As the clock struck down to zero at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on December 30, Bulldog fans rejoiced in their 31- 23 bowl game victory over the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs. Seniors jumped for joy and shed their tears over their last game in the red and black, while coaches like Kirby Smart reflected on their first year with this organization. As the cheers died down and fans took in their 8-5 season, the horrible realization came rushing in: the regular season was over and the offseason had begun.
Bulldogs in Athens and around the country began to fill with sorrow; however, true fans were able to remember what awaited them to ease the monotony of the dreaded offseason. Though anxious for things to heat back up in the fall, there is still plenty to pay attention to until the next kickoff.
The excitement started even before the Dawgs set foot in Memphis for their final game of the 2016 season. A monumental announcement came that would shape the upcoming offseason and beyond. On December 15, a short five-second video was released on the UGA Athletics’ Twitter account with news on the ”Big Four.” Sony Michel, Nick Chubb, Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter were returning for another season in the red and black. Everyone had expected most, if not all, of these star players to declare for the NFL draft and the millions of dollars that come with starting their pro careers.
Fans everywhere like senior Aidan Rogers were ecstatic over this bombshell. Aidan explained,
“To have four all stars return for another year with this program is huge. It’s not common to have so many NFL prospects choose to stay the fourth year. It truly shows their faith in this upcoming season.”
With the return of the Big Four, UGA’s program took a twist that made the offseason much more interesting to watch. The excitement of recruiting season, the awaited return of spring training, the hopeful Dawgs heading to the Draft and the anticipated upcoming schedule all awaited the Bulldog Nation. The impact of these four players shaped each of these aspects in the offseason.
As the team settled back into the Dawg House for the spring, Coach Smart and his staff hit the road for the grueling task of college recruitment. The Big Four’s announcement had a huge positive impact showing the loyalty and excitement surrounding the program to all the potential recruits. UGA got a huge head start on a great recruiting class with six stud players finishing high school early and coming to Athens as early enrollees in January. Richard LeCounte III, Jake Fromm, Deangelo Gibbs, Jeremiah Holloman, D’Marcus Hayes and Monty Rice all stepped foot on campus as freshmen in the Spring semester.
The 2017 recruiting class was Smart’s first chance to lead the full recruitment process as a head coach and the expectations were high. As National Signing Day approached, Athens was buzzing about the many top prospects looking to the program. The coaching staff’s long hours and high school recruits’ verbal commits had all led up to February 1. Hour by hour, athletes from all over the country signed their letters of intent to schools and Kirby certainly did not disappoint.
As the day came to an end, UGA garnered 20 signed letters of intent placing as the third best recruiting class of the year in all of college football. The new class of 2017 included 14 four- star and five three- stars ranked athletes. Coach Smart had made a big push to retain the best in-state talent and his staff managed to snag 12 of the top 20 recruits from Georgia, a tremendous feat for UGA. The pride of the program, however, came from the five-star Offensive Tackle from Brooklyn, NY. Isaiah Wilson stands at six-foot-seven and weighs in at 350 pounds. This 18-year-old fielded over 80 scholarship offers before declaring Athens his new home, to the joy of Dawg fans near and far, like freshman Steven Popovich.
“Though we’re retaining so much talent through the seniors both on offense and defense, we have a lot of rebuilding to do,” explained Steven, “Having such a strong recruiting class is reassuring because Coach Smart recognizes where we have gaps in the team. Georgia always has strong recruitment, but this year is unlike any other, and it’s thanks to him.”
If there was one area of recruiting that did not measure up to UGA’s normal high standards, it was the running backs. One thing UGA has always been known for is its notable recruitment of the best running backs to operate in its pro-style offense. After Sony Michel and Nick Chubb announced their intention to return for the 2017 season, recruitment for the position was somewhat stunted as players like four-star running back Toneil Carter chose to decommit from UGA. However, D’Andre Swift from Philadelphia, PA, a four-star recruit himself, was unfazed as he eagerly committed to the challenge of continuing UGA’s strong tradition of top flight running backs.
