Georgia OC Jim Chaney under immense pressure heading into 2017
Few fans talk about their coordinators with as much vitriol as those cheering for the Georgia Bulldogs, and it’s a phenomenon that began well before the current coaching staff arrived.
This is the fan base that turned #FireBobo into a tongue-in-cheek running gag, even while Aaron Murray and Todd Gurley were setting school records under former offensive chief Mike Bobo. Alabama fans might think themselves pioneers for yelling “RUN THE DANG BALL” at Lane Kiffin, but Bulldogs faithful actually adopted this practice long ago.
So imagine how they feel now that Georgia actually has problems on the offensive side.
It goes without saying that first-year coordinator Jim Chaney took a ton of heat in 2016. Among SEC teams, his unit ranked 11th in scoring (24.5 points per game), 11th in total offense (385 yards per game) and 11th in yards per play (5.44). That’s the definition of mediocrity. Considering Georgia had two NFL-caliber backs on its roster, averaging 4.66 yards per carry is especially amazing.
To his credit, Chaney openly shouldered responsibility for the shortcomings in a pre-Liberty Bowl press conference, one of the few times a Kirby Smart assistant addressed the media last year.
“The bottom line is it didn’t get done. It ends with me to get (it) done,” Chaney said. “I’ll say this for our players. They were awesome.”
All this begs two questions: What could’ve been done better, and what can be done better next year?
A postmortem of Georgia in 2016
While Smart initially went after Arkansas coordinator Dan Enos before settling on Chaney — Enos’ non-compete clause blocked him from leaving the Hogs — the plan was always to keep the pro-style offense at Georgia.
Hiring a spread guru might have made more sense, though. Tennessee and Mizzou, the only true up-tempo offenses in the SEC East, led the division in scoring and total yards this season. Alabama found even greater success on that side of the ball after hiring Kiffin. Football is overwhelmingly trending in this direction. And, of course, Jacob Eason ran the spread in high school.
But Smart stuck with what his area of comfort and familiarity — the pro-style attack Nick Saban used to win championships with the Crimson Tide.
Here’s the thing: To win with the pro style, you need players who can physically dominate opponents up front to establish the run and set up play-action throws. Georgia did not have that this fall; the left tackle position was an eye-sore, and the three interior position starters (Isaiah Wynn, Brandon Kublanow and Lamont Gaillard) all weigh closer to 300 pounds than 330. The problems became obvious as early as the Nicholls State fiasco, and as Smart said himself at one point, offensive line issues rarely get fixed in-season.
The Bulldogs averaged 4.05 yards per rush in SEC play and just 3.44 yards on third down. Vanderbilt and Florida both held them under the 100-yard mark.
Then you have your freshman quarterback. Chaney admitted that “a little contradiction with philosophies” existed in regards to Eason’s comfort running a pro-style offense. Taking the snap extensively under center required adjustments from Eason, who already had plenty on his plate as a first-year starter. The result wasn’t always pretty.
But when he operated from the shotgun? Just look at some of these throws against Tennessee:
Eason didn’t find Year 1 success as quickly as Murray before him, either. Fans saw overthrows, missed reads and an overall lack of chemistry between Eason and his receivers at times. He completed only 5 passes against South Carolina, and threw 2 picks in the loss to Georgia Tech. In Chaney’s defense, Eason has to improve as well.
The lack of experienced talent at receiver certainly didn’t help, either. Three of Georgia’s top five receivers were newcomers (Isaac Nauta, Riley Ridley, Javon Wims).
The loudest criticism might have come from Chaney’s predictable play-calling. You could almost pencil in run-run-pass, or so they’d say. But that’s the classic power-run, pro-style game. The real question was whether this year’s players fit that, and whether the game plan was ever adapted to better fit those guys. Clearly, there’s room for debate there.
Combine all of this and you have the unpalatable offensive train-wreck that was 2016 Georgia football.
Looking ahead to 2017
Problems No. 1, 2 and 3 start with the offensive line. Assistant coach Sam Pittman, widely recognized as one of the best O-line gurus in the country, is recruiting big bodies like a mad man.
Right now, six offensive lineman have committed to Georgia: Isaiah Wilson (5-star), D’Marcus Hayes (4-star), Andrew Thomas (4-star), Netori Johnson (4-star), D’Antne Demery (4-star) and Justin Shaffer (3-star). Their average listed weight is over 333 pounds. Pittman is doing work and landing the type of linemen he loves.
That doesn’t mean Georgia’s line will go from Swiss cheese to stone wall. Only two Bulldogs are pretty much guaranteed to return as starters next year: Gaillard, who should move to center, and Wynn at left tackle or left guard. Three first-time starters doesn’t automatically translate to success, and offensive linemen rarely see the field as true freshmen.
But perhaps Wilson and Johnson could be exceptions. After all, Pittman has an A-plus reputation as a player developer.
Eason either will return a sharper, more refined quarterback, or incoming 4-star freshman Jake Fromm pushes for the job. The most likely scenario might be Fromm pressuring Eason to the point that he really ups his preparation and improves in Year 2.
The loss of Isaiah McKenzie at receiver will hurt, to be sure. But Nauta, Wims, Ridley and Terry Godwin all return, and there could be others that emerge behind them.
Most importantly, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are back as seniors. This cannot be stressed enough. It’s rare that one star junior running back comes back for a fourth year. But two? That has big-time potential.
Unfortunately for Chaney, the combination of a 5-star arm that needs developing, two senior studs in the backfield and a top-notch OL recruiting class leaves him under a giant microscope. He might be the most pressured coordinator in the SEC next season. And any early stumbles will again have fans questioning Smart’s chief play-caller.
With bigger linemen and a returning starter at quarterback, adapting the game plan to fit his players may not be the same issue it was for Chaney last season. But when did creativity ever hurt?
In the first-half of the bowl win over TCU, Georgia fans saw the same, tired formula that generated little against a middle-tier Big 12 defense. Then the Bulldogs started calling a bunch of plays out of the pistol and, at long last, some offensive momentum ensued. More of that can only help this group grow in 2017.
The Chaney hire was always spun as a “safe” one. Pittman probably drew the bigger offseason headlines (and for good reason). But Chaney does have years of experience running offenses and working with young quarterbacks. You can’t necessarily fault Smart for wanting to avoid risk with the most important hire of his young UGA tenure.
At the same time, fans can’t help but notice that Pittsburgh went from went from averaging 28.2 points under Chaney last year to 40.9 points under new LSU coordinator Matt Canada this past season.
Chaney is the guy and will be calling plays for Georgia in 2017. But we have no reference point for how Smart might approach staff changes as a head coach. Another bad year on offense could compel Kirby to do some deep thinking.
Chaney might benefit by doing some deep thinking of his own this offseason.