Georgia Bulldogs football 2017 season preview, breakout stars, players to watch

By The Sports Xchange  |  Aug. 16, 2017 at 1:22 AM
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The focus for coach Kirby Smart in his second season at Georgia is to make sure his team is considerably more offensive than it was a season ago.

Last year the Bulldogs ranked 11th in the SEC in scoring (24.4 points per game) and total offense (384.7 yards per game), subpar numbers that led to Georgia finishing 8-5, tying for its fewest wins in a season since 2013.

Between a freshman quarterback in Jacob Eason, inconsistencies on the offensive line and the lack of big-play receivers, Georgia scored only 30 or more points four times in 13 games. On four other occasions, they tallied fewer than 17.

"Offensively, obviously throwing the ball more efficiently is a big goal of ours, because I think if you throw the ball efficiently, you'll be able to run ball with the backs we've got," Smart said. "When you can't throw the ball, it makes it hard. It doesn't matter who your backs are."

With Georgia's stable of backs, if the passing game can take a step forward -- watch out.

Now two years removed from a devastating knee injury suffered at Tennessee, senior Nick Chubb is primed for a huge year. With Chubb and Sony Michel, Georgia's backfield should be one of the best duos in the country.

Defensively, there's a lot of optimism in Athens as Georgia returns 10 starters from a unit that finished fourth in the SEC in total defense and features junior defensive tackle Trenton Thompson and junior linebacker Roquan Smith, a pair of preseason All-SEC selections.

But Smart still has concerns.

"We've got to improve in the red area," said Smart, whose team finished next-to-last in the SEC in red zone defense. "That was probably statistically the worst thing we did on defense last year."

With another tough SEC schedule, plus a highly anticipated game Sept. 9 at Notre Dame, the Bulldogs will have to be ready if they are to do as predicted at SEC Media Days -- win the SEC East.

"I think the big demand for us is what can we do to do a better job helping our players be successful," Smart said. "To pinpoint one of those, the No. 1 goal for me is to reach our goals."

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Jacob Eason -- Statistically, Eason did not have a bad freshman year, completing 204 of 370 passes for 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns with just eight interceptions, but his lack of efficiency was a big problem for the Bulldogs as it stifled numerous drives and kept Georgia from reaching its full offensive potential as a team. Assuming Eason can iron out those issues and do a better job getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers -- which are abundant -- the Bulldogs could be a much different animal and, as a result, might find themselves playing for higher stakes come season's end.

BREAKOUT STAR: WR Mecole Hardman -- A former five-star performer in high school, Hardman played cornerback as a freshman last fall, seeing little action, before moving back to offense in the spring. At 5-foot-11 and 183 pounds, Hardman is one of the fastest players on the team and is back where he's more comfortable -- on offense -- where he figures to be one of the team's better deep threats, as well as seeing action in the "Wild Dawg" where he will take direct snaps in Georgia's version of the option. Hardman is also expected to return kicks.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: OL Isaiah Wilson -- Georgia has several key newcomers, but we'll offer Wilson, a five-star performer from Brooklyn, N.Y. The freshman blocks out the sun at 6-foot-7 and 350 pounds and is currently working at right tackle for the Bulldogs. Although he might not start to begin the season, Wilson is expected to become an anchor on the offensive line for Georgia sooner rather than later.

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WR Riley Ridley and RB Elijah Holyfield, both sophomores, are expected to miss the season-opener against Appalachian State on Sept. 2 following their respective offseason arrests for misdemeanor possession of marijuana.

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DT Trenton Thompson, a junior, is healthy following offseason shoulder surgery.

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PKs Rodrigo Blankenship and David Marvin, a graduate transfer from Wofford, are battling to be the team's starting kicker.

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S Dominick Sanders, a senior, has 12 career interceptions and needs four more to tie Jake Scott for first on Georgia's career list.

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RB Nick Chubb needs 1,835 yards to tie Herschel Walker for the most career rushing yards. Walker holds the Bulldogs record with 5,259, which he accomplished in three seasons at UGA.

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