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Christopher Smith will make his first start on Saturday.

Christopher Smith plays with ‘no fear’ as he makes first start for Richard LeCounte

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Georgia football safety Chris Smith ready to replace Richard LeCounte against Florida

Georgia safety Christopher Smith faces a near-impossible task on Saturday. He’ll be making his first career start for the Bulldogs as they battle Florida for what will likely be the SEC East title. The Gators have the No. 2 passing offense in the conference and have a number of ways to attack Georgia’s secondary.

Adding to Smith’s task will be that he has to replace the best player on Georgia’s defense in Richard LeCounte. Just a week ago, LeCounte was named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Week after picking up 13 tackles while breaking up three passes and recovering a fumble.

Smith by comparison has just 20 career tackles halfway through his junior season.

But due to injuries sustained in a traffic accident, LeCounte won’t be seeing the field. Georgia will turn to Smith, something its had to do a safety twice this season. Once came against Kentucky, when Lewis Cine went down with an ankle injury.

The other came when he replaced LeCounte against Auburn when the latter was ejected for targeting.  Couple that with his effort in practice, Georgia is projecting confidence in how Smith will play.

“Chris [Smith] has played a lot for us, ” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “We feel like Chris has gotten a lot of experience. Chris works really hard in practice and he is ready to play.”

Related: Next men up: The names who will fill in for injured Georgia football players against Florida

Those who know Smith well praise his work ethic to go along with his personality. Smith’s trainer and former high school defensive coordinator Kevin Pope picked up on those traits early as he began training Smith when he was 12.

It’s also been pointed out that Smith is just as physical as LeCounte, making his presence known during practice with bone-jarring hits.

“Chris is very vocal, physical and that’s something you want as a safety who is right next to you,” Mark Webb said. “He does his job very well and is ready for the opportunity that’s in front of him.”

Smith doesn’t have the 5-star pedigree that LeCounte did as a recruit, but he’s no Rudy either. In 2017, he was named the 2A Defensive Player of the Year for the role he played on Hapeville Charter Career Academy’s state championship-winning team. Rated as a 4-star recruit and the No. 306 prospect in the 2018 class, he snarred five interceptions and added nine more pass breakups as a senior.

He ran track for the school as well, with Winston Gordon, Hapeville Charter’s head football coach, saying Smith ran in the 10.7’s in the 100-meter dash. He also has strong bloodlines, as his younger brother TJ is a freshman defensive back for Kansas State.

So with all these great attributes and back story, why hasn’t Smith seen more of the field?

“I knew he was going to be a heck of a player. The only concern we had was that he was a little small,” Pope said. “Chris weighed about 125 pounds, 130 pounds at the most first. But he was a tough, tough kid.”

Smith stands at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds now, but that’s still smaller than the likes of Eric Stokes, Tyson Campbell, Cine and LeCounte. He’s worked hard just to get to that point with his weight and build.

When Smith first signed with Georgia he did so as a cornerback, as that was the position he shined at when he was at Hapeville Charter. But he first made his breakthrough at the school as a safety, the same position he’ll line up at when he takes the field on Saturday.

He arrived at Hapeville Charter as a sophomore when Pope also became the school’s defensive coordinator. The team had a need at strong safety and Pope felt like his pupil could play well there.

Gordon though didn’t share the same confidence at first.

“Coach Gordon said, ‘man he’s too small to play this position.’ And I say, just trust, me,” Pope recounted. “This kid is different and he can do it.

“The first practice, he hit a guy, and when I say he hit a guy, he hit a guy and ran through him. And I said, ‘this is what I’ve been seeing since he was 12.’ He has no fear.”

Smith continued to develop and add weight to his frame to that point where he can now handle the punishment of playing in the SEC. But his former coaches expect him to dole at some hits as well.

“He’s fearless. He would come in and lay the wood coming over the middle at 165 pounds,” Gordon said. “I don’t expect there to be any real drop-off with him in there because he knows the system.”

Another reason that the former corner finds himself in a starting safety role is because of his positional versatility. Pope said Smith works to be the best defensive back he be, as opposed to training to just be the best corner or safety.

This is another trait Smart loves, as the former Georgia defensive back himself values positional versatility in his secondary. He makes sure to train defensive backs at just about all positions in the secondary, so in a case like this one, multiple players can step-up.

It helps when you have a documented work ethic as strong as Smith’s. Pope calls him “an old-school, lunch pail” type player who loves playing, practicing and training for the game of football.

“He’s a dawg and always practices hard. Always running through the line, he always pushes himself, so he’s a very hard worker,” Tyson Campbell said. “Very talented and I’m confident in what he can do for us. I’m not worried.”

Smith has been in big stages before as he’s also a regular on Georgia’s special teams units.  Saturday though will be different. It will be an opportunity for him to show that the kid who was once deemed too small can hang with the big dogs of the SEC.

It will be a tall task for Smith to replace LeCounte and replicate the All-American’s play against the Gators.

But Smith has worked to be in this position. And he’s ready to live up to the Georgia standard.

“When you put in the type of work that he’s put in for years, it’s only a matter of time before you get your opportunity,” Pope said. “He’s going to make an impact from the first play to the last play, because that’s just the type of player he is.”

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