A midseason look at the Bulldogs: Offense comes to life

Bulldogs running back Kenny McIntosh (6) celebrates his 7-yard touchdown run with offensive lineman Xavier Truss (73) and offensive lineman Sedrick Van Pran during the first quarter against the Commodores. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Bulldogs running back Kenny McIntosh (6) celebrates his 7-yard touchdown run with offensive lineman Xavier Truss (73) and offensive lineman Sedrick Van Pran during the first quarter against the Commodores. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

This time last season, the critics were out on Georgia’s offense. Stetson Bennett was in his first season as the starter at quarterback, but Bulldogs aficionados were not convinced that he could lead the team to further success. What’s more, Georgia had its historic 2021 defense, which overshadowed Georgia’s offense.

This year, the Bulldogs’ offense has been more effective, mainly due to the emergence of a consistent passing attack.

Through seven games this season, the Bulldogs (7-0) have averaged 41.7 points per game, a step up from 38.4 from last year. While there is only a difference of a field goal in the scoring outputs between the two teams, the 2022 Bulldogs have moved the ball better than the 2021 team.

This year, Georgia has gotten into the red zone 43 times through seven games – compared with 32 times last year – demonstrating the Bulldogs’ ability to push the ball downfield effectively. Further showing this trend, the Bulldogs have punted only 15 times this season, compared with 22 last season.

Even with fewer punts, coach Kirby Smart said it’s still “not normal” for the team to kick the ball away as much as it does.

“I feel like as an offense, we strive for perfection,” tight end Brock Bowers said. “So, it’s obviously upsetting when we have to punt.”

Similar to last year, the biggest question mark for this year’s Georgia team has been its inconsistency in scoring touchdowns in the red zone after promising drives. Even so, the Bulldogs have still done better in that this season (67% compared with 59%).

With former starting backs James Cook and Zamir White moving on to the NFL, Smart has leaned on juniors Kendall Milton (five rushing touchdowns) and Daijun Edwards (four) to punch the ball in for scores to finish drives.

“Kendall, he’s a bigger back, so it’s harder for people to wrap him up, and he’s physical,” offensive lineman Warren McClendon said. “Daijun, he’s so small that, when he gets down there (between the linemen), it’s hard to see him, and he’ll just crease through. So, it’s very valuable to have them two. Kendall, too, he’ll run through somebody’s face.”

Georgia also has senior starting running back Kenny McIntosh, who has four rushing touchdowns.

“The backfield we have this year is a little bit more dynamic,” senior linebacker Nolan Smith said. “They got, as (outside linebackers coach Chidera Uzo-Diribe) would say, that juice. Kenny’s gonna hit you with that (two-step move) and get out of there. Then, we got guys like Daijun and Kendall that are hard runners and that are gonna hit you there.”

“We have three backs; last year, I feel we only had two, and Kenny was still proving himself,” Smith added. “Now we have three legit backs that can all go.”

Through the combined efforts of the running backs, they have accumulated nearly 197 rushing yards per contest in 2022 – a slight step up from 193 from last year’s team.

That’s to be expected, though. Georgia has historically had skilled players in the backfield.

The biggest surprise comes with Georgia’s passing attack. The team averages 330 yards per game, compared with 237 last year.

This has been sparked, in part, by the consistency of Bennett. With the experience he now has behind center, he has appeared to be more comfortable delivering strikes to his receivers.

“I think that he’s gotten more comfortable as he’s gotten more reps,” Smart said. “We all talked about, in the offseason, how many more reps he took with the ones. With his upside, he had a lot of room to grow because he had not taken a ton of spring practice reps, fall camp reps. He had taken them, but he had taken them with the threes, so his ability to get a lot of work in spring with the ones and a lot of work in fall camp with the ones has improved him as a player.”

Besides having reps under his belt, Bennett has a talented receiving corps.

Receiver Ladd McConkey has shown that his emergence from last year was no fluke. He is the second-leading receiver for the Bulldogs with 362 yards and a score. Other options include junior Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint – who has stepped up into an increased role with sophomore AD Mitchell being sidelined much of the year due to an ankle injury – Dominick Blaylock, Kearis Jackson and freshman Dillon Bell.

At tight end, Bowers, last year’s SEC Freshman of the Year, has produced a team-high 393 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He has also had help from 6-foot-7, 270-pound Darnell Washington, who is third in receiving yards with 285. Washington is also heavily influential in creating extra yards by using his massive frame to block.

Bennett has hit 21 different Bulldogs for a reception this season.

It’s always great when we can get the ball into other people’s hands, and I think we’ve done a good job scheming up and just doing that,” Bowers said. “We got Arian (Smith), Adonai (Mitchell), Ladd, all of our wideouts, Marcus, and then the tight ends, the running backs, too. It’s really good to space the ball out like that.”

Another factor that has allowed this year’s offense to thrive has been the line. The group was selected for the Joe Moore Award Midseason Honor Roll, given to the nation’s most outstanding units.

“Intimidating physical presence on every snap,” the Joe Moore Award voting committee said in a news release. “Whether it’s gap or zone scheme, they continue to find work and get movement at the POA (point of attack). After a sluggish start, they keep getting better and have finally found some continuity to provide some balance to their offensive success.”

After losing some key linemen to the NFL, such as Jamaree Salyer and Justin Shaffer, the front five has not taken much of a hit. They have allowed more sacks to this point (seven as opposed to four), but leaders, including center Sedrick Van Pran, have opened up the game in other aspects, leading to rushing yards and passing yards.

“I rarely see them get protections wrong or pick things up wrong,” Smith said. “They’re really good up front. They work every day. They’re covering down. You see them moving the pile in the game, and that’s one thing that gets us turned up on the sideline. Because, as a defensive player, we created jumping on the pile. We hop on all 11 hats to the ball, and they’re starting to do that on offense.”

Experience has appeared to be the best teacher in the passing attack, as many of those names were a part of the national championship team from last season, and they all picked up where they left off – some even better than before.

“Well, I’ll take (more) experience anytime,” Smart said. “Talent and experience are valuable. I don’t know which one I’d rank ahead of the other, because talent as a young player and experience as an older player are both valuable. We’ve got some really unselfish people in there. When you look at Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint and what he’s been through injuries and coming back, and even Ladd McConkey, those guys really care about each other and they compete. They’ve got a great unit ... and we’re trying to get all of them back and full strength.”

While Smart doesn’t know whether experience or talent is more valuable to a team, Georgia boasts both, which plays into the success of the Bulldogs’ offense in 2022.