As the flowers began to bloom and the weather became…well, even hotter, it was time to turn attention back to the field. The Bulldogs were able to make use of their brand new Indoor Athletic Facility. The structure spans over 102,000 square feet and includes a 100-yard football practice field, 65-meter track runway and jumping pits and a netting system that provided indoor practice areas for other many of the sports teams during inclement weather. The facility was constructed in hopes of attracting new recruits to this state-of-the-art training area and creating ample opportunity for teams to hone their skills.
As practices began, the team shifted back into gear, but with a few fresh faces. Smart had a year with the team under his belt, making it so that he wasn’t entirely starting from scratch with a new staff and new team during this Spring training season. Even with all the new faces, the Big Four were able to bring not only valuable experience to the field, but, probably more importantly, invaluable leadership to the younger players still developing into star players in their own rights. The most notable new addition was Jake Fromm, a highly touted, freshman quarterback from Warner Robins, GA. Coach Smart praised Fromm for his initiative and the pressure he put on returning quarterback Jacob Eason on the Bulldogs Live radio Show on March 13, and stated, “He’s got a little leadership to him that he’s not afraid to jump out there and tell guys where to line up, what to do, and get after it with a little fire. I think that dynamic, Jacob sees that, and Jacob’s sitting there watching this young kid that comes in with a little more fire and brimstone that even he had. Plus, he’s coming in with Jacob there, and makes it a little bit different than (last season with) Greyson Lambert, who was the incumbent starter. I think Jake’s in a good place and I think he’s ready to go compete.” The belief was that competition at all positions, including quarterback, makes good players into great players and Fromm’s influence served to push both quarterbacks to be better.
G-Day crowds gathered around Sanford on April 22nd to check out this new quarterback and the team behind him. Though attendance did not hit 93,000 like last year’s highly anticipated first look at Coach Smart, the school reported an estimate around 66,000 fans in stadium, the second-best attended spring game for the Dawgs. The fans came to see what the new kids had to offer and to show their appreciation to the returning players, most especially the Big Four.
Albany, Georgia native Edward Newcomb travelled up to Athens for the annual game. “I think people are excited to see what’s going to happen this year. Kirby has been here long enough to get things rolling, and I’m excited to see what our old talent has been working on and what the new guys can bring to the table,” commented Edward.
Jordan Brown from Leesburg, Georgia had similar thoughts and said,
“Because Chubb and Michel are coming back, there’s less of a showdown to see what running backs are getting played, which is usually what Georgia fans are looking for. This year is really focused on rebuilding lines and figuring out if Jacob Eason is still the best man for the quarterback job.”
The quarterback showdown commenced right away as returner Jacob Eason led the Black team and newcomer Jake Fromm headed the Red. Eason racked up 311 yards and went 16/36 in the game, but was sacked five times. Fromm put up 277 yards in his 14/23 with one sack himself. Both threw for two touchdowns, though the Red took home the win 25-22.
Photographer Brianne Leischow had a great view of the competition down on the sidelines. “Eason and Fromm were definitely the two guys to be watching at G-Day. I don’t necessarily think that Jacob won’t start, but it’s obvious that Fromm is talented, so Eason should really watch out,” she recalled.
Overall, the game was perceived as a success by Coach Smart in his post
game interview, though he was quick to both praise and talk about improvements that the team needed to make before the start of the regular season.
“There were certainly a lot of good things and bad things that were exposed during the game,” said senior Felix Linzan, “I think Coach Smart has a lot to experiment with during the summer, especially as the rest of his recruits fill in come Fall.”
For a few Dawgs not in attendance for G-Day, there are new challenges ahead. After the announcement of the return of Chubb, Michel, Bellamy and Carter, eight former Bulldogs have entered the 2017 NFL Draft that will occur April 27- 29. The seniors of the eight include Greyson Lambert, Tyler Catalina, Tim Kimbrough, Brandon Kublanow, Quincy Mauger, Greg Pyke and Maurice Smith. But it is the lone junior of the bunch that is making waves for Georgia in this NFL prospect class.
Wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie finished last season with the Dawgs with 44 receptions for 633 yards and seven touchdowns. The junior announced his plans to forgo his senior year and enter the NFL Draft following Georgia’s win in the Liberty Bowl on December 30. Since then, McKenzie was the only Dawg invited to participate in the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on March 4. McKenzie showed his impressive speed, finishing with a 4.42- second 40-yard dash and put up the second-best 3-cone time in this year’s wide receiver’s class with 6.64 seconds.
On March 15, UGA had its Pro Day where all the NFL teams were invited to come see all the Georgia prospects work out and show off their skills. The Big Four were expected to join him in the process, but all decided to spend one last year in Athens, to the surprise of many fans, like junior MaryConnor Thompson.
“I’m sure there were a lot of factors that went into their decisions to stay another year. A big one for Chubb and Michel has to be that there are some major running backs entering the draft this year that will get picked up fairly quickly. Guys like Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey are in line ahead of our running backs, so waiting another year could certainly benefit Chubb and Michel by becoming higher draft picks,” observed MaryConnor, “For guys like Bellamy and Carter, they really just need more time to beef up their stats for the draft next year.”
This year’s UGA draft class will focus on delivering value for NFL teams later in the draft or even for players who might sign without being drafted. McKenzie is almost sure to be drafted due to his big play ability and versatility as both a kick returner and wide receiver. Other players likely to get some real attention from teams include offensive linemen Brandon Kublanow, Tyler Catalina, and Greg Pyke and defensive back Maurice Smith.
Looking ahead to the Fall
After the Spring Practice and the excitement of watching some of their teammates move on to the NFL, the team will turn its attention to the upcoming season kicking off this Fall. After a tough first season, Coach Smart will be looking to return Georgia to the high standards Dawg fans expect, starting with a return to its usual minimum ten- win season. Outlets including ESPN, USA Today, SB Nation and others have the Dawgs ranked high in spite of their 8-5 season. All platforms have the team in the top 20, with College Football News ranking the Dawgs at No. 7 for the oncoming season. Undoubtedly, Chubb, Michel, Carter and Bellamy all coming back has increased the prospects and the excitement for the 2017-18 season.
They will try to redeem last year’s conference losses, especially to Florida and Tennessee. They will also work hard to regain in state bragging rights when they face off against Georgia Tech in late November. Despite all the familiar opponents, there is one team that will present a new challenge. The last and only time that UGA and Notre Dame met was in 1981 at the Sugar Bowl where the Dawgs triumphed 17-10 to cap off their undefeated season. The Dawgs were eventually named consensus national champions that year. Now Georgia will travel to South Bend, IN on September 9 to face the Fighting Irish. Though a fierce competitor, the strong leadership that remained on the team through Chubb, Michel, Bellamy and Carter have Bulldog fans remaining positive.
“The bar is set really high for next year. We want to see a lot out of these guys, but we also have to remember that the team is still rebuilding. Having great leaders on both sides of the field is going to make that transition a lot smoother,” said Aidan Rogers.
As the days count down to September 2 for another Saturday in Athens, Bulldog fans eagerly await their time to get back into Sanford Stadium. They cannot wait to see their favorite players including the Big Four back in red and black. However, in the meantime, fans have proven that there is certainly plenty to keep an eye on during the offseason. While memories in Sanford are what fans hold dear, it’s the hard work off the field year round that makes the Bulldogs worth watching. With the return of the Big Four among many others and the addition of a few new pups, Coach Smart certainly has the entire Bulldog Nation ready for what is to come in the 2017 season.
Carolynn Wall, a native of Dunwoody, Georgia, is a senior at the University of Georgia with an avid love for the Bulldog Nation. As a football beat reporter for the university’s yearbook publication Pandora, she felt a tug at the arrival of the college football offseason on her own heart. “Campus can get pretty blue without Saturdays in Sanford, however there’s still a lot of excitement surrounding the team to keep the fans on their toes,” she explained “The impacts of just four returning players are more than meets the average Dawg’s eye.” Carolynn is a Journalism major at UGA with plans to attend law school post graduation.