Miami play-by-play voice Joe Zagacki has watched Coley from an up-close for decades. Not only has he been part of the Hurricanes’ broadcast team for the past 31 years – where Coley previously was the sole coordinator and game-day play-caller – but he also calls the fellow Miamian a friend.
Zagacki pretty much echoed what Coley said at the outset of Georgia’s preseason camp, which is basically that the Bulldogs will be whatever they need to be on offense. More pointedly, though, he made a bold prediction.
“You’ll see them score a lot of points,” Zagacki said.
That’s always a good thing.
Really, that hasn’t been much of a problem for Georgia, not lately anyway. The Bulldogs ranked 14th in the nation last season in points scored (37.9 per game) and 15th the season before that (35.8). They ranked a feeble 91st in 2016, the first season under Kirby Smart and former coordinator Jim Chaney. But that was while breaking in a freshman starter at quarterback in Jacob Eason, not to mention installing a new regime.
With the pieces the Bulldogs have on offense this season – namely the return of the third-year starter Fromm under center — nobody expects them to suddenly have trouble putting the football in the end zone. It’s more about how they might go about moving it down the field.
The past two seasons, that has been with a heavy dose of run game. Georgia led the SEC in rushing last season (239.2 ypg) and has produced four 1,000-yard backs in the past two seasons.
Meanwhile, Coley arrived in Athens with the reputation as a pass-happy coordinator. Quarterback Brad Kaaya, who started as a freshman in 2014, passed for more than 3,000 yards both seasons under Coley. The Hurricanes ranked 34th, 34th and 25th in the nation in passing yards, respectively, with Coley calling plays.
At Georgia, Coley started out as the receivers coach in 2016. He transitioned to quarterbacks coach and co-coordinator last year, and then full-time coordinator and play-caller this one. All the while, though, he has been assisting Chaney with the play scripts and sitting beside him in the press box on game day.
Now it’s The Coley Show, Zagacki believes Georgia fans will enjoy watching it.
“It will look like a typical Southeastern Conference offense, with a power run game, really good use of the tight ends, some vertical pass game,” Zagacki said. “He has a quarterback who can throw the ball downfield, and he’s not going to waste that. Coley knows what he has at his disposal there.”
Indeed, Coley has a lot to work with. In addition to Fromm, he has All-American candidates in running back D’Andre Swift, left tackle Andrew Thomas and right tackle Isaiah Wilson. There are questions about wide receiver, where the top-four pass catchers from a year ago have departed. But the battle for playing time there is being waged between three former 5-star recruits, a graduate transfer from Miami, a senior with 34 games under his belt and three players 6-foot-5 or taller.
Tight end was a position of special affinity for Coley at Miami, according to Zagacki. The Hurricanes produced three tight ends who each were drafted in the first four rounds of the NFL draft under his watch — Clive Walford, David Njoko and Christopher Herndon. Georgia is in bit of a rebuild at that position. But confidence is high in seasoned senior Charlie Woerner, graduate transfer Eli Wolf and redshirt freshman John FitzPatrick.
Coley knows what to do with such varied weaponry, our Miami friend emphatically states.
“People forget that Coley understudied under Jimbo Fisher (at Florida State), and Jimbo was a really good play-caller. So, he picked up a lot of things from Jimbo and how he ran his offense,” Zagacki said. “I mean, if somebody wants to nit-pick Jimbo Fisher, have at it. But Jimbo was always really good at matchups, and I think that’s what James took from him. He knows how to move the pieces around and get the matchups he wants.”
Of course, Smart will remain involved. Georgia’s defensive-minded head coach probably does not receive enough credit for the attention he pays to the offense and how it looks from week-to-week. That might even be more of the case in this transitional season.
But it always comes down to the personnel at hand, and those prospects excited Coley.
“Players, not plays, right?” Coley said the first week of preseason camp. “It’s a little cliche, but it’s the truth. Coach Smart is about players, not plays, too. He definitely preaches that to us. So, I don’t know that there’s been much of an adjustment (in philosophy).”
Over and above all that is where Coley happens to be at the moment, according to Zagacki. Miami was struggling as a football program when he was there.
“You have to understand where Miami was when James was here,” Zagacki said. “I was sitting with him in his office one day, and he had a very small office, no windows, and he says, ‘I’m supposed to bring first-round draft choices and their parents in here and recruit them here to Miami? Do you know what we’re up against with the Georgias and Florida States of the world?’”
Now Coley has the big office with the nice view. And he has the offensive pieces to play with that he’s always wanted.
“I’ll just say this,” Zagacki concluded, “our numbers haven’t been anywhere close what they were since he left.”