ATHENS — Given the recruiting ranking Malaki Starks arrived at Georgia with, there was a natural desire to want to see him on the field quickly. Starks was the No. 1 ranked athlete in the 2022 recruiting cycle and the No. 19 overall player.

The only player that entered with a higher recruiting ranking was Mykel Wiliams, who started in his first career game against Oregon.

Starks only had to wait one more game to make his debut, as his first career start came on Saturday against Samford.

“Malaki has earned that right,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “Dan (Jackson)’s not upset about that. He’s a team player. He gets it. Dan has a major role on our special teams units and he continues to play on defense. So you’re one play away at all times.”

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Starks snatched an interception in the win over the Ducks while also leading the Bulldogs in tackles. He had a pass deflection in the Samford win, but more paramount was the amount of snaps Starks played.

For the second straight game, Starks led all defenders in snaps played. He got 31 live-action reps on Saturday for the Bulldogs, bringing his team-leading total to 83 on the season.

“Malaki needs all the football he can play,” Smart said. “He still hasn’t seen everything, done everything. Tremendous talent and continues to stay level-headed and work really hard.”

As Smart points out though, Starks’ ascension into the starting lineup comes at the expense of Jackson. The junior safety though still found a way to make a key impact on Saturday, as he forced a fumble in the win of Samford.

Add in his special teams excellence — he made the opening kickoff tackle in the win over Oregon — and Jackson has shown he too is worthy of a key role on this team.

“He got to play in our dime package,” Smart said of Jackson. “So he gained some confidence from that. He’s got two pretty good years of practice under his belt. Which usually in our system, you get to where you’re comfortable and you don’t require 100 percent of reps to get ready if you’ve been in the system two years. So Dan’s in a position where we feel like he knows what to do. But Dan can still grow and get better as a player.”

Both players have improved over the first two games of the season, helping bring some stability to the safety position. What was one of the bigger positions of concern in the preseason is now a solid one for the Bulldogs. Georgia always knew what it had in senior Chris Smith, who has been excellent in Georgia’s first two games.

The Bulldogs haven’t been as fortunate at other positions in the secondary though. Cornerback Nyland Green is dealing with a hamstring injury at the moment, leaving a young cornerback room also thin. William Poole also did not play in the last game for Georgia, with Smart being cryptic as to why that was not the case.

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In their absence, sophomores Javon Bullard at star and Kamari Lassiter at cornerback have helped shore up the backend. Tykee Smith also saw significant playing time on Saturday for Georgia as he continues to recover from his ACL injury.

Georgia’s secondary has played well in its first two games, though the group figures to be tested by South Carolina and Spencer Rattler on Saturday. Rattler’s athleticism and arm talent make him a tough matchup for the Georgia defense.

It will be another big test for Starks, who will likely be making his first career road start for the Bulldogs. The environment in Columbia, S.C., will be a tough one for the freshman safety to face.

But Starks has passed seemingly every other test to date for the Bulldogs. And there’s no reason to doubt the freshman at this point, given what he has shown in his first two starts.

“Spencer Rattler is a great quarterback who can throw the ball,” linebacker Smael Mondon said. “He presents a lot of problems. He’s got a strong arm. We’re going to have to be ready for whatever they throw at us.”

Smael Mondon discusses Malaki Starks, Georgia football defense

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