Georgia football: Ranking the 10 best freshmen over the past 5 seasons
Georgia hauled in another stellar recruiting class this past offseason. That has been par for the course for Kirby Smart, and while the Dawgs didn’t finish with the No. 1 class like it did in 2020, No. 4 will work. At the head of this group are offensive tackle Amarius Mims — the No. 7 player in the country regardless of position — locally-grown quarterback Brock Vandagriff and linebacker duo Xavian Sorey and Smael Mondon.
Naturally, with a number of high-level recruits coming into the program every year, there’s always the question of which true freshmen can make an immediate impact. You can point to a number of players who have done so over the past 5 seasons. But who are the top 10 in that timespan? Let’s take a look:
10. Julian Rochester, DT, 2016
As a freshman in 2016, the former 4-star totaled 36 tackles, 2 sacks and 1 forced fumble. He played in every game and started 6. He played in every game in 2017 and missed 2 games in 2018, but injuries took their toll as he redshirted in 2019 and played just 5 games in 2020.
He’s back for a 6th year, hoping that his college career ends with him showing the same form he demonstrated as a true freshman 5 years ago.
9. James Cook, RB, 2018
Cook was 4th on the depth chart behind D’Andre Swift, Elijah Holyfield, and Brian Herrien, but Dalvin Cook’s younger brother, a 4-star recruit, showed that he was much more than another option out of the backfield.
The Miami native registered 284 yards and 2 touchdowns on 41 attempts in his true freshman season while making 8 catches for 89 yards. He saw a decent amount of playing time against an overmatched Austin Peay in the season opener and made the most of his opportunity, taking 6 carries for 66 yards, while recording 56 yards on 7 touches against Vanderbilt. Cook showed his abilities in the return game as well, bringing a kick back 34 yards against UMass.
He’ll look to boost his NFL Draft status in 2021 as part of a packed RB room led by Zamir White and also featuring Daijun Edwards, Kendall Milton and Kenny McIntosh.
8. Brian Herrien, RB, 2016
Herrien had a terrific start to his college career, totaling 340 yards and 3 touchdowns on 50 carries during his first 5 games. His first career touchdown came in the 2nd quarter of the season-opener against North Carolina, a 19-yard scoring play that broke a 7-7 tie.
While his playing time dipped as the season went on — blame Nick Chubb and Sony Michel — he couldn’t have made a better first impression on Smart and the Georgia staff.
7. Jermaine Burton, WR, 2020
It took a little while for Burton to get acclimated, but when he did, he blossomed into a premier receiving threat. He ended the year with 404 yards and 3 touchdowns on 27 catches through 10 games.
He’ll be remembered most for his show-stopping game against Mississippi State on Nov. 21, where he made 8 catches for 197 yards and 2 touchdowns in JT Daniels’ Georgia debut. He also broke off a nice 43-yard run on an end-around against Tennessee.
Burton suffered a hyperextended knee during spring camp, but fortunately, it shouldn’t affect him going into the upcoming campaign.
6. Isaac Nauta, TE, 2016
Sure, Nauta didn’t end up being the offensive juggernaut that Kyle Pitts was for Florida, but the 5-star Buford, Ga., native and IMG Academy product carved out a role as a key receiving target for fellow freshman Jacob Eason.
A Freshman All-American pick and all-conference freshman selection by the SEC’s coaches in 2016, Nauta grabbed 29 catches for 361 yards and 3 touchdowns. His best performance came against Tennessee as he hauled in 5 catches for 81 yards and a score despite the Dawgs falling to the Vols 34-31.
5. Andrew Thomas, OT, 2017
Quarterbacks, wide receivers and running backs are the glamour positions, but the work of the 5 players up front can’t be ignored. Especially in this league. That’s certainly the case for Thomas, who immediately established himself as one of the best offensive tackles in program history.
While he played left tackle in 2018 and 2019, he was penciled in right away as Smart’s starting right tackle in 2017 in place of the departed Greg Pyke. He became a freshman All-America selection as part of a line that saw the Dawgs rush for 3,876 yards en route to an SEC championship and CFP National Championship Game appearance.
4. D’Andre Swift, RB, 2017
With Georgia’s 2-headed rushing attack of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel leading the way, it was the perfect opportunity for Swift to not only learn under a pair of dynamic backs but show that he was ready to carry the load when the duo left after the 2017 season.
The 5-star recruit from Philadelphia delivered in a big way. He totaled 3 touchdowns and 618 yards on 81 carries, an impressive 7.6 yards per attempt. He also provided an extra target for Jake Fromm, making 17 catches for 153 yards and 1 touchdown.
Chubb and Michel (and Todd Gurley earlier in the decade) set the bar extremely high, but Swift’s career, beginning with a strong true freshman campaign, speaks for itself: he exited in 2019 with 2,885 yards, 7th all-time in program history.
3. George Pickens, WR, 2019
Georgia’s had some strong wide receiver talent come through the program over the past decade or so: A.J. Green, Malcolm Mitchell, Tavarres King. Pickens, though, sent a strong and immediate message in 2019 that he had eyes on joining the program’s leading players at the position.
The Hoover, Ala., native was the Dawgs’ leading receiver that season, making 49 catches for 727 yards and 8 touchdowns. That was despite being held to just 2 catches and 15 yards against Florida and Auburn, and a 3rd-quarter ejection at Georgia Tech that forced him to miss the first half of the SEC Championship Game against LSU. Still, he made 4 catches for 41 yards in that one, then exploded for 12 catches for 175 yards against Baylor in the Sugar Bowl.
Sadly, a torn ACL in spring camp means that Pickens will be on the shelf for a good portion of his junior season, so we’ll have to wait to see what the next step for the Dawgs’ No. 1 receiver looks like.
2. Jacob Eason, QB, 2016
While the 5-star recruit from Washington was far from lights out after being called upon in place of Greyson Lambert in Georgia’s 2016 season-opener against North Carolina in Atlanta, he had a promising outing in a Bulldogs win.
So much so that he was named the starter for the team’s next game against FCS opponent Nicholls before eventually taking the job from Lambert altogether. All told, he ended the year with 2,430 yards, 16 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, his best performance coming in a 346-yard game against Vanderbilt, where he completed 27-of-40 passes with a TD.
Not bad for a true freshman. And that would be the prelude to a much better sophomore campaign, right? Probably, if not for an illegal hit by Appalachian State defensive tackle MyQuon Stout 8 1/2 minutes into the Dawgs’ 2017 season-opener. You know the rest of the story.
1. Jake Fromm, QB, 2017
Fromm wasn’t even supposed to play in 2017, but after stepping in for an injured Eason in the opener against the Mountaineers, he kept the job and led Georgia to its first SEC title since 2005 and a national championship appearance against Alabama.
He finished the year with 2,615 yards, 24 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Like Eason, he didn’t put up massive chunks of yardage, and while he may have not been the most athletic and skilled quarterback in the country during his 3 years in Athens, he largely got the job done.