If Kirby Smart leads Georgia to the SEC Championship in 2017, he’ll look back and be thankful that he was able to keep certain guys on board.

Last December, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel both announced they were returning for their senior seasons instead of leaving for the NFL. The December before that, Jacob Eason kept his Georgia commitment after taking official visits to Florida and Washington in the wake of Smart’s arrival in Athens.

All of those guys will be integral parts of the Bulldogs’ push to reach their first SEC Championship since 2012. Naturally, they’re getting all sorts of attention heading into 2017.

But there was another key guy that Smart kept on board after he was hired. Isaac Nauta committed to Georgia at the 2016 U.S. Army All-American Bowl after everyone and their mother tried to land the blue-chip tight end recruit.

Entering his sophomore year, Nauta is getting similar ink to his fellow offensive playmakers. After he finished as a Freshman All-American, he earned preseason first-team All-SEC honors as a true sophomore.

The hype is real, and so is the All-America upside. That’s why Nauta has “X-factor” written all over him.

Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that Nauta is going to get his fair share of targets in 2017. I mean, the guy spent his offseason catching passes from Eason while riding a jet ski. Obviously these guys like each other.

In all seriousness, though, the pieces are in place for Nauta’s 29 catches for 361 yards to spike. There was a lot to like in a limited sample size from the true freshman.

According to Pro Football Focus, Nauta averaged 1.99 yards per route run, which is second among all returning SEC tight ends. That number figures to climb in 2017. It has to. Georgia lacks an established deep threat, and it needs anybody who can prevent teams from loading the box against an inexperienced offensive line.

Nobody is saying Nauta needs to consistently blow by secondaries, but he’s the key to the Bulldogs’ ability to run play-action and take advantage of coverage breakdowns.

Most of his production last year came off the play-action, which likely won’t change. Just having a guy that can run a seam and get behind the secondary will be key, whether he’s targeted or not.

Eason is going to need a safety blanket to find on third down or when he’s scrambling out of the pocket. Whether they line him up in the three-point stance or they split him out wide, Nauta is going to be a jack-of-all-trades guy in this offense.

Like most freshmen tight ends, Nauta admitted there was a significant learning curve with SEC blocking. If that improves, Jim Chaney is going to utilize the second-year tight end even more.

That’s about the only knock one can put on Nauta at this point. He came into college from IMG Academy as arguably the most-polished tight end recruit in the last decade. The fact that he went to IMG to finish out high school obviously helped him transition to becoming an SEC starter (and a good one) as a true freshman.

It’s interesting that he admitted that at this time last year, he was running around “like he didn’t have any idea what was going on.” He didn’t look like it. We saw flashes of why he was touted as the next great Georgia tight end.

Now, though, is when those flashes turn into week in, week out dominance. He’s the guy who can help turn Georgia’s offense into a two-dimensional force.

That’s what’s going to take this team to the next level. Sure, there are other obvious factors that go into that. In year two, Smart’s defense has to look more like his Alabama defenses. Eason has to improve his accuracy and decision-making. Chubb and Michel have to stay healthy. Adding a true deep threat wouldn’t hurt either.

But few SEC teams or really any teams have a weapon quite like Nauta. Smart will be reminded of that all year long.

And if Georgia does make it to Atlanta, you can bet he’ll be glad to have Nauta on board.