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How Jacob Eason and Kirby Smart can win the SEC East for Georgia

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If outside threats open up the middle and Eason develops, the Dawgs could triumph in a weak division.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia has some tough games ahead of it in 2017. The Bulldogs host a capable Appalachian State and visit Notre Dame in non-conference play, and they’ve got both Tennessee and Auburn on the road this year. But the Dawgs will have a good shot to win the SEC East, and the main reason is that the SEC East isn’t very good.

The Florida Gators won the division last year, despite cycling through a pair of mostly ineffective QBs (Austin Appleby and Luke Del Rio), due in large part to their victory in the cocktail party against Georgia. Their saving grace was that no one else in the East enjoyed consistent QB play either, and their defense was a trump card.

This year, UGA gets a second season from former five-star freshman QB Jacob Eason. Joining him will be the nation’s No. 3 freshman class, with potential impact players on offense like four-star receiver Jeremiah Holloman and five-star tackle Isaiah Wilson. The hope in Athens is that Georgia’s offense improves enough to be the difference in this poor division. (The East was the worst Power 5 division in college football last year.)

Kirby Smart’s defense will be good as usual, probably better than last year. But good defenses are common all around the SEC. Good quarterback play? That’s a different story.

The 2016 Georgia offense had potential and problems.

The plan for Georgia on offense in 2016 was simple and direct. The Dawgs had star running backs in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. They had a stud lineman in Isaiah Wynn, and they were going to run the ball and set up Eason and his big arm for straightforward play-action lobs down the field.

Chubb and Michel were fine. They combined for 1,970 yards on 376 runs, a 5.2-yard average. The stronger run defenses on the schedule largely constrained them. When the Dawgs faced teams who could stop the run and loaded the box to do it, Eason and the passing game didn’t hold up their end of the deal.

Here’s a glimpse of what UGA was up against last year:

CBS

It was second-and-21, but both Gator safeties played within 10 yards of the line. The boundary safety was flying downhill when he read a running play, and the field safety was playing down in the box even though he had to carry a vertical by the slot receiver.

For the offense, this looks like a busted play, and it’s not really clear what they were trying to run. Somehow the Dawgs made a positive gain, thanks to Eason just barely getting this toss off to Chubb releasing down the field.

Poor protection and overall execution on the part of the offense regularly put Eason in the role of improv artist. His heralded ability to throw the ball on the move was often all that stood between the Dawg offense and disaster. At times, he even flipped disaster into success, averting pressure and making long completions.

The biggest issue facing Georgia’s passing game in 2016 was that when Eason wasn’t serving as a mobile artillery piece, the protections weren’t great and the receivers were often covered.

Here’s an example where they set a brazen pick for freshman TE Isaac Nauta on the goal line to try and create some separation against TCU in the Liberty Bowl:

ESPN

The pick was effective, but TCU knew what was going on here, and weak safety Nick Orr tracked Nauta and shut things down. The outside receivers were covered up and the RB was loose, but young Eason was never looking that way.

Beyond their shaky protections, Georgia lacked scary receivers on the outside for Eason to target with his big arm. That it made it hard to effectively attack the middle of the field with more talented options like Nauta or Isaiah McKenzie, because defenses were loading up between the hash marks.

Nauta averaged eight yards per target and McKenzie 9.9, but outside receivers Terry Godwin and Javon Wims averaged only 6.3 and 5.8 yards, respectively. The combination of Eason’s arm strength and anticipation and UGA’s tight ends and running backs should’ve created lots of opportunities outside. It didn’t work out in 2016.

There’s good reason to expect improvement in 2017.

Eason will be in his second year as a starter, with a full year’s worth of film to learn from. Ditto Nauta, and other talented young skill players will be growing into roles within the offense. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will be more familiar with his players heading into his own second year in Athens.

On the downside, the Dawgs have to replace lead receiver McKenzie and four out of five OL starters. Talk in spring is that top all-around OL Wynn (who’s only 6’2) will need to move out to left tackle to cover Eason’s blindside. If Wynn isn’t as good a tackle as he is a guard, and the younger receivers in Athens aren’t ready, these puzzle pieces could just as easily fit into a picture of a sophomore slump.

Here’s a look from UGA’s spring game that was too familiar to the 2016 season:

ESPN

The defense brought an extra man, and the offense picked it up in max protection. But then Eason had three receivers trying to get open against six pass defenders. Eason scanned his way to the weak side hitch, perhaps dwelling for just an instant on the boundary safety dropping down. His solid velocity and anticipation were not enough to beat the coverage from a first-team Dawg cornerback.

On the positive side, receiver Javon Wims was promising in the spring game, and Eason was able to connect with him on a fade route later in the scrimmage:

ESPN

Nauta (No. 18) did a good job here in blitz pickup. Eason stood in the pocket with pressure coming, and Wims used his 6’4 frame to bring it in. The Bulldogs were not much of a threat to connect on these throws in 2016, and landing more big shots like this would be a breath of life for what otherwise might be a dominant rushing attack and intermediate passing game.

The talk of Georgia turning to freshman QB Jake Fromm is, frankly, ridiculous.

Fromm’s spring game benefitted from facing the second-team defense and off coverage that made quick and efficient hitch routes an easy way to pad stats and generate results. Eason has shown real poise and playmaking without a dominant supporting cast while working against some of the better defenses in college football.

If he can get through his progressions just a tad faster after this next offseason working with his young targets against a potentially dominant pass defense, he could be the difference for Georgia in a still reviving SEC East.