Bulldogs Nauta seems serious about playing big

Georgia Bulldogs tight end Isaac Nauta finishes off a first-down pass reception against Tennessee last October.

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Georgia Bulldogs tight end Isaac Nauta finishes off a first-down pass reception against Tennessee last October.

Upon initial inspection, Georgia’s much touted tight end Isaac Nauta appears to be about, oh, a sixth-year sophomore.

OK, who left the practice-field gate open and let this construction worker wander in to catch a few passes before picking up his kids at school? It’s either that or Kirby Smart is inviting some of the university’s larger non-tenured staff in for open tryouts.

Nauta laughs at such nonsense only because it seems so plausible, being a fellow who broke the growth chart when he was a kid.

“I’ve pretty much been the same size since eighth grade. I had a beard in eighth grade. You can say I peaked in eighth grade,” smiled the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Nauta, who is in fact just 20.

Here’s one of those dudes you hated being next to when it was time to dress out for gym class.

As just a high school freshman at Buford, he already had earned a nickname well beyond his years.

“One of our players in high school came up to me and said, ‘Man, I feel like I need to say yes, sir to you.’ So, they called me Sir.”

No wonder, then, that such early development would attract some attention on the football field. During his rise through the ranks at Buford and then a senior year at the finishing school for the physically gifted, the IMG Academy in Florida, Nauta earned every star that any recruiting Jedi master had to give.

A designation that he never shied away from because false modesty does not always take you where you want to go.

If you want a refreshing break from the usual deflections and claptrap that infests an interview area, if you require an example of how to balance honest personal ambition with the larger common needs of a team, here it is: “Going through recruiting in high school I wanted to be the No. 1 tight end. I wanted the five-star status. Not for any kind of recognition. I just put so much work in, I wanted to know at the end of the day I accomplished that. Those were goals I set for myself and I did it,” Nauta said.

Nor is Nauta bashful about coveting such recognition at this next level, which means a certain award named after the late John Mackey given annually to college football’s top tight end.

“If I’m doing everything I can to help this team win and if I do everything I know I’m capable of doing, that’s first and foremost,” he said. “If the Mackey comes because of that, that’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to be the best at whatever I do.”

Anyway, when such a package as this reneges from Florida State to sign with Georgia, there was jubilation in Bulldogs land. His 2016 freshman year hinted at good times to come: He ranked third on the team in receptions and yards (29 catches, 361 yards) and second in touchdown receptions (three) while making all your better All-Freshman teams.

Some of Nauta’s best work to date has been nautical by nature. Floating about the internet is a video of Bulldogs quarterback Jacob Eason throwing the deep ball over Lake Oconee, with Nauta sweeping in on a Jet Ski to make a one-handed catch downwater.

Just send it. #SAFTB @ijay18 on the ski @h0lladay_ on the boat @barstoolsports

A post shared by Jacob Eason (@skinnyqb10) on

So difficult was the pattern that Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart is on record doubting the video’s authenticity. The catching part certainly was more an issue than the throwing. In design, the play was brilliant in its simplicity.

“I said throw it and I’ll go get it,” Nauta recalled.

“You got to take in account the waves. Speed up. Speed down. There was a lot that went into it. We probably ran it 10 times, a couple different ways. The 10th one was the finished product.”

Having insisted that he and Eason combined for about a 70 percent completion rate on the lake that day, it may be time for the Bulldogs to consider flooding the field at Sanford Stadium and playing their home games like they were doing a remake of the old Kevin Costner movie, “Waterworld.”

One sign of being mature is knowing which bread to butter. If Nauta was going to build a close friendship, if he was going to pick a roommate with whom to share the challenges of college football and taking out the trash, no one better to buddy up with than the quarterback. Finding that they laugh at the same stupid stuff and that they can generally co-exist in close quarters, Nauta and Eason have formed a tight bond.

Are we talking forever buds here, like best-man material whenever there’s a wedding to hold? “That would be a tough one. It could go either way,” a chuckling Nauta said. “I might have to squeeze in two best men.”

The chore for Nauta – and, really, for all his chums on offense – now concerns taking given gifts and further growing them.

Somebody’s got to catch some balls, already. Georgia ranked 11th in the SEC in total offense and 10th in passing yardage, which simply did not befit the skill players on scholarship. Nauta is the type of talent – nimble for his size, handsy in good way – capable of opening up all kind of facets of the passing game. Even when no watercraft are involved.

First, to consistently stay on the field, Nauta needed to improve at the grunt work of blocking. There is no shortage of competition at the position – with senior captain Jeb Blazevich, junior Jackson Harris and sophomore Charlie Woerner all making strong cases – willing to throw themselves at defenders.

Throughout high school, Nauta had always considered himself a better than good blocker. He said he even enjoyed the task: “It’s a fun part of the game especially when you win a block and it opens up a big hole. It’s pretty gratifying thing to do.”

Then came the first day of full contact at Georgia. “As soon as we threw the pads on and started hitting I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me,” he said.

Smart has noted that Nauta’s blocking is beginning to catch up with his pass-catching. Even a co-worker has noticed.

“Isaac’s had a great fall camp so far. I see him blowing his last year out of the water,” Woerner said.

“I want to be the best player I can be to help Georgia win. This year is the going to be the next step for me to go bigger than I did last year. I think that’s in the making because I’m a lot more experienced,” Nauta said.

“I’m going to try to get open every time there’s a pass route, and I’m going to catch it if it’s coming to me. Those are my goals and expectations.”

No small feats permitted in this case, sir.

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