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Georgia defensive back Derion Kendrick (11) during a game against Alabama in the 2021 SEC Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga., on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. (Photo by Mackenzie Miles)
Mackenzie Miles

Derion Kendrick on his second chance with Georgia football: ‘They accepted me for who I was’

Derion Kendrick has been in this situation before. Albeit the circumstances he enters the 2022 National Championship Game are completely different from his past experiences in this game.

As a freshman, he was a wide receiver on the Clemson team that beat Alabama 44-16. The following year, he was a starting defensive back for the Tigers when they ran into LSU. Joe Burrow, Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase torched the Clemson defense to the tune of a 42-25 result.

Kendrick is back in this game for a third time, now as a member of the Georgia Bulldogs. He’s the only active player on Georgia’s roster that has played in a national championship game, an experience his fellow teammates’ value.

“He brings a lot of confidence in that secondary, confidence and swagger,” linebacker Nakobe Dean said. “Just to have him, he brought a lot of experience, also, so just to have him back there is just great.

The senior defensive back arrived at Georgia in June after he was dismissed from Clemson. Kendrick didn’t elaborate further on why Dabo Swinney dismissed him from the program, but he was grateful for both what Clemson taught him and how Georgia welcomed him with open arms.

“Being thrown into the portal, nobody had to take a chance on me at all but they did,” Kendrick told reporters on Monday. “When I got here, I mean, I just fit in, just doing what I do, just came in, put my head down and put in the work. They accepted me for who I was and not what happened in the past.”

Related: Derion Kendrick, Georgia defense find redemption against Michigan: ‘This is what it led to’

Now, Kendrick will get a chance to win a championship as a key player for the Bulldogs. First, he must help this defense atone for their worst performance of the season.

The Alabama Crimson Tide and quarterback Bryce Young torched the Georgia defense in the SEC championship game. No offense had scored more than 17 points in a game on the Georgia defense this season. Alabama scored 34 points with its offense to go along with a pick-6 thrown by Stetson Bennett.

Young won the Heisman Trophy in part because of his play in that game, as he threw for 421 yards and three touchdowns, while also rushing for a touchdown.

More than that, Young was not sacked nor did he throw an interception. He was flawless, getting the best of the Georgia defense time and time again.

“He did a good job of moving around in the pocket, of creating time,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “He’s really way more elusive than people give him credit for. Extremely good athlete. Has elite spatial awareness. He knows where people are, where his people are, where he’s protected, where he’s going with the ball beforehand.”

Assisting Young was All-SEC receivers Jameson Williams and John Metchie. Williams scored twice and finished with 184 yards against Georgia. Metchie caught 6 passes for 97 yards in the first half.

But Georgia won’t have to worry about Metchie in the rematch, as he suffered a torn ACL against the Bulldogs. Alabama still has plenty of talented weapons — such as Iron Bowl hero Ja’Corey Brooks —at its disposal, but no Metchie is a blow to Georgia.

Among the adjustment the Bulldogs will have to make is that they need their top players to go out and win one-on-one battles. To make those key plays they couldn’t against Alabama the first time they met.

“We had some really critical third-down losses that, hey, they didn’t beat us. We busted,” Smart said. “And you can’t do that, not and beat a good football team. You’re giving them extra snaps every time that happens, and you can’t do that.”

Kendrick understands the value of a second chance, as evidenced by his year at Georgia. He’s helped better his game while answering some of the off-field questions that lingered following his dismissal from Clemson and then an arrest as well.

Like all good defensive backs, he’ll look to have a short-term memory given what happened to the Georgia secondary the last time it played Alabama.

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