Georgia’s offense has already faced several tests this season. Saturday’s meeting with Mississippi may prove to be the most revealing.
The Bulldogs travel to Oxford, Mississippi, to face a Rebels team that boasts a particularly dangerous pass rush. Their sack total through three games isn’t indicative of that fact, but their defenders’ abilities leave no doubt that they can harass quarterbacks early and often.
“They are ferocious rushers,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “They disrupt the pocket. They really have some unbelievable rushers.”
Junior defensive end Marquis Haynes is the key to the Rebels’ efforts of pummeling opposing passers. Fresh off a 10-sack season, Haynes has picked up right where he left off one year ago. He has a pair of sacks and nine tackles through three games.
Haynes led the Rebels in sacks last season despite sharing the field with the likes of defensive linemen Robert Nkemdiche and Channing Ward, who only combined for six sacks. Their departures could have left Haynes vulnerable to more double teams and therefore less production, but that’s not been an issue so far.
“He's extremely valuable to us,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said of Haynes. “He's everything you kind of want in a student-athlete in the way he plays the game, the speed he plays it at and the passion he plays it at. He's an athletic guy that can win some one-on-one situations, which is very valuable when you play in this conference.”
Haynes practically made his own highlight reel against No. 1 Alabama last week. He de-cleated Crimson Tide freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts in the second quarter on a play that knocked the ball loose and allowed John Youngblood to return it 44 yards for a touchdown. At another point the game, Haynes made quick work of All-SEC tackle Cam Robinson, pancaking the junior as Hurts fled the collapsed pocket.
Haynes finished the game with four tackles and one sack, and making plays against the Crimson Tide was nothing new. Smart lauded Haynes’ play and explained that he has witnessed his fair share of Haynes’ big moments going back to his time at Alabama.
If his offensive line isn’t careful, he’ll get his first dose of that as a head coach on Saturday.
“He's always been good,” Smart said. “Guy seems like he's been there forever. I know he's been disruptive forever.”
Jacob Eason will be the next freshman quarterback to step on up and test Haynes. With two starts under his belt now, the 6-foot-5 Eason has already taken a few hits this year, having been sacked six times through three games. Four of the Bulldogs’ nine allowed sacks in 2016 came last week against Missouri, which boasted its own powerful junior defensive end in Charles Harris.
Eason doesn’t have much collegiate experience to lean on yet but he’ll have to get a sense early about how much time he has to work with in the pocket. At this point in the season, Smart is pleased with Eason’s internal clock when it comes to staying in the pocket and understanding when the window is closing.
“He’s done a good job of maintaining his composure in the pocket,” Smart said. “Sometimes the pocket breaks down and he’s got to move. (Offensive coordinator Jim) Chaney works with the quarterbacks each day to move within the pocket and try to use the pocket to your advantage, because when you escape the pocket nobody can help you.”
The big question is how long that pocket will even exist on Saturday.
Although the offensive line has held up better in passing situations than on running plays, there’s no question the unit has been shaky in the team’s first three victories. If that trend continues in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, there’s a good chance that it won’t result in a fourth win for the Bulldogs.
“You’ve got to do a good job of building the pocket so that you can throw from it,” Smart said. “They challenge that in everything they do.”