoffs. Who can blame Schottenheimer for giving the ball to Chubb, Michel, Keith Marshall and Brendan Douglas over-and-over again? But that level of conservatism started to get under the skin of the rabid fan base.
When the Bulldogs did throw on first down, they were successful, which was often missed amongst the collective 2015 whining. Georgia quarterbacks went 44-for-65 for 534 yards, two touchdowns and one interception on first down in divisional games last season.
Clearly Georgia wanted to run the ball, and the Bulldogs will want to do the same in 2016, but the first-down passing efficiency was pretty high. (Of course that statistic is slight skewed by the record-breaking Lambert performance against South Carolina. He was 15-for-15 on first down in that one. Bulldog Nation’s least favorite record-breaker ever).
One stat that must improve
With the first-down efficiency surprisingly high, it shouldn’t be a surprise what Georgia must improve in 2016 — third-down efficiency.
Running the ball early put the Bulldogs in many short-yardage passing situations on third down, and Georgia struggled to convert. It finished ranked 116th in the nation in third-down conversion rate at 31.37 percent. Only Missouri finished worse in the SEC.
With Georgia’s tight ends and running backs continuing to develop as receiving threats, it’s hard to imagine Georgia won’t improve on that this season.
Despite my unpopular slanted preference toward Lambert, the biggest concern would have to be Smart and Chaney picking Lambert simply because neither of the other two proved enough to win it outright.
The tight ends are great, the running backs take off virtually all of the pressure, the receivers will probably exceed their modest expectations and the offensive line — under new offensive line coach Sam Pittman — should have more aggression at the point of attack this season.
So the passing game really comes down to who gets the nod at quarterback.
Fans, at least, will be much more comfortable with Eason or Ramsey, because it meant they went out and won the job from Lambert. If they don’t play well enough in the fall, Lambert might get the start based on his veteran experience, and it will be almost a reluctant position battle victory.
Better or worse in 2016?
All in all, 2015 was one of Georgia’s worst passing seasons in recent memory. It ultimately cost Mark Richt — a former quarterback — his job.
Much of the answer will have to do with how much the Bulldogs miss Mitchell, who might’ve been such a clutch playmaker that it made everything operate smoothly.
But it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Georgia has a worse passing performance this season. Lambert can only be better in Year 2 in the SEC. If he doesn’t win the battle, that theoretically implies that Eason or Ramsey will be better than that. With Chubb back, it takes even more pressure off the passing game. And of course, there’s the luxury of not having to play Alabama in the rain this season either, which was a recipe for passing disaster in 2015.
Chaney’s influence will be fun to watch, and everything suggests that he’ll have an equal amount of fun finding away to use all of Georgia’s bountiful assets.
Don’t expect the Bulldogs to be No. 1 in the nation in passing, but they won’t be SEC bottom feeders this season, either.