Isaac Nauta is emerging as Georgia’s next great tight end
There is a notable youth movement going on in Athens.
As Kirby Smart slowly tries to steer the Bulldogs in a new direction, he’s relied on several freshmen to make plays. Among the first-year standouts is Isaac Nauta, who is primed to carry on Georgia’s tradition of stellar tight end play.
Nauta is one of the few tight end prospects to earn the coveted “5-star” designation in the past decade. A player with great size and athleticism at the position, the 6-4, 246-pound Nauta certainly looked capable of becoming a standout in the SEC.
It’s happening sooner than anyone expected.
This season, Nauta has 15 catches for 198 yards, third-most on the team, and two touchdowns. Over the past three games, he has caught 11 passes for 166 yards and both of his scores, including a 50-yard touchdown catch against Tennessee.
To put those numbers into context, Nauta has already gained more yards and touchdowns than last year’s leading tight end, Jeb Blazevich, who had 144 yards and a touchdown in 2015. The freshman is on pace to have 368 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns, which would be the highest tight end totals since Arthur Lynch’s senior season in 2013.
Nauta isn’t the lone freshman making plays on offense, however; he’s notably joined by Jacob Eason, Brian Herrien and Riley Ridley. It’s a solid young core that the Bulldogs can build around, but Nauta has had arguably the smallest learning curve.
And that’s what makes Nauta such an exciting freshman for Georgia — he already looks like an impact player.
Seven games into the season, Smart has told the media that he doesn’t look at his first-year players as freshmen anymore. At this point, he believes they have enough experience to play like sophomores.
While Nauta has still had his share of mistakes, including not lining up correctly against Tennessee and forcing Smart to burn a timeout, he has made a noticeable jump in production.
During the first three weeks, Eason relied heavily on wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie, who caught 18 passes in that time. That reliance has lessened considerably since Nauta became more involved in the offense. In Georgia’s past four games, Nauta and McKenzie lead the team with 12 catches apiece.
It’s no secret that the Bulldogs’ wide receiver corps has struggled. Drops have plagued the unit, McKenzie included, and their size hasn’t posed many matchup problems for opponents.
That’s not the case with Nauta.
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has a history of using tight ends in his schemes. He was excited to work with this group before the start of the season, but offensive line issues lessened his ability to use the tight ends in the passing game; he needed that extra layer of protection.
The Bulldogs’ line appears to be slowly coming around, which might give Chaney more flexibility with his tight ends. If that’s the case, Georgia’s offense would greatly benefit from having Nauta, Blazevich and Jackson Harris as pass catchers.
It’s a deep position group, but Nauta offers the most upside and he might already be the best weapon of the bunch.
Nauta’s connection with Eason should only help both players improve, which is something Georgia fans dreamed of on signing day. The two freshmen are good friends and developed great chemistry at various recruiting camps, despite attending high school on separate sides of the country.
Finally on the field together, both 5-star prospects look capable of achieving great things. Their connection was apparent from the beginning when Eason threw his first touchdown pass in a Georgia uniform to Nauta during the spring game.
In recent weeks, that connection has led to big plays in real games. Their chemistry should only continue to strengthen as their first season continues, which should give fans a glimpse of what to expect in the upcoming years.
Georgia won’t have to wait to see what Nauta can do, however. He’s already shown that he is a threat and already one of the Bulldogs’ best options in the passing game.
Smart wants to see his freshmen start playing like sophomores, and Nauta looks determined to do exactly that.
William McFadden covers the University of Georgia for Saturday Down South. For news on everything happening between the hedges, follow him on Twitter @willmcfadden.