Georgia football: Way-too-early look at the 2022 Dawgs
In the days that followed Georgia’s national championship over Alabama, the 2022 roster began to take shape.
Georgia initially saw juniors declare for the 2022 NFL Draft, and there are still several moving parts, most notably at quarterback. With pending decisions, it’s safe to say this will be a banner year, and likely a program record for the number of players drafted in a single year.
In the ever-changing roster dynamics that is college football, new names and faces will quickly replace the household names that were on the roster in 2021. Kirby Smart understands that reality as much as anyone, and has quickly noted that Georgia has 16 or 17 recruits who have enrolled for the spring semester. Not to mention the 2022 class is still open.
But it’s safe to say that several key players who will be the main subject of framed pictures across Dawg Nation are returnees. Kelee Ringo, the cornerback whose pick-6 sealed the national championship, is entering his third year and is not eligible for the draft. Adonai Mitchell, who caught the go-ahead touchdown, was a true freshman, as was leading target Brock Bowers, the sensational freshman tight end.
So, why don’t we take a quick look back at the magical 2021 season and then look ahead to what we should expect from the Bulldogs in 2022?
What worked in 2021
For a national championship team with 1 loss that was later avenged, pretty much everything. But primarily the smothering defense, which was historic in many ways. The Bulldogs allowed only 30 yards rushing in the national title game, and Ringo’s 79-yard interception return with less than a minute remaining punctuated the victory. It was sweet redemption for the defense that was the toast of college football the entire regular season. It didn’t allow more than 17 points in a game before the humbling 41-24 loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
Georgia led the nation in scoring defense this season, at 10.2 points per game. The only defense to give up fewer points per game in the past 12 seasons is the 2011 Alabama team, when Kirby Smart was on staff and also won the national title.
Georgia also delivered 5 blocked kicks or punts.
Managing the quarterback situation is the other most obvious key trait of this team, as Stetson Bennett’s mobility proved to be a deciding factor in him keeping the job, and Bennett, Smart and Todd Monken proving critics wrong.
Bennett was named Offensive MVP of the National Championship Game, as he completed 17-of-26 passes for 224 yards and a pair of TDs — both in the 4th quarter. He was also the Offensive MVP of the Orange Bowl after completing 20-of-30 passes with 3 TDs against Michigan. He finished the season ranked 4th nationally in passing efficiency.
Credit the coaching staff for also developing the likes of wide receivers Jermaine Burton, Ladd McConkey and Kearis Jackson, along with TE Darnell Washington to fill the early void following the loss of George Pickens.
What didn’t work in 2021
Well, aside from the SEC Championship Game, not a heckuva lot.
The pass rush was not at its best in Atlanta that day, and the Florida game was the only other one where Bennett threw multiple interceptions. Otherwise, there were 3 games with 3 turnovers, and many of the white-knuckle moments were solved by halftime adjustments, like the Tennessee game, for example.
Bennett’s apparent return, ahead of law school, one of several wrinkles in the seemingly ongoing quarterback conversation at Georgia. Another was a report that JT Daniels is expected to enter the transfer portal. That leaves Carson Beck and 5-star freshman Brock Vandagriff who appear to be returning, and Georgia added Gunner Stockton as the latest elite in-state quarterback. The Dawgs also are in the mix for transfer Caleb Williams.
“I’m here to play football for the University of Georgia,” Bennett told Good Morning America. “And then … once that’s over, whatever my interest will be — which is hard, when you’re playing college football, because you don’t get internships, you don’t get all that stuff, you don’t get the time off that other students get. But once that is over with — I’m majoring in economics, I’d like to go to law school.
“But for the next year? I’m gonna play football. I’ve got a decent amount of years. Hopefully, I live until at least 80. So, we’ll say 60 years to not play football. I’m going to play football this year — we’ll see where. We will see if I can trust the decisions made by the staff, and we will see where I’m going to play.”
If Bennett indeed comes back, expect at least 1 QB to transfer. Even if he somehow elects to go elsewhere, or focus on law school, the quarterback depth chart will continue to be fascinating.
Georgia’s defense will look a lot different in 2022.
Nakobe Dean, Travon Walker, Lewis Cine declared for NFL Draft, where they’ll be joined by Jordan Davis. Derion Kendrick, who is off to the Senior Bowl and the NFL, transferred to Georgia to fill some holes after the Bulldogs lost 7 members of the secondary. A defensive star in the Orange Bowl, Kendrick proved to be just the defensive back Georgia needed when it mattered most.
The defense is also due to lose DL Devonte Wyatt, LB Channing Tindall and LB Quay Walker.
Running backs Zamir White and James Cook are entering the NFL Draft, along with offensive lineman Jamaree Salyer and receiver George Pickens.
Salyer, who neutralized the Playoff pass rush of Michigan and Alabama, will be difficult to replace. The offensive line will also lose Justin Shaffer.
Georgia’s QB room will be deep and talented, if not exactly settled just yet. The Dawgs also return Brock Bowers, the best tight end in the country. The RB room will look different, but Kenny McIntosh, Kendall Milton and Daijun Edwards each topped 200 yards rushing in 2021. Milton missed much of this season with a knee injury. Two key pieces on defense will be the return of starting safety Christopher Smith and edge rusher Nolan Smith, who announced they are returning next year. And don’t underestimate how important DB Tykee Smith will be, either. Injuries derailed his 2021 season, but he’s a star-in-waiting.
William Poole III is another standout defensive back who is planning to return.
Malaki Starks of Jefferson, Georgia, is the top-rated recruit in the class, and the No. 14 player overall in the class of 2022. Starks is expected to play safety, and Georgia beat out Alabama and Clemson for the versatile prospect who Kirby Smart expects to be the next Lewis Cine or Richard LeCounte.
In December, the Bulldogs signed tailback Branson Robinson, from Madison, Mississippi, the top-rated player in Mississippi and the No. 3 running back in this class. He picked Georgia over Alabama and Tennessee. The 5-10, 220-pounder is a top-50 overall prospect.
Robinson’s thick frame might remind Georgia fans of White, or Nick Chubb, and he’s a track star with eye-popping broad jump potential.