The countdown to Georgia’s 2020 football season has reached the two-week mark. In an offseason complicated by the continued spread of COVID-19, the entirety of the Bulldogs’ full-tempo, on-field preparation was condensed into fewer than six weeks of practice and a handful of scrimmages starting Aug. 17.
Come Georgia’s season opener at Arkansas on Sept. 26, how prepared will head coach Kirby Smart and his team be to jump into its 10-game, SEC-only campaign?
Sophomore defensive lineman Travon Walker isn’t sweating the strength of schedule.
“I would say there’s no anxiety going straight into SEC games,” Walker said in a Sept. 7 press conference via Zoom. “Because coach Smart drilled into our head every day [that] we play every game like it's all-SEC and prepare for the next week after that. So [we] just have to stay on top of that.”
Smart and his staff have expressed optimism throughout the team’s practice period. Even before full-team practices began, coaches touted the mental preparation of their athletes during the voluntary workout phase this summer.
Yet mental reps are only part of the player development process, which was hindered by the cancellation of spring practice due to COVID-19. Less experienced guys, despite having just over a month to get into SEC form, must be ready to play as viral outbreaks threaten to sideline starters for up to two weeks at a time.
Where’s the iron?
In the crucible of this season’s practice period, the saying “iron sharpens iron” will be fully put to the test.
“It put a lot of stress on all of us to learn this new offense, and pick up on everything in a lot shorter amount of time than what we would normally have,” senior offensive lineman Ben Cleveland said in a virtual press conference on Sept. 10. “I think our guys have handled it extremely well. We've been progressing every single day. I think we're way ahead of where most people think we should be."
The offensive line has faced the most turnover of any position group on the team, a concerning prospect its importance in preparing the defensive front, running backs and quarterbacks during scrimmages.
Junior center Trey Hill is the only lineman who started at least 10 games last season to return after the departures of Andrew Thomas, Solomon Kindley, Isaiah Wilson and Cade Mays.
However, following the team’s scrimmage on Sept. 5, Smart described the matchup between the first-team offense and first-team defense as balanced. He said that while the one offense lagged behind when trying to move the ball downfield, it “dominated” both in the redzone and in second and third-and-long situations.
Given the experience Georgia retained on its defense, which ranked No. 1 in the country in rushing and scoring defense last year, that bodes well for first-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken.
“Our offensive line’s chemistry has grown a lot,” Walker said. “The defensive line is helping them get better every day. You’ve got big guys like [Jordan Davis] helping with the push on the inside and Malik Herring and a few outside linebackers help with the rush on the outside … So they’re getting better.”
Still, Smart said the team hadn’t yet made the strides he was expecting last week, highlighting penalties and tackling as weak spots. He said there was a gap between his first and second teams on both sides of the ball, but that the team has benefited from having more healthy players for scrimmages than some SEC opponents.
From senior Richard LeCounte among defensive backs, redshirt sophomore Zamir White among running backs or sophomore George Pickens among wideouts, each position has its expected star. As for quarterbacks, Jamie Newman’s decision to opt out of the season sent Georgia back to square one.
“You're trying to find out what [the quarterbacks] can and can't do,” Smart said after last Saturday’s scrimmage. “Sometimes I don't know what you can't do until I call something to see if you can do it. We're still trying to figure out exactly what that is. We're in that stage, instead of just saying, 'Okay, this guy has these plays [and] this guy has those plays.'”
“Bonehead” mistakes mixed with solid drives from each quarterback have prevented a starter from emerging, Smart said. In practice, where quarterbacks get the most reps from splitting up the depth chart and taking snaps simultaneously, redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis and redshirt sophomore JT Daniels have worked the most with the first team. Freshman Carson Beck has practiced with the second team and junior Stetson Bennett with the threes.
Although Mathis missed all of the 2019-20 season due to brain surgery last May, Smart said the former four-star recruit experienced Georgia's iron-sharpening treatment as part of the scout team before he was medically cleared to return.
“You have one of the best defenses in the country coming at you with a makeshift offensive line a lot of times on the scout team,” Smart said. “You feel that pressure and you get to go in there and compete.”
Whether it's Mathis, Daniels or Beck behind center on Sept. 26, none of them have taken a collegiate snap in the last 12 months. Georgia will have one week to settle in offensively before its first true test of the fall, Auburn arrives in Athens on Oct. 3.