Wes Johnson era of Georgia baseball begins Friday

Georgia Athletic Director Josh Brooks (L) presents Wes Johnson with his baseball jersey after introducing Johnson as the Bulldogs' new baseball skipper. (Photo by Chip Towers/ctowers@ajc.com)

Credit: Chip Towers

Credit: Chip Towers

Georgia Athletic Director Josh Brooks (L) presents Wes Johnson with his baseball jersey after introducing Johnson as the Bulldogs' new baseball skipper. (Photo by Chip Towers/ctowers@ajc.com)

ATHENS — Keep a roster handy if you plan to watch Georgia play baseball this year. Heck, coach Wes Johnson might have need to keep one handy the first few weeks of the season.

To say there is a newness about the 2024 Diamond Dogs would be an understatement. There are 28 newcomers on the roster, including 18 just-arrived transfers. That’s not counting Johnson, who is taking over as the “Ike Cousins head baseball coach” after making a name for himself as an all-world pitching coach, most recently with the defending national champion LSU Tigers.

“No, I won’t need a roster, but I’ve got my game-plan cards (ready) on different moves we’ll make and potentially some pitching matchups,” said Johnson, who finds himself in a skipper’s role for the first time in a long and storied baseball career. “But I’m good on the roster.”

Johnson has been working on Georgia’s roster since June when he was named to the job. He succeeded Scott Stricklin, the affable, well-liked coach of the past 10 years. Stricklin kept the Bulldogs competitive but could never quite get them over the hump and into the national limelight as far as the postseason.

Enter Johnson, whose task it is to get Georgia to take that next step. The Bulldogs have done it before, winning the College World Series in 1990 and making it to Omaha six other times. But it’s been a while, and winning consistently in the interim has been elusive.

In Year 1, at least, Johnson has leaned heavily on the transfer portal. The unveiling of the new-look Bulldogs comes at 3 p.m. Friday as Georgia plays host to North Carolina-Asheville in the first of a three-game set at Foley Field (which is undergoing a makeover of its own, by the way).

“You’re more excited for your players,” Johnson said before a midweek workout this week. “We’ve put in all our work as coaches, as far as developing them. Obviously, they’ll continue to develop throughout the season, but these guys are ready to see another uniform. We’re tired of playing each other. Guys are ready to go.”

One of those guys is Charlie Condon. While “freshness” abounds within the 2024 squad, Condon is one of a few key returning pieces around which Johnson is building his foundation.

Whether Condon plays infield or outfield – it likely will be both – Johnson knows he’ll have the sophomore and his big bat at the front of the Bulldogs’ lineup. The 6-foot-6, 216-pound slugger who had a 1.284 OPS and 25 home runs last season is a consensus first-team All-American coming into the season.

Between entering his second year as a starter and the crash course in advanced analytics he has encountered under Johnson, the expectation is for Condon to take his game to another level.

“There’s analytics that benefit hitters and pitchers; then also, when the pitchers get better, we get better,” Condon said. “Facing that competition every week, you want your guys to be as ready for the spring as possible, and they’re going to be. We’ve seen the pitchers make a lot of positive strides this fall and coming into this spring. They’re throwing strikes, and they’re throwing harder.”

Other important returning pieces include catcher Fernando Gonzalez, designated hitter/outfielder Corey Collins and pitchers Charlie Goldstein and Leighton Finley. In all, there are 17 returning lettermen.

But if the Bulldogs are going to improve on mediocrity (they were 29-27 a year ago, 11-19 in SEC play), they must get a boost from the many transfers and freshmen. Among the newcomers are nine graduate transfers, all of whom will be looking to make an immediate impact. Those include right-handed pitcher Christian Mracna (George Mason) and outfielders Dillon Carter (Texas Tech), Dylan Goldstein (Florida Atlantic) and Clayton Chadwick (Sam Houston State). Based on fall ball and offseason workouts, there is a lot of buzz surrounding sophomore shortstop Kolby Branch (Baylor), junior infielder Slate Alford (Mississippi State) and senior right-hander Brandt Pancer (Stanford). Any or all of them could end up in Georgia’s starting lineup.

To be clear, the attraction was coming to play for Johnson.

“He just won a national championship,” said Branch, who is expected to start at short. “There’s a lot of buzz about him. He has a winning mindset. He wants you to get out there and do your best and stay positive. He’s exactly what you want in a manager.”

Said Goldstein: “It’s been awesome. All the guys on the team really mesh well. We have that one thing in common. We’re all transferring to play for him, for the most part. And the guys that did come back welcomed us with open arms and have showed us the ways and the ropes. I think we have the makings of a dominant team.”

With the college baseball starting so early in the year, there certainly will be a lot of lineup tweaking the few weeks of the season. The hope is that the Bulldogs will get most of it worked out by the time the always-brutal SEC schedule starts in mid-March.

Georgia opens conference play on the road against Kentucky on March 15. While the Bulldogs have the good fortune of avoiding Johnson’s former LSU team, they’ll collide with the usual suspects, including Tennessee in Knoxville at the end of March and Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida on consecutive weekends to end the regular season.

There will be tests before that, including the annual three-game, alternate-location set against Georgia Tech. The rivals will play on their respective campuses March 1 and 2 (the latter in Athens), then meet at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville for the usually decisive third game March 3.

Clemson, Georgia Southern, Michigan State, Georgia State and Kennesaw State also dot the schedule. So potential potholes abound on Johnson’s road to rebuilding the program.

But the first-year coach has been given a lot with which to work. Phase I of a two-phase, $45 million expansion and improvement project of Foley Field has been completed. The Bulldogs already have been outfitted with a new locker room, meeting room and dining and workout areas. However, Johnson is known as one of baseball’s pioneers when it comes to baseball analytics and innovative technology. The bulk of that financial investment is being deployed in those arenas and will appear in phase two of construction in the form of a new building outside left field

For now, most of the progress is invisible to the naked eye. The hope for the Bulldogs and their fans is it will be evident in their play on the field and their win-loss record.

“We feel really good about our work, but this league is tough,” Johnson said. “… People ask me, ‘how close are you.’ That’s kind of a tough question for me. No matter where we are, you have to see how your team deals with success as well as failure, then we’ll make adjustments and coach them up. If we can get on track, anything is possible in this league.”


As college pitching coach:

  • 1 national championship (2023 LSU)
  • 2 College World Series (2018 Arkansas, 2023 LSU), both times reaching the finals
  • 3 NCAA super regionals (2016 Mississippi State, 2018 Arkansas, 2023 LSU)
  • 7 NCAA regionals (2012, ‘14, ‘15 Dallas Baptist; 2016 Mississippi State; 2017-18 Arkansas; 2023 LSU)
  • 38 pitchers selected in the MLB draft, including eight in 2023
  • 4 first-round picks (No. 1 overall: Paul Skenes, 2023, Pittsburgh Pirates; No. 38 Ty Floyd, 2023, Cincinnati Reds; No. 34 Dakota Hudson, RHP, 2016, St. Louis Cardinals; No. 16 Hayden Simpson, RHP, 2010 Chicago Cubs)

As MLB pitching coach:

  • 2019-20 – Minnesota Twins, American League Central Division championships