Tennessee heads to Georgia Saturday with the nation’s No. 1 ranking and the SEC east on the line.
Each week, Rocky Top Insider will take you behind the scenes with a question and answer with a media member who covers Tennessee’s opponent.
This week, Dawgs HQ’s Palmer Thomas discusses Stetson Bennett’s improvement, the loss of Nolan Smith and much more.
Coming off the National Championship, what were the biggest questions about this Georgia team? How have they answered them to this point in the season?
From the outside looking in, I think a lot of people were worried about complacency coming from Georgia. After all, it had been 41 years since the Bulldogs were on top, and that had been the one thing (and Alabama being the one team) that the program couldn’t get over. Well, that happened in January. However, Georgia hasn’t been complacent at all. So for me, the biggest question about this team was how the defense would look with so many new faces in new places. Eight players off to the NFL including five in the first round meant that this year’s defense was going to look completely different in terms of who was out there. It was still a talented group but not nearly as experienced as last year’s was, and they’ve answered the bell well. I have been particularly impressed by how the inside linebackers have looked considering Jamon Dumas-Johnson and Smael Mondon weren’t really even rotational guys last year. Losing Nolan Smith is big (more on that later) and they haven’t been tested quite like this Tennessee offense will do, but overall I’ve been impressed that there hasn’t been a huge drop off year to year considering what was lost.
How has Stetson Bennett improved from last season?
In one word: confidence. He knows that this is his team, and he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder at a five-star quarterback behind him that was the coaches’ choice going into the season as the starter. Stetson knew that he was the guy from the moment that he decided to come back. That allowed him to work the entire offseason for the first time as the starting quarterback and get comfortable with his receivers. He’s also comfortable with the offensive system, and the coaches are comfortable with him in that system. There are still some ‘What are you doing?’ moments, but those have lessened every year. Having two tight ends like Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington certainly doesn’t hurt your confidence, and if Georgia can get its best wide receiver in AD Mitchell back before too long, this confidence will take another step up.
How would you assess the Georgia run game to this point in the season?
I have been pleasantly surprised by Georgia’s run game. Coming into the season, I wasn’t too high on the Bulldog backs. They were losing two to the NFL with Zamir White and James Cook and not doing a ton to replace them (i.e. adding a transfer). Kenny McIntosh had been a part of the rotation but more so as a pass catcher, while Kendall Milton came into college with high expectations but has struggled to stay healthy. Those two narratives have largely stayed the same, although McIntosh showed some between the tackles running ability against Florida this past week, but the emergence of Daijun Edwards has been the difference. This is a kid who trusts his blockers and is not afraid of contact. Edwards, along with true freshman Branson Robinson, can bring the pain while McIntosh is more of your finesse back.
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How big of a loss is Nolan Smith?
The loss of Nolan Smith is huge, not only from an on field standpoint with his production but also from an off field standpoint with his leadership. Going back to what I said about this defense not being as experienced as the one last year, Smith was one of few guys that did have that experience. Georgia has played without one of its best defenders for the majority of the season with Jalen Carter being banged up, and he’s now back so that helps, but losing Smith hurts and puts them right back in a spot of playing without one of their best defenders. Outside linebacker was a position that they didn’t have a ton of depth at anyway. Now the pressure is on super-senior Robert Beal, sophomore Chaz Chambliss, junior MJ Sherman and true freshman Marvin Jones Jr. to step up. Beal led Georgia in sacks last season but didn’t have to do a ton other than rush the passer. He’ll have to do more now, and be a leader as the most experienced player in the room. Chambliss has been primarily a special teams player over the course of his career so far but did step in for Smith last season when he suffered an elbow injury against Tennessee. Meanwhile, Sherman and Jones Jr. are both former five-stars, but Sherman hasn’t been able to live up to that expectation in two-plus seasons already while Jones Jr. is still developing. If Georgia can speed that development up, he may be a huge piece in replacing Smith, but that’s a big ask for a player as young as him.
Based on the pure sack numbers, Georgia’s pass rush has struggled. Is that an accurate portrayal or does it not tell the entire story?
The sack numbers don’t tell the entire story on Georgia’s pass rush. The Bulldogs have done a great job of pressuring the quarterback, but teams have been able to get the ball out quickly. That’s something that goes back to what Kentucky did against Georgia last year, moving the ball as well as anybody did by getting it out of the hands of the quarterback and into the hands of the playmakers as quickly as possible. Again, this is an area where the loss of Nolan Smith hurts as he led the team in quarterback hurries with 16. Without him, guys like Jamon Dumas-Johnson (13), Mykel Williams (13), Jalen Carter (11) and Robert Beal (10) take on more pressure in having to affect the quarterback.
Georgia’s run defense has been an immovable object the last few years. Is that still the case this season?
Stopping the run is always an emphasis for a Kirby Smart football team, and that’s not any different this year. Sure, there’s not a Jordan Davis in the middle taking up two defenders, but the Bulldogs have done a good job so far this season ranking No. 4 in the country in run defense, allowing 85.38 yards per game. Guys like Nazir Stackhouse, Warren Brinson and Zion Logue have stepped up on the defensive line, especially in the absence of Jalen Carter. Adding him back helps. So too does getting Smael Mondon back healthy at inside linebacker where he and Jamon Dumas-Johnson have been forces in the defensive front.
Georgia 38, Tennessee 35