Georgia football’s talent is elite, but there are roster holes to fill for 2024 title run

Help needed for defensive front and pass-catching corps
ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Two Georgia quarterbacks of the future, Brock Vandagriff and Dylan Raiola, are leaving. That doesn’t matter so much now that Georgia’s quarterback of the present, Carson Beck, is staying. The Bulldogs will get more good news on Wednesday when Kirby Smart announces the signees for what 247 Sports expects will be the program’s first No. 1 recruiting class since 2020.

That’s the context for Georgia’s roster churn in the transfer portal. It’s not over because the portal is officially open until Jan. 3. But no matter who comes and goes over the next few weeks, Georgia has the player talent base necessary to contend for the national championship again in 2024.

That doesn’t mean there are no worries about Georgia’s roster. I don’t mean the typical reservations about depth. I’m looking specifically at front-line defenders and pass catchers. The lack of those kinds of players has been a problem for the Bulldogs in the past. It could be an issue again if Smart can’t plug some roster holes.

The Bulldogs have been winning big without elite wide receivers. That was because they had All-American tight end Brock Bowers as a cheat code. Now Bowers surely is headed for the NFL.

Georgia’s defensive front wasn’t as fearsome in 2023. Now linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson, a Butkus Award finalist in 2022, is in the portal. All-SEC nose tackle Nazir Stackhouse could opt to declare for the draft instead of playing a fifth season.

The chances are high that Smart will use the portal to shore up those positions with experienced players. They are question marks for now, especially on defense. Georgia didn’t slip much on that side of the ball this season. But it was just enough to cost the Bulldogs a chance to play for a third consecutive national championship.

Georgia was vulnerable against the run for the first time in a long time. Opposing quarterbacks didn’t face as much havoc in the pocket. Some of them hurt Georgia by escaping the pressure to make plays. That list includes Alabama’s Jalen Milroe, who put away the Bulldogs in the SEC championship game.

Before the season, Smart said he didn’t believe the Bulldogs had any “game wreckers” along the defensive line. That’s no surprise. Georgia realistically couldn’t expect to keep producing special players like Jordan Davis, Travon Walker and Jalen Carter.

Smart also said at the time that the Bulldogs didn’t have the usual depth on the line. He acknowledged that may have been a “luxury” they’d enjoyed.

“You can’t get anybody at this point,” Smart said in August. “There isn’t anybody coming out for waivers.”

College football’s waiver period is happening now. So far, Georgia has had only players leaving the portal (there could be incoming transfers yet to be revealed). Dumas-Johnson is the most accomplished player among the 16 Bulldogs looking elsewhere.

It was a blow for Georgia’s defense when Dumas-Johnson suffered a season-ending arm injury. He had 3.5 sacks among 5.5 tackles for loss in nine games. Dumas-Johnson ended up ranking second on the team in both categories despite missing four games. He was second in TFL in 2022. The Bulldogs will miss Dumas-Johnson’s production and leadership.

Edge defender Marvin Jones Jr. might have eventually become a game wrecker for the Bulldogs. He was a five-star recruit in 2022 and was on the come by the end of his second season. Jones started in the SEC championship game. Now he’s headed to Florida State, where his father was an All-American linebacker.

There are talented players available to take the place of Dumas-Johnson, Jones and others who are departing. The defensive linemen and linebackers in Georgia’s 2023 recruiting class included two five-star recruits. Three other front-seven defenders ranked among the 247 Sports consensus top 100 nationally. Georgia’s 2024 commits include another five-star recruit at those positions among four ranked in the top 100.

The expectation is that Georgia’s defense will be elite again once Smart plugs talented young players and transfers into the lineup. But it didn’t work out that way this season. Georgia’s defense will be good so long as Smart is the coach. Attrition makes it hard to stay great.

The Bulldogs are facing a similar issue with pass catchers. They won back-to-back national championships despite not fielding wide receivers with first-round grades for the NFL draft. The Bulldogs didn’t need one because they had Bowers. Now that he’s likely gone, it could be a problem for Georgia if no wide receiver emerges as a star.

Like with the defense, there are talented players at wide receiver who might become stars. And the Bulldogs received a big boost in that area on Tuesday after Vanderbilt wide receiver London Humphreys, currently in the transfer portal, announced he was headed to Athens. But there also are more potential departures. Senior Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint and junior Ladd McConkey have yet to announce if they will return. Rosemy-Jacksaint became a big-play threat this season and McConkey is Georgia’s most productive wide receiver for the past three years.

Smart has significant holes to fill in Georgia’s defense and pass-catching group. The situation obviously isn’t urgent. The Bulldogs are 34-2 over the past three seasons while relying heavily on several players who will return for 2024. Smart has signed many of the country’s top recruits. The expansion of the College Football Playoff from four teams to 12 in 2024 means Georgia won’t be shut out with one loss again.

The Bulldogs will continue to roll over most opponents because of their talent advantage. The margins are thinner against elite foes. Georgia will face more of those in 2024. The schedule includes road games against two teams in this year’s CFP, old nemesis Alabama and new SEC entry Texas. The Bulldogs also will play at Ole Miss and face Clemson at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the season opener.

Beck’s return makes it more likely that the Bulldogs will make it to the postseason with no more than one loss. The chances of winning another national championship might come down to Smart’s ability to find players to fill the holes on his roster. The defensive front and pass-catching corps are at the top of the list.

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