ATHENS — It’s easy to see the respect Chris Smith earned from his fellow teammates after he played his final college football game for Georgia.

Georgia players on both sides of the ball gushed about what he brought to the Georgia team this season.

“He’s definitely a leader for our team,” tight end Brock Bowers said. “He’s a finalist for all those awards for a reason. Just a leader on the defense and there’s no one better.”

Smith isn’t the only Georgia leader that will need to be replaced, as the Bulldogs have 13 players in total that will be draft-eligible next season. But he’ll be the toughest largely because there isn’t a ready-made replacement for him.

Related: An early projection of Georgia football’s 2023 defensive depth chart

Even if you remove the fact that he was a First-Team All-American this past season, Smith was the most indispensable player on Georgia’s 2022 team. With him now gone, Georgia has a rather big question as to who will replace him.

Dan Jackson returns after he missed the second half of the season with a stress fracture in his foot. David Daniel-Sisavanh could make a push for playing time after taking more snaps following Jackson’s injury. There is also incoming freshman Joenel Aguero and 2022 signee JaCorey Thomas.

But the most interesting option comes in the form of Javon Bullard. And what that might mean for Georgia’s newest secondary addition in Smoke Bouie.

Bullard played 14 games for Georgia this past season, with the only absence being due to his suspension following a midseason DUI. He made plenty of huge plays in his first season as a starter, whether it be his pass breakup in the win over Ohio State or his two interceptions in the championship win over TCU.

The rising junior from Milledgeville, Ga., won defensive MVP honors for both of Georgia’s College Football Playoff games. The help he received from Smith throughout his career was a big reason Bullard became such a big-time player.

“I know a guy who touched me is Chris. I’m going to miss Chris,” Bullard said. “Chris is like a brother to me on and off the field.”

Related: Javon Bullard demonstrates the importance of in-state recruiting for Georgia: ‘I couldn’t dream this big’

Bullard played primarily at the star position this past season, essentially a nickelback in Georgia’s defense. Like Smith often did, Bullard showed late in the year that he can come up and make plays near the line of scrimmage. Bullard led Georgia’s defensive backs in sacks and tackles for loss last season with 3.5 and 7.0.

Smith was also one of Georgia’s top playmakers in pass coverage, as he led the team in interceptions and finished third in pass breakups with five. Both of Bullard’s interceptions last season came in the win over TCU.

Georgia should feel comfortable moving Bullard around for two reasons. For starters, Georgia cross-trains all of its defensive backs, so Bullard has practiced at the safety position before. But the addition of Texas A&M transfer Bouie might give Georgia even more courage to experiment with Bullard.

Related: Smoke Bouie transfers to UGA

Bouie committed to Georgia in January and was the lone defensive back transfer the Bulldogs took in this cycle. He was a 2022 recruit and a one-time Georgia commit. The Bulldogs would not have gone out and added him if they did not feel he could help the team.

Like Bullard, Bouie has the versatility to play star and safety for Georgia. He’ll be one of the more interesting follows during spring practice, as he could help further unlock what this defense looks like next season.

“This is college football. Those guys came in. They did their thing,” Bullard said. “They left with a great legacy and they left with a lot of pride and we thank them for that and we love them.

“But like I said, we still have to play football. And the guys coming back are going to be ready to work come this next season.”

Of course, not every transfer works out the way we often envision. For every Derion Kendrick and J.R. Reed, Tykee Smith entered Georgia with a ton of hype as a transfer from West Virginia. Injuries prevented Smith from seeing the field in his first season and Bullard’s emergence largely kept him as a rotational player this past season.

He is set to return to Georgia for another and will also factor into Georgia’s plans in the secondary.

Georgia will have options in the secondary as it has to replace perhaps its best player and easily biggest leader in Smith. Bullard will be counted on to fill those shoes next season for Georgia.

Whether he continues to do so at the star position or at Smith’s safety spot will say a lot about how Georgia feels about Bouie, Smith and the rest of its safeties in 2023.

“We have a lot of great players on this team,” Smith said. “I think this team is going to be a problem for years to come.”

Chris Smith praises Javon Bullard, Georgia football defense

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