ATHENS – Injuries have mounted at inside linebacker early in the season. Smael Mondon has been dealing with a foot injury that limited him to just six plays in the opener against UT-Martin.
Beyond Mondon, freshman Raylen Wilson has been dealing with a knee injury. He was able to return to practice on Tuesday, but he’s still limited to a black non-contact jersey. EJ Lightsey also didn’t dress in the team’s win over UT-Martin.
With some limited, others had the opportunity to step up into bigger roles. Xavian Sorey was able to make his first career start as a Bulldog. He didn’t register a tackle in the win, but it was still a big moment in Sorey’s development.
“To play stack inside ‘backer and sub rusher, which we ask our guys to do, was a daunting task for him for the first time and first game. But he played hard,” Smart said. “He missed a couple run keys, and he missed a couple walk-aways we call them where you have to walk out of the box. But I’m pleased with Sorey’s development, and he’s been very coachable.”
The other linebacker who really benefitted from Georgia’s injuries was freshman CJ Allen. No linebacker played more snaps than Allen’s 33, which was also the most of any 2023 signee.
After the game, Smart was as effusive in his praise as he has ever been with a freshman. The Georgia coach followed it with more thoughts on the linebacker from Barnesville, Ga., on Monday.
“The praise I have for CJ Allen is not more about his performance, but his ability to handle information and play within our defensive scheme at the signal caller position,” Smart said. “That position? You go comb the country, you’re not gonna see a ton of freshmen linebackers that are out there playing, making the calls. That is impressive.”
Allen finished the game with two tackles on the night. He was one of three linebackers Georgia signed in the 2023 recruiting cycle, with Wilson and Troy Bowles being the other two.
After having time to review Allen’s performance, Smart said Allen had some of the normal first-time jitters. But it’s better to get those out of the way now, instead in year four, such as the case with Carson Beck.
“As far as how he played, I think he had some jitters, I think he was nervous,” Smart said. “I think a lot of our guys were — anxiety there. You have to go out and play in your first college game. I mean, I can’t imagine going straight from high school to being out there and playing and he got afforded that opportunity and he played okay, but he’s really bright.”
Sorey started next to Jamon Dumas-Johnson on Saturday against Ball State. Even in the event that Mondon is able to return to full strength, Sorey is still going to play a key role for Georgia over the course of the season.
“He’s played a few more snaps this week, kind of building him up, trying to ramp him up slowly to a full game’s quota of snaps,” Smart said of Mondon. “I don’t know how much that’ll be this week, but he’s practiced well.”
As for Wilson, Smart has praised his mental ability in a manner similar to that Allen. Even while physically limited, Wilson has been taking all the mental reps he would take. That has impressed Smart, even while the freshman is banged up.
At some point, Georgia will have its full complement of linebackers. Veterans like Dumas-Johnson, Mondon and Sorey will team with the youngsters in Allen and Wilson to form what is undoubtedly one of the top inside linebacker rooms in the country.
And not just for the 2023 season, but for the foreseeable future as well